By MARTY CUTLER
WE ADMIT IT: COMPUTER RECORDING
INTERFACES AREN’T AS SEXY AS SYNTHS
or virtual instruments—at least not at first glance.
Nonetheless, they’re the conduit
between your musical concept and reality. We set out to find the latest and
desktop wedges and half-rack boxes under $500, though in a couple of cases
something was so cool for the ducats that we raised the size or price ceiling
To put the interfaces through their paces, I ran a
variety of tests using standalone synths, an electric
guitar, my trusty Stelling five-string banjo,
several different DAW packages, and dynamic
and condenser mics including Shure SM57 and
Akai EIE and EIE Pro
The retro styling of the EIE and EIE Pro is an eye
catcher, but there’s plenty of substance and a
couple of thoughtful surprises. Both units offer
the same large VU meters, which glow bright red
if you overload the inputs and are large enough to
read from across the room.
The standard and Pro units off er two channels
fed by four analog inputs, and four outputs,
with four XLR/TRS combo jacks on the front and
four TRS jacks on the rear. Four inserts let you
pipe your choice of outboard processing into the
pre-conversion signal chain. A monitor selector
switch can choose inputs one and two, three and
four, or both channel pairs. In addition to the
USB-B jack for computer connection, the units
include three powered type A connectors, so you
connect multiple EIE units, drives, controllers,
or dongles—very welcome, as USB devices
tend to multiply like ants at a picnic. The EIE’s
five-pin MIDI jacks are welcome when I want to
drag my beloved Kawai K5000 (or any pre-USB
hardware synth) out of the closet.
The build is solid, with resolutely positive
switching, and no wobbly knobs. Each channel offers
a switch for 48V phantom power, and switches
for each of the four inputs toggle between mic/
line and guitar input. The hi-Z setting served my
Brian Moore iGuitar well, adding more tuneful
realism to my amp-modeling plug-ins.
The major difference between the EIE and
EIE Pro is audio resolution: The former is
16-bit/48kHz while the Pro goes to
24-bit/96kHz. Both sound great and are
easy to use. The street price difference
is not much more than $50, making
springing for the Pro a no-brainer.
EIE: $299 list | $199 street
EIE Pro: $449 list | $249 street
Heads turned when Apogee brought their highly
regarded converters to affordable, small-footprint
devices like the Duet 2. USB powered and roughly
the same size as a hard drive, it places nearly all
its I/O on a breakout cable, except the headphone
jack. My first impression was that a dangling
cable was more messy than beneficial, but it has
its advantages in small recording spaces where
things get moved around. The cable holds a pair
of balanced XLR/TRS combo inputs, plus balanced
1/4" outs. An additional $100 buys a breakout
box that has separate pairs of XLR and 1/4"
ins, plus XLR outs.
When you download drivers, you also
receive Maestro 2, a software control
panel where you can set input levels,
switch between line and instrument, enable
phantom power, and set the sample
rate (up to 192kHz). Connecting the Duet 2 by
USB launches a popup that offers to set it as the
default interface, sparing you a trip to Audio/
MIDI Setup or
Note that the Duet 2 is for Mac only.
The crisp OLED display is easy on the eye,
and in conjunction with a large center wheel, you
can control levels for input, monitor output, and
headphones. I was impressed with the high resolution
and smoothness of the wheel—no abrupt
level changes here.
The Duet 2 immediately distinguished itself
with velvety highs and detailed reproduction of
transients and other sonic nuances. It conveyed
the rich tone and transients of my Stelling banjo
without sounding tubby. Close-miked recordings
of flugelhorn solos carried the embouchure
noise clearly. Synth plug-ins sparkled. Although
its price edges past the top end of our range, the
Duet 2’s stellar converters make it a great choice
if quality of I/O is more important than quantity.
$595 street (no list price given)
Flanked by the
Mbox Mini and Mbox Pro (reviewed June ’11),
the middle-child Mbox offers two 1/4" guitar inputs
on the front, two balanced XLR/TRS combo
jacks on the rear, and an additional two channels
via coaxial S/PDIF. Th ere’s also conventional fivepin
MIDI in addition to USB.
