Lexicon, known for its studio-quality outboard delays and reverbs built to withstand the rigors of 24/7 session work, has made its technology available to the home- and mobile-studio market with its desktop USB Audio/MIDI interface, the Omega Desktop Recording Studio. After some package modifications (the product was announced more than a year ago, and originally included a version of Pro Tracks Plus, since replaced by Cubase LE), the Omega is now a competitive player in the world of desktop USB interfaces.
The system is an outstanding value at $449.95 (and is available at significantly lower street prices), offering good mic pres, 24-bit converters, a pro-style 8 × 4 × 2 routing scheme, a copy of Cubase LE, and, for good measure, a Lexicon reverb: the Pantheon VST plug-in. But to see if the Pantheon and a Greek chorus of inputs and outputs make the Omega the last word in budget interfaces, we have to start at the alpha.
Housed in a stout grey and gunmetal blue lunchbox-style case, the Omega is a roadworthy, if somewhat bulky, add-on for laptop recording. Its 4¼-inch-wide front panel makes it the Greco-Roman wrestler in the group of tabletop interfaces typified by the more svelte Mackie Spike and Digidesign Mbox. The Omega's shape is stable on the desktop, and the extra room allows for easy-to-reach knobs and features that those other interfaces lack, such as 4-stage metering and assignable USB channels.
Laid out in two-column symmetry, the Omega's front panel (see Fig. 1) has controls for two mic inputs and four line inputs. Counting S/PDIF, eight inputs can be active and assigned to the USB bus for four channels of recording at a time. Viewed top to bottom, the front panel's left column features pots for Mic 1, Line 1, Line 3, and Monitor Mix, which balances direct input levels with signals returning from the computer. Below the pots is a high-impedance ¼-inch instrument input, which is controlled by the Line 3 pot (plugging into that input disables the rear-panel Line 3 input). The column of controls on the right has Mic 2, Line 2, Line 4, and the master stereo-output pot (Output Level), followed by a headphone jack.
Between the two columns are USB Assign and Stereo/Mono switches for each pair of analog inputs. Mic 1 and 2, for example, can be assigned to USB channels 1-2 or 3-4, or left out of the stream by using the 3-stage switch. Small red LEDs indicate which USB stereo pair is selected. The Stereo/Mono switch lets you feed inputs in either column to both outputs for direct monitoring, which is especially helpful when you're working with headphones.
Between the Monitor Mix and Output Level pots are 4-stage LED meters (-40, -20, -8, and Clip) that are selectable for USB channels 1-2 or 3-4 using a Meter Assign switch. Blue and red LEDs below the switch light up when USB and +48V phantom power are active, respectively. Between the Instrument input and the headphone jack, a S/PDIF Assign switch routes incoming digital audio to USB channels 1-2, taking over the stream, although analog inputs can still be routed to USB channels 3-4. An accompanying LED indicates that S/PDIF is being sent to USB. On the other side of the switch, the Lock LED indicates that the Omega is synced to the transmitting unit's clock.
The rear-panel I/O takes up all of the Omega's width (see Fig. 2). The unit's four ¼-inch line inputs occupy the top portion. Below those are the main stereo outputs, which are stacked vertically to the left of Mic 1's XLR input; a 20 dB pad switch; and a ¼-inch TRS insert jack. Immediately below those is a duplicate set of controls for Mic 2, with the unit's MIDI In and Out connectors positioned vertically to the left.
S/PDIF In and Out phono jacks, a +48V phantom-power switch, a USB connector, and a 9 VAC connector for the unit's wall-wart cable take up the rest of the rear panel.
The unit requires AC power to operate, so laptop users will need to be stationary. All controls except for the phantom-power switch are easy to get to and grasp. I hope that Lexicon will find a way to place the pad and phantom-power buttons on the front of the unit in future revisions.
In the Coliseum
The Omega was up and running quickly, and with a minimum of fuss. I tested the unit on a dual 2 GHz Mac G5 running OS X (10.3.8). Your Mac must have at least a 450 MHz G4 processor. PC users need at least a 500 MHz Pentium III processor running Windows XP, although Lexicon recommends a 1 GHz Pentium 4 or faster. Both platforms require 256 MB of RAM and 1 GB of available disk space, although more of each is recommended.
First I experimented with the Omega's audio capabilities. I connected my Roland Fantom-S keyboard to Lines 1 and 2, and connected the unit's stereo outputs to my powered monitors. The Omega sounded clean and quiet, and plenty of gain was available to blast the keyboard throughout the studio. Lines 3 and 4 sounded just as good. Line 3 had plenty of headroom for my Strat when I fed its signal to the front-panel Instrument input.
Next, I tried Mics 1 and 2 with a Neumann TLM 103 with phantom power engaged and, later, a Shure SM57 dynamic mic. The dbx Silver Series mic pres installed in the interface sounded fine, with no alteration or flattening of sonic character compared to other mic pres in units I've tested in this price range. In fact, I was pleased with the Omega mic pres. They are solid performers and pleasing, especially with large-diaphragm condensers.
