Lynx have updated and improved their celebrated modular audio interface.
Multi-channel audio interfaces designed for project-studio use usually embody a Swiss Army knife design philosophy, whereby a single rack unit will incorporate not only A‑D and D‑A conversion but mic preamps, monitor control and more. As you move up the food chain, however, this approach becomes less common. Discerning high-end studio owners often prefer to cherry-pick the individual elements of a complete system from different manufacturers, and expect to be able to buy products that are tailored to their specific needs. If you’re pairing your audio interface with an analogue mixer, for example, you’d have no need of built-in preamps or master-section features. And if you’re spending thousands of pounds on a multi-channel interface, you also want some reassurance that it’s going to be future-proof.
At this more rarified level of the market, then, audio interfaces tend to have a more open-ended feature set. Lynx’s well-established Aurora system is a good example. Originally launched back in 2006, the Aurora 8 and 16 each offered only line-level analogue I/O, with no preamps or monitor-control features, but Lynx’s LSlot technology enabled compatibility with a wide range of computer connections and other digital I/O. By installing the appropriate expansion card, users could make their Aurora talk to other devices over FireWire, USB, Thunderbolt, ADAT, AES3, MADI or DigiLink connectors. This flexibility has helped to keep those devices in Lynx’s catalogue for over a decade, ensuring that users weren’t stranded when, for example, FireWire was superseded by Thunderbolt.
Now, however, the Aurora 8 and 16 have been discontinued in favour of a product which takes this flexibility to the next level. In terms of interfacing, the Aurora (n) is based around the same LSlot technology as its predecessors; so, depending on your needs, it can be a native audio interface connecting to a Mac or Windows PC over Thunderbolt or USB, or a stand‑alone A‑D/D‑A converter that hooks into a recording rig over DigiLink, AES or Dante (the now-discontinued FireWire and MADI cards are physically compatible, but not supported in firmware). But unlike its antecedents, the Aurora (n) is also fully modular in terms of audio I/O, making it much more adaptable to the specific needs of individual studios. What’s more, it also feature built-in recording to micro SD cards.
In effect, the Aurora (n) core unit is a 1U rackmounting chassis with built-in power supply, display, controls and headphone outputs. A single chassis can host a total of six modules. One of these must be an LSlot card, and another one is always occupied by Lynx’s word-clock module, which provides a single input and three outputs on BNC connectors. That leaves four slots for audio I/O modules. The only such module available at launch was the AIO8E, which provides eight line-level analogue inputs and outputs on a pair of DB25 connectors, but others are forthcoming. By the time you read this, the LM-DIG digital module should be available, offering 16 channels of AES3 digital I/O plus expansion ports for another 16 channels in either AES3 or ADAT format (and thus, among other things, enabling the Aurora (n) to be used with Lynx’s PCIe interface). Also imminent is a module that will provide four ‘combi’ XLR/jack sockets offering high-quality mic preamps and instrument inputs as well as line-level performance identical to that of the AIO8E, and an intriguing summing mixer module which piggybacks on the line-level I/O.
Keen mathematicians will no doubt already have noticed one area in which the Aurora (n) improves over earlier Auroras: provided you stick to line-level I/O, a single unit can host up to 32 analogue inputs and outputs, as against 16 or eight in previous versions. That is, unless you choose to connect it over USB; Lynx have chosen to implement USB 2 rather than USB 3 connectivity, and the resulting bandwidth restrictions mean that only 16 channels of I/O are supported in this mode. Existing Aurora users might also note that the Aurora (n) retains a limitation of the original, in that only one LSlot card can be installed at a time. To convert an Aurora (n) from, say, Pro Tools HDX to Thunderbolt operation would require swapping cards out, though I’m told there are plans for a Thunderbolt 3 card which may be able to coexist with the HDX or Dante options.
The review unit was fitted with the Thunderbolt LSlot card and two AIO8E modules, for a total of 16 analogue ins and outs. The Thunderbolt card has two connectors, allowing other Thunderbolt devices to be daisy-chained, but I was disappointed to find that a Thunderbolt cable is not included.
