Sometimes computers seem as unpredictable as the weather. Any DAW forum has some people claiming their software is useless, while others say “works great for me.” So what’s the variable? The hardware—especially with Windows computers, which resemble a combination lock. The right combination gives performance and cost-effectiveness, but if one of those tumblers is off . . .
The Concept RainPAK takes a leaf from the Mac’s playbook—create a solid, predictable hardware ecosystem, then build software around that. However, RainPAK takes the concept further by including an audio interface, DAW software, and US-based tech support.
There are several different RainPAK systems: laptop, desktop, or rack server-type enclosure. The Steinberg Pro Audio RainPAK (reviewed here) may seem pricey at about $3,000 (all prices given are street prices), however that includes the ION A2 rackmount computer, a full version of Cubase 7 ($500), Steinberg UR824 USB 2.0 interface ($800), Steinberg CMC-TP USB transport controller ($100), 3-year warranty, and tech support. Do the math; the RainPAK is cost-effective.
Users also get three “Ensemble Plug & Play” sessions, where Rain can log in remotely and optimize the system for a particular combination of hardware and software—not just the software around which the system was based. This is huge.
The ION A2 The computer is serious: quad-core Intel Core i5 3470, 8GB RAM, dual Thunderbolt ports, 8 USB 3.0 ports (two on the front panel), 4 USB 2.0 ports, HDMI, surround audio, ethernet, and both VGA and DVI video. There’s no FireWire, but you can use a Thunderbolt adapter or insert a card into one of the many slots (including a standard PCI slot).
The operating system is 64-bit Windows 8, and while I initially didn’t warm up to it, I had to use it, and now I’m now finding it’s actually pretty cool. Furthermore, you get a real OS disc, not some “restore” disc as found with many off-the-shelf computers. Also worth noting: The computer is very quiet (despite multiple fans), and the aluminum keyboard is sturdy—and shiny!
For storage, there’s an internal 1TB boot drive, and an optical drive. This computer is clearly designed to allow for lots of external devices, whether it’s data hard drives, interfaces, control surfaces, etc. However, there’s room for three more internal drives.
Using RainPAK This is the most boring part of the RainPAK: Hook up UR824 audio interface. Open Cubase 7. Make music.
The UR824 has six rear-panel mic/line inputs using Neutrik combo connectors, two front-panel ins that also accommodate instruments, individual pads, and switchable +48 phantom power for input pairs. Eight line outs use TRS 1/4" balanced jacks; you’ll also find dual ADAT optical I/O (capable of SMUX mode for up to 96kHz sample rates). There’s no 5-pin DIN MIDI I/O—a curious omission, considering Cubase’s mighty MIDI editing—but MIDI over USB is common these days, and USB to 5-pin adapters are easy to find.
Conclusions The RainPAK is indeed a turnkey system, and more are on the way. (There are already versions for PreSonus Studio One Pro.) I’d like to be able to comment on whether their customer service is any good, but it all went together and worked as expected—Rain has done an excellent job of taking the pain out of music computers.
STRENGTHS: True plug-and-play bundle. Cost-effective compared to buying each element separately. Extensive, US-based support. Well-chosen computer hardware. Lots of I/O, including dual Thunderbolt ports.
LIMITATIONS: UR824 interface lacks 5-pin DIN MIDI I/O. Only one internal hard drive. Optical drive doesn’t handle Blu-Ray.