Much more than just an audio and MIDI interface, Edirol's UA700 also incorporates a preamp with DSP effects, microphone and guitar amp modelling.
With the current clutch of external audio interfaces growing with every trade show, it seems as though the days of craning one's neck behind a PC to see if the plug's come undone are permanently behind us. Doing their bit to add to your selection are the seemingly tireless people at Edirol, who now bring us the latest in their line of Audio Capture devices: the UA700.
Like its ancestor, the UA100 Audio Canvas from parent company Roland (reviewed in SOS February 2000), the UA700 is a USB interface that combines multiple input options within one tidy, brushed-aluminum package. Add to that onboard mic/guitar-amp modelling effects and the wealth of options on board should give project studio owners and laptop users pause before they plunk down serious cash for a competing USB or Firewire device with fewer features.
Within its sturdy, utilitarian shell the UA700 delivers up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution, one-in/one-out MIDI connectivity, two combo XLR/TRS mic sockets, a high-impedance guitar/instrument jack and one set of line inputs on RCA phonos. There are also co-axial and optical digital inputs and outputs on the back panel. When a digital device is connected up to the optical jack it takes priority over the co-axial connector, blocking all signal input from the co-axial side. A small two-position switch alongside of the optical input selects whether the complete mix or the data from the digital inputs is sent along to your PC.
At approximately 10 x 7 x 2.5 inches (WDH) the unit doesn't consume a tremendous amount of desktop real estate, and at 1.3kg in weight, there's little worry that the UA700 will shift position if accidentally jostled. It does, however, require its own external power source, unlike some comparable interfaces such as the Digidesign M Box, which draw their power directly from your PC via the USB cable. If I allow myself to quibble slightly over the otherwise efficient design, I could point out that the action on the generally solid knobs and switches might have been improved somewhat, particularly on the controls with fixed positions. There's none of that pleasant weighted rotary control feel that you find on something like the Keyfax Phat Boy controller, and there's no comforting snap when a control is fixed in position.
Installation under Mac OS (OS X is supported) or Windows is equally effortless for those keen to let the operating system automatically detect new peripherals. Once the USB connection was made and the UA700 was powered up, both platforms discovered the unit and began to hunt for the appropriate drivers. For those who'd rather meticulously go through the setup process on their own, the manual is helpful and provides surprisingly explicit step-by-step directions.
Depending on what software you plan on having the UA700 communicating with, the unit can operate in either standard (16-bit) or advanced mode (24-bit). The standard 16-bit drivers do not support ASIO on either platform. Once the drivers are installed (the accompanying CD-ROM includes both ASIO 1 and 2 drivers in 16- and 24-bit flavours, as well as FreeMIDI and OMS setups for Mac users), the sample rate is selected by a convenient Sample Rate Select switch. Moving between sample rates is as easy as exiting your audio applications, repositioning the rotary control, and switching the UA700 off and on again before restarting your software.
The UA700 is armed with what Edirol refer to as Fast Processing Technology (FPT), a driver and hardware-based solution that allows MIDI data to take best advantage of the potential transmission speeds of USB. While the driver side of the FPT formula optimises the available USB bandwidth depending on the amount of MIDI data coming across the wire, the hardware end of the system attempts to optimise how the data is processed.
In practice there were no latency issues when triggering soft synths via my trusty MIDI keyboard through the UA700, and large MIDI files played back effortlessly through my sequencer even while I did my best to busy my laptop with other operations. What did seem a bit glitchy was the software's occasional inability to respond to my MIDI controller keyboard when switching back and forth between applications. However, this only seemed to be in evidence with my Windows PC and not in my Mac environment. Rebooting the PC as well as cycling the power on the UA700 cleared up the problem on the few occasions that it happened.
Once you're ready to set your recording in motion you can monitor incoming signals via the Input Monitor switch and its accompanying rotary control. With the switch lit your mic, guitar, or line input signals will output from the master output, headphone, or digital output jacks.
