If you're familiar with the US-428, you probably know that it's a flexible, reasonably priced USB controller that integrates well with a wide range of audio software. The US-224 closely resembles the US-428, except that it is smaller and lighter, sports five 45 mm sliders instead of nine, and has no EQ or auxiliary send controls (see Fig. 1).
The US-224 combines the functionality of a software control surface, MIDI interface, and audio interface in a single device. Housed in a cool-looking metallic purple-blue box, the US-224 takes its power solely from the USB port.
The number 224 indicates that the US-224 can simultaneously pass two audio channels to and from a computer while providing mix and operational control over four channels at a time. Like the US-428, the audio interface is designed to work at sampling rates of 44.1 or 48 kHz and resolutions of 16 or 24 bits.
You can independently assign the US-224's two audio inputs to accept either an XLR mic or a ¼-inch line-level connection that you can switch to high impedance for electric guitars (see Fig. 2). A gain trim, a signal LED, and an overload LED are on each input. The outputs include two RCA line-level jacks and a ¼-inch stereo headphone jack, each with a level control. A pair of S/PDIF ports passes digital audio to and from audio applications, while MIDI In and Out ports send MIDI data (including MIDI Time Code) to and from your computer.
Like the US-428, the US-224 has no provision for phantom power. When I asked why it didn't, Tascam told me that phantom power might bog down the USB port and that “the basic US-224 user will probably use dynamic mics anyway.”
A SURFACE WITH PURPOSE
The controller section, located on the US-224's far-left side, contains four channel strips and a master output fader. Above the input faders are Select buttons that assign mix and effects parameters to their respective channels when you press them. Simultaneously pressing the Rec button and a channel's Select button arms its assigned track for recording at the current cursor position. Above the Select buttons, Mute buttons can be toggled for use as solo buttons.
As it is on the 428, the transport section is located on the lower right. It features the usual transport controls, marker location buttons, bank selectors (which switch between channel banks), and a chrome jog wheel. The jog wheel conveniently doubles as a pan control when you press a channel Select button. When used with Steinberg Cubasis VST, Cubase VST, or Nuendo, the US-224's marker location buttons let you set and locate two marker points (Left and Right) within a project.
Although the US-224's faders are not motorized, you can match fader levels to the onscreen mix's current fader positions by pressing the Null button and moving each fader (without changing the mix level) until both the green Select and red Rec LEDs light up. Once the faders are in position, simply press the Null button again and you're ready to roll.
The US-224's control panel is very simple and straightforward. It allows you to switch between analog or digital inputs, enable 428 Emulation mode, and recall one of four snapshots of the input monitor settings. The control panel includes a tuning function, which enables you to digitally tune your guitar or other instrument (through either input) using an onscreen flat/sharp LED array. Also in the control panel, you can match the US-224's buffer settings to your computer's performance.
Although audio sequencers typically process audio in real time, the time it takes for the input signal to pass through a computer and audio interface normally results in an audible delay (referred to as latency), which might cause confusion when you're overdubbing to previously recorded tracks. The US-224 deals with latency by using either input monitoring or direct monitoring. The input monitor feature lets you listen directly to inputs A and B using an internal mixer, without passing the signal through the computer's processor. Changes in level, muting, and panning will affect the monitor and headphone outputs but won't affect the signals sent to the audio application. Direct monitoring, which works with editors that support ASIO 2.0, bypasses the processor's mixing path and routes the signal to the output monitor paths without introducing audible delays.
UP AND RUNNING
The audio sputtered when I first installed the US-224 on my laptop, but that's a common USB problem on PCs that have too many applications running in the background. The audio and controller functions worked after I ran msconfig.exe and turned off all of the unnecessary startup items, but I still heard an annoying stutter. I solved the problem by tweaking the buffer settings in the US-224's control panel and in my audio applications (Steinberg Nuendo and Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro).
Once I ironed out those problems, I plugged in a mic and began laying down tracks and overdubs without a hitch. From the start, the US-224 was very easy to use. Its audio converters are top-notch, as are its bigger sibling's, making the US-224 an ideal accessory for the hordes of laptops with pitiful onboard soundcards. The lightweight US-224 was especially handy when I called it into service recording live performances during a recent trip to New York City.
Bundled with the US-224 is a custom version of Steinberg Cubasis VST (an entry-level audio sequencer) for Windows and the Mac. Although the program lacks many features of high-end production workstations, it's a good program for musicians who want a simple and inexpensive digital audio sequencer.
Very little audio software currently supports the US-224, but support for various programs is in development. In the meantime, most audio editors support the US-428, and the US-224's 428 Emulation mode works well. In fact, the US-224 works best in Emulation mode, as the native mode skips over every other channel bank (with no control over channels 5 through 8, 13 through 16, and so on), even with the bundled version of Cubasis. When I used 428 Emulation, all of the banks worked just fine.
DON'T WORRY, USB HAPPY
I'm impressed with the US-224's compact size, ease of use, functionality, audio quality, and downright good looks. It would be great if the US-224 had motorized faders, but its controllers are a good fit with my functional and budgetary needs.
Whether you use dynamic or battery-powered condenser microphones, the US-224 is great for laptop-based recording. If you want portability and control without the wall wart, take a close look at the US-224.
USB control surface and audio interface
FEATURES3.0EASE OF USE4.0AUDIO QUALITY3.5VALUE3.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Small and lightweight. Powered by USB. Great converters. Rock-solid functionality.
CONS: No phantom power. Very little software support (except in 428 Emulation mode).
tel. (323) 726-0303
Analog Inputs(2) XLR balanced mic; (2) TRS ¼" balanced line/unbalanced guitarAnalog Outputs(2) unbalanced RCA; (1) ¼" TRS stereo headphoneDigital Audio I/O(1) RCA S/PDIF in; (1) RCA S/PDIF outData I/O(1) USB; (1) MIDI In; (1) MIDI OutFaders(4) channel, (1) master; 45 mm throw; attenuation better than -90 dB @ 1 kHzA/D/A Converters44.1 or 48 kHz; 16- or 24-bit; 64× oversamplingFrequency Response20 Hz-20 kHz (+1, -3 dB)Noise<92 dBATotal Harmonic Distortion<0.01%PowerUSB; 2WDimensions12.0" (W) × 2.4" (H) × 8.3" (D)Weight1.9 lb.