The much-anticipated Hercules 1612FW Firewire interface supplies an impressive quotient of analogue I/O at a very attractive price.
Guillemot Corporation are already very well known for their range of ATI-based 3D Prophet graphics cards, Prophetview LCD monitors, Smart TV tuner cards, consumer soundcards including the Fortissimo, Game Theater and Digifire ranges, and Hercules multimedia speakers. However, they have only occasionally dipped their toes in the waters of 'professional' audio interfaces — I reviewed their Maxi Sound 64 Home card way back in SOS February 1997 and John Walden looked at their Maxi Studio Isis in SOS June 1999.
Both retailed at under £250 and were aimed at musicians on a budget, but this time round Guillemot have launched a rather more ambitious product. The Hercules 1612FW is, as its name suggests, a 16-in/12-out Firewire audio interface, yet is still offered at an enticing retail price of just £439. The bundle also includes Steinberg's Cubase LE and a special edition of Ableton Live, and sounds almost too good to be true.
The smart 1U-high case with its silver-sprayed front panel and black metalwork is significantly narrower than a normal 19-inch rack at about 13.5 inches wide, but is bundled with optional rack brackets, or you can attach a set of self-adhesive rubber feet if you want to use it as a desktop device.
As with the majority of audio interfaces, the total of 16 inputs and 12 outputs implied in the name includes both analogue and digital I/O: there are 12 analogue inputs and eight analogue outputs, plus stereo co-axial and stereo optical S/PDIF, along with two MIDI Ins and Outs. Two of the analogue inputs have mic/instrument preamps with controls on the front panel, although unusually, the preamps are connected to channels 11/12 rather than 1/2.
These comprise a Neutrik Combi connector for balanced/unbalanced mics on XLR plugs, or balanced/unbalanced instruments on TRS/TS-wired quarter-inch jacks. The mic preamps can provide up to 55dB of gain via their rotary controls, and you can bypass them completely to switch to line level by turning them to their clickable 'off' positions. The associated Instrument buttons change the input impedance from 10kΩ to a high 100kΩ impedance more suitable for most guitars, and there's also a global button for +48 Volt phantom power.
The front panel is completed by a stereo headphone output and its associated volume control, hardwired to outputs 1/2 and sited on the extreme left, an on/off switch with associated blue LED power indicator, a pair of MIDI In and Out sockets and two rows of LED indicators — the inputs use tricolour green/amber/red units to display signal present, -6dB and clip levels, while the output LEDs light up green when a signal is present.
The back panel contains the other 10 analogue input sockets plus the eight analogue outputs, all on TRS-wired quarter-inch jacks for balanced or unbalanced operation and software-switchable between +4dBu and -10dBV levels, along with pairs of phono and Toslink optical sockets for the co-axial and optical S/PDIF, BNC connectors for word clock in and out, another pair of MIDI sockets, the six-pin Firewire port, and a socket for the supplied 15V AC wall-wart power supply. Unlike many other Firewire audio interfaces, the Hercules 1612FW can't be powered from the Firewire buss.
The bundle is completed by an extremely generous 4.5-metre-long six-pin to six-pin Firewire cable, a six-pin to four-pin adapter for those using a PC laptop, plus a full version of the Cubase LE MIDI + Audio sequencer and special edition of Ableton Live 2.04 with a discount offer on the full version. Overall this is an impressive array of features in a smart-looking case. All the jack sockets are gold-plated, and the only disappointing aspects of the review model were that two of the three rotary knobs chafed on the front panel slightly as I turned them, and the rear-panel jack sockets didn't feel very secure.
- Mic/instrument inputs: two, balanced XLR with switchable global +48V phantom power, or balanced/unbalanced TRS quarter-inch instrument jack, 0 to 55 dB gain range, 10kΩ or 100kΩ input impedance, or line level at +4dbU or -10dBV.
- Analogue inputs: 10, balanced/unbalanced TRS quarter-inch jack, +4dBu or -10dBV sensitivity.
- Analogue outputs: eight, balanced/unbalanced TRS quarter-inch jack, +4dBu or -10dBV sensitivity.
- Digital I/O: S/PDIF in and out on phono co-axial, S/PDIF in and out on Toslink optical, word clock in and out, two MIDI Ins and Outs.
