It's been nearly four years since Lexicon last produced an audio interface. Does their new USB-based Omega system have what it takes to challenge the likes of Digidesign, Edirol and M-Audio?
The Lexicon name, for most SOS readers, is synonymous with 'reverberation'. High-end, mid-range, affordable, software plug-ins... reverb is what Lexicon do best. Yet to another market, they mean home theatre electronics — and if the product under review here is a success, we will also learn to associate them with desktop audio.
This is not an entirely new move for the ambience-meisters: Lexicon produced an expensive PCI card/breakout box combo dubbed the Studio back in 1998 (reviewed SOS July 1998), a major draw of which was the option to tag on what was effectively a PCM90 reverb in daughterboard form. This was followed two years later by the Core 2 system (Core 32 was the name of the Studio system's PCI card), a much more affordable ASIO-compliant PCI card/breakout box combo. The Core 2 (reviewed SOS May 2000) could also accommodate a reverb daughterboard, albeit one based on a lower-end Lexicon product than the PCM90.
The world moves on, however, and changes in computers and their interfacing standards mean that when Lexicon decided to produce a new audio interface — the Omega, subject of this review — they took a different approach. The Omega connects to the host Mac (Mac OS X only) or Windows PC (XP/2000) via a USB connection. This is perhaps the only real surprise regarding the Omega: not that Lexicon are making an audio interface, but, given the way things are going — or at least given the way I'd like things to be going! — that they've made USB their interfacing protocol of choice. This is not USB 2, but USB 1.1, which has been known to show a lack of willing bandwidth when asked to do too much by way of streaming digital audio. I'd have thought Firewire (or one of the variants thereof) would have been the more desirable option, even if the hardware was still kept simple in terms of the number or audio channels available.
But that simplicity is perhaps what makes the Omega work. It provides eight audio input channels, but restricts the number of USB input channels to four, arranged as two streams of two channels each; a stereo mix return, from the software running on your computer, is also part of the stream, alongside a welcome MIDI In/Out pair. None of this should overtax the USB connection, and indeed it doesn't.
As an interface, the Omega is well designed, and ergonomically pleasing, with the features many of us want, at a price that isn't astronomical — in fact, I'd say, at the risk of jumping ahead of myself, that the £329 tag equals rather good value.
Upon first seeing an Omega press release, I was minded of a bulked-up Digidesign M Box. Lexicon's interface has twice the width and twice as many knobs as Digi's Focusrite-designed audio box, but the two have much, superficially at least, in common. Both come from companies with significant stakes in the high end of the pro audio market, and both adopt an upright approach to design, resulting in an attractive product with a small footprint — ideal for a desktop music product, and neither is a bad bet for mobile use. Rackmounting would not be an elegant option! And while the M Box is more expensive than the Omega, it's within shouting distance, on the street at least.
But the Omega does have more of everything. As mentioned earlier, it has eight input streams: two phantom-powered XLR mic inputs, four line inputs (one of which doubles up to accommodate an instrument input) and a stereo S/PDIF digital input. These ins are routed as stereo pairs to one or other of two USB audio streams, with the stereo return appearing at line and headphone outs on the hardware. Unlike the M Box, its power comes from an external supply, and the Omega can even be used as a basic stereo mixer when your computer is powered down.
Electronically, the Omega is versatile, too: it can record at a sample rate of 44.1 or 48 kHz, selected by your audio application, at resolutions up to 24-bit, courtesy of its 24-bit A-D and D-A converters. It has digital ins and outs, which operate at 16- or 24-bit automatically depending on what's being sent to, or what your software is sending out from, the Omega. The line inputs operate with balanced or unbalanced audio, accepting signals at up to +22dBu levels, so typical home-studio and pro gear can be easily accommodated.
A big selling point of the M Box, of course, is that it comes with Digidesign's Pro Tools LE, offering an affordable entry point into one of the most popular professional recording systems. However, the Omega is more of a package than you might at first think: it comes bundled with fully functioning audio applications for Mac and for Windows, and an excellent cross-platform reverb plug-in dubbed Pantheon. PC users can play with the Cakewalk-designed Pro Tracks Plus, a Sonar-like package which offers 32 stereo audio tracks, unlimited MIDI tracks, and a good range of mixing and editing functions. Deck SE 3.5, the Mac option, is a good program, offering 64 audio tracks but with rather limited MIDI functionality. Even so, it means you can buy the Omega and start recording immediately.
