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Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 I/O

Firewire Interface [OS X/Windows] By Paul White
Published December 2006

Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 I/O

Focusrite take their Firewire interface range to a new level with the competitively priced Saffire Pro 26 I/O.

Focusrite's original Saffire Firewire audio interface was a great first product for the company in the audio interface market sector. It included some very well thought-out ideas, such as a comprehensive control panel that could be used to arrange latency-free source monitoring and custom foldback mixes, and a useful suite of plug-ins with DSP-powered equivalents that could be used to add effects for monitoring. Though it doesn't have the on-board DSP-powered effects, the new Saffire Pro is a big step up in terms of capacity, and puts Focusrite in direct competition with the likes of MOTU, RME, Mackie and Presonus, who have been building multi-channel Firewire audio interfaces for some time.

Right, Focus...

Described by Focusrite as a portable interface, the Saffire Pro is buss-powered, but also comes with a 'lump in the line' power adaptor, which connects to the unit via a locking connector, for stand-alone use or for where mains power is to hand. The power LED shows red when buss powering is used and green when the PSU is connected and switched on. The form factor is nominally 1U rackmounting, though without the included rack ears it sits happily on a desktop or beneath a laptop.

Compatible with both Mac and Windows operating systems, the Saffire Pro incorporates eight Focusrite mic/line preamps, two of which have switchable input impedance, phase buttons and instrument inputs. These are augmented by two sets of ADAT ports that can expand the unit by up to 16 channels at sample rates up to 48kHz, or by eight channels using the S/MUX protocol (which splits each audio channel across two ADAT channels to achieve the necessary data rate) at 96kHz. The unit also includes stereo S/PDIF I/O on coaxial RCA phono connectors, which operates at up to 192kHz. There are two sets of headphone outlets and a global monitor level control with mute and dim buttons. Conversion is 24-bit using Focusrite's own converter implementation, and when all the I/O is active, there are 26 simultaneous inputs and outputs available. Other relevant features are the provision of MIDI In and Out and word clock in and out. Multiple units can be stacked to get even more I/O, but Focusrite advise against daisy-chaining more than three Saffire Pros on the same Firewire port because of Firewire bandwidth issues.

Like the original Saffire, the Saffire Pro includes Focusrite's Saffire plug-in suite, offering EQ, compression, amp simulation and reverb, in both VST and AU formats (including Mac Universal Binary). A separate control-panel application, Saffire Control Pro, comes with the system and is based on the concepts pioneered for the original Saffire to provide flexible monitoring options. Custom configurations may be saved for later use. When necessary, the Saffire Control window can be reduced in size, and it can also be set to behave as a floating window so that it stays on top of other open windows on your screen. Both the control software and the plug-in suite come on the included disc along with a PDF user manual, though the plug-ins need to be authorised (this is easiest done on-line) before you can use them. As the plug-ins are not keyed to the hardware, once they're installed and authorised, you can use them even if the Saffire Pro is not connected.

Normally the Saffire Pro will be used with a computer, and if you don't need the flexibility the control software provides, you can simply use it as a multi-channel audio interface where the sequencer inputs and outputs are routed directly to the correspondingly numbered Saffire inputs and outputs. The control software also provides access to the main hardware settings relating to sample rate and synchronisation. The signal levels feeding the DAW are not modified by the control software, even though monitoring levels can be adjusted there.

The unit can also be used in stand-alone mode as a multi-channel preamp and mixer. This could be useful if, for example, you needed to feed a hardware recorder that had only line-level inputs.

Under normal circumstances, when you're working in stereo, the studio monitors are connected to the first output pair. Because there's a front-panel level control, you can plug in active monitors directly and adjust the level from the Saffire Pro without needing a separate monitor control unit, as long as you've clicked the little 'H' (for Hardware) button next to output level 1/2 on the control panel window. The two phones outputs are fed the same signal as outputs 5/6 and 7/8 respectively, so it is easy to use these to set up bespoke monitor mixes if required. Saffire Control Pro 's default condition is to allow all inputs to be monitored, and there is a slider for each output pair that balances the input with the DAW output for monitoring purposes, so you can get the ideal balance between hearing yourself and hearing the track when overdubbing. As there are no DSP effects in this version, the latency-free monitored signal is always dry. On the whole the control panel is easy to use, though the legending is absolutely tiny, especially the five buttons (mute, solo, and so on) surrounding each of the four output level knobs.

