Steinberg's newest interface features USB 2 connectivity and a impressive degree of integration with Cubase.
Although it's been apparent for a while now that Firewire is a dying standard, it still seems to be the most popular choice for multi-channel audio interfaces. There are, by contrast, relatively few USB 2 models, and as yet no USB 3 or Thunderbolt interfaces that I know of. The latest piece of integrated hardware from Steinberg and Yamaha could, therefore, be particularly welcome, as it boasts a feature set that is popular in the Firewire world but, until now, rare in the USB firmament.
Its features are listed in full in the 'Vital Statistics' box, but include eight analogue inputs with mic preamps, a similar complement of analogue outputs, plus word clock and two sets of ADAT I/O, allowing it to accommodate a total of 24 inputs and outputs simultaneously at basic sample rates. There's no MIDI, nor coaxial S/PDIF, but the UR824 does have some unique selling points of its own. Chief among these are its ability to offer not only comprehensive low-latency monitor mixing and signal routing, but DSP signal processing too. Each of its 24 inputs is provided with a "sweet spot morphing channel strip” — that's a compressor and EQ to you and me — and there's also a global reverb. Best of all, if you're a Cubase user, all of this monitoring and DSP functionality can be controlled from within your recording software.
Like most of its competitors, the UR824 is a smart, 1U-high, rackmounting device, and appears solidly built. It follows the convention of keeping most of its I/O around at the back but having the first two inputs on the front panel for easy access, along with the headphone sockets. I personally would rather have an internal mains transformer than its external 16V 'line lump', but the UR824 is hardly unique in using an external supply. The unit is powered up using a 'soft' button on the front with an internal white LED that, confusingly, glows pretty brightly even when it's switched off.
Software installation under Windows is not quite as slick as some interfaces, involving plenty of dialogues that have to be clicked, but I did it with no problems. Once the drivers are in place, you can hook up your USB cable and get started.
If you're not working with Cubase, monitor mixing and routing are handled in the control-panel application, catchily dubbed 'dspFxMix UR824' by its makers. Its mixer settings are duplicated across four pages, so you can have up to four independent stereo monitor mixes: perhaps not as flexible as RME's TotalMix, but not as intimidating either, and plenty for most needs. Each mix can draw on all of the UR824's 24 input channels plus a stereo DAW playback channel, but annoyingly, the window can't be resized, and isn't big enough to show all the channels without scrolling. Channels can be faded, panned, muted, soloed and sent in varying amounts to the 'Rev-X' reverb. Adjacent channels can also be linked to form stereo channels — although, oddly, their pan controls still operate and default to centre, so you need to adjust them manually to accommodate a true stereo input. Each channel also features the "sweet spot morphing channel strip” mentioned earlier, comprising compression and three-band EQ. This and the Rev-X were described in detail in our November 2008 review of Steinberg's MR816 CSX (/sos/nov08/articles/steinbergmr816csx.htm), so I'll refer readers to that review if they'd like further information.
The channel strips can be placed either just in the monitor path or, as they are by default, in both the monitor and record paths. The eight input channels also feature switchable polarity reversal and high-pass filters. These are implemented in the digital domain, which to my mind slightly undermines the usefulness of the latter, as one main reason for using a high-pass filter at the input stage is to eliminate unwanted low-frequency energy that could compromise headroom at the A-D converter and cause intermodulation with wanted audio.
As well as separate volume controls for the two headphone amps, there's a larger rotary encoder which adjusts the levels of the line outputs. By default, it controls all four output pairs together, but you can deselect any or all of the pairs from its clutches in software. While it's not a fully featured monitor controller by any stretch of the imagination, it will be particularly welcome to anyone monitoring in surround, where simultaneous control over the levels of multiple outputs is a necessity.
