Offering hands‑on DAW control and a 32‑input analogue console with bus compressor, Focusrite's latest mixer is very impressive indeed — and it's not as expensive as you might expect...
Nobody would deny the creative power and supreme flexibility afforded by the modern Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), but controlling such systems through a keyboard and mouse is often far from ideal — particularly when it comes to more tactile operations, such as mixing and adjusting audio parameters.
This, of course, is where the hardware control surface comes into play, a wide variety of which have become available over recent years. These can range from neat, handheld and wireless units with a single assignable fader and basic transport controls, through to Euphonix's immensely configurable flagship EuCon controller, the MC Pro, and other high‑end devices such as the Control 24 for Pro Tools and Smart AV's Smart Console. The middle ground is dominated by devices that mostly operate under the Mackie Control and HUI protocols, and although there are some frustrating variations in how some DAWs implement these protocols, by and large they offer a reliable and familiar control interface.
Running in parallel with this common modern‑day requirement for a hardware control surface of some kind remains a keen interest in external analogue summing or mixing hardware, along with the obvious practical requirement for some kind of front end (mic preamps) and back end (monitoring chain) hardware to get audio in and out of the DAW conveniently and effectively. Several manufacturers have developed equipment to address these points in various ways — either as isolated sub‑systems or, in some cases, in the form of integrated console/controllers.
The likes of SSL and Allen & Heath have chosen the latter path, and another British company, Focusrite, have teamed up with console designers Audient to create the product under review and have also adopted this approach. Audient's first foray into this complex and competitive field was the introduction of a mechanical variant of their ASP8024 console, which included panel space in the centre to install a standard Mackie HUI hardware controller (or similar), thereby allowing convenient control of a DAW from the console, albeit without any level of integration beyond the mechanical.
The next product on this evolutionary line was Audient's Zen console (reviewed in SOS December 2009) which provided a cut‑down — but still very powerful — analogue console for recording, mixing and monitoring. This time, though, it featured fully integrated (albeit somewhat limited) DAW control and recall facilities: the fader movements of the analogue console could be used to control a DAW's fader movements and record level automation; and a DAW could also be used to record and play back fader movements to control an analogue mix on the console. The Zen also included dedicated transport buttons for DAW control.
The latest stage in Audient's progressive development of integrated DAW control is their new ASP2802 console, reviewed here (running firmware v1.01), which borrows its analogue technology from the Zen but raises the DAW control-system bar to a whole new level. It substantially extends and expands on the Zen's capabilities, while simultaneously coming in at a vastly reduced price.
The ASP2802 is a one‑size‑fits‑all console, and what you see is what you get: there are no options or accessories. Designed to fit 19‑inch racking if required, by removing the side cheeks and fitting optional rack ears (OK, make that one optional accessory!), this is a very modestly sized device, with a wedge‑shaped chassis that rakes the control panel elegantly when placed on a flat surface.
The ASP2802's analogue circuitry, channel signal‑path structure and routing facilities are very similar to those of the Zen, although it only has two auxiliary sends rather than four, and there are no subgroups — this mixer is direct to stereo only. The microphone preamps and all the channel electronics are exactly the same as those in the Zen and have a direct lineage to the original and still highly regarded ASP8024 large‑format console. Each of the eight mic preamps is equipped with a button to activate phantom power, a 12dB/octave, 75Hz high‑pass filter, and a polarity-inversion button, plus a 6‑60dB mic gain control. All very familiar and workmanlike stuff.
Like the Zen, the ASP2802 also boasts dual signal paths through each channel strip, providing pseudo‑in-line functionality. Configurable channel direct outputs to feed a DAW's multi‑channel interface are also available, as are properly balanced channel insert send and return facilities.
The basic console structure comprises eight physical input channels, each with two input paths, as I mentioned (mic/line and DAW) feeding two stereo mix buses: the main stereo output and a separate stereo 'cue' bus. The primary channel path signal is selected from mic/line or DAW inputs, while the cue path takes its input either from the channel path (switchable pre-fader or post fader) or from whichever input signal source is not routed through the channel (mic/line or DAW). The cue signal always routes to the dedicated cue bus via a rotary fader and pan control, but a Cue Assign button in the master control section can be used to route the stereo cue mix bus back on to the main stereo mix bus to expand the number of inputs for mixdown.
