If you are one of the many EM readers who want a good, portable, Mac-based recording rig, Apogee's Duet ($495) might be just the piece you're looking for. This small, bus-powered, FireWire 400 2-channel audio interface works with Macintosh G4 (1 GHz or faster), G5, and Intel models running Mac OS X 10.4.11 or later. It is incompatible with Windows PCs, however.
The Duet can simultaneously record and play two channels of up to 24-bit, 96 kHz audio. Current versions of Apple Logic Pro, Soundtrack Pro, and GarageBand directly support the Duet, and it is compatible with any Mac application that supports Core Audio.
The Duet is designed to sit next to a MacBook or MacBook Pro. The rounded edges, solid aluminum casing, and elegant, minimalist design make it look very much like an Apple product. At 6.3 × 4 × 1.5 inches, the unit is compact enough to fit neatly into a laptop case along with a pair of small, collapsible headphones.
IN, OUT, AND ABOUT
The front panel presents a ¼-inch headphone jack and a pair of LEDs that indicate whether phantom power is active, while the rear panel sports the FireWire 400 port and a DB15 connector that attaches to a breakout cable. The cable fans out to six jacks on separate 18-inch cables: two balanced XLR mic/line inputs; two unbalanced ¼-inch high-impedance instrument inputs; and two unbalanced -10 dBV ¼-inch line outputs. (Unfortunately, the outputs cannot be configured for +4 dBu operation.) The breakout cable is as ungainly as the primary unit is elegant; I would have preferred a single multicore cable terminating in a small breakout box that held the I/O connections. (According to Apogee, the company prototyped a breakout box and found the fan-tail cable to be more portable and compact.)
The Duet's elegantly simple design is epitomized by its single user-interface device, a large, continuously rotating aluminum knob. All input, output, and MIDI-controller settings are controlled from this one encoder. Pressing down on the knob scrolls forward through the list of devices to control in the provided Maestro configuration software. The currently controlled device shows up briefly as a standardized Mac audio icon at the bottom of your computer screen. My wish list for future development includes the ability to scroll backward through the device list by pressing a modifier key while pushing the knob.
The Duet's control knob can also be configured to operate as a MIDI continuous-controller wheel. Up to four separate controller numbers can be assigned to the wheel. When configured, they are selected for operation by pressing down on the control knob until the desired controller number appears. The wheel can be used during mixdown to control a channel's level, pan, and other parameters. A pair of 7-segment LED ladders above the knob indicate the left and right input or output levels.
HIT IT, MAESTRO
Maestro is a simple, straightforward configuration program for Apogee's current line of products, and it allows you to set up your Duet preferences. Maestro's mixer page enables low-latency monitoring by routing the input signal to the outputs in tandem with your DAW output. You also select 48V phantom power and phase inversion with Maestro. The mixer page includes mutes, solos, and over indicators, and it let me overdub tracks right in time with material coming back from Logic Pro.
I tested the Duet by recording a variety of sources at 24-bit, 96 kHz using a 2 GHz Power Mac G5 and a 17-inch MacBook Pro, each running Logic 8.0.1. In one test, I recorded a Mason and Hamlin grand piano at a distance of 4 feet through a pair of Coles 4038 ribbon mics. The sound was absolutely gorgeous, with a well-balanced frequency spread and a lot of depth. The mic preamps were detailed and colorless. Ribbon mics require a lot of gain, and a bit of preamp hiss was noticeable in the piano tracks, though it would not be noticed in a mix with other instruments. I also recorded percussion, voice, and metallic sounds through a Neumann TLM 103 large-diaphragm condenser mic. This mic required much less gain, and as a result, preamp hiss was inaudible.
I compared the analog headphone output on my Mac G5 desktop machine with the Duet's headphone out using a trusted pair of AKG K240 cans and my gold-standard reference: Steely Dan's Two Against Nature CD. The G5's headphone output is fairly respectable, but the Duet won this duel handily. The Duet's stereo imaging was pinpoint accurate, the reverb felt much more present and enveloping, and I enjoyed hearing the thickening in the lower mids.
The Duet is an outstanding product, providing excellent sound quality; simple, straightforward operation; and high-resolution audio in a small, affordable, bus-powered package. Sure, I have a few small quibbles, but what's not to love? Nice job, Apogee.
Value (1 through 5): 4
Apogee Duet tech-support videos and users guide