Roland Octa-Capture High-Speed USB Interface Review

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There are a lot of compact audio interfaces on the market geared for project and live recording environments. Most of these consist of up to eight analog inputs and provide such features as phantom power, direct monitoring, effects on the monitor bus, and sometimes one or two other options, such as insert jacks or guitar-optimized inputs. They are all roughly the size of a Harry Potter novel and slide easily into a slim bag along with a laptop, headphones, and cabling. Portability is the key here, as you don''t want your interface to be a greater space hog than your laptop—the control center of the operation. None of these units, while perhaps thicker than a laptop, are as unwieldy as rack-mount gear—or as pointy on their corners—so they are low-impact companions on the road and in ad hoc or otherwise non-permanent recording setups.

The Roland Octa-Capture fits neatly into the above description as far as form factor, while being something else entirely under the hood: a highly programmable interface offering extensive individual channel configuration, flexible monitoring, effects, expandability, and a patchbay function that quickly and easily routes both direct-monitored inputs and DAW outputs into subgroups. In other words, the Octa-Capture''s brawn recalls low-cost bus-powered devices, while its brains make it competitive with rack units in the $1,000 range. For those who need to step recording up a notch—but who still like the idea of a tabletop interface, and just need more features, mixer-like functionality, and the benefits of programmability—the elegantly designed Octa-Capture is just the ticket.

The Octa-Capture is the flagship of the new Capture line of audio interfaces from Roland. A high-speed USB 2.0 interface/preamp that can accommodate, as its name implies, eight analog inputs, the Octa-Capture can also simultaneously access stereo digital I/O, making it a 10x10 interface. It records in 24-bit resolution with sample rates up to 192kHz (though at 192kHz you get only four audio channels and no reverb) and supports both 32-bit and 64-bit Mac and Windows platforms. It has a well-designed software control panel and comes with ears for rack mounting.

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Fig. 1 The rear panel includes eight 1/4-inch outputs, stereo S/PDIF I/O, and MIDI I/O.

Roland gets big points right off the bat for making all the analog inputs combo, jacks—you can plug either a 1/4-inch or XLR cable into any one of its eight inputs. This makes its software-based routing much more versatile, as you don''t have to worry about, say, relegating your mics to inputs 1 through 4 and your line-level devices to 5 through 8. Even better, channels 1 and 2 on the front panel have configurable impedance settings to optimize them for high-impedance sources like guitar and bass, while channels 7 and 8 have slightly higher input impedance and extended headroom for particularly dynamic sources such as drums, a full-range sampler mix, or unpredictable vocalists. The back panel also sports eight balanced 1/4-inch outs, S/PDIF stereo I/O, a USB jack, and standard MIDI ports (see Figure 1).

The Octa-Capture has eight VS Preamps onboard, the same ones used in the VS-series of Cakewalk interfaces, which I''ve used in the past to excellent effect. In my tests, the preamps exhibited clean, quiet sound, and were nicely transparent on a variety of sources. I did a side-by-side evaluation of the Octa-Capture against several similarly priced interfaces I had available, and the VS preamps were equal or superior to anything else. My acid test for interface preamps is turning up the gain for low-level sources such as ribbon mics, to make sure the preamp doesn''t contribute noise. These preamps aced the test, not only retaining a quiet, neutral signature throughout their range, but exhibiting a nice taper as well. I wouldn''t hesitate to use them on critical projects with exposed acoustic instruments and voices.

The big news regarding the Octa-Capture, though, is its front-panel display, functions, and programmability—all of which are, of course, closely integrated. I''ve always liked Roland displays and the thoroughness of their programming, and those qualities are present here. This may be Roland''s first effort in an audio interface, but the front panel is highly evolved. For example, all of the functions—per-channel configurations, global settings, monitor setups, and system-level operations—are easily gleaned and adjusted from the front panel using switches and knobs, some dedicated, some multi-function. There is a learning curve, but it''s easier to negotiate using the included control panel software (more on that later).

