Focusrite Saffire Pro (Bonus)

Here is some additional information about the Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 and Pro 10.
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This online bonus material supplements the review of the Focusrite Saffire Pro in the February 2008 issue of Electronic Musician.

Due to space constraints, a lot of information couldn''t be included in the main review. On the Web, however, space is infinite, so here is some additional information about the Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 and Pro 10.

Electronics

A software switch labeled H/ROOM drops the maximum analog output level by 6 dB to avoid running out of headroom when the device is bus-powered. The AC power supply runs the unit at higher rail voltages than the FireWire bus provides.

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FIG. 1: The Saffire Pro''s work-clock waveform is not a well-formed square wave as it should be, which could cause other devices to have trouble syncing to it.

All inputs (except the inserts) are differential, and all the outputs (except the headphones and insert outputs) are electronically balanced. Unlike the impedance-only balancing more commonly found on low-cost units today, the balanced outputs on the Saffire Pro use a cross-coupled circuit topology that provides true differential balancing. The nature of the circuit lets you connect the output to a balanced or unbalanced input without compromising signal level or headroom.

The BNC word-clock input is internally terminated, but the termination appears to be capacitive, resulting in a poor-looking square wave (see Fig. 1). (Word clock inputs are more commonly terminated with a 75Ω resistor.) Daisy-chained word-clock inputs may not be happy with that shabby-looking waveform.

I usually don''t bother measuring the frequency response of a digital device because it''s typically dead flat from just under half the sample rate to lower than you need, but Focusrite went a bit overboard on the low end here. It''s down only a couple of dB at 2 Hz when the highpass filters are disengaged!

Monitoring

A button for each output pair in the SaffireControl Pro software lets you selectively link the mixer''s output-level controls to the front-panel Monitor volume knob. You would normally link the control-room monitor outputs to the Monitor knob, but you can selectively link the other output pairs to it as well.

This almost works when feeding a surround-monitor system, but not quite. You can adjust the volume of multiple outputs with the single knob, but the Mute and Dim buttons associated with the Monitor volume control only work on outputs 1 and 2. If you''re monitoring in surround, you want all the speakers to mute when you press the button, not just the front pair.

Another small annoyance is that when outputs are linked, you can''t have them set to different relative levels with a single master control. For example, if the left and right channels are set to different levels and then linked, they jump to the same level if you move either one. If you want to experiment with changing a single channel''s level, you''ll need to either unlink it or go into the mix.

Two front-panel headphone jacks, each with its own volume control, can be fed the control-room mix or a semi-custom mix consisting of the input mix and an alternate mix from the DAW. Headphone output 1 can include DAW mix output channels 1 and 2 or 5 and 6, while output 2 can include channels 1 and 2 or 7 and 8 (see Fig. 2), so you have some flexibility for the two different headphone mixes if you know your DAW well enough to set this up. In general, you''ll want to construct stereo auxiliary sends for the recorded tracks, assign those to outputs 5-6 and 7-8, and use those in your headphone mixes.

This offers some monitor-mix flexibility when tracking, but since there''s only one input mix, everyone has to live with that in their headphones. For example, say you''re tracking a rhythm section live in the studio. The bass player wants to hear the keyboard louder than the rhythm guitar, the guitarist doesn''t want to hear the keyboard, and the drummer can''t hear himself. You''ll need to negotiate diplomatically.

Given the versatility of the Saffire Pro, I dreamt of a dual-monitor tracking setup that emulated a split recording console, with the DAW mixer on one screen and the SaffireControl Pro on another. I was able to set this up, but it didn''t work well in practice. With only eight input controls available at a time, I wanted to run screaming back to the security of my real hardware console.

Low-Z Setting

Using an NTI Minirator MR-PRO signal generator and impedance meter, I measured an input impedance of 145Ω with the Pro 26''s Low Z switch engaged, and I didn''t find any mics that sounded better at that impedance. Rumors notwithstanding, most classic and classic-style ribbon mics sound best with a high-impedance input (10 kΩ or greater).

