For a long time, Firewire audio peripherals have been available only at the semi-pro end of the market, with eight or more inputs and outputs, and price tags to match. Always a company to spot a niche, M Audio have now released an interface at a considerably cheaper price of just £350, which nevertheless uses the Firewire protocol to offer far more simultaneous channels than could be supported by the USB 1.1 format.
As its name suggests, the Firewire 410 provides four inputs and 10 outputs. These comprise two analogue mic/instrument/line inputs and eight analogue line outputs, plus stereo digital ins and outs in both co-axial phono and Toslink optical formats. Recording is available at up to 24-bit/96kHz, with stereo playback at up to 24-bit/192kHz on the first two outputs, or 24-bit/96kHz if using all eight outputs. A MIDI In and Out are also provided. This configuration is designed for basic stereo recording while offering the option of routing discrete outputs to an analogue mixer or other outboard gear to add further EQ or effects, or for connection to a surround sound system. I suspect quite a few mobile recording enthusiasts might also like to see the opposite approach — a Firewire 104 with eight inputs for band recording, and a basic stereo output for monitoring.
The 410's casing is 1U (44mm) high and 160mm deep, and at 235mm wide is slightly larger than half-rack width; in line with its portable design brief, no provision has been made for rack ears as accessories. The case itself is utilitarian grey, but the silver-sprayed front panel is very attractive with its deep bevelled edges, silver coloured knobs and chrome buttons.
The two inputs are quite versatile, each having a Neutrik combi socket on the front panel wired to accommodate either a balanced mic plugged into the outer XLR part or an unbalanced instrument (such as a guitar) plugged into the inner jack part. Separate quarter-inch jack sockets for unbalanced line-level signals are included on the rear panel, and are activated by pushing in the front-panel Mic/Line buttons. I much prefer this approach to switched sockets where plugging something into one deactivates the other, since you can leave both your mic/instrument and line sources plugged in and switch between them at will.
The low-noise mic preamps have a globally switched +48V phantom power option, and provide up to 66dB gain. There's also a switchable 20dB pad for each one, to cope with hotter signals (drum mics or guitars with active pickups, for instance), and each mic/instrument input has its own rotary gain control. The line-level inputs have a fixed sensitivity of -10dBV unaffected by the gain controls, and the input section is completed by a pair of front-panel LED indicators for each input which display Signal (around -30dB) and Clip (3dB below clip point) levels.
Next to the input controls on the front panel is a rotary control labelled Level Controller, described in the 410 manual as a "software-assigned rotary encoder for tactile control of monitor levels", which I'll come back to later. Atop this are eight output signal level 'blinkies' that flash when signals are present at each analogue output socket.
Twin stereo headphone outputs are next, each with its own rotary level control, although both carry the same signal. The final section on the front panel contains S/PDIF in and out signal indicators, a MIDI Thru switch which, when depressed, routes the MIDI input directly to the MIDI output for stand-alone use without a host computer, a switch and indicator for global +48V phantom power to both mic inputs, and a power switch.
This power switch has an associated blue LED indicator which also provides status information. Fast flashing indicates that the Firewire firmware isn't loaded, which can happen during the bootup process, slow flashing shows that the 410 has been detected but that it isn't yet switched on, while once you press the power button the 410 gets initialised and you should get a steady blue glow.
The rear panel contains the two line input sockets and eight line output sockets (all of which are on unbalanced quarter-inch jacks at -10dBV level), a pair of phono and a pair of Toslink optical sockets for the S/PDIF ins and outs, twin Firewire connectors, MIDI In and Out sockets, and a socket for the supplied but optional 12V DC power supply (see Powering The 410 box). Usefully, the labels for all the rear-panel I/O are duplicated at the back of the top panel to make it easier for you when working 'over the top'. The fact that there's a second Firewire socket on the back panel means you can still plug in an external Firewire hard drive if you're using a computer with only one socket of its own, although M Audio recommend that the 410 be the end device in a Firewire chain if possible.
Firewire 410 Brief Specifications
Sample rates: from 32kHz to 96kHz, plus 192kHz playback only to output channels 1/2 and headphones.
Analogue inputs: two, balanced XLR with switchable global +48V phantom power, or unbalanced TS quarter-inch jack instrument, both using mic preamp with up to 66dB gain plus optional 20dB pad, or unbalanced line-level TS jack at fixed -10dBV sensitivity.
