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Lexicon Ionix FW810S

Firewire Audio Interface
Published June 2009
By Mike Senior

The Ionix FW810S comes with built‑in Lexicon monitor reverb and onboard Dbx dynamics and EQ. So does all this DSP add up to a genuine USP?

Lexicon Ionix FW810S

Lexicon may be best‑known for their reverb processing know‑how, but more recently they have been making inroads into the computer‑music market, with their latest foray being the Ionix range of control and audio‑interfacing hardware. The FW810S audio interface is the only rackmount box in this range, and features eight‑channel analogue and stereo digital I/O, with additional stereo analogue main and headphone outputs, as well as MIDI In and Out. In addition, there is DSP‑based onboard low‑latency mixing, incorporating eight channels of fully‑featured Dbx dynamics and EQ, and a Lexicon monitor reverb. Bundled with the unit are Steinberg's Cubase LE4, Toontrack's EZ Drummer Lite, and Lexicon's own Pantheon II reverb plug‑in. The details of the hardware profile can be found in the 'Vital Statistics' box on the opposite page, but the real question, of course, is how all these features actually perform in practice.

Mixer & Routing

The software mixer utility which controls the FW810S's internal mixer. To the left is a scrolling pane for navigating through the available input and playback channels; in the middle are the control and return parameters for the DSP‑powered monitor reverb; and to the right are the master controls for the five stereo output feeds.The software mixer utility which controls the FW810S's internal mixer. To the left is a scrolling pane for navigating through the available input and playback channels; in the middle are the control and return parameters for the DSP‑powered monitor reverb; and to the right are the master controls for the five stereo output feeds.

Beyond the handful of front‑panel controls, everything on the FW810S is configured via its software control window. Each of the 10 hardware and eight software inputs has its own channel containing send level and pan controls for the five available analogue output pairs, and each output pair has its own master level control. Odd/even pairs of channels can be linked for ganged stereo operation, and there's a send per channel to the DSP‑powered monitor reverb, which can be returned to any of the five analogue output pairs.

The mixer is an absolute doddle to comprehend on account of its traditional‑style control layout and absence of tabbed pages, although you may need to scroll around a bit to find the channel you're looking for. Only the dynamics and EQ controls are accessed via separate pop‑up windows, but gain‑reduction and EQ‑plot read‑outs are nonetheless permanently on view. Visually, I'd have liked the settings of the rotary controls to be much clearer, as the graphical style of the knobs makes it quite difficult to see where they're pointing — little sliders would have been more functional, if less familiar to hardware junkies.

Little tooltip‑style numeric read‑outs pop up whenever you move a control, but not when you initially click on it or try to adjust it with your mouse's scroll wheel, which I found a bit annoying. Using the scroll wheel for adjustments also seemed to have a lower resolution than clicking and dragging, and no modifier key increased this resolution either, so I'd stick to click and drag if I were you. Clicking on any of the scraps of virtual masking tape allows you to rename channels in the mixer utility window, and while this is useful to some extent, it doesn't change how the names appear to your sequencing software via the driver.

Metering is pretty good, although because it's possible to add gain to DAW playback streams within the FW810S mixer itself, you do need to have the mixer utility open to be sure that you're not clipping the interface's outputs. The meters have no peak‑hold option, but each channel has its own clip LED which will stay lit until you click on it to reset. Snapshots of the entire setup of the mixer can be stored and recalled, allowing quick reconfiguration, but there's no separate facility for storing dynamics, EQ or reverb patches independently, or indeed any preset library of settings for these.

Dbx‑powered Mixing

The eight analogue input channels of the FW810S each have well‑specified DSP‑based dynamics and EQ processing sections coded by the boffins at Dbx.The eight analogue input channels of the FW810S each have well‑specified DSP‑based dynamics and EQ processing sections coded by the boffins at Dbx.