Other than input selection, a global phantom
power switch, and a 20dB pad, there’s not
much on the
front. Despite the absence of
a display, the Pro Tools Hardware menu
allows a variety of assignments to the
Mbox’s useful Multi button, including
functions such as adding tracks, record
start/stop, even saving the session. You
can also turn on the built-in reverb for
sweetening headphone mixes (but not for tracking,
which you’d be unlikely to do anyway). From
the same menu, the Mbox control panel can set
up reverb, sends and returns, choose the sample
rate (up to 24-bit/96kHz), configure the S/PDIF,
check instrument tuning, and save your configuration
as a preset. Though this button only works
with Pro Tools, the Mbox otherwise showed up
without a hitch in Cubase, Ableton Live, Presonus
Studio One, and Reason.
The combo inputs each have a Soft Limit button
that added a bit of pleasing crunch when I
ran my electric guitar hot; it works well on mics
to eliminate digital clipping on a vocalist’s occasional
too-hot note. You can mix front and rear
inputs, which is handy for quick-and-dirty singer
and guitar sessions, but keep in mind you can
only record two channels at a time.
The Mbox’s sound quality is very good, and
tremendously improved over earlier-generation
units. The build is hefty and solid, and you can
cop one bundled with Pro Tools Express for
around $499 street, or with full Pro Tools 10 at
around $820 street.
$599 list | $499 street
Avid Fast Track C600
Fast Track C600
The 24-bit/96kHz C600 works similarly to the
Mbox in some ways, but its deskwedge
form and generous controller features
set it apart. Like the Mbox, the
C600 sports a multi-function button,
but it’s far more programmable using
your host’s key commands. More importantly,
the transport controls worked
immediately in every DAW I threw at it
(not just Pro Tools), with no need for initial setup
in the host. Considering the fiddly interaction of
some software with even pro-level control surfaces,
that’s no mean feat.
Four physical inputs feed two stereo channels.
As with the Mbox, you get either front-panel line
rear-panel combo jacks (but not both
at once) for recording channels 1 and 2. All four
physical inputs have a 20dB pad and a gain knob,
and each has independent phantom power. The
analog outs, grouped as three stereo pairs, let you
feed additional monitors; buttons select any combination
of the three, making the C600 a monitor
controller. Multi-segment LED meters for every
input are far more helpful than a single lamp that
glows red for overload.
I appreciate the dual headphone outs with
independent level controls; however, if you power
the C600 via USB, the second headphone out, the
second pair of analog ins, and the third pair of
outs are disabled.
The preamps and audio quality of the C600
are solid and professional sounding. There’s no
soft limit feature, but there is a built-in reverb
for adding to a vocalist’s headphone mix. The
C600 isn’t metal, but its high-impact plastic
$499.99 list | $399.99 street
ESI U24 XL
For sheer compactness, ESI has a host of affordable
audio interfaces you can tuck into a shirt
pocket. ESI has historically been hailed for low
latency, having once made the go-to interfaces for
users of the dearly departed GigaStudio sampler.
suitable to keyboardists on the
go is perhaps the U24 XL, which offers optical
as well as coaxial S/PDIF. The unit is somewhat
larger than their tiny
UGM96 (see keyboardmag.com/october2012 for a
review), but still small
enough to put in your pocket. You can choose
16- or 24-bit resolution, but the sample rate
only goes to 48kHz—still fine for many recording
applications. The two balanced analog inputs
are line-level only, so factor in an external
preamp if you want to record mics or guitars.
The U24 has control panel software for Mac
OS and Windows, which you’ll need in order to
change the input and output levels. Windows
users get DirectWire, a software scheme that
lets Windows applications using different drivers
receive audio streams. The street price makes
it a good value, but brings it within $50 of the
Akai EIE, which has the same maximum sample
rate specs, no S/PDIF, but more I/O and metering.
