Apogee, a company renowned within professional audio circles for its dedicated A/D/A converters, has recently unveiled the newest piece to its prodigious collection: the Mini-Me. What sets this unit apart from the rest of the Apogee lineup are its applications and miniature size. As the owner's manual points out, Apogee's first products were portable converter units. Now, with inexpensive, high-quality plug-and-play audio interfaces fast becoming an accepted staple in the digital-audio world, Apogee has returned to its roots and joined the fray — all while upping the ante.
FOR HERE OR TO GO?
The Mini-Me is a portable, 2-channel A/D/A converter that features dual microphone preamps with switchable phantom power. The unit connects to a computer via USB. The XLR input jacks double as stereo-line or high-Z instrument inputs. AES/EBU and S/PDIF (coaxial) digital outputs are provided and can be used simultaneously. Analog output is provided on a headphone minijack with a dedicated volume knob. The Mini-Me comes with a 12V DC power supply (USB does not provide power to the unit), but it can run on DC sources of 6 to 14V. A variety of third-party, battery-operated power packs will work with the Mini-Me, making it a truly portable solution for mobile recording and a serious contender for laptop musicians.
Many full-featured recording studios and high-end mastering houses employ Apogee converters. The company is perhaps best-known for its multiformat, 8-channel AD-8000 rack system. The AD-8000 uses the company's famed UV22 dithering process for extremely high-resolution bit reduction. The Mini-Me employs an upgraded version of this process, dubbed UV22HR Encoding, and is capable of converting analog signals into digital at resolutions ranging from 16-bit, 44.1kHz to 24-bit, 96kHz. That is good news for people with a variety of projects, from 16-bit CDs to 20-bit DVDs. It should be noted, however, that USB operation allows for 24-bit recording, but only at 44.1 and 48kHz sampling rates.
The Mini-Me can be used with a Macintosh running OS 9.1 and later (including OS X). For Wintel machines, Windows 98SE, ME, 2000 and XP are supported. I tested the Mini-Me on a Mac G4 under OS 9.2. Drivers were not supplied, so first and foremost, I downloaded the drivers from Apogee's Website. This process was clearly marked in the manual, and I found the drivers straight away. Nevertheless, I always find this practice strange: I understand that most people buying a product such as this are online, but what if I purchased this on the day that I leave for my yearly vacation to Tahiti with intentions of recording on the beach, or simply on a day when my ISP is down?
Anyway, upon downloading the ASIO drivers, I plugged them into Emagic Logic Platinum and TC Works Spark. The driver's interface was straightforward and simple with no explanation required. The Mini-Me was recognized and worked without a hiccup.
PLUG AND PLAY
For the first test, I plugged my CD player into the TRS jacks to rerecord some finished, mastered music. I plugged a mini TRS Y-cable into the headphone jack and connected it directly to my speakers for monitoring. I then turned the L/R gain switches all the way down to the fully counterclockwise position, where they snap into a detent position that is preset for line-level signals. I thought that was a great feature, yet my initial reaction upon monitoring the signal in Spark was that the preset was too low. I got out my trusty miniscrewdriver to adjust the recessed gain calibration switches. They turned several turns and were quite sensitive indeed. Feeling comfortable about the levels, I turned the headphone monitor gain all the way up, and there was a bit of distortion, especially in the low frequencies. Turning it down to about three-quarter volume sounded fine.
The first thing I noticed (to my delight) while monitoring several CDs through the Mini-Me was that the stereo imaging appeared much more pronounced. Each track I played through it seemed to breathe with new life. This test also made me really appreciate the DIR/USB knob, which sweeps between the direct signal and the signal returned via USB with the A/D/A conversion applied. After recording several different tracks with every possible combination of sampling rate and bit resolution, I found that the new recordings yielded impressive results when compared with the original CD tracks. The recordings displayed excellent clarity. To my ear, tracks recorded through the Mini-Me consistently sounded at least as good as the CDs. Clear and equally musical recordings were made in both 16- and 24-bit resolutions with little or no audible difference between the two. During this test, I also played back a variety of pre-existing audio files with different resolutions, and with that, the Mini-Me produced equally impressive results — even with mismatching bit depths selected between the software and the bit-depth/sampling-rate knob on the Mini-Me's front panel.