The analogue mic/instrument preamps come courtesy of Dbx, and offer up to 55dB gain, which is perfectly adequate for most close‑miking applications, but perhaps a bit on the low side for distant miking or less sensitive mics such as ribbon models. The gain is also slightly bunched towards the clockwise end of the control range, so that last 6dB or so of gain is pretty difficult to set. In terms of sound, this preamp is nice and clean, with a low noise floor and little obvious coloration, which makes it ideal for general‑purpose use.

Analogue‑to‑digital conversion is via Dbx's own Type IV process, which emulates the soft‑clipping characteristics of analogue recording media, with a more gradual distortion onset than you'd expect. I've been using Type IV conversion for years, and the system does work well, but distortion is still distortion, so I'd not advise setting your recording headroom any differently. Better to think of the Type IV just as an extra safety net for worst‑case scenarios.

Further Dbx input processing follows the A‑D conversion, and comprises (in order) gate/expander, compressor and limiter for each of the eight inputs. All of these processes are fully featured and well‑behaved in practice. The gate/expander works very effectively to reduce background noise, and the wide ratio range lets you fairly easily adapt the effect to different sources. Spill reduction on multitrack drum recordings might be a bit too challenging though, as there are no side‑chain filtering options.

The compressor's variable 'Over Easy' soft knee is as accomplished as I've come to expect at invisibly reining in wide‑ranging dynamics, and the automatic time constants make for quick setup, even with very dynamic sources like vocals and DI bass. The hard‑knee mode can, however, be used with the fully variable time settings to create a good variety of more obvious compression effects if you prefer. Having a separate limiter is nice too, allowing the compressor to concentrate on the gentle transparent soft‑knee processing at which it shines while ensuring that you catch any troublesome level peaks.

Unusually, both the compressor and limiter have a Hold parameter, which stops any gain‑reduction from beginning its reset phase for a specified duration after the signal level has dropped below threshold. I imagine that many users will either simply leave this control well alone or set it to its minimum value, but it's worth playing with it because, especially on percussive material, if you extend the Hold time you can retain more of a sense of transient definition when you're using fast attack/release to emphasise sustain or ambience. It can also reduce distortion of low frequencies in similar circumstances.

Lexicon Ionix FW810SThe EQ is commendably smooth, even when using peaking boosts or adding general high‑end, both of which applications tend to provoke budget EQs into harshness. Again, you get enough control resolution to do some pretty detailed tweaking if you fancy it. All the dynamics blocks and the EQ have their own bypass buttons, and the status of the dynamics blocks is reflected by LEDs on the front panel. (Why not the EQ too? Beats me.) Bear in mind, though, that these status LEDs only show you that the dynamics block in question is switched on, not whether there's any gain‑reduction going on.

Overall it's hard not to like all this Dbx processing when you consider it in isolation, but there is one general thing about it which doesn't quite seem to add up for me: it feels best suited to mixing, yet you can only use it for tracking on the FW810S. Given that the quiet preamps and 24‑bit conversion make it perfectly possible to leave gating, compression and limiting to the mixdown stage without the risk of printed‑in gate chatter or over-compression artifacts, I'm not sure that many musicians are going to make much use out of the enormous processing flexibility on offer. I'm certainly not going to risk tiring out my performer while I spend ages tweaking dynamics parameters, and I'd rather leave the soft‑knee 2:1 compression ratio set up on automatic, tweak the threshold and make‑up gain to taste, and leave the other 13 variable controls to gather dust.

What's more, despite this copious control set, Lexicon and Dbx have managed to miss out a number of input‑processing facilities which would have been much more useful during tracking than a compressor hold control. For example, there's no preamp high‑pass filter, and you also can't switch the EQ before the dynamics, so there's no way to stop subsonic thuds and plosive pops from sending the gain reduction lurching. There's also no polarity inversion, and although polarity can of course be flipped in most recording software, that's not going to help your DSP‑driven cue mixes. To be honest, I'd rather have had a variable high‑pass filter, polarity inversion and a two‑knob soft‑knee compressor for each input, assigning the other processing to the eight DAW playback channels for stem or aux‑processing purposes at mixdown.

