Apogee Ensemble

Ensemble includes everything necessary for a high-quality, 24-bit/192kHz Mac-based recording.
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(click thumbnail)The Apogee Ensemble has been on the market for some time at this point; it was released at NAMM in 2006. But between Apogee’s commitment to consistently improving the product with routine driver updates and the excellent integration via Logic Pro 8. It is worth taking serious notice.

The Ensemble is a digitally controlled multi-channel, 24-bit/192kHz FireWire audio interface. From mic preamps to Mac OS X Core Audio connectivity to headphone outputs, Ensemble includes everything necessary for a high–quality Mac–based multitrack recording.

Features

The 1U Ensemble is visually stunning and its brushed-metal appearance makes it visually right at home next the current Mac machines. The front panel of the Ensemble is sleek and laid out well. When the Ensemble’s AC input is connected, the power switch (located on the left side of the front panel) glows dimly, indicating that the unit is in Standby mode — good thinking!

The front panel’s multi-color Status LED provides a quick visual indication of the status of various parameters regarding FireWire connectivity. When the first four inputs are set to Mic (via the software control), the Input Encoder Knob controls mic pre gain for the selected channel. Pressing the knob scrolls through the input being controlled; each mic pre has a corresponding LED that illuminates when it is selected. The Encoder knob is encircled by LEDs, providing a visual representation of the gain setting of the selected channel. Each mic pre provides up to 75 dB of gain. Each pre also has a 48V LED that illuminates when phantom power has been engaged.

Fast FactsApplications
Studio, project studio, broadcast, postproduction

Key Features
8 channels of Apogee A/D-D/A conversion; 36 channels of simultaneous audio; 4 digitally controlled 75 dB mic preamplifers; 8 channels of ADAT I/O; 2 channels of S/PDIF coax and optical I/O; FireWire connectivity; proprietary SoftLimit, UV22HR, and Intelliclock technology.

Price
$1,995 list

Contact
Apogee Electronics | 310-584-9394 | www.apogeedigital.comThe front panel features 10 plasma-style meters — eight analog and two digital. The analog meters display either inputs or outputs as determined by the software setting. An Input or Output LED illuminates to indicate the meter’s status. The first digital meter displays the presence of signal on either channel of the S/PDIF coax I/O and the second digital meter displays the presence of signal on any channel of the Optical I/O.

The Output Encoder Knob selects output control the same way the Input Encoder Knob selects the input control source and, like the Input Knob, it is encircled by LEDs to provide a visual representation of the output setting. The Output Encoder can be set to Main, HP1 (headphone 1), or HP2 (headphone 2). The software allows the Main output to be configured as stereo, 5.1, or 7.1. There is also a “line out” mode that disables the main output and makes the eight analog outputs act like independent line outputs. When the Output Encoder is pressed and held for a few seconds, the Main and headphone outputs are muted. When this occurs, the LED representing the selected output flashes to indicate the mute status. Pressing and holding the encoder again releases the mute.

The Ensemble’s rear panel is packed full of connections. Four female XLR connectors labeled MIC 1-4 accept balanced mic or line inputs (determined by the software setting). Channels 1 and 2 have Insert Send and Return connections (on TRS connectors) providing balanced analog insert points before the A/D conversion. The Insert Send also serves as a direct out; if only the insert send is connected, the signal to the A/D conversion stage isn’t interrupted. The Insert Return can also act as a balanced TRS line input.

A pair of TRS connectors on Channels 3 and 4 provide Hi-Z input similar to the front panel Hi-Z inputs. Four more TRS connectors provide line level inputs for channels 5-8 (input level is determined in the software). Eight TRS connectors provide line level output for channels 1-8 with the output being determined by the software. Digital I/O connections are via coaxial and TOSLINK optical connections. The Optical I/O supports S/PDIF, ADAT and SMUX digital formats. The Ensemble provides eight channels of 24-bit, 192 kHz AD/DA conversion, although only the analog and coaxial I/O are supported when working with rates above 96kHz. S/MUX mode is supported for ADAT operation providing four channels of I/O at 88.2 or 96kHz. The unit includes the classic Apogee “Soft Limit” that provides maximum input level without overs. It also includes the famous Apogee “UV22HR” algorithm, which provides superior dithering from 24- to 16-bit resolution.

Ensemble switches to Stand-Alone mode if it doesn’t detect a valid FireWire connection. In this mode, all routing, control, and mixing settings made when the unit was last connected to a valid computer are saved in the Ensemble’s flash memory. This allows the device to be used as a stand-alone mixer or AD/DA converter when not connected to a computer.

Meet Ensemble’s Cool Little Brother — Apogee DuetFeaturing the same converters, pre-amplifiers (with 48V phantom power and phase reverse), and great-sounding headphone amp of Apogee Ensemble, the two-channel Duet FireWire audio interface is a dream come true for many Mac-based audio folks — from on-the-go pros to budget-restricted Apple recordists who would love to have two channels of Apogee-grade signal paths at their disposal. Duet is a completely bus-powered I/O module with exactly one means of adjustment, its Encoder Knob.

A complete Duet package ($499 list) includes the Duet unit; a breakout cable featuring two XLR inputs (each accepting balanced mic, +4dBu line, or -10 dBu line signals), two quarter-inch unbalanced inputs (instrument or -10dBv line level), and two quarter-inch monitor outputs; a FireWire cable; the Apogee software CD with Apogee Maestro control software; and a user’s guide.

