When it comes to recording a live show, most recording rigs are either bulky or expensive — or both. The ICE 16, on the other hand, is neither...
The power of today's computer-based recording rigs comes at a cost: they can be complex, they need looking after, and they take up a fair bit of space. In a studio context, that price might be worth paying for the sheer flexibility that a DAW system brings, but there are other environments when what's needed above all is something small, robust and simple to use. This is certainly true for multitrack recorders designed to be integrated into a live sound rig. No-one wants to be mucking about with buffer sizes and virtual routing matrices in the middle of a soundcheck: what's needed is something that can reliably capture signals from the desk without any fuss.
Allen & Heath's ICE 16 is designed to meet this need. It's a 1U rackmounting device that presents 16 analogue inputs and outputs and a set of transport controls. At the press of a button, it records all 16 of its inputs digitally to an attached USB storage device; it can also play back up to 16 channels of audio simultaneously, either for virtual soundchecking or for use as backing tracks. And although its primary role is for capturing live shows, it can also be connected to a Mac or PC via Firewire or USB2 and used as a multi-channel audio interface.
Regular readers of SOS will no doubt detect similarities with the popular JoeCo Black Box Recorder, reviewed in SOS January 2010 (/sos/jan10/articles/blackboxrecorder.htm), and the two are clearly designed with the same role in mind, but there are also many differences. The Black Box Recorder is a 24-track machine, rather than a 16-track; it costs around three times as much as the ICE 16, and is also available with a number of different I/O configurations to enable it to be integrated into a wide range of analogue and digital systems. The ICE 16 has no digital I/O, external clocking or machine control options: fundamentally, it's designed to be hung off the back of a smallish analogue console, and if that's not where you need your recorder to go, you'll have to buy something else!
All of the ICE 16's I/O, apart from its headphone socket, is on the rear panel. The 16 line inputs are on unbalanced quarter-inch jacks, while the outputs are all on RCA phonos, an arrangement which Allen & Heath say was dictated by space considerations. The lack of balanced I/O is not a problem in my view: there are unlikely to be long cable runs between the ICE and a mixer, and it may well be connected to unbalanced outputs or unbalanced insert sends on the mixer in any case. I'm much less keen on the phono outputs, though. They're probably OK for users who plan to keep their ICE 16s permanently racked and wired up to the same mixer, but phonos are not ideal for repeated connection and disconnection. Personally, I would much rather have the multitrack outputs on a D-Sub, which would leave room for a duplicate pair of jack or XLR outputs for connection to studio monitors and so on.
Pleasingly, the ICE 16 takes a standard IEC mains lead. It also has one of those rear-panel power buttons which are so very useful on rackmount gear! Completing the back panel are the two Firewire sockets and Type B USB socket, by means of which it can be connected to a computer, and two miniature nine-pin DIN sockets, which enable multiple ICE 16s to be synchronised.
Both the inputs and outputs operate at a nominal 0dBu, with a +20dB headroom margin — in other words, you won't clip the A-D converters unless your input signal hits +20dBu. I should note here that as phono sockets are usually employed with signals conforming to the -10dBV standard, connecting the ICE 16 outputs to a semi-professional device will result in signals being about 8dB hotter than the user might typically expect. Each of the 16 tracks is represented on the front panel by a green signal-present LED, which lights at -22dBu or -42dBFS, an orange LED, which warns when the signal exceeds +14dBu (-6dBFs), and a button which chooses whether or not that channel is sent to the headphone monitoring bus. A further button to the right selects whether the monitor bus is fed from the inputs or the outputs.
The headphone output is duplicated on quarter-inch and mini-jack outputs, and is always a mono signal, even when the ICE 16 is being used as an interface. It also seems to be optimised for signals going to disk at the nominal level. This is great for checking that signal is present in a loud environment, but will be painful if you happen to have your headphones on when playing back anything that approaches 0dBFS.
Above the headphone sockets is something that looks, at first glance, like a sophisticated OLED display, but is, as the manual puts it, "purely to make the ICE look nice! And to indicate that the power is switched on.” Apart from the signal and peak LEDs, visual feedback, in fact, comes solely from a three-digit LCD next to the transport controls. I realise that some design compromises are necessary to bring the ICE 16 to market at this price, but this does feel a bit 1991! Still, a few minutes with the manual are enough to make sense of the abbreviations that appear, and in practice I didn't run into any confusion.
