Edirol has introduced a number of inexpensive USB audio interfaces during the past several years, making the dream of an affordable high-quality laptop or desktop studio a reality for many electronic musicians. In fact, Edirol released the first USB audio interface, the UA-100, back in 1999.
The UA-700 moves Edirol's product line up a notch in terms of power and versatility by adding Composite Object Sound Modeling (COSM) technology that models various microphones and guitar amplifiers. But that's not all. The UA-700 also provides an assortment of built-in effects, a phono preamp for digitizing your antediluvian LPs, a USB MIDI interface, and S/PDIF I/O with on-the-fly sampling-rate conversion. Can you say Swiss Army knife?
INTERFACE AND LAYOUT
The UA-700 packs an impressive amount of processing power into a compact metal box with a decidedly retro look; I haven't seen so many knobs per square inch since the '70s. Although it serves as both an audio and a MIDI interface, the UA-700 doesn't provide faders, pan knobs, or any of the usual mixer functions. Instead, its top panel is arranged by task: microphone-related features on the left, controls for amp modeling and guitar effects to the right (see Fig. 1).
Each section is further subdivided by function. You enable effects blocks by pressing a small button that glows red when engaged. Blocks on the microphone side include Mic Modeling and Dynamics & De-esser; on the guitar side you can select the amp- and speaker-modeling functions as well as a few guitar effects. The system effects at the bottom of the panel (Noise Suppressor & EQ and the Chorus & Reverb sections) operate globally.
One of two knobs in the lower right corner adjusts the volume of the master bus. Curiously, it affects only the analog and digital outputs and not the USB port. Another knob (Input Mon) lets you mix in some of the input signal for direct monitoring — a vital feature when recording in situations with high latency. Metering is restricted to a tiny five-LED ladder for the Master output and a single input-overload indicator. A Play/Stop button can directly control recording software with MIDI Note On messages.
Conveniently located on the top of the unit are all of the analog input jacks: two mic/line inputs on Neutrik connectors, a dedicated guitar input, and a pair of RCA jacks that serve double duty as phono or aux inputs. A nearby switch engages a phono equalizer and selects the proper input level — that's a nifty feature. A Center Cancel switch is even provided to eliminate vocals. That's right: with the UA-700, you can make your own karaoke recordings (depending on how the original was panned).
The Master analog output uses a pair of unbalanced ¼-inch jacks on the top panel and a couple of RCA jacks on the rear panel; they operate at the same level and are active simultaneously. S/PDIF digital I/O is handled by both coaxial and optical connectors (see Fig. 2). A tiny switch removes the analog inputs and effects from the mix bus for direct digital transfers between a MiniDisc, say, and the computer. You have to be careful, though; there's no way to mute a digital input, so it's easy to create a feedback loop when recording to a digital device. The manual suggests physically disconnecting any inputs you won't be using. In the course of trying out all of the UA-700's functions, I had to repatch repeatedly — a real bother.
All of the UA-700's processing is in 24-bit resolution. Although you can select 16-bit resolution for the USB output, there is no way to dither to the digital outputs. One nice touch, however, is that the UA-700 can perform sampling-rate conversion from 32, 44.1, and 48 kHz on the fly.
MIDI In and Out jacks, a standard USB port, and a ¼-inch stereo headphone jack are also included on the UA-700. Unfortunately, the headphone jack does not have a separate volume control. A large wall-wart transformer supplies the juice to the unit.
All of the UA-700's regular and advanced parameters are readily accessible through a software editor that is available free from Edirol's Web site. The company has also posted some additional guitar patches and encourages users to post their own.
In use, the UA-700 Editor is simplicity itself (see Fig. 3). You can edit parameters onscreen using a mouse or directly by twisting the UA-700's knobs. Patches are easily saved and recalled, although, as with most passive controllers, the hardware knobs do not reflect the changes made onscreen.
Selecting a style in the editor's Amp section changes the graphics to one of several designs, including a tweed pattern with chicken-head knobs, a black panel with familiar black and silver controls, and a gleaming chrome design.
Incidentally, the Editor's layout doesn't match that of the UA-700 exactly. Some functions, such as the Center Cancel switch, appear in different locations, while others, such as the roll-off frequency control and the microphone-modeling effect level, have no counterpart on the device itself. (According to Edirol, the UA-700 was designed to be simple and tactile for quickly dialing in sounds. The software provides deeper access to the unit, so it offers many more control options.)
