Focusrite's MH445 Liquid Channel ($1,299 list) was a breakthrough product, delivering an abundance of classic mic pre and compressor emulations in a single box. With the Liquid Saffire 56, Focusrite again provides a Swiss Army Knife-level of variety, utility, and efficacy, this time aiming at project studios and others with an attractively priced, 2U space FireWire interface.
Along with two "Liquid" channels — each offering 10 preamp emulations — and six additional preamp channels, the Liquid Saffire 56 allows a total of 28 input channels, including Lightpipe and S/PDIF I/O plus two loop-back signals from its mixer.
On the front panel, the Liquid channels feature gain-control knobs, phantom power, and high-pass filter buttons. Channels 3 and 4 feature line/instrument inputs; the front panel houses Pad buttons for these, as well as the controls offered on the Liquid Channels. Channels 5 through 8 also feature mic/line input indicator LEDs.
Also on the front panel are eight input signal level meters; indicator LEDs for ADAT 1, ADAT 2, and S/PDIF signal level meters; a FireWire active LED; synchronization lock LED; MIDI in indicator light; monitor level control pot; monitor Dim and Mute buttons with LEDs; headphone 1 and 2 level control and 1/4-inch outputs; and power switch with LED indicator.
The back panel houses analog mic and line inputs 1 through 8; two TRS outputs for main monitor mix; eight TRS outputs for 3-10; word clock I/O BNC connectors; two pairs ADAT lightpipe (allowing 16 ins at 48k; eight at 96k; and four at 192k); two FireWire sockets; two MIDI I/O sockets; two S/PDIF I/O; and power supply socket.
The Liquid Saffire 56 is, in a word, versatile. It's very well designed and, given its price, especially suitable as a home studio hub.
We tested the Liquid Saffire 56 in home and commercial environments, using Logic and Digital Performer as our DAW platforms.
As an example, an electric guitar was plugged directly into Channel 3's instrument input. The input of 3 was routed to line output 5 on the Liquid Saffire 56's control software, Saffire MixControl. The direct guitar signal went to a channel in Digital Performer, and also to output 5, which we sent to an amplifier and recorded at the same time, giving direct and amplified tracks. In a home-studio setup where, for example, a miked amp would be housed in a closet, such a configuration, along with handy features like the Monitor Dim and Mute switches, makes the Liquid Saffire 56 a clever and useful interface.
The Liquid Saffire 56 allows for two different headphone mixes. For example, the engineer can listen to the output of his or her DAW, while the artist listens to that plus the input of their vocal. For that matter, the Liquid Saffire 56 allows 16 different mixes that can be routed to the unit's different outputs. Everyone in the band can hear a unique mix if they want — you have a lot of choices.
Saffire MixControl's interface is fairly simple, consisting of switchable routing and preamp sections. The routing section includes a mixer with its input channels; 16 mix tabs; the selected mix output channel; and a monitor section. Monitor presets allow multiple setups such as mono, stereo, quad, 2.1, 5.1, and 7.1. That's pretty cool.
The interface also features a volume control, which can be switched to hardware control with the touch of a button. You can turn off your left speaker and just listen to your right, and vice versa — handy for tracking down a bothersome sound in your mix.
But the Liquid Saffire 56 really shines with its preamp emulations. API 3124+ (high-gain setting), Avalon VT-737SP, Focusrite Red 1 (high-gain setting), Helios console, Manley Slam, Neve 1073 (high-impedance setting), Pultec MB1, Telefunken V72, Universal Audio 610 (low-impedance setting) and Millennia HV-3D emulations are offered, and Focusrite obviously went to great lengths to deliver accurately. They sound very good.
We A/B'd the Avalon ("Silver 2" on the Liquid Saffire 56), API ("Trany 1 H"), and Neve ("Class A 2A") with their hardware counterparts and were very impressed, particularly with Trany 1 H's API emulation.
The Harmonics knob demonstrates how much thought and effort went into the Liquid Saffire 56. Rotating the knob adds second, third, and fifth order harmonic distortion to the signal, depending on the preamp emulation and amount of gain. The 1073 emulation, for example, is very good; but the ability to finetune its harmonics to more closely match a Neve 1073 — or your favorite 1073 — is priceless.
Our only complaint with the Liquid Saffire 56 is simply that it necessitates dealing with another piece of software. Saffire MixControl takes some getting used to, so it's a little complicated to jump in and do a session.
In short, the Focusrite Liquid Saffire 56 sounds better than anything else in its class, and adds great versatility. To get that versatility, though, you must deal with a little complexity.
Contact: American Music & Sound | 818-597-7711 | www.americanmusicsound.com
NYC-based Chris Walsh is a freelance writer, musician and engineer; Tim Hatfield, of Brooklyn's Cowboy Technical Services, is a freelance producer/engineer