Laptop audio solutions that use the FireWire and USB connectivity offered with most notebook computers have been increasingly available for some time now, but rarely at the performance level of desktop PCI audio workstations. Despite the ubiquitous presence and high performance of the PCMCIA CardBus on many laptops, relatively few interfaces have been made to actually use that format. With the demise of Echo’s Layla Laptop system, the only marketed pro audio interface for the CardBus, offered only 96kHz sample rate with a limited variety of I/Os, and often a high price-tag, as well. Fortunately, E-mu has come through with an audio interface that provides a high standard of sound quality (up to 192kHz sample rate) without breaking the budget: the 1616M Digital Laptop Audio System.
Overall, the 1616M is nicely laid out and easy to use. It’s small, and lightweight, but it might have worked better as a rack unit with some small improvements. On the output side, the array of connectors on the back may prove useful, but could have been trimmed down to make room for a pair of Neutrik outputs. More importantly, the onboard preamps lack any polarity switching and low frequency filtering. Most of my projects are based around live stereo tracks with serious bleed between the mics, which can lead to serious phase problems. I also live above a subway line, so LF filters at the inputs are a must.
Nonetheless, simply having phantom power at the inputs is a plus, given the fixation of competitive interfaces. A good external preamp (Aphex 207D) took care of all the bugs, however, and allowed the 1616M’s converters to shine. According to E-mu, these are “Mastering grade 24-bit/192kHz converters — the same A/D converters used in Digidesign’s flagship Pro Tools HD 192 I/O Interface delivering an amazing 120dB signal-to-noise ratio.”
In layman’s terms, the sound is delicious.
The 1616M offers a wide variety of analog and digital inputs and outputs on the MicroDock M, designed in a svelte, breakout-box style. On the front: a pair of Neutrik inputs with pre-amplification and the option of phantom power. For digital sources, there are coaxial connectors for the S/PDIF input and output (switchable to AES/EBU), and optical ports for both S/PDIF and ADAT. On the back, there are two pairs of inputs, three pairs of stereo outs and three 1/8" stereo outs. There is also a MIDI connector on the back (requiring a special breakout cable for two inputs and outputs) and even a dedicated turntable input, complete with ground. Not incidentally, the CardBus card performs beautifully as a standalone unit through the single, 1/8" stereo output.
Creative’s Patchmix DSP software also provides the mixer interface from the desktop. It has proved to be rather versatile, with a virtually infinite (or software dependent, at least) number of possible track designations, including WAVE and ASIO I/Os from the computer, in addition to the physical I/Os on the breakout box. The interface is straightforward, resembling a basic mixing board with an array of inserts. ASIO capability allows for very fluid interaction with Cubase (the unit ships with Cubase LE, Cakewalk SONAR LE , Wavelab Lite and Ableton Live Lite 4 for E-mu), Acid (pre-4.0 versions still work by setting the host outputs to WAVE L/R instead of the default ASIO Out) and, of course, Pro Tools, even at high sampling rates. As promised, there is a vast array of hardware-accelerated DSP effects that can be used even without the MicroDock M attached to the card. This allows for excellent compatibility with post-production audio editing outside the studio. And just for laughs, I took my latest project down to the local coffee shop and did a headphone mix with WaveLab, using only the DSP effects on the CardBus. No MicroDock? No problem. I was done before my first refill.
Ultimately, the 1616M delivers professional quality A/D converters in an affordable, portable, and user-friendly package for home studios based around notebook computers. E-mu has delivered what they promised: “powerful DSP effects, zero-latency monitoring, and mastering-grade 24-bit/192kHz A/D and D/A converters”, all at a price the workaday home studio enthusiast can afford.
Can I get fries with that?
Mmm. . . .