The Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 offers eight line inputs on the front panel, which override the mic inputs on the back when a plug is inserted.
Windows and ASIO are strange bedfellows — for example, a program that uses the ASIO device-driver model can talk to only one unit at a time. So I was pleased to hear that Focusrite has designed its Saffire Pro series of multichannel FireWire audio interfaces so that up to three can be combined to theoretically provide as many as 78 inputs and outputs for a Windows-based DAW (depending on the computer and other bandwidth-limitation factors). The series also plays nice with Mac OS X, which natively supports multiple, simultaneous ASIO devices.
The top-of-the-line Saffire Pro 26 accommodates sampling rates from 44.1 to 192 kHz. Also available is the Saffire Pro 10, which tops out at 96 kHz and has fewer connections (more on this shortly). Power is supplied by the FireWire bus or a lump-in-the-line power supply with a sturdy, locking connector.
Software drivers and the SaffireControl Pro virtual control panel and mixing console are provided for Windows XP SP2, 64-bit XP, Media Center, and 32- and 64-bit Vista. On the Mac side, the minimum requirement is OS X 10.3.3, though the manual says “may require updates.” As one who flies on the trailing edge of technology, I tested the Saffire Pro 26 using Windows XP on a laptop with a 1.2 GHz Pentium 4 CPU and 256 MB of RAM.
Gozintas and Gozoutas
Both Saffire Pro models offer eight mic preamps with gain controls and clip LEDs on the front panel and XLR connectors on the rear panel. The 48V phantom power is switchable in two banks of four channels.
Eight front-panel line-input jacks override their corresponding mic inputs when a plug is inserted. Line inputs 1 and 2 can be switched to become high-impedance instrument inputs for things like electric guitars. You also get a S/PDIF coaxial input, MIDI In and Out/Thru (switchable), and two FireWire 400 ports. Each audio input has a corresponding output, and the analog outputs are grouped in pairs.
The Pro 26 offers some extra goodies, including a switchable highpass filter on each mic/line input, a low-impedance (300) switch for mic inputs 1 and 2, and polarity (phase) reverse on input 1. A button on the software console converts line inputs 5 and 6 to insert jacks for channels 1 and 2. Two ADAT inputs provide 16 additional channels at 44.1/48 kHz or 8 channels at 88.2/96 kHz using the S-Mux protocol, which combines 2 channels for each data stream at the higher sampling rates. Finally, there's a word-clock input and output.
The Monitor volume control is digital with 1 dB increments, causing zipper noise when you spin it. Also, there's quite a bit of hash in the outputs while the Saffire is starting up, so you'll want to power up your monitors last. That's always a good policy, but not everyone does it.
The operating levels are in the professional range, with a maximum output level of +20 dBu. At maximum input gain, -45 dBu into the mic preamp corresponds to full-scale record level (0 dBfs), which is about 5 dB more sensitive than many other mic preamps in its class. Quiescent noise at full gain is -75 dBfs, which is pretty good considering that it's relative to a +20 dBu analog output level.
The Saffire Pro retains all its analog I/O at all sampling rates, but at higher rates, functionality and digital I/O is reduced. At 88.2/96 kHz, you lose an ADAT input and output to the S-Mux protocol. At 176.4/192 kHz, all ADAT I/Os and the mixer are unavailable, so you also lose direct input monitoring.
An important feature of the Saffire Pro series is its digital mixer, which is controlled by the SaffireControl Pro software. When tracking, you can monitor all the inputs and a stereo mix of recorded tracks with substantially less latency than when the input source must take a detour through the computer. The mixer retains its current settings when disconnected from the computer, so it can serve, for example, as a keyboard mixer on a gig, though its controls are limited.
Normally, when using the Saffire Pro for tracking, you'll want to take advantage of the mixer. In Hardware Monitor mode, however, the analog inputs are routed almost directly to the analog outputs (they do go through A/D and D/A conversion), without passing through the mixer. This is useful if you prefer to use a hardware mixer for monitoring or mixing live to a 2-track recorder with more control than you have with the SaffireControl Pro mixer.
