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Cymatic uTrack 24

Multitrack Recorder & Audio Interface
By Hugh Robjohns

Cymatic uTrack 24

Newcomers Cymatic look set to revolutionise the world of live recording and playback with this remarkably affordable new device.

Cymatic Audio are a fairly new Dutch company, but the people behind the brand apparently have a wealth of experience in designing and manufacturing sophisticated digital audio equipment for the MI market. We reviewed the company’s first product, the LR16 16–track recorder, in the July 2013 issue (https://sosm.ag/jul13-cymatic), and it so impressed the SOS team that it was nominated for an SOS Award!

The subject of this review is closely related in its technology but, as the name implies, it has a greater track count as well as a different form factor. At its core, the uTrack 24 is a 1U rackmounting 24–track, 24–bit digital recorder/player operating with a user–supplied USB 2 storage device, and at base sample rates of 44.1 or 48 kHz. It also supports 16–bit recording, if required, as well as lower track counts from stereo, through 4, 8, 12, 16 and 20, but there is no facility to arm individual tracks for recording — it’s all in the selected group, or none!

If desired, the unit can also be used at 88.2 or 96 kHz sample rates, but with a maximum track count of just eight channels (stereo, and four–channel modes are also available). Although the uTrack 24 might lack some of the ‘bells and whistles’ of high–end competitors’ products, it should be appreciated that the design was deliberately focused on making a very competitively priced product, while retaining as much flexibility as possible.

First and foremost, the uTrack 24 is designed for simple 24–track recording with the live–sound market being its main focus. It can be connected to a console’s direct outputs, for example, to track a gig for later review, or mixing and release. It can also be used for multichannel playback, allowing ‘virtual soundchecks’, or to replay backing tracks (and potentially synchronous MIDI data, too). This replay mode is enhanced by intelligent playlist/set–list facilities, while its instant–start playback functionality makes the uTrack 24 a very powerful tool for applications such as theatre sound. It also features an Autoplay function, where it starts working through its playlist the moment it’s turned on.

In addition, and undoubtedly counting as the ‘cherry on top’, the uTrack 24’s flexibility is increased dramatically by its ability to serve as a conventional 24–in, 24–out ASIO USB interface!

Overview

The uTrack 24 is powered from an external ‘line–lump’ universal power supply, which is a double–insulated (Class-2) device, and it connects to the unit via the typical coaxial plug. There is no retainer for the power cable, which is a bit risky for a machine intended for use in a live–sound environment, and no power switch either. If the power supply is plugged in, the unit is powered up. With a Class–2 power supply, there is no mains safety ground to generate ground loops, which is an advantage for a machine like this.

Analogue audio connectivity is via electronically balanced line–level inputs and outputs on AES59 (Tascam–format) D–Sub connectors, accepting and delivering a maximum of +20dBu for a 0dBFS digital signal. A blank plate at the left of the rear panel hides the digital I/O interface slot, which will accept a range of optional plug–in modules that are promised for the near future. Other rear–panel pluggery includes dedicated stereo monitoring outputs via balanced TRS sockets, as well as a front–panel headphone output — both with their own front–panel analogue volume controls. Word–clock in and out is provided on BNCs for digital synchronisation, and a front–panel TS socket allows a footswitch to be connected for hands–free operation of record, play or play/pause.

Apart from the headphone output on the front and the two quarter–inch jack monitor outputs, all of the uTrack 24’s I/O are presented on eight–channel D–Sub sockets.Apart from the headphone output on the front and the two quarter–inch jack monitor outputs, all of the uTrack 24’s I/O are presented on eight–channel D–Sub sockets.

Several other connectors on the rear panel are inoperative at present, but are provided in anticipation of future firmware developments. A pair of PS2 ‘sync’ sockets will be used to link two uTracks together for sample–accurate 48–track recording, while an RJ45 Ethernet socket will allow remote control, apparently, and a MIDI-out socket is intended for the direct playback of standard MIDI data. Firmware updates seem to be coming fairly rapidly (I performed an update while reviewing the unit), so hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for these promised functions to arrive.