DSP‑powered & Plug‑in Reverbs

A big bonus feature of Lexicon's FW810S is its bundled Pantheon II AU/VST‑format reverb plug‑in, which sounds very nice indeed despite snacking only comparatively lightly on CPU cycles.A big bonus feature of Lexicon's FW810S is its bundled Pantheon II AU/VST‑format reverb plug‑in, which sounds very nice indeed despite snacking only comparatively lightly on CPU cycles.

With the Ionix FW810S you get two different reverb processors, one running on dedicated DSP as part of the internal mixer and the other in the shape of the bundled Pantheon II reverb plug‑in. As I've already mentioned, the former is fed from a send control on each internal mixer channel. What I didn't say, though, is that this send is pre‑fader, which makes some sense given that you don't want fader level changes to alter the wet/dry balance in any independent monitor mixes. However, you do have to remember that reverb levels won't track dry levels as they would with the kind of post‑fader send you'd use while mixing. While the DSP‑powered reverb is limited to a single instance, the Pantheon II plug‑in is shipped in both VST and AU formats, so you can open up as many instances as you like in most sequencers, and seeing how comparatively CPU friendly it is, it'll even suit those unenlightened souls who still set up all their reverbs as inserts!

Both reverbs operate in a similar way: first you choose a reverb type (from various chamber, hall, room, plate and ambience options) and then you refine the sound using a clutch of additional controls — four for the DSP reverb and 16 for Pantheon II. As you'd expect from Lexicon, these reverbs are very satisfying, adhering well to the dry sound in a way that really helps mixes to blend. There's little sign of any of the unpleasant metallic colorations that blight small‑CPU‑footprint algorithms, and I have to say that I was extremely impressed with the sound on offer. In terms of usability within commercial multitrack productions, the DSP‑powered processor lost out a bit on account of its lack of low‑frequency contouring options, but even with the more parameter‑rich Pantheon II, I was inclined to follow it with a plug‑in EQ. That by no means reflects badly on the realism here; it's just that realistic reverb isn't necessarily what works best in a busy mix!

Verdict

On the FW810S's rear panel we find all of the I/O connections, with the exception of the single headphone socket and two of the combi inputs, which are on the front on the unit.On the FW810S's rear panel we find all of the I/O connections, with the exception of the single headphone socket and two of the combi inputs, which are on the front on the unit.

If it's just preamps and socketry you're looking for, then the FW810S faces pretty stiff competition from a bevy of other manufacturers, so it seems to me that a decision about whether to purchase this smart rackmount box has to hinge on whether its other selling points appeal to you. Dbx's analogue and digital processing know‑how is certainly a big selling point here, and the onboard DSP mixer gave me roughly 1ms of latency compared to the 4ms figure I was able to achieve with the lowest stable ASIO buffer size on my machine (128 samples), which was good going. That said, I still feel that true zero‑latency analogue monitoring is a noticeable improvement for vocal work in particular, where even 1ms delay causes noticeable phase‑cancellation between vocal foldback and the singer's direct spill.

Dbx's excellent soft‑knee compression is worthy of particular praise too, and is a boon when working with singers, because it lets the singer change the timbre of their voice at different dynamics without the distraction of huge changes in the voice/backing foldback balance; and it does this with the minimum of undesirable compression side‑effects. The EQ is also good enough that you might want to use it on the way in, expecially at the top end, and Lexicon's built‑in monitor reverb is classy‑sounding and straightforward to set up. Add all this together and you end up with an attractive package which does away with much of the need for external mixing and processing hardware during tracking.

The reverbs are the other big selling point for me, as they sound great in isolation, mix beautifully and exude a flattering richness that I always associate with the Lexicon marque. Even if you have access to convolution reverb with good impulse responses, you may find it difficult to justify that kind of CPU munch in most mix situations when the slimmer Pantheon II sounds so smooth.