But if you travel with a hardware keyboard
you want to record in stereo, and need to hear
your soft synths, and don’t want anything else
getting in the way, the ultra-slim U24 XL is very
$179 list | $129 street
Focusrite Scarlett 18i6
Next to Focusrite’s long-standing reputation for
great-sounding mic preamps (which is still deserved
today), the Scarlett 18i6’s big draw
is the remarkable number of inputs
crammed into a half-rack. Although
you only have a pair of analog outs,
the internal mixer dishes up to 18 recording
channels at once: eight analog
ins, eight ADAT lightpipe, and stereo S/
PDIF. Software called MixControl adds considerable
flexibility when routing channels.
panel holds a couple of combo jacks
with gain knobs. The phantom power switch engages
both mic inputs, but the software lets you
mix and match line and instrument ins. To the
right, a single LED for each of the eight analog
inputs indicates signal and overload: not my idea
of a level meter, but adequate for preliminary
Most of the action happens in software. You
can create up to six independent stereo or mono
mixes for monitoring purposes, making it comfortable
for multiple musicians to record at once.
You can feed any physical input, or output from
your host software, into any of the 18 channels.
Scarlett 18i6 is a versatile, compact solution for
recording multiple sources at once.
$399 list | $299 street
Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP
Not everyone can book time at Hans Zimmer’s
studio for their project; many of us make do in
a spare room, garage, or basement. Likewise, we
might not have the ideal monitors or acoustics,
or conditions might compel us to mix using headphones.
All is not lost.
24 DSP holds a generous amount of I/O
flexibility. There’s a pair of combo jacks on the front
(with common phantom power and independent
input-gain knobs) along with two independent
headphone outs. On the rear, you get a couple of
line-level inputs, ADAT lightpipe I/O (which can be
switched to optical S/PDIF), plus coaxial S/PDIF.
Add six configurable balanced analog outs and
MIDI, pour all this into the MixControl software,
and routing capabilities expand tremendously. You
can quickly route any input to any other, even feeding
one application’s audio into another.
The biggest attraction (again, next to the great
mic preamps) is arguably the built-in DSP, which
includes Virtual Reference Monitoring: speaker
modeling that provides headphone mixes with
a selection of simulated monitors in simulated
rooms. MixControl also grants access to the onboard
reverb, EQ, and compression, which can be
routed independently to simultaneous mixes. The
reverb is quite good, albeit shorter on tweakable
parameters than your average plug-in. The builtin
EQ and compressor are simple and effective.
The Saffire Pro 24 DSP can pull its power from
FireWire or from the provided power supply—
the latter lets you use it as a standalone mixer.
Although it’s not readily programmable from the
front panel, you can use the MixControl software
to set up routing and settings for reverb and other
DSP. Combine the super-high quality preamps
with the VRM and eff ects DSP, then add to that a
standalone mixer with sophisticated routing, and
the Saffire Pro 24 DSP is a tremendous value.
$499.99 list | $399.99 street
MOTU MicroBook II
Deceptively simple on the surface, the
MicroBook II packs six inputs,
eight outputs, an eightbus
into a package
barely larger than
Two rotary encoders
to levels, and serve as
buttons to toggle phantom
power for the single mic-pre input,
a 20dB pad on one, and level control of
speakers and headphones. Stereo line ins are
on balanced 1/4" jacks, with a second stereo in on
an 1/8" mini jack, for a phone or MP3 player. The
unit is strictly USB2 bus powered.
A single XLR mic input feeds a terrificsounding
mic preamp and MOTU’s high-quality
converters. Live banjo and guitar tracks sounded
crisp and clear without shrillness. Going in the
other direction, analog-modeled sawtooth pads
were fat and warm. The electric guitar input on
the front panel went a long way toward convincingly
piping my Brian Moore iGuitar into Native
Instruments Guitar Rig.