The Aurora (n) is intended to act not only as a native audio interface, but also as a stand‑alone converter and Pro Tools HDX expander. Lynx have thus provided fairly comprehensive front-panel control over many of its parameters, as it can’t be assumed that a computer will be available to control them. In its present form, though, any Aurora (n) parameter that can be adjusted from the front panel can’t also be manipulated from the computer, and vice versa, which might prove inconvenient if you want to keep the Aurora (n) in a separate machine room. Most of the things that are controllable from the front panel are housekeeping functions you wouldn’t need to change very often, but not all. In particular, recording to and playback from the in-built SD card reader is possible only by pressing the buttons on the unit itself. I’m told this situation will not be permanent, and that forthcoming versions of the firmware and software will enable remote control from the computer.
Central to the Aurora (n)’s front panel is a high-resolution colour screen. In normal use, this serves as a very effective metering display, showing either small vertical ladders for a comprehensive selection of inputs and outputs, or a more detailed horizontal stereo view focusing on two of each. To the left of the display are Record and Play buttons for the built-in SD card recording, plus up and down arrows which are used mainly for navigating between takes. Configuration of the Aurora (n) itself is handled using four more buttons and a rotary encoder to the right of the screen. Hitting the Function button or pressing the rotary in brings up a menu that offers various configuration options. These include the ability to switch analogue inputs and outputs between +4dBu and -10dBV standards in banks of four, to send test tones to any of the analogue outputs, and a Routing submenu which determines whether the analogue outputs are fed from the Thunderbolt playback, SD card playback, direct from the analogue ins or any combination of the three.
At the extreme right of the front panel are two headphone sockets. Both are fed from the same stereo bus, which can pick up any pair of channels from either the analogue inputs, the Thunderbolt playback channels or the SD card playback. Each has its own level control, which operates in the analogue domain. Lynx describe the headphone amps as being “audiophile-grade”, and they do indeed sound noticeably better than your average audio interface headphone socket. Not only that, but they also go very loud indeed, which can’t be said of most headphone amps built into interfaces.
Most high-end audio interfaces include some sort of provision for monitor control, even if that often amounts to little more than a volume control and a mute button. This has obvious benefits, but usually falls well short of meeting the full ‘master section’ requirements of any serious studio. Perhaps with that in mind, Lynx have included no monitor-control features at all. Apart from the headphone sockets, there are also no full-sized audio outputs, so it’s pretty clear that the Aurora (n) is designed to be used as part of a larger ecosystem rather than on its own. This won’t generally be a problem for people integrating it into a studio environment, but those who do a lot of location recording might prefer something that makes it easier to hook up and control a pair of loudspeakers on the fly.
Those who do use the Aurora (n) as a computer interface can employ the Lynx Mixer utility to route inputs to outputs so that they can be directly monitored without passing through the computer’s record and playback buffers. The bulk of the window is taken up by three rows of faders. The top Record row represents the inputs coming into the Aurora (n), while the bottom row shows the physical outputs. The function of the central row of faders, which is labelled Play, was a mystery to me at first. Unfortunately, Lynx Mixer isn’t described in any of the Aurora (n) documentation, but on asking Lynx for clarification, it turns out that DAW software doesn’t address the physical outputs directly. Instead, it feeds these Play channels, which, in turn, can be routed to physical outputs.
This is a nice feature which adds to the flexibility of the unit; as a simple example, it provides an easy way to mult a single pair of DAW outputs to more than one pair of physical outputs, but it caters for much more complex scenarios too. However, the lack of documentation and the fact that the Play faders seem reluctant to show signal levels (they’re supposed to, but they wouldn’t for me) does make it a bit hard to get to grips with at present!
