FOCUSRITESaffire (Mac/Win) - EMusician

FOCUSRITESaffire (Mac/Win)

The Saffire is a digital audio interface that features two input channels, eight output channels, S/PDIF and MIDI I/O, and a collection of plug-ins that
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FIG. 1: The Saffire bundles a 2-in, 8-out audio interface with a software control panel and accelerated reverb, compression, EQ, and guitar-amp simulation plug-ins. The compact device handles 24-bit audio at sampling rates as high as 192 kHz.

The Saffire is a digital audio interface that features two input channels, eight output channels, S/PDIF and MIDI I/O, and a collection of plug-ins that take advantage of its onboard DSP. The hardware is housed in a 24-bit, 192 kHz — capable minitower powered by FireWire. The Saffire is compatible with Mac OS X and Windows XP, and it includes Steinberg Cubase LE software. Two features that make the Saffire stand out are its hardware-accelerated plug-in suite and twin Focusrite mic preamps.

Outside the Box

The lower section of the Saffire's front panel hosts two balanced ¼-inch TRS inputs, two balanced XLR inputs with a global 48V phantom power switch, and two ¼-inch stereo headphone jacks with discrete level knobs (see Fig. 1). In the middle are a Monitor Level knob with Mute and Dim buttons (the latter instantly reduces levels by -12 dB), S/PDIF In and MIDI I/O activity indicator LEDs, and a button to enable MIDI Thru. The front panel's top section has two Input Gain knobs, each with three LEDs that indicate input level, and a Line/Instrument button with LEDs to indicate your selection. For each channel, only one of three input options — mic, line, or instrument — is available at a time.

The rear panel sports two 6-pin FireWire ports, eight balanced ¼-inch TRS outputs, MIDI I/O, S/PDIF I/O, and a power-supply terminal (see Fig. 2). With eight outputs, the Saffire can handle multichannel or surround sound. Dual FireWire ports allow you to daisy-chain additional FireWire devices.

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FIG. 2: The Saffire''s rear panel has analog audio and S/PDIF jacks, as well as FireWire and MIDI ports. The power terminal attaches to the included DC adapter, but because the Saffire is normally powered by the FireWire bus, the adapter is required only for 4-pin FireWire connections.

Hardware-hosted compression, reverb, amp modeling, and EQ, along with VST and AU plug-in duplicates, are included. The Saffire's software component, SaffireControl (Mac/Win), provides configuration and routing controls and serves as the user interface for all the Saffire's hardware-powered effects.

I tested the Saffire on a 1.33 GHz Apple iBook G4 running Mac OS X 10.4.3 with Apple Logic Pro 7. I also installed the Saffire's drivers on a 2.4 GHz Intel Celeron — based PC running Windows XP. My Mac recognized the Saffire immediately when I plugged it in. On both Mac and PC, automated wizard programs helped me install the software and authorize the plug-ins.

Adventures in Software

Although SaffireControl is a formidable application, its labeling is a bit arcane. A single window is divided into three sections containing controls for the input stage, for sequencer tracks, and for mixing and processing through all the hardware outputs (see Fig. 3). The second section contains level faders for ten sequencer tracks; although they might prove useful for some users, I didn't have any need for them.

The application's input-stage controls apply to any pair of analog inputs (mic, line, or instrument). Both channels supply a welcome addition: a long, tricolored level meter that extends the 3-LED meter on the hardware's face. Two other pairs of level meters display the processed and direct signals side by side. The direct meter doubles as a S/PDIF-input meter, but I wish the user interface were large enough to accommodate discrete meters for everything. Also present are buttons for launching the compressor and your choice of either the EQ or the guitar-amp simulator plug-in, as well as another button for swapping the order of the processors in the signal path — a nice touch. The Stereo Link button, which joins all the channel controls, is useful for stereo sources.