Setup in Digital Performer was easy; the
choice of track outputs included the main outs,
line outs, headphones, or Aux—which plays all
outputs simultaneously. Selecting (for instance)
headphones for the track output in your host
program kills all other outputs: a preferable approach
to powering my monitors down or adding
a monitor controller (the idea here is compact
portability) when I record acoustic tracks. In
other hosts, the track-output nomenclature defaulted
to the hosts’ own track names, but it all
worked as advertised.
The CueMix FX app not only controls the MicroBook
II’s built-in EQ and compression; you can
apply effects individually or simultaneously to
inputs or outputs, so you can (for instance) feed
effects to headphones without placing them in
the recording chain.
The MicroBook II is an ideal choice for the mobile
musician in need of an affordable and simple
but flexible I/O. If you need to record stereo keys,
guitar or bass, and vocals, along with hearing
your soft synths, this unit will
handle the job with ease.
$269 list | $249 street
The Track16 represents an entirely new direction
for MOTU. It connects over FireWire or USB,
and can be powered by FireWire, but given the
quantity of I/O to drive, requires a power supply
(included) for USB use.
Apart from a hi-Z input for guitar and a 1/8"
stereo in, all analog inputs live on a supplied
breakout cable—likewise for outputs other than
the two headphone jacks. Eight-channel ADAT
lightpipe I/O is on the chassis itself; it supports
four channels at 96kHz. At 192kHz (yes, the
Track16 goes that high) only the analog I/O is
The solidly built chassis hosts an array of
color-coded buttons representing ins and outs.
Selecting a button changes its backlight color,
and focuses the large rotary encoder on a specifi c
input or output level. Pressing the encoder mutes
the selection or selects mic inputs; the encoder
can also engage the 20dB pad or phantom power.
In order to pack sufficient info on the
Track16’s hefty signal flow, the four pairs of
LEDs use the Meters switch to toggle between
assorted inputs and outputs, as labeled beneath
each meter pair. The button glows blue for one set
and white for the other, matching the text on the
Drivers installed without a hitch, and showed
up without issue in all my DAWs. Though I’d
been changing drivers for each interface, Digital
Performer had the driver for Track16 already selected
when I first tested it—nice.
As with the other MOTU interfaces, Track16
includes CueMix FX software, and the built-in
hardware DSP surpasses the MicroBook II with a
nice built-in reverb.
As feature-rich as the Track16 is, its most
significant feature is its sparkling, transparent
sound. The unit invites comparison with Apogee’s
Duet 2, albeit with a scintilla less
gloss in the higher frequencies. The mic preamps
sound every bit as good as the Duet 2’s. The
Track16 has much more I/O, and CueMix FX and
its sophisticated routing hits a home run.
$595 list | $549 street
MOTU UltraLite Mk. 3 Hybrid
UltraLite Mk. 3 Hybrid
The current UltraLite represents the high end
of MOTU’s compact half-rack interfaces. It connects
via FireWire or USB, can draw power from
FireWire, and comes with a power supply for
USB use. It supports audio resolutions up to
24-bit/192kHz. It’s about the size of a paperback
book, and hosts two mic pres, plus six balanced
1/4" analog ins, eight balanced analog outs, balanced
1/4" main outs, coaxial S/PDIF, MIDI,
and a headphone out. Its
and front-panel access to all
routing and DSP parameters
makes it a worthy standalone
mixer when you don’t want to
schlep a computer.
You can get to every parameter
from the UltraLite’s
front panel, and pressing
knobs inward invokes additional
functions. For example,
pressing either of the mic trim
knobs engages the pad; pressing
and holding engages phantom
power. Other controls
adjust effects sends and their
parameters for each channel,
sample rate, clock source, and
lots more. All this is more visual in the CueMix
FX software, but it’s great to route and mix without
being tethered to my computer. Keyboardists
can easily set up their own keys-and-vox submix
with reverb, EQ, and dynamics processing—and
if your rig combines software synths with hardware,
the UltraLite Mk. 3 Hybrid works well if
you want to carry one box instead
of a separate audio interface and
mixer. Beyond all the features, the
terrific sound quality makes it a
$595 list | $549 street
Komplete Audio 6
Instruments Komplete Audio 6
It’s built like it came from a heavy-gravity
plenty of mass despite being smaller than
a paperback—yet the Komplete Audio 6 (KA6)
manages four channels of balanced analog I/O,
two channels of coaxial S/PDIF, and MIDI. It also
looks great and has an easy user interface. The
manual provides tons of detail, but you probably
won’t need it to get up and running.
