The first fruit of the Yamaha–Steinberg union is finally with us, but does it provide the hardware/software integration that Cubase and Nuendo users have hoped for? And what is there to tempt users of other DAWs? Let's find out...
Although primarily a software developer, Steinberg have made occasional forays into hardware territory over the years: the Houston Remote Controller for Cubase and Nuendo, the innovative but ill–fated Midex interfaces, and a range of Steinberg–badged audio interfaces manufactured by RME.
When Yamaha purchased Steinberg in late 2004, many people wondered what future collaborations there might be. After all, Yamaha have produced some revolutionary audio interfaces in their time, such as their DSP Factory (which contained the inner functions of an 02R digital mixer), and the SW1000XG (an inspiring combination of audio interface, MIDI synth, digital mixer and DSP multi–effects unit), as well as championing software and hardware integration.
Well, the wait is over, since Steinberg and Yamaha have combined their expertise into three new products. We'll be looking at the CC121 Controller in SOS shortly, but first under the spotlight are the MR816 CSX and MR816 X — Firewire audio interfaces with built–in DSP effect suites that take software and hardware integration to new heights.
Although the interface names don't exactly trip off the tongue, they do explain all the functional elements of the two available models. Both are 'MR' (Mixing and Recording) audio interfaces containing eight Class–A mic and instrument preamps, and a total of 16 I/O channels — eight analogue, and a further eight in digital ADAT format. Two of the ADAT channels can also be switched to S/PDIF coaxial, and you can use both optical and coaxial I/O in stereo S/PDIF mode. BNC word clock In and Out are also available to sync other professional gear.
For those with more ambitious I/O requirements, the Mac and PC drivers also support the daisychaining of up to three units (or two units when run at 88.2 or 96kHz sample rates) via the dual rear-panel Firewire ports, for up to 48 input and output channels. Although it's not possible to bus–power the MR816 series, the supplied Yamaha–badged wall–wart has a robust screw–lock connector, and I was impressed by overall build quality and finish.
While we're briefly focusing on the unit's back panel, one omission is obvious — there's absolutely no MIDI connectivity. It is, admittedly, hard to see where they could have found room to squeeze in the ports on the crowded rear panel, but it's still a little surprising given Steinberg's reputation for the quality of the MIDI side of their sequencers.
Both units also feature the REVX DSP reverb effect. In fact, there's only one functional difference between the two: the extra 'CS' of the MR816 CSX lets you know that each of its eight input channels features a 'Sweet Spot Morphing Channel Strip'. We'll take a look at this in the 'DSP Effects' box.
As with various competing interfaces, two of the eight input sockets are on the front panel (the first also sports a high–Z option for guitar or bass use), while the rest are at the back. This makes it easy to plug in a couple of impromptu signals, but once the interface is installed in a rack the other six inputs would probably need to be connected to a patchbay to make them more accessible.
All eight inputs feature Yamaha's new D–Pre discrete Class–A mic preamps, each with its own rotary gain control, combi socket (supporting both balanced and unbalanced signals) and dual–colour signal/peak indicator. Channels 1 and 2 also feature TRS insert sockets on the rear panel so you can plug in external effects. You get individual +48V phantom power on each input, plus –26dB pads to deal with high–level signals.
Yamaha engineers claim that these are the best preamps they have ever designed, and I was certainly impressed with their sound, which is clean and detailed with plenty of 'air', yet not without character. They also offer a huge amount of gain (up to 84dB) if you need to record quiet sounds, but are extremely quiet, to minimise the background noise contribution.
A clutch of LED indicators on the front panel display the current sample rate (from 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96kHz) and clock source (either Internal, S/PDIF, ADAT or word clock). The final four LED indicators show the current function allocated to the two 'Multi–function Encoder' knobs alongside: 'Phones' lets you use the encoders to separately alter the level of the two front–panel headphone outputs (which sound very clean and powerful). 'Master' uses the first encoder to simultaneously set the output level for the Analogue outputs, and the second for the S/PDIF and Optical outputs. The third and fourth functions are for the REVX and channel strip Morph effects, so we'll look at those in the 'DSP Effects' box.
Analogue outputs come in the form of eight balanced TRS jack sockets, found on the rear panel. These could also be pressed into service for 7.1 surround productions if required.
