Emagic EMI 6|2m

USB Audio & MIDI Interface For Mac & PC

Published in SOS March 2003
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Reviews : Computer Recording System

Emagic's latest hardware device is a six-input USB audio interface that can also handle MIDI. Is it too good to be true or sheer magic?


Paul White

Though USB audio interfaces are not suitable for transferring many channels of audio at the same time due to the limited bandwidth of the USB data channel, they are ideally suited to recording with laptops and 'slotless' desktop machines such as iMacs, so long as the user doesn't need to record lots of audio parts simultaneously. Emagic's EMI 6|2m is probably pushing the limits of standard USB as far as they will go at present by offering the ability to record up to a maximum of six channels of audio at once, while at the same time monitoring a stereo output. It can also manage a single stereo input and output at 96kHz but normally runs at sample rates of either 44.1kHz or 48kHz with 16 or 24-bit resolution. Simultaneous use of all six inputs while monitoring via the stereo output is only possible at 16-bit, 44.1kHz though you can record all inputs at 24-bit resolution if you forego the luxury of monitoring (assuming your host software permits this).

Emagic EMI 6|2m £279
pros
Makes the best use of available USB bandwidth.
Effective, stable, low-latency driver software.
Mac OS X and Windows XP users can use the digital I/O as a MIDI interface.
cons
Could benefit from a status LED to show whether it's in S/PDIF or MIDI mode.
MIDI is only available under Mac OS X and Windows XP.
Unit has to be powered down when changing from MIDI to S/PDIF mode.
summary
The EMI 6|2m is a well-designed, good-sounding compact audio interface that makes the most of USB's bandwidth and that can also provided MIDI if you run a current operating system.

Zero-latency hardware monitoring is available for audio recording, though this doesn't work with virtual instruments for obvious reasons. In addition to its analogue I/O, the EMI 6|2m also has S/PDIF digital I/O capability that, by using the included adaptors, can be switched to operate as a single pair of MIDI In and Out ports. An important fact for potential purchasers to be aware of is that the MIDI I/O only works under Windows XP or Mac OS X, and given that OS X VST and Audio Units plug-ins look set to be in short supply until later in 2003, I imagine most Mac users will stick to OS 9 for some months yet. Furthermore, PC users running Windows 98 or 2000 can't use the external sync option for the S/PDIF input, so to use all the EMI 6|2's features, you must be running either Mac OS X or Windows XP.

Not Just A Pretty Case

The packaging of the EMI 6|2m is similar to that of the EMI 2|6 reviewed in November 2001 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/ Nov01/articles/emagicusb.asp) and is physically similar in size to a VHS video cassette. It comes in a protective soft case and is provided with co-axial-to-MIDI cables and a USB cable. Power normally comes directly from the host USB device, but where that isn't adequate, power can also be taken from an optional mains adaptor. Two USB ports are fitted to the EMI 6|2m for connection of the XS Key and any other low-bandwidth USB device or alternatively, a higher-bandwidth device that is not being used at the same time as audio (a printer for example).

All the audio I/O is on phono connectors to save space, so clearly these are unbalanced, though both inputs and outputs can work at 24-bit resolution. There's also a headphone output for monitoring that has its own level control. A CD-ROM includes the driver software in Windows MME (WDM), Direct Sound (WDM), EASI and ASIO formats with Mac OS 9 supported by Sound Manager (16-bit only), EASI and ASIO. Mac OS X support comes directly via Core Audio.

Most of the settings for the EMI 6|2m are made via the driver control panel in software (Mac OS X users also need to visit their Audio MIDI Setup window to select the EMI 6|2m and to choose its input configuration), but status LEDs are fitted to the unit to show whether channels 1/2 are set to analogue or digital (digital input mode and sync options are hardware switchable on the unit). Also displayed are the sample rate, bit depth and internal/external clock source. Further LEDs monitor audio activity on the inputs and outputs and there's a thumbwheel control to set the headphone level.

  Possible I/O Combinations  
  The restricted USB bandwidth means that running the EMI 6|2 at 24-bit or at high sample rates limits the number of inputs and outputs that can be used simultaneously. Here are the options:

Inputs Outputs Sample Rates
2 x 16-bit 2 x 16-bit 44.1,48 or 96 kHz
2 x 16-bit 2 x 24-bit 44.1,48 or 96 kHz
2 x 24-bit 2 x 16-bit 44.1,48 or 96 kHz
2 x 24-bit 2 x 24-bit 44.1 or 48 kHz
6 x 16-bit 2 x 16-bit 44.1 or 48 kHz
6 x 16-bit 2 x 24-bit 44.1 or 48 kHz
6 x 24-bit 2 x 16-bit 44.1 kHz
6 x 24-bit no output 48 kHz

Note that the final input-only mode is only available under Mac OS X, and that Logic always works in full-duplex mode, so it won't allow this mode to be used.