The Ins & Outs

Other than the eight TRS line input jacks, two pairs of which can double as insert points, and the phones outputs, all the audio connections are on the rear panel, with TRS jacks for the line-level outputs and XLRs for the balanced mic inputs. Connecting to a front-panel line input overrides the mic inputs, so you can leave the mic inputs permanently connected to a studio multicore without the need to patch anything. The ADAT optical connectors, word clock BNCs and S/PDIF RCA phonos are also on the rear panel, along with MIDI In and Out DIN connectors and a pair of six-pin Firewire 400 sockets.

Mic inputs one and two have the benefit of switchable impedance, phase invert buttons and instrument mode switches to allow the front-panel inputs to be used with guitars or basses with passive pickups. In common with the remaining six channels, they also have switchable high-pass filters to cut out unwanted (very) low frequencies, rotary gain controls and peak LEDs that warn of clipping. Though more elaborate metering is always nice, you can always get a detailed picture from the meters in your DAW software. A further knob towards the right of the unit controls the monitor level of those outputs that are selected for hardware level control, with associated DIM and mute switches (but no mono button), and to the far right are the two phones outlets, each with its own level control.

Saffire Control Pro software. Here you can set up custom monitoring options, set the clock source and sample rate, and configure the hardware volume control.Saffire Control Pro software. Here you can set up custom monitoring options, set the clock source and sample rate, and configure the hardware volume control.

Phantom power is activated by the control software — there is no physical switch. Phantom power can be turned on or off separately for mic channels one to four and five to eight, but for safety reasons, it defaults to off when the unit is powered down. This means that if you're using the unit in stand-alone mode, phantom power will be switched off unless you take along a laptop to turn it on. By default, the digital I/O ports are also inactive, so must be switched on if needed within the sync section of the Saffire Control Pro software.

When using an ADAT-compatible device such as a multi-channel preamp with an ADAT output (Focusrite just happen to make a couple of these too!), the manual advises sync'ing the Saffire Pro to the connected ADAT device, though if you have both the ADAT in and out connected, there's no reason not to sync the external device to the interface. This is how I work with my own MOTU 828 MkII, to which is connected a Behringer ADA8000 eight-channel mic preamp. The ADAT standard includes a protocol know as S/MUX, which allows two channels of an ADAT port to carry a single data stream at 96kHz. Clearly this halves the number of channels when working at higher sample rates, and the protocol doesn't extend to working at 192kHz. Consequently, if you opt to work at 192kHz, which the main part of the interface is quite happy to do, the ADAT I/O ports are automatically disabled.

The on-screen control panel has a level control fader that sets the level of each input, along with a pan pot and solo and mute switches for inputs one to eight. Mix Group tabs down the left-hand side select which signal group (from analogue, the two ADAT ports and S/PDIF) is controlled via the eight on-screen mix faders, and there's a stereo link to gang left/right fader pairs for controlling stereo sources.

Monitor Modes

As intimated earlier, the Saffire Pro has two monitor modes, which are switchable from the software. This system is lifted directly from the original Saffire model. S/Card (soundcard) mode makes the Saffire Pro function as a standard 10-output soundcard or audio interface, where sequencer tracks one to 10 always feed interface outputs one to 10. Each output pair's crossfader is set to the fully right position in S/Card mode so there's no input signal in the mix. If your system has negligibly low latency, then you could leave the unit set to this mode, though you'd lose out on the ability to set custom monitor mixes from the control panel.

If system latency is a problem, you can use Recording mode, where Saffire Pro outputs may be used to monitor a mix of inputs and DAW tracks. The default mode places the crossfaders centrally to give an equal mix of both. As the inputs are monitored directly rather than being routed via the computer, there is no latency, but also no way to add effects. Sequencer outputs 11 to 26 always feed outputs 11 to 26 of the hardware, regardless of mode.

The original Saffire was the first low-cost unit I encountered that catered for surround monitoring, and the Saffire Pro also does this via its AC3 mode, again activated via the software control panel. In this mode the S/PDIF output can be used to send a digitally encoded surround signal in AC3 or DTS format from DVD-playing software to an external device such as domestic surround amplifier with a digital input and decoder.