In the hardware-outputs control section, all the controls are configured in five stereo pairs. Each channel pair provides numerous options, such as the ability to custom-mix the input levels, turn on and adjust the reverb, custom-mix the software-output levels, fade between the direct input and the software return, and add or subtract master gain. This section confused me at first, because certain labels such as Output Mix and Input Mix sit right next to each other. Once I'd read the clearly written PDF manual, however, I found the array of controls useful and wide-ranging.

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FIG. 3: SaffireControl furnishes a software front end for the hardware. It gives you complete control of input and output levels, signal routing, and plug-ins, allowing the Saffire to function as either a mixer or a standard sound card.

DSP Power

The plug-ins are basic in appearance, and all but one sport minimal controls, yet each sounds surprisingly good. The four hardware-powered plug-ins — straightforwardly named Compressor, EQ, Amp Simulator, and Reverb — are duplicated by unaccelerated plug-ins.

Compressor includes presets for typical scenarios, such as recording vocals, bass, or piano. Though the presets sound reasonably appropriate, the compressor's Advanced mode supplies adjustable input and output levels with corresponding meters; Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release, and Gain controls; and a Bypass button. Compressor is precise and capable of a broad range of effects. I was able to add just a subtle touch to quiet the vocals and more to really squash the bass.

EQ is a fully parametric 4-band equalizer. In Template mode, four dials control gain for four predetermined frequency bands. Advanced mode switches the bands to parametric, with Frequency, Gain, and Q controls for each. There is ample frequency overlap between bands, and lowpass, highpass, shelving, and bandpass options are featured on each end. EQ offers precise frequency-carving controls, and its sound is very transparent.

The simple Amp Simulator features British, American, Combo, and Bass tones, each adding a distinct color. You can dial in high, mid, and low boost, and a generic Drive control adds distortion. Though it doesn't stack up to a hardware amp, I was able to add some interesting grit to an Ibanez SRX300 electric bass, and at full tilt, Drive really growls.

Reverb furnishes three controls: Room Size, Diffusion, and Tone. Despite its sparse interface, I liked the reverb plug-in very much. It might be a bit too pristine and glassy-sounding for some tastes, but I was able to simulate everything from wooden-sounding drum rooms to massive cathedral spaces, and the dry signal was never obscured.

Hardware Trials

I performed my first test using a preexisting multitrack session in Logic Pro 7. I routed all the tracks to outputs 1 and 2 and monitored the Saffire through my mixing console. The sound was initially choppy, but changing the buffer setting from 64 to 256 samples corrected the problem. I connected the Saffire's six remaining analog outputs to the mixer and randomly reassigned the tracks' output through all four stereo pairs. When I soloed a track and played it through each of the four output pairs, the volume and audio quality sounded comparatively consistent. I was impressed with the Saffire's sound; I could hear everything in the mix clearly at low levels, and with the Monitor control set to maximum (with an additional 6 dB from Logic), the Saffire had lots of undistorted headroom despite hot output levels.

Next, I tried out both headphone jacks with a pair of AKG K 240 Studio headphones, and the sound was clear, though not especially loud. By default, headphone output 1 mirrors line outputs 5 and 6, and headphone output 2 mirrors 7 and 8. Using the SaffireControl software, you can assign custom mixes of any output combination for additional control; such flexibility scores points, but I yearned for more headphone volume.

I tested the digital I/O by simultaneously routing all tracks to S/PDIF, connecting the output to the input, and recording a few tracks. When I compared the level and quality of the original signal and the recordings, I heard no differences. I performed a similar test by connecting analog outputs 1 and 2 to the line inputs, and I recorded a few overdubs using a Yamaha P-120 piano, again with positive results. At minimum gain, I could clearly hear low-level audio. Even at maximum gain, just before clipping, the sound was robust, with very low noise. Gain sweeps were smooth and wide, and the Saffire's knobs felt firm to my fingers despite their plastic mold. The Saffire sounded quite transparent; in fact, the P-120 recordings sounded practically indistinguishable from the actual instrument.