The S/PDIF I/O, when used, replaces analogue inputs 1/2. MIDI is only available under Mac OS X or Windows XP. The signal-to-noise ratio is 93dB with a quoted dynamic range of 94dB and a frequency response flat from 20Hz to 20kHz within ±0.5dB. The analogue I/O has a nominal operating level of 0dBu.

 
Installing the driver software is straightforward, though it is important not to connect the unit until the computer has booted first time around. After this, you simply run the installer, restart, then set up the audio I/O options as required. I tested the unit with an iBook (G3 600MHz) laptop running OS X so that I could check out all the functions. In the case of OS X, a software loader configures the EMI 6|2m so that it is recognised by OS X as a valid USB audio device. The Audio MIDI Setup page allows you to select the EMI 6|2m as the designated audio device and also to select the number of inputs and outputs, sample rate and bit depth.

The MIDI page of the Audio MIDI Setup allows the MIDI ports (in this case just one) to be configured in a window reminiscent of the OMS/Logic Environment with nice graphical icons and draggable cables between objects. This page looks after all things MIDI for any OS X program and a number of different MIDI configurations can be stored. MIDI or digital I/O selection is made via Preferences / Others / EMI 6|2m.

Trying Out

I evaluated the system using Logic 5.5 running under Mac OS 10.2.2, where the Audio Drivers and Hardware window now includes a Core Audio box that needs to be ticked. The contents of the box seem to have been simplified a little, but it's essentially the same as under OS 9 where the ASIO or ESI drivers would be used. In fact I also ran the interface under OS 9.2 on my desktop G4 and found it worked fine providing the EMI 6|2m was connected to its own USB port as recommended and not via a hub. Connected via a USB hub, the audio glitched like a wind-up gramophone being driven over cobbles, so don't expect it to work! Recording all six inputs at once while monitoring proved to be problem-free at 16-bit, 44.1kHz, and the audio quality was comparable to the old Emagic Audiowerk8 card, which I've always thought sounded pretty good.

The EMI 6|2m boasts six inputs and two outputs, although using higher sample rates and bit depths reduces the number available simultaneously. The two phonos at the right can be used either to provide S/PDIF digital or MIDI I/O.

The MIDI side of the unit also worked transparently under OS X, but if you want to swap from MIDI to S/PDIF mode, you have to unplug and then replug the EMI 6|2m in order to power it down after resetting the MIDI preferences. If you're using an external PSU, then this would have to be disconnected too. This is a bit of a fiddle, and given the way in which the changeover is conducted, I think a MIDI status LED on the unit to confirm the correct mode is active would have been a good thing. The S/PDIF I/O also checked out fine, with the simple analogue/digital and internal/external hardware switching on the unit itself making life easy in this department.

On Balance

The EMI 6|2m does exactly as specified, but you need to read the small print to ensure that you can get the functionality you want at the bit depths and sample rates you want. You also need to be aware of the restrictions that apply to non-current operating systems on both the Mac and PC. Given the perfectly adequate but non-spectacular signal-to-noise ratio, I don't feel that operating the unit in its 24-bit, 96kHz mode offers any real advantage, but it's there if you need it.

Unlike Emagic's existing EMI 2|6, the 6|2 is a combined audio and MIDI USB interface; for use with portable computers it's great to have something so compact and simple that can do both jobs. Of course for true laptop portability, the interface should also include at least one mic preamp, but that would have increased the complexity, and hence the price. While the EMI 6|2m does work perfectly well within its design brief, it doesn't offer the flexibility or bandwidth of a Firewire interface, so I'd only really recommend one for portable applications or for situations where neither Firewire nor spare PCI slots are available. If you plan to run a separate MIDI interface, this should be connected to a different USB port, not to the USB connectors on the EMI 6|2m. However, in circumstances where USB is the only game in town, the EMI 6|2m performs extremely well (providing it is given a USB port of its own) while its compact size and USB powering makes it an elegant solution for laptop use. Add a small MIDI keyboard plus a handful of virtual instruments and making that album on the beach in the Bahamas suddenly becomes a real possibility!

  Test Spec  
  • Apple iBook G3 600MHz with 512MB RAM, running Mac OS 10.2.2.
• Tested with: Emagic Logic Platinum v5.5.
 

 information
£279 including VAT.
Sound Technology +44 (0)1462 480000.
+44 (0)1462 480800.
Click here to email
www.soundtech.co.uk
www.emagic.de

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