Audient have brought their respected ASP-series preamps to the masses in the form of a new USB audio interface.
Audient's ID22 is a two-in, six-out USB 2 audio interface and monitor controller for Mac OS. Renowned for their sizable analogue mixing desks, this is the first audio interface from Audient and it features the same high-quality preamps as their popular ASP8024 console. In the product range, the ID22 sits below the high-end ASP510 surround monitor controller, however it is the audio interface specifications that will prove most alluring to the potential buyer. In addition to analogue inputs and outputs, optical I/O is included to offer additional ins and outs via an ADAT connection.
The ID22 features a very solid aluminium case with chunky rubber feet to keep it stable on a desk. Meanwhile, a Kensington lock socket on the side will ensure that it remains there. The top panel has controls for the two preamps as well as a range of monitor controller functions. A four-segment LED ladder meters the first two outputs, but surprisingly there is no form of hardware input metering. An activity/overload LED for each input at the very least would have been incredibly useful. For the two preamps, toggle switches control phantom power, the sensitivity pad, polarity reverse and a high-pass filter.
The quality of the controls seems very good overall, with a firm action on toggle switches. Similarly, the potentiometers feel solid and smooth, with position notches and guidelines to help to match preamp gain positions. The shiny DIM and CUT push buttons in the monitoring section do feel a touch flimsy compared to the others, and further labelling on the toggle switches would have been helpful to the uninitiated; for example, it is not abundantly obvious which switch positions enable the pad and high-pass filter.
Around the back, two combination XLR/TRS connectors are provided for the inputs as well as an instrument level input on the second channel. Once an instrument is plugged in, this input overrides the combination connector and signal passes through a JFET transistor circuit, promising a very usable DI tone. Along from the input connectors, balanced TRS insert points are provided in the inputs' signal path. Common applications for these would include adding outboard dynamics processing during recording or bypassing the internal preamps completely and plugging straight into the A/D converters. On the output side, four balanced line outs are provided, intended for use with main and alternative studio monitor pairs, plus a single headphone output that can alternatively double as line outputs 5-6. Also on the back panel is a USB 2 port and an input for the 12V DC power supply
Optical digital connectors provide the user with either S/PDIF stereo in/out or, more usefully, eight additional inputs and outputs (at sample rates of up to 48kHz) via the ADAT protocol. ADAT provides an ideal opportunity for system expansion at a later date to add further microphone preamps, and/or outputs and analogue summing, for example. In response to this, many retailers are promoting a bundle that pairs the ID22 with Audient's own ASP008 eight-channel preamp. This particular add-on is not cheap, but users are free to consider alternative preamp strips from other manufacturers with which to supplement their input count. Such a 'modular' approach will prove attractive to project and home studio engineers who demand maximum audio quality but don't have funds for the whole system from the outset.
The process of setting up the hardware for use was refreshingly straightforward and swift. The ID22 is class compliant, it doesn't require any drivers, but for the driver panel to operate correctly in the operating system's sound preferences I found that a computer restart was occasionally required. In practice, users won't need to access these controls very regularly though. A novel 'ID key' (a memory stick in the shape of a key) is included in the box and contains an ID22 control application and web links to the user documentation. Installing the mixer application is quick and requires very little disk space, and once this is completed, Audient recommend that the user should open the ID22 software and check for firmware updates via its help menu. This takes care of minor bug fixes within the hardware, and when I did this, the firmware update was downloaded and transmitted within seconds.
The ID22 software provides detailed control of all monitoring, signal routing and configuration of the hardware function buttons. It's well thought-out, allows for custom presets to be saved and there are even key commands for the more common tasks.
On the left-hand side of the window, a mixer panel is provided to control input and output playback levels and route these to the two available cue mixes using stereo pre-fade sends. Since only one headphone output is provided, it is intended that line outputs 3-4 should be used to provide the second cue mix by connecting them to a headphone amplifier. Helpfully, the virtual 'scribble strip' on the mixer can be modified by double-clicking on the name of the input or output, and then can be subsequently stored within a user preset. This provides a useful prompt as to which microphone is plugged into each input, for example.
The middle section of the mixer allows access to monitor controls and mixer views. In the Monitor Section, six virtual buttons are present. Whilst dim and cut are always associated with dedicated hardware controls located below the volume knob, the other four functions can be assigned to any of three buttons F1-F3 by right-clicking the appropriate control in the ID22 software. Perhaps the most useful function to have to hand is the 'Alt' monitor control, which is used to route the main mix to an alternative set of loudspeakers. Outputs 3-4 — which feed the alternative monitors — follow the same master volume as outputs 1-2, and balancing of the level of the speaker pairs can be achieved using the Alt trim control in the software.
