Recording, sequencing, effects, and mixing via USB.
Roland ED's U-8 USB Digital Studio taps the potential of the universal serial bus in more ways than any other device. It combines an audio interface, a MIDI interface, and a hardware control surface for digital audio-sequencing software, passing the data from all three to and from your computer through the USB port. The U-8 weighs less than 5 pounds and is about the size of a thick laptop, so it's a good companion for a USB-equipped notebook for traveling or remote recording.
With flexible analog-input options and digital I/O, the U-8 is certainly convenient, and Roland ED's inclusion of either Cakewalk's Home Studio 9 or Steinberg's Cubasis VST (your choice) makes the U-8 an interesting all-in-one starter package. Its novice-oriented features aren't perfect, but at least they don't get in the way of more seasoned users.
INS AND OUTSIn terms of audio, the U-8 is fundamentally a full-duplex stereo 16-bit, 44.1 kHz audio interface. It features 20-bit converters, but stores files in Windows at 16-bit resolution. Although Roland ED's documentation lists a Pentium II/300 MHz as a minimum system requirement for the U-8, I installed it on a Pentium II/266 MHz notebook without a hitch. I also successfully installed it on a Pentium III/450 MHz desktop computer.
On its left side panel, the U-8 has two unbalanced inputs, each of which is split into two options (see Fig. 1). Input A can be an XLR mic-level input or a 11/44-inch TRS line-level input. The unbalanced inputs, however, pose a problem for microphones that require a balanced connection. Input B can be a 11/44-inch TRS line-level input or a high-impedance 11/44-inch guitar input. Input A's 11/44-inch connector supersedes the XLR connector if you connect two devices. Similarly, input B's line-level 11/44-inch supersedes the guitar input. The left side panel also provides a 11/44-inch stereo headphone output, a pair of RCA aux inputs, and a pair of RCA main outputs.
A MIDI In and a MIDI Out port are located on the U-8's back panel, along with the optical S/PDIF connections. You can transfer 16-bit digital audio with or without SCMS. The power button and the USB, footswitch, and power-supply connections round out the back panel.
The control surface presents one master fader and eight channel faders. Above each channel fader is a clear button that glows different colors to indicate track status. On the console's right side, you'll find a data wheel and transport, data-entry, and cursor buttons. The trim, Effects/Mixer, and EZ Recording control sections appear along the top. A headphone-volume control knob is to the left of the fader bank. One nice touch is that every connection on the side and back panels has a top-panel label, letting you see at a glance what's connected.
THE SOFT SIDEThe U-8 comes bundled with your choice of Home Studio 9 or Cubasis VST. Both bundles include Roland ED's Virtual Sound Canvas 3.0 software synth, and the Cubasis bundle also includes WaveLab Lite. I checked out each bundle, and while both are reasonably well integrated with the hardware, they interact with it in slightly different ways.
Cakewalk's support for the U-8 is implemented through its StudioWare technology. Home Studio provides a StudioWare panel that looks and functions exactly like the U-8. Move a fader on the hardware, and the software fader moves with it. If the StudioWare panel isn't open, the hardware doesn't communicate with Home Studio. Cubasis sometimes recognizes the hardware with the VST Mixer window closed, but for consistent response, I had to keep the window open.
The U-8 Mixer (see Fig. 2) is a mixer applet that controls everything from audio routing to effects parameters. You call it up by pressing the Mixer button on the U-8's control surface or by selecting it from the Tools menu in Home Studio or Cubasis. The Mixer wants to stay on top, and if you minimize it, the only way to maximize it again is with the little minimized title bar at the bottom of your screen.
In the Mixer's Record section you select from four different recording sources: instrument inputs (A and B); aux input; master output, for creating a final mix; and effects return, for applying effects to existing tracks. If you select instrument inputs, you need to select them in the Input Inst channel strip. By clicking on the gold A+B button at the top of the strip, you can choose input A's Mic input, input B's Guitar input, both inputs as a stereo pair, or both inputs blended together as a mono input. Similarly, when you want to record from the aux inputs, you need to use the Input Aux strip's Aux+4 button to select from +4 dBu, -10 dBV, or digital inputs.
You can access the built-in hardware effects by clicking on the Mixer's Effect Window button, by pressing the control surface's Effects button, or by calling up the Effects Edit window through a menu in Home Studio or Cubasis. This window expands to a larger view (see Fig. 3) that provides controls for all effects parameter settings. Factory and user presets are available through the Patch Manager button.
EFFECTSThe U-8 features a decent selection of useful and good-sounding hardware effects, arranged in five multi-effect algorithms. These range from guitar-oriented settings to a "mastering" arrangement designed for finished mixes, and each "multi" setup offers a variety of interesting effects.
The usual time-based effects are well represented by phaser, chorus, delay, and reverb. The reverb offers hall, room, and plate settings, each with a reverb time of 0.1 to 38 sec. Additional reverb parameters include predelay and high-frequency damping, but the window offers no indication of the units of measure for these parameters. Predelay values range from 0 to 127, and high-frequency damping values from 0 to 15, but until you dig deep into the online documentation, you can only guess that the units are milliseconds and decibels, respectively. The Reverb section also has high- and low-tone, wet/dry mix, and level controls.
Other effects are similarly flexible, and with the 136 presets, finding the sound you're after doesn't take long. The Guitar algorithm includes sustain, distortion, auto wah, and speaker simulation, while the Vocal multi provides compression, simple de-essing, and equalization. The Lo-Fi Saturator in the Vocal multi can get a bit of street grit into your sound. One multi is devoted to Roland Sound Space, an effect designed to create the illusion of three-dimensional positioning. It's an intriguing effect that offers some potentially useful sounds, but I wasn't completely sold on the three-dimensional illusion.