A Shure SM57 seems to prefer being loaded with about 500Ω, so the Focusrite''s 145Ω is a little heavy for it, causing the mic to lose some brightness. I''d love to see Focusrite modify the hardware so the Low Z switch presents a 500Ω load specifically for this very common mic.

Plug-Ins

The Saffire Pro doesn''t come with a bundled DAW program, but you do get four Focusrite plug-ins (VST for Windows, VST and AudioUnits for Mac), which probably deserve a review of their own. The reverb is probably no better than what was bundled with your DAW software, and the amp simulator isn''t particularly exciting.

On the other hand, the equalizer and compressor are quite nice. In addition to a full complement of controls, both have a useful “template” mode. Select the program source (voice, guitar, etc.) and it brings up an extra set of controls labeled in musical terms. The default settings are a good starting point for tweaking. The grayed-out standard controls follow any adjustments of the template controls, and you can switch back to the standard mode at any time for fine tweaking. These templates are a good answer to the question, “What''s the right EQ for a female singer?”

Double the Fun

I was eager to see how two Saffire Pro interfaces worked together. After fumbling through the “adding another interface” instructions in the manual (which actually referred to an earlier version of the drivers), I discovered that once the first Saffire Pro was installed, all I had to do was unplug its FireWire cable, connect the second one''s FireWire port, let Windows find it (the Pro 10 and Pro 26 use the same driver and console software), and then reconnect the first one. Simple, and it worked the first time.

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FIG. 2: The headphone outputs can be assigned to different pairs of outputs. In this example, headphone output 1 is assigned to outputs 1 and 2, and headphone output 2 is assigned to outputs 7 and 8.

You can name the interfaces, which is a particularly good idea when you have more than one in a system. An onscreen button lets you select which one to control with the SaffireControl Pro software; assigning descriptive names reduces the chance that you''ll adjust the wrong one. In case you get confused, an onscreen ID button causes the power LED of the currently active unit to blink.

Using two Saffire Pros together is only a little different than using a single interface with more channels. It''s a bit awkward in that, to the DAW program, the two interfaces don''t have separate identities. For example, when selecting the source for a track, you see two Line1/2 inputs, one from each unit (see Fig. 3), and it seems that whichever interface is first detected by the computer is the first one on the list. In my test setup with a Pro 26 and a Pro 10, the Pro 26 channels always seemed to be listed first, but I''m not sure how I''d tell them apart if I had two Pro 26s other than by selecting one and seeing which input makes the meters move. It would help if the units could be named.

Since each Saffire''s mixer has its own set of outputs, in order to monitor the inputs from both through a common control-room output, it''s necessary to connect the output of one mixer to an input of the other. The S/PDIF input and output are handy for this. If your monitors are connected to Saffire #1, setting the Saffire #2''s S/PDIF output to “All Input” (no DAW mix) and connecting it to the S/PDIF input of Saffire #1 does the trick.

Computer Glitches

Every computer is different, and it''s easy for a piece of software to encounter something on a particular system that the designer never anticipated or tested. So I''m reluctant to criticize a product based on computer glitches unless I find a clearly repeatable and annoying bug. I''m happy to report that this wasn''t the case with the Saffire Pro, but I''d be lying if I said it was smooth sailing all the way. You may have fair seas, or you may spend more time hanging over the rail than I did. My experience was with Windows XP; the Mac version is totally uncharted territory for me.

I encountered the first glitch while installing the driver. With both the version on the CD packed with the review units and the latest version I downloaded from Focusrite''s Web site, the first couple of steps went as expected, and then the screen went blank—not the Blue Screen of Death, but black. This didn''t instill a great feeling of confidence. There were occasional bright flashes on the screen that looked like a dialog box trying to display, but it never remained on the screen long enough to read.

