THE BIG PICTURE
Prices continue to decline for quality FireWire interfaces, and here’s proof: The Pro 14 is a cost-effective, cross-platform FireWire 400 interface featuring two Focusrite Saffire mic pres (that can also handle mic or instrument inputs), two line ins, and both MIDI and coaxial S/PDIF I/O. To further differentiate itself from other audio interfaces, the package includes a pretty hefty software bundle with a Gigabyte of loops and samples, plug-in suite, and a sweet mixer application.
The interface runs on a PPC or Intel Mac (OS X10.5.8 or 10.6.2), as well as 32- or 64- bit versions of Windows 7/Vista and XP SP2 (32-bit only). Unlike some other economical interfaces, resolution goes up to 24-bit/96kHz. Although bus power works fine, there’s a globally-compatible AC adapter for those with 4-pin FireWire connectors (or anemic FireWire buses). The instrument input impedance is spec’ed at 10 megohms, which loads an electric guitar pickup about as much as a flea loads an elephant.
Installation on a Mac is plug-and-play, and Windows is only a shade more complex. Just remember that you’re dealing with FireWire, which can sometimes be temperamental. TI chip sets work well, and I recommend using a FireWire card rather than motherboard I/O. With laptops, turn off wi-fi cards, and make sure all your computer’s drivers (including graphics cards) are up to date. When living in a suitable environment, the Saffire Pro 14 is easy to forget—it just sits there and does what it’s supposed to do.
HITS AND MISSES
The big win for most folks are the preamps. Focusrite preamps aren’t “character” preamps designed to color your sound (we have tubes and audio transformers for that), but instead deliver a sound with clarity and definition. However, don’t overlook the MIDI 5-pin DIN in/out connectors, which are vital to the many studios where physical MIDI devices remain a big part of the workflow. Another hit is the mixer routing applet, which also looks great—but don’t forget the VST/AU plug-ins (EQ, Compressor, Gate, and Reverb), Novation BassStation virtual instrument, and sample content. These aren’t “let’s throw stuff in the package to make people think they’re getting a deal” add-ons, but usable material. You also get Ableton Live Lite, which is definitely limited compared to the full version. Still, if you haven’t worked with Live, it’s a suitable intro.
As to misses, although the two mic inputs switch automatically when plugging in line-level signals, for instruments, you need to switch within the mixer application. Also, phantom power can be applied only to both inputs simultaneously, not individually.
Focusrite’s Saffire USB 6 (reviewed in the September 2010 issue) is pretty similar, but a few bucks cheaper. Why choose one over the other? Aside from the obvious (you have only USB or only FireWire), the USB 6 has DJ-friendly outputs/monitoring, but the sample rate tops out at 48 kHz and there’s no S/PDIF I/O. The Pro 14 does 96kHz and S/PDIF, giving it the edge for higher-end applications.
The Pro 14 seems aimed at solo artists who will be recording stereo guitar, vocals, or other sources one pass at a time, as opposed to a big studio miking up a drum kit. Savvy recordists know that the most important elements are the mechanical ones at the end of the signal chain—mics and speakers—and you want them to connect to the electronics as transparently as possible. The Focusrite mic pres are a big help in that respect. And while not promoted as a mobile recording solution, the small size and bus-powered operation would be quite at home on the road.
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