The cue bus is intended to feed the artist headphone monitoring, of course, and in the master section an array of buttons can be used to supplement the cue mix bus with feeds from the two aux buses, the control-room monitoring selector, two external stereo DAW inputs (DAW Mix and DAW F/B), the mix of four stereo external inputs and, of course, the built‑in talkback mic (an external talkback mic socket is also provided, complete with phantom power). Comprehensive is a word that readily springs to mind when you examine any aspect of this remarkable little desk! The provision of the two external DAW inputs is intended to allow a monitor mix (DAW F/B) to be constructed within the DAW and output to the console using a pair of spare interface outputs, independently of the main stereo DAW mix, which can then be further enhanced or expanded with some zero‑latency direct feeds using the console's aux or cue bus signal.
The two‑channel aux sends are always derived from the channel path, and the pre‑post switching for each send is performed globally with a button in the master section. At the bottom of each channel strip is a mix assign button and pan control to route the channel signal to the main stereo mix bus. On the fader strip, three large illuminated buttons provide solo, cut and select functions (more later), and the fader is a 100mm touch‑sensitive motorised Alps unit — although this is used entirely as a control fader; no audio passes through it.
Unlike the Zen console, where the audio was always routed via the faders, the ASP2802 employs very high-quality VCAs (THAT's chips, in fact), which are controlled by the touch‑sensitive moving faders. This is the only cost‑effective and practical way of providing the switchable functionality that allows the faders to control either the analogue signal path or the DAW's virtual channels via HUI. One minor point here is that when controlling the analogue channels, the fader provides 10dB of gain above unity and the panel legending is calibrated accordingly. However, when in HUI mode controlling a DAW's virtual faders, the amount of gain above unity is determined by the DAW program itself — in Logic it is 6dB and in Pro Tools it is 12dB, for example, which may cause some confusion if you try to set levels using the fader-plate scale. This is clearly outside Audient's control, and highlights just how non‑standardised different DAWs and HUI implementations still are!
The illuminated Cut and Solo buttons above the faders can affect either the DAW or the analogue signal paths, and a central assign button (labelled DAW) determines which. The Solo button can also be configured to serve as PFL, stereo AFL, Solo‑in‑Place or Solo‑in‑Front via the master section controls. The Select button function can also apply to either the analogue signal paths or the DAW, and that is determined by some more buttons in the master section of the desk, with no fewer than seven different options! Three of these affect only the analogue console operation: SiP Safe, Auto Safe, and Unity. The first isolates channels to prevent them being muted when other channels are soloed (such as reverb returns), while the second does the same to isolate channels from fader automation data from the DAW. The third option provides a quick and accurate method of restoring the channel fader to unity gain, which is useful when you want to sum stems at unity gain from the DAW, or just set the desk up to a known starting configuration.
Three other select modes relate only to controlling a DAW, and include the self‑explanatory Channel Select and Record Enable modes. The Group button is used to group channels together in a DAW, while the last button is labelled Auto Mode and affects both the analogue console and DAW control, establishing the required fader automation modes (read, touch, latch and so on). The analogue fader automation is not internal: it relies on the DAW's built‑in automation system, using 'dummy' audio channels to store the fader automation in much the same way as the Zen console.
If you've been paying attention, you'll know that so far we have identified 16 primary inputs to the 2802 console: eight mic/line and eight DAW inputs via the channels and cues. I also mentioned in passing that there are four additional, fixed‑level stereo mix inputs (via a rear panel D‑sub connector), which are summed together and controlled via a rotary fader, mono switch and balance control in the master section. These summed inputs can be routed as a composite stereo signal to either the mix or cue buses (or both). There are also two independent stereo effect return inputs with all the same fader, mono and routing facilities. That lot adds up to 28 inputs that can be routed to the main stereo mix — which is evidently how the console's name was derived — and is a pretty impressive total for a compact console like this.
However, it's not actually an accurate description of the console's facilities, because there is also provision to route a separate stereo external monitor input (labelled DAW Mix) to the stereo mix bus, and the main mix bus insert point can also be configured to provide yet another mix input, too... So my rusty schoolboy maths suggests that there's a grand total of 32 physical inputs to the stereo mix! That's seriously impressive for a compact 'eight channel' desk.
The channel path has the same comprehensive Direct Output switching options as the Zen console, and the channel bar-graph meters can be flipped globally to reveal the channel signal levels or the direct output levels. A pair of push‑buttons provides four options for the direct output signal routing: direct from the mic/line input stage; post the DAW selector switch and level‑trim control (but pre‑insert); post‑insert point; or after the main fader and cut switch. These are well thought-out options that provide surprising flexibility, allowing an ultra‑short 'mic preamp to DAW' mode, or enabling the use of an outboard compressor‑limiter for compressing 'to tape', or even to allow fader‑riding while recording — and probably several other alternative and useful ways of working too!