- Dynamic range: 105dB (A-D), 114dB (D-A).
- Supported sample rates: 32, 44.1, 48 and 96 kHz from internal clock.
- Frequency response: not stated.
As always I paid a visit to the manufacturer's web site before installing the interface, but for once the bundled version 1.0 CD-ROM drivers were the most recent on offer. These support Windows XP with Service Pack 1A or Windows 2000 with SP4 on the PC, or Mac OS X 10.3. As usual, you install the drivers before plugging in the rackmount unit for the first time, but I've never known Windows detect so many devices on a single audio interface before — there are six in total, comprising ASIO, WDM, and GSIF analogue, plus optical, co-axial and MIDI digital.
The Hercules 1612FW Mixer utility is functional rather than decorative, but of course it doesn't need a faux brushed-aluminium finish to do its job. It's divided into three main areas: at the top are monitoring and clock options, while the other two main areas are devoted to the Analogue Inputs and Analogue Outputs. Each of the 12 inputs has a slider with five gain settings in 3dB jumps over a 12dB range, the lowest being calibrated as +4dBu sensitivity, and the -10dBV setting being provided with an extra 9dB gain (strange, since there is actually 11.8dB difference between these two standards, so the full +12dB gain would seem more appropriate). All other settings are regarded as Custom, and this extra flexibility can be useful when optimising recording levels. Another unusual feature is that each of the input pairs can be software-switched between balanced and unbalanced operation.
The eight analogue outputs have similar gain sliders to set output level, although this time the +4dBu position is at 0dB, -10dBV at -9dB, and the sliders continue right down to -125dB, so they act as digital volume controls. Input and output pairs can also be linked for stereo operation. The outputs can be used either as balanced or unbalanced, and for a unit of this price the option of balanced analogue I/O throughout is very welcome.
Even before I received my review unit, several SOS readers had asked me to investigate the Hercules' zero-latency monitoring, and I can see why. Unlike most Control Panel utilities, the Hercules' has no level meters, and indeed the unit itself has no onboard DSP mixer for monitoring purposes, in contrast to interfaces from the likes of Echo, Emu, M Audio and Terratec. Instead, you can choose a single input channel pair to be routed to hardware outputs 1/2 with 'zero' latency (the actual latency value is that of the converters, plus that set by the buffer size in the Audio Transfer page, which defaults to 1ms but can be dropped to 0.5ms).
This two-input limitation probably won't bother those recording racks of synths, while those recording with more than two mics will need additional preamps anyway, and may therefore require a small mixer and be able to use that for monitoring purposes. However, if you intend to record more than two simultaneous inputs and need to monitor them simultaneously through your computer, you'll need to disable hardware monitoring and rely on the higher-latency path through your DAW's buffers.
As is becoming common with other recent audio interfaces, WDM support comes in the shape of a single multi-channel driver rather than a set of stereo pairs, and an Advanced Properties page lets you choose how many channels are associated with it (ranging from two for stereo to eight for 7.1 surround). This is ideal for surround playback applications, but while some applications like Sonar will let you access all the individual channel pairs from a multi-channel driver, others such as Wavelab will default to using channels 1/2, which can make life trickier. However, the S/PDIF optical and co-axial inputs and outputs get their own stereo drivers, and the S/PDIF page in the mixer utility provides settings for the dreaded SCMS flags so you can attempt (if you so desire) to prevent your digital copies being further cloned.
Auditioning the converters and clock of the Hercules 1612FW against my Echo Mia and Emu 1820M proved to be a closer race than some I've attempted, but after matching their output levels to within 0.1dB, setting all three up in Cubase SX and then switching between them blind, I eventually picked out the Emu 1820M as the winner once again with its tight imaging and open, natural sound, particularly on vocals. The Echo Mia came in a close second with a slightly warmer but clear sound and good imaging, while the Hercules was just slightly behind them both, with a subtle but still noticeable harshness and slightly less focused image. However the differences between all three were fairly small, and most potential users will be delighted with the Hercules' audio quality, given its excellent price.
