After being blown away by the new Apogee Symphony interface last year, I couldn’t wait to give the Element 46 a go. One of three Element Series products, the Element 46 represents Apogee’s latest foray into the interface market with a focus on Thunderbolt I/O. It is the perfect blend between functionality, portability and cost without compromise in quality. The elimination of physical controls is the primary contributor to the Element Series’ affordability; while that made me a bit reluctant, I haven’t missed the controls a bit.
The Element Series includes the Element 24 ($595 street), Element 46 ($895 street) and Element 88 ($1,495 street). Each features a simple yet elegant look: a black metal box with metallic silver side panels powered by an external power supply. The first digit of the model number signifies the number of analog inputs and the second, the number of analog outputs. The Element 46 (with four analog inputs and six analog outputs) offers 12 inputs and 14 outputs in total, including the four front-panel mic/line/instrument inputs on combination connectors, two rear-panel balanced XLR outputs and two stereo headphone outs. All three units incorporate Apogee’s legendary clocking (with word clock I/O via BNC connectors) and optical I/O that supports ADAT (8 x 8), SMUX (8 x 8), and S/PDIF (2 x 2).
The Element Series’ computer connectivity is exclusively via Thunderbolt and requires a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac. Newer MacBook Pro users may need a USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) to Thunderbolt 2 adaptor. Again, to keep overall cost down, Apogee made the decision not to include a Thunderbolt cable with the interface.
Notably, it’s possible to simultaneously use two Element interfaces, provided your computer has multiple Thunderbolt ports. In this configuration, the optical I/O is unavailable, as it is required to link the two units.
Apogee provides several options for controlling these Element Series units—the Element Control Mac application, the Apogee Control hardware controller and the Apogee Control iOS app. Logic users have the option of operating the interface directly through Logic’s hardware control protocol.
The Maestro-esque Element Control Mac app incorporates two windows. The Primary window provides access to the full functionality of the interface, while the Essentials window displays the most basic controls including main volume, headphone levels and analog input control. Output controls include mute, dim and sum-to mono. Input controls include phantom power, group, soft limit and polarity invert. The Essentials window can be configured as either a horizontal or vertical layout, making it easy to position into your workspace. I found that I prefer the vertical orientation as it allows the window to be placed just to the left of my Pro Tools window; this creates a pleasing aesthetic and natural workflow. The Primary window offers more in-depth control and is separated into multiple sections and sidebars, which simplifies navigation while providing access to all of the Element’s functionality.
My review unit, the Element 46, has a main mixer and two additional mixers; the Element 24 has one additional mixer and the Element 88 has three. As expected, the mixer routing is completely flexible, allowing users to tailor configurations based on specific needs. The mixer also provides level, pan, mute and solo controls. The FX Send mixer allows audio to be routed back into an audio application via another driver input, enabling the recorded signal to be run through an effects plug-in; it doesn’t have to be monitored “dry.” The Monitor/Output section provides the ability to adjust the headphone and speaker outputs. Each output includes volume and toggles to mute, dim or sum-to-mono, and a source selector.
The talkback feature enables any of the mic inputs to be designated as the talkback mic. When the talkback button is pressed, the signal from the assigned microphone is routed to the talkback destination. It is possible to use any Core Audio input as the talkback source, even the computer’s built-in microphone—this is nice!
Apogee Control ($195 street) is a spectacularly designed hardware controller and the perfect companion to the Element Series. The device has a perfect ergonomic layout that includes a rotary encoder, 11 buttons and an LED display. The device connects directly to a computer via USB, while the Element interface connects via Thunderbolt. Three of the buttons are dedicated to navigation while the remaining eight are user-configurable in the Element Control software. The unit’s intuitive design makes navigation easy and while its price tag is a bit steep for a box that solely controls gain, Apogee Control provides easy navigation between preamps (and between Element boxes, if multiple interfaces are being used) and is completely customizable, making it an amazing value. It’s also important to note that in addition to the Element interfaces, Apogee Control is compatible with Symphony I/O MkII interfaces.
The free Apogee Control iOS app provides full Element control via iOS devices. The app is basically a mobile version of the Essential window in the Element Control Mac app and provides full access to the analog inputs and outputs, talkback, mute and peak clear functionality. The iOS device and Mac must be connected to the same wireless network for the iOS app to operate.
Finally, the Element interface can also be controlled from the Audio Devices row that has been added to the Logic Pro X mixer’s channel strips. This integration is wonderfully executed as the Audio Devices row allows the user to select between mic, line and instrument inputs to adjust preamp gain, and to activate phantom power and polarity reverse. Logic recently added Direct Monitoring support, which is activated by clicking the Direct Monitoring button located in the Audio Devices row. This feature eliminates having to setup a separate Element mixer for direct monitoring, and results in an amazingly smooth, musical workflow.
Getting the Element up and running was a breeze, only requiring that the driver and support application be downloaded from the Apogee website and then installed. Once the software has been installed and the computer is restarted, the Element’s status LED illuminates red while a connection is being established, and green after successfully connecting.
Admittedly, I was already an Apogee fan (and user) before this review, yet with this experience, I’ve been hugely impressed with the Element 46. It can easily handle small tracking sessions, overdubs and stereo mixing without any limitations. The inclusion of word clock input and output is one of the features that sets pro devices apart from pro-sumer “poseurs,” and Element’s clock in and out make it easy to clock the box off a studio’s master clock or to take advantage of its built-in (and renowned) Apogee clock circuit. While Apogee Control and Apogee Control iOS are both intuitive and incredibly easy to use, I found myself gravitating to the hardware controller, as it is very conducive to my workflow. Logic users will love controlling the interface directly through the DAW since the preamp settings will be stored with the session.
My first foray into working with the Element 46 was recording several live Zach Williams tracks including a piece paying tribute to the late, great Gregg Allman.
My first foray into working with the Element 46 was recording several live Zach Williams tracks including a piece paying tribute to the late, great Gregg Allman. Since the Zach Williams project, I’ve had the opportunity to spend significant time recording with the Element and I’ve been extremely impressed with its performance, both sonically and in ease of use (and I never thought I’d call an interface without any built-in controls “easy to use”). The combination input jacks make it quick and easy to switch between mic and instrument sources, and each preamp includes switchable phantom power, polarity invert and Soft Limit; Apogee has been long known for its Soft Limit feature that rounds off transient peaks before the conversion process to prevent digital clipping.
Finally—and most importantly—the Element Series’ preamps sound remarkably good. I’ve used them to record a wide variety of vocals, acoustic and electric instruments and percussion and have yet to be disappointed. I wouldn’t hesitate to use them on the most critical recordings I do. I’ve found the key to moving quick with the Element 46 is to incorporate its templates into my workflow; when Element Control is launched, it automatically loads the most-recently used template. The default template can be easily changed.
My only complaint with the Element? It lacks a high-pass filter, a common feature that I often use. Other than this minor criticism, I think that the Element 46 is a fantastic box at an impressive price. Thumbs up to Apogee for developing such an accomplished and user-friendly yet ultimately affordable I/O.