What it is: I seldom describe a FireWire 400 interface as “macho,” but the Liquid Saffire 56 (LS56 for short) isn’t a cut-the-corners job—it’s a dual rack space, 28-in, 28-out, cross-platform interface (up to 24-bit/192kHz). It also has a MIDI interface (thank you), BNC word clock I/O that can serve as a master clock, and two headphone outs with independent level controls.
Distinguishing characteristic: In addition to six Saffire mic pres, channels 1+2 are “Liquid Channels” that combine an analog front end with digital convolution technology to emulate any of ten different classic mic pres (Neve, Avalon, Helios, Telefunken, Pultec, etc.); there’s also a flat position. The differences are suitably subtle, but very handy for adding different “flavors” to vocals. Each also has a control for injecting 2nd, 3rd, and 5th harmonic distortion into the sound to add color.
Up and running: Everything worked fine on a dual G5 Mac running 10.4.11 and PC Audio Labs XP SP3 Windows machine, but with a quad-core Intel Mac running Leopard, the Focusrite MixControl applet couldn’t connect to the LS56. Apparently this is a glitch with my machine, as other users don’t report this problem. Incidentally, LS56 works with Snow Leopard using the 32-bit kernel.
Any of the eight mic channels can also serve as a line input. There are two instrument inputs associated with channels 3+4, so they don’t use up your Liquid Channels. As to the 28 inputs, there are two ADAT optical interfaces (16 channels), coaxial S/PDIF I/O (2 channels), and two virtual loopback inputs (2 channels). You have the option to choose optical S/PDIF instead of the second ADAT optical connector.
Output-wise, you do also have 28 simultaneous channels: Ten 1/4" analog outs, 16 channels of ADAT, and S/PDIF.
First impressions: The LS56 is featuregenerous. Each mic pre has a +48V switch and high-pass filter switch. Inputs 3+4 also have a pad switch, and channels 3, 5, and 7 have phase switches. There’s DSP for the Liquid emulation and internal routing, but not for hosting plug-ins. However, the package includes a suite of VST/AU plug-ins: Compression, Reverb, Gate, and EQ. These are a nice addition, although aside from the Gate (which has the added feature of being able to trigger one channel with a different channel, so for example, you could use drums to gate a sustained guitar power chord), there’s nothing unusual—the reverb is synthesized, not convolution-based, the Compressor works as expected, and the EQ has the usual two parametric mids, high shelf, and low shelf.
Going deeper: The more you work with the LS56, the more you appreciate the extras. The Monitor outs have both Dim and Mute switches (and an “anti-thump” circuit to prevent power up/down spikes), the eight meters have five LEDs, the knobs don’t wobble, 1/4" jacks are held on with nuts and lockwashers, and the power supply works globally (assuming the correct physical AC cord; there’s no “wall wart”).
There are two FireWire connectors to daisy-chain devices, although ideally you want FireWire devices on their own ports to avoid bandwidth conflicts. Also, there are two “virtual loopback” inputs that can route digital audio data between software applications— cool.
At first I thought having both 1/4" input jacks and XLR connectors is silly; why not use a combo jack? But this is a great feature, because the Saffire MixControl mixing/routing software applet—which is very sophisticated in its own right—lets you select among the various input connectors. So, you could have (for example) line-level synth outputs connected, along with guitars plugged into the instrument ins, and have eight mics plugged in for drums/vocals and not have to re-patch between takes: Just choose the appropriate inputs in the software.
Conclusions: The star of this show is the preamps. Even the non-Liquid ones are sonically excellent, but having two pres with emulation abilities greatly expands your tonal palette—particularly because of the ability to selectively inject distortion, and the way Liquid technology switches input impedance automatically to better emulate particular preamp characteristics.
If you mostly work solo in the studio and only need one or two good mic pres, there are other, more cost-effective options. But if you regularly record acoustic ensembles, or have other micintensive sessions (e.g., miking drum kits, brass sections, vocalists, etc.), the LS56 can take care of your interfacing and preamp needs not only in style, but in one box.
Price: $1,299.99 MSRP / $1,000 street