My Rightmark Audio Analyser results confirmed the Hercules' published spec of a 105dBA dynamic range at 24-bit/44.1kHz (this is the overall loopback result; the D-A converters by themselves are even better at a published 114dB). The frequency response measured 0.5dB down at a good 8Hz and 21kHz with a 44.1kHz sample rate, but the top end didn't extend at all when running at 96kHz, still being 0.5dB down at 21kHz, which limits the advantage of using higher sample rates; as a consequence, the dynamic range remained almost the same at 96kHz. It doesn't support 192kHz sample rates at all, although I don't personally see this as much of a disadvantage. Stereo crosstalk was fairly good at about -103dB, while THD levels were low at 0.006 percent, although this is still a factor of 10 higher than some others such as M Audio's Firewire 1814 and Emu's 1820M.
It's hardly surprising that Guillemot's Isis sold very well, with eight-in/four-out capability at £250, but sadly it left many users disgruntled about motherboard incompatibilities, high latency, and the lack of any Windows 2000/XP drivers. This has understandably left some musicians wary of buying another Guillemot interface, so I paid particular attention to its driver performance.
I had no problems running the GSIF 1.7 drivers with Gigastudio, while the Direct Sound drivers managed a 35ms Play Ahead setting in NI's Pro 53, compared with 30ms for the latest Echo Mia drivers and just 10ms for Emu's 1820M. I did try the lowest-common-denominator MME drivers, and the Hercules scored a poor 70ms against 45ms for both the Echo Mia and Emu 1820M, although few people have to use these nowadays. After running the Sonar 4 Wave Profiler for WDM Kernel Streaming I couldn't get the WDM drivers to run below 23ms without glitching, which is disappointing.
However, these lacklustre Direct Sound, MME and WDM results are largely academic, since for the vast majority of musicians it's the ASIO performance that counts, and it's here that the options also open up. From the ASIO Control Panel you can sync the Hercules 1612FW from its internal clock, or from the word clock, S/PDIF optical or co-axial input signals. The buffer size defaults to a conservative 1024 samples (23ms at 44.1kHz), but in both Cubase SX 3 and Sonar 4 I was able to drop this right down to the lowest 64-sample setting with no glitching, for a latency of just 1.5ms at 44.1kHz. This is an excellent result.
The drivers are multi-client in that you can allocate the same channels simultaneously to ASIO and GSIF drivers (I had no problems running Cubase SX and Gigastudio on outputs 1/2 for instance), but you can't currently use ASIO drivers with two applications simultaneously. Hercules do promise this functionality later on, and also hint at firmware updates to improve other aspects of performance, although as always you should make buying decisions based on what's available now.
Overall I thought the technical performance of the 1612FW very good for the price, although you won't really benefit from 96kHz sample rates, and I did notice a 0.5dB gain discrepancy between the channel 1/2 output levels on the review unit. This is unlikely to cause many problems in practice, but shouldn't really happen.
If you want a Firewire-based audio interface, the most obvious competitors to the Hercules 1612FW are probably M-Audio's Firewire 1814 and Edirol's FA101, both at very similar retail prices. Of the three, the Firewire 1814 offers the greatest potential number of audio channels because of its ADAT I/O, and it also provides slightly better dynamic range than the Hercules, supports 192kHz sample rates, and has a more extended frequency response at sample rates of 96kHz and above. However, there are only eight analogue inputs and four analogue outputs, and only the analogue outputs are balanced, where the Hercules scores highly for those without ADAT requirements in offering 12-in/eight-out analogue I/O that's totally balanced, plus twice as many MIDI ports.
The FA101 provides a closer spec, offering eight-in/eight-out balanced/unbalanced analogue, plus S/PDIF optical and single MIDI I/O, and like the 1814 it does support 192kHz sample rates. However, there's no co-axial S/PDIF, and only offers a high-impedance option on one rather than two inputs.
Overall, the biggest strength of the Hercules 1612FW is that it offers four more analogue inputs than either of its main competitors, plus twice as many MIDI ports. On the other hand, its audio quality lags slightly behind them both, its hardware monitoring is less flexible, it doesn't support 192kHz sample rates, and it can't be powered from the Firewire buss, which won't make it so popular for mobile recording. Nevertheless, at £439, the Hercules 1612FW is remarkable value for money for a 12-in/eight-out analogue audio interface with co-axial, optical, word clock, and two MIDI In/Outs, and it's hardly surprising that so many musicians are already interested in it.