Although the market is flush these days with compact audio interfaces, most offer up only a couple channels of I/O and very little in the way of multichannel digital connections. A handful of units, however, such as the new M-Audio FireWire 1814, are now able to house multiple channels of analog and digital I/O, MIDI I/O, word clock and more in a compact, laptop-friendly design.The 1814, like its name suggests, is capable of 18 input and 14 output channels, using a combination of analog and digital connections. The unit works with both Macs and PCs via FireWire and can derive power from the host computer. Measuring slightly larger than a VHS cassette, the 1814 is designed for portability, and its sturdy build suggests that it can withstand a long life of use out in the elements — whatever those might be.UNWRAPPEDAt first look, many users may not be aware of just how much you can do with this unit. The front panel includes two mic preamps with combination XLR/¼-inch connections. These two inputs will also accept instrument-level inputs, so you can plug a guitar or a bass right in. The two mic pres also each include a Gain knob, a 20dB Pad, a Mic/Line switch and Signal and Clip LEDs. The front panel also includes two ¼-inch headphone jacks with independently adjustable volume, LED signal indicators for each I/O, a master volume control, an A/B headphone source button, a Phantom Power switch and a power button. The rear panel houses the majority of the I/O, and it includes eight unbalanced ¼-inch inputs; four balanced/unbalanced ¼-inch outputs; combination ADAT/stereo S/PDIF I/O; two FireWire ports; a multipin breakout connection with 16 channels of MIDI I/O, word-clock I/O and RCA S/PDIF I/O; and an optional 9V power-supply jack.The unit is constructed of a combination of steel and high-impact plastic, continuing the silver-on-gray motif of M-Audio's other FireWire-based products. As stated previously, the unit exudes sturdiness; all of the knobs feel firmly attached and turn with just the right amount of resistance — you're not likely to change your gain setting by lightly brushing the knob. Furthermore, each of the buttons makes a reassuring thud when pushed in.JUST PLUG IT INI tested the FireWire 1814 with a Mac G4/1GHz PowerBook running Apple Logic 6.3, Propellerhead Reason 2.5 and Ableton Live 4. For audio recording, I also patched a LaCie 160GB FireWire hard drive into the same FireWire bus as the 1814. The 1814 does ship with a routing application that allows you to set up the unit based on your specific needs — for example, with this, you can specify what signal goes to headphone source A or headphone source B and so forth. Overall, installation was a lesson in simplicity. I easily pulled down the latest drivers from the M-Audio Website, clicked on Install and was essentially underway.Once the drivers are installed, you'll need to power down the computer, connect the FireWire cable, press the power switch on the 1814 and then restart the computer. The power button actually proved rather curious, as I couldn't really find much purpose for it. If I turned off the unit while the computer was running, the entire system crashed. And if I tried to power up the unit while the computer was already on, nothing happened — that is, the computer couldn't see it. Obviously, if you're using external power for the 1814, the inclusion of the power button makes perfect sense. But in most situations, in which the unit is getting power from the host computer, it's best to just leave it in the on position. (M-Audio does have a new family of FireWire drivers that address these power-button issues as well as a few other minor bugs. The new drivers should be available by the time you read this review. Please check the company Website for the latest.)IN USEI first used the FireWire 1814 and its companion piece, the Octane (see the sidebar “On the Front Side”), on a lengthy drum recording session in my rehearsal space. Using a combination of dynamic and condenser microphones, I routed seven channels of audio via ADAT from the Octane to the 1814. The green ADAT level indicator on the 1814 immediately lit up once audio was passing through the unit. And while recording, I was also able to send the drummer a click track and a monitor mix, and both units performed without a hitch. Both the drummer and I were shocked at how clear and uncolored the tracks turned out.From there, I packed up the unit with my laptop and took it back to my studio, where I used the 1814 as a front end and direct box for some guitar recording. I planned to re-amp the guitar tracks, so all I needed was a clean, punchy signal, which is exactly what I got. I simply plugged a Gibson SG right into the first front-panel mic pre/input, played with the gain for a second and got to it. The resulting signal had plenty of body and virtually no added noise. The only noise I could detect probably had more to do with the guitar picking up interference from a CRT display than anything the unit added to the sound. Overall, the 1814 is extremely clean-sounding and a real breeze to use.OVER AND OUTWith the exception of the quirky power button, the M-Audio FireWire 1814 is a solid and easy-to-use piece. For those of you who need word-clock and MIDI I/O, the unit performs flawlessly. I even pulled out my old ADAT and striped in a few Reason tracks for good measure. But the majority of users are going to use the 1814 as a portable, transparent-sounding front end, and in that regard, the company nails it. Overall, the unit comes in just under some competing rackmount units, and if your laptop has enough sauce that you can do without additional DSP (and most do), the 1814 is a great buy that will be part of your studio for years to come.Product SummaryM-AUDIOFIREWIRE 1814 > $749.05Pros: Solidly built, portable audio and MIDI interface. Clean-sounding. Easy to use. Plenty of I/O options.Cons: Troublesome power button.Contact:www.m-audio.comSystem RequirementsMac: G3/800 or G4/733; 256 MB RAM (512 MB RAM with Mac OS 10.3 or higher); Mac OS 9.2.2/10.2.8/10.3PC: Pentium III/800; 256 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XPON THE FRONT SIDEFor some time now, a buzz has been brewing about the advent of the mixerless studio. And with products such as the M-Audio Octane ($749.95), this has largely become a reality. Boasting eight mic pres (with selectable low-cut filter on inputs 1 and 2), two instrument-level inputs, phase reverse on the even-numbered channels, eight line ins/direct outs, word-clock I/O and an ADAT output, the Octane is the perfect front end for users who need to track drums or small bands. Given its 2-rackspace design, users could easily rackmount the Octane, an audio interface, an external hard drive and a power conditioner into a roadcase and have a portable yet professional-sounding location-recording rig.I used the Octane in conjunction with the FireWire 1814 — routing multiple channels of audio via ADAT at 48 kHz — on a recent drum session. I miked up the kit with a combination of close mics and a stereo x-y overhead. The Octane provided more than enough gain all the way around with virtually no added noise or coloration. In one instance, I set the overheads higher above the kit than normal and had to crank the gain all the way up to get enough signal. Even with the gain pegged, the unit was still essentially transparent. Overall, the combination of the Octane and the 1814 was a pleasure to work with. If you already have an A/D interface that accepts eight channels of analog or ADAT audio, the Octane is an affordable and elegant way to augment your rig with eight excellent-sounding preamps.
MANY IN, MANY OUT >The FireWire 1814 houses 18 input and 14 output channels in a box that is clearly designed for recording on the go.
EXTRA I/O >The back panel of the FireWire 1814 includes eight unbalanced 1⁄4-inch inputs, four 1⁄4-inch balanced/unbalanced outputs, ADAT/stereo S/PDIF I/O, two FireWire ports and a 9V power jack. The multipin breakout connection adds 16 channels of MIDI I/O, RCA S/PDIF I/O and word-clock I/O.