Apogee introduce their own take on the DSP‑powered audio interface.
There was a time when people expected hardware plug‑in platforms to become outmoded as host computing power increased, but it doesn’t seem to have come to pass yet. Avid’s Pro Tools HDX is still going strong, as are Universal Audio’s UAD2, Antelope Audio’s AFX and the Waves/DiGiCo SoundGrid system. Now, with the Duet 3 (reviewed SOS April 2022 issue) and Symphony Desktop, Apogee have joined the DSP party.
However, their implementation reflects a widespread change in the role of DSP in audio interfaces. The core benefits are no longer to do with making more plug‑in power available at mixdown. Rather, it’s during tracking that DSP is now seen as desirable. It makes possible technologies such as preamp and mic modelling, and it allows signals to be monitored at extremely low latency, yet still be heard with compression, EQ and other processing. The downside of this is that it complicates the user experience, typically meaning the DAW has to be used alongside a second software package with its own mixer and plug‑in windows, with much potential for confusion and liberal use of the Alt+Tab shortcut.
However, in cases where the same manufacturer makes both DAW and interface, it can be possible to integrate the two much more closely. Avid’s Hybrid Engine, for example, automatically switches between DSP and native versions of a plug‑in depending on whether it is in a live input monitoring path or not, and UA’s LUNA has similar capabilities.
Although they have close links with Apple, Apogee do not make a DAW of their own. So with the Symphony Desktop, they’ve set out to create a ‘hybrid’ interface that is DAW‑agnostic. In other words, they’ve implemented a similar automatically switched native/DSP environment in a way that should work in any recording software that can host Audio Unit, VST or AAX Native plug‑ins. The Symphony Desktop has been on sale for some time now, but hybrid operation was not fully supported until OS v1.2 was released in February 2022, hence the timing of this review!
As the name implies, the Symphony Desktop is a portable audio interface designed to sit on a working surface rather than in a rack. It connects to a Windows or Mac computer, or an iOS device, over USB. Relations with the analogue world are handled by two combi mic/line/instrument inputs, two headphone outputs and a stereo pair of line‑level monitor output jacks. Most of the socketry is on the rear panel, but one of the headphone outs is at the front, and another jack socket adjacent to it duplicates the second instrument input. Up to eight additional input and output channels are available digitally at base sample rates, courtesy of the ubiquitous optical connectors. The connection to the computer is made using a Type C connector, whilst an additional Type A socket is used for plugging in a pen drive when updates are required. I had no problems downloading and installing the v1.2 update: an Apogee‑branded pen drive is included for the purpose, but it seemed to work fine with a generic drive too.
The interface itself is around the size of a thick paperback, and its wedge‑shaped physical construction inspires confidence, especially the thick metal top panel. The only moving part in evidence is a large rotary encoder; all other control is handled using a colour touchscreen. A locking ‘wall‑wart’ power supply is included and is required, there being no option for bus powering.
Like the Duet 3, the Symphony Desktop is designed to be paired with the Apogee Control 2 software, but there’s a lot more to control here, and hence the resizeable window is much busier. Two virtual mixers are available, offering independent control over the level and pan position of each input and DAW playback channel, as well as mute and solo status; other mix parameters such as stereo linking and any DSP effects are global. These mixers can be routed to any or all of the two headphone outputs, single main stereo output and four ADAT output pairs, but it’s also possible to route inputs and DAW playback paths directly to outputs.
Three Step Plan
Whereas the Duet 3’s DSP is limited to a simple but effective channel strip which can be placed only in the record path, the Symphony Desktop’s implementation is vastly more ambitious, both in its scope and its flexibility. Apogee have coded an entire suite of plug‑ins, both in all the usual native formats and as DSP processes that can run within the Symphony Desktop’s own mixer. On top of this, they’ve developed something called Apogee Channel FX. This looks to the host program like a conventional native plug‑in, but is in fact a specially designed ‘container’ plug‑in that can communicate with the Symphony Desktop. The idea is to allow the creation of a single chain of processes that is simultaneously accessible from the DAW, from Apogee Control 2 and from the front panel of the Symphony Desktop.