Sonar and Cubase users can also use the UA700 to start/stop playback and recording. By binding the unit to the Sonar with the Options / MIDI Devices menu option you can now use the sequencer control switch in the Utility section of the UA700 to control whether your sequencer is in motion.
Beginning with the mic input section to the left side of the unit, the two XLR/TRS inputs have independent gain controls. The stereo/mono switch decides whether Mic 1 and Mic 2 will be recorded on separate channels (stereo) or mixed into one signal to be recorded on both left and right channel. The UA700 can provide phantom power to the tune of 48V, 10mA for both mic sockets when the switch beneath the jacks is engaged. A -20dB pad and low-frequency cut switch are also included in the mic input section.
Getting on to the ways that the UA700 hopes to distinguish itself among comparable USB devices in the marketplace, we press on to the onboard mic effects and mic modelling. The three separate controls set microphone input and output models and the mic distance, and encompass a wide variety of potential mic simulations. Operating without the luxury of having a spare AKG C3000B or Roland DR20 around for the sake of comparison, I can say that the UA700 made rather nice work of my garden-variety SM58. Selecting the Vintage CN setting for the output masked the SM58's own character and produced impressively warm trial recordings. The additional use of the six-position compression selector and the adjustable level control made further tweaks to the overall tonality a breeze. And while the built-in de-esser may not even match some of its software rivals, when I used it in conjunction with the Noise Suppressor & EQ section there was an appreciable drop in sibilant 'S' and 'T' sounds.
Perhaps one of the key elements that the UA700 includes in its ambitious range of features is Roland's Composite Object Sound Modeling or COSM. By combining various bits of COSM modelling technology to "emulate all the various components in the signal chain", guitarists plugging into the UA700 are given more than a generic likeness of the original amp: COSM is purported to model all aspects of the original down to the speaker cone.
The basic procedure for using the UA700's amp modelling section is simply to plug in, select the guitar amp and speaker type desired, and hold down the Guitar Amp Modeling switch for a minimum of three seconds. Once the switch begins to blink you are free to adjust the custom parameters in the guitar effects section, which double as Level, Pre-drive, and Edge when operating in this mode. Press the Guitar Amp Modeling switch again to exit the custom parameter adjustment mode and you're set to play. You can repeat the same procedure with the Chorus/Reverb and the Compressor/De-esser effects, and the unit will return to its factory settings once the UA700 has been powered down.
The manual includes six examples of effects patches which you can recall via the Sample Rate Select switch, and I was able to concoct a monster Frampton-esque pseudo-vocoder sound by twiddling with the custom parameters and the phaser setting. The signal was incredibly crisp as monitored directly from the UA700, and the riff that I transmitted over USB into my laptop was equally clean.
While I found most of the amp settings intriguing and on the money as far as delivering a model that matched the description, I was a little less than satisfied with the range of the delay effect. Although I spent a fair while experimenting with various combinations of depth and rate, the variations of delays I could achieve couldn't match the range and flexibility built into my old yellow DOD pedal.
While Firewire audio and MIDI interfaces remain thin on the ground, USB is a serviceable option that may you serve well, particularly when price and simplicity are paramount — the UA700 retails for less than half the price of most rackmounted Firewire solutions. It stands out from other USB devices thanks to its unusual feature set, and the inclusion of microphone and amp modelling will be major selling points. I was surprised to see that the unit was not bundled with any sort of basic recording software, but overall, the UA700 is an ambitious device which largely delivers on all its promises.
- Good sound quality.
- Compact and portable.
- Easy to use, especially the effects.
- Support for OS X and ASIO 2.0.
- Tactile response from rotary controls could be better.
- No software bundled with unit.
- Occasional MIDI communications glitches.
As an attempt at putting together an all-in-one product combining respectable audio quality, sound modelling, and a range of effects, the UA700 does a good job. Its ability to reliably transfer both MIDI and audio data in and out of a PC makes it an inviting solution, particularly for portable recording setups.