With its bundled Pro Tools Express software, Avid's new interface could be just the thing for anyone getting started with music production.
The Fast Track Duo is a two-in, two-out USB interface with iOS compatibility. It sits within Avid's 'consumer' range, above the Fast Track Solo (which has but a single mic input) and below the better-specified M Box and M Box Pro. Whilst its M Box counterparts are capable of higher sample rates, they lack the iOS functionality of the Fast Track. Avid's Pro Tools Express version 10 is included as part of the package, so this interface represents a good prospect for those making their first foray into Pro Tools production in a home studio setting.
Out of the box the ABS case seems very robust and well weighted, if a little industrial looking. There are no bright colours here and it almost seems like there is a transfer missing from the front panel. Switches and pots feel both positive and hardy, although the phantom power toggle switch does seem to jut out a fair way. This is a relatively minor quibble, though, as the action is firm enough to avoid the switch being moved in error. There are large, tough rubber strips on the base of the unit to keep it stable on a work surface.
On the front panel there are two combination XLR/jack inputs for connecting either a mic or a direct-injection guitar or bass. Each input has a simple gain control that provides some 48dB of amplification to a microphone signal with no pad or high-pass filter present. A simple monitoring facility is provided, with a green LED representing a signal being present at the input and a red LED indicating overloading. A switch is provided for each input to select between the combination connector on the front and a dedicated line input on the rear of the unit. This is incredibly handy if you wish to leave a line-level device such as a synthesizer permanently plugged in without the need for constant re-plugging. This feature compares favourably with rival interfaces of this size, which tend to have a single instrument input, or jack sockets on combination connectors that toggle between line and instrument level.
On the right-hand side of the front panel, there are main output and headphone level controls, with a 6.3mm socket for the latter. Direct monitoring is controlled with a single on/off toggle switch. There is no input/output mix control or even the option to switch between mono and stereo direct monitoring modes — capabilities that are often found on units of this size. Finally, there are two LEDs on the far right-hand side to indicate USB power and phantom power being present.
On the rear panel is a Kensington lock socket, a global phantom power switch and USB connection. A dedicated 'Tablet' port is provided, via which the Duo can connect with an iPad (2 or later). The two line inputs and outputs utilise balanced TRS jacks. No MIDI I/O is included, giving the unit a similar feature set to that of the simpler M Boxes. On the face of it this doesn't seem to be a huge or expensive drawback, but users may run into trouble on laptops with two USB ports, since the Duo requires a second USB port for the iLok authentication system! Adding a powered USB hub really impacts upon the portable capabilities of such a device, and as such it is a real shame that MIDI couldn't be included to make this box more of a 'one-stop' solution.
Pro Tools Express 10 supports 16 mono or stereo audio tracks, eight instrument tracks and eight auxiliary input tracks. This specification is good for simple mix combinations, but it seems a bit mean that the audio track count has to be limited so severely. Twenty four tracks would have been far better for users wanting to mix material coming in from external sources, and by way of comparison, Steinberg's equivalent DAW, Cubase AI, offers 32 audio tracks. It is possible to import a video track, though. Three virtual instruments are included, as well as a simple, functional range of audio plug-ins.
The ability to add free plug-ins to the software is more limited than with DAWs that support the AU and/or VST plug-in formats. On the whole, freeware Pro Tools-compatible plug-ins are rare, so this may be a consideration for potential purchasers who already have favourite freeware AU/VST plug-ins. However, the bundled plug-ins do constitute a good package for bread-and-butter work without the unnecessary clutter of effects that will never be used. Notably, the Elastic Audio features are included in this version of Pro Tools. This compares very well to the DAW software bundled with other hardware.
Preparing the hardware for use is a very simple process. A quick-start printed guide is included in the box, whilst users can seek out a full user guide online for further detail. Since the Fast Track Duo is class compliant, there is no need for a driver with Mac OS or iOS. A Windows driver has to be downloaded from the support section of the Avid web site.
Downloading and authenticating Pro Tools Express is far more involved, and really requires some time to be set aside. Firstly, you must navigate to an activation web page using a URL found on the activation card inside the box. You then create an Avid Master account as well as an iLok account if you don't already have these (the iLok authenticates the software and plug-ins when running Pro Tools). Pro Tools is then authenticated using an activation code from the card and user registration details are required. Following these steps, the Pro Tools Express installer and virtual instruments installer can be downloaded from the Avid server. Avid suggests that you use their own 'Download Manager' at this point, but this didn't work for me on the Safari browser and the browser's conventional downloading process was used instead. Some 5GB of hard disk space is required for the application and virtual instruments, but this can be reduced significantly if the virtual instrument content is not installed. Finally, the Pro Tools Express licence needs to be added to the iLok by downloading and logging into the iLok License Manager.