There are three stages at which Apogee’s processing can be applied to an input signal. First of all, the Symphony Desktop supports Apogee’s Alloy preamp modelling. Like UA’s Unison system, this doesn’t only apply tonal coloration and saturation in the digital realm: it actually changes the physical properties of the mic preamp itself, such as the input impedance. At present, there are two vintage preamp options available as alternatives to the clean Symphony setting. These are modelled on the solid‑state Neve 1066 input channel and the valve Ampex 301, and in both cases you’re given an output level control as well as an input gain control, allowing the preamp to be driven as hard as you like without overloading the A‑D converter. Helpfully, these controls can be linked, so the user can vary the amount of colour without changing the overall level.
The remaining plug‑ins in the Symphony Desktop’s catalogue, which are described in the box elsewhere in this article, can all be deployed in either of the other two contexts: as Print FX or as Monitor FX. As on the Duet 3, Print FX processing is in the record path; Monitor FX, by contrast, are applied only within the monitor path, so they’re not ‘baked in’ to the recorded signal. In both cases, plug‑ins can be arranged in a series of up to four ‘slots’, which can be reordered simply by dragging.
Two Worlds Collide
Monitor FX, and the simultaneous availability of all these plug‑ins in native formats, are key to the Symphony Desktop’s ‘hybrid’ capabilities. When the Apogee Channel FX plug‑in is instantiated on an input channel in your DAW and linked to the relevant input channel in the interface, it mirrors the settings in all three DSP plug‑in chains. More than this, though: it also hosts exactly the same Monitor FX plug‑in chain natively, so when you play back audio you’ve recorded, you’ll continue to hear it with the same Monitor FX applied, except that this is now being done within your DAW. In effect, this allows you to set up a plug‑in chain for the cue mix that is carried over into the actual project when you disarm the track.
A typical approach to tracking a vocal, for example, might see you use the 1066 preamp emulation to add a little grit to the sound, with a high‑pass filter in the Print FX path, plus additional EQ and compression in the Monitor FX path. Settings for all of these plug‑ins can be altered either from Apogee Control 2, from the touchscreen or from a Channel FX plug‑in window in your DAW. The grit and the filter will be printed to disk, but the EQ and compression are duplicated natively within the Monitor FX section of Channel FX. Play back the recorded signal and it’ll sound exactly as it did during recording, as the same Monitor FX are now being applied within the DAW. When you’ve finished tracking that part, you can then unlink the Channel FX plug‑in from the hardware. The Preamp and Print FX sections then disappear, as there’s no longer any linked DSP to control, but the EQ and compression will remain and can be further edited or changed.
Apogee have long had a close relationship with Apple, and the integration of Symphony Desktop within Logic is particularly neat. When you engage Direct Monitoring on a track, channel fader and pan settings in Logic are linked to their counterparts within the interface, so you can alter the level and position of the source within the cue mix directly from Logic. It’s also possible to adjust input gain directly from the Logic mixer without even opening the Channel FX window.
This still doesn’t quite match the level of native/DSP cooperation that is available in Pro Tools with the Hybrid Engine, or between LUNA and Apollo, and nor can Apogee call on the same huge libraries of third‑party plug‑ins that are available in the AAX and UAD formats. But their implementation has the big positive of being largely platform‑agnostic, meaning it should work pretty well in almost any DAW. In that respect, it bears some similarities to the Waves/DiGiCo SoundGrid system, except that SoundGrid is really optimised for much larger setups.
The triangular mirroring of information between Apogee Control 2, the Channel FX plug‑in and the touchscreen is generally excellent, but does fall down in one small respect. There are on‑screen buttons in Apogee Control that tell you whether Print FX and Monitor FX are switched on for each input, but nothing to tell you whether any plug‑ins are actually loaded. The only way to tell whether an input is being processed or not is to open the plug‑in window for that channel.