On the output side of the desk, the built‑in stereo bus compressor has a mix control that allows instant parallel compression modes, and its input and output can be accessed separately from the rear panel, to enable it to be reallocated to other signal paths if required — a very flexible idea borrowed, once again, directly from the Zen console, along with the ability to use the mix-bus insert as a parallel mix input, as I mentioned above. The master stereo fader is calibrated with unity at the top. This is another 100mm Alps fader — but is not motorised this time — and it passes real audio to the analogue outputs, rather than DC control voltages to a VCA.
The monitoring section is another typically comprehensive Audient design, with buttons to audition the main mix output or a choice of dedicated monitoring sources including the two aux buses, an 'i‑Jack' (mini-jack) input, an external balanced input, or the dedicated DAW mix and F/B inputs. Stereo bar-graph meters sit across the monitor section, and additional facilities are provided for mono, polarity reverse, cut left and cut right, level dim and switching between main and 'alt' speakers. There is also an engineer's headphone output, which is switchable between the control-room monitoring source and the cue source. Although the cue output can audition the control-room source, there is no facility to audition the cue outputs in the control room, other than via the headphones. The monitoring is automatically dimmed when the talkback is active.
Almost all of the audio I/O on the 2802 is balanced, using XLRs for the channel mic inputs, external talkback mic input, mix, cue, and aux outputs, main and 'alt' speaker outputs and the external monitoring inputs (DAW mix, DAW F/B, and external). All of the channel and mix inserts are on pairs of quarter‑inch TRS sockets, with additional balanced jack sockets for the compressor I/O, the stereo effect returns and the channel line inputs. Three 25‑pin D‑sub connectors cater for the channel direct outputs, channel DAW inputs, and the four stereo summing bus inputs. Mains power is via the usual fused IEC connector, with an adjacent power switch, and the link to the DAW host is via a standard RJ45 Ethernet (10/100T) port.
I was surprised to learn that the DAW interface is via a standard Ethernet (Cat‑5e) connection, rather than the more usual MIDI interface, but it is a more modern and effective way of working. Bespoke utility driver software called AuNet is provided to form the bridge between the DAW's remote control interface and the console's Ethernet data stream, and this software will run on either PC or Mac platforms, and in 32- or 64‑bit environments.
Essentially, the AuNet driver creates four virtual MIDI ports, with one pair conveying the control-surface data and the other pair handling the fader automation — each pair associated with a separate HUI interface. The desk can be connected via a standard Ethernet router, and the default 192.168.0.1 IP address can also be changed manually or automatically using DHCP. Configuring the console is actually very straightforward and takes only a few moments, confirming the ATA connection and then selecting the appropriate DAW settings. The data handling inside the desk is courtesy of an ARM7 processor, which I'm told has plenty of capacity for future expansion opportunities.
The 2802 console is designed to appear as a standard HUI interface to the DAW software, and the console has built‑in options to optimise the configuration for Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase and Nuendo — although other DAW configurations can be added through future firmware updates, passed easily from the host computer via the network connection. Updates will be downloadable from the Audient web site.
The bulk of the console's master section is given over to the DAW control facilities, with a full set of large, illuminated transport controls and a jog/shuttle wheel at the bottom. Additional buttons are included for cycle, marker, nudge and scrub functions, along with a standard set of up‑down, left‑right navigation buttons. There is also a Shift button, a setup button (for configuring the system) and a DAW button that toggles the control-surface functionality — such as the faders and mute buttons — between controlling the DAW and controlling the analogue circuitry.
I've already described the seven select‑mode buttons, but above these are four programmable function keys, and above those is a pair of page left and right buttons that accesses additional control parameters for the function currently assigned to the rotary encoders. There's also a button to reallocate the four channel encoders and OLED displays to control channels 5‑8 of the currently selected eight‑channel subset, and a button to flip the channel bar-graph meters to show the DAW channel levels instead of the analogue channel levels. Over to the right is an additional pair of buttons to scroll channels in banks of eight, and an additional quartet of buttons to select the current role of the encoders, with options for Insert (accesses DAW channel plug‑in controls), Pan, Aux and Assign (channel I/O routing). Above all these are the four rotary encoders (which double as switches) and their associated colour OLED displays.
Of course, the complexity here is that the precise functions of each of these buttons and encoders varies to some extent, depending on the capabilities and configuration of the DAW in use, so for simplicity I'll describe them only in terms of working with Logic. The basic HUI control functionality is the same for all supported DAWs — but some ancillary functions vary or are absent entirely.