A more likely surround scenario in the studio is that you'll want to feed your 5.1 system's active speakers or separate analogue amplifiers from the interface's multiple output jacks, and in this case you need some means to control their levels. This can be done for any or all eight analogue outputs using the Ctrl Link switch. This links all selected gain controls as well as their associated mute and dim switches. Turning on the Hardware switch on any pair of outputs will turn them all on (when Link mode is active), allowing the level control on the Saffire Pro to control all eight levels simultaneously.

Saffire Pro Bundled Plug-ins

There are four included plug-ins, and these seem to be virtually identical to those supplied with the original Saffire, not that there's anything wrong with that. These come in both VST and AU flavours for PC and Mac use. The simplest is reverb, which has just four controls. This produces a respectable algorithmic reverb sound with a bright and steamy decay tail that can be adjusted from short ambience to excessively long. It works fine on vocals and most instruments, including drums, though your DAW may already offer something more sophisticated.

The EQ is rather more flexible, offering four fully parametric bands with switchable shelving modes on the high and low bands. The EQ curves are modelled on Focusrite's analogue equalisers and there are two operational modes: Template and Advanced. Advanced equates to conventional manual operation, but if you're not confident in setting up parametric equalisers, Template mode brings up a choice of presets for voice and various instrument types that can be further adjusted using just four knobs. The main controls are greyed out but still move to reflect the preset values, so if you need to tweak a preset in more depth, you can switch back to manual (Advanced) mode and tweak the settings from there. As an example of how this works, when the Vocal Template is selected, the four knobs at the top of the screen adjust warmth, presence, harshness and breathiness by adjusting both cut/boost and bandwidth at the preset frequencies. This is actually a very nice-sounding equaliser, and the Template mode is surprisingly effective, as it still allows you to adjust the preset values in a very simple but appropriate way.

The compressor is modelled on the Focusrite opto circuit and there's the same type of Template mode and Advanced mode as used in the equaliser. In Advanced mode, the user has full access to threshold, ratio, attack and release and make-up gain, where a gain-reduction meter shows the amount of compression being applied. In Template mode, which covers voice and all the common instrument groups, you only need to adjust one 'More' knob while watching the gain reduction meter to get a result. Again this sounds surprisingly good for a bundled plug-in.

You also get basic guitar amp modelling, with drive, bass, middle and treble EQ and a selection of four amplifier types. There are no effects, but you can add these with other plug-ins if you need to. For me this is the least successful of the plug-ins, as the overdriven sounds come over as somewhat gritty and unconvincing, but for clean or nearly clean electric guitar sounds it works pretty well.

Cutting it?

The Saffire Pro installs easily and the bundled plug-ins can be authorised quickly on-line, though I did have trouble figuring out the serial number of the hardware, as it included what I thought was the word 'PRO' but the 'O' turned out to be a zero. Once I'd sussed this, it worked, but it would be better if each unit included an electronic serial number that could be read automatically by the on-line install process. Note, however, that the unit boots up with the master mute switch on, to prevent unexpected loud noises from the monitors — the down side of this is that you can spend a few seconds wondering why you can't hear anything even though your DAW meters may be bobbing up and down quite happily.

Another issue, and one that is entirely to do with Apple's own Firewire driver, is that the latency was noticeably high, even with small buffer sizes, though I'm pretty sure a revised driver is in the pipeline somewhere at Apple that will resolve this issue, and I'm hoping it will be available by the time you read this review. In the meantime, the on-board zero-latency source monitoring works perfectly well, but of course you can't monitor with effects when working that way. You might ask why Focusrite didn't develop their own driver, as companies such as MOTU do, but the answer has nothing to do with laziness. Their view is that if they use the official Apple driver, there will be no down time rewriting drivers when a major OS change renders the old one ineffective, as new Apple drivers come with each new OS revision when required.

