M-Audio Firewire 410 + Focusrite Saffire

To make a great recording, you need great monitors. Bottom line.

The lights go down in the arena and the low rumble of the orchestra indicates impending doom.

[cue : low, throaty, generic, high-drama voice talent]

“In a world . . . full of Firewire interfaces . . . the axis of evil meets for a final battle. . . . The victor will emerge as the leader of the new race of super interfaces . . . ready to conquer the mix at hand.”

[cue : flashpots, sirens and strobe lights]

And just like pro wrestling, we start the long time periods between drama peaks.

Yeah yeah, but what both of these boxes have in common is the basic function of being Firewire interfaces that allow 2-channel recording into the computer and eight outputs for mixing. So I’m thinking this is a great little box for the home studio/musician that wants to mix (potentially) in 5.1. Both boxes have two XLR mic inputs (with switchable phantom power) and two line inputs. The M-Audio device has a dual Neutrik XLR with a jack in the center. Very handy, however, these are for mic input and instrument input, respectively. This is cool, except when running line level to these, it tends to overload the mic pre. There is a line input on the back of the unit though, which is good, but somewhat inconvenient. There’s a switch on the front that allows you to choose between mic/instrument or line level input. There’s another switch that puts a –20dB pad in line, but even with the pad, the front input doesn’t like a line level signal. An LED on the front will indicate signal present and another LED will indicate clipping.

The Focusrite, on the other hand, has two XLR for mics and two 1/4" jacks with a switch to change the 1/4" from instrument to line input. No pad is available on this model. The 3-LED meter indicates signal at –20, –6 and clipping. Both units have MIDI I/O and S/PDIF I/O. The M-Audio has additional support for lightpipe I/O supporting AC3 and DTS! Both boxes have eight analog outputs for multiple channel monitoring or surround monitoring up to 7.1. The M-Audio device has signal indicators for each of the eight outputs on the front of the unit. The Focusrite has no hardware output metering. Both units have two headphone outputs on the front with individual volume control and overall volume control for the analog outs via one knob. The Focusrite has additional switches for dimming and muting. So basically, with a few minor feature variations, these boxes are essentially the same.

And for recording purposes, both boxes do the job well. The mic pres are professional quality and clean. They do sound different but it’s hard to pin down exactly what the difference is. They each have certain characteristics in frequency for various types of input. It’s enough to say that they are both great on the input side. There is a BIG difference though: the M-Audio box does 24 bit to 96K where the Focusrite pushes up to 192K for recording. The other big difference is that the M-Audio device is unbalanced on the I/O and the Focusrite is fully balanced.

The physical appearances of these boxes are a bit deceiving. The M-Audio is a bright, shiny, metal, flat box with some weight to it and a chrome finish, while the Focusrite is lighter, stands upright and has a white, plastic front. The output jacks on the Focusrite are nice, solid jacks with a bolt holding them still. The M-Audio jacks are free floating and could potentially fail quicker due to this mounting method.

But let’s talk about installation. Both boxes have their own set of quirks on the install side. The M-Audio unit comes with a sticker over the Firewire hole that warns you to install the software first before connecting and not to connect it until you are instructed to do so, otherwise a nun will appear and slap you silly! You’re supposed to insert the CD and let it guide you. My problem is that I’ve got my computer set so that inserted CDs just sit there until I tell it to do something. Thinking that I just need to install the driver, I skip to the driver subfolder and I don’t see the 410 listed. The quick start guide says to look to the user manual for additional instruction. The user manual has me search for a file that doesn’t exist on the install CD. So I’m frustrated and just click on the autorun.exe and everything works fine. If only I just operated my computer the way everyone else does, I wouldn’t get into these pickles.

The Saffire has two sub folders labeled PC and MAC and within is a single file for install. Now that’s more like it! UNTIL . . . you’re asked if you want to install the plug-ins. This creates a registration file with no instruction on what to do with it. Of course, if my studio computer were connected to the Internet, I wouldn’t get into these muddles. So I look to the manual and find out that I need to register this on the Focusrite website. I go to the website and find out that I need to upload this file. I do. Now I’m asked to download a file. It looks like the same file I just uploaded, but with a slightly different extension. “Now what should I do?” I ask, and there is a button to push to reveal the information on what to do next. However, the pop-up box isn’t big enough to show all the FAQs and the info I need to read is at the bottom of the box and there’s no way to resize it!

So I search their knowledge base and find out that I need to upload this file to my computer when it asks for it, during the registration process. I look for registration on the software control panel and can’t find it anywhere. So I decide to uninstall the software and reinstall. On reinstall I finally figure out that the registration process happens during the installation of the plug-ins. The button that says, “read license” means “push me and I will read the license file that you got from our website.” I can’t help but play back the Seinfeld episode where Kramer is trying to manually run the film listing guide via his home phone and a newspaper, but can’t tell what button someone pressed, so he just says, “why don’t you just TELL me what film you want to see?”

See what happened? The battle with these interfaces started right out of the box (actually right on the box)! I was a little dismayed to see the words “Engineer Built-In” on the cover of the Saffire box. What does this mean exactly? I was afraid to open it in case a little gremlin might pop out and run amok in the studio chewing on wires and loudly proclaiming opinions. When dealing with the Focusrite, the interface is quite cryptic to this old school engineer type, but it might be just flashy enough for the hip, indie musician. Once I read the manual, I was able to understand it better. The software interface for the M-Audio is straightforward and uses terms and screens that make sense to this seasoned engineer. I got my mixer, my outputs my sync page, my routing, looks like a console. DONE!

The plug-ins that come with the Focusrite are Reverb, Compression, EQ and Amp Simulation. These run natively on the box itself so no additional computer processing is needed. Each plug-in also has presets. The compression has a slider that says vocal, bass, electric guitar, strings, percussion, and so on. The EQ has similar settings. This is what “Engineer Built-In” means! If you don’t have any idea how to set a compressor, you just chose the instrument you are recording. You’re not set with just these options though, each plug-in can be set to manual mode for precise control over all the parameters.

I was intrigued by the amp simulator, which has the choice of Bass, British, American and Combo settings. They sound pretty good, but have the same downside that any simulator has and that is the lack of air and room that only comes from a mic on a cabinet in a real room. All in all, some useful plug-ins — decent reverb, nice compression, cool parametric EQ, but none of them are 5.1 capable.

So who wins this battle?

I think it’s a toss up. Both boxes do basically the same thing. The Focusrite leans toward the quality side in construction and actual recording specs. It comes with Cubase LE and will work with just about any software out there except Pro Tools. You also have the added bonus of VST plug-ins that are useful. The M-Audio interface is less expensive and rightly so in that it doesn’t have the plug-in architecture nor the 192K recording (if you really care). It comes with Ableton Live LE but also has the added bonus of working with any other software out there even Pro Tools! It’s a special version of Pro Tools that has the moniker “M-Powered” attached to it, but it’s fully compatible with other Pro Tools systems.

Do you know that this means? It’s like the tunnel that Hogan built to get out of Stalag 13! The world really is starting to come up roses. So the M-Audio device is the first device that is truly world compatible. That means a lot in my book, but I still think this battle ends in a tie. The scale doesn’t tip one way or the other for me. [M-Audio Firewire 410 $399.95, Focusrite Saffire $499.]