Rain Audio + Presonus + Sonar 4 + BenQ

I’ve been using Macs since the mid-’80s. I’ve rarely used a PC. I’ve done a few projects recently where the client brought his Windows/Pro Tools rig into the studio for outputting for mixing. But that was minimal interaction with the platform. I admit I’ve never really given Windows a chance as a platform for serious audio production. So why am I reviewing a product like this?
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Because I think that I’m uniquely qualified to experience the whole package with a fresh outlook. I’ve been noticing how many great recording/mastering/sampling/soft-synth tools there are out there that are PC only. I’ve also noticed how inexpensive and powerful PC hardware has become. It was time to put my biases aside and learn something new.

The Rain Element is a customizable, pre-configured audio production PC (see sidebar for specs). According to the press release it’s been optimized for high performance applications and each component has been handpicked, matched, and tested for peak efficiency in the recording and mixing environments. I cannot dispute this claim since I did not take the box apart and test each component, so I’ll take their word for it.

The first thing that I did notice was that the unit ran cool and super quiet. I had the attractive brushed aluminum alloy tower on my desk inches away and could barely tell it was booted up — except for the cool blue light glowing behind the Rain logo panel on the front.

The front panel on the standard tower-sized Element has a door that conceals the CD/DVD drive, an 1/8" mic input, 1/8" headphone output, a FireWire port, two USB ports, and a floppy drive. I cannot remember the last time I needed a floppy drive, but maybe there are PC applications that still require them. It is a nice convenience to have easily accessible ports on the front but the door opened the opposite way that I needed it to. Not so convenient. I guess I needed to specify the “left-handed” model.

But back to putting my biases on hold and learning something new.

The first thing I learned was that the learning curve for figuring everything out was a bit steeper than I had imagined. I needed to work out some basic Windows navigation issues before I could dig into the preloaded software goodies. The Rain Element that I received for review was custom loaded with Cakewalk Sonar 4 Producer Edition and Cakewalk Project 5.

I had never seen Cakewalk’s Sonar (any version) in person. I’ve only read about it. In fact, Craig Anderton wrote an excellent, detailed review of the software in the January 2005 issue of this magazine. (You can find it at eqmag.com.) Since I was reviewing a demo model, no manuals came in the box. The Sonar representative was kind enough to send me a thick, comprehensive tome that came in very handy. Thank you.

Sonar 4 was actually pretty easy to figure out on a simple level. As soon as I stopped trying to get it to behave like Pro Tools, the logic revealed itself to me. I really only wanted to get sound in and out in a clean and efficient manner to put the Rain PC to task. For this exercise Sonar 4 worked like a charm. And the main reason I got sound in and out so charmingly: the Presonus Firepod FireWire interface!

The Rain team bundled three 8-channel Firepods with my review package. Smart move. I took these 8-channel mic pres out of their boxes, stacked them in a rack, daisy chained them together into one of the many Rain FireWire ports, and they were immediately recognized and ready to go. The Rain guys had already loaded the drivers.

My life suddenly seemed simple.

The Firepods are one of the many interfaces that Rain can customize your package with. These FireWire interfaces are not only easy to deal with, they also sound great. I must plug another review that the esteemed Mr. Anderton wrote in the May 2005 issue of this magazine. (You can search Presonus Firepod on eqmag.com.) I stand behind everything that he wrote. The Firepods sound good and clean and for the price, simplicity, and portability you may not be able to beat them.

But I needed to put the Rain Element package to the test: multitrack recording.

I took the rack of Firepods, the Rain Element tower, and one of the beautiful 19" BenQ 937s LCD monitors that Rain had bundled with the package for this trial. As a side note, I need to plug the BenQ monitors. They are crisp and clean and so easy on the eyes that I would recommend that you check them out if you are in the market for a new monitor. They are PC/Mac compatible with analog and digital inputs and they only run about $350. It was also very easy to put in its box and bring to my buddy’s rehearsal space with all the other stuff.

Anyway I needed a quick and painless way to test this gear. My friend’s band is an instrumental avant-garbage improv outfit with some rather traditional instrumentation of two guitars, bass, and drums, and everyone has pedals and cables and odd boxes all over the place. They set up this impromptu session for me with the hopes that we might actually capture something interesting. Though I wanted to stretch the limits of the Rain/Sonar and the Firepod system, I was hard pressed to get 12 mics up. It would have to do. We hooked up a FireWire drive just in case the most amazing thing happened or in case something went wrong we would have the files saved separately from the internal hard drive in the Element.

After what seemed like days of futzing with the mics and checking levels by recording small snippets and listening back with headphones, we got relatively decent sounds. The band played for a couple hours and the Rain box and Sonar never broke a sweat. Nothing blew up. But the recording didn’t sound that good. Oh well. Not the equipment’s fault. It was a fine document of the moment but maybe no one should ever be subjected to listening to it. The point was made though: The system worked like a champ — right out of the box.

And the portability aspect of this setup was very appealing. I can imagine that using the Firepod rack with a laptop for live/mobile recording would be a breeze. This is something to seriously consider since Rain also does custom laptop configurations.

So if you need a stable system but don’t have the time to shop around for custom components, or the time to remove unnecessary non-audio apps and features from an off-the-shelf PC that could bog your system down, or the patience to load software and drivers, or do the research that it takes to get exactly what you need, you should talk to the people at Rain Recording. The Rain team stands behind every one of their products. The service desk was extremely prompt and helpful. They provide free tech service and encourage their customers to use them as a resource for anything relating to digital audio production.

That being said: I am still a die-hard Mac/ProTools user. I started using ProTools professionally when it was 4-track, and probably won’t be switching anytime soon. I understand Sonar 4 but I don’t love it. And I still don’t like Windows. But ultimately, these are just tools. However and whatever you use to get your sonic point across doesn’t matter. The point is to get it across. Many years ago in my first computer class in college the professor said on the first day, “Don’t be intimidated by the computer. It’s just an expensive pencil.”

Indeed.