What it is: An audio interface optimized for Cubase 4.5 or higher (the unit ships with Cubase AI4) that includes onboard hardware DSP (EQ/dynamics “morphing” channel strip and Yamaha REV-X reverb), as well as features designed to speed workflow with Cubase.
Distinguishing characteristic: The most novel aspect is the front panel Quick Connect buttons, which simplify channel assignment. When you click on a track, then select an input’s Quick Connect button, you’ve connected that input to that track. Select a different track, press the Quick Connect button again, and now you’re connected to that track instead. Also, the MR816csx can serve as a digital mixer, with settings determined by a software control application, and you can daisy-chain up to three units for more I/O.
Up and running: I had a few problems when installing with Windows XP, but here’s how to avoid them: Turn off anti-virus programs before installing, and restart after the installation is complete—regardless of whether or not you’re prompted to restart. I tested the MR816csx with Cubase 5, but I also tried Cakewalk Sonar and Ableton Live. They can’t do the Quick Connect feature, but the interface aspects work perfectly, and surprisingly, all the DSP hardware can be accessed just as you would any external effect(s). I understand why Steinberg pushes the Cubase connection, but that’s not all the MR816csx can do.
First impressions: You get eight analog ins with mic pres (with individual +48V switches) and 1/4"/XLR combo input jacks, TRS insert I/O jacks for inputs 1+2, ADAT I/O (switchable to optical S/PDIF), coaxial S/PDIF, and word clock I/O—but no MIDI I/O. Outputs are eight balanced 1/4" outs, and two headphone outs. The Class-A mic pres, with Darlington inputs, are seriously good; they’re smooth, precise, and quiet.
There’s a mixer editor applet that works well, but it’s for setup and using the MR816csx as a stand-alone digital mixer. Using the hardware DSP within Cubase is a little confusing; it involves configuring a Cubase channel strip, and I definitely needed the documentation. But once it’s happening, it makes sense and all the settings are saved with your project.
You also have to decide in advance how to allocate the hardware. The choices are eight mono channel strip instances, four stereo channel strip instances, six mono channel strip instances and one REV-X (which you’ll likely want to use as a send effect), or three stereo channels with one REV-X.
Going deeper: Including DSP has both strengths and limitations. There’s virtually no load on the host computer, latency is low, and the algorithms—being dedicated to the hardware—can be relatively powerhungry. But you have a limited number of instantiations compared to software plug-ins, and you can’t do faster-than-realtime bounces because the processing is real time.
As to the DSP, the channel strip is a “morphing” channel strip with a “sweet spot” knob. The concept is that as you turn the knob, it sweeps through particular preset combinations of EQ and dynamics; you choose the one that sounds right with your source material. You can also edit the parameters manually.
I’m generally not much of a digital reverb fan, but I’ll make an exception for the REV-X. There are three algorithms (hall, room, and plate); freed from the restrictions of a native plug-in, it delivers extremely smooth sound quality. I don’t know if I’d buy the MR816csx solely for the reverb, but it’s a major plus.
There are two more cool Quick Connect features. First, you can connect to multiple tracks at once. Second, it’s impossible to get lost, because if you want to know which input connects to which track, when you click on a track, the Quick Connect light for the input that’s connected to the track flashes. As there’s about a halfsecond delay between clicking on the track and the start of the flashing, you can look at the screen, find the track, click on it, then look over at the MR816csx and it will still be flashing.
The DSP FX (morphing compressor channel strip and REV-X Reverb) can be used on input (tracking) or during playback (mixing), but not both. During playback, you need to change the settings to External FX found in the Control Panel with Cubase/Nuendo. The FX can serve as an insert, FX channel, etc.
Conclusions: The MR816csx isn’t cheap (although there is a$300 rebate offer through 1/31/10; see your Steinberg dealer for info). But the mic pres are solid, the DSP not only sounds great but takes a load off your CPU, the Quick Connect feature is a clever time-saver, and neither the effects nor the interface are “keyed” to Cubase. If Cubase is a major player in what you do, and you often use multiple mics, this could be your ideal interface.
Price: $1,649.99 MSRP / $1,300 street