Analogue outputs: eight unbalanced TS quarter-inch jacks at -10dBV level (can directly drive up to 7.1 surround), two headphone outputs with individual level controls.
Digital I/O: S/PDIF in and out on phono co-axial and Toslink optical supporting AC3 and DTS formats.
MIDI: In and Out.
Connection to computer: two six-pin Firewire ports.
Frequency response: 20Hz to 40kHz, +0/-1dB.
Signal-to-noise ratio: -104dB
Dynamic range: 108dBA
THD + noise: 0.00281% at 0dBFS.
Dimensions: 9.25 x 7 x 1.9 inches.
On the PC, the 410 is supported under Windows 2000 with Service Pack 3 or later, and XP with SP1 or later, but not under Windows 98 or Me. On the Mac, you'll need Mac OS 9.2 or later, or OS 10.1.5 or later. Since Emagic abandoned further PC development of Logic Audio, M Audio have also had to change their software bundle, which used to feature the 24-bit-capable Delta Logic sequencer. The new bundle consists of Ableton's Live Delta, Arkaos VJ Lite, DSound RT Player Express, IK Multimedia's Sampletank Free and Linplug's Free Alpha synth.
As always, I disregarded the supplied driver CD-ROM and went straight to M Audio's web site to download the latest drivers. It's particularly important to do this with radically new products from a particular manufacturer, since driver updates tend to come thick and fast as lots of new users get their hands on them and find unexpected bugs. In my case the XP version 1006 drivers on the CD-ROM had already jumped to version 10013, curing ASIO problems with Wavelab 4 and background noises with multiple tracks in Sonar, and improving ASIO buffer handling with small buffer sizes. These drivers don't support multiple 410 units, but this is promised "in the near future".
Whatever your computer platform, it's important to run the 410 installer program before plugging in the Firewire 410 itself, so that the various files are pre-copied to your hard drive. Following the driver installation you must reboot your machine, at which point you can plug in the 410, power it up, and have your new hardware properly detected. Apart from the usual stereo output pairs on offer to the majority of music applications, the Firewire 410 drivers also provide 'Multi' input and output options to suit surround-enabled applications.
M Audio's Control Panel software for the Firewire 410 is completely new, and looks and feels totally different to the control panel supplied with their PCI and USB products. There are four main pages labelled Mixer, Output, Hardware and About. The last of these simply provides details of software and hardware versions, covering driver and panel software, boot loader, firmware and hardware.
Some controls are visible across all four pages, including Reset, Save, Load and Delete buttons to manage the control panel settings, assignment for the rotary encoder, Mute and Dim (-20dB) buttons for the main output, and graphics showing which Firewire 410 unit is currently being controlled if multiple units are connected — although, as mentioned previously, the drivers currently only support a single unit.
Like the Monitor Mixer page of the old M Audio control panel, the new Mixer page provides separate control over all 10 of the playback channels (eight analogue and two digital), plus the four inputs (two analogue and two digital), arranged in stereo pairs. Each channel has level faders — although as always these are best left at maximum to maintain optimum audio quality unless you're creating some sort of monitor mix — along with peak-reading meters, Link buttons for stereo fader control, Solo and Mute buttons.
Each stereo pair also has a bank of routing buttons, which by default patch channels 1/2 to hardware outputs 1/2, channels 3/4 to outputs 3/4, and so on, although you can re-route each mixer channel pair at will to any combination of outputs. The hardware input channels are left un-routed by default, since you may want to set them up from within your chosen music application, and they also feature pan controls so you can position up to four mono input signals in your stereo image.
The Aux Sends are a new feature, and let you set up a completely different submix, perhaps for monitoring on headphones or to send to a hardware effects unit. Each channel has a rotary Aux control, and the level of the combined signal is displayed on a peak-reading meter beneath the S/PDIF software return channels. Since multiple channels can be routed to the hardware outputs, and the summed signals can therefore cause clipping, additional meters display the Output buss levels.