(click thumbnail)Duet’s Maestro software works so well with Logic Express that, to me, it just felt like part of the DAW. Maestro’s Encoder Pop-Ups — informing you of input, output, monitor and headphone levels and mute status without obstructing Logic’s single-window workspace – appear subtly on screen. Meanwhile, Duet’s hardware LEDs are just above the Encoder Knob … and your fingers.

Thanks to its sleek, simple physicality and the same control software used by its big brother, Duet is so intuitive that I didn’t even look at the manual before recording a stereo guitar overdub straight to Apple Logic Express on my 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Mac Mini via a Shure KSM141 matched pair. In no time, I found myself intimately attached to the Duet; my right hand felt most comfortable with its fingers resting on the Encoder Knob, whether recording or listening via DAW.

Try a Duet for yourself, and you’ll know exactly how I feel about it; it’s a treat to use, a bargain considering the high-quality of its components, and a no-brainer for Logic-based recordists.

—Strother BullinsThe Maestro control panel provides control over the built-in preamps and allows the Ensemble’s hardware setup to be configured. Each preamp has a gain control as well as phase-invert and 48v phantom power toggles. Each preamp can be assigned to one of two groups that enable gain adjustments to be linked between preamps assigned to the same group. This is extremely useful when working with stereo miking. The Maestro mixer blends the hardware inputs with the software application playback and routes the mix directly to hardware outputs. The Mixer Select (A-B) drop-down menu selects between the two available mixers per hardware interface. The Input Channels provide the ability to control inputs to the mixer. Hardware inputs of the selected interface are the source for these input channels. The mixer inputs each have Pan, Level, Solo and Mute controls. A bar-graph-style meter displays the pre-fader input level.

The Ensemble was originally released with a built-in power supply and a standard IEC connector. Last fall, Apogee introduced the Ensemble Mobile. It is visually and functionally identical to the original Ensemble except that, instead of an internal AC power supply, it has an XLR4 port; it can easily be connected to a DC power source when being operated in the field. Additionally, it includes an external AC to DC power supply with a regular IEC connector for use when AC power is readily available. Ensemble Mobile will operate with any DC power source with voltage between 11 and 16 volts. The power requirement is 20 Watts maximum or 1.7 Amps at 12 Volts, giving Ensemble Mobile an average of four hours of run time from a 7AH battery.

In Use

Getting the Ensemble up and running was quick and easy. I installed the software on a MacBook Pro 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo running OS 10.4 and a Macintosh 2 x 2.8 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon running OS 10.5. I had to update the Ensemble’s firmware before I could connect it to the computer running OS 10.5; my fear was that with the new firmware the unit would no longer connect to the computer running 10.4, but this wasn’t the case.

Once I successfully connected the Ensemble, I set it to be the default audio input and output for my Mac in the Sound System Preferences panel. This allows the Ensemble to be used for all of my audio applications, including iTunes, DVD Player, QuickTime, etc. When connected, the volume setting on my computer keyboard now adjusts the output volume of the Ensemble.

The Maestro software is highly intuitive and makes Ensemble adjustments simple and quick. Logic incorporates an Apogee Control Panel that allows all Ensemble settings — including everything from mic pre and output gain to sample and bit rate selection — to be controlled from within Logic’s Apogee Control Panel. This is a seamless and wonderful integration. Logic’s Apogee Control Panel settings are stored with the Project, making mic pre settings for a specific project instantly recallable.

So, the Ensemble works like a charm … but more importantly, how does it sound? I spent a lot of time listening to the Ensemble’s converters while recording and mixing as well as listening to previously recorded material. I found the converters to have solid imaging with a defined bottom end and smooth highs that don’t get brittle or harsh. The box is very much in the tradition of other Apogee converters that I’ve used and as is always the case, the UV22HR algorithm sounds fantastic. I like the sound of the “soft limit” as long as it is barely engaged.

I was confident that the Ensemble’s converters would sound good but Apogee isn’t known for its preamps, so I was anxious to see how well they would perform. I found the pres to sound quite good. They are relatively neutral and amazingly versatile. I recorded a small drum kit using an AKG D112 on kick, a Shure SM-57 on snare and a Royer SF-12 overhead through the Ensemble’s four mic pres and had nice results. I recorded vocals (with a Sony C-800G), electric guitars (with a Royer R-122) and acoustic guitar (with an AKG C28) and, in every instance, was more than happy with my results.

Setting up cue mixes on the Ensemble is a cakewalk since the headphone outputs are completely independent (per which pair of the Ensemble’s outputs they are assigned to and with regards to level). It’s nice to know that it is easy to conduct a session with multiple musicians, each with completely independent cue mixes, without any additional hardware.

Summary

The Ensemble is an easy-to-use FireWire interface that perfectly integrates a host of high-quality audio components with Mac OS X while offering flexible routing via Maestro software. Sure, there are cheaper alternatives — but when you consider the power of its software control, its integration into Logic Pro and — most importantly — its wonderful sound, the Ensemble has an amazingly low price.

Review Setup
Apple Logic Studio, Steinberg Nuendo 4
Apple MacBook Pro 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo w/2 GB RAM
Apple Macintosh 2 x 2.8 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon w/4 GB RAM
Focal Twin6 Be monitors