The UA-700's Advance mode supports 44.1, 48, and 96 kHz sampling rates. The Normal mode rates are limited to 44.1 and 48 kHz sampling rates. What's the difference? Advance mode uses the ASIO drivers for improved latency and sync and supports MIDI I/O. Normal mode selects audio drivers that are bundled with Windows or the Mac OS.
Once you get everything set up correctly, USB operation is (for the most part) transparent, though my iMac lost sight of the drivers every now and then.
Although the UA-700 supports a 96 kHz sampling rate, it cannot play and record simultaneously at that rate. (According to Edirol, USB doesn't have enough bandwidth for full-duplex 24-bit, 96 kHz recording.) To hear your work, you must quit the application, reboot the device with the correct setting, and restart the software. If you need a retake, you must go through the whole process again. What's more, you can't use any of the UA-700's modeling or effects at the highest sampling rate.
MIDI operation is fairly straightforward. Regardless of the density of audio and MIDI data, I never heard a hiccup, although with only one In and one Out, I was admittedly running a pretty light load.
However, because all of the analog (and digital) inputs are sent directly to the mix bus, it's impossible to record while monitoring a MIDI instrument track through the aux inputs. The only way around that problem is to use an external mixer. True, the unit is designed as an interface, not an all-in-one desktop recording solution. Nonetheless, for many users, that could be a serious limitation.
The UA-700 uses the same microphone-modeling algorithms as Roland's high-end digital workstations. Although it's optimized for the Roland DR-20 dynamic and AKG C 3000 B microphones, curves for typical small dynamics, a headset dynamic, and small-capsule condenser mics make selecting the input source a snap. (An additional selection, Flat, is intended for line inputs.) Modeled mics include large and small dynamics, large and small condensers, and something called Vintage Condenser (a tube-condenser emulation). A rotary knob simulates the effect of moving closer or farther from the mic, though I found it more useful simply as a quick EQ adjustment.
All in all, the mic modeling is first rate. With very little effort, I could make fundamental improvements (or add low-tech grunge) to my recordings. I doubt anyone would be fooled into thinking that I used a Neumann U 87 instead of a Shure SM57, but it's still a great tool for getting the most out of a limited mic cabinet.
Farther down the signal chain lies a simple de-esser and a rudimentary preset compressor. The only way to make direct changes to the compression ratio is with the UA-700 Editor, though the Advance mode provides access to more parameters than appear at first glance.
The two mic/line inputs are normally summed to mono; in stereo operation, Mic 1 is panned hard left, Mic 2 is panned hard right. Each input has a dedicated sensitivity knob, but they share the 20 dB pad and the low-cut switch. Stranger still, the mic-modeling effects and dynamics are also applied equally to both inputs, which is a drag when using two disparate mics or a mic and a line source simultaneously. Moreover, the phantom power is global, and there is no warning light to indicate that it is active.
INS AND AMPS
I have been favorably impressed with Roland's COSM amp modeling in the past, so for my first recording with the UA-700, I dialed up a juicy preset and got ready to track a rhythm-guitar part and a scratch vocal. Unfortunately, I couldn't proceed, because the mic and guitar sections are summed to mono! The unit is capable of stereo recording, but surprisingly, you can't use a mic and the guitar input simultaneously.
Although I liked the ease of choosing an amp style and speaker cabinet, the controls seemed a bit coarse; the Advance mode allows a bit more fine-tuning. But don't look for exact re-creations of your favorite amps; when was the last time you saw a '50s vintage tweed amp with controls for Drive, Predrive, and Edge?
Although getting a good clean sound proved challenging, the wide range of crunchy and distorted tones fairly dripped with attitude. I was pleased with how the cabinet simulations rounded out bass and acoustic guitar parts.
Stompbox-style effects add to the fun, although the choices are limited to Flange, Phaser, Tremolo, a basic delay, and compression. How do they sound? Pretty darn close to a stompbox without the extra noise. Whether or not that's a good thing depends on how you feel about basic pedal effects. And speaking of noise, the Noise Suppressor (located in the Master Effects section) comes before the reverb and chorus effects. That's very cool, because you can tame the buzzes and whooshes of a heavily processed guitar without affecting the reverb tails.
The guitar section is generally a bit weak considering the UA-700's pedigree. Some basic effects such as multitap delays, wah-wah, and auto panning are noticeably missing, and the amp-modeling effects are better at heavy distortion than chunky tube warmth.