Next, I recorded a few unmastered house tracks from MiniDisc, as well as some sequences from a drum machine and some raw synth lines. This time, I recorded all three straight to disc through the Mini-Me's soft limit and through all three settings, or curves, of the soft-limit and compression mode, called Push-It. These are all easily accessible as toggle switches on the front panel. Just like the CD recordings, this latest batch of recordings sounded clean with nice detail. One house track had claps panned center with reverb on the claps panned right; this fine detail became more pronounced through the Mini-Me. The synth lines were fat and full, with round warm lows and plenty of rip on top. In the Soft Limit/Compress mode, the Mini-Me applies a gradual soft-knee compression that kicks in at about -4 dB and gradually smooths peaks out to about 0 dB. Its effect on the drum machine and the MiniDisc was subtle but noticeable. Soft limit didn't boost the overall level and seemed audibly transparent to the dynamics; it appeared to mostly tame the loudest parts from clipping.
In the Soft Limit/Compress mode, the effects were more apparent compared to dry recordings, yet the difference between the different compression curves was still subtle — until I switched to curve 3. In curves 1 and 2, compression was gradual and smooth, and limiting was not apparent. There was no discernible level boost in curve 1, and there was a fluctuating gain of about 3 dB in curve 2, depending upon the incoming level. Curve 3, however, yielded a huge overall boost in sound, the signal became very round and full, and the limiting became more pronounced — especially on really sharp peaks. Nothing seemed to evade the limiter's ceiling, yet it was still level-dependent and didn't sound like a brick wall. It introduced distortion to the signal, causing me to drop the recessed trim pots quite a bit, which did the trick. Curve 3 caused a signal gain of about 16 dB from the dry signal.
IS THIS THING ON?
Finally, I decided to test-drive the mic preamps through the S/PDIF output to give 96 kHz a try. I unplugged the USB cable and reset my drivers to accept the S/PDIF in on my Delta 1010 soundcard. The Mini-Me's jacks are combination XLR/TRS jacks, so I unplugged the drum machine and synth, plugged in my Marshall MXL 1000 condenser mic and switched on the phantom power. The phantom power is a bit confusing: You have to push the momentary power switch to the right and hold for two seconds. The green power light will turn red, indicating that phantom is active. The power is provided to both inputs as long as they are in Mic mode (that is, the gain knobs are past the Line preset click point). Plugging in a ¼-inch cable or switching the gain to Line mode will bypass phantom power for that channel only; if both are set to Line mode, phantom power is turned off. This all makes good sense, so read the whole manual before you use the Mini-Me.
After you click the knobs past Line mode, the mic preamp kicks in, and they become sweepable gain controls. The mic preamps have deep pockets: They can afford as high as 65 dB of gain. Again, I recorded through soft limit and all three Soft Limit/Compress modes, singing and talking and making all manner of noises. I attained similar results as I did recording the line signals. Compression curve 3 was a delight to use; the mic needed virtually no gain. I could stand farther away than usual (which almost entirely eliminated pops and essing), and I even picked up my cat's meow loud and clear from 10 feet away. I could tell the recording was good; upon looping the playback, my two cats went into a frenzy trying to find the ghost kitty! The limiting was very signal-reactive. If I was close and loud, it was like a brick wall; if the sound was soft and far away, it barely kicked in and retained excellent dynamics without any excess boominess. In any scenario, however, setting 3 virtually eliminated any overs. The signal was kept to about -6 dB, even as I added enough gain to pick up room hum at about -24 dB, then made plenty of noise on top. The four-stage level LEDs were accurate signal indicators and checked out well with my software.
Although not its sole purpose, as an audio interface for a computer-based DAW, the Mini-Me excels. It's small, light, sounds excellent and isn't too pricey, yet it retains the same high-quality UV22 converters found in Apogee's legendary, more expensive pieces. A few things that I feel are missing include analog stereo outputs (other than the headphones), perhaps on RCA jacks. I wish, too, that the headphone output was a ¼-inch jack instead of a minijack. It would be nice if the good people at Apogee would write both ASIO 1 and ASIO 2 drivers. Nonetheless, the Mini-Me works as a computer interface, the front end of even the highest-quality 96kHz recording systems or as a master clock for digital audio chains, making this unit a strong anchor for any digital-audio system.
MINI-ME > $1,395
Pros: Pristine, studio-quality A/D/A conversion. Excellent mic preamps. Usable soft-limit and compression presets.
Cons: No dedicated analog outputs. Drivers must be downloaded prior to use.