FIG. 1: The 003''s control surface includes a jog/shuttle wheel and dedicated automation-mode buttons (middle left).
Digidesign has released a successor to the Digi 002, its popular midrange Pro Tools LE system. Dubbed the 003, this system is more evolutionary than revolutionary, maintaining the Digi 002's principal design ideas while updating a few features and giving it a significant cosmetic face-lift (see Fig. 1).
The 003 comes with Pro Tools LE, which is capable of handling up to 32 audio tracks at 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution, and 256 MIDI tracks. (The track count is expandable to 48 stereo tracks with the purchase of Music Production Toolkit [$495] or DV Toolkit 2 [$1,299].) Because LE is a native system, the limitations of your CPU may restrict the number of tracks you can actually use.
The 003 comes in three flavors: Factory ($2,495), Rack Factory ($1,695), and Rack ($1,295). The Factory model is a desktop design, with a control surface on top and I/O around the back. Both rack models are 2U designs with gain and monitor controls on the front panel, and a rear panel that is nearly identical to the desktop version's. The Rack version comes bundled with the standard DigiRack plug-ins and the Ignition Pack 2 set of effects, virtual instruments, and sound libraries. The Factory and Rack Factory include the Ignition Pack 2 Pro set, as well as the Factory plug-in bundle. All these extras are enough to keep you busy for quite a while, and specific details can be found on Digidesign's Web site.
The Ins and Outs
As an interface, the 003 can handle 18 channels of combined analog and digital I/O: 8 analog channels, 8 digital over ADAT Lightpipe, and 2 digital over S/PDIF. In the analog realm, you have eight line inputs and four mic inputs to choose from. Mic inputs 1 through 4 are on XLR connections, with a 48V phantom power button for each pair (see Fig. 2). Line inputs 1 through 4 are labeled as Dis and are optimized for instrument-level sources, though you can use them with line-level sources by adjusting the input gain. Mic/line switches, gain knobs, and 75 Hz highpass filters for the first four inputs are located on the front panel.
FIG. 2: The rear panel, which is similar to that of the 003 Rack, includes balanced aux inputs and word-clock I/O.
Inputs 5 through 8 are fixed-gain, line-level inputs on balanced ¼-inch TRS jacks, with individual +4 dBu/-10 dBV switches. A pair of +4 dBu aux inputs on ¼-inch TRS jacks are included, and the balanced connectors suggest they are intended for pro-level sources. (On the Digi 002, the corresponding inputs were -10 dBV on RCA jacks, which is appropriate for consumer-level audio gear.)
The monitoring section consists of Main and Alt outputs, which can be used to feed two separate pairs of speakers. The two sets of monitor outputs are an improvement over the Digi 002, where line outputs 1 and 2 doubled as the main monitor outs. The monitor gain knob and Main/Alt monitor select buttons are on the front panel, as are Mute and Mono buttons.
The 003 also has eight fixed-gain line outputs on balanced ¼-inch TRS jacks, running at +4 dBu, and a pair of ¼-inch stereo headphone jacks, each with its own level knob — a welcome addition. As with the Mbox 2 Pro, outputs 3 and 4 can be assigned to the second headphone jack. The monitoring system is simple overall, but comprehensive enough for a small studio. Unfortunately, the Digi 002's standalone audio mixer mode is not available on the 003.
However, the 003 can be used as a standalone MIDI controller. Each fader, rotary encoder, and button can be mapped to any MIDI channel and continuous controller value. MIDI presets can be named and saved to flash memory, and you can create up to eight MIDI maps to use with programs such as Propellerhead Reason, Ableton Live, and Apple GarageBand. A MIDI input and two separate MIDI outputs are also included.
Two-channel S/PDIF I/O is available on coaxial and optical ports, offering 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution. The optical I/O can also be used as an ADAT Lightpipe interface to send and receive eight channels of 24-bit, 48 kHz audio. A footswitch jack is available for punching in and out, and the power connector is the standard IEC type.
For those with complex digital studios, the 003 has an important addition to its I/O: word clock in and out on BNC jacks. This allows the 003 to slave to a master clock, or to be used as the master clock for devices that sync to word clock at rates up to 96 kHz.
The 003 has two FireWire 400 ports for computer connectivity, and it passed the bandwidth test: I recorded, edited, and played back 32 simultaneous channels of 24-bit, 96 kHz audio to a single FireWire drive daisy-chained from the 003. Loads of edits and fades didn't faze it, and playback was nice and solid. I am a bit surprised that the 003 does not have a FireWire 800 port to keep up with current computer hardware design. However, the FireWire 400 port clearly has enough bandwidth to handle the maximum number of tracks at maximum resolution.
