Why carry two boxes with your mobile studio when one will do? Tascam's FireOne combines a MIDI and audio interface with a control surface, all in one convenient, paperback-sized unit.
When it comes to audio and MIDI interfaces, we're spoiled for choice these days. There are products to suit almost any budget and whatever I/O format is required, and most of the current crop of audio interfaces are capable of making clean recordings, provided that due care and attention is paid to the rest of the signal chain. So how do manufacturers make their products distinctive and attractive to potential purchasers? Audio quality aside, the obvious answer is the specific combination of features and the price. In some cases, this aims particular products at a certain niche — and I think Tascam's FireOne is just such a product. As well as offering MIDI I/O and a two-in/two-out Firewire audio format supporting 16- and 24-bit audio at sampling rates up to 96kHz (with 192kHz promised in a future driver/firmware update), it's also a control surface with a very compact size.
The FireOne could undoubtedly do a good job in a home studio, but could also be an excellent partner to a laptop for basic recording duties while on the move. So if you are looking for a single box to accompany your home or mobile studio, is the FireOne the one to choose?
Considering its small size (it's smaller and lighter than the current Harry Potter novel, to give you some idea), the FireOne is supplied in a rather large cardboard box. Also contained within said box is a short printed manual, a power adaptor (only required if you're using a four-pin Firewire port — the unit is fully bus-powered via a six-pin port), a Firewire cable and a CD-ROM containing Windows and Mac drivers, along with software to support the control-surface features with various DAWs. A second CD-ROM contains a 'Lite' version of Ableton Live 6 — a nice addition for all users, but particularly welcome for those new to computer-based recording and without any other DAW software.
In terms of the hardware, the various I/O ports are located on the rear and front edges of the unit. On the rear are two combi XLR/phono jacks, suitable for use with balanced or unbalanced signals. Both inputs support phantom power, which is individually switchable from the top surface. Input B also features a switch that can be used to toggle between the rear-panel input and the dedicated Guitar In jack on the front edge. Audio out is via left and right quarter-inch balanced jacks, and a jack socket is also included for a footswitch that can be used to control start-stop functions in your DAW — which would, of course, be useful for solo musicians whose hands are otherwise occupied with playing an instrument. Standard MIDI In and Out sockets are provided, and the rear panel is rounded off by the Firewire port, power socket and a power on/off switch.
Aside from the Guitar In jack, the front panel also features two quarter-inch headphone sockets. These can't be assigned different mixes, as might be possible in more sophisticated multi-channel interfaces, but they have individual volume controls. Having two headphone outputs is useful during recording, as it allows both engineer and musician to monitor what is going on.
The controls on the top surface are split into two groups. To the left are the various switches and knobs that deal with the audio I/O, while to the right, arranged in an attractive circular pattern, are the controls dedicated to driving your DAW application. The two knobs located at the bottom left control the levels of the two headphone outputs. The four buttons situated above these engage phantom power and a 20dB pad for each of the two audio inputs, while the two knobs at the top-left adjust the gain used for each input. Each of these knobs has two LEDs associated with it: the one marked 'Sig' indicates that an audio signal is being received, while 'OL' flashes red if the signal is getting close to overloading the input. While this is somewhat basic in terms of metering for setting input levels, the 12-stage LED metering wrapped around the left-hand side of the jog/shuttle wheel can also be used for more accurate level setting, if required, as described below.
The centre section includes LEDs for MIDI activity and to indicate a Firewire connection. The right-hand of the two knobs positioned centre-top is labelled 'Line Out' and controls the overall audio output level. However, the output level is also dependent upon the Mix knob. Usefully, this allows you to adjust the balance of the signal from the FireOne's own inputs and any audio being received from your music applications via Firewire. Turning this knob fully clockwise boosts the signal from the computer, while also muting the direct monitoring of any signal being received at the inputs. In contrast, turning the Mix control fully anti-clockwise mutes the computer audio signal and allows you to monitor just the signal appearing at the inputs. If you work in this way, the 12-stage LED meter effectively provides a more detailed means of setting input levels. Obviously, intermediate settings of the Mix control allow you to easily set a suitable balance between the existing tracks being played back via the computer and any new material that's being recorded via the inputs — very useful.
Installation of the FireOne drivers and the bundled Live Lite 6 proceeded exactly as described in the documentation and I was up and running within 10 minutes of unpacking the unit. The drivers support ASIO 2, WDM and GSIF 2 on the PC and Core Audio on the Mac. The documentation suggests that the FireOne will work happily with most major MIDI + Audio sequencers, including Cubase, Sonar, Digital Performer, Pro Tools and Logic, and during testing I had no problems using Acid Pro, Sound Forge and Wavelab.
The FireOne software control panel is a simple-looking affair. Settings for sample rate and buffer sizes are straightforward and the 'Input Mon Mono' tick-box is a useful inclusion. When this box is un-ticked, direct monitoring of the inputs is in stereo, with inputs A and B appearing in the left and right channels respectively. Ticking the box causes direct input monitoring to occur in mono — very useful if you are recording a mono source and want to monitor it via both speakers. The Control Protocol currently offers two modes: the FireOne native mode (which emulates Mackie Control), and FireOne HUI mode (for use with Pro Tools). The LEDs around the base of the large jog/shuttle wheel can also be set to operate in a range of modes, and although there is little by way to exain these in the documentation, the 'Breathe' and 'Slow Rotate' settings are quite good fun in a darkened room!
