Thursday, June 17, 2010

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24

Review: Focusrite Saffire Pro 24

So I'd been hankering for a new sound I/O for a long time, knowing that my M-Audio audiofile was a piece of crap. It finally just stopped working after 6 years of loyal service; I had gotten my money's worth it was time for something new. For producing, I had relied on my Echo Mia in my 2002 Mac dual G4 tower, but I have been producing on my Macbook Pro for almost 2 years now and had been using the M-Audio for this purpose as well.

What a waste of time that was! For $300, it is imperative that anyone working with music on a crappy sound card go and get this Focusrite unit immediately. I have been working with computers and music for quite a long time, and the value that this sound card offers is unparalleled. We live in an amazing world where this much quality is available at this price-point. I monitor through KRK V6 Series 2 self-powered bi-amped speakers, and I have never heard them sounding this good. Suddenly my stereo image was massive, my sound stage had incredible depth, basses were tight and focused, mids smooth and balanced, highs present but not jarring. I can listen to my old tracks and hear all the EQ problems right away, I don't even need to fire up a scope anymore, the speakers give me all the information I need.

The Package
This unit is definitely bulkier than the more Dj-market oriented devices such as the Native Instruments products or the other contender in my book, the Echo Audiofire 4. The build quality is solid, but this device is not meant to be slammed into the bottom of your old record bag when you're wasted at the end of the gig. Something like the UDG Producer Bag is the right conveyance if you want this tool in your arsenal.

It would have been nice if they allowed you to configure the LED meters on the fronts instead of locking them into being input-only levels, though they are certainly useful for what they are. Metering on the unit for recording is a plus. However I would have enjoyed seeing the signal out level as this is quite handy for the DJ scenario. I could assign my main decks to meter 1 and meter 2, and then assigned the master stereo program to meters 3 and 4. Small quibble.

The front has separate dedicated levels for main out and monitor outs. The "main" out is actually labelled monitor, and along with the internally mixer and routing software, you can configure a lot of interesting options for creating a main mix, monitor mix, etc. The dedicated headphone level is a nice plus. There are also 2 gain knobs for controlling the combo XLR-1/4" inputs on the front of the unit and a convenient 48V toggle for recording with studio quality mics. I've yet to do a voice-over on a podcast to try these features out, but based on the other reviews I've read, I'm sure they'll be more than up to snuff for what I'm up to.

On the back of the unit you've got 6 balanced 1/4" outputs, along with RCA SPDIF outs, giving you plenty of pro level options for hooking up to a club sound system. It can be a little wrong to go from a nice hot 1/4" balanced out to an RCA input on the club mixer, so hopefully the club sound guy will let you plug into either the house mixer that's running the system or some other proper interface to avoid this quandary. For those of us working in the majority of North American crappy clubs with crappy sound systems long-since fried, it won't matter as much anyway. If you gig in more civilized places where people actually care about sound, you'll be glad to have the higher quality outs.

With this many outputs, you could also opt to use an analog mixer and route each virtual deck on individual outs. I use a VCI-100 to do internal mixing, which offers the benefit of very smooth sounding mixes that are internally limited by my Traktor software, but when I go back and listen to old mixes of mine (or listen to a live mix done on a proper mixer), the mix is a lot more exciting... but that's a story for another time. Bottom line if you prefer to use an external mixing, that option is definitely available to you with this device. If you have a mixer that takes a SPDIF input, you can even route all 4 Traktor decks to individual stereo outs. I've messed around with 4 decks at home but I haven't practiced it enough to ever try it out live.

Included Software
The included Saffire MixControl is your key to leveraging the power of this unit in any of the more complex usage scenarios. The software allows you to configure 7 different mix arrangements for different uses within your studio. You can control what you're monitoring - here you may wish for instance to monitor "DAW 3 & 4" and route Traktor's monitor mix out to outputs 3 & 4. You can also control levels for all inputs, configure the 8 channel optical in to use ADAT or Optical SPDIF formats, etc. You can configure which submix should be your main monitor mix, etc. You can even use a special loopback mode to route signals between different audio apps. This has some applications for studio work that I can't fathom at the moment but read about in Sound on Sound when researching which sound card to get. For DJs, you won't really need to do much here other than configure your headphone monitor mix. There are lots of exciting meters which you could leave up in a dual monitor situation to impress punters.

The unit also comes with some Focusrite plugins you can use in your DAW. I haven't sessioned them that much as of yet, but my initial inspection suggests that they are very conservative, and intended to offer pro-grade results with out any special sauce for compression, EQ, and reverb needs - the things you couldn't live without when laying down some vocals with your new unit, for instance. These plugins are a nice bonus if you've been relying on Logic's crappy built in plugins as I have lately since I no longer have access to my beloved TC Powercore card that was in my old tower. The unit also comes with Novation Bass station, Ableton Live Lite 7, and a bunch of samples, which is pretty standard fare for any computer audio accessory these days; none the less it represents a further value that this product offers, and if you haven't really dipped your toe into the water, this is a great package to get you started.

Use Cases
I chose this device as it offered a truly professionally specificed piece of studio gear I could use to produce my tracks, while also allowing me to use it as a DJ'ing solution. There is acceptable portability for the amount I actually DJ in clubs, which is not very often these days, while there is plenty of room to expand if I start getting paid more than I currently do in royalties and sales for my tracks (let's just say ain't no one gettin' rich off their music around here). I'm really happy with the result and can't recommend this product enough. I think if I were gigging like a real DJ multiple nights a week, I would probably opt for a the Echo Audiofire 2, for a high-quality bullet proof I/O unit I could throw into the bottom of my DJ bag when drunk, but for the casual DJ and more serious producer, this unit is the way to go.