If you're working in Cubase, all of the dspMixFx functionality is transferred to Cubase itself, and you can't use the separate control-panel application even if you want to. Control over the UR824's channel strips and reverb is instead exercised from a new mixer view called Hardware. This is available on input channels, which appear at the left of the Cubase mixer, and shows a simplified top-to-bottom signal flow diagram. Clicking on items in this diagram allows you to adjust the relevant parameters; this is mostly straightforward, although it took me a while to figure out how to access the channel-strip parameters. It turns out that the tiny icon halfway up the right-hand side of each Hardware strip represents a three-way switch that sets whether the channel strip is bypassed, sent only to the monitor path, or sent to monitor and record paths; it defaults to bypass, and settings only become visible when it's set differently. Once you're used to it, the whole process is a breeze, except when you need to switch channel strips between mono and linked stereo operation, in which case you'll have to create and delete the relevant input channels each time. (You can create mono and stereo input channels that 'point to' the same inputs, but the Hardware view will only be available on the first.)
All this is pretty neat, but to my mind, the best aspect of the UR824's Cubase integration is the way in which Steinberg have incorporated low-latency monitoring into the DAW environment. When Cubase 4 was launched, back in 2006, one of the many new features was the Control Room, an integrated monitoring environment which emulated the master section on a large-format analogue mixer. A new Studio Sends view on the main Cubase mixer allowed up to four cue mixes to be created completely independently of other mixer functionality, while a separate Control Room mixer implemented talkback, metronome routing, surround fold-down and other relevant features.
The Control Room has always been a great idea in theory, but for me, and no doubt some other Cubase users, its major practical drawback was that initially it could only be used if you disabled ASIO Direct Monitoring. If you didn't have utter confidence in your soundcard's ability to operate at very low buffer sizes without fouling up, it was safer to disable the Control Room, raise the buffer size and use your soundcard's mixer utility to create cue mixes, despite the relative inconvenience of this approach.
When Steinberg launched the MR816, however, they also adapted Cubase so that, with their own hardware, the Control Room and ASIO Direct Monitoring could be used simultaneously. Cue mixes created using Studio Sends on audio tracks are auditioned with near-zero latency whatever the buffer size, and with the UR824's DSP effects applied, just as they are in the dspMixFX utility when using another DAW. Enabling Direct Monitoring unfortunately kills the Control Room mixer's metering, but input and audio channels in the main Cubase mixer are still metered properly. Setting up a cue mix in this way can lead to a certain amount of window-surfing between input channels, the main part of the mixer and the Control Room mixer, but this pales into insignificance compared with the normal hassle of switching between a DAW and a separate control-panel utility! Some third-party manufacturers such as RME have also taken advantage of the ability to synchronise Direct Monitoring and the Control Room for cue mixing, but as far as I know it's only Steinberg's own hardware that can be fully controlled without you ever having to leave the DAW.
This is all most impressive, which makes it odder still that it isn't so much as mentioned in the UR824's PDF manual; if I was Steinberg, I'd be shouting this from the rooftops! A possible fly in the ointment is that not all versions of Cubase actually include the Control Room, among them the version of Cubase AI that comes bundled with the UR824. However, I found that it's still possible to set up a second (or third, or fourth) monitor mix in the main Cubase mixer, simply by creating an additional set of audio tracks that are routed to a different output pair. Again, though, it would be helpful if this were mentioned in the manual.
The experience of using the UR824 with Cubase led me to wonder about the prospect of a dedicated hardware controller for this Control Room functionality. Steinberg say they don't have one in the pipeline at present, but some of their new CMC-series USB controllers have assignable buttons and rotaries that can be put to this use. The earlier MR816 CRX had two multi-function encoders, as well as Quick Connect buttons for instant routing configuration, but these aren't included on the UR824.