Like the Digi 002 and Command|8, the 003 has eight channel strips, each consisting of a 100 mm motorized fader; mute, solo, and select buttons; and a rotary encoder ringed by LEDs. The transport controls and Pro Tools-specific function buttons are laid out similarly to other Digidesign control surfaces, and I was happy to see the inclusion of a dedicated Save button.
The Digi 002's 4-character LED display has been replaced in the 003 by a 110-character, 2-line display, which allows you to see longer channel names and parameter values simultaneously. Inputs, outputs, inserts, and sends are now all assignable and removable from the control surface. Dedicated automation-mode buttons, located on the left side of the faders, are a welcome addition and were previously available only on Digidesign's high-end products, such as the Control|24.
The company has also added a jog/shuttle wheel. The outer ring allows you to shuttle back and forth at various speeds, while the inner wheel lets you scrub the audio for fine-resolution editing. Holding down the Nudge button while moving the jog wheel rapidly scrolls the track assignments across the faders.
New Mic Preamps
Digidesign touts the 003's improved mic preamps and A/D/A converters. I did an A/B test, recording a male voice and a Martin acoustic guitar through the Digi 002 and 003, using a Neumann U 87 mic plugged directly into the mic preamps (see Web Clips 1 through 4).
For an all-in-one box, the Digi 002's mic preamps make me perfectly happy: they are quiet, detailed, and fairly neutral. But I have to agree that the 003's preamps are a subtle, though worthwhile, improvement. The low midrange feels a bit fuller, the top end is not quite as bright, and the overall sound is somewhat smoother. Digidesign mentions that the dynamic range of the 003's mic preamps has been improved by 6 dB over the Digi 002, and that total harmonic distortion is extremely low.
My beef with the 003 is in the component choice for the user interface. Although I like the unit's white color and rounded edges, I have problems with its knobs and buttons. Veering away from a more traditional design, the knobs resemble a mushroom cap, where a thin stem is crowned with a thicker, rounded top. Everyone I spoke with who has used the 003 had the same opinion: the knobs are difficult to grasp and feel fragile.
The overall impression is that the first time something falls on the 003 or someone reaches over the unit and catches their sleeve on it, the knobs will snap off. Because of their shape and position, there is little room between the eight rotary knobs, and my fingers would not fit comfortably between them.
In addition, the 003's transport buttons do not feel as solid as those on the Command|8 or Digi 002. The four arrow buttons on those latter units have been replaced with a single 4-directional pad, which feels loose and cheap.
I'm a big fan of scrub/shuttle wheels in digital audio. Unfortunately, the 003's scrub wheel is too small and feels fragile. Rather than having a circular knob to grasp or an index finger indentation to put your finger in, the wheel has a series of small dots that are meant to create traction with your finger. However, I can't see using this method on a regular basis. And although most scrub wheels are fairly large, metal, and slightly weighted, the 003's wheel is small, plastic, and lightweight.
New or Improved?
I was expecting the 003 to be a bigger move forward from its predecessor. Although it offers some new features and improvements over the Digi 002, the core capabilities, as well as the price point, are essentially the same. Digidesign has acknowledged the 003's modest innovation, referring to it as a “refresh” of the Digi 002, not as a full-fledged new product. Consequently, the 003 is aimed not at users wanting to upgrade from the Digi 002, but rather at new Pro Tools users, as well as Digi 001 and Mbox owners who want to upgrade their hardware.
To be fair, though, the Digi 002 is a tough act to follow. While I don't like the 003's knobs and some other design elements, these are balanced by better mic preamps, an improved LCD, and the ability to assign automation, send, and plug-in data directly from the control surface.
If you already own a Digi 002, I don't see enough in the 003 to justify a change. However, if you are just starting out in Pro Tools or are upgrading from a legacy LE system, the 003 is worth investigating.
Nick Peck (www.underthebigtree.com) is a composer-sound designer-vintage keyboardist in the San Francisco Bay Area. His new CD, Fire Trucks I Have Known, will be released in 2007.
GUIDE TO EM METERS 5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 = Clearly above average; very desirable
3 = Good; meets expectations
2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 = Unacceptably flawed
DAW interface/control surface
003 Factory, $2,495
003 Rack Factory, $1,695
003 Rack, $1,295
FEATURES4EASE OF USE3AUDIO QUALITY4VALUE3
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Ability to assign automation modes, I/O, sends, and plug-ins from front panel. Word-clock I/O. Improved LCD. Two headphone jacks on front panel. Enhanced MIDI controller mode.
CONS: Mushroom-shaped knobs are uncomfortable, seem fragile, and are spaced too close together. Jog wheel feels flimsy and is not easy to use. Standalone mixer mode from 002 has been removed.