FIG. 1: The Liquid preamp channels use dynamic convolution to emulate the sound of 10 sought-after mic preamps. A "flat" setting bypasses the convolution processing (see list on right).
Focusrite's Liquid Channel caused quite a stir when it was introduced in 2003 by offering compelling emulations of dozens of coveted mic preamplifiers and compressors. Compared to a collection of vintage mic preamps, it was an incredible bargain, but at $3,000 for a single channel, it was beyond reach for many of us. Now that same technology has found its way into a reasonably priced, multichannel FireWire audio interface, the Liquid Saffire 56.
In and Out
The Liquid Saffire 56 offers two channels of Liquid preamps capable of emulating 10 different high-end and classic units (see Fig. 1) — all using the same dynamic convolution process as the Liquid Channel. Six more channels of Focusrite preamps are included, as well as S/PDIF and two ADAT Lightpipe ports. All eight analog inputs can also be used as line inputs, and two of them can accommodate the front panel instrument inputs. Focusrite claims a total of 28 input channels, but two of them are loop-back signals from the onboard mixer. While this is a useful feature, including these two in the count risks confusing potential buyers. To be clear, 26 independent external signals can be routed into your DAW via the Saffire (see Fig. 2).
FIG. 2: The Liquid Saffire 56 provides 26 hardware inputs and 28 hardware outputs, including mic, line, instrument, S/PDIF and Lightpipe I/O. It also offers word clock and MIDI I/O.
There are actually 28 independent output streams, however, comprising 10 analog TRS outputs, plus the outputs of the aforementioned digital connections. The first two output channels have anti-thump circuits to save your monitors, something I wish other manufacturers would emulate. Two headphone outs with independent volume controls are available, one doubling outputs 7 and 8 and the other doubling 9 and 10.
The Liquid Saffire 56 supports sampling rates up to 192 kHz, with the expected reduction in Lightpipe channel counts at higher sampling rates. At 96 kHz, it's an 18-in/20-out interface; at 192 kHz, it's a 14-in/16-out interface. The two mixer loop-back channels are available at any sampling rate.
All Good Things
The unit exudes professional quality, from its clean design to its solid construction. Each mic input has 48-volt phantom power and a highpass filter. Both Liquid pre's and the remaining odd-numbered pre's have polarity (phase) reversal, and channels 3 and 4 have a -9dB pad. Word clock I/O provides flexibility in clocking to other digital devices. MIDI I/O is also conveniently included. The mic pre's offer 73 dB of gain — plenty for the four modern condenser mics I used.
FIG. 3: A software-controlled, DSP-based mixer on the Saffire allows any 18 channels to be routed to any of 16 output channels with zero latency. It can also fold two channels back to the DAW.
The onboard DSP monitor mixer lets you route any 18 signals to any combination of 16 output channels (see Fig. 3). Aside from zero-latency input monitoring, there are any number of useful applications for this mixer. For remote recording, it can be used to route a mix of all inputs to another recorder for a safety copy. The loop-back can print a real-time mix to a DAW track to create an instant reference mix. Certain live inputs can also be passed on to the P.A. as necessary, and independent headphone mixes can be set up in the studio. Several included presets cover typical scenarios, such as tracking or surround mixing. User presets can be saved to the computer, and a user preset can be loaded to the hardware as a default setting.
The Saffire is an attractive option for my remote rig. It's light (I can easily hold it in one hand), only two rackspaces tall and nine inches deep, makes no noise and generates very little heat. Even without the Liquid preamps, eight channels of good-sounding mic inputs make it very convenient.
The interface worked perfectly with both Logic and SONAR, although I couldn't get by with as small a buffer (and therefore latency) on my 3-year-old Windows XP notebook as I can with my usual interface. Installation and configuration were brainless. The package even includes a suite of Focusrite plug-ins (dynamics, EQ, and reverb) in VST and AU formats.
In addition to convolving the input signal with a set of impulse responses painstakingly derived from the source preamps, the Liquid preamps also alter their input characteristics to emulate the source devices. In this way, the interaction between the mic and pre is re-created to get the sound as close as possible to the original. Furthermore, to emulate the variety of sounds that different models of a classic preamp create, a Harmonics setting introduces progressively higher amounts of second, third and fifth-order harmonics.
At Studio C at Full Sail University, my colleagues Atom Troy and Ryan Summers helped me do a rigorous shoot-out. We set up a matched pair of Berliner CM33 mics and a matched pair of SE Electronics 4400a mics in as coincident of an array as we could manage. We ran one of each into a Liquid preamp and the others into hardware preamps. In this way, we were able to make direct comparisons of the Focusrite Red 1 and Universal Audio 610 with their Liquid alter-egos.
Summers sang and I played baritone sax, trying very hard to play from exactly the same position and with exactly the same phrasing each time. We matched levels as closely as we could and compared the pre's at Harmonics settings of 0, 8 and 15 (full). We also tracked a couple of clips with the Liquid pre's set to Flat and New Age 1, the Millennia HV-3D emulation.
The test clearly revealed the differences between the models. Each emulation discernibly sounded more like its hardware equivalent than anything else, although neither matched perfectly at any Harmonics setting. Still, the family resemblance was palpable. Both hardware preamps had a more open high end than the Liquid pre's, although on the 610 this went too far and sounded downright harsh on the baritone sax.
The Flat setting actually sounded quite good, but the New Age 1 setting sounded terrific on the bari — open, clear and lifelike. It also sounded great on Summers' vocals. I don't know how closely it matches the Millennia pre, but I know I'd like to have it in my personal toolkit. Audio clips and additional observations from this shoot-out are available at emusician.com/web_clips_streaming.
In the final analysis, if you look at the Liquid Saffire 56 for perfectly authentic emulations, you'll probably be a skeptic until you do your own shoot-out. If, however, you view it as a full-featured, reasonably priced interface with the bonus of two channels of extraordinarily varied sounds, you just might find it difficult to resist.
Brian Smithers is a musician, writer and educator based in central Florida. Thanks to Atom, Ryan, Eric, Darren and Andrew of Full Sail University for their assistance in the shoot-out.