(click thumbnail)In our industry’s evolution to in-the-box audio production, Digidesign has been there pretty much every step of the way. The company has taken some hits for not selling its hardware and software separately, but, from where I sit, that has prevented many technical support nightmares. And even that is changing, as the Digidesign Core Audio driver supports Apple’s Soundtrack Pro, Boom Recorder and other software; Digi’s Wave and ASIO drivers suppot Windows software.
Digidesign’s latest hardware gem for Pro Tools|LE users is the 003 Factory, a $2,495 FireWire-based control surface with an accompanying software bundle (it includes Pro Tools LE 7.3, will soon include 7.4. and requires Mac OS X 10.4.9 or Windows XP; 7.4 will support Windows Vista).
With eight motorized faders, transport controls and many (but not all) software controls existing as hardware, the 003’s slender 28-inch-deep surface is comprehensive, yet sleek. The 003 offers everything made available on its predecessor — the well-received 002 — and much more. According to Digidesign, the 003’s redesigned pre-amplifiers and A/D converters are most notable, while other new highlights include automation selection controls and the ability to open plug-ins on its control surface.
The 003 features four mic preamps, phantom powered in pairs, and each input has a balanced 1/4-inch DI. Analog inputs five through eight are balanced 1/4-inch TRS with -10/+4 input level switches per channel, while eight analog busses are provided via balanced 1/4-inch TRS outputs (stereo aux in). Other I/O includes MIDI In/Out 1/Out 2; RCA S/PDIF; optical jacks for S/PDIF or ADAT; and two 400 FireWire ports.
Hardware updates for the 003 include a larger 55 x 2 LCD display, BNC Word Clock I/O and Jog/Shuttle wheel. Further, there are also dedicated automation controls with user-assignable automation modes; five-segment LEDs for volume/gain meters or automation mode status indicators; dual headphone outputs; discrete outputs with separate source; and level controls and alternate control room monitor outputs for another pair of monitors.
You can buy the 003 Factory (which includes all of the Factory plug-ins), the $1,295 003 Rack (a rack-mounted version with no Factory plug-ins), or opt for the best of both worlds, the $1,695 003 Rack with Factory plug-ins. This plug-in bundle includes the Digidesign Bomb Factory BF-3A, Cosmonaut Voice, D-Fi bundle, JOEMEEK SC2T Photo Optical Compressor, JOEMEEK VC5T Meequalizer, Maxim, Moogerfooger Analog Delay, Moogerfooger Ring Modulator, SansAmp PSA-1, Tel-Ray, Variable Delay, Voce Spin, Voce Chorus/Vibrato and an accompanying iLok USB Smart Key. Loop-friendly producers take note: while running Pro Tools|LE 7.3 on my laptop, I was able to access Acid loops and REX2 files from a CD, and I auditioned them from Digidesign’s Digibase Workspace window. A 003 hardware/software combo makes for thoughtful and extremely powerful junk in the trunk.
Digidesign has heard the cry for better MIDI; press the MIDI Mode button and you’re in a new standalone MIDI Mode. The 003 control surface sends out MIDI data and will control Ableton Live, as well as any other application that supports MIDI controller messages (such as Reason, for example).
Further, users can assign I/Os; in the software, MIDI regions are now created on bar boundaries. You can click on the keyboard in MIDI and Instrument tracks to quickly select all of the same-pitched notes of your performance. The new RTAS Engine error suppression keeps things moving. Sibelius users can export Pro Tools MIDI and instrument tracks, complete with key changes. Also, the new Key Signature ruler allows you to add, edit, move, and delete key signatures in your sessions. Add a key signature to define the key of a composition; edit it to change sessions or passages to another key. You can specify the mode (major or minor), transpose MIDI pitches diatonically or chromatically, and even constrain pitches to a key.
There is a passel of other little niceties, too. Pro Tools|LE used to require you to stop playback before adding and reordering tracks; creating, moving or copying inserts and sends; and adjusting the I/O. Now you can do it on the fly, even while recording. You can drag and drop plug-in settings from the DigiBase browser onto empty insert slots or active plug-ins for instant plug-in opening and setting recall. There are a lot of right-click contextual menus that provide quick access to commonly accessed parameters, so visit www.digidesign.com to see what other user requests have been built into Pro Tools|LE 7.3.
Even though this is a major upgrade, Digidesign didn’t change or move many features. I did lose my old Digi EQ, compressor and limiter plug-ins as a result of the upgrade, but I copied them from an older system to the new folder, restarted, and they were back. [According to Digidesign, the 003 features “much better EQ 3 and Dynamics 3 plugs, which are much better quality than old ones.” — Ed.]
Incorporating some of the new 7.3 features took a little time, because I had to remind myself that they are there. Even little OS system hooks like “Open Recent Sessions” that seem inconsequential are valuable time savers.
An aside: I used to be a knob and fader guy. I know it’s stylish again to strut your stuff with hardware, but I’m very comfortable without a hunk of metal and plastic bristling with knobs in front of me. So, for me, learning the 003 hardware interface — while not that difficult — presented a moderate learning curve. Even though you can assign inserts and sends from the 003 control surface, I found myself resorting to more familiar mouse, cursor and keyboard commands when convenient.