All of the above features can be used within any Mac or PC sequencer application via the supplied MR Editor software utility, for making settings, configuring routing and so on, and you can store and import up to 20 mixer 'scenes' at a time, each containing every single interface setting. I found the MR Editor easy to understand, even without reading the manual, and all of its current settings are stored within the unit, and remain intact even after it's powered down — so after initial setup you could use the MR816 as a stand-alone mixer or A-D and D-A converter without needing a computer to be connected at all.
However, if you're using Cubase 4.5.1, Nuendo 4.2.1, or the bundled Cubase AI 4 (a 'streamlined' version that nevertheless supports up to 48 audio tracks and 64 MIDI tracks), you can abandon the MR Editor and gain access to a bevy of extra functions that Steinberg collectively term 'Advanced Integration'.
A key example is the Quick Connect function of the front-panel button and indicator above each input gain control. These provide instant routing, meaning that if you select a Cubase audio track and press the desired Quick Connect button, that input will be automatically allocated to that channel (in the case of stereo tracks, a pair of channels are allocated), and when you select a different track in your project, the relevant QC indicators flash to indicate which inputs are routed to it. Moreover, each time you add a new audio track to your project, hardware inputs will be automatically allocated to it, and a single press of a different QC button provides on–the–fly re-routing. Quick Connect is a great idea and works well, providing instant visual feedback and one–click re–routing during recording sessions.
Various competing interfaces provide built–in DSP effects — such as EQ, compression and reverb — that you can patch into your input and output channels using the manufacturer's own stand–alone utility. This can be a great way to add effects to monitor mixes with zero latency or enhance your mixdowns. Steinberg's MR816 series lets you do this as well, using the MR Editor software. But wouldn't things be a lot easier if control of all these DSP functions could be incorporated into your sequencer application? Well, that's exactly what Steinberg have done with their 'True Integrated Monitoring' and 'Dynamic 1:1 Hardware/Software Mirroring': when running Cubase or Nuendo, all the hardware I/O handling, effects, and so on pop up where you would expect them to.
So each Cubase input channel allocated to an MR816 input gains extra controls for phase invert, 80Hz high–pass filter, REVX reverb sends, and the Sweet Spot Morphing Channel Strip insert effects (which can be added solely to the monitor mix, or applied to recorded signals as well). You can also create multiple zero–latency performer mixes using 'Studio Sends' in the Cubase Control Room window, and every audio stream, whether direct, routed through the hardware, or with DSP effects, remains in perfect sample–accurate sync.
Steinberg make the new user's life easy by adding eight new Project templates to the existing collection (four for each MR816 model), covering multi–channel and stereo recording as well as vocal and instrument recording. As soon as you launch one of these you'll see your new DSP effects laid out ready to use in the Cubase or Nuendo mixer. You can also use the DSP effects during mixdown via the Control Panel (accessed from the Cubase or Nuendo Device Setup window), choosing from several modes.
Across both MR816 models and all modes you always retain access to the eight analogue inputs and outputs, and in 'Normal' mode both models offer eight digital Ins and Outs as well, for the total of 16 DAW I/O channels (with the DSP effects either allocated to the analogue or digital inputs). However, by choosing External FX mode you can transfer the DSP effects to the output channels, albeit at the expense of the digital I/O buses (although all your input DSP settings will be remembered by your project the next time you switch back).
On the MR816 X model you simply get the send and return buses of the REVX reverb on DAW I/O channels 9 and 10. With the MR816 CSX, channels 9–16 provide a choice of four External FX modes: eight mono instances of the Sweet Spot Morphing Channel Strips, four stereo ones, six mono plus the REVX, or three stereo plus the REVX.
The MR816 series have ASIO and Core Audio drivers for Apple OS 10.4 or higher, and ASIO and MME–WDM drivers for Windows XP and Vista 32–bit (no 64–bit versions are yet available). Yamaha have also tested the MR816 series with a wide range of Firewire chip sets and recommend Agere, TI and VIA, but not NEC. On my PC I managed to run the MR816 CSX at the lowest available buffer setting of 32 samples, giving a quoted input latency of just 1.247ms and Output latency of 3.923ms, and experienced no problems with the drivers throughout the review.