It's perhaps also worth pointing out that the MR816 boasted analogue insert points for the first two channels, which are missing from the UR824, and that whereas it is possible to use up to three MR816s simultaneously, only one UR824 per system is supported — although you do, of course, get an additional bank of ADAT I/O to bring the total complement to 24 rather than the MR816's 16. The MR816 also allowed its DSP effects to be relocated to the output paths for use at mixdown, which isn't possible with the UR824. Instead, plug-in versions of the same effects are supplied, and given the power of modern Macs and PCs, I can't imagine too many people will mourn the slight additional CPU load of using these instead.
Of course, direct monitoring is of no use to you if you're playing virtual instruments or using amp simulators, so the ability to operate at low buffer sizes is still important. On my Dell laptop, which has always disappointed as a platform for running audio interfaces at low buffer sizes, I could get the settings down to 256 samples without glitching, which is actually pretty good in comparison with other interfaces I've tested. I'm sure that on a better machine you'd be able to go a lot lower, and in general I had no problems at all with the drivers, which seemed stable and robust.
The first time I used the UR824, I did so with an external preamp feeding the line inputs, and was surprised to find that even a conservative signal from the preamp was clipping them. A quick delve into the manual revealed that the line inputs are routed through the preamps, and the range of the gain pots spans +16 to +60dB. In other words, the preamp is always boosting any input by at least 16dB, so it's hardly surprising that a typical line-level input will clip! Thankfully, Steinberg have provided input pads, switchable individually for the first two channels and in pairs for the other six analogue inputs, which attenuate the input signal by 26dB, so the effective gain range is -10 to +60dB, but there's no easy way of setting a unity gain level. Some manufacturers manage to implement 'proper' line inputs that don't go through the preamps, so this arrangement is perhaps slightly disappointing, but in practice you're unlikely to notice any audible degradation of line-level signals by simply keeping the gain at minimum, engaging the pad and compensating for the lost 10dB in software. On the plus side, I was pleased to see that there are separate +48V phantom power switches for each input pair, rather than a single global switch.
Possibly due to a misunderstanding of Steinberg's stated specifications, a myth has circulated that the MR816's preamps offered a humungous 84dB gain; this figure was widely quoted (including in SOS's own review) but actually referred to the total system gain from mic input to line output rather than that of the preamp per se. The UR824's preamps are identical to those of the MR816, and as just stated, top out at around +60dB gain, though, as is often the case, the gain pots aren't completely linear, with the last few dB coming in a rush at the end of their travel. To give them a proper challenge, I connected an Electro-Voice RE20 dynamic mic and cranked the gain up full to record myself playing finger-style acoustic guitar, then repeated the same test with my Focusrite Saffire Pro 40. Of the two, the UR824's preamps were slightly noisier at full gain, but also produced a recorded sound that was more open and present than the results I got from the Pro 40. In general, I would be very happy to use these preamps for everyday recording, and likewise, in every subjective respect I thought the UR824 sounded very good.
Steinberg's existing MR816 has already built up an excellent reputation, but I actually think the UR824 could prove to be more significant as far as the overall market for audio interfaces is concerned. After all, there is no shortage of multi-channel Firewire devices, but despite the proven usefulness of the 'eight preamps and ADAT I/O' model, I know of only one rival that offers a similar feature set with USB 2 connectivity, and that's MOTU's 896 Mk3. On the horizon, at the time of writing, is Presonus's AudioBox 1818VSL, but this has only one bank of ADAT I/O, and is not yet shipping, so remains an unknown quantity. RME's Fireface UFX is a formidable product, but also a lot more expensive, and it only has four mic preamps, while M-Audio's Fast Track Ultra 8R and Tascam's US2000 are more affordable but lack any sort of ADAT expandability.
Used with any DAW software, the UR824 is a very nice piece of kit that offers all the functionality you'd expect of an interface at this level. Used with the full version of Cubase, however, it becomes something altogether more remarkable: a single recording system in which hardware and software are fully integrated. If you're sick of hitting Alt-Tab every time you need to tweak the vocal level in your headphone mix, it's a system that you seriously need to investigate!