On the PC, the 410 is supported by Windows 2000 with Service Pack 3 or later, and XP with SP1 or later, but not under Windows 98 or Me. A suitable PC should have a Pentium III 500MHz or faster processor and 128MB RAM, and be running Direct X 8.1 or higher. On the Mac, you'll need Mac OS 9.2 or later, or Mac OS 10.1.5 or later, and a G3 of 500MHz or faster, plus 128MB of RAM with OS 9 or 256MB with OS X.
Many people will have noticed the long delay between M Audio announcing the Firewire 410 and it finally becoming available, and the rumours are that this was in order to check the 410 for compatibility with all the available Firewire chipsets. Admirable though this is, it doesn't mean that the 410 will now work with everything, but simply that there are fewer unknowns for potential users.
The M Audio web site provides all the details, and in essence the 410 will work with most of the newer 1394A 'second-generation' products, but not with the older first-generation 1394 ones. A list of compatible 1394A PCI adaptor cards is posted, while Firewire host controllers based on the NEC1394 chip set are not recommended, although you can work round the problems if you're prepared to use the supplied AC adaptor instead of powering the 410 via the Firewire buss (see Powering The 410 box for more details). Apple Macs that meet the minimum spec will all work.
The Output page provides control over the 10 hardware outputs, plus the headphone and Aux busses. Once again there are meters, level faders, Link, Mute and Solo buttons, but this time there's also a rotary Balance control linked to the stereo faders. The 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, 7/8 and S/PDIF outs, along with the Phones out, also have an extra button which by default reads Main, denoting that the output channel gets its signal from the buss assignments on the mixer page. However, if you click on this it changes to Aux, and this is how you can route your Aux submix to any combination of hardware outputs — a very handy feature indeed. The Aux output doesn't have a Solo button, but it does have an extra pair of rotary pan controls.
Having got this far, I can finally explain the function of the front-panel rotary encoder. This has five possible selections — SW Return Bus, Output Bus, Input, Phones or Aux Send — and even then there's more flexibility than at first appears. If, for instance, you select SW Return Bus, a new set of five Ctrl buttons appears in the Mixer's software return channels, and you can disable/enable any of these to provide simultaneous level control of any combination of these signals.
Switching to Output Bus provides similar control over any combination of signals being sent to the hardware outputs, while Input, Phones and Aux are hopefully now self-explanatory. When switching between the five options, the mixer remembers your previous Ctrl settings. Overall, the system is very well thought-out, and the Control Panel's virtual encoder control knob provided me with smooth control over my selected parameters.
However, I found several practical problems with the front-panel rotary encoder. First, it's so closely positioned to input two's gain control that it can be difficult to get your fingers in for a 'twirl'. Second, feedback via Firewire seemed erratic, making the software faders jump about following a smooth change from the front-panel control, and sometimes even causing them to go in the wrong direction. Hopefully M Audio will resolve these issues in a future driver revision, as the concept is a good one.
The Hardware page is much simpler than previous M Audio offerings, with a display of the currently selected sample rate, selection of ASIO/WDM buffer size from 64 to 2048 samples (with a default value of 256), selection of internal or external sync source, and selection of optical or co-axial S/PDIF input signal. By the way, both digital outputs carry exactly the same signal.
Overall, this M Audio control panel is a considerable improvement over its predecessors, primarily because of the extra Aux and Headphone mixing busses. It might be rather overwhelming for new users, but it's good to find this amount of flexibility available when you need it later on.
Powering The 410
The Firewire 410 can be powered parasitically from a six-pin Firewire port, and comes with a high-quality, two-metre six-pin-to-six-pin Firewire cable for this purpose. Although USB 2.0 ports can supply up to 500mA at 5 Volts, six-pin Firewire ports must offer up to 1.25 Amps at 12 Volts, which is simply beyond the capabilities of laptop PSUs and batteries, so many laptops only offer the four-pin variant, which doesn't supply buss power to external devices. A suitable adaptor cable is included for these four-pin Firewire interfaces (commonly referred to as iLink), and M Audio also include a 12V DC 1A wall-wart power supply. However, if you really want to make your recording rig totally mobile, you can buy 12V batteries of varying capacity to power the Firewire 410, as long as you can make up a suitable adaptor lead.
M Audio also have various caveats on their web site, including a warning that although you can buy PCMCIA Firewire adaptor cards with a six-pin port, they don't provide buss power either, since the Cardbus spec doesn't support this.
