This two-in, eight-out interface is the first audio product from British Firewire specialists Miglia Technology.
Just at a time when British brands like Evolution and Novation are being absorbed into other companies, it was a pleasure to come across a new and British name in Firewire audio interfacing at this year's Mac Expo in San Fransisco. Tring-based Miglia Technology have been making Firewire-based products for some time now, but the Harmony Audio is their first foray into the world of audio. The Harmony Audio's key component is also British: it is the first product to feature Oxford Semiconductors' new 970 Firewire controller chip. The unit provides two analogue inputs on quarter-inch jacks and eight analogue outputs, all on mini-jacks. There is no digital I/O.
Miglia Technology already have several successful products in areas that some SOS readers may not have come across. Their Director's Cut bridged the gap between the simplicity of digital video editing via Firewire connections and the significantly more fiddly business of getting analogue video in and out of your computer. By connecting this Firewire box to your Mac or PC, you could fool video-editing applications — from iMovie through Adobe Premiere all the way up to Final Cut Pro — into thinking that their source material was DV when in fact it was dear old VHS (or anything else that has standard analogue video in and out). As far the computer was concerned, it was talking to a DV camcorder (except of course that the transport couldn't be controlled), so you didn't need any additional Codecs in software.
With more flexible setups in mind, Miglia's second take on the concept, Director's Cut: Take Two offered individual video and audio connectors on phono and for S-Video, the higher-quality four-pin connectors which keep the luminants and chrominants separate. There are actually two sets of video outputs so that you can connect to a preview monitor to see in advance what your picture is going to look like, or even write to two VCRs at once if you need to reduce the time to make multiple copies.
A third product, the Dual Disk, is a clever and affordable way of achieving hard disk data transfer rates that can exploit the full bandwidth of the Firewire 800 standard, using two hard drives striped together. Transfer rates are fast enough to support the DVC Pro HD Codec in Final Cut Pro, as well as the most bandwidth-hungry multitrack audio setup.
I should no longer be surprised when Firewire devices come up first time as an option in the Mac's Sound Control Panel as soon as they are connected, but there is still that moment of wonder when the Device name appears as if by magic in the Input and Output lists. Opening up the Audio MIDI Setup application showed all two ins and eight outs operating at 24-bit resolution, with four sample rates available: 32, 44.1, 48 and 96 kHz.
At first, the sample rate seems like the only user-adjustable option for the Harmony Audio, but you can set the master output level (which is very useful in multi-channel operation if you're using powered speakers and don't have a single hardware monitor level control), and there is also an innocent-looking button marked Configure Speakers. Apart form the basic Stereo Configuration, where you only get to choose which of the eight outputs your left and right signals are connected to, all the interesting stuff is under Multichannel. When you click on this, the window grows in size to accommodate a diagrammatic layout of your speakers. Again, a pull-down menu beneath each one allows you to decide which of the Miglia's eight outputs is being fed to that speaker.
Six configurations are available. Three are listed under the Surround heading — 5.1, 6.1 (which adds a centre rear speaker) and 7.1 (which offers an additional pair of rear speakers placed even further back) — and three under Geometric. The Geometric options should appeal particular to those doing sound installations for artistic exhibitions and other experimental work, with four, six and eight speakers placed at equal distances around the listener.
When you're sat at the computer keyboard, this is the total extent of the user's control over the Harmony Audio unit. However, the front panel of the device also features some hardware controls. Each of the two input jacks (a stereo mini-jack input is also available) has its own rotary knob for Gain, with a Hi/Lo switch, corresponding to Mic and Line ranges, and a second switch mysteriously labelled Soft Clip. Whilst there is little to say about the Gain controls other than they work and the ranges are fine for a whole variety of input devices (and that I always prefer to set gain with a rotary knob as it makes fine adjustments easier), the Soft Clip bears closer examination.
