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Online Exclusive Review: Steinberg CC121 and MR816 CSX (Mac/Win)

By Matt Boudreau | July 8, 2009

Two new hardware offerings, the CC121 USB control surface and the MR816 CSX FireWire interface, are designed to complement Steinberg''s flagship DAW software, Cubase. The CC121 mirrors many of the GUI functions found in Cubase. The MR816 CSX gives you eight mic/line inputs, eight line-level outputs and two headphone outs, and features S/PDIF, ADAT and word clock support. Although oriented for Cubase and Nuendo users, others might find the C121 useful as a MIDI control surface and the MR816 CSX as a stand-alone converter and mixer.

TAKING CONTROL

<B>FIG. 1:</b> The CC121 puts essential Cubase controls at your fingertips.

FIG. 1: The CC121 puts essential Cubase controls at your fingertips.

The wall-wart or USB-powered CC121''s five different sections put Cubase functions right at your fingertips (see Fig. 1). The Channel section covers channel-select, solo, mute, record arm, automation read and write, pan, and VST channel and instrument access. Its 100mm motorized (wall-wart power only), touch-sensitive fader adds precise control of volume.

The EQ section''s rotary encoders set Q, frequency and gain, and its buttons control bypass and EQ type. The Transport section, the user-assign buttons and an AI rotary encoder that latches onto whatever parameter you hover your mouse over round out the CC121 panel. A handy button locks the AI encoder to its current focus. The back of the CC121 has a power switch, USB socket, footswitch jack and optional power input.

RING OF FIRE

<B>FIG. 2:</b> The MR816 CSX''s built-in effects take a load off your CPU.

FIG. 2: The MR816 CSX''s built-in effects take a load off your CPU.

The MR816 CSX FireWire interface''s eight inputs are served by XLR/TRS combo jacks. Channels 1 and 2 appear on the front alongside the gain knobs, phantom power and pad switches (see Fig. 2). Two large rotary encoders implement a variety of functions, including volumes for the two independent headphone jacks, master volume, DSP morphing and the REV-X reverb. All settings are displayed with simple green LEDS. Another set of LEDs indicate sampling rate, external or internal word clock, S/PDIF and ADAT.

The back of the unit sports XLR/TRS jacks for the remaining six inputs; 1/4-inch TRS jacks for the eight line outputs; ADAT, S/PDIF and coaxial I/O; two FireWire 400 ports; the word clock port; and two unbalanced insert points for attaching outboard gear. The power connector is a solid 3-pin lock-and-screw type, and there is no danger of accidentally pulling it out. According to Steinberg, the MR816 CSX supports up to 48 input and output channels using only one FireWire port. Cubase AI software is included to get you started.

READY, SET, GO!

I found both units easy to install. All controls felt solid and their interaction with Cubase was flawless. For a real-world test, I met a friend at Broken Radio Studios in San Francisco to record his Martin acoustic guitar. I connected the CC121 and MR816 CSX to my laptop, a Mac G4 1.5GHz Powerbook with 1.2 GB of RAM running OS Leopard 10.5.6. I already had Cubase 4 on this machine, so I simply installed the included MR Tools software. We set up a pair of Neumann KM184s in an X/Y pattern about a foot away from the Martin, and we were off.

I was immediately impressed with the quality of the preamps. The guitar sounded rich and somewhat smooth. Next, I used a Neumann U67 to do some vocal tracks. You can''t do too much harm to a vocalist with a U67, and the preamps again sounded impressive. Next I played drums with a minimal mic setup using the U67 three feet away from the kit. During tracking, there was no perceivable latency. That is a primary feature of the MR816 CSX. I would describe the sound of the preamps as smooth in the top end and somewhat slow in their response to transients—not a bad thing.

MIXING

During this phase, the CC121 was indispensable for tasks like writing automation and adjusting Cubase''s channel EQs. It''s also great to have dedicated controls for the transport. The only request I have is for a small scribble strip so I can tell what track I''m on when looking at the unit.

The MR816 CSX''s built-in, no-latency DSP takes the load off the host CPU. This may not be a big deal on a powerful computer, but it really helps when running on a small laptop. You get a channel strip plug-in with EQ and compression. Its Morph feature lets you choose a preset and then scroll through sub-presets to hear how the signal is being affected. You do that with the mouse or one of the front panel encoders.

The built-in REV-X reverb is outstanding. It gives you a choice of plate, hall or room, and is comparable to other high-end plug-in reverbs. You can configure the onboard DSP as eight mono channel strips, four stereo channel strips, six mono channel strips and one REV-X, three stereo channel strips and one REV-X or three stereo REV-X reverbs. That''s not bad considering that reverb is usually the biggest CPU hog. You could do all of your EQ and compression on the host and let the MR816 CSX do the heavy lifting with its reverbs.

A SECOND OPINION

For another perspective on the MR816 CSX''s converters, I opened a song I had mixed through a set of Lynx Aurora converters. I hooked the MR816 CSX up to my dual 1.8GHz PowerMac G5 with 1 GB of RAM running OS Tiger 10.4.6. Once again I installed the MR Tools and was up and running. I played various parts of the song and soloed different instruments while switching between the MR816 CSX and the Lynx converters. Lynx converters are known for being transparent or uncolored, and the MR816 CSX seemed to color the low mids and bottom end, making them appear fatter and fuller than the Lynx. That''s not good when you''re mixing and trying to make critical decisions. This was a finished mix, and had I listened to the same mix through the MR816 CSX only, I would have chopped out more lows and low mids, resulting in a thin-sounding mix.

Both the CC121 and the MR816 CSX are solidly constructed and integrate perfectly with Cubase. The MR816 CSX boasts a powerful set of features and expandability options; it could easily be the centerpiece of your recording setup. If you can do with eight fewer DSP channels, you can get the MR816 X for a bit less. The CC121—with its combination of dedicated and programmable controls—gives you tactile access to Cubase and gets your hands off the mouse. At this price, this little guy is awesome!


Matt Boudreau is a producer/engineer and drummer who runs Broken Radio Studios in San Francisco.

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