The heft adds enough ballast to prevent it
from getting jerked around by its cabling: a problem
with compact interfaces you might perch on
some blank panel space on your keyboard. The
front panel neatly divides into three main areas:
input, monitor, and headphone. Analog inputs
are a pair of combo jacks, each with a line/mic
switch; phantom power engages with a rear-panel
button. The KA6 is strictly USB powered.
If latency while recording is an issue, a
button toggles direct monitoring of your preconversion
signal; hold it a few more seconds and
the unit cycles to select either or both of the two
output pairs’ signals. A second button toggles
between stereo and mono output, which is handy
if you need to check for phase issues.
Sonically, the KA6 competes with the other
units at the top of our list with sweet-sounding
conversion and excellent detail and imaging. It
was so easy to set up and so portable that I used
it to record a couple of tracks for last-minute
national jingle sessions, which I’ve put clips of at
keyboardmag.com/october2012. Native Instruments
KA6 easily bridges the gap between convenience
and sonic excellence.
$249 list | $229 street
PreSonus AudioBox 44VSL
The AudioBox has a solid, all-metal build and can
sit as easily in a half-rack space as on your desktop.
The I/O scheme is easy to understand: Inputs are
on the front, and all four outputs (plus a separate
main out and headphones) are on the rear. Four
combo jacks grace the front; the 1/4" ins of the
first two are suitable for electric guitars and other
and the second two are
for line-level signals such as keyboards. The Class-
A preamps sound superb, and are the same as in
PreSonus’ flagship StudioLive mixers. The phantom power button is
global, so take
care not to use anything that doesn’t like phantom
alongside anything that needs it. The AudioBox
connects via USB but requires the included power
supply. In addition to separate volume controls for
the headphones and main outs, a mix knob blends
between the analog inputs and computer playback
for zero-latency monitoring.
VSL (Virtual Studio Live) gives you the equivalent
of the StudioLive’s “Fat Channel.” This can
apply independently to channels and busses, and
includes EQ, compression, gating, limiting, and
more. There’s also included reverb and delay, both
of which sounded great. EQ was easy to set up,
with sweepable mids and a choice of sweepable or
shelving for highs and lows. You can use the DSP
as “courtesy” effects that aren’t printed, or
with the Fat Channel (but not the reverb or delay)
inline. These aren’t one-size-fits-all channel
strips, but more like flexible, configurable plugins
without the CPU drain.
The VSL app’s browser hosts a slew of useful
presets listed by application: recording guitars,
ducking music under voice-overs, and plenty more.
Much like in PreSonus’ Studio One DAW, you simply
drag-and-drop the preset from the browser to
the relevant channel or bus. As with Studio One,
the workflow for setting things up to taste is unparalleled—
the layout is elegant and the topology
tells all. Throw a copy of Studio One Artist into
the bargain, and you have a practically irresistible
deal, especially at a street price of roughly $250.
Last but not least, you’ve got to love a manual that
finishes with a recipe for gumbo.
$379.95 list | $299.95 street
PreSonus FireStudio Mobile
Don’t let its size fool you; this baby may occupy
half the footprint of the 44VSL, but it’s armed for
bear with FireWire bus power or AC, eight analog
ins, two outs, S/PDIF, and MIDI.
Two inputs on the front are combo jacks,
which also support hi-Z 1/4" ins for guitars, basses,
or keyboards such as a passive Rhodes. Each
features a gain control; phantom power affects
both at once. The front also hosts main and headphone
volume controls. The two mic
the same Class-A type as in the StudioLive mixers.