The interface was recognized as soon as I connected it to my Mac's USB port. I put off using the Omega with the supplied Cubase LE software and launched my usual digital audio application, Digital Performer (DP). I had to Shift-click to activate Lexicon Mac USB (input) and Lexicon Mac USB (output) in DP's Configure Hardware Driver dialog panel. After that, the Omega was ready to record and play back.
With tracks activated, I returned to keyboard, guitar, and mics to see what kind of recording I'd get. Though the speed of my computer allowed me to work at the lowest buffer settings without latency, I used the Omega's monitor-mix control frequently to monitor my direct and DP's converted sound. I detected no any degradation or alteration in the signal that I sent into the interface or in the one that I got back from DP.
I liked being able to control elements in the USB stream from the Omega's front panel. Along with the onboard metering, it's safer and more logical to send data to the computer by controlling record levels preconverter (as opposed to attenuating the incoming digital signal in software) and converting only what you intend to record at a given moment.
To the Omega
The advance of technology has made basic USB interfaces somewhat of a commodity item, and in some respects, there's no more room to grow, especially for units that have wrung every last drop of 4-channel recording ability out of the original USB 1 spec. Lexicon has proven, however, that there's still life in the format through creative use of a mixerlike environment with real bus assigning and better metering.
In addition, the Omega is the cleanest and quietest of several tabletop interfaces that I've tested, and the unit demonstrates real value. Anyone who needs high-quality mic pres and flexible routing for a fair price will benefit from the package. The Omega is a fine 4-channel USB interface, and the included software (see the sidebar “Pantheon of Reverbs”) makes it attractive to novices and to those with more experience under their belts. And speaking of belts, as long as you let out the straps of your laptop bag a little to accommodate its extra girth, the Omega should make a perfect traveling companion.
Rusty Cutchin is an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.
PANTHEON OF REVERBS
As a bonus with its Omega desktop interface, Lexicon includes a copy of its VST reverb plug-in Pantheon (see Fig. A). Lexicon's engineers have provided 35 factory presets, featuring six reverb types (hall, chamber, plate, room, ambience, and custom) that are controlled by a user interface with 16 editable parameters.
A large jog wheel selects reverb type. The parameters Room Size, RT 60 (decay time), Pre-Delay, Damping, Wet/Dry Mix, and Output Level are controlled by sliders in the central part of the window. A Density section has Delay and Regeneration controls, while the Echo section has independent left and right Time and Level pots. Diffusion, Spread, Bass Boost, and Frequency get their own controls in the corner of the window.
The interface is well designed and makes it easy to understand how the various parameters interact. The clear and concise manual, which comes in printed and PDF formats, explains the parameters and presets in detail. If you're a novice, the manual is a good place to start.
Even better is Pantheon's great sound. Lexicon's engineers have genuinely instilled some of their trademark sound into the plug-in. I particularly liked its Lead Vocal Room and Chamber presets. I used them as starting points to create my own presets, which usually require short decay times. The plug in's bass boost was helpful when I ran into a preset that was a bit too bright.
Pantheon sounds good enough to add significant value to the Omega package. I wish there were an Audio Units or MAS version (I wasn't able to test Pantheon with one of the VST “wrappers,” such as FXPansion's VST-to Audio-Units-Adapter). But the supplied Cubase LE made it clear that Pantheon was an add-on worth singing about (and simulating the echo) from the top of Mt. Olympus.
desktop recording system
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 4
PROS: Compact and stable on desktop. Clean and quiet. Good mic pres. Four line ins. Preconverter 4-stage meters. Assignable USB channels. Assignable S/PDIF. Cubase LE and Pantheon Reverb included.
CONS: Small phantom-power and pad buttons on rear. Bulky. Some labels too small.
Analog Inputs(2) balanced XLR mic;
(4) ¼" TRS balanced/unbalanced line;
(2) ¼" TRS balanced/unbalanced insert;
(1) ¼" unbalanced instrumentAnalog Outputs(2) ¼" TRS balanced or unbalancedDigital Inputcoaxial RCA (S/PDIF)Digital Outputcoaxial RCA (S/PDIF format) always transmits the audio data from the USB streamMaximum Input Levelsmic: -2 dBu (150 source); line: +19 dBu (40 source); instrument: +19 dBuFrequency Response20 Hz-20 kHzTHD+N (20 Hz-20 kHz)mic: <.005%; line: <.012% A/D, <.012% A/D/A; instrument: <.0125% A/DCrosstalk<-74 dB, 20 Hz-20 kHz, <-95 dB at 1 kHz (typical)Output Level+19 dBu maximumOutput Impedance110Dynamic Range (20 Hz-20 Hz)101-118 dBUSBtype B socket, version 1.1 (version 1.1 hubs not supported)Dimensions4.62" (W) × 7.25" (H) × 7.75" (D)Weight2.65 lbs.