There’s a separate set of Record and Play faders for each output pair, so in a 32-channel Aurora (n) you could conceivably have 16 different cue mixes. However, it should be noted that the actual mixing capabilities are fairly basic: each source can be attenuated and panned, and that’s about it. There’s no built-in signal processing or effects, and although adjacent channel pairs can be linked, you still need to manually adjust each channel’s pan setting when linking or unlinking them. The current version also looks fairly primitive from a graphical point of view, and, as I’ve already mentioned, lacks the ability to remotely control many of the Aurora (n)’s settings.
Thankfully, all this should change pretty soon. A completely new mixer and control utility is in the works, and is expected to be made available early next year. In the meantime, there’s a slightly cobbled-together feel about Lynx Mixer, but it does what it’s supposed to and is perfectly straightforward as long as you ignore the Play faders and leave the routing in its default configuration.
The case that houses the Aurora (n) is notable for having lots of air vents in the top panel. Lynx say that it is designed to be passively cooled, and recommend leaving empty the rack space immediately above and below it. Having inadvertently disregarded that advice when I first used the Aurora (n), I’d say it really is essential to do so, because otherwise it becomes alarmingly hot. Once the unit was appropriately racked, though, I had no problems with heat, and in general, my time with the Aurora (n) was pretty much plain sailing. As I’ve described above, Lynx’s software mixing utility hasn’t yet had an overhaul to match that of the hardware; an improved version is clearly a necessity in the mid-term, but in normal use, the current version is serviceable if not exactly slick.
In fact, it’s perhaps testament to the strength of Lynx’s modular approach that the one problem I did run into in normal use was confined to the user interface and didn’t seem to affect the Aurora’s recording functions. On this occasion the screen and front-panel controls froze, but both Pro Tools and the Lynx Mixer continued as if nothing had happened, and audio streaming was unaffected. Other than that, audio came and went exactly as it was supposed to thoughout the review period.
Lynx have forged a stellar reputation for the sound quality of their interfaces, and the Aurora (n)’s converters are said to improve on those of the already-very-good Aurora 8 and 16. I’ve used the Aurora 16 in the past, and if I didn’t hear enough of a difference to justify upgrading on reasons of audio quality alone, that’s more a reflection on how good the original Auroras are than it is a criticism of the new design. Both specs-wise and subjectively, the Aurora (n) very much holds its own against similarly priced rival interfaces such as the Apogee Symphony I/O MkII and Focusrite Red range. For me, the audio quality of all these devices is so good as to be a non-issue, and I take my hat off to anyone whose ears are golden enough to establish a clear preference between them. You’d certainly need to audition them side-by-side in a very carefully controlled test in order to do so.
The word ‘professional’ is much abused, but if you take it to mean that the design of a product is led above all by engineering considerations, then the Lynx Aurora (n) is very much a professional product. There are no gimmicks here, or spurious bells and whistles, but you can be confident that it’ll serve you well for many years to come, and that it will adapt to changing needs over time. And if you walked into a studio and found this at its heart, you’d feel confident that the people running it know what they’re doing!
We’ve come to expect superb low-latency performance from Thunderbolt audio interfaces, so it seems a trifle churlish of me to report that the Lynx Aurora (n) is merely excellent!
On Mac OS, the lowest buffer size available for all the Thunderbolt interfaces I have tested so far is 32 samples. At a 44.1kHz sample rate, that typically translates into a round-trip latency of around 4ms. With the Aurora (n), both Logic and Reaper reported that the total round-trip latency was 5.1ms, of which 3.3ms was on the input side. In both cases, a re-recorded click actually appeared a few tens of samples earlier on the timeline, suggesting that the actual figure is a little lower. Assuming you can run the Aurora (n) at this buffer size, though, that should be plenty low enough for most real-time monitoring needs, and is better than the vast majority of USB interfaces.
As the LT-USB LSlot card wasn’t supplied, I wasn’t able to test the Aurora (n)’s performance over USB.