I carried out my usual playback tests using a range of commercial recordings that covered various styles, from rock through to classical. The FireOne seemed to cope very well with whatever was thrown at it and reproduction was clear, with a reasonable amount of volume available. The headphone outputs also work well enough, although I might want a little more level if I was trying to monitor a loud source via headphones in the same room as it was being recorded (not uncommon in a home studio or mobile recording context). Simple recordings of vocals or acoustic guitar made via the preamps were also clean and clear. These are perhaps not the most highly specified mic preamps you can buy but, in fairness to Tascam, the FireOne is not being advertised in that way, and it struck me as having respectable, if not exceptional, audio performance.
These subjective thoughts were supported by both a comparison with the somewhat more expensive TC Electronic Konnekt 24D, also hooked up to my test PC, and testing of the FireOne with Rightmark's Audio Analyser. To my ears, the preamps in the Konnekt 24D have an edge and, as a consequence, the 24D produces a slightly more detailed sound than the FireOne — but the differences are relatively small. Using 24-bit, 44.1kHz mode, Audio Analyser showed noise levels of -97dBA, a dynamic Range of 95.2dBA, Total Harmonic Distortion of 0.008 percent and stereo crosstalk of -87.5dB. These figures are not too far removed from those quoted in the documentation and, as commented above, are perfectly respectable. Providing due care and attention is paid to other elements of the signal chain and your source signals are at reasonable levels, there is no reason at all why very good recordings could not be made with the FireOne.
The FireOne comes bundled with Ableton's Live Lite 6 software, so users new to computer-based recording can begin music-making with it straight out of the box. SOS have reviewed Live a number of times over recent years (most recently in the November 2006 issue), so there is little point in repeating those details here. While Live has always presented a somewhat different take on the DAW user-interface compared to some of the established competition, it is certainly a powerful music-making environment.
Live Lite comes with a PDF manual, but there is little detailed information on the limitations of the 'lite' version compared to the full version of Live. However, key differences include limitations in terms of audio and MIDI track counts, in the numbers of simultaneous effects that are available, Rewire support and the range of samples included. If these limitations prove a frustration, Ableton provide an upgrade path for owners of Live Lite to the full version. This is currently priced at 379 Euros for the boxed version; full details are available at the Ableton website (www.ableton.com/lite-version-upgrade). That said, for novice users the 'Lite' version has plenty to offer and its inclusion with the FireOne interface adds value.
During the installation process, the user is given the opportunity to install any application-specific plug-ins that are required to make the FireOne control surface functions work. I duly selected the Cubase option and, after opening Cubase, I was able to add the FireOne as a new Remote Device under the Device Setup options. All the FireOne controls then sprang to life. The Transport controls operate exactly as would be expected, the buttons having a firm feel and seeming very responsive. The star turn is, however, the large jog/shuttle wheel, which makes it very easy to scroll through your project. The documentation does say that the jog/shuttle wheel may be used for other functions in some applications, but it doesn't seem customisable in Cubase. The only down side is that — in Cubase at least — it only offers scrolling, and there is no audio scrub while moving through a project. In the supplied version of Live Lite (see the 'Shining Lite' box), audio scrub does occur as the jog/shuttle wheel is used to scroll through the project, so this is clearly more to do with the host application than any specific limitation of the FireOne itself.
Within Cubase, the configuration of the eight function keys (and the additional eight options when those keys are used in conjunction with the Shift key) can be edited via the Device Setup screen. These keys can obviously be set to provide easy access to whatever options individual users prefer. As with all control surfaces, it can take a little time to develop the habit of reaching for the FireOne rather than the mouse to access commonly used functions, but once that habit is ingrained there are considerable workflow gains to be made.
There is little to say about the FireOne in testing with Cubase 4 — and this is a compliment to the unit rather than a criticism. It is very straightforward to use and does its job with minimal fuss. Providing I wasn't intending to use the FireOne primarily for making minimalist recordings that feature, for example, just a solo voice and acoustic guitar (for which I might prefer an interface with higher-specification preamps), I'd have no problem at all with using the FireOne for serious musical projects. Given that its format suggests it's targeted at mobile recording as much as home studios, the less-than-perfect acoustics encountered in many location recording situations are far more likely to be the weak link in the audio signal chain than the FireOne.
Having recently used the Presonus Faderport (see the review in the June 2007 issue of SOS), my only other observation regards Tascam's interesting choice of controls for the FireOne. These two devices are, of course, different in many ways, but while Presonus have opted for a single fader as the key control in their compact control surface, Tascam have gone with the jog/shuttle wheel. Individual users will have their own preferences, of course, but, being a little greedy, I can't help thinking it would be nice to have both. I'd happily see the FireOne a couple of inches longer if it meant that a single fader could have been added — and I think this might well have expanded its appeal even further.