The Symphony Desktop’s DSP resources are finite, and a percentage readout informs you how much capacity is used at any given time. My tests suggest that it would be difficult if not impossible to max it out using only the two analogue inputs; however, Print FX and Monitor FX are also available for the digital inputs, and some DSP economy is probably advisable if you want to use them across eight or 10 channels simultaneously. It’s not possible to use the Symphony Desktop’s DSP at mixdown within your DAW, as you can with Universal Audio’s UAD plug‑ins for example.
It should also be pointed out that if you do need to monitor through the DAW, for example because you want to use an amp simulator or other software effect that’s not available as part of the Symphony Desktop’s own plug‑in package, you won’t achieve state‑of‑the‑art low‑latency performance. At the smallest 32‑sample buffer size, both Logic and Reaper reported a round trip latency of 8.4ms on my system at 44.1kHz: perfectly usable, but rather higher even than is usually available with Apple’s built‑in Core Audio USB driver.
Pretty much everything that can be adjusted from Apogee Control 2 is also available directly on the front panel of the interface — you even get recognisable plug‑in windows.
You’d expect an interface costing this much to sound good, and the Symphony Desktop has impeccable audio credentials. The preamps offer 75dB of digitally controlled gain with a highly impressive EIN figure of ‑129dB unweighted. A‑weighted dynamic range on the inputs and outputs is 123 and 129 dB respectively, while Apogee’s “zero Ohm” headphone outputs also promise — and deliver — excellent quality. This level of audio performance is still relatively unusual in a desktop interface, but the Symphony Desktop really does come within spitting distance of Apogee’s flagship modular Symphony I/O. The only fly in the ointment is that, like most other Apogee interfaces, it reserves the jack inputs for instrument‑level signals, and expects line‑level inputs to arrive on XLRs. This seems to me inconvenient, and makes it possible to accidentally apply phantom power to a line‑level source.
As a premium‑quality desktop interface with built‑in DSP and hybrid operation, then, the Symphony Desktop is out of the ordinary, but it’s not unique. The two most obvious competitors are UA’s Apollo Twin X and Antelope Audio’s Zen Tour Synergy Core. The Twin X is somewhat cheaper, despite having a very similar complement of I/O, and provides an entry point to a much, much wider ecosystem of DSP plug‑ins that includes not only mic preamps, EQs and compressors but also guitar processors and studio effects. It also comes with the free LUNA recording software. On the downside, it is only a true ‘hybrid’ interface when used with LUNA. Antelope’s interface, meanwhile, has more I/O than the Symphony Desktop, includes built‑in talkback and offers the choice of Thunderbolt or USB connection. Like the Twin X, it also offers access to a much broader range of plug‑ins, which again includes guitar amps and effects as well as mic modelling. Antelope’s AFX2DAW plug‑in allows the hardware processing to be used within a DAW, but there is no real equivalent to the Symphony Desktop’s hybrid tracking workflow. One might point out, additionally, that the UA and Antelope interfaces are both part of wider product ranges, and have rackmounting counterparts with a higher I/O count. Although the Symphony Desktop does have some points in common with Apogee’s flagship Symphony I/O, that interface does not have the same DSP platform built in. If you want the features of the Symphony Desktop but with a different I/O configuration, you’re currently out of luck.
However, the Symphony Desktop does have one outstanding feature that neither of these rivals can match. Whereas the Apollo Twin does not have a touchscreen at all, and the Zen Tour’s is of limited usefulness, Apogee’s implementation is first‑rate. Pretty much everything that can be adjusted from Apogee Control 2 is also available directly on the front panel of the interface — you even get recognisable plug‑in windows for the preamps, Print FX and Monitor FX. Touching a parameter such as preamp gain or mid‑band EQ boost assigns it to the encoder, and a bright orange border makes clear which parameter is assigned at any one moment. When linked, changes made on screen with the mouse are quickly and decisively reflected on the touchscreen, and vice versa. I’ve only come across one other touchscreen‑based interface that comes close, and that’s the considerably more expensive Merging Anubis.