Five huge illuminated transport buttons dominate almost half the front panel and look like they’ve been taken from a toddler’s toy, but they certainly make operating the unit very simple and obvious, which is important in live-sound situations! The record or replay level of each of the 24 input channels is indicated with a single three–colour LED in a row below the transport buttons, providing a basic form of ‘traffic light’ audio level metering. This shows green for signals above –30dBFS, turning to yellow at –6dBFS, and red when the converters have reached overload. However, when a channel is selected in the mix menu these LEDs are used in concert to provide a single 24–LED bar–graph display, which is a very useful feature.

Personally, though, I’m not a fan of this kind of meter colour scheme as it encourages recording with minimal headroom margins. And by the time the red LED lights, it’s already too late! I’d much prefer the metering colours to be either user–definable, or to work with a more usable configuration, such as yellow at –18dBFS and red at –10dBFS. That way, the user would be encouraged to work with a sensible headroom margin, keeping signal peaks mostly in the yellow region, and would be forewarned and able to do something about it when transients get a bit ‘hot’ and push into the ‘red’ region! Since the meter LED functions can be reassigned anyway, they must be processor–controlled, and so changing the firmware to alter the colour breaks should be a fairly simple update.

A large monochrome LCD at the left of the front panel displays the various configuration and user menus, accessed using a rotary encoder with a push–switch action and three push buttons. Operation is very logical and straightforward, and there was nothing obscure that required the handbook to understand. This is a Very Good Thing! The monitor output and headphone volume controls complete the refreshingly simple front-panel facilities.

Disk Assessment

Audio data are stored as polyphonic (multi-channel) WAV files on an external (user–supplied) USB 2 drive connected via the single front-panel USB 2 A–socket — there’s no provision here to run two drives for simultaneous backups (unlike some of the more costly competition). Any FAT32–formatted drive with a capacity between 2GB and 16TB can be used, provided it is fast enough — so most conventional self–powered USB hard disks or SSDs can be used, as well as high–performance thumb–drives.

On the disk, files are stored within a folder called ‘Multitrack’, with each take in its own folder labelled ‘Take0001’, ‘Take0002’, and so on. Inside each individual take folder is one or more polyphonic WAV files, depending on the duration of each take.

There is no predefined recording duration limit, other than the finite storage capacity of the connected FAT32 drive. However, the FAT32 format restricts individual files to a 2GB size limit, and so the uTrack 24’s firmware automatically closes recording files as they approach 2GB, and creates new files seamlessly and without losing any audio samples. To help manage file transfers and provide format conversion between the uTrack 24 and a DAW, Cymatic Audio provide a free software program called Wavetool (for Mac and PC). This is used to re–join the divided 2GB polyphonic WAV files and convert them into separate continuous mono WAVs for each track — which is the format that allows easiest manipulation in most DAWs.

Up to 99 location ‘markers’ can be embedded in the files during a recording (simply by pressing the Play button while in record), and most DAWs will display these embedded markers when reading the uTrack’s WAV files. The uTrack 24 can also loop–record endlessly, which is claimed to be a unique feature, and a five–second pre–record mode ensures no missed starts!

When it comes to checking the recording, an internal DSP mixer allows a stereo monitor mix to be created live, with level, pan, mute and solo controls for all 24 inputs. The mixer is accessed by pressing the front–panel encoder, and the outputs monitored via headphones or the rear–panel balanced monitor TRS connections. Repeated presses of the encoder toggle around the adjustment functions mentioned above, while turning the knob selects the required channel or adjusts the selected parameter value. It’s a slow and fairly tedious process if you want to change each channel’s settings away from the defaults, but very useful nonetheless. Pressing and holding the encoder knob automatically engages the solo mode for the currently selected channel, which is a handy shortcut, and selecting any other channel cancels the solo function.

Playback

In addition to serving as a straight disk recorder, the uTrack 24 can also be used as a playback source for live applications, with up to 24 channels. In this way it can provide ‘virtual soundchecks’ or mix training, as well as replaying individual backing tracks (and potentially live synchronous MIDI data in the future).

