The CI2 combines an audio interface with hands‑on Cubase control — and at a very attractive price.
Steinberg are best known for their Cubase, Nuendo and Wavelab software, but even before they were taken over by Yamaha they were making hardware to complement their software, and they were amongst the first companies to launch a serious control surface (the Houston) for the project‑studio market. However, the hardware side didn't really take off until Yamaha's stewardship started to bear rather riper fruit a couple of years ago.
If you've read Martin Walker's reviews of Steinberg's MR816 CSX (in the November 2008 issue of Sound On Sound) and their CC121 controller (in the January 2009 edition), and Tom Flint's review of Yamaha's N‑series digital mixers (in the July 2008 issue), you'll know that Yamaha and Steinberg now offer some excellent project‑studio hardware. Although this, of course, works rather well with Steinberg software, it's important to remember that it is perfectly compatible with other DAW software, if that's your preference.
The MR816 CSX is a nice interface, and for all the right reasons — but it won't suit everybody. For example, perhaps your budget doesn't stretch that far, or maybe you require an interface that's a little more portable. Also, being rackmounting, it doesn't offer you any convenient means of hands‑on control of your software from the desktop... and this is where the latest addition to the line comes in.
The CI2 is a rather more accessibly priced desktop stereo audio interface, which operates at up to 24‑bit, 48kHz and includes basic monitoring facilities, as well as shuttle‑wheel‑based control of Cubase. Hence, presumably, the CI: 'Controller Interface'. As with the other products I've mentioned, although this interface is designed to integrate seamlessly with Cubase, it will also work perfectly well with any sequencer that uses ASIO or Core Audio drivers (in other words, pretty much everything except Pro Tools). The CI2 comes bundled with Steinberg's Cubase AI (Advanced Integration) software, a cut‑down version of Cubase designed to work with Steinberg and Yamaha hardware.
The CI2 comes in a nicely finished plastic casing coloured in a mix of darkish grey and a rather curious shade of 'white with a hint of apple'. The latter is something of a love‑it‑or‑hate‑it affair that I personally found appealing (although I could imagine it looking a bit 'late noughties' in a few years' time).
On the top of the device, there are five knobs and three buttons in the grey‑coloured left‑hand section. The knobs control gain levels for the two preamps, master and phones output levels, and the blend between the input and DAW monitoring signals (which enables you to monitor the input signal at zero latency, whatever the buffer setting in your DAW).
Other than the 'Mix' blend knob, which is centre‑detented, the only means of recalling settings is a series of unlabelled dots, so you'll need to line things up by sight or use your ears if you want to repeat settings precisely. Really, though, most people to whom that's important will probably be looking to spend more on their interface.
The first button is used to set input one to High‑Z mode, for instruments such as guitar and bass; the next button switches to mono monitoring mode (useful when checking for phase issues in your mix); and the third is used to switch phantom power on or off for the two channels globally.
There are also LEDs to indicate when you're approaching clipping on each input channel, and another to indicate whether or not phantom power is active. On the right, in the green section, you'll find a jog/shuttle wheel, adjacent to which is a 'lock' button, and a quadrant‑shaped button to the 'South East' of the wheel, which Steinberg call the 'Action Pad' (the optional footswitch duplicates the function of this button). To the top‑right of the panel are two further LEDs to indicate status of the USB connection, the presence of a sequencer that can make use of the 'AI' functionality (more on this in a moment), and another labelled 'Browse'.
The legending is clear enough, although a little more contrast would have been helpful in low‑light situations — whether you want to turn off the lights and spark up the candles or you're simply trying to use it on stage as part of a laptop setup (which the bus powering should make it ideal for). Produced by Yamaha in Indonesia, the box has an overall build quality that seems reassuringly solid.
All the CI2's connections are located on the rear panel. Each of the two input channels is presented as a space‑saving Neutrik combi jack/XLR socket, with the XLR feeding the mic input and the jack feeding the line. As I mentioned before, the first input can also be switched to function as a high‑impedance jack input.
The main left and right outputs are each presented as a mono balanced jack socket, and there are two further sockets for headphone output and footswitch input. Finally, to the left, is a USB socket which enables the CI2 to be used with your Mac or PC and supplies the unit with power. (You need to plug this into a powered USB bus). There's no digital audio I/O, but on an interface at this price point that's no real loss, unless you happen to have a favourite mic preamp with digital outs.
Probably the most important aspect of any audio interface is audio quality, so I'd better start with that. As Martin Walker discovered when he reviewed the MR816, the mic preamps offer plenty of clean gain, albeit with a tiny bit of character of their own, and sound rather nice for this price. They sound better, in fact, than most Yamaha preamps I've heard over the years, and I'd certainly have no qualms about using them in a typical project‑studio situation — or any recording situation, for that matter. There's something wrong if you can't get a good sound out of these preamps with the right mics.
The stereo monitoring is similarly high in quality, presenting a decent stereo image and plenty of depth on the main outputs and the headphone output, which did a decent job of driving my Sennheiser HD650s. The mono button is useful, although I'd have found it more so if it were possible to route the signal to a single speaker rather than both, to give a truer mono output — but, to be fair, I can't think of any other 'affordable' interface that offers this.
I should also note here that I was able to get combined input and output latency in Cubase 5 down to a very usable 6.76ms on my MacBook Pro.
The two things that really make the CI2 different from other interfaces are the jog/shuttle wheel and the 'Action Pad' button. The idea behind the Action Pad is to make repetitive tasks much easier to manage. Press it (or the footswitch) once and a pop‑up panel appears telling you the cycle of actions that subsequent presses will step through. By default, this is set to (1) record > (2) stop > (3) return to start position. The footswitch could be a very useful addition for guitarists wanting a remote control for recording multiple takes. However, you can also define and save your own sequence of actions, with cycles of up to six actions allowed. This is very handy.
The shuttle wheel, or 'AI Knob' and Lock button are used for control of editing and mixing functions in Cubase. The knob is assigned to control whichever object (such as a channel fader in the Mixer window) is underneath the cursor, and the Lock button is used to fix the AI Knob to that parameter. Again, very simple, but very handy.
Even if you don't use Cubase, the AI Knob, Action Pad and Lock button all transmit MIDI data, so it should be easy enough to assign them to commonly used functions in another DAW.
I don't really have that many criticisms, more a wish list of features to be added. For example, when using the full version of Cubase 5, you need to use two USB ports: one for the CI2 and one for the dongle. It would be great to see the CI2 include an on‑board eLicenser (formerly Syncrosoft) dongle. Also, a couple of the buttons ('Hi‑Z' and 'Mono') could do with an LED to indicate status, which isn't easy to see in poor light.
On the whole, though, I find it really hard to fault the CI2. True, most modern 24‑bit audio interfaces have decent converters, but in this device, the drivers are also good, stable and offer impressive latency. The clean‑sounding preamps are as good as any I've heard in this price range, and the associated software is mercifully unfussy. The jewel in the crown is the additional control functionality, which I found to be a very simple and elegant approach, and I can see it appealing to newbies and Cubase 'power‑users' alike. .
There are numerous USB audio interfaces in this price range, but the CI2 is the only one I'm aware of that offers this degree of integration with Cubase.