Plenty of analogue and digital connection options are on offer.Plenty of analogue and digital connection options are on offer.The overall audio quality of the interface in playback mode is subjectively comparable with my MOTU system, which is to say that it is very good, given that it isn't a hugely expensive piece of esoterica. The mic amps are clean and transparent-sounding and are typical of what you'd find in a mid-priced Focusrite channel strip or mic preamp (they are derived from the circuit used in the Green range), while the high-impedance instrument input works really well, without adding any significant noise. I found the interface stable with buffer sizes down to 128 samples (I didn't try anything lower), but if you use multiple Firewire peripherals, you need to be aware that hanging them all on the same Firewire port can lead to data bottlenecks, especially if you work at high sample rates. Furthermore, you can't simply assume that each separate Firewire socket on your computer is a separate port — more often than not, two or more sockets share the same controller chip and so share the available bandwidth between them.

If you use other Firewire peripherals that are active at the same time as any Firewire audio interface, and by that I include not only external Firewire drives but also DSP processing devices such as the Liquid Mix, TC Powercore Firewire and SSL Duende, it may help to fit an additional PCI Firewire card to help spread the load. What I'd like to see somebody develop is a piece of software that constantly meters the percentage bandwidth being used on the PCI buss, the Firewire busses, the internal hard drives and the USB ports. If we all had access to such a thing, I think we'd be far better prepared to track down the source of computer crashes or audio glitching.

Having two sets of ADAT ports, rather than the more common single one, really helps if you need to record a complex band setup with multiple drum mics, and if you feel the need to work at high sample rates, you can still have eight expansion channels at 96kHz. Having said that, I tried locking to an ADAT and found the time taken to enable the ADAT mode and then to enable the sync was rather long — around 15 seconds after pressing the respective buttons. To speed this up, there are some preset configurations on the install disc that set up the sync source and sample rate in one go.

At first I couldn't always get the sync to work properly, and when it was working, if I then deliberately disconnected and then reconnected the ADAT to try to force the Saffire Pro to resync, I found that my playback glitched badly, with my Logic Pro software reporting illegal sample rates. It still glitched if I switched back to internal sync as prompted by the on-screen command that pops up when the clock is lost, so I had to switch off the Saffire Pro, then turn it back on to restore sync. It turns out that for trouble-free behaviour when using external digital sync, the sync source needs to be present and valid before you select it as a source in the control panel. Providing you do this it all works fine.

Focused?

Given all this functionality, it seems surprising that the Saffire Pro actually retails for less than most competing designs, including those that offer only two channels of inbuilt mic amplification. It has plenty of I/O for handling serious projects, especially if you team it with one or two ADAT-compatible eight-channel mic preamps, and the built-in preamps are really very good. With the exception of the painfully small legending, the control panel software is easy to use and makes it very straightforward to set up custom monitor mixes. The bundled plug-ins — other than possibly the guitar amp — are really rather good, especially the compressor and EQ. The Template mode (see box, above) also makes it very easy for non-technical people to get good results.

All in all, I'm really impressed by the Saffire Pro 26 I/O, and all that's holding it back at the moment, as far as Mac users are concerned, is the lack of an updated Firewire driver from Apple to get rid of the latency and timing issues that plague any hardware that relies on Apple's own Core Audio Firewire drivers. As I said earlier, I suspect that a revised driver is imminent, as many other interface manufacturers are lobbying hard for this. I'm also a little concerned as to how fussy the ADAT sync system is in relation to needing a valid signal present before you select ADAT as a sync source, though Focusrite are usually on the ball at tracking down and resolving this kind of issue where a solution exists. Once the Apple driver issue is resolved, I have to say that the Saffire Pro is going to be a very tough act to beat at anything like the same price. 

Pros

  • Very attractively priced.
  • Eight high-quality mic amps built in.
  • S/PDIF and ADAT expansion allows up to 26 channels of I/O.
  • Useful suite of plug-ins included.
  • Flexible monitoring options via software control panel.

Cons

  • ADAT sync could be made more 'forgiving'.
  • At the time of review, Apple's Firewire driver resulted in a higher latency than would be acceptable to most users.
  • Some of the control-panel graphics are too small to read easily.

Summary

The Saffire Pro is being held back, as far as Mac users are concerned, by the late arrival of a decent Firewire audio driver from Apple. Other than this issue (which hopefully will be resolved very soon) the Saffire Pro is virtually unbeatable given its performance and price.

information

£499 including VAT.

Focusrite +44 (0)1494 462246.

+44 (0)1494 459920.

sales@focusrite.com

www.focusrite.com

Published December 2006