Steinberg take the audio performance of this unit very seriously, comparing it favourably with various units costing up to £1400, and within a few seconds of powering it up and plugging my Sennheiser HD650s into its headphone output, I knew I was listening to something special. Using Rightmark's Audio Analyser Pro 6 I measured the 24–bit, 44.1kHz dynamic range at a good 106dBA, distortion levels at a low 0.002 percent, and stereo crosstalk at an excellent –106dB. The frequency response was also very flat between 18Hz and 20kHz, but didn't seem to extend with a 96kHz sample rate (although the freqency response of the preamps does extend to nearly 100kHz).
However, measurements are only part of the story, and I was far more interested in subjective audio performance using my audio comparator. As I rather expected, once I'd balanced the levels of each interface to within 0.1dB, it only took a couple of seconds to confirm that Steinberg's MR816 CSX surpassed my usual Emu 1820M benchmark, making the Emu sound warm but woolly and distinctly unfocused by comparison. Instruments played back through the MR816 were more tangible, as if you could reach out and touch them.
So, for the first time, I thought I'd raise the benchmark and see how playback compared with that of my Lavry DA10 DAC. The MR816 certainly provided a good challenge, and I spent a lot longer on this comparison, but the Lavry pipped the post for its slightly better focus and extremely natural sound, as well as its more open distant soundstage (the MR816 provided lots of front-to-back depth, but distant sounds seemed a little constricted by comparison). Considering the Lavry DA10's two channels of audio playback will cost you about the same as the entire MR816 X, this is damn good going for the Steinberg!
I know some musicians have been concerned about long–term reliability and support, but the beauty of the MR816 series is that, unlike past Steinberg hardware designs whose teething troubles have been at the mercy of sub-contractors or OEM companies, for the first time these are Steinberg and Yamaha's own products.
The MR816 series offers truly excellent audio quality for the price, and anyone who does a lot of recording will find its DSP and zero–latency monitoring facilities invaluable. Steinberg have also done their best to make most functions available to users of any Mac or PC sequencer application, courtesy of the MR Editor utility.
However, for musicians, producers and studio owners who use Cubase or Nuendo, the feature set becomes significantly more exciting, with all the effects and routing so tightly integrated that you simply forget whether you're using DSP or software plug–ins.
Anyone who buys this as their first audio interface and uses it with Cubase or Nuendo will assume that such amazing integration is normal. However, the vast majority of us, who have previously had to scurry between sequencer and third-party mixing utilities, will see the MR series for what it is: a major step forward in making the recording and mixing process as easy as possible.
If you want a Firewire interface featuring eight mic preamps there are various models to consider, including Focusrite's Pro 26 I/O, M–Audio's Profire 2626, MOTU's 896 MkIII, and Presonus' Firestudio. The closest in terms of features is the MOTU — the only contender with onboard EQ, compression and reverb. However, the Steinberg MR816 models are the only ones to offer such close integration with Cubase and Nuendo, making this a rather unique choice for those who already use these packages.
We've discussed the REVX reverb in the pages of SOS before (see, for instance, our review of Yamaha's AE031 reverb in the June 2005 issue), so I won't go into too much detail here, except to say that its Hall, Plate and Room algorithms are launched via three separate plug–ins, and the front-panel rotary encoders can be quickly allocated to reverb time and return level. To me, the REVX sounded very smooth and detailed, and I was particularly impressed by the realism of the early reflections and the small–room presets.
The mouthful that is the 'Sweet Spot Morphing Channel Strip' (MR816 CSX only) consists of a compressor with side–chain filter followed by a three–band EQ, as found on Yamaha's N–series mixing desks (reviewed in SOS July 2008). Once again, this is easily controlled via the two encoders, this time in charge of the 'Drive' and 'Morph' controls, but only after first using the QC buttons to select which channel to alter.
I liked the Drive concept, which simplifies compression by simultaneously lowering the threshold while raising the make–up gain, so that the output level remains the same while the dynamics change. The Morph control once again provides its smooth transitions between the 'sweet spots' of the five presets (several sets of these are supplied), simultaneously altering attack, release, ratio, knee and side–chain filter, as well as the frequency, gain and mid–Q settings of the three–band EQ. However, unlike the N–series mixer implementation, you can also alter all of the individual parameters by hand from within Cubase or Nuendo, to create your own presets.
Overall, these Channel Strips provide a remarkably quick and simple way to dial in the sounds you're after — it's one click to choose the channel, and two knob twiddles to set up both EQ and compression simultaneously. Very slick!