The Hercules 16/12 FW is a FireWire interface that offers 16 analog inputs, 12 analog outputs, S/PDIF I/O, 32-channel MIDI operation, and a pair of phantom-powered mic preamps.
Hercules, a company known mostly for manufacturing PC video cards, has gotten into the studio interface game. The 16/12 FW ($899) is a FireWire-based, 16-in/12-out audio and 2-in/2-out MIDI interface housed in a 13.4-inch-wide chassis. Removable brackets are provided to make it a 1U rackmount device. Two Neutrik combo XLR/TRS jacks, each with an individual gain pot and a button to select high-impedance operation, are on the front panel. MIDI In and Out ports, a single 48V phantom-power switch, and a ¼-inch headphone jack with its own volume knob are also up front. A bank of tricolored LEDs indicates activity on all audio and MIDI ports.
Ten balanced inputs and eight balanced outputs on gold-plated TRS jacks are on the back panel. Next to those are optical and coaxial S/PDIF in and out, word clock in and out, a second pair of MIDI ports, a single FireWire port, and a 15V DC connector. The FireWire bus can't power the 16/12 FW, and the included adapter accommodates an AC source from 100V to 240V.
The 16/12 FW supports 24/96 audio, and all 16 inputs can operate simultaneously. The unit is compatible with Mac OS X 10.3 and above and Windows 2000 and XP. It ships with a nice selection of software, including Ableton Live 2 Special Edition (Mac/Win), Steinberg Cubase LE (Mac/Win), and demos of Cakewalk Sonar 3 (Win) and Project5 (Win).
I tested the Hercules 16/12 FW on a Power Mac G4 running OS X 10.3.7. I downloaded and installed the latest driver from Hercules's Web site. When I launched iTunes for a quick playback test, the audio sounded good on my Tannoy monitors, with excellent stereo imaging.
To make a basic recording, I patched my CD player into line inputs 1 and 2 and popped in a well-recorded studio album. Then I launched BIAS Peak and chose 24-bit, 44.1 kHz as my CoreAudio record settings. When I pressed the Record button, music streamed through at a low volume, peaking at around -8 dB. I tested the headphone jack with AKG K 240 Studio and Audio-Technica ATH-M40fs headphones; although I heard no distortion at full gain, the sound was lacking in the low frequencies.
To remedy the low-output problem, I launched the virtual 16/12 FW Mixer, which was well-laid-out and easy to read. All output sliders were preset to maximum, and the input sliders were set at their lowest setting of 0 dB. I pushed them up to the maximum position of +12 dB, which yielded better recording volume. The Mixer lets you save custom settings to a drop-down list, and all channels can be stereo linked or delinked. The CD recorded beautifully in Peak, and the sound was full with no noticeable digital artifacts.
My next test was to try out simultaneous recording and playback with a multitrack work-in-progress. I routed 23 stereo tracks from Apple Logic to all eight analog outputs simultaneously; the 16/12 FW performed without a hiccup. I then patched all the analog outputs to the first 8 analog inputs and bounced down all 23 tracks, first to 4 stereo tracks and then to 8 mono tracks. The Hercules also handled those tasks with no problems. Next, I added stereo effects and a synth pad to the mix using inputs 9 through 12; the 16/12 FW performed like a champion.
Finally, I tested the preamps by recording some guitar and vocals through a studio condenser mic. Recordings made at normal gain were fine (but not exceptional), and the preamps added neither coloration nor transparency. The knobs, however, didn't feel sturdy, and both pots were quite noisy when performing gain sweeps (especially toward the top). I also heard a persistent noise when I pushed the gain all the way up, with or without phantom power engaged. Another area of concern was the FireWire connection, which also produced noise during hard-disk operations; that noise didn't lessen when I moved the unit away from my Mac.
The Hercules 16/12 FW is useful for project or mobile studios that need a reasonably priced portable interface. Although I recommend it for heavy line-level use because it offers a variety of inputs and outputs and can handle plenty of simultaneous I/O, better preamps would improve the unit's performance when using mics and electric guitars. Better grounding would also score some positive points. Overall, the 16/12 FW is a versatile unit with room for improvement.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 3