During the past seven years, Digidesign's 001 and 002 families have consecutively set the hardware benchmark for Pro Tools LE systems. As technology progressed, the series grew from a simple PCI card-based 1U breakout box with rudimentary I/O capabilities to a series of FireWire-connected rack or tabletop controllers, each with more plentiful and better-sounding preamps, double-digit analog and digital I/O count (including 8-in/8-out ADAT), expanded MIDI outputs, stand-alone mixing/EQ/effect capabilities and unprecedented hands-on mixing control of Pro Tools LE.
Indeed, the jump to the “double-oh's” third edition is similarly expansive, but it's not just about having more; Digidesign strove to make what already existed better, and what's been added is simply superb. I tested the flagship 003 Factory desktop FireWire interface/controller with Pro Tools LE 7.3 (PTLE 7.3) bundle. Also available is the 2U 003 Rack ($1,295), offering all of the same I/O and PTLE 7.3 software, or the 003 Rack Factory ($1,695), which includes more than $3,000 worth of Digi and third-party plug-ins — the same bundle that comes with the 003 Factory.
The 003 Factory marries nearly all of the features that made the 002 the centerpiece of countless home and project studios with some very cool new functions and specs that may have pros jumping ship from much more costly Pro Tools|HD systems. To state the cosmetically obvious first, I love the sleek new arctic-white wedge design and more bountiful front-panel interface; its curvy side profile with corrugated gray inlay is especially sexy and makes an ideal hand grip for toting the unit. Constructed largely of impact-resistant plastic bezel and side panels and a steel bottom chassis and back panel, the controller is extremely durable and well-built, having withstood a battery of abusive tests I conducted on its edges to simulate road and gig wear.
Although similar to the 002 Factory at 19.3-by-19.3 inches, more provisions have been ergonomically squeezed into every square-inch of the 003 Factory. The channel section features eight touch-sensitive, metal-capped motorized faders with 10-bit response that is expedient under automation and highly accurate to 1,024 steps. Those can be used for controlling audio levels, aux input, master fader, MIDI and instrument tracks. As expected, dedicated backlit mute, solo and channel-select/record-arm buttons top each fader, along with eight motion-sensitive rotary encoders. These flathead Mentos-looking knobs feel surprisingly comfortable to grip, and the surrounding ring of 11 LEDs provides excellent visual feedback to things such as parameter position (one LED lights up) or levels (an expanding series of LEDs light up). Just above these encoders sits a five-segment LED meter, scaled at 0, -3, -6, -12 and -42 dBfs for track-level metering.
The console bridge LCD has also been much improved on the 003. Now larger, brighter and easier to read, it supports 55-by-2 characters. The automation and modifier buttons are now grouped in a single section to the left of the fader bank, making their use feel more natural.
But perhaps the biggest tactile news is the completely overhauled transport and navigation controls section, which now incorporates a dual-concentric jog/shuttle wheel for scrubbing the transport and underlying data — especially useful for recording overdubs and setting cues while tracking or scrubbing video during post. Also new is a dual-axis, rocker-style navigation pad that you tap to move across tracks (you can bank faders individually or in groups of eight), zoom in and out, surf text-entry fields and drop Selection In and Out markers on the fly.
BABY GOT BACK
The recessed rear panel offers a wide range of I/O, including eight redesigned discrete analog inputs in groupings of four XLR mic and ¼-inch line/DI pairs, and four ¼-inch line-level inputs, individually switchable between +4 dBu and -10 dBV. Phantom power is selectable in 2-channel increments for mic inputs 1-2 and 3-4, which feature Digidesign's latest-generation mic pre using discrete, bipolar, low-noise transistors coupled with a cleaner signal flow and improved gain pots. Eight ¼-inch analog outputs carry signals at a fixed +4 dBu, as do the stereo main and newly added alternate control-room (Alt CR) monitor outputs. A stereo aux in allows for monitoring of -10 dBV gear such as tape decks, CD players, MiniDisc, etc. Except for the four DI jacks, which are TS configured, all analog inputs and outputs are fully balanced TRS and set for 14 dB of headroom below 0 dB, or full code; that means at the nominal reference inputs (+4 dBu or -10 dBV), you can have a maximum of 14 dB of headroom before clipping.
Eight channels of ADAT optical I/O (as high as 48 kHz) come via Lightpipe connectors; those can be software-switched to accommodate two channels of S/PDIF format. There are also two unbalanced RCA jacks for coaxial S/PDIF I/O, but they cannot be used simultaneously with optical S/PDIF.
