PreSonus FirePod

Strat vs. Les Paul. Mac vs. PC. Analog vs. digital. Great taste vs. less filling. And now, add USB vs. FireWire to these classic matchups.

That debate used to fall along religious lines. The Cult of the Macintosh prayed to the FireWire gods, as Macs were early adopters of FireWire. Meanwhile, the Order of the Microsoft tended to believe in USB. But those days are pretty much gone. PCs, if they don’t already come with FireWire, can be outfitted with it for under $25. And modern Macs and PCs both come with USB ports.

So it’s not surprising that the PreSonus FirePod is a cross-platform FireWire interface that’s equally at home with Mac or Windows, and even ships with cross-platform sequencing software — Cubase LE. (Note that unlike the mLAN-friendly PreSonus FireStation, PreSonus has rolled their own ASIO/WDM/Core Audio FireWire drivers.)

So why the extended intro? Because I’m doing a one-page review, and when everything works like it’s supposed to, there’s just not much to say. I loaded the supplied drivers from the CD, clicked on the FirePod system tray icon to optimize performance for my CPU, plugged in the FireWire cable to a FireWire card, and every program I loaded recognized the ins and outs. With Sonar 4 using WDM, my system coped fine with 3ms of latency; ASIO didn’t fare as well, though, yielding 6ms with Sonar and Cubase SX3. (Trying to run below 6ms with Cubase gave clicks and pops, but froze Sonar.)

So I plugged in a mic, and it sounded good. Really good, actually; nice headroom, good definition, and no significant noise. And, there are front-panel gain controls (although no pad or low-cut switches). I then plugged a guitar into the instrument input . . . clean and clear. How about line outs from synth? Yup, that worked too. Now this is the kind of boredom I like: No system crashes, no “Device not recognized,” no time spent having to find and download new drivers.

There are some nice touches. The send/return connections for channels 1 and 2 are balanced, not unbalanced TRS. The gain controls are click-detented. Construction is metal and rugged. And, a mix control can dial in a blend of the main outs and the eight ins for zero-latency monitoring. It’s a bummer that you can monitor only the first two of the eight outs, although personally, I tend to run everything in my DAW down to two outs anyway. Clearly, the other outs are for when you’re using the FirePod as more than a self-contained system.

Well, not a whole lot. But let’s try this: No ADAT out. I mean, wouldn’t it be kinda cool to have this if you wanted to go into an ADAT-compatible hard disk recorder or a digital mixer instead of a computer? Okay, it’s a FireWire interface, but a little extra functionality wouldn’t hurt. Besides, you could also use the same optical out to provide optical S/PDIF. In any event, the FirePod can also serve as a 10 x 2 mixer (8 analog + S/PDIF), even without a computer, so that’s a plus. I also wish that the latency under ASIO was as low as with WDM, but hey, that’s what driver updates on the Web are for . . . right?

What makes the FirePod interesting is that yes, it’s a computer interface, but it also has enough mixing options — from serving as an analog mixer to being able to handle your DAW ins, outs, and monitoring — that it’s well suited for mobile, or at least portable, recording. And there’s no denying that it sounds very good. In that niche between simple USB interfaces with limited I/O and do-all FireWire interfaces that are overkill for many situations, PreSonus has found a sweet spot.