Talkback — labelled 'TB' — works by assigning an external microphone plugged into one of the preamps. Unfortunately there is no internal microphone available so this does swallow up one of the two inputs, but is better than no talkback at all. Helpfully, when mapped to talkback the relevant F button works momentarily on a press and hold, but latches on a shorter press and release. This attention to detail will be welcome for users who operate similar systems on digital mixers and, indeed, all the buttons on the interface work in this way.
The two remaining functions are used for checking mixes. Mono sum is used to monitor the mix in mono, and the polarity button, when combined with the mono button, mutes the centre-panned elements of a stereo mix to leave only the sides. This facility is useful for checking the spatial elements of the mix being crafted or to reveal stereo effects tricks on commercial reference tracks. Crucially, it also allows you to monitor the severity of artifacts introduced when encoding to compressed data formats; very useful when preparing work for release in a downloadable form.
The right-hand side of the ID Mixer window is used to manipulate signal routing and store mixer presets. For example, to control the source for line output pairs 1-2 and 3-4, as well as defining the mix to be sent to the headphones. The headphone socket can be configured as two additional line outputs, by switching all sources to 'DAW mix' in the ID mixer. When configured in this way, the six analogue outputs are selected accordingly in the DAW (or in Audio-MIDI setup, for 5.1 DVD playback, for example). Doing this bypasses all analogue volume controls apart from the headphone volume — now providing line outputs 5-6 — causing the line outs to pass the signal at full scale. Users wanting to operate the audio interface in such a way may need to attenuate the level of the line outputs using a software volume control and/or turn down the input trim on the device(s) being connected to them.
When put to work, the quality of the ID22 preamps is immediately apparent. At normal recording levels they are quiet and extremely transparent. Even my less expensive condenser that hardly comes out of its box sounded respectable, lacking the usual 'brittle' edge in the upper-mid frequencies. Up to 60dB of gain can be applied here, so the preamps should be good to handle the most gain-hungry dynamic and ribbon microphones with relative ease. At higher peak levels there was plenty of headroom, with perhaps a subtle hint of flattering soft-clipping saturation at the very top of the range, allowing me to really 'lean in' to a performance with less fear of the recorded signal becoming clipped. When played back the signals sound exactly as recorded, which goes towards demonstrating the quality of the converters contained within the interface.
Phantom power switching can cause big pops and, though not unusual, there is no option to kill all outputs whilst switching it. The pre-fade headphone send especially can easily suffer from pops and bangs if not careful, and a mute switch on the cue masters would have proved very helpful. Meanwhile, the relatively subtle high-pass filter (100Hz at 12dB per octave) is sufficient to remove unwanted rumble without having a negative effect on proximity-rich vocal parts. The filter, plus pad and polarity functions, are all available on the line inputs and instrument input too.
I found the ID22 Mixer really intuitive to use. Monitoring at source using the cue sends works really well and, conversely, monitoring through the DAW at low buffer settings (for example, to add input effects) produces no perceptible latency, even at higher sample rates.
Using the ID22 software, I was able to very quickly specify my preferred compliment of monitor functions to be controlled by F buttons, although I'm not really sure why Audient didn't include four buttons to cover all of the bases since they are all important in my mind. The supply of labels to stick next to the function buttons to represent how they were configured perhaps would have been a nice compromise. This is a minor complaint in the scheme of things though, and I expect that some users will work out a way to label the buttons with masking tape and a pen!
All in all, the ID22 is a highly capable audio interface that delivers sublime audio quality and a fairly versatile feature set, and all at a competitive price. The monitor controller features can be viewed as useful extras: the unit lacks the full complement of features found on more expensive units, but includes most of the important facilities needed to monitor and mix music. Whilst ADAT expansion options also help to sweeten the deal, there are a few shortcomings, including the lack of hardware input metering and the single headphone amplifier. If these issues don't faze you, I wouldn't hesitate in recommending the ID22. .
The SPL Crimson offers quality preamps and conversion, more comprehensive hardware monitoring controls than the ID22, and metering for both inputs and outputs. It supports two pairs of monitors, but also has two instrument inputs, a multitude of two-track playback inputs and two independent headphone outputs. MIDI and S/PDIF digital connections are present but, crucially, it lacks ADAT I/O.
The RME Babyface has a similar feature set, including ADAT I/O, at a lower price (see the review at /sos/apr11/articles/rme-babyface.htm). There aren't so many monitoring features but the volume knob controls the level of each output pair and large LED meters toggle between input and output metering.