Sunday, October 28, 2007

Best Ever USB Audio Interface

I was recently looking for a decent USB 2 audio interface that my partner could use with her laptop for recording vocals and piano. She needed it to be bus-powered for portability, but to offer proper phantom power for a condenser microphone. MIDI I/O to interface with our digital piano was a must, and a second input to record an instrument was also required. On top of this, I was thinking that if it had two independent stereo outputs I could use it for DJ gigs as well, instead of hauling around my FireFace 400 with power supply.

Extensive research led me back to this very website. Yes, it turns out that I had already found the perfect device back in August of last year. There's nothing quite like Googling for your own web page to get your head spinning!

The Audio Kontrol 1 is certainly the coolest looking device on the market, with its red light on black colour scheme. If you read my extensive description in the previous article you'll see that it meets all the requirements. Oddly, though a year has passed, there are few USB 2 interfaces on the market to challenge it. And if you start reading up on their reliability all sorts of issues pop up.

A summary of the competition (even including USB 1 interfaces to be generous) shows that they all have critical limitations for the stated purposes. The TAPCO has no MIDI and is butt-ugly, the Edirol UA-25 has one volume control for both headphones and audio out, the TASCAM US-122 L has the same issue and requires one to deal with a company notorious for bad support, the M-AUDIO Fast Track Pro has a problem with the inputs providing not nearly enough gain and the E-MU 0404 requires an external power supply and has reports of bad MIDI drivers. The ALESIS IO|2 looks ok, but as a USB 1 device has only two outputs. I am also not a fan of the flat desktop style form factor, though I suppose it makes sense if you are standing over a work surface.

So, it was back to the Audio Kontrol 1. Reading the NI forum revealed that early users had a lot of issues. But since then there have been firmware updates, and my experience has been that many of the problems people face can be put down to their computers and their lack of knowledge in optimising same. Unfortunately this PC audio business is not for those unwilling to experiment.

So I went ahead and ordered the AK1. Installing the device on my desktop went smoothly. Before attaching the hardware the driver must be loaded. This allows communication over the USB bus -- a nice solid cable is included, by the way.

The control software (optional) allows the buttons and knob to function with any programme that accepts MIDI or keyboard commands. It is easy enough to create a new mapping for the software of your choice. The cool thing is that the buttons can be used to modify the functions of the other controls. So, for example, the knob can do one thing with no button pressed, another with button one down, another with button two down, and yet a fourth function with button three depressed.

The third piece of software in the NI service center, which allows online activation of your products. This works well so long as you have an internet connection. The advantage to this type of copy protection is that you do not need a hardware dongle and the service center can remind you of product updates. All NI products are accessible through the same application. And the licensing system is quite reasonable: you can install the same package on two different computers, as NI understand you may have a desktop and laptop in use.

Since I looked at the pre-release package the software bundle has changed. Traktor 3 LE is still included. This is decent software that might very well be all you need to DJ. But NI has put in an annoying popup that prompts you when starting and stopping the programme. One must wait several seconds for this to go away. As a customer who has bought more than one of their products, I hardly need nagging each and every time I start the software. Get out of my face NI!

Likewise Guitar Combos, a set of amp emulations, is included as before.

Xpress Keyboards has been replaced by Keyboard Collection, a set of virtual instruments based on Kontakt Player 2. This provides a few pianos plus clavinet and organ, together with some effects and other user controls (for example, you can layer two instruments). The basic grand piano sounds nice, and as this is an instrument almost anyone can do with, I find its inclusion a nice bonus.

However, this is a less extensive package than the previously included Xpress Keyboards, which incorporated playback versions of B4, PRO-53 and FM7. If you were looking for more "synthy" sounds, you might be disappointed with this change.

On the up-side, anyone interested in the NI flagship sampler, Kontakt 3, will be interested to know that one can upgrade from Keyboard Collection for $279 or €249. This may be a good deal, depending on what Kontakt 3 sells for in your neighbourhood (it lists for $449 or €399).

In my previous article I said "If you want to record a band it is a poor choice. No multi-track software comes with the bundle and you have only two inputs." While the latter is still true, I can bring you the welcome news that, for Windows users anyway, the first issue has been remedied. Cubase LE 4 now comes in the box on its own install disk.

The driver for the unit itself allows only minimal control. One is expected to handle levels either from the unit's front panel or in your recording software. The bit depth is always 24-bit, so you will not be able to use this device with software that handles only 16 bits. The sampling rate can be selected up to 192 KHz quality. Personally, I doubt anyone recording at home will ever need greater than 44.1KHz, but manufacturers prefer to compete on the basis of large numbers. A number of latency presets are available, or one can choose to configure one's own.