So while you don't have to look very hard to find aspects of the FW810S's raw feature set which may lose Lexicon some customers to their competition (things like the single headphone output, lack of talkback functionality, and absence of multi‑channel digital I/O or word clock), the quality of the preamps, Type IV conversion, DSP processing, and bundled Pantheon II reverb constitute strong selling points in their own right, which should certainly attract the interest of anyone familiar with reputations of Dbx and Lexicon.  

Alternatives

Probably the closest competitor to the FW810S is Steinberg's slightly more expensive MR16 CSX, which matches its preamp count and also includes DSP‑powered cue mixing with dynamics, EQ and reverb processing. The MR16 CSX loses a couple of analogue outputs on the FW810S, but counters with a second headphone output, ADAT digital connectivity, and word clock I/O. SOS contributor Martin Walker found the sound of the preamps to be impressive too, with 84dB gain range and insert points on two channels. If this seems to leave the Lexicon down on points, however, they still have an ace in the hole in the form of the bundled Pantheon II plug‑in.

If raw I/O count is more important than super‑spec input circuitry or bundled effects processing, then this Lexicon unit isn't really what you're looking for — check out things like the Presonus Firestudio, Focusrite Saffire 26 I/O, and M‑Audio ProFire 2626 instead, all of which feature additional ADAT digital I/O and could be supplemented with a no‑frills ADAT‑equipped multi‑channel mic preamp (such as Behringer's ADA8000 or Focusrite's Octopre LE) at a roughly similar price. You get DSP‑powered cue mixing on all of these options, although without the niceties of DSP effects processing.

Vital Statistics

  • Firewire Audio & MIDI interface, simultaneously capable of 10 audio inputs and 12 audio outputs.
  • 24‑bit digital recording and playback at sampling rates up to 96kHz.
  • Compatible with Mac OS 10.4.9 and above, Windows XP and Vista.
  • Balanced analogue inputs: two front‑panel mic/line/instrument inputs on combi‑jack/XLRs; six rear‑panel mic/line inputs; phantom power switchable to mic inputs in pairs with illuminated front‑panel buttons.
  • Balanced analogue outputs: eight line‑level outputs on TRS jacks; two further line‑level main outputs with front‑panel rotary level control.
  • Mixing functionality: DSP‑powered mixer for low‑latency monitoring; eight input channels include separate gate, compressor, limiter and EQ, as well as independent sends to each of the line output pairs; further channels mix the stereo S/PDIF input and eight mono software playback streams; global monitor reverb processor; full mixer snapshot recall, including a 'power‑on' snapshot for stand‑alone operation without the computer.
  • Metering: three‑LED bar‑graph meter per analogue input channel; status LEDs for all three hardware monitor‑mixer dynamics modules.
  • Headphone output: front‑panel headphone jack output with accompanying level control.
  • Digital I/O: coaxial S/PDIF input and output.
  • Other I/O: MIDI In and Out; dual Firewire sockets.

Dbx Dynamics & EQ

  • Gate: ratio 1:1‑100; time controls comprise attack (0.1‑200ms), hold (0‑500ms), and release (350‑5dB/s).
  • Compressor: ratio 1.5‑100:1 with switchable soft knee; time controls as for gate, with additional switchable fully automatic mode.
  • Limiter: time controls as for gate, with additional switchable fully automatic mode.
  • Other dynamics controls: +20 to ‑30dB post‑limiter make‑up gain; separate gate, compressor, and limiter bypass buttons.
  • EQ: four‑band parametric design with plus or minus 12dB gain per band; bands comprise low shelf (40‑320Hz), two mid-range peaks (160‑1280Hz and 640‑5120Hz), and high shelf (2.5‑20kHz); global EQ bypass switch.
Published June 2009