Unlike most eight-channel interfaces, the PreSonus Firepod includes eight mic preamps — at a very appealing price.
Much like the USB 1 format a couple of years ago, Firewire for music has finally come of age, providing products which meet most budgets and needs. PreSonus brought out their Firestation (www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb03/articles/presonusfirestation.asp) at the dawn of audio Firewire, and have recently introduced a replacement for it, the Firepod. Some features have been dropped, and others added, but their firebox idea remains fixed. The Pod not only replaces the audio and MIDI computer interface, but the need for an outboard mixer in a small studio, too. It will send and receive 10 audio channels at once plus MIDI, through a single Firewire cable. The Pod contains eight analogue ins, all with mic preamps, and eight analogue outs, as well as S/PDIF and MIDI I/O. The analogue half of the Pod functions as a line mixer, with or without a computer.
When I first opened the shipping box from PreSonus, I was blown away by the size and weight of the Pod. I lifted it out of the box with one hand — easily. And despite its metal construction, it is still light enough to carry around in one hand. So you won't have to worry about weight issues when putting it in a rack — as it isn't even six inches deep, excluding the front knobs, it would be hard to secure it at the rear anyway. The unit would be smaller still if it wasn't for the panels on either side, which look as though they're intended to act as heat sinks. Despite its diminutive nature, the Pod is well constructed. It continues the blue-on-brushed-aluminium/grey colour scheme found on other PreSonus products — maybe their design team is stuck in a rut, but the scheme is sharp-looking, with enough contrast to work under less-than-optimum lighting conditions.
The box also contained the PreSonus software/driver CD, as well as a second CD containing Steinberg's Cubase LE sequencer. Cubase LE is cross-platform and matches the Pod's recording specs, supporting resolutions of up to 24-bit and sample rates up to 96kHz. So, if you don't already have a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) you can be up and going right out of the box, whether you're a Mac or PC user.
Whilst the Firestation used Yamaha's mLAN Firewire protocol, the Firepod uses PreSonus' homegrown Firewire software and drivers, which support ASIO, WDM and Core Audio. On my PC, the software loaded in with no problems, and in a couple of minutes I was up and running. After installing the drivers, I plugged in the Firewire cable and turned on the Firepod. The blue sync light blinked a few times, then glowed steadily. After the software installation, a PreSonus icon appears in the Windows toolbar; right-clicking on this brings up the CPU use choice (high, medium or low), as well as restore and exit commands, while left-clicking opens a small program box. This is where sample rate (44.1 to 96 kHz), clock source (internal or S/PDIF) and latency (down to 1.5 milliseconds) are set, with bit depth being chosen in your music software. On my system, I set the Firepod up for ASIO operation with the internal clock, and had no problems with a 6ms latency, even on a less-than-optimum home computer. There were no clicks or pops in recorded audio or playback. The Firepod showed up in my various audio programs, recorded and played back audio and MIDI with nary a glitch and hasn't crashed once. In other words, it did nothing special and only what it was supposed to do — just the way recording equipment should work!
Around the rear of the Firepod is where most of the interface action takes place. There are the obligatory two Firewire ports, so you can chain another Firewire unit. There are the eight line outs, S/PDIF and MIDI In and Out, and inserts for channel 1 and 2 on separate quarter-inch jack plugs, so you can add an outboard EQ or dynamics processor before passing the signal to the converters. As well as the eight line outs, the Pod includes separate Main and Cue outputs. Both of these reproduce the DAW output that also appears at line outs 1 and 2, and allow you to blend this with a summed mix of the analogue and S/PDIF inputs for zero-latency monitoring whilst recording. This is better than having to work through a single stereo out, but it's a shame that there is no separate volume control for the Cue out; the space taken up by this output could perhaps have been used to provide another function, although this probably would have raised the price.
The mic/line inputs are on the front, on XLR/TRS Neutrik Combi connectors. Again, channels 1 and 2 have an extra feature in the shape of instrument inputs. No switch is necessary; just plug your guitar or bass into either of the two and the Pod automatically bypasses the mic preamp and becomes an active instrument preamplifier. For some people, front inputs may be a problem, and if you have invested in a patchbay and abhor dangling cables, you'll either have to live offended or plug in the inputs needed for every session. I kept my main keyboard plugged into the rear of the Firepod via the inserts on channels 1 and 2, leaving the unsightly cables out of the way and view. This left the front inputs disabled, so I had to disconnect the keyboard whenever I wanted to DI a guitar or bass, but was otherwise a fairly elegant solution. Phantom power is switchable in groups of four — again, a comprise, but one that makes sense, and much better than the all-or-nothing situation one finds on many units. There are no phase switches for the mic inputs, but most DAWs include this feature, so you are not paying for something you probably don't need. Finally, there are no mic pads. It is always nice to find one or two of these, but on the Pod you'll just have to turn the knobs.
More smart compromises are made on the front-panel controls. The inputs line up on the left of the unit, while the pots are on the right. The main out has a volume knob, as well as a separate gain knob for the front headphone jack. Every mic/line in has its own knob, with an associated clip light. Having separate gain knobs for each preamp is not ideal for stereo recording, but all the knobs step through increments so you can match levels between them, and they seemed to track correctly. However, the increments are small, and unnumbered except at either end, which makes it hard to see the relative levels. One of my pet peeves with the 'incredible shrinking mixer' syndrome is that densely packed pots are harder to adjust, and make it harder to pick out the right one in a hurry, but PreSonus have tackled this by positioning the knobs diagonally to one another, leaving enough room between them to make adjustments without jogging neighbouring pots.