At the time of going to press, this is as far as the Omega goes: drivers for software outside the included packages were imminent but not available before I finished the review. But by the time this is in print, ASIO drivers should be available, allowing Omega to be used with popular sequencers — such as Steinberg's Cubase SX — which use this standard. That said, its Core Audio integration on the Mac was fine for audio playback (and MIDI I/O) in any compatible program, and it functioned, not surprisingly, with Sonar 3 on a PC.
The front panel of this chunky unit is as clearly laid out as one could hope for, with plenty of LEDs to keep you informed of the Omega's current state. From the top, three pairs of knobs control the gain of incoming analogue audio; each knob has an attendant 'peak' LED that flashes when that audio is 5dB away from clipping. Between each pair, there's a routing button, with indicator LEDs, that places the audio appearing at the inputs onto USB audio channels 1-2 or 3-4. Remember, although there are, as mentioned in the introduction, six analogue and two digital audio inputs on the Omega, there are only four audio channels, represented by those two USB busses. If the routing button is pushed so that neither indicator LED is lit, audio can still be monitored via the Omega's headphone output, with level controlled by the gain knobs, but will not be routed to your computer. In addition, there's a switch between the two knobs that selects whether you want to monitor the inputs as stereo or mono sources.
The first knob pair/routing switch combination alters the gain for the two mic inputs; they feature circuitry borrowed from Dbx's 386 preamp — Dbx and Lexicon are both Harman International companies, in case you were wondering. The next four knobs control level for the line inputs. Line input 3 is the odd one out in that it can also control the incoming level of a guitar or bass plugged into the front-panel Instrument jack socket, located at the bottom left.
The next strip of front panel is given over to monitoring: the Monitor Mix knob is a handy option that allows you to mix incoming audio with that playing back from your computer, so that you can monitor without latency-induced delays. Though latency is less of an issue these days, given faster computers and efficient audio drivers, this is not uniformly the case; and in some circumstances, even a subtle delay can be distracting. The Monitor Mix knob should be turned fully to Direct input if you're using the Omega as a stand-alone mixer. The Output Level controls the level of the signal that can be heard in the headphones and the stereo line output, located at the back. Between these two knobs is a four-element, three-colour stereo level meter, which can be switched to check the level of USB audio channels 1-2 or 3-4; clipping is indicated by the red LED at the top. A further red LED lets you know that the phantom power offered by the mic inputs is active.
Usefully, a bright blue LED indicates the correct functioning of your USB connection; this will light solidly when the Omega has been detected by a compatible application, and flash when there is some question as to the integrity of the connection. This is not a 100 percent reliable indicator, however: I set up my Mac to use the Omega as an audio output device for alerts and so on, and although this worked perfectly, the USB light flashed as though the connection between computer and Omega was not happening.
Last of all, we have the Instrument input jack and stereo headphone socket. Between these, the routing of the S/PDIF input can be arranged. The options are to simply audition the S/PDIF audio, without routing, or have the signal hijack USB buss 1-2, in which case no other audio can be routed to this buss (the analogue inputs can all be routed to one buss if desired). A red LED lights to indicate the locking of an external S/PDIF audio stream. S/PDIF audio appears as part of the non-routed mix even if the assign button is left unengaged. However, you can't control its level since there is no gain (or should that be attenuation?) knob for the digital in. Level would have to be controlled at the digital source, if you wanted to use the Omega as a simple mixer.
- Pentium III 500MHz (1.2GHz recommended).
- Windows 2000 or Windows XP.
- 128MB RAM (512MB recommended).
- 100MB hard disk space.
- EIDE/Ultra DMA 7200rpm or better hard drive.
- Power PC, 450MHz G4 processor.
- Mac OS 10.2.8 or later.
- 128MB RAM minimum (512MB recommended).
- 20MB hard disk space.
- Hard drive with 18ms or faster average seek time.
- Quicktime 3.0 or later.
The USB socket is at the back of the Omega, and interfacing with your computer is simply a matter of using the supplied, and quite long, USB cable to connect the two. The rest of the rear panel is much as you'd expect from the description of the front panel, with one or two nice touches. There's a lot going on for such a compact unit!
