E-MU TRACKER PRE
This modest looking two-channel interface has a few surprises up its sleeve.
Text: Brad Watts
E-Mu has quite a reputation when it comes to sampling and synthesis. Since 1971, from the Emulator sampler through to the 12-bit Drumulator percussion module – a hip-hop classic to this day – E-Mu has been churning out the classics. After its takeover in 1993 by Creative Labs, however, E-Mu has developed more into a vehicle for Creative’s line of sound cards, monitors and virtual incarnations of Emulator samplers.
While most of E-Mu’s devices are aimed at the PC market nowadays, the new Tracker Pre USB 2.0 audio interface (that’s just shown up on my desk) is also, somewhat surprisingly, OSX savvy. The Tracker Pre is a small bus-powered device, so it’s infinitely portable. Sporting the original E-Mu dark grey colour scheme – a nice little nod toward the Emulator and Drumulator heritage – this modest looking interface offers up a few surprises. Let’s check it out.
IN & OUT
I/O to the Tracker Pre includes two balanced inputs that double as mic preamps, a stereo mini-jack input and two TRS jack outputs. The mic pres are E-Mu’s ‘XTC’ Class-A design. Alongside these inputs are something rarely found in the budget end of the digital interface market – the inclusion of insert points over the two inputs. Even rarer are the two ground-lift switches that operate on the inputs, which are sneakily placed on the underside of the box.
The front panel of the Tracker Pre, meanwhile, houses mic level controls, a direct hardware monitoring level control (sporting a mono button) and a separate headphone level control and output. Sample rates up to 192k are supported but thus far only on the Windows platform. Macs will currently only support rates up to 96k, but whether this will change with software updates is unknown at this stage. The older USB 1.1 standard is also supported only on the Windows platform, where performance is restricted to 16-bit/48k. Incidentally, hardware monitoring is also disabled at the extreme sample rates of 176.4 and 192k – there’s got to be some concession when running these speeds over USB.
E-Mu has thrown a considerable swag of software into the Tracker package, including Cubase LE4, Cakewalk Sonar LE, Celemony Melodyne Essential, Bias Peak LE, IK Multimedia Amplitube LE or Duo for XP. T-Racks EQ and SFX Machine LT make the cut along with Ableton Live Lite v6 and Waldorf Edition LE. It’s rare for a company to provide two DAW applications with an interface but in this case you have the choice (on Windows) of using the very capable Cubase or Sonar LE. There are also three discs of sample libraries included that would normally set you back $120 each, along with a set of grand piano samples on another CD. That’s not a bad starting point for getting into things without spending another cent on software. For Mac users, however, the sample libraries and grand piano won’t be of much use unfortunately, since the discs are Windows installations only.
Overall the Tracker sounds very good. The Class-A preamps treat guitars nicely and the ground lift switches virtually eradicate buzz and hum from guitars and bass – single-coil pickups as well. Gain is clean all the way through to about two o’ clock on the dial, beyond which the preamps lurch into clipping. However, this can also be harnessed as quite usable overdrive. The only problem with this is that, once the gain of the preamp is cranked beyond this point, the output into your DAW software is way too high to record without digital clipping. This applies to any interface, of course, not only the Tracker Pre. But here’s a workaround that will allow you to crank that preamp and still keep levels low enough to avoid clipping the recording – and this applies to any interface that has insert points. All you need is an attenuator such as the NanoPatch (which I’ve reviewed elsewhere in this issue). Patch the attenuator into the input’s insert point using an everyday, garden variety insert lead, bring the level of the NanoPatch down and crank the preamp to taste. Brilliant.
Getting back to the Tracker Pre… the 112dB signal-to-noise ratio is frightfully good for an interface of the USB persuasion – and perhaps more importantly, it sounds pretty darn good too. The noise figures quoted on the Tracker are normally reserved for units costing significantly more moolah, so all in all, the interface seems like a great value-for-money device. Just bear in mind that the software is slightly skewed toward the PC fraternity.