The operating software includes a ‘browser’ mode to select playback files, as well as many helpful and intelligent playlist/set–list functions, too, with the ability to edit the list live with seamless playback. Free playlist editing software is also available from the Cymatic Audio web site. If the replay files include embedded location markers, pressing the transport skip buttons will jump to the next/previous markers, and the encoder knob can also be used to scroll through the timeline to select any desired start point.

Instant Play mode is turned on by default, and this pre–loads the selected audio song into the machine’s memory, ready to be played back instantly when the Play button is pressed. With the mode turned off there is a delay of a few seconds as the files are buffered. As mentioned previously, an Autoplay mode is also available which automatically loads and plays a pre–defined playlist as soon as the uTrack 24 is powered up — a useful feature for museums, theme parks and restaurants! The Wavetool software is also useful for preparing DAW tracks for use as replay files on the uTrack 24, by combining multiple mono WAVs into the required polyphonic WAV format, and automatically dividing files into separate chunks if they exceed the 2GB FAT32 limit.

Interface Mode

A USB 2 B–type socket on the rear panel of the unit allows the uTrack to be connected directly to OS X, Windows or iOS computers, whereupon it operates as a conventional 24–in/24–out computer interface — complete with dedicated control–room monitor outputs and front–panel analogue volume control.

When used with Mac OS X (10.8 and up) the uTrack 24 operates as a Core Audio–compliant interface, and no bespoke drivers are required. The same native, driverless operation applies when used with an iPad (iOS 7 and up), too, although this assumes appropriate multichannel DAW software is available and the uTrack is connected via Apple’s iPad Camera Connection kit or a Lightning-to-USB adaptor (depending on iPad model).

For Windows users (XP 2 and up, 32– and 64–bit), the appropriate WDM and ASIO drivers must be downloaded from the Cymatic web site and installed before use. Also included for Windows users is a neat graphical mixer control panel for low–latency monitoring. A setup panel configures the uTrack as an interface, with page tabs to set the sample rate and synchronisation options, buffer size and latency, input and output channel naming, and to confirm the serial number and firmware/software versions. The operation of the mixer panel itself is entirely obvious for anyone with any DAW experience.

Electronics

The A–D and D–A conversion for the 24 analogue channels is courtesy of Cirrus Logic CS42448 codecs, which combine six A–Ds and eight D–As in a single chip. Cirrus describe these devices as being intended for entry– and mid–level devices, such as home theatre and ICE equipment, and the specifications reflect that level of performance. We’re talking here about AES17 dynamic range figures around 102dB (A–weighted). In strict numerical terms, this is quite low compared to most modern interfaces, which are typically around 115dB (A–weighted) and upwards, with the very best reaching the 122dB mark or higher.

However, in the context of live–sound tracking, the slightly reduced dynamic range capability of the uTrack’s converters certainly isn’t going to be the quality–limiting factor, and I had no concerns whatever about the converter noise–floor in practice in that context. Whether the same can be said when using the uTrack 24 as an interface for studio work comes down to expectations and the quality of the studio — but given the uTrack 24’s cost and versatility, I think it is a perfectly reasonable compromise for Cymatic Audio to have made.

Having said that, the THD+N figures on inputs and outputs were very respectable at around 0.005 percent, and overall the converters sounded clean, quiet and neutral, with no obvious coloration or tonal flavour of their own. The rear–panel monitor and headphone outputs are both derived from a separate dual–channel D–A converter based on an AKM AK4430 chip, managing an AES17 dynamic range figure of 103dB (A–weighted). Again, adequate for the intended purpose, but nowhere near state of the art.

The maximum input and output levels via the D–Sub connectors are +20dBu, while the headphones and monitor outputs are 6dB lower at +14dBu. The frequency response is ruler-flat from about 8Hz to just under half the sample rate, as you would expect.

In Use

When a drive is first plugged into the uTrack 24 the unit resets itself and then, if the drive’s not already FAT32, it asks to reformat the disk. Slow thumb drives are detected with a warning display, whereafter the unit automatically decreases the word length to 16-bits and reduces the channel count to a level that the thumb drive can cope with.

