The Zen Tour is a portable Thunderbolt/USB 2.0 audio interface that makes an impressive front end for a studio or mobile-DAW setup. Capable of handling 26 inputs and 36 outputs, it combines excellent sound quality with a large collection of built-in DSP-based effects, and it is essentially latency free.
TOUR OF THE ZEN
Designed for the desktop, the Zen Tour is just 10" wide by 6.6" deep. The front-panel analog I/O includes four balanced, 1/4" instrument/line inputs, two 1/4" re-amp outputs—a real bonus if you record guitar—and two independently addressable 1/4" stereo headphone outputs.
Around the back are four mic/line inputs and two 1/4" output pairs. The latter allows you to feed two sets of monitors, which you can switch between from the main unit, from the software control panel or using the iOS control app. To maintain the compact footprint, Antelope put the additional eight line outs on a DB25 connector, so factor in the purchase of a DB25 snake if you want to access them.
The Zen Tour’s digital connections consist of a pair of ADAT I/O that, together, can handle up 16 channels, as well as S/PDIF I/O on coaxial jacks.
The top panel includes a button to activate the built-in talkback mic, a Gain button for quickly accessing level controls, and a large knob for making adjustments. The multifunction touchscreen accesses input and output meters, I/O level controls and various other functions—though not the built-in effects or routing. Because the display is roughly 2.75" by 2", you have to navigate through nested screens to reach those functions. Nonetheless, the unit is well-designed and easy to operate.
You can connect the Zen Tour to your computer via USB 2.0 or Thunderbolt. Even though Thunderbolt is faster than USB 2.0 and has more bandwidth, I discovered that both protocols offered the same latency-free user experience thanks the unit’s hardware-based FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) effects and mixing. The main difference is that Thunderbolt allows you to stream 32 channels of audio, whereas USB 2.0 gives you 24.
SOFTWARE CONTROL AND ROUTING
The Control Panel software is where you’ll interact most with the Zen Tour (Figure 1). Although it duplicates many of the functions available on the hardware unit, it offers a lot more. To access it, you open a program called the Zen Tour Launcher, which first checks for any updates and then opens the software Control Panel and connects it to the hardware.
The lower and larger section of the Control Panel’s GUI is switchable between four different pages, or Tabs—Routing, Mixer, Effects and Meters. The upper section shows the same controls no matter which Tab is open. These include level controls for each of the eight analog inputs and individual phantom power and phase-reverse buttons.
The upper section also provides eight knobs for the impressive, DSP-based Auraverb reverb, along with a variety of level controls, switches, and pulldown menus. You can even turn on and off the Talkback mic from the software, if you prefer.
The extremely flexible Routing Tab is the interface’s control center (Figure 2). From it you can configure signal flow for every aspect of the unit. No audio gets in or out until you correctly set up the routing.
The colorful screen has two main sections: From and To. Every analog and digital input and output is represented as color-coded, rectangular grid-points, including the recording inputs and playback outputs for Thunderbolt and USB, the input and output of the built-in effects and four separate, configurable mixes. You route signals out of the From section and into the To (and back), by dragging and dropping the rectangles of one onto another.
Simple as that sounds, I found the routing grid to be daunting, initially. There are so many options—including the need to route in and out of the effects engine—that if you make a mistake, you likely won’t hear any audio. The manual gives very little information on how to get started with the routing, although the Antelope website has some tutorial videos. That said, once I got over the initial learning process, it became progressively easier to use, and I found the Routing Tab to be a very potent tool.
You can save and load custom routings and access five of your presets right from the main screen. Once you start using the Zen Tour on a regular basis, you would likely want to develop routing presets for your various studio and gigging scenarios, so you wouldn’t have to create them from scratch each time. (It would be useful if Antelope included some basic factory presets for routing to help get new users up and running quickly. I also wish there was an easy way to reset the Routing tab to its default state.)
The Mixer Tab is simple and functional, with inputs on one side and outputs on the other. You can adjust volume, pan, solo and mute for each channel, link mono channels into stereo pairs, and use the Send knobs to feed the Auraverb.
The Meters Tab shows levels from one input or output category at a time, such as Preamps, ADAT in, Thunderbolt, or USB Playback. It is easy to configure and gives you a large readout with plenty of resolution for the meters.
Antelope’s free iOS app provides a lot of the functionality of the controls on the hardware unit. When it comes to setup, it’s not quite as plug-and-play as other hardware-controller apps I’ve tried. Depending on how your computer is configured, you might have to adjust certain Firewall and port settings to be able to get the app to recognize the Zen Tour.
THE POWER OF EFFECTS
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the Zen Tour is its collection of hardware-based FPGA effects. You can record through them to print the sound to your track, use them strictly for monitoring, or even insert them onto DAW channels if you configure the Zen Tour as an external effects device. (Antelope has an informative video about how to do this on its website.)
Except for Auraverb, whose many controls are always visible, you access the other effects through the Effects Tab. The categories include Guitar Amp, Guitar Cabinet, Vintage EQs and Vintage Compressors. Antelope also provides three of its own effects: EQ, Compressor and Power Gate. You can stack up to eight effects on a channel and access up to 16 channels of effects simultaneously.
Overall, the effects sound great. You get ten guitar-amp models with matching cabinets, which you can mix and match. Developed for Antelope by Overloud (who make the impressive TH3 amp and effects modeling software, a 2016 Editor’s Choice Award winner), they include models of amps by Fender, Marshall, Orange, Peavey, Mesa/Boogie, and Vox among others. Quality-wise, they’re on par with the better software-based amp modelers on the market.
Each of the cabinet models has two virtual microphones that you can position on the cabinet. There are four classic mics to choose from. A Rear Mic and 45 Degree mic can also be mixed in with the front pair.
Because there is virtually no latency when tracking through the Zen Tour, you can easily record guitar parts through its amp models. Or, you can record the guitar direct, without processing, and use one of Zen Tour’s Reamp outputs later to send it to a miked amp. Another option would be to record direct, and then insert one of the Zen Tour’s amp and cab models when mixing. If you’re a guitarist, or if you record a lot of guitarists, the flexibility that this setup offers is impressive.
The vintage gear emulations in the Effects section sound equally amazing. Compressor-wise, you get models based on classics such as the UREI 1176, Fairchild 670, and Empirical Labs Distressor, as well as obscure products such as the Gyraf Audio Gyratec X tube compressor. The vintage EQs include models based on the Neve 1073, 1023, and 1084; eight different flavors of SSL EQ; a Pultec; a Lang PEQ-2; and a number of others.
Because Antelope Audio periodically updates and adds effects to its FPGA-based interfaces through firmware updates, my wish list for additional effects includes some distortion-pedal models for guitar (not all of the amp models offer adjustable gain to control crunch and distortion) and a bass amp or two.
All told, the Zen Tour is an exceptional pro audio- quality interface. Though it is not inexpensive, you get incredible value for your money. For guitarists, in particular, Zen Tour is a dream interface, although any musician who records will enjoy using it.
Near zero latency. Pristine audio quality. Flexible routing. DSP models and effects. Reamp outputs. Effects can be accessed by your DAW on mixdown.
Could use factory routing presets. Needs better documentation. No bass-amp model.
Mike Levine is a composer, producer, and multiinstrumentalist from the New York area. Check out his website at www.michaelwilliamlevine.com.