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Review: PreSonus FireStudio Project and FireStudio

July 1, 2008
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PreSonus has long been a major manufacturer of sleek and dependable audio interfaces for computers. Now the company has raised the bar with two rackmount audio/MIDI interfaces that can handle most any digitization task in the studio. Both interfaces sound great and come packaged with enough software to make the only other item on your shopping list a modern computer, if you don't already have one. The difference between the two units boils down to connectivity and control.

First Up: FireStudio Project

The single-rackspace FireStudio Project has eight mic preamps and supports audio formats up to 24-bit, 96 kHz (see Fig. 1). Its zero-latency mixer and matrix router lets you send as many as five individual mixes, providing a nice way to give each band member a custom headphone mix during recording. Like the pro-oriented FireStudio, the FireStudio Project is derived from PreSonus's FirePod, but with improved analog-to-digital converters and jitter-eliminating synchronization.

The FireStudio Project uses flash memory; settings are saved when you power down and recalled when you power up. You can configure the unit so that functions such as submixing, A/D/A conversion, headphone mixing, and format conversion will work without a computer.

The front panel has input connectors on the left and controls (along with a headphone jack) on the right. Eight XLR/TRS combo inputs access PreSonus's discrete XMAX Class A mic preamps. Eight 3-segment LED input meters for the analog inputs indicate signal at -40, -6, and 0 dB. Between each pair of meters is a button to engage 48V phantom power for that pair. The FireStudio Project's phantom-power buttons are backlit and glow bright blue when depressed.

Below the metering section are eight pots that control input levels. The panel is marked concentrically behind each pot, with Inst levels (-10 to +30) on the outside and Mic levels (0 to 60) on the inside. Phones and Main level pots are at the extreme right of the controls.

On the FireStudio Project's rear panel, a 3-pronged connector for a standard AC cable means the power supply is inside the unit (the FireStudio uses an in-line power brick). However, the rear-mounted power switch may be a hassle if you want to mount the unit in a rack (see Fig. 2). Two FireWire connectors let you connect your computer and additional FireWire devices. The FireStudio Project contains the DICE II FireWire chip set, which allows ten channels of simultaneous 24-bit audio I/O while minimizing latency and CPU load.

Also on the rear panel are S/PDIF and MIDI In and Out jacks, as well as two main outs and eight individual General Purpose Outputs. There's also an insert section (for channels 1 and 2) with two send and two return jacks — a nice change from the usual combination in/out insert jacks. All outputs are on balanced mono ¼-inch TRS jacks.

You control the hardware's signal routing using PreSonus's FireControl software (see the online bonus material at emusician.com). To top it off, the included PreSonus ProPak software suite is quite a plus. You get Steinberg's Cubase LE 4 48-track recording and production software; more than 25 real-time plug-in EQs, compressors, and reverbs; and more than 2 GB of drum loops and samples. You also get Cubase LE 4 Demystified, a tutorial DVD.

FireStudio, Front and Center

For studios that need more connection options, the full-blown FireStudio offers additional capabilities (see Fig. 3). The 26-input, 26-output hardware handles 24-bit audio at rates as high as 96 kHz. Like the FireStudio Project, the FireStudio has eight XMAX mic pres, S/PDIF I/O, and MIDI I/O. The primary difference is that the FireStudio also provides ADAT Lightpipe with SMUX capability, which lets you add 16 channels of 16-bit, 44.1 kHz audio, or 8 channels of 24-bit audio with sampling rates as high as 96 kHz. You can also use the ADAT ports to connect expanders such as PreSonus's DigiMax FS (a pair of those would give you 24 mic pres in only three rackspaces).

Another difference between the two units is that the FireStudio has its power switch on the front panel. The FireStudio also forces you to add phantom power in groups of four (rather than two on the FireStudio Project). The buttons, labeled 1-4 and 5-8, are on the extreme left of the front panel. Studios with lots of condenser mics on hand for recording several simultaneous tracks won't find this a limitation.

The FireStudio's rear panel provides word-clock sync in and out on BNC connectors and two analog Aux In connections on RCA jacks (see Fig. 4). The analog outputs and inserts are identical to those on the FireStudio Project. A Cat-5 Ethernet connection lets you add the optional Monitor Station Remote (see the sidebar “MSR”), a complete surround or stereo speaker manager, input switcher, and communication system.

The FireStudio's complement of software is different from the FireStudio Project's. Routing is handled by Control Console, a 36 × 36 × 18 mixer and router that lets you send any input to any output, including the headphone output, with zero latency. Control Console can handle as many as nine stereo mixes and then route them to the outputs for headphone mixes and various aux sends.

In addition, the FireStudio comes with ProPak Complete, which includes Steinberg Cubase LE, Propellerhead Reason Adapted, IK Multimedia AmpliTube LE, FXpansion BFD Lite, Drumagog LE, Sonoma Wire Works Riffworks Jr., and Wave Arts TrackPlug LE and MasterVerb LE.

Playing with Fire

To test the FireStudio Project's preamps, I recorded a guitar through one channel direct and through another channel using a large-diaphragm condenser mic. I strapped a guitar processor across the direct channel's insert point. I repeated these steps with the FireStudio. On both units, the XMAX preamps sounded very good; they were practically noise-free and some of the cleanest pres I've heard on units in this price range.

I also miked an amp and a percussion kit using a mix of dynamic and condenser mics on both units and got the same results as before. The mic pres of both units sounded very good, and the routing options the software provided were very flexible and useful. I always prefer to insert an analog compressor on any vocal track and consider the insert points of the PreSonus units one of their strongest features.

Which One?

Because of my personal recording habits and the projects I take on, I like the FireStudio Project. I also like its front-panel metering, which gives me one less window onscreen to keep my eyes on. Additionally, I like the flexibility of four phantom-power switches instead of two, even if the actual need for it rarely materializes. If I thought I would need more mic pres, however, I would absolutely go with the FireStudio. Its ADAT ports make it easy to add 8 or 16 more matched mic pres.

Carefully consider the present and future needs of your own studio, and then check out both FireStudios. While you're at it, take a look at the new FireStudio Tube ($799), which should add a measure of warmth to some already great-sounding mic pres. To my ears, either FireStudio is a good bet.


Rusty Cutchin is a producer, engineer, and music journalist in the New York City area.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

FireWire audio/MIDI interfaces
FireStudio Project $499
FireStudio $699

PROS: Very good converters and mic preamps. Plug and play. Extendable through FireWire. Excellent software.

CONS: Rear-panel power switch on FireStudio Project. Phantom power in groups of four on FireStudio.

FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5
EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5
AUDIO QUALITY 1 2 3 4 5
VALUE 1 2 3 4 5

PreSonus
presonus.com

MSR

Adding the MSR ($199) makes the FireStudio a more formidable and convenient system than the FireStudio Project. The angled desktop unit has a footprint a little larger than that of a 4-button trackball. It interfaces seamlessly with the FireStudio's Control Console software and offers buttons for instantly monitoring each station in a 5.1 system (including LFE). Even if you lack a surround system, the MSR is a handy add-on, with two extra headphone jacks, a full talkback system (with a built-in mic as well as an XLR mic input connector and level pot), and pro-level monitor control with a large volume pot and dedicated mute and dim buttons.

BONUS MATERIAL

Read "Fired Up" Bonus Material From This Review.
Download a pdf of the PreSonus FireStudio Project and FireStudio's specs.

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