After a couple of aborts and retries, I restarted the installation and, applying the “Watched pot never boils” theory, I ate lunch. I came back half an hour later to find a real Windows screen with a real dialog box telling me that the installer had timed out waiting for a FireWire connection and requesting that I plug in the FireWire cable.

As a side note, the installation instructions state that the FireWire cable can be connected at any time, but when I connected the cable after starting the installer, a message popped up telling me that I had made the connection before the program was ready and to please disconnect it. So I figured I''d wait until, like with most installer programs, I''d wait until it asked for a connection. Sure enough, when it was ready, it did. After re-connecting the FireWire cable, Windows displayed its usual “Found New Hardware” message, located the Focusrite driver, associated it with the hardware, and reported that it was ready to use.

I tried the installation on another computer and had the same blank-screen experience. Of course, Focusrite tech support had never heard of such a thing. They suspected there might be another ASIO driver installed on the computer, which was confusing things. Indeed, there are several other ASIO drivers installed on both of these computers. Things always go smoother with a virgin computer, but I didn''t want to disassemble what I used on a regular basis in order to test the theory.

The number of tracks that can be successfully recorded and played back simultaneously without glitching is largely dependent on the computer and how well it''s tuned. I didn''t attempt to run that race, stopping at a very modest eight tracks (which worked fine) when I ran out of talent. Any such limit that I found on my system would likely not be relevant to your system anyway.

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FIG. 3: With two Saffire Pros connected to the computer, there''s no way to tell which one''s inputs you are selecting in a list.

There have been issues (primarily unreasonably high latency from what I''ve read) with Apple''s FireWire Core Audio driver, which the Saffire Pro uses. The upside is that when Apple upgrades the OS, Focusrite won''t have to chase after it with a new driver. The downside is that the Core Audio driver in the new Mac OS might need fixing, and that''s out of Focusrite''s hands. Every new Mac OS release carries the risk of a new problem, so be careful about updating too early and too often once you find something that works.

More Comparisons with the Mackie 800R

Initially, I was too lazy to un-rack the Mackie 800R, and the only free TosLink cable I had, a 2-footer, wouldn''t reach between the Mackie and Focusrite units. Figuring that I should have a longer cable around anyway, I picked up a 6-foot one at my local music store, hooked up to the two units, and was greeted by clicks on the Saffire ADAT channels. Then, I moved the 800R, switched to the short cable, and it worked fine. I don''t know if the 6-foot cable I bought for this experiment was too long or too crummy—I''m hoping the latter.

The difference in latency between the analog and ADAT inputs of the Saffire and the 800R was around 10 samples at 44.1 kHz. It''s impossible to determine what part of that difference can be attributed to the ADAT port and what was actually a difference in the A/D conversion times. But what really matters is the time coherence of the inputs, and the Mackie 800R and Saffire Pro are pretty close.

Support

I''m happy to report that Focusrite''s tech support has been helpful and relatively easy to access. Primary support is out of the company''s headquarters in Great Britain, so my interaction with them was only via e-mail. Generally, I received a complete and helpful response within 24 hours.

I also contacted the US support person by phone, and she was on the ball as well. She didn''t have all the answers to the tough questions (such as why my computer screen went blank when I installed the software), but her explanations of things that were cloudy or missing in the documentation were clear and helpful.

Bottom Line

If I had been working with a stereo sound card and a small mixer for a while, I''d be tickled to get a box as inexpensive as the Pro 10 with eight excellent preamps, enough outputs for surround mixing, two good instrument DIs (high-impedance inputs), and a convenient way of monitoring while tracking. It would take a while to grow into it though, and I wouldn''t sell my mixer in order to pay for it. There will be times even with the Saffire Pro when that mixer will still come in handy.

The Pro 26 is an even better deal, although it costs a couple of hundred bucks more. It''s most worthwhile if you intend to expand the system with more inputs in the future.