The main act in the SaffireControl Pro software is the virtual mixer (see Fig. 1), which provides eight faders and pan controls with tabs to select which group of inputs they control (analog, ADAT1, ADAT2, or S/PDIF). Each of the four stereo outputs has a slider to adjust the balance between the input mix and DAW playback; a volume control (linkable to the hardware Monitor knob); Mute, Solo, and Dim buttons; and a switchable 12 dB output pad to fix the pesky “my outputs are too hot for my speakers” problem. The S/PDIF output has only an input/DAW balance slider.
The Control Panel section lets you specify the sampling rate and sync source, save and recall setups (mixer level and pan settings, sampling rate, and sync source), and, in a multiunit configuration, select which Saffire Pro the console is controlling.
You can also tell the software to keep the Control Panel display on top of other open windows and eliminate the input-mixer display. I think the other way around — removing the less-often-used configuration buttons and leaving the mixer — would be more useful.
In addition to eight XLR mic inputs, the Saffire Pro 26 provides two ADAT ins and outs, S/PDIF in and out, MIDI In/Out/Thru, two FireWire ports, and word clock in and out on BNC connectors.
The sampling rate must be set from the Control Panel; the Saffire Pro doesn't adopt the rate set in the DAW program. ASIO and FireWire buffer size are adjusted from a separate control features.
panel that is not conveniently accessible from SaffireControl Pro; it must be opened as a separate program. ASIO buffer size can be adjusted on the fly, but the FireWire buffer size cannot be changed while SaffireControl Pro is active.
The Saffire Pro's audio quality is very good; its mic preamps are transparent and reasonably quiet. Because I most often record acoustic music that isn't very loud, I appreciated the extra 5 dB of gain over some other preamps I have. It's usable gain, too. Sure, you can hear hiss when you turn the knob all the way up, but the signal-to-noise ratio is what counts, and that's quite acceptable.
The Pro 26's highpass filters are 3 dB down at 100 Hz, 10 dB down at 60 Hz, and 23 dB down at 30 Hz, so they should do a good job of keeping rumble out of your mics. (I didn't have enough rumble in my mics to really verify this.)
There's no metering other than a clip LED, which comes on a mere 0.2 dB below the onset of both analog and digital clipping. As a result, it's important to set the gain conservatively and watch your DAW meters.
It took a while to get the hang of using the onscreen mixer. It's functional, but with more than one bank of inputs, it can get pretty confusing. Focusrite calls the mixer “low latency” rather than “no latency,” and low it is. A trip from the mic in to the headphone out takes 2.3 ms at 44.1 kHz and 1.6 ms at 96 kHz, considerably faster than the typical 5 to 10 ms latency that occurs running through a well-tweaked computer (see the sidebar “The 2 ms Latency Conspiracy” for more on this).
I checked out the ADAT connections using a Mackie 800R 8-channel mic preamp. In addition to verifying the ADAT inputs' functionality, it also offered the opportunity to compare the Saffire Pro preamps with those of the Mackie, which I'm quite fond of.
It was really a toss-up. They sounded a little different, but it was hard to put a finger on the difference, and I never had a clear preference for one or the other regardless of the mic or program source. This wasn't a pure analog comparison, because each signal path went through its own A/D converters, which almost certainly contributed to the small difference in sound.
Working with the SaffireControl Pro console was downright clumsy. Tiny screen fonts made legends hard to read, and it was difficult to tell at a glance whether a button was pressed or not. The sliding pink band around the pan knob to indicate its position made little sense to me. Why not just make the practically invisible scribe line on the pan knob big enough to see easily? With no way to label the faders, I often grabbed the wrong one, or the right one in the wrong bank. Moving any mixer knob produced zipper noise, which got annoying after a while.
FIG. 1: The SaffireControl Pro software provides onscreen control of the digital mixer and many other features.
Hardware Monitor mode disconnects the inputs from the mixer, but there is no indication on the Control Panel that you're in that mode. More than once, I forgot that I had Hardware Monitor enabled and wondered why the mixer faders didn't work. Perhaps it would make sense to switch to the “no mixer” (192 kHz) display when in this mode.