Preamplified

I switched an input to Instrument mode, plugged in the Ibanez bass, and recorded an overdub. The Saffire had more than adequate gain and headroom. Across several takes with various pickup settings, the Saffire captured a full tone with plenty of low-end punch. Subtle nuances of finger slides and note sustain came through clearly, and achieving proper gain levels was easy.

To test the mic preamps, I made three 24-bit, 96 kHz recordings with an Audio-Technica AT2020 large-diaphragm condenser mic. The sources were tenor male vocals, hollow wind chimes, and the Ibanez bass played through a Tube Works solid-state combo amp with a 12-inch speaker. In all three cases, the preamps captured subtle details and exhibited a smooth, wide frequency range. Vocals were lively and up-front. The bass, though not as punchy as in direct takes, sounded thick and round. The chimes were crystalline, with ample high-frequency sparkle and long sustain.

I also recorded a silent track with a stray XLR cable connected and the input gain set at about three-quarters. On playback, I heard very little difference between the recorded clip and the surrounding empty space — a testament to the Saffire's low noise.

Interface-off

I compared the Saffire's preamps to those of three competing interfaces I had on hand: an M-Audio ProjectMix I/O (a FireWire interface and control surface that costs about three times as much), an Echo Layla 3G (a PCI interface for about the same price), and an Edirol UA-25 (a USB interface for about half the price). Though the Edirol had a good frequency range, it was noisier than the Saffire, and in fact, the Saffire was quieter than all the others.

The Echo and the M-Audio waged good battles, though the Saffire had a level of detail that was really noticeable, especially in the midrange. I heard a bit more presence in the M-Audio's bass response, whereas the Echo's was fairly equal, yet the Saffire's clarity still stood out. Each interface displayed positive traits and its own distinct color. I won't say that the Saffire was my absolute favorite, but it certainly held its own against the competition on hand.

Like a Champ

Focusrite makes a strong case against its competitors with the Saffire. The unit sounds great while adding no distinguishable noise, is well built, provides ample outputs, and includes an invaluable set of hardware-accelerated plug-ins. The Focusrite preamps nicely captured everything I threw at them, and the Saffire's signal routing, combined with the software, offers plenty of flexibility.

I did end up with a wish list, including louder headphone outputs, discrete phantom-powered preamps, a separate S/PDIF level meter in SaffireControl, and additional inputs. But considering the Saffire's price, I'm not complaining much. Had I not purchased a new audio interface just prior to writing this review, I would seriously consider the Saffire.

Doug Eisengrein is an electronic-music composer and multimedia developer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He frequently contributes to Remix and EM.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

FOCUSRITE
Saffire

FireWire audio interface
$499

PROS: Clear sound. Low noise and abundant gain. Easily transportable. Solid construction. FireWire bus power. Balanced ins and outs. Nice plug-in suite.

CONS: Cramped software user interface. Low headphone volume. Only two simultaneous inputs. Global phantom power.

Guide to EM Meters
5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 = Clearly above average; very desirable
3 = Good; meets expectations
2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 = Unacceptably flawed

FEATURES...4
EASE OF USE...3
AUDIO QUALITY...4
VALUE...4

MANUFACTURER

Focusrite
www.focusrite.com

SAFFIRE SPECIFICATIONS

Analog Audio Inputs (2) balanced XLR mic with 48V phantom power (switchable); (2) balanced ¼" TRS line/high-impedance instrument (switchable) Analog Audio Outputs (8) balanced ¼" TRS; (2) ¼" stereo headphone Digital Audio I/O coaxial S/PDIF, 16/24-bit, 44.1 kHz-192 kHz Data I/O (1) MIDI In, (1) MIDI Out/Thru (switchable), (2) S400 FireWire Frequency Response 20 Hz-20 kHz ±0.1 dB A/D Dynamic Range 104 dB (A-weighted) D/A Dynamic Range 110 dB (A-weighted) Power 6-pin FireWire; DC adapter (with 4-pin FireWire) Dimensions 6.69" (W) × 6.69" (H) × 2.55" (D) Weight 2.43 lbs.