The A/D/A converters have been improved from the 002. All inputs and outputs support sampling rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96 kHz at 16- or 24-bit resolution. But for a unit already priced to cater toward the serious user, why Digidesign didn't include S/MUX ADAT support (dual sets of multiplexed optical ports, providing eight channels of 88.2 or 96 kHz) is a mystery to me. Doing so would have expanded the interface's spec for studios needing a premium of HD-quality digital I/O.
Rounding things out on the backside are two FireWire ports (one for connection to host and a second for daisy-chaining external devices), one MIDI input and two MIDI outputs, a ¼-inch TRS footswitch jack for punch-recording control, Kensington Lock connection and word clock I/O. The work clock addition is actually huge to the 003 platform because it finally allows you to bypass the built-in Digi clock for a dedicated timing source if desired or sync the 003 with other gear (or vice versa) without having to eat up an S/PDIF port.
Two headphone outputs (up from one) in the armrest have independent volume controls located in the monitor section on the front panel, and source-switching allows for shared monitoring and cue auditioning. The monitoring section also features an Aux In to Monitor/Phones switch and another switch to route the aux input pair directly to Pro Tools inputs 7/8, bypassing the main monitor outputs completely; that makes it possible to route a CD player or turntable, for instance, directly into Pro Tools without the need to repatch any cables. An Alt CR switch mutes the mains and routes signal to a secondary speaker pair, while a Monitor Mute switch cuts both the main and alt outputs but continues to feed both 'phones. As a nifty preventative measure, the Monitor Mute switch is automatically engaged every time you power up the unit to avoid speaker pops. Another cool pro-level gift is a Mono switch (affecting all monitor and 'phones simultaneously) for checking phase correlation in stereo material.
SOFTIE AT HEART
Along with its rough-and-tumble exterior, it's the giant whack of cool software that makes this package really tick. Along with the PTLE 7.3, you get the standard DigiRack and Bomb Factory Essentials bundles that come with all 003 systems, as well as 10 premium Digidesign and Bomb Factory plug-ins on a USB iLok key. Those include Bomb Factory BF-3A classic compression, Moogerfooger RingMod and Analog Delay, D-Fi and Maxim, SansAmp guitar simulation, Cosmonaut Voice, Voce Spin and Chorus/Vibrato, Tel-Ray Variable Delay, Joemeek SC2 compressor and VC5 EQ.
As if that weren't enough, Digi has recently injected steroids into the included Pro Tools Ignition Pack 2 Pro bundle, bulking it up with fully functional and time-unlimited versions of several apps, including Ableton Live Lite 6 Digidesign, Propellerhead Reason Adapted 3, FXpansion BFD Lite, IK Multimedia AmpliTube LE, Celemony Melodyne Uno Essential, Arturia Analog Factory SE, Digidesign Synchronic and Xpand!, and Way Out Ware TimewARP 2600 Lite. Even some tasty effects are thrown in: Trillium Lane Labs TL EveryPhase and TL Utilities and iZotope Ozone 3 Lite, Trash Lite and Spectron Lite, as well as a huge haul of sound libraries courtesy of Bunker 8, M-Audio/Pro Sessions, Big Fish Audio, Cycling '74, Sonic Reality and Zero-G.
On the instructional front, the included Pro Tools Method One DVD teaches you the essentials of recording, editing, MIDI, and loop arranging and mixing in Pro Tools, while the free one-year membership to Broadjam.com, Sonicbids.com and GarageBand.com is icing on the cake. In the end, teetering over 80 plug-ins and applications, this is everything you need to go from recording scratch tracks to promoting your finished project on the Web.
Installation and full setup on a dual 3.2 GHz P4 with 2 GB of RAM running Windows XP SP2 was painless and took about only 15 minutes, including iLok driver setup and auto-download of updates over broadband. Authorizing the Ignition Pack 2 Pro contents at each developer's site took a while longer. The Digi hardware with PTLE 7.3 was very responsive and never once crashed or froze during two months of testing. It's rock-solid.
The 003 Factory offers such an extensive array of connectivity and, together with the software, literally point-to-point routing that it quickly becomes the hub of all studio activity. I was able to have all my mics and guitars — and several outboard synths, a turntable and mastering DAT — permanently hooked up and ready to rock. I even employed a simple analog-to-ADAT converter to take advantage of the Lightpipe and get my stash of boutique outboard effects online; once I did, it maxed out the 003's full 18-by-18 I/O capacity. Or, if you have a ton of outboard and a digital mixer with ADAT output, by sending submixed stems into the 003, you can incorporate current gear without buying additional audio interfaces. You can also eliminate MIDI interfaces and control surfaces from your current stash by having it all built-in under one hood. The 003 can be used outside of Pro Tools as a general ASIO and CoreAudio device to any third-party application.