First up are the four line inputs; they're fully balanced (on TRS quarter-inch jacks) but can take unbalanced jacks if required. Next are two XLR connectors. Not only have Lexicon provided globally switchable 48V phantom power, to allow condenser mics to be plugged in, but both mic ins have a 20dB pad and and an insert point! The latter is really helpful, and a bit of a surprise on a unit of this size, allowing users to easily interface their favourite analogue processors into the digital system. However, there is no way to access these inserts, or otherwise reconfigure the ins and outs, to treat audio already recorded into software via external hardware.
The stereo line output jack pair is also balanced, but capable of working unbalanced; route this to a stereo monitor amp, mixer, mastering machine, or wherever you'd like the audio to go. Audio connectivity is finished off by co-axial S/PDIF in and out. Digital audio can thus be routed into your software from a DAT machine, Minidisc player, digital mixer, or a suitably equipped synth or sampler, while the output lets you master, or monitor, digitally, if desired. Should your digital sources or destinations be equipped with optical interfacing, you'll need the appropriate converter.
All that remains is the MIDI In and Out socket pair. This is a nice touch, making the Omega all the interface many with simple setups will need. This would be the case for users who do use only software synths and samplers, having just one synth or master keyboard to drive them.
Interestingly, the hardware, which combines quality with affordability, is made in the USA, rather than the Far East.
Just as the previous two audio interfaces from Lexicon came with a reverb daughterboard — a PCM90 for the £2500 Studio system! — so Omega comes bundled with a reverb of its own. But this being the noughties, that reverb is supplied as a software plug-in — in fact, the same Pantheon which is bundled with Cakewalk's Sonar 3, as reviewed in February's SOS. Here, Pantheon is a VST-format plug-in for Deck 3.5 on the Mac (but you can't use it with other VST-compatible applications!) and a Direct X plug-in for the Cakewalk-developed Pro Tracks Plus. It has no exact counterpart in the Lexicon hardware range, but brings you a share in the algorithms for which the company have become renowned.
Pantheon offers six reverb types — Hall, Chamber, Room, Plate, Ambience and Custom — and just the right amount of editability. Pre-delay, room size, decay time, damping, wet/dry mix and level are controllable by sliders, while density regeneration and delay, left/right echo, spread, diffusion, and bass boost and frequency are tweaked via on-screen knobs. Mac and PC versions look the same, bar some rather fiddly buttons on the Mac version for preset loading/saving and the bypass function. Lexicon supply 35 quality presets, and you're free to save as many as you like.
Though it's not quite the integrated solution to audio recording that Digidesign's M Box is, Omega users will still be able to get to work right away. The user manuals and installation guides are very clear and detailed, not that there's much to describe. Wizard-driven installation of drivers for Windows XP is as streamlined as one has grown to expect, and the process appears, on paper, to be similar with Windows 2000. You don't even need to install drivers with Mac OS X: the Omega integrates right away with Core Audio (as long as you're using Mac OS 10.2.8 or above). There are no drivers for Mac OS 9, and leaving the Omega hooked up to my Mac when booting in Mac OS 9 caused the computer to freeze.
For users of Windows-equipped computers, there's Pro Tracks Plus, a packaged developed by Cakewalk that shows its heritage with an interface not a million miles from that company's Sonar. It lets you record up to 32 stereo (or mono) tracks, four tracks at a time, and unlimited MIDI tracks, with a good suite of editing and mixing tools. It even comes with AAS's Tassman SE soft synth, and can accommodate DXi- and Rewire-format soft synths, and Direct X effects plug-ins. 'Groove Clips' can also be integrated into a session — these are snippets of audio that can have their tempo and pitch changed to match those of a session into which they are loaded. Audio and soft instrument tracks can be bounced to and mixed to new tracks, with the originals archived, so you have can make the most of the track limit and overcome any limitations in your computer's CPU and hard disk speed.
Recording audio is straightforward; the installation procedure takes you through the steps necessary to make Pro Tracks Plus see the Omega hardware, and you then have a choice of recording to one or other of the audio channels of each USB buss (or both, in stereo). The rest is straightforward: on-line help is, well, helpful. The software is easy to use, though graphically unusual to someone, like me, used to Mac software.
Mac users are almost as well served. BIAS's Deck SE v3.5 is a version of a venerable Apple audio application that has been around in some shape or form since the early '90s. In this implementation, you've a clear interface that lets you record up to 64 tracks of audio. The essential editing tools are built in, and a selection of built-in and VST-format effects plug-ins are provided, from noted freeware developers MDA. This is mainly an audio program, with loads of virtual tracks and some well-focused tools, plus a link to an external editor (ideally, in this case, BIAS's Peak). Sadly, it's only currently possible to record two tracks at once on the Mac, using the USB 1/2 buss. This issue remained unresolved as I finished this review.