The transport controls themselves cater for basic record and playback functions, and allow you to skip from one recorded project to the next or previous one. They can also be used to display the amount of recording time remaining in minutes on the attached media ('99' is the maximum figure that can be shown, but files can be up to 4GB in size), and the sample rate. However, anyone thinking of using the ICE 16 as a tape-machine-style studio recorder without a computer attached will be disappointed. For one thing, there are no rewind and fast forward controls. Nor is there any means of editing, performing drop-ins or adding markers to a recording. Nor, for that matter, are there any record arming buttons: the ICE 16 always records all 16 tracks — unless, that is, you set the sample rate to 88.2 or 96 kHz, in which case there isn't enough data bandwidth to record 16 tracks simultaneously, so the ICE 16 acts as an eight-track. Either way, though, it's impossible to overdub to an ICE 16 recording.
When you're using the ICE 16 as a stand-alone recorder, your recording media is connected to the front-panel Type A USB2 socket. It can record either to a hard drive or to a USB 'pen' drive, though not all of these will work. In general, you'll only achieve 24-bit recording with a hard drive; other types of drive are too slow. Drives need to be formatted to FAT32, which can be done easily from the front panel (or any computer). When a formatted drive is attached, the ICE 16's display will show Hi if it's capable of 24-bit recording, or Lo otherwise.
In advance of the live show I was planning to record for this review, I bought a portable Toshiba USB2 hard drive. This formatted and tested without problems on the ICE 16, but it was a good job I made test recordings with it before heading to the venue, because it proved incapable of recording without frequent drop-outs. I'm sure this was the fault of the drive rather than the ICE 16, as a later replacement worked fine, but it would have been nice it the ICE's test routine had thrown up a warning.
In the event, I recorded my gig at 16-bit using a 16GB Lexar pen drive, which Allen & Heath supplied, and which captured the band's 45-minute set without any problems. I fed the ICE 16 from the insert points on an old Soundcraft 200SR desk, and the resulting levels were just where I'd want them: plenty of headroom, but not so quiet that the 16-bit word length would be a real problem, at least with a pub gig.
Compared with trying to record a live show to a computer, the ICE 16 is simplicity itself: you press Record, a red light comes on, and you're away — albeit after a pause which can last several seconds, depending on the recording media. One Black Box Recorder feature that I feel should be implemented here, though, is some way of preventing a recording being stopped by accident. As it is, an inadvertent brush of the play/stop button would be enough to bring things to a halt.
Each time you stop and start recording, the ICE 16 creates a new Song. When you attach the drive to a computer, you'll see a folder called Records, and each Song has its own subfolder. Within the Song folder, you'll find 16 WAV files labelled 'chan_01' through to 'chan_16'. Neither Songs nor files can be named, so it's up to you to make notes of what's what.
Affordable USB and Firewire interfaces that offer 16 line ins are surprisingly thin on the ground, so the ICE 16's computer connectivity looks like a selling point even for those who don't do much live recording. On Macs, it should be Core Audio-compliant, meaning that there is no need to install drivers. Separate USB and Firewire drivers are available for Windows machines, and have to be downloaded from the Allen & Heath web site. Oddly, Windows itself defaults to addressing outputs 15/16 for playback from iTunes and so on, and the only way I could get it to address the first output pair was to disable all the others in turn.
From the off, it's pretty clear that the ICE 16 really needs to be used with a hardware mixer. There's no software mixer utility, nor any DSP routing to facilitate low-latency monitoring through the computer, and the deafeningly loud mono headphone output is not much use for fine-tuning mic placement, as it's easily driven into distortion. Driver performance is also less than stellar. Both the Firewire and USB2 drivers appear to be generic efforts from Archwave and, unusually, the buffer size is set in milliseconds rather than samples. The options go as low as 1ms, but in practice the latency will be a good deal higher. For example, when I set the buffer size on the USB driver to 4ms (176 samples), Oblique Audio's RTL Utility reported an actual round-trip latency of 770 samples or 17.5ms.