An LED shows when the Soft Clip function is being activated, allowing you to vary the amount of saturation you want to introduce into your signal as you decide whether to briefly light the LED on the loudest transients or push the entire signal into the red. It is not clear from the documentation whether Miglia are introducing this soft clipping via analogue circuitry or numerical manipulation of the digitised signal (I suspect the former) but it doesn't really matter as however they are achieving it, it sounds great. There are very few sounds which do not seem sweeter to the human ear with a hint of Soft Clip applied, and some which really come alive when you whack loads of it on — cheap and nasty synths, for example. The only problem is that it's a bit like a drug: once you start using it, you may have trouble listening to anything which doesn't have it. Obviously, with individual signal sources this is fine, but if you are digitising complete mixed tracks, you may want to exercise the self-discipline of leaving the Soft Clip switched out.
The only other control on the front panel of the Miglia is a headphone level control next to the mini-jack connector for plugging phones in. This theme is continured on the back panel with five more mini-jacks, one for an alternative Line In (which you can leave plugged up, as the front-panel connectors take precedence) and four to provide the eight line outs in pairs. To some, this might seem excessive use of the humble mini-jack, and no doubt the professional engineers out there will be whingeing about the lack of battle-proof XLR connectors complete with locking quick-release clips. However, at this sort of price, the mini-jack is king, and I for one find them more convenient and reliable than phono connectors or full-size jacks. Obviously, I would be foolish to claim that they are better than XLR connectors, but these are bulky and weighty and need much heavier cable to provide their full benefit. The Harmony Audio unit would not be the trim size and shape it is (easily fitting into the side pocket of a laptop carry case) if it had to carry 10 female XLR connectors on the back panel.
However, the mini-jacks could make things a little tricky when using outputs 3/4, 5/6 and 7/8 to drive speakers in a multi-channel surround setup. As your subwoofer may not necessarily be near your centre speaker, and your rear stereo pair in a 6.1 setup may be on 6 and 7, you might need to resort to making custom cables to get these outputs to your speaker configuration. However, you can easily change speaker assignments in the Audio MIDI Setup page to make life easier, and any self-respecting SOS reader should be able to solder his own speaker connections to a mini-jack.
There are two trim pots on the back panel for the line input so that you can make fine adjustments to the levels coming in from your various sources. The four stereo outs have no such control, but this is much better achieved in software anyway. Of course the lack of XLRs means that there is no +48V phantom power supply, which may rule the Harmony Audio out for some potential buyers.
Next to the outputs are the two six-pin Firewire connectors (having two means you can use it anywhere in a chain of Firewire devices) and a socket for a power supply, although you'll only need this if your computer is not capable of supplying power over the Firewire cable. All Macs do so, but many PCs, especially laptops, do not.
Miglia gave me early copies of the PC drivers required to make Harmony Audio compatible with the Windows platform, and these worked first time in making the unit work with a Sony Vaio (once we had found a suitable power supply). The first beta they gave me did not address the delay caused by the latency buffers in Windows but later versions did allow applications like Cubase to set up their smaller buffers in ASIO drivers to compensate for this (Mac OS X users need not worry about this, as Core Audio provides any audio application with a way to reduce buffers to a negligible latency of under 5ms).
The Harmony Audio is one of the simplest Firewire devices I have ever used in terms of operational setup. It always operates at 24-bit resolution, leaving it to the software to discard the last eight bits if you're recording at 16-bit. The only required user setups are to set the sample rate from a choice of four, adjust the incoming levels in hardware with or without Soft Clip and set the outgoing overall level in software. The rest of the time, it is a plug-and-play dream, totally transparent in operation and extremely light in transportation (especially if you don't have to carry a weighty wall-wart around to make it work). It makes an ideal addition to any Mac portable and PC owners with Firewire can take advantage of its capabilities for the price of an external power supply.
The addition of Soft Clip to its capabilities makes it stand out from run-of-the-mill add-on audio devices, while the ability to set up the unit for various different multi-channel configurations makes it the perfect device for interfacing a computer with a surround sound setup. The lack of XLRs and phantom power may alienate high-end users but the average home musician will find this box has the right combination of connectivity and control.