What Deck SE lacks is a decent MIDI environment: one can load a MIDI file to play alongside the audio tracks, but cannot record or edit MIDI data from scratch. Interestingly, the Mac install disc also includes a little application called Simple Synth, ostensibly to give you a MIDI metronome (Deck has no audio click). In this form, it offers a basic General MIDI sound source, based around Mac OS X's DLS synth code, and could be used by Deck SE to play back any imported MIDI files. Deck SE requires registration, and it times out after 14 days if you don't.
Both applications are supplied with Lexicon's Pantheon reverb plug-in — see box (left). This is an excellent VST-format processor, but only works with the packages supplied — you can't export it to another VST-compatible application. Personally, I was rather hoping that Pantheon might be processor-based, rather than host-based, using DSP built into the Omega — but that was too much to expect! It's a fine reverb nonetheless.
The next question I was asking myself was "Will the Omega work with any of my other applications?", and the answer would appear to be "It will do — soon." Windows ASIO drivers were promised soon after we went to press; they should be available as you read this, and they'll be included in all future Omega packages. Check the Lexicon web site for help in getting the drivers if you bought an Omega early.
In Mac OS X, the Omega automatically appears as a Core Audio device for both system and application use, but although I was able to play back Cubase SX audio with no problem via the Omega, I could not find any way at all to patch audio into it. I had similar experiences with other software. My favourite Mac audio editor, i3's DSP-Quattro, played back fine, but could not see the Omega for audio acquisition. Propellerhead's Reason has no audio input, but can be routed to the Omega with 6ms latency on the Mac: the delay is all but inaudible, and makes playing Reason 's instruments a genuine real-time experience.
On the PC, Sonar 3 saw both of the Omega's audio busses, but this should be no surprise since the bundled PC sequencer is developed by Cakewalk and both packages use the same drivers. However, the PC version of Cubase SX didn't see the interface at all without the ASIO drivers. Still, let's not forget that even without these drivers, the Omega allows you to record, edit and mix digital audio — up to 64 audio channels! — straight out of the box.
I expected quality, and that's what I got. Installation and setup was easy, and recording audio, once drivers were optimised in the target applications, was a doddle. I did try to make the USB connection fall over, but found it reliable and tolerant of all I threw at it — a busy MIDI stream, four channels of incoming audio and the stereo mix feeding the monitor out.
Until I tried the Omega, I still had a hankering for a compact, Firewire audio interface of quality, although I've had perfectly good experiences with other USB-equipped audio devices. Once I started using the Omega, I never even considered this issue: if all you need is a maximum of four audio channels of simultaneous recording, with a couple of insert-equipped, high-quality mic preamps, the Omega could be the box for you. That said, the driver situation will have to be upgraded before Lexicon's interface becomes as ubiquitous as it deserves to.
I like its size and its shape, both of which made it potentially suitable for the mobile musician: I took the Omega around with my PC laptop, and found it easy to use even quite restricted surroundings (one needs an extra power socket, though). It's also stable enough to not fall over in normal use.
The circuitry of the Omega appears to be of high quality: the converters turn your analogue audio into 48kHz, 24-bit audio, if desired, for best quality. Both line and mic ins are excellent, with plenty of gain control, and peak metering proving perfectly adequate during tracking. The Dbx-sourced mic preamps sound great and are a bit of a bonus. The same could be said of the Pantheon reverb plug-in: it has all the vibrancy and realism of the trademark Lexicon sound in a compact, easy-to-use application. I would like to see it usable in other applications, though.
Mac OS 9 drivers are apparently a possibility for the future, but I imagine most Mac owners in the market for a new audio interface will be OS X users these days. The most urgent issues in need of sorting are ASIO drivers (which should be done by the time you read this) and improving the Core Audio support to offer four-channel recording and work with other applications than Deck SE. But overall, I very much enjoyed my time with the Omega system, and it was very instructive to play with it on both a Mac and a PC. I even thought the documentation was good: it's very careful and considered, and anyone should be able to get things moving with its help.
The sound is great, both going in and coming out, and whatever concerns one might have about USB as a multitrack conduit for digital audio, Lexicon have proved its value by a conservative implementation. The quality of the mic preamps is welcome, as is the bundled reverb, and a bi-directional digital connection is really icing on the cake. And £329? Bargain!