If the ICE 16 was marketed as a self-contained audio interface, this would be grounds for criticism — but given that its primary function is clearly as a stand-alone recorder, I think the fact that it works as an interface at all should be considered a bonus. I used it running over USB2 for a whole day's multitrack recording with Pro Tools 10 and it worked without a hitch, which is more than I can say for some dedicated interfaces that have passed through SOS Towers. A proper stereo headphone out and some control-room outputs on jacks would certainly widen its appeal, but I can't imagine that achieving the lowest possible latency for playing soft synths or guitar-amp simulators will be a high priority for most potential ICE 16 buyers. What most people will demand of it is the basic ability to record and replay 16 line-level inputs and outputs simultaneously, and it does that without any fuss. In fact, A&H say that two ICE 16s can be hooked up simultaneously over Firewire, for 32 line inputs. One thing to note, though, is that you can't simultaneously record to a computer and to an attached USB drive, and in fact, if any media is plugged into the front-panel USB port, the computer won't acknowledge the ICE 16's existence. That's a shame, as not everyone will feel comfortable recording to a single 'media lump' in a live, one-chance-only situation.
In the final analysis, the ICE 16 is a no-frills product that does the job it's designed to do and does it well. However, it should perhaps be pointed out that more upmarket alternatives offer better metering and worthwhile additional features. For example, the Black Box Recorder in its BBR1U incarnation is designed to be patched directly into TRS inserts on an analogue console with a single set of looms, and even includes eight loop-through connections, thus allowing insert processors to be used in conjunction with the BBR1U. By contrast, although you can use the ICE 16 to record from insert points with the appropriate cables, if you want to play back audio through the same console, you'll need separate looms routed to its line inputs — which may well be needed for other purposes. Something that's missing from both the BBR and the ICE 16, meanwhile, is redundancy. Unless the drive you connect is a RAID array, your recordings are stored only in one place.
However, any complaints about what the ICE 16 doesn't do must take into account the fact that it really is the only product of its kind at this sort of price. The new breed of digital live sound desks, such as Behringer's X32, often have recording facilities built in, but if you're using an analogue console, options are limited, particularly within the confines of a 1U rackmount case.
A comparable JoeCo Black Box Recorder would be around three times as expensive, and could not be used as an audio interface. RME's Fireface UFX, also significantly more expensive than the ICE 16, is better thought of as an interface that can record, rather than as a recorder that can interface, and it doesn't offer as much analogue I/O.
Even if you're happy with a computer-based recording rig, there are few USB or Firewire interfaces that can match the ICE 16's quota of line inputs. (The Antelope Orion 32 offers twice as many, but is considerably pricier.) In fact, the only established alternatives I can think of to the ICE 16 are hard disk recorders such as the Fostex 2424LV, Alesis HD24 XR, Tascam MX2424 and Mackie SDR2496. The last two are no longer in production, and the only one which can record to portable media (CF cards) is the Fostex. Also, they're all bulky and noisy by comparison, and can't be used as audio interfaces — and you'll still need to go second-hand to get you into the same price range. More direct, and more affordable, competition is set to appear soon in the shape of Cymatic Audio's LR16, but at present, the Allen & Heath ICE 16 has a market niche to itself, and I can imagine it doing very well.
One obvious application for a digital multitracker in venues is for virtual soundchecking, where the FOH or monitor engineer will play back a previous night's show as a multitrack in order to configure a new system. To do this with the ICE 16, you'd patch its outputs to the line inputs on the desk, skip to the required Song on the drive, and press Play.
It's a real shame that the ICE can't send its output down the same insert cable as the inputs are derived from. If it could, then a virtual soundcheck would be really easy, as all the sources from last night's show would appear on the same channels, and at the same levels as a normal show, allowing the engineer to set up EQ, routing, and so on, as if the band were stood on stage. Re-patching through channel line inputs is do-able (assuming that the desk has separate line inputs) but is not as convenient!
However, the ICE 16 has another playback mode designed for stereo material, for instance where you need to play interval music or backing tracks. In this Playlist mode, it plays back stereo files stored in the Music folder on the attached drive, either one at a time or in sequence. The files must be in WAV format — MP3s aren't recognised — and there's no way to sort them into any kind of order: as far as I could tell, they come up in a numbered sequence based on when they were saved. I wouldn't like to manage any sort of complex playback requirement like this, but for background music between sets, it does the job.