There are many ways to not get sound out of this gadget, and I think I found most of them. A more intuitive user interface would be very welcome. With a few extraneous buttons left over from a previous firmware version, the SaffireControl Pro display is due for a makeover, so I hope there will be some improvements.
My biggest gripe is with the documentation. The only manual is a PDF file on the installation CD. The Focusrite Web site contains additional information in the form of an addendum to the manual, a FAQ with useful supplemental information, and release notes for the current drivers, but you have to know it's there and then hunt for it. The Saffire Pro is a many-faceted interface that deserves a complete and well-written reference manual. Focusrite assured me that it's working on pulling the pieces together, and there should be an updated manual by the time you read this.
The Kitchen Sync
In addition to its internal clock, the Pro 26 can sync to an external word clock through its BNC input, either of the two ADAT inputs, or the S/PDIF input. However, the device can be a bit fussy about external synchronization. For example, the sync signal must be present before you select it.
Also, if you were using ADAT sync when shutting down the Saffire, it “remembers” that. The next time you fire it up, if you don't have the ADAT input connected, it won't sync up until you switch back to internal sync, at which point the Saffire Pro disconnects and goes searching for the FireWire connection again. More than once, this apparently hung up the FireWire bus and I had to restart the computer in order to get things going again.
I heard frequent pops when syncing the Pro 26 to the 800R ADAT output. With this configuration, I also had occasional sync dropouts, which meant I had to restart the whole kit and caboodle. Switching the Saffire to its internal clock and syncing the 800R to the Saffire's word-clock output worked fine. If you have two ADAT input sources connected, they'll need their word clocks synchronized, so things could get complicated without a master clock generator or distribution amplifier.
The Saffire Pro 26 is an impressive unit with a lot of bang for not many bucks. Low price aside, it's not really an entry-level product. You need some experience in order to get the most out of it. The Pro 26's greatest potential is as a remote recording interface that can be expanded with the addition of more Saffire Pros as needed, though if I needed to mix that many mics in a room full of fussy musicians with headphones, I'd prefer to do it on a real mixer with real hardware controls. Still, the Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 is hard to beat for the price.
Mike Rivers has recorded albums for Rounder, Folkways, Folk Legacy, and other labels, as well as programs for public radio and field recordings for the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. He is the author of The Last Mackie Hard Disk Recorder Manual (Cafe Press, 2004).
multichannel Fire Wire audio interface $699.99
PROS: Clean mic preamps; good audio quality overall. Internal mixer for low monitoring latency during tracking. Dual headphone outputs can have somewhat independent mixes. Expandable through ADAT I/O ports.
CONS: Onscreen mixer and control panel difficult to read and not very intuitive to operate. Documentation reasonably complete but scattered in too many places. Fussy about external clock synchronization.
FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 AUDIO QUALITY 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5
THE 2 MS LATENCY CONSPIRACY
You're probably aware of the golden rule of mic placement: avoid picking up a sound source with two mics at unequal distances. When those mics are mixed, the difference in arrival time results in a degree of phase shift — and therefore cancellation — at the frequencies directly related to the time difference. This is called “comb filtering” because the frequency response of the system looks (sort of) like the teeth of a comb.
The same thing happens when listening to your own voice on headphones, because there are two paths from your vocal cords to your eardrums: the one through your throat and head and the one through the latency-delayed headphones. Your voice will sound odd to you because it's being comb filtered inside your head.
You'll sound normal to anyone else listening to the same headphone mix or the control room speakers, because they are hearing your voice via only one path, not two. So when a singer questions the sound of their voice in the phones, they might not be nuts.
Some singers are really sensitive to this effect, some don't notice, and some run the headphone volume so high that the acoustic sound is swamped out and the comb “teeth” are negligible. Sensitive folk-music divas almost always give a better performance when not worried about how their voice sounds, and a good performance trumps technology anytime.
The monitoring latency through the Saffire Pro is in the range where it can notch out frequencies that give a voice much of its character, around 430 Hz, 860 Hz, 1,290 Hz, 1,720 Hz, and so on. Try it yourself and see if you can hear the change in your vocal character as you adjust the headphone volume.