One of the main goals of a hybrid system is to make it unnecessary to leave the DAW environment to make changes in the input and monitor paths. Many attempts to implement such a system fall down on this very point, but the Symphony Desktop’s touchscreen makes all the difference. It’s not often you can say that an audio interface is a pleasure to use, but I think the Symphony Desktop absolutely deserves that compliment.
Six native/DSP plug‑ins are currently available for the Symphony Desktop’s Print FX and Monitor FX slots, all of them EQ or dynamics processors. Symphony ECS Channel Strip, the DSP version of which is bundled with the Duet 3, is included here in both native and DSP variants. It’s a streamlined but pretty versatile input channel with high‑pass filter, low‑ and high‑shelving EQ bands plus a single midrange band with two switchable Q settings, a largely preset compressor and a ‘drive’ circuit. The order of the compressor and EQ can be changed, and there’s a very useful selection of presets supplied by legendary mix engineer Bob Clearmountain. Talking of which, the Clearmountain’s Spaces reverb is also bundled with the Symphony Desktop; this is a native‑only plug‑in, which makes sense, since reverb is a relatively resource‑intensive process which doesn’t particularly benefit from being used in a low‑latency environment.
The other five hybrid plug‑ins are also included free, but only in their DSP variants. If you want to add the native versions, which is necessary in order to exploit the hybrid Monitor FX capabilities, you’ll need to pay extra. Two of these plug‑ins are licensed versions of the classic Pultec EQP‑1A and MEQ‑5 equalisers, which should need no introduction, while the final EQ option is ModEQ 6. As the name suggests, this is a ‘modern’ digital EQ plug‑in with six bands. The outermost bands are high‑ and low‑pass filters; two further bands are switchable between parametric and shelving modes, while the central two bands offer a choice of parametric or notch response. There’s plenty of control on offer either for broad tonal shaping or detailed surgical work. The EQ curve is shown on a clean graphical display; when used in the Monitor FX slot, this also shows a spectrogram of the audio content.
ModEQ 6 has a dynamics counterpart in ModComp, a highly versatile digital compressor. This provides fully variable attack, release, ratio and threshold settings along with additional controls such as a variable knee, optional auto‑release, wet/dry mix, choice of compressor ‘styles’ and two‑band sidechain EQ. If you want something more vintage, meanwhile, Opto‑3A recreates the UREI LA‑3A, and adds in some useful controls for shaping the tone of the sidechain. Overall, the suite is well put together and covers a lot of ground. The Mod plug‑ins are as clean and effective as you’d hope, Opto‑3A has a really nice bounce to it, and the Pultec plug‑ins do that thing of letting you add implausible amounts of high‑ or low‑end boost without sounding strained.
If there’s anything obviously missing from the Symphony Desktop plug‑in suite at the moment, it’s processors targeted at DI guitar and bass recording. There are currently no amp simulators, stompbox‑type effects, or even a tuner. I hope this is something Apogee will consider for the future, because DI guitar is an obvious use case for this sort of hybrid signal processing setup, and I’ve no doubt the Symphony Desktop’s variable input impedance has something to offer here.
- Excellent sound quality.
- Superb touchscreen implementation.
- Hybrid configuration allows processing to be applied with minimal latency during recording, and switched to native operation once tracking has been completed.
- Neat preamp emulation including variable input impedance.
- Relatively limited array of plug‑ins compared with rival DSP platforms.
- If you do need to monitor through software, low‑latency performance is not the best.
- Line inputs on XLRs only.
The ability to have plug‑ins automatically switched between native and DSP modes has well‑established benefits for tracking, and Apogee’s small but well thought‑out interface adds comprehensive touchscreen control to the mix.
£1399 including VAT. Additional native plug‑ins from $99.
Sound Technology +44 (0)1462 480000
$1495; additional native plug‑ins from $99.