As I mentioned earlier, the console's fader and mute automation for the analogue signal paths relies on the DAW's automation features, and Audient's superb collection of DAW‑specific manuals detail how to create the required eight dummy tracks. Most DAWs provide a comprehensive set of automation modes, and Logic offers Touch — probably the most useful — Latch, Write and Read options. One possible source of confusion is that the console powers up with automation safe mode automatically selected on all channels — a sensible precaution, perhaps, but it requires the user to manually deselect auto‑safe for each channel as required. The Sel button above each fader is green when Auto‑safe is engaged, and white when automation is enabled, so the status is very obvious once you're familiar with the console.
When working with Logic, the cycle and marker buttons do exactly what you would expect, but the Nudge button is currently unsupported in Logic, and so does nothing at all. The navigation controls move around a Logic project as you'd expect, providing track-select and region-select modes, and when used with the Shift button, they serve to alter the horizontal and vertical track‑display zooms. To scroll around in a large project, the bank buttons move in blocks of eight channels, while using Shift with the bank buttons moves in single‑channel increments. The first four channels in the selected block are detailed in the OLED displays, with the last four being accessed via the 5‑8 button.
The OLED displays also indicate which parameters can be adjusted with the encoder, as selected with the pan, aux, insert and I/O assign buttons — and if there is more than one parameter (as in the case of the various aux sends), the page left/right buttons allow access to them. One function that worried me momentarily, because I thought there was something wrong, is that the OLED backlights dim automatically after a period of inactivity. As soon as you start using the console, they illuminate to full brightness again, which makes perfect sense — but it is disturbing if you're not expecting it, or if you come back to a console where you can't read the displays anymore!
There are also some 'hidden' functions to speed workflow, such as double‑pressing the aux button to flip the aux‑send levels from the four encoders onto the eight channel faders — making it much quicker and easier to set up monitor mixes or reverb sends, for example. The aux button flashes to warn when this mode is active. Similarly, pressing the assign and aux buttons together provides a quick way of accessing the aux send buses to create new sends or re‑route existing ones.
When working with Logic, the four assignable F‑keys are configured by default to clear overload flags and select three alternative screen sets — although these functions can be changed in the DAW if required. (If you're working with Cubase or Nuendo, the function keys currently have no function.)
Although inherently complex and involved, DAW control using the ASP2802's interface is actually very logical and intuitive in practice — it's certainly no more difficult than using any other HUI‑based hardware controller — and Audient's dedicated manual sections covering the different DAWs make learning and configuring the functionality very straightforward, without you having to wade through the irrelevancies of other DAW systems. The OLED displays are quite superb, and the controls are all very tactile and feel solid and reliable.
In fact, the whole thing feels really professional and workmanlike, and frankly I'm amazed Audient have been able to achieve so much for such a modest cost. The audio quality is beyond reproach, and the facilities are well thought‑out and remarkably versatile. Whichever way you look at it, the ASP2802 represents seriously good value for money to anyone wanting to add first-class front end and monitoring facilities to an existing DAW setup, while gaining elegant and well-integrated hardware control. Other manufacturers have a new benchmark to aspire to!
While there are several desks that combine quality analogue paths with some DAW control functions, all have different feature sets and are thus not directly comparable. Personal preferences, required DAW control functionality, workflow expectations, and analogue and digital I/O facilities will determine which product is appropriate. However, contenders include the Allen & Heath Zed R16 and GS R24 consoles (which don't have moving faders) at one end of the range, and SSL's Matrix — as well as their flagship Duality console — at the other, not forgetting Audient's own Zen console, which I've discussed in this review.
Although the ASP2802 can be used to control your DAW, it includes no A‑D conversion options, and there are no USB or Firewire interfaces — so it can't serve as a computer interface itself: you will need to budget for a multi-channel audio interface of some kind to link the console with the inputs and outputs of your DAW. However, this approach is perfectly sensible, given the target market, as it enables the user to specify their own preferred audio interface, and affords the option of upgrading it later as requirements and budgets allow. I suspect that's a courtesy that many will appreciate.
- A very compact, but enormously versatile console.
- 32 inputs to mixdown.
- Superb quality analogue electronics with great I/O flexibility.
- All balanced analogue I/O on sensible connectors.
- No integrated computer interface — the user can select their own.
- Professional standard monitoring and talkback facilities.
- Routable bus compressor.
- Well thought‑out and comprehensive DAW-control features.
- Attractive OLED DAW-control displays.
- No integrated computer interface.
- Control functionality varies with DAW platform — although that's hardly Audient's fault!
This is a seriously impressive, competitively priced analogue console that raises the bar in terms of integrated DAW control.