FOCUSRITE SAFFIRE LE - EMusician

FOCUSRITE SAFFIRE LE

Remix reviews the Focusrite Saffire LE FireWire audio interface with plug-in bundle. This review includes hardware specifications, lists and descriptions of features and company contact information.
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MORE STUFF

The Focusrite Saffire LE includes a selection of effects plug-ins. The following files demonstrate a amp modeler and reverb plug-ins. Listen to the dry loop first for reference.

Dry_Loop.mp3

Saffire_AmpMod_1.mp3
Here are the plug-in settings for amp modeler effect:
Amp Model: American
Drive: 5.170
Bass: 3.745
Mid: 1.0
High: 5.320

Saffire_AmpMod_1.mp3
Here are the plug-in settings for the reverb effect:
Amount: 8 o'clock
Room Size: 12 o'clock
Diffusion: 10 o'clock
Tone: 3 o'clock

Picking out a portable audio interface used to be a fairly simple process — there were only a few major players. But in the past few years, the market has become awash in affordable FireWire interfaces that all seem to promise the same things: tons of I/O, ultralow-latency monitoring and a laptop-friendly footprint. But as with all things, the devil is in the details. While the recently released Focusrite Saffire LE includes many of the usual offerings, the company's ability to address the little things, such as drivers and professional-grade connectors, quickly distances it from the other “me-too” products on the market.

The Saffire LE rounds out the Saffire line, which includes its two bigger siblings, the original Saffire and the Saffire Pro 26 I/O. The Saffire LE has all of the same attributes of the Saffire, minus the onboard DSP and 192 kHz capability. The Saffire LE is a 6-in/8-out FireWire audio/MIDI interface designed for Mac OS X and Windows XP. The unit includes a healthy complement of analog and digital I/O as well as a slick monitoring application that is designed to coexist with your DAW of choice. The package is rounded out with a collection of Focusrite plug-ins for VST and Audio Units as well as Ableton Live Lite 5, FXPansion BFD Lite, a demo version of FXPansion Guru and a collection of loops and samples. All of that adds up to an attractive package for musicians who are taking their first significant leap into the world of home recording or for seasoned pros who need a high-quality, no-fuss portable recording setup.

PREP WORK

Setting up the Saffire LE and installing the included software is a fairly painless process. Mac users can simply plug in the unit and use it as a basic audio interface. But to gain access to the plug-ins and the Saffire Control LE monitoring application and to enjoy the latency-free monitoring, both Mac and PC users are advised to use the install disc. I tested the unit on a dual 2.5 GHz Mac G5 with 4 GB of RAM running OS 10.4.9. After inserting the installation DVD and following the usual prompts, I was asked to register the hardware and software via an automated online registration tool. The tool asks for the hardware serial number and the Saffire Plug-in Suite registration code, both of which are easy to find inside the packaging. The whole procedure takes about five minutes and is required to gain full use of the hardware and software.

Once installed, the Saffire LE appeared as an available audio device within the OS X system preferences as well as my test software, which included Apple Logic Pro 7, Propellerhead Reason 3 and Ableton Live 6. Furthermore, the Saffire Plug-in Suite showed up, as expected, in my Audio Units plug-in folder within Logic, clearing that program's plug-in authorization utility.

EXPLORING THE NEW TERRITORY

The Saffire LE is roughly 7 inches tall, 2.5 inches wide and 7 inches deep — essentially the same footprint as the original Digidesign Mbox. It includes a swivel base that rotates out to make the unit a little more stable on a desktop. And weighing in at a slight 2.5 lb., the unit is surprisingly light without feeling cheap. All the knobs and buttons feel sturdy and well-manufactured, though some may find the controls to be a bit on the small side. Overall, the Saffire LE is really designed to move. It fits easily into a backpack or messenger bag, and once there, you'd hardly know you were carrying anything at all.

On the front panel of the Saffire LE, users will find inputs 1 and 2, which comprise two ¼-inch TS/TRS inputs and two XLR inputs with switchable 48V phantom power, as well as corresponding gain knobs and line/instrument switches. Each input, including the additional ¼-inch TS/TRS jacks on the back panel (inputs 3 and 4), has simple overload LEDs on the front panel. There is also a single green LED that indicates S/PDIF input activity. Rounding out the front of the unit is a monitor level-control knob and a ¼-inch headphone with a dedicated volume knob.

On the back panel, there are the two ¼-inch jacks for inputs 3 and 4, six ¼-inch TS/TRS outputs (which can be configured for monitoring separate stereo outputs or for surround applications), MIDI I/O, S/PDIF I/O, external-power input (when bus power is unavailable) and two six-pin FireWire jacks, which allow for easy daisy-chaining with an external FireWire hard drive or other device. The unit ships with a 6-foot FireWire cable and a 12V wall-wart power adapter for computers without FireWire bus power.

The second aspect of the Saffire LE is the Saffire Control LE monitoring application that allows users to create, save and recall detailed monitoring setups. Users can create custom monitor mixes for the headphone and monitor outputs. It's possible to adjust the level and panning for all six input channels. Furthermore, you can adjust the level of the eight outputs, stream surround-encoded sources and resize the screen based on your needs. The application is especially useful when working with several musicians because it allows you to create a realistic-sounding monitor mix with appropriate level and pan control for each performer/source.