I stated earlier that nearly all features had been carried forward from the 002. Though the 003 Factory can operate in stand-alone MIDI mode, allowing you to control a MIDI setup in the studio or onstage without the aid of a computer, its ability to act as a stand-alone mixer has sadly been omitted this time around.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
The moment you first launch Pro Tools with the 003 Factory connected, the control surface lights up and leaps into action, initially mirroring the onscreen controls. The LCD gets divided into six characters of information for each channel strip in your session. Depending on the type of view chosen, the LCD can show track, send or insert names, pan position, send levels or plug-in control information. Moving a fader or rotary encoder will temporarily display the value for that control in the lower row, or you can choose to have parameter settings always shown instead of their names. Though session-timing information gets displayed on the right side of the LCD, I wish there were a large, bright SMPTE/counter display separate from the LCD, similar to that found on Digi's larger controllers. The metering LEDs provided atop each channel are a little coarse for setting levels in fine detail, but they do a quick job for referencing and setting input gains. They also pull double-duty to identify which automation mode (Read, Write, Touch, Latch) is active.
As you switch the 003's main operation modes (Console, Channel, Record-Arming, Automation and Memory Locate), the rotary-channel encoders take on specific rolls, such as controlling pan, send level and insert settings in Console view, or EQ, dynamics, insert and pan/send in Channel view. The LCD logically caters to each by offering parameter-rich paged views and the ability to cycle through or navigate plug-in windows both vertically and horizontally across the LCD, much as you would with a mouse on a computer screen.
You can perform nearly any Pro Tools command or action that you're accustomed to doing by mouse from the control surface. The 003 marks the first PTLE control surface from which you can select tracks or inserts for editing and assign inputs/outputs, sends or plug-ins (including hardware inserts). What's more, you can perform many moves simultaneously — something you'll come to appreciate during both recording and mix automation. Speaking of which, the new dedicated Automation mode buttons let you quickly select the Automation mode on a per-track basis, which is yet another cool “pro” feature.
Using the Fader Flip switch, you can transfer control assignments from the rotary encoders to the channel faders, allowing you to use the touch faders to edit and automate send and plug-in values. I'm also happy to report that the faders are ultraquiet with a smooth, light-action feel; during critical listening, their motors can be temporarily disengaged. I never once experienced a hiccup with even the fastest of transport moves, and the software chased my jog/shuttle wheel maneuvers with exacting precision.
Sonically, the 003 is the best LE interface that Digidesign has come up with yet. The new converters and preamps sound fantastic and are capable of large gain boosts while remaining neutral to the signal. With my favored Røde Classic II mic plugged in, the microphone paths delivered a sound that impressed all ears in the room. Highs were transparent and smooth, midrange was beautifully present with well-handled dynamics, and overall it sounded bigger and fuller than I expected from a signal path in this price range. Directly injecting electric guitar and bass again displayed nice low-mid gusto and round character.
I thoroughly enjoyed every minute using the 003 Factory. The placement of all tactile controls made sense, its software behaved intuitively and responsively with expected results, and the sound quality was excellent — a marked improvement over that of the 002.
As either a musician or producer, you cannot underestimate the ability to seamlessly shuttle between your home studio and a professional facility — it's bound to happen either occasionally or frequently. Whether you're new to Pro Tools or thinking of a crossgrade, the 003 Factory gives the software to work with the pros and kick-starts your plug-in folder in a big way. Upgrading from an 001 or 002 makes a lot of sense for the improved preamps, converters and word clock, if nothing else. For those who've held off buying costly Pro Tools HD systems but are now eyeing the sweet prospects of today's powerful multicore computers, the 003 Factory represents the ideal HD-capable audio front end and control surface to Pro Tools LE at a reasonable price.
003 FACTORY > $2,495
Pros: The most professional all-in-one interface/control surface for Pro Tools LE to date. Outstanding sound quality thanks to new converters. Ample I/O. Elegant design. Outstanding build quality suitable for mobile use. Includes Pro Tools 7.3 LE and a blockbuster bundle of Digi and third-party plug-ins and applications.
Cons: No stand-alone mixer capabilities as before. No S/MUX ADAT support.
Mac: G4/G5/Intel; OS 10.4.x
PC: Windows XP Pro/Home