One of the most interesting new features in the Aurora (n) is the ability to record to a micro SD card, independently of an attached computer. This opens up at least two roles that weren’t possible with earlier Auroras, or indeed with most other audio interfaces. One is that you could leave the machine recording all day to provide a redundant backup in case of hard drive failures or other disasters afflicting your studio computer, and a chance to recover those magic moments that simply weren’t captured because the DAW wasn’t in Record at the time. Another would be to use the Aurora (n) as a computer-free option for live concert recording and virtual soundchecks; at present it’s not possible to synchronise SD card recording across more than one Aurora, but Lynx told me that they are investigating the possibilities on this front.
What the SD card reader doesn’t do is turn the Aurora (n) into a fully fledged studio recorder. There’s no individual track arming, punch-ins, editing or any of that malarkey. In fact, there are no individual tracks, as such: each recording you make to the SD card consists of a single WAV file containing either two, four, eight, 16 or 32 adjacent channels, starting at your choice of analogue inputs 1, 9, 17 or 25, or Thunderbolt playback channels 1, 9, 17 and 25. So, for example, you could set it to record analogue inputs 9-24 as a single 16-channel WAV file, but you can’t pick and choose individual channels to include or exclude.
These WAV files are referred to as Takes, and they can be organised into Sessions. Both can be named, and Sessions can be hidden, but what you can’t do is delete files on the SD card. Were data to be distributed in random fashion across the card, as would happen if you repeatedly deleted and then recorded files, the card reader wouldn’t be able to keep up with the necessary streaming data rate. The suggested approach is to dump all files from the SD card to a computer as needed and then reformat it before making further recordings. It’s also, apparently, possible to create projects on a computer and transfer them to the SD card for playback, though I was unable to locate the promised video tutorial that explains how to do this. Said video should also explain how to manipulate the massively multi-channel WAV files that are created by the Aurora (n) to make them palatable to DAW software — if not then you could always download the free file splitter utility that Lynx’s rivals RME make available!
In practice, since recording currently needs to be set up from the front panel, I doubt you’d want to get involved in complex session naming and so forth on a regular basis, but it’s simplicity itself to wipe the SD card and hit Record at the start of a day’s work, and the peace of mind this brings will be very valuable in a studio environment.
Probably the most direct competition for the Aurora (n) comes from Apogee’s Symphony I/O MkII, another modular system that can act either as a native interface or as a converter for Avid HDX systems. Prices vary with configuration, but a Symphony system with Thunderbolt connectivity and 16 line-level analogue inputs and outputs is directly comparable to its Aurora (n) equivalent, cost-wise. Both are extremely capable and desirable systems offering superb sound quality, and unless you need a feature that only one of them supports, choosing between them would be a tough call.
Of the two, I’d say the Symphony offers the slicker user experience, thanks to its larger front panel with colour touchscreen, and it also provides basic monitor control. Expansion options include a very fine mic preamp module that is available now rather than at some point in the future, and further down the line, Apogee are also promising an option card for connecting to Waves/DiGiCo DigiGrid systems. In the Aurora (n)’s favour are its USB and Windows support, the option to connect to a Dante network, and, of course, the ability to record to and play back from SD cards. This last in particular will be a pretty big plus point in many people’s books.
A different approach to modular interface design is reflected in Focusrite’s Red range. Each of these units offers a fixed quotient of analogue and digital I/O, but the appropriate connectors for Thunderbolt, HDX and Dante operation are all built in; so although you can’t add extra cards to the base unit to increase the I/O count, you can easily plug in an additional Dante expander. The new Red 16Line, for example, offers 16 line-level inputs and outputs, along with all above mentioned interfacing options and basic monitor control, and is expected to be somewhat less costly than the equivalent Aurora (n); but, like the Symphony, it lacks the Aurora’s in-built recording features. The Aurora (n) also scores over all of its competitors I can think of in providing three word-clock outputs, giving it the potential to act as a high-quality master clock in all sorts of setups.
Less obvious competitors, meanwhile, might include Antelope Audio’s more affordable Orion 32+, and JoeCo’s BlueBox Workstation Recorder, which is available in several configurations including one with 24 line-level ins and outs. This has rather more fully developed recording features, but considered as an interface, is a USB-only device, with no Thunderbolt or HDX options.