Six balanced TRS jacks add line-level input,
and S/PDIF input and output connect to the rear
(along with MIDI) via a breakout cable.
Interaction with PreSonus’ Studio One DAW
is quick and handy. Setting up cue mixes is a
breeze. The manual spends a good deal of space
on Studio One, if only because the FireStudio is
so easy to use that there’s just not that much to
explain. Both this unit and the AudioBox set up
as easily in Reason, Digital Performer, and everything
Choosing between the two PreSonus boxes
is a tough call. Here, you don’t get the Fat Channel
of the AudioBox, but the FireStudio is buspowered,
adds S/PDIF, and since it’s FireWire, is
expandable via daisy-chaining more interfaces.
Both come with Studio One Artist. The AudioBox
44VSL has more mic inputs, but the FireStudio
has more inputs overall. Either is a no-brainer for
the micro-footprint studio.
$299.95 list | $249.95 list
Steinberg has produced a few interfaces to accompany
their Nuendo and Cubase DAWs. The
UR28M represents one of the most recent, with
workflow hooks into the company’s software.
The surface is canted slightly forward, making
the controls visible, with all switches on the top.
All I/O, including headphone jacks, is on the rear,
keeping the controls unobstructed. Top-mounted
buttons toggle mic/line input levels, with a
translucent phantom power button that glows
red. Another button lets you choose your source.
Including coaxial S/PDIF, you get six inputs and
eight outputs. Outputs can feed three separate
monitor mixes, and buttons at the top right can
switch between each monitor/mix.
to the unit’s DSP capabilities is the
DSP MixFX software. Using this, you can program
the UR28M for use as a computer-free
mixer. When used with the UR28M, Cubase has
its own dedicated windows for accessing the DSP
Mix FX functions, and attempting to launch the
standalone console will result in an error message
that the USB port is already in use.
The DSP MixFX console software is for using
the UR28M with any other host program—I instantiated
it as a plug-in in PreSonus Studio One
Pro without a hitch. If you use the mixer effects
in Cubase or any other DAW, you’ll need a software
e-licenser or a dongle. Reverb-X was worth
that step. It’s a very sweet-sounding, programmable
reverb with parameters to spare; it can
launch in any VST host, along with the UR28M
software channel strip, which includes compression
The mic preamps sounded very good, with
plenty of detail, and the ability to supply an independent
headphone mix to a second musician
is a boon. As a desktop recording interface-plusmonitor
controller, the UR28M comes in at a very
attractive $399 street price.
$499.99 list | $399.99 street
The TASCAM US-2000’s full-rack dimensions
knock it out of micro-footprint territory, but its
tremendous feature set and under-$400 street
price make it worthy of inclusion here.
You get four
outputs and 18 simultaneous
inputs including eight mic inputs—a front-panel
pair sport combi jacks for electric guitar or bass.
Phantom power affects mic inputs in pairs, and
you can monitor each pair of channels separately
or as a linked stereo pair.
For zero-latency monitoring, a knob mixes direct
monitoring of the inputs with the computer
output. Uniquely, a knob governing overall input
level is handy if you’re recording a live band and
need to dial everything back at once.
It’s supremely important to get good levels in
a digital recording system. So it’s great to see a
five-segment ladder LED for each input and output
channel as opposed to the single green-or-red
LEDs common at this price.
The rear panel is armed for bear, with the
remaining six mic inputs on XLR jacks, and six
balanced line inputs in switchable mono or stereo
pairs. Each pair can be set to –10 or +4dB. A
pair of insert jacks for the two combi inputs is a
plus if you want to add an outboard compressor
or an effect.
Software drivers and the control panel were
quick and easy to install, and once I was up and
running, the mic pres sounded quite good. My
banjo sounded fat and rich, and plugging into
the hi-Z jack with my iGuitar’s piezo pickups produced
a detailed, almost acoustic tone, suitable
for clean rhythm tracks. Bottom line: The US-
2000’s I/O and seriously versatile features make
it worth making room for in your rack.
$649.99 list | $399.99 street