Finally, the "mastering" multi combines an enhancer, an equalizer with high- and low-cut options and two fully parametric bands, a limiter, and a 2-band compressor. The compressor allows you to choose the crossover point separately for each channel and also lets you compress each band according to the level of its left channel, right channel, or a mix of the two. The compressor also provides control over threshold, ratio, attack, release, and makeup gain.
You can record dry while monitoring with effects if, for example, you'd like to hear a bit of friendly reverb during tracking but you want to reserve the option to change the effect at mixdown. It's not immediately apparent, however, that the Direct button enables this type of recording. My only other quibble about the U-8's effects is the lack of bypass, compare, or "restore default settings" functions, which make tweaking easier.
TAKE IT EZThe U-8 employs four wizards in its EZ Recording feature, initiated by dedicated buttons at the top of the control surface. The wizards behave a little differently depending on whether you're using Home Studio or Cubasis. Under Home Studio, the EZ Start wizard guides you through the process of opening a U-8 template. Because installation sets the U-8 template as the default template and the wizard won't run without the template's StudioWare panel, the wizard merely brings you back to where you started.
The next two buttons, Guitar/Inst and Mic, run slightly different versions of a more helpful wizard. An EZ Recording wizard takes you step-by-step through selecting inputs, arming a track, setting input sensitivity (trim), applying effects, and setting record levels. When the wizard exits, all you have to do to record is press the flashing Record button. One particularly nice touch is that the wizard's level meters are actually Home Studio console view meters, so not only do they respond the same, but you can also adjust them within a range of 24 to 90 dB.
The last wizard is EZ Mixdown, which leads you through the process of mixing down to an audio track or outboard recorder. Experienced Home Studio users would ordinarily reach for the Mixdown Audio/Bounce to Track(s) option, but selecting that would bypass the U-8's Effect Selection window.
Cubasis consolidates the wizards so that all four buttons bring up the same opening screen, from which the wizards branch out. This has the pleasant effect of bypassing the EZ Start wizard. From there the wizards follow the same process as they do under Home Studio, with one major exception: prior to initiating a wizard, you must select a track for recording and designate it as stereo if so desired. In Cakewalk, the wizard would arm a track for recording and set it to stereo input for you. Also, the Cubasis wizards don't provide input metering for setting record levels.
I suppose EZ Recording will come in handy for a novice trying to lay down some live guitar and vocal tracks, but the feature could use some refinement. EZ Start under Home Studio is likely to confuse more than it helps, and when Cubasis users get the same response from all four buttons, they'll think something's wrong. There's no wizard for recording from the aux inputs, and having to select a track before starting the wizard under Cubasis falls just short of being truly EZ. Another strange phenomenon is that when the U-8 Mixer is open, the Home Studio wizards don't respond to the U-8's EZ Recording buttons.
CONTROLLING THE ACTIONIt's important to understand what the U-8's control surface does and doesn't do. It does do a good job of navigating dialog boxes, although it's sometimes hard to tell which cursor will get you where you want to go. Pressing the Window key scrolls through all open windows, and the Menu key opens the program menus. The transport controls are a real convenience, with the data wheel functioning as a speed-sensitive jog wheel. The control surface also has dedicated buttons for looping and for setting and jumping to markers.
The faders have a smooth action, but the response latency is frustrating if you don't adjust your software's buffer settings. Unfortunately, the faders can't write automation data, a function I would have ranked at the top of the feature list for a device like this. I hope updates from Cakewalk and Steinberg will address automation issues. As it is, you can use the faders to adjust levels in real time when you mix to file through the U-8, although the sluggish response makes this a less-than-optimum solution. Note also that the U-8 lacks pan pots.
Another frustration is that when you open the U-8 Mixer, its four white faders correspond not to hardware faders 1 through 4, but to 5 through 8. To compound the difficulties, opening the U-8 Mixer interferes with the fader assignments in Home Studio's Console View and Cubasis's VST Mixer.
The status buttons over each fader glow red for record-ready, green for solo, and amber for mute. Only solo can be set directly by pressing the button, however. Occasionally a button would get stuck in solo mode, and though I could change which channel was soloed, I couldn't get rid of that one last green light.
The Effects/Mixer Control section holds a button each for the mixer and effects. Under Home Studio, the Mixer button brings up the U-8 Mixer, but under Cubasis, it brings up the VST mixer. Next to the two buttons are four knobs for setting effects parameters. They control the virtual knobs in the currently highlighted region of the Effects window, and you can also assign them to four quick-access parameters.
Using the cursor keys to navigate the Advanced Edit window and the Effects knobs to set parameters is a convenient and efficient way to control the U-8's hardware effects. If it were up to me, however, I'd make the knobs relative instead of absolute, so that when you moved the cursor to a new set of virtual knobs, the hardware knobs would take on the virtual knobs' values. As it is, the parameter value jumps to the position of the hardware knob as soon as you start to turn it.
THE SUM OF ITS PARTSThe U-8 covers a lot of bases, from audio and MIDI I/O to effects and tactile control. I have mixed feelings about its EZ features, but you don't have to use them if you don't want to. Some things are a bit more complicated than they should be, such as the three mixers in Home Studio (the StudioWare panel, the U-8 Mixer, and the Console View).
The U-8's analog I/O sounds fine, and its effects are a big plus. The abundant online documentation makes good use of hyperlinks to avoid duplication, but finding the answers I wanted wasn't always easy. Roland ED does get bonus points, however, for including a detailed MIDI-implementation chart.
For anyone just starting off in desktop music, the U-8 provides a reasonably well integrated solution at a fair price. Advanced users with particular needs such as portability will also find plenty to like. The U-8's inability to write automation data is disappointing, but not necessarily a fatal flaw in view of its other features.