My first session was tracking acoustic guitar using an 800 MHz Mac Titanium G4 laptop. [According to Digidesign, its older Mac is not supported for use with the 7.3 software … so you have been warned. — Ed.] All connections are on the back of the 003 except the twin headphone jacks on the front edge of the chassis (each with its own volume control). I tracked acoustic guitar (using K&K Pure Western mini pickups) and went straight to the DI on the 003. The 003 recordings were a little brighter and slightly edgier than a Millennia Media STT-1 instrument input or Groove Tubes Brick (I usually feed those to an RME A/D converter and go into my Digi 002 via Lightpipe, bypassing the analog front-end of my Digi 002). A new session automatically instantiated click track selected in the MIDI Preferences assisted.
My next session was tracking two songs for Karyn Oliver and associates, again with an 800 MHz G4 TiBook lashed to the 003 and my main monitoring system. I used a pair of Schoeps CMC641 into the 003 mic preamps as close stereo overheads for Laura Cerulli’s congas. Karyn’s Simon and Patrick acoustic guitar, meanwhile, has a good-sounding internal pickup, so I used a TRUE P-SOLO preamp for that, coming out line level to one of the 003 TRS line level inputs.
Project studio, studio, audio-for-broadcast/video
More dedicated controls that its Digi 002 predecessor; improved MIDI, looping, and overall integration with the latest Mac OS; the Factory bundle; Sibelius support
$2,495 (003 Factory); $1,295 (003 Rack); $1,695 (003 Rack Factory)
Digidesign | 800-333-2137 | www.digidesign.com
- 003 is a notable improvement on the well-received Digi 002
- The available Factory bundle is a bargain
- Other mic amps and A/D converters may sometimes be needed for desired aural results
The 003 offers everything that the Digi 002 did, and much more.For Karyn’s scratch vocal track, I used a Crowley & Tripp Naked Eye ribbon mic with TRUE P-SOLO Ribbon preamp. Bill Patrick’s acoustic bass got an AKG C414 BULS in a figure-eight pattern through a GML preamp and line-in to the 003. I had to put Bill and the bass in my foam and diffusion-treated bathroom (“ISO Booth Number One”) to get it away from the congas. I created a headphone mix and we tracked (I will say, it’s nice having two separate headphone jacks, each with its own volume control). We were done in two takes, and as we listened back everyone was pleased. I was initially concerned about the sound of the preamps and A/D conversion, but, although we had only used the 003 preamps on the drum overheads, I liked what I heard.
The next tune called for Cerulli’s complete drum kit: a minimal kick, snare, and three cymbals. She uses unusual positioning (drummer’s perspective): kick far right, snare to the left (slightly right of center) and cymbals from the center to the left. We put an Audix D6 on kick and Audix D1 on snare, which, with the Schoeps overheads, filled the 003 four mic pres.
Then it was time for a vocal keeper. I usually record vocals with a Neumann U89 oriented horizontally and in figure-eight down at one end of the room so the backside hears the diffusion from the rest of the room. I also usually track vocals with a GML or Millennia Media STT-1. This time, I used the DIGI 003 preamp; admittedly, it makes for a far more affordable chain than one using GML or Millennia amplification. The new 003 preamps use discrete, bi-polar, low-noise transistors with increased dynamic range relative to the Digi 002 preamps. Karyn’s voice hardens when she leans on it past a certain point; any harshness in the sound chain will only make things worse.
During tracking, her voice sounded a little edgy. I normally pull out some 6 kHz, wide but fairly shallow to begin with, and use Pro Tools|LE’s automation to pull down an extra dB or two during the harder moments. I had to reduce a bit more of each than I usually do and found later that the U89/DIGI 003 preamp combo was harder and brighter than my usual U89/GML/RME ADI-8 DS chain … and enough for me to want to retrack the vocals with my preferred preamps and A/D conversion.
Adding my usual plug-ins was easier because I didn’t have to stop the transport. A Voce plug-in (part of Factory) was just right to add a little interest to Karyn’s acoustic guitar. I also added not one, but two convincing tracks (B3 and piano) from Xpand! (Digidesign’s free RTAS soft synth plug-in). Xpand! should not be overlooked. I’ve started a CD of trance music made entirely using Xpand! And remember, I did this on my 800 G4 laptop while running the word processor for writing this article. There were one or two burps during renders and the poor thing was running a little slow, but I did it just to see if the G4 could handle it without melting down. It did.
The 003 Factory is more than an excellent “starter kit,” especially with the plug-in deal. The more I talk to Pro Tools|LE users, the more amazed I am by the number of different ways in which people are using the software. That says a lot about the openness of the company to listen to all of their users. And, after all, Digidesign may wind up with many LE users becoming TDM-based users later. You may also find, as I did, that while computers get faster and storage gets cheaper, a custom front end of preamps and A/D converters puts Pro Tools|LE almost right up there with the bigger boys in terms of quality and functionality.