The Novation nio 2|4 offers two input channels, four output channels, latency-free hardware monitoring, and FX Rack software with practically latency-free software monitoring.
The interface market is rife with portable, bus-powered USB units. The affordable 2-input, 4-output Novation nio 2|4 ($199) intends to leap ahead of the pack by adding a complete complement of latency-free effects and guitar amp simulations.
The unit resembles a paperback-size mixer. It sports eight dials and five switches on its top. The front panel features dual headphone jacks and a ¼-inch TS jack for a guitar or mic-level input, and the rear panel includes an XLR jack for microphones, MIDI In and Out connectors, and RCA unbalanced connectors for line inputs and two sets of stereo outputs (Outputs 1-2 and Outputs 3-4). The rear panel also houses the USB port.
Switches on the right side of the unit toggle input 1 between mic (rear XLR) and line (rear RCA) and input 2 between mic (front TS), instrument (front TS), and line (rear RCA). The rear XLR input supplies phantom power. You can use both inputs simultaneously, and if you flip the Input switch to Stereo, it pans the inputs hard left and hard right. (Otherwise, the active input signals will be summed to mono.) Although the hardware offers four input jacks, the unit sends only one input pair to your recording software.
The nio manages to squeeze an impressive array of I/O into a tiny package by putting the line inputs and outputs on RCA connectors. However, nearly all line-level devices and powered monitors use balanced 1/4-inch connectors. That usually requires you to use adapters or specialized cables. I would prefer having 1/4-inch connectors even if it meant having less I/O. On the other hand, laptop DJs will find the RCA jacks of the line inputs and outputs perfect for CD players and DJ mixers and monitors.
You get quite a variety of mixing and metering options. You can assign two 7-LED meters to display either Inputs 1-2 or Outputs 1-2. Many personal USB interfaces include little more than a signal and a clip LED, so I consider the addition of hardware meters a real bonus. I do wish the LEDs had scale labels other than Clip for the top LED, but even without scales they are quite useful for setting good levels.
You adjust the gain of both inputs and both sets of outputs with top panel knobs. You can send a mix to either set of outputs as well as to the headphones. The monitor section lets you blend the two output mixes into one monitor mix and dial in the amount of input signal you want to monitor directly through the hardware. You can, therefore, combine near-zero-latency hardware monitoring with blending of your output mixes. This level of flexibility is lacking in most units other than self-recording USB devices.
The FX Rack, with its DirectFX technology multi-effects engine, is one of the nio's best features. (The nio also ships with Novation's Xcite+ software bundle.) You can add or remove individual effects from the FX Rack at will, and you can save and load settings for entire racks as well as for individual effects. The FX Rack ships with a number of useful presets.
Novation explains that its effects are integrated into the driver software, which allows them to be used with practically zero latency. My experience bears this out — there are no software buffers to be adjusted in any preferences, and I could create and play through any number of effects in the FX Rack without any perceptible latency.
When you activate the FX Rack, Outputs 3-4 are no longer available to your audio software; they are used as the return monitor path for the latency-free processed inputs. However, the rack software does let you choose whether to send a processed or unprocessed signal to your audio software. That lets you record through the FX Rack or use it just for monitoring. You cannot, however, choose to send an unprocessed mic signal together with a processed guitar signal — all inputs are either processed or unprocessed.
The FX Rack effects are grouped into four categories. The Classic Novation effects are chorus, delay, phaser, filter, and tremolo. Overloud effects include the amp models (Marshall, Fender, Mesa, and Vox) and distortion-pedal simulations. You get four Focusrite effects: compressor, EQ, gate, and reverb. Finally, you have the nio effects Hot Tuna (a turner) and Smart Hum Killer (a noise gate).
I especially liked the Focusrite compressor and reverb as well as the distortion pedal and Marshall-amp emulations (see Web Clip 1). The delay also sounds quite good. Furthermore, all the effects are usable, and monitoring through latency-free effects while sending a dry signal to your DAW lets you play through effects when recording and then mix using more expensive (and latency-inducing) effects later. If you are looking for an interface for personal recording, the Novation nio 2|4 has a lot to recommend it.
Value (1 through 5): 3