Interfacing with Interfaces at NAMM 2017

3/10/2017 4:05:00 PM
By Craig Anderton
Craig Anderton

NAMM has been making an effort to get pro audio more involved in the show, and the 2017 NAMM convention had more bait than usual to reel in the professional crowd. Part of that was the appeal of the 32nd annual TEC Awards (which recognizes creative and technical achievements in our industry), but also multiple TEC Tracks workshops were geared to audio pros, including a “Live Sound Day.”

This was one of the most “up” NAMM shows in years, and we may need another column to cover all the trends. But one of immediate interest was an ongoing evolution in audio interfaces that somewhat mirrors what happened with keyboards: After a race to bottom that focused on price, a new generation of costlier, more sophisticated keyboards reset the market. Similarly, the new generation of audio interfaces is all about lower latency, more channels, hi-res sampling rates, and more internal DSP—with prices that reflect these improvements.

In the “everything” interface category, RME had its new Fireface UFX II, which bears the usual RME features of extremely low-latency drivers, and significant I/O (12 analog ins, 12 analog outs, 16 channels of ADAT I/O, stereo S/PDIF or AES/EBU, and word clock). It’s compatible with Mac, Windows and Linux; as expected, it supports sample rates up to 192 kHz and works with RME’s optional USB remote controller. Meanwhile, the Pro Tools HD-compatible Antelope Audio Orion 32 HD got attention for its 64 channels of I/O (HDX or USB 3), hardware-based DSP-powered effects to take a load off your CPU, zero-latency monitoring, a software control panel that allows routing audio simultaneously from more than one DAW, up to 192 kHz operation, and my favorite feature: No fan!

While many interfaces have traditionally included DSP for mixing and sometimes effects, this has been a hallmark of Universal Audio’s Apollo series. Apparently the original Apollo Twin received enough traction to spawn three new Apollo Twin MkII models (Solo, Duo and Quad), so you can choose a model based on how much hardware DSP power you want. You can also cascade up to four Thunderbolt-compatible units (including “mix and match” with other Apollo series interfaces) and there’s Thunderbolt support for Windows 10, as well as several improvements to the internal circuitry—specifically, better converters for more dynamic range and lower noise—as well as more monitoring flexibility.

But what raised the most eyebrows was Slate’s initial foray into interfaces, the VRS-8 Virtual Analog Interface—which is also part of a recording and mixing ecosystem. It has eight Virtual Microphone System mic pres that work with Slate’s virtual mics so you can emulate different mic types (you can also use standard mics), but another attention-getter is ultra-low round-trip latency—Slate claims as low as 0.7 ms at 96 kHz. Although Thunderbolt-based, there aren’t Thunderbolt drivers for Windows so Slate makes a PCIe card that connects to the VRS-8 via an HDMI cable. The interface is slated to cost around $2,000, but the new VM small-diaphragm “modeling” mics will sell for only $149 because the preamp already has the electronics (a large-diaphragm mic will be $500).

However, not all interfaces were about grand gestures. PreSonus showed the Studio 26 (2 in/4 out) and Studio 68 (6 in/6 out; 4/4 at 192 kHz) hi-def interfaces for mobile use. Both feature all-metal construction, and include MIDI I/O. Meanwhile, MOTU launched three half-rack, special-purpose interfaces. In addition to the usual MOTU features—Wi-Fi control, hardware-based DSP effects, 48-channel mixing, etcetera—they can also serve as stand-alone mixers and support AVB/TSN networking, as well as Ethernet for connecting an additional network-compatible MOTU interface. USB 2 connects to host computers, but the interfaces are also compatible with USB 3 and iOS. Of the three, the M64 offers 256 simultaneous MADI I/O channels via banks of optical and coaxial I/O; the 8D offers two stereo pairs of both AES3 and S/PDIF digital I/O; and the LP32 incorporates 32 channels of ADAT optical I/O (16 channels at 88.2/96 kHz sampling rates).

Finally, the line separating recording and live sound continues to blur. PreSonus’s Studiolive AR series comes in 8, 14- or 18-channel models, but folds in a 96 kHz/24-bit USB 2 computer interface. You can also record directly to the integrated SD card recorder, then transfer files via USB over to your computer for further editing. It also includes Bluetooth so you can stream audio to it.

The bottom line is simple: while the humble 2x2 interface continues to dominate sales, the high end is getting a lot more company these days.

Check out author/musician Craig Anderton’s web site at craiganderton.com, and visit his YouTube channel at youtube.com/thecraiganderton

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