The last front-panel knob controls the Main and Cue output balance between the direct analogue mix and the playback from channels 1 and 2 — the direct analogue mix always reflects the levels at the preamps. The fact that you can only monitor the first pair of DAW output channels at the Main and Cue outputs may be limiting in some situations, but except for surround sound mixes, most people use outs 1 and 2 for their monitor mix anyway, and the other outputs have a variety of uses. If your DAW has the busses, you could set up six analogue auxiliary outputs to your favourite outboard gear and return them. You could bring in your MIDI tracks through an outboard mixer via input 1 and 2, while running the entire mix through yet another outboard unit via those channels' inserts. Outputs 1 and 2 could send this final mix to an analogue recorder, and you could monitor the project through the Main outs. The digital in/out could send a mix to a digital recorder, or add hardware reverb. Not bad for a line mixer.
Ergonomics are nice, but they don't matter if the sound isn't. So, how does the Firepod sound? In a word, superb, especially for the price. A-D/D-A converters have reached the point where most mid-priced units are acceptable for pro work, and there is not that much difference between hardware in a given price bracket. Over an audiophile monitor system there are detectable differences, but in the real world — and listening to a whole mix, rather than a single track — these tend to shrink. If you do have a high-end unit, you could always feed it through the Firepod via the S/PDIF input. This should firm up the clock timing for the Firepod's converters, too.
The Firepod's preamps are also remarkably clean and precise when you consider that you get eight of them for your money. I compared them with the pair that came with Yamaha's i88X Firewire interface, which has outstandingly good preamps derived from their upscale DM2000 digital mixer. The biggest differencee between them was that Yamaha's had 6dB extra gain (60 compared to 54). They also sounded a tad better — as well they should, since the i88X lists for over half again what the Firepod does, and only has the pair of preamps. After sending the i88X back, I added backing tracks and an extra vocal chorus to a song I had recorded with it. I pressed the Firepod into service, and it delivered. There was no practical difference, even on the lead vocal. So, I don't think any wicked record executive is going to trash your precious demo, saying "They should have used a Double-plus GoodSound Tube on the lead vocal!" The Pod's preamps match mid-priced mixers, which have been used to sell a lot of music. Finally, compared to my old Ramsa desk, the difference is easy to hear. Digital converters are not the only elements of music technology to have benefited from an increase in price/performance ratio.
As an interface for mobile recording, the Firepod excels. The sound quality is up to scratch and the Pod is light and small enough to slide into a gig bag instead of a rack —simply unplug it and go. I did just that for some friends who needed a demo. They are a garage band, which is where I recorded them. Using the Firepod saved me two trips each way, since I didn't have to schlep a rack or mixer in and out. This was especially appreciated after the late load-out, as any gigging musician/
soundman knows. The Pod performed the same duties a stand-alone mixer did on a previous demo recording session: the three-piece band went down over seven inputs into the Pod, while the main outputs went into a PA for monitoring between takes. The vocalist was shunted off to a closet with a mic for scratch vocals (which also got recorded — you never know). The Cue out, with vocal, went to a headphone amp/distributor for monitoring. The Firepod had no problem capturing the 'garage' sound of the band, warts and all, and made it easy to finish the job in one session.
More delicate sounds were also faithfully captured. For one particularly wispy-voiced female doing a quiet backing vocal, I had to crank the preamps up to 9, but there were no adverse sonic effects. And though my one-room studio is seldom used to record everyone at once, having eight preamps helped with setup. With PreSonus' original Firestation, I had to set up acoustic players sequentially or use a submixer. However, I did miss the Firestation's tubes, and had to rely instead on external units.
The only problem I encountered was that my early production unit ran hot. When I contacted PreSonus about this, they said they hadn't heard of any other units doing this, and offered to exchange it. As I had already budgeted my time, I declined and made the Pod soldier on. The heat didn't seem to have any adverse effects on the sound, and the unit hasn't failed. Previously, PreSonus had spent hours on the phone with me and innumerable emails trying to get my Firestation to work after upgrading it to mLAN 2, despite it being a discontinued product running with software that wasn't their own. This is the way support should be, but, unfortunately, isn't always.
If you are looking for a centrepiece for computer recording, PreSonus seem to have hit the mark with their Firepod. Price-wise, it is at the lower end of the eight-channel interface market, yet the inclusion of eight preamps is something you won't even find on all the higher-priced units. Sound-wise, it is solid, not exotic, but as it offers plenty of analogue I/O, it's easy to patch in other preamps and processors if you so desire. The digital interfacing is, however, less impressive, with only a single S/PDIF in/out.
If you are trying to put a bloated studio on a carb-light diet or build a mobile studio from scratch, the Firepod deserves a hard look. And if eight inputs and outputs are a requirement, the Firepod is quite cost-efficient. You won't even need a mixing desk until your studio starts putting on weight again.
- Windows XP, Firewire port, 900MHz or better CPU, 256MB RAM.
- Mac OS 10.3.5, Firewire port, 800MHz G4 or better, 512MB RAM.
- Eight clean preamps with good analogue interfacing.
- Efficient drivers.
- Good value for money.
- Only stereo digital I/O.
- Main and Cue outputs always pass the same signal.
- Test unit ran hot.
Containing almost everything needed to get good sound in and out of your Firewire-equipped computer, the Firepod strikes in the middle of the firebox price range, delivering more features than lower-priced systems and sound comparable to higher-priced ones.