When used as an interface, the uTrack 24’s internal DSP mixer can be used to create a low–latency monitor mix, via this graphic mixer interface.When used as an interface, the uTrack 24’s internal DSP mixer can be used to create a low–latency monitor mix, via this graphic mixer interface.

On pressing the Record button, there is an ominous delay of about two seconds, and then all the channel LEDs flash red a few times to indicate it is entering record mode, after which the roundel in the middle of the button changes colour from white to red. With the five–second pre–record mode selected (which it is by default), the last five seconds of audio passes through a buffer memory inside the machine and is dumped to the drive when the recording starts, so this apparent transport delay doesn’t cause any missed audio.

A couple of seconds after stopping a recording, the take is automatically pre–loaded into the buffer memory again, ready for instant replay, and when the Play button is pressed its triangle logo turns from white to green. All of the other transport buttons are illuminated in white.

I was surprised to discover that there is no audio output from the D–Subs when recording, only via the DSP monitor mixer outputs. This means that the uTrack 24 can’t easily be connected permanently within the single (unbalanced) insert point of most mixing consoles (to allow instant replay or virtual sound-checking), as there is no ‘pass–through’ signal to maintain the console’s signal path. Instead, the uTrack would have to be set up with bespoke ‘sniffer cables’ for the recording side, and its replay outputs patched to spare channel inputs. High–end live–sound consoles tend to have separate balanced sends and returns with channel insert switching, so this wouldn’t be an issue, but the low cost of the uTrack 24 means that much of its appeal will be for those typically operating with less well-specified equipment.

Nevertheless, as a basic no–frills disk–recorder, with useful configuration flexibility, the uTrack 24 is a very cost–effective solution providing perfectly adequate quality. The chosen connectivity format may not be the most convenient for typical mid–budget applications, but it is probably the most flexible overall. As a replay source, the uTrack 24 also works very well, and the Instant Play mode is great for firing off audio cues and sound effects, with very easy navigation around cues and within any playlists.

As an interface, the uTrack 24’s converters don’t come up to the technical performance of most, and there are no mic preamps or instrument inputs, but the quality is more than good enough for the majority of practical applications, and this operating mode is a very useful addition to the machine’s versatility. The Windows software and drivers installed without issue on my Win7 64–bit studio machine, and I was able to operate with 64 sample buffers very reliably. Accessing the individual inputs and outputs from all of the DAWs I use (Reaper, Audition and SADiE) was straightforward using the ASIO drivers.

Overall, then, the uTrack 24 is a well–conceived and well–implemented product, priced very attractively, and offering a great deal of versatility. A great many future upgrades are planned which will enhance its capabilities further, and I get the impression that the core functionality and usability is also being improved and honed as user–feedback builds. It’s not the last word in audio quality or technical specifications, but it wasn’t designed to be either! It is a very solid performer delivering way–better quality than is required for the intended live–sound applications, and I feel sure we’ll be seeing a lot of Cymatic Audio’s rackmount recorder at live events all over the world from now on.

Alternatives

The money–no–object stand-alone recorder/player is undoubtedly the JoeCo Blackbox recorder, which is a very mature product benefiting from the designer’s previous experience with SADiE location recorders, and available with myriad interface options. However, at a couple of grand for a balanced I/O model, it can’t be described as cheap.

A more cost-effective alternative is the Allen & Heath Ice 16, which can also be used as a computer interface with both Firewire and USB connections, although this unit is only a 16-track device.

Pros

  • Extremely cost–effective.
  • Highly versatile as a recorder/player/interface.
  • Planned future upgrades, including digital I/O.

Cons

  • External power supply.
  • No cable retainer.
  • No ‘pass-through’ D–Sub audio output when recording.
  • Converter performance is adequate, but below that of most interfaces.

Summary

The uTrack 24 is a very versatile and cost–effective audio recorder/player, which can also double as a basic computer interface. A built–in DSP stereo monitor mixer is included, with dedicated monitor and headphone volume controls.

information

£749 including VAT.

John Hornby Skewes +44 (0)1132 865 381

www.jhs.co.uk

www.cymaticaudio.com

$999.

TruNorth Music & Sound +1 855 878 6668

www.trunorthmusicandsound.com

www.cymaticaudio.com

Published March 2015