DIGGING FOR JEWELS

Right out of the gate, the first thing that struck me about the Saffire LE was the overall sound quality. I started out by just previewing a few of my favorite tracks in iTunes followed by some mixes and demo songs I had in progress. Compared with some of the other portable FireWire and USB interfaces on the market, the Saffire LE does more than hold its own; it's downright impressive. Everything I played through the unit came through with the kind of clarity and detail that I had only associated with higher end (and much more expensive) pieces from Apogee. Also, the unit seemed to have no problem at all working with the latest version of the Mac OS, an issue that has plagued some competing products in recent months.

Moving on to the instrument inputs and mic pres, I started off by plugging a Gibson SG guitar into input 1 and trying out a few presets in Native Instruments Guitar Rig 2. The inputs have plenty of gain, and turning the gain knob up while playing sounded totally natural and linear — no pops, no abrupt jump in level and very little noise. The same goes for the mic pres. Focusrite is a favorite among professional engineers and recordists for its high-end mic-pre products, and the pres on the LE obviously owe something to that lineage. For test purposes, I plugged a Blue Bluebird condenser mic into the LE and tracked a few passes with a female vocalist. I've used the Bluebird on a number of sessions, and I'm pretty attuned to the way it should sound. After recording several passes, I had zero complaints. The mic pres exhibited exactly what one should expect out of a quality solid-state design: They produced a clear and transparent sound that allowed the mic and vocalist to shine.

For the pros who may want to supplant the onboard pres with an outboard channel strip, you're in luck. The Saffire LE accepts balanced ¼-inch jacks on all four analog inputs. That solves one of my biggest gripes with the competition. A while back, I dropped the cash on a vintage Trident channel strip that has only a balanced output, and I'm always shocked when companies don't include balanced connections as standard equipment. Kudos to Focusrite for paying attention to that detail.

Working with the vocalist also gave me a chance to try out the Control LE monitoring application and the zero-latency hardware monitoring. Essentially, the hardware side of the LE splits the inputs into two signals, sending one through the interface for recording and sending the other back through the hardware for monitoring — a very common design. The Control LE software works as a virtual mixer, allowing you to adjust the level and panning of all six sources and as many as eight playback tracks from the software. The software allows you to set up independent mixes for the headphone and monitor outputs. To really get the most out of it, you'll need to tweak some of the routing in your DAW. In the session I was I working on, I simply changed the output routings of a few key tracks in Logic to take advantage of the ability to mix the levels of the playback tracks in the Control LE software. Furthermore, the monitor-control knob on the LE works like a real hardware volume knob, allowing you to hook up a pair of powered monitors directly to the unit without the need for a separate line mixer to control the volume.

Another great feature of the Control LE application is that it allows you to leave a guitar or a synth plugged in and ready to go, even without booting up a DAW. It's nice to be able to have my guitar and Line 6 Pod hooked up to the Saffire LE and just sit down and play it through my monitors without needing a dedicated mixer. That setup also doubles as a great rehearsal tool. I had a bunch of old demo songs saved as AAC files in iTunes, and it was great to be able to play guitar against those with complete control over panning and level. Sometimes you just want to play an instrument, and you don't want to go through the hassle of booting up a dozen different sessions in your DAW.

THE EXTRA GOODIES

Included with the Saffire LE is a collection of plug-ins for VST and Audio Units. With the suite you get EQ, reverb, compression and an amp simulator. All of the plug-ins feature a simple-but-effective user interface that gets the job done without using up too much screen space.

The EQ is a standard 4-band offering with low and high shelving. Each band has controls for frequency, gain and Q. The reverb has dials for amount, room size, diffusion and tone. The compressor features standard controls for threshold, ratio, attack, release and gain. And with the amp simulator, you can switch between British, American, combo and bass models, as well as adjust drive, level and low, mid and high tone. The compressor and the EQ can also be switched to an Easy mode, where the more complex controls are grayed-out, and you can jump between presets. The compressor includes settings for flat, vocal, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, brass/wind, piano, strings and percussion. The EQ has the same presets as the compressor while also including basic controls for low, mid 1, mid 2 and high EQ. That is a handy for new users or anyone who needs to quickly jump to a particular sound with minimal fuss.

Overall, the plug-ins are what they are: a “value-add” drop-in to make the package seem a little more attractive to new users. And there is nothing wrong with that. The plug-ins sound fine and do exactly what they're supposed to do. But after auditioning all of the plug-ins on a variety of sources, I couldn't really find a compelling reason to use them over the stock plug-ins from Logic or Live.

PRECIOUS GEM

Overall, the Saffire LE is fabulous product that I would recommend to anyone who is in the market for a portable FireWire audio interface. The company obviously spent some time getting the A/D and D/A converters right. The mic and instrument inputs are totally pristine, and the Control LE software makes the whole thing a pleasure to use. Focusrite researched the way people actually use this type of product and responded accordingly. For new users, the included suite of software and loops makes it easy to start making music the day you bring it home. With 24-bit/96 kHz fidelity, a 6-in/8-out design, S/PDIF, MIDI, balanced connections all the way around and a sub-$300 price tag, you really can't go wrong with the Saffire LE.

For audio examples of the Saffire LE's plug-ins, go toremixmag.com.

FOCUSRITE

SAFFIRE LE > $299

Pros: Great-sounding interface. Solid mic pres. Balanced ¼-inch inputs and outputs. Lightweight and compact. Very useful monitoring software.

Cons: Plug-ins seemed like an afterthought.

Contact:www.focusrite.com

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Mac: G4/800 MHz; 265 MB RAM; OS 10.3.3 or higher; DVD-ROM drive for installation; native FireWire port

PC: Intel-compatible/900 MHz; 256 MB RAM; Windows XP Home Edition/XP Professional; FireWire port