Regardless of its origin, the signal flow passes through a Master Effects section that is composed of a noise gate; bass, middle, and treble tone controls; a single knob for chorus depth; and a reverb section. That means that both mic channels, or a mic and guitar, share the setting. Even the aux and digital inputs are affected!
Reverb presets include plate, large hall, small hall, room, and spring. Overall, they're a disappointing lot; the plate in particular sounds darker than I'd like for vocals, and the room reverb is somewhat choked. Worse, you must use the editing software to gain access to any reverb parameters beyond the depth level available on the unit.
The UA-700 lets you globally bypass everything but the USB input to use any of the microphone, guitar, or master effects in a send/return configuration. That's handy if you want to spice up previously recorded tracks.
Holding down any of the buttons that enable the Compressor & De-Esser, Chorus & Reverb, Guitar Amp Modeling, or Input Mon sections takes you to Advance mode. In this mode, the three Guitar Effects knobs assume new functions. For example, in the master effects section they set predelay, rate, and depth for the chorus function. In the guitar section they control amp level, predrive, and edge, and they're also used to edit compressor settings. Sound confusing? It's actually far easier than it sounds.
The unit's external control through MIDI is extensive and it's easy to save and restore settings to a sequencer by using bulk dumps. You can't, however, use the UA-700 as a MIDI control surface.
A quick tap on the Patch button saves or recalls all of your settings to any one of six user locations accessed by twisting the Sample Rate knob. Of course, when a patch is recalled, the knob positions don't reflect the actual settings. And you can't name patches because the UA-700 has no display, not even an LED to indicate the currently active patch. So, you'll need a good memory or a pencil and paper.
Edirol has packed the UA-700 with a number of very cool tools: a couple of swell mic preamps with Roland's excellent microphone-modeling technology, a handy guitar-effects module, a MIDI interface, a sampling-rate converter, and even a phono preamp. Each of the features is fine on its own — in fact, the mic modeling is excellent — but unfortunately, they don't always work well together.
While using the UA-700, I kept running into walls; either I ran out of inputs, or I had to remember to yank out a patch cord before I could proceed. It's unfortunate that the designers couldn't find some way to let you use the mic modeling and the guitar effects simultaneously. Even if that's asking too much in terms of processing power, you should at least be able to pan the microphone and guitar inputs to individual outputs. Furthermore, you should also be able to keep the aux inputs out of the mix bus to allow monitoring and recording at the same time.
To be fair, the UA-700 is clearly designed to be versatile, not universal. Still, I'd rather have fewer bells and whistles in exchange for a more thoroughly integrated set of features.
Mark Nelsonlives and works in southern Oregon. He's still wondering when he's going to find the time to record that CD he built his studio for.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G3/300; 128 MB RAM; Mac OS 9.x or 10.x (OS 9.0.4 or later when using Sound Manager)
PC: Pentium/Celeron/other Intel-compatible processor/400 (600 or higher for Windows XP); 64 MB RAM (128 MB for Windows 2000/XP); Windows 98/2000/ME/XP
USB audio/MIDI interface
FEATURES3.5EASE OF USE2.5AUDIO QUALITY3.0VALUE2.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: COSM mic modeling extends the range of limited mic cabinets. Guitar-amp modeling adds versatility. Built-in effects. On-the-fly sampling-rate conversion. Lots of knobs for direct control of parameters. Phono preamp.
CONS: Cannot use mic and guitar inputs for simultaneous stereo recording. Requires external mixer to monitor MIDI instruments when recording. No status LED for phantom power. Limited inputs.
Channels(2) record; (2) playback (full duplex except at 96 kHz)Sampling Resolution24-bitSampling Rates44.1, 48, 96 kHzInputs(2) TRS/XLR combo with phantom power; (1) high-impedance guitar; (2) RCA aux line; (1) S/PDIF coaxial; (1) S/PDIF opticalOutputs(2) ¼" line; (2) RCA line; (1) S/PDIF coaxial; (1) S/PDIF optical; (1) ¼" stereo headphoneMIDI I/O(1) In, (1) OutAudio-Driver CompatibilityASIO 2.0 (Mac OS 9.x/10.x and Win 98/ME); WDM (Win XP/2000); MME (Win 2000/XP); Sound Manager (Mac)Built-in Effects3-band EQ, noise gate, reverb, chorus, center cancel, guitar-amp modeling, mic modelingDimensions10.1" (W) × 2.3" (H) × 7.2" (D)Weight2.86 lb.