For iOS, a cable is included for connection directly to the tablet. Whilst connected to an iPad the Fast Track still needs to be powered via its USB socket using an appropriate USB power adapter (for example the plug that came with the iPad or a powered hub). This means that the majority of users won't need additional hardware to get up and running. However, those with the most recent iOS devices will need an adapter to convert between the older-style 30-pin connector and the new Lightning connector. Be aware that third-party replicas of this adapter are very unlikely to work as they often don't include the internal electronic chip nor do they have all of the pins wired. Therefore, the genuine Apple product is required at a cost of £25$29.
On the Mac, class-compliant operation renders the Avid Core Audio manager (that used to be required to allow the hardware to function outside of Pro Tools) redundant. This was an application used with the M Box series that would open each time the hardware was in use. It caused problems when multiple applications were connecting to the hardware to play back sound, but thankfully is no longer needed.
As part of the review process I put the Fast Track and Pro Tools Express through their paces by recording some acoustic instruments. The first point of note is that the minimum latency possible in Pro Tools Express with this interface is 64 samples. This worked fine for me in practice and I managed to monitor the recordings through the software with a touch of reverb on an auxiliary send for additional comfort! More percussive instruments might require the use of direct monitoring, though. Incidentally, 32 samples can be achieved in other DAWs. This buffer setting worked without fault in Logic Pro, but lead to a distorted audio output when using Reaper.
The mic preamps are functional and offer a reasonable signal-to-noise ratio. They certainly aren't the cleanest preamps amongst units in this price range, but very little gain is required to get a strong signal recorded. Switching between the front and back inputs works well, and allowed me to leave microphones plugged into the front panel and a stompbox plugged in around the back.
The real strength of the package is in the bundled software, and it really is worth considering the merits of Pro Tools Express to be as pertinent as those of the hardware itself. Pro Tools is relatively easy to learn for novice users, and for my money, the Smart Tool makes it the best DAW for simple and efficient audio editing. Add the ability to easily manipulate fade shapes and the intuitive Elastic Audio functions and you have a pretty impressive feature set for editing and mixing. The biggest sticking point, though (apart from the track count), is the limitation on sample rate. Whilst 24-bit/48kHz is perfectly fine for home recording, this limit may be felt when wanting to experiment with mix projects from external sources recorded at a higher sample rate. Instead of just limiting the sample rates within the DAW, the hardware is limited in the same way, with the very same recording quality as the first M Box of many years ago. I really feel that Avid should have moved on a little since then in an attempt to offer a more enticing hardware package!
Looking closely at effects within Pro Tools Express, the included audio plug-ins are all very useful, and the relatively limited range is ideal for home recording purposes. The EQ and dynamics plug-ins sound good and are straightforward to use, and even the humble D-Verb reverb is capable of some respectable results given a little parameter tweaking. The newer AIR Lo-Fi and Distortion effects sound nasty in an incredibly satisfying way, and the capabilities of the Multi-delay and Eleven Free amp simulator go far beyond those afforded by their Cubase AI counterparts. Speaking of Eleven, it was announced just before this review went to press that the full version of Eleven and Avid's MoogerFooger effects bundle will be made available for free to Fast Track Duo owners via the Avid web site, which can only be good news.
The included virtual instruments exude quality, making use of sizable samples. Xpand 2 is a multi-timbral sample-based synthesizer that has hundreds of sounds. Whilst you shouldn't expect lush multi-sampled pianos and the like, there's a useful range of strings, pads, electric instruments and cinematic textures. On first use, the instrument did have some trouble locating its preset sound bank and crashed, but this was rectified after restarting the application. Sculpture Free has a more limited sound set, but those that are included are very tasteful too. In particular, smart controls are introduced to the sampled drum kits to introduce room mic ambience, a compressed talkback mic signal — cue Phil Collins — and add distortion. These really help to bring the sounds alive within the virtual instrument's interface, without having to insert a chain of additional plug-ins, thus greatly enhancing the user experience. Boom — a drum machine with a step sequencer — is also included.
All in all, the Fast Track Duo is a robust and simple-to-operate interface with a relatively modest feature set; what it does, it does well. For users already tied to other digital audio workstations, the majority of the Fast Track Duo's rivals might be a better bet at the price, particularly if MIDI I/O, higher sample rates and low buffer sizes are crucial to your work. However, for those looking to gain experience in Pro Tools, the Fast Track Duo represents an ideal starting point, and Pro Tools Express — with its functional range of stock plug-ins and comprehensive editing features — is capable of some fine results.
The Roland Duo Capture Ex is less expensive than the Avid and also records at qualities of up to 24-bit/48kHz. It has higher-quality mic preamps, but only one of the combination inputs will accept an instrument level. It features iOS and stand-alone compatibility, achieved using a power adapter or batteries. Direct monitoring can be switched between stereo and dual mono modes. It is bundled with Sonar LE.
The Steinberg UR22 is an affordable and high-quality USB 2 interface with pristine preamps, straightforward operation and works at sample rates of up to 192kHz (see the SOS review at /sos/jun13/articles/steinberg-ur22.htm). It doesn't feature iOS connectivity and Cubase AI is bundled. Both alternatives include the MIDI I/O that the Fast Track lacks and only require a single USB port in use.