Each of the eight input channels can have its own individual setting with regard to phantom power (on/off), impedance (channels 1 and 2 only), input sensitivity, phase invert, low-cut filter, and compressor—great for ensuring that an otherwise perfect take doesn''t get spoiled because of input overload. Such a wealth of features gives you comprehensive control of signals going into your DAW and with far more flexibility than other interfaces that offer, say, just a level control. Just having one compressor per channel with a full complement of controls—attack, release, threshold, ratio, gain, and gate—gives you far more versatility than having insert jacks on the master L/R output bus.

The Octa-Capture offers a highly flexible monitoring system called Direct Mixer, which imbues the interface with true mixer-like functions. Here''s how it works: Whether coming from the DAW or the direct-monitored, zero-latency input sources, sounds can be mixed and assigned to one of four submixes, called Direct Mixes (A through D). These can then be sent to any output pair, and multiple mixes can share outputs. In a live setup, this would give you different monitor mixes for different destinations—say, the vocal wedges in front or a drum monitor in back; in a studio setting, it lets each member of the band choose from four different mixes (e.g., one featuring background vocals, one for the kick and bass guitar, and so on).

In addition to level, the Direct Mixer gives you controls over each channel feeding it, including pan, stereo link, mute, and solo. My only wish is that the excellent and versatile reverb was available on all four Mixes. As it is, reverb is only available on Mix A. On the plus side, the Direct Mixer''s Master page includes handy Mute Clear and Solo Clear controls, along with indicators as to whether they''re engaged on any channel—the Octa-Capture''s version of a “rude” solo light. Slick!

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Fig. 2 Each input channel on the Octa-Capture is configurable with respect to sensitivity, phantom power, phase invert, impedance (channels 1 and 2), low-cut, and compression.

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Fig. 3 The Octa-Capture offers a flexible monitoring system called Direct Mixer that combines zero-latency input monitoring with DAW-playback tracks.

If all this control seems a bit complex, well, it is—at least for a portable interface. But the Octa-Capture comes with a very well-designed software-based control panel that arranges all of the unit''s adjustable parameters on two screens, one for channel operations (see Figure 2) and one for Direct Mixer setups (see Figure 3). Other options available from the control panel include Reverb, Patchbay (a graphic method for assigning inputs, DAW tracks, and Direct Mixes to output pairs), and loading and saving setups. I only wish the panel also included meters, as other interface utilities do. As it stands, you have to rely on your DAW or the Octa-Capture''s front panel to set and monitor levels.

You can perform all functions from the Octa-Capture''s front panel as well (except for loading from and saving to disk, which makes sense, when you think about it). And actually, you can save your current setup from the front panel and reload it. So if you''re on the road and don''t want to break out the laptop, you do have the option to quickly normalize your studio, as defined by the last time you saved your settings.

Other global goodies include Auto Sens (an auto-sensing circuit that adjusts a channel''s input sensitivity based on your loudest signal), editable Reverb (type, level, pre-delay, time) with individual channel sends and a master return (the settings of which are saved as part of the preset), and two Master levels that control the balance between the Octa-Capture''s input and output mixers.

As mentioned, the Octa-Capture is expandable. The system-level feature VS Expand allows you to gang together two Octa-Captures, or an Octa-Capture alongside a Cakewalk VS-series interface. If you need, say, 16 tracks for your studio, you can link two interfaces.

Even with its gentle learning curve, the Octa-Capture makes you quickly appreciate the speed and control with which you can configure your channels and monitor mixes. Because most recordists recognize the value of templates in their DAWs, they will immediately see the benefits of programming the Octa-Capture in the same way.

The Octa-Capture''s ability to do double-duty as a road warrior or permanent studio fixture makes it highly attractive. Wouldn''t it be nice to have the same interface on the road as the one in permanent residence in your studio? The Roland Octa-Capture''s great sound and outstanding flexibility finally makes this a reality.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Octa-Capture product page.