I immediately noticed hum and mouse-related background buzzes even with one of the FW410's unbalanced audio outputs plugged into my mixer, but I completely cured the problem by using pseudo-balanced cables between the 410 and the balanced inputs of my mixer, giving me very clean and quiet audio. This isn't a criticism of the 410 per se, but it is an increasingly likely occurrence when patching multiple unbalanced audio and system cables into other studio gear, and something to bear in mind if you've got a complex setup.
Having sorted that out, the first thing I noticed in Wavelab was that the 410 didn't start playback immediately, instead ramping up its output over a few milliseconds, presumably to avoid possible clicks. I've noticed other driver developers using this technique in the past, but it's annoying since (for instance) anyone selecting a drum beat for editing won't hear the initial 'thwack'. The problem only occurred with the MME-WDM drivers, and disappeared when I switched to the ASIO ones.
Playback quality with a variety of music was very good, sounding almost exactly the same as my benchmark Echo Mia card (I suspect M Audio are using similar AKM converters, although I wasn't able to open up the 410 to check), and recordings were clean and clear. Using Rightmark's Audio Analyser the dynamic range measured 100dBA at 24-bit/44.1kHz, and 101dBA at 24-bit/96kHz — not quite as good as the quoted 108dBA, but nevertheless respectable. However, frequency response was better than quoted, being just -0.5dB down at 9Hz and 42kHz when running with a 96kHz sample rate, while THD+Noise was in line with the published spec at a low 0.0025 percent at 0dBFS.
Driver performance was also good, with the ASIO drivers managing their lowest 64-sample (1.5ms latency at 44.1kHz) setting on my new PC without glitching, although annoyingly you have to exit your host application to change the value. The GSIF drivers worked well with Gigastudio, and the flexibility of the 410's mixer software even let me mix the channel pairs allocated to Cubase and Gigastudio to a single 410 hardware output — handy! In Sonar 3.0 the WDM drivers also performed very well right down to 1.5ms on my PC, while the Direct Sound drivers managed 25ms with NI's Pro 53, and the MME ones 40ms, both exactly the same as on my Echo Mia.
Apart from the MME-WDM ramping issue, the audio side of the FW410 worked very well for me, but I encountered a strange problem with the MIDI drivers when recording a soft synth. Although I could hear my real-time performance triggering NI's Pro 53 from an Evolution MK225C MIDI keyboard correctly via the Firewire 410 MIDI Input (non-emulated), the timing and length of the notes weren't captured in Cubase SX recordings, leaving me with a part where every note started at the same time in the song, and lasted for its entire duration. M Audio UK at first suspected a rogue unit, and sent me a replacement, but this behaved exactly the same. However, only the next day a new driver version arrived, and it completely cured the problem — this is an excellent result, and shows that the M Audio driver developers are responding quickly to user feedback.
However, a number of outstanding issues are still documented by M Audio on their web site at the time of writing this review. These include problems booting from an external Firewire hard drive with the 410 connected, problems with Apple's I-Sight, intermittent clicks when receiving an external digital clock signal but still using the internal clock (although you can circumvent these by switching the S/PDIF input selection to the other digital input), a few issues with Mac OS 10.2 'Jaguar', and clicks when stopping or starting audio playback using the WDM drivers with Sonar and Sound Forge 6.0 under Windows 2000 (apparently a Microsoft problem). I suspect this is why the current Windows 410 drivers now exhibit the ramping I mentioned earlier.
The Firewire 410 looks good, sounds good, and I was impressed by the flexibility of its input and output options, and its mixer software; I wasn't so impressed with the missing playback start or the sluggish rotary encoder feedback, although these will perhaps be minor issues for many musicians.
Thousands of units have apparently already been sold worldwide, and as you might expect with a company's first foray into a new technology, a few of these users have experienced teething problems. However, it's surely to the company's credit that they are being so open about these problems, and many are specific to particular hardware or software configurations, meaning that they won't affect all that many users.
It is to be hoped that M Audio can resolve the current driver issues, and judging by their response to my MIDI findings, they seem to be doing this very speedily — if they can keep this up, most problems may be resolved by the time you read this review. As always, it's wise to visit the M Audio web site to check the latest situation, but for the vast majority of users I suspect the Firewire 410 is already an attractive product at a good price.