OK, enough about software -- what about the hardware? First, the unit is smaller than it looks in pictures but is just as snazzy. The front controls are, by necessity, rather closely packed, but still accessible. The knobs have a very nice tight feel; you will not be turning these by accident. The pushbuttons have a definitive switch feel, except (oddly) for Monitor On. There are lights on the top panel for all the I/O functions as well as phantom power (button for this is on the back of the unit).

The input lights come on when there is signal present and light red if clipping is encountered. There is not a huge amount of gain (I am used to RME devices), but enough.

To be picky I should note that it is difficult to see the lights on the top surface of the unit if one is using it on a high surface, as one might very well be in order to optimise use of the front-panel controls. For the form factor, this is a necessary compromise.

To quote from my previous article again: "Had they made room for a cross-fade controller it would be perfectly suited to this task." Well, guess what? There is a cross-fade control... it's the big knob on top. This comes mapped to the cross-fader in Traktor and could easily be set up for same in other software. The knob has a lovely smooth feeling but the buttons click in a slightly awkward fashion. For those interested in visuals, the nifty red lights come on only when you are using the control in question.

The combo connector for the mic/line input works as advertised. It is not the most expensive connector of its kind, and does not have a lock. For a semi-pro device I can live with this.

Here's something that might be counter-intuitive: the line input level control adjusts the second input all of the time and also controls the first input if it is set to "line". So the mic input trim only controls input one if set to "mic". Odd.

I very much like how the front panel has output level controls for both stereo pairs (from back panel) and a third independent control for the headphones. A switch selects between feeding the headphone out from channels 1/2 or 3/4. This gives a great deal of control, and is simply perfect for DJing.

While I'm on the subject, the outputs are 1/4 inch balanced TRS sockets. I didn't really expect balanced connectors on a device in this price range.

In use I was able to get output working quickly and with no glitches from foobar, Reaktor and Samplitude. Recording of MIDI, guitar (through the instrument input) and vocals went without a hitch. Latency was very small, and once I found the right combination of input monitoring via hardware and software, monitoring from the device went smoothly.

I should note, however, that for the mic I used, a Studio Projects B3, there was not much headroom above the optimum input level. Since I do not think anyone would be using significantly lower sensitivity mics with this unit I do not judge this to be a real problem. More problematic was the monitor level. Turned full up this was still too weak to compete with a full mix coming from the recording software. The solution, of course, is to turn down the master faders in your recording software, but I can't help wanting more gain.

Installing on a second computer, the designated laptop, I found that even simple playback was plagued with dropouts. I remedied this the same way I do for my RME -- I have a second hardware profile set up as a boot option with all networking and the DVD drive turned off. The laptop performed perfectly in this mode. I was able to supply the AK1 along with phantom power to the B3 even on battery power. And with minimal latency. Brilliant!

Time will tell how the unit works in practice, but I see no major limitations. The Traktor DJ is perfect for the purpose and the grand piano from Keyboard Collection sounds great.

For the price and functionality this unit has no competition.

P.S. NI now offer the AUDIO 8 DJ which has phono preamps and 8 channels of I/O but loses the cool knob and sticks the XLR input on the back. For almost twice the price of the AK1 I don't see this making much sense.



Unknown said...

I'm happy that I found your review. It's one of the best that I've found regarding the AK1, but I think you still missed a few points. I'm wondering about the sound quality.

1)In the past I had RME, too, so does the sound quality compare to the RME in any frequencies and stereo image?

2)How's the preamp sound, compared to the DBX and Focusrite?

3)Have you tried to connect it to a laptop, and maybe connect another USB device, such as a keyboard controller?

Thanks a lot!


robin said...

does the sound quality compare to the RME in any frequencies and stereo image?

I have not done any scientific tests or serious comparisons. And most of the input has been done with lower end mics. But while I cannot imagine the sound is as clearly rendered as the RME it does fine for this application, with no obvious defects.

How's the preamp sound, compared to the DBX and Focusrite?

Not having them, I cannot tell you. The only other mic input I have currently is a Behringer mixer, and anything is better than that!

Have you tried to connect it to a laptop, and maybe connect another USB device, such as a keyboard controller?

Did this with a Novation controller and it worked just fine. Also commonly use USB mouse and computer keyboard. I don't think the interface would cause any problems here.

David Ellis said...

Thanks for this review, I need the 192k to digitize some master reel-to-reels from the past with a high but affordable quality. It looks like the equivalent MOTU is $600!

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