M-AUDIO PROFIRE 2626
Pound for pound, this digital interface offers more features than virtually anything on the market.
Text: Calum Orr
It’s roughly ten years ago that I first recommended M-Audio’s Audiophile Delta 24/96 to people looking for an affordable, full-featured soundcard with decent sounding converters. Back in the late ’90s the success of M-Audio’s range was already developing a reputation for highly quality, rock solid drivers and innovative A/D and D/A solutions. Since then M-Audio has become a powerhouse in the affordable soundcard market, operating as a subsidiary of Avid/Digidesign. And the Profire 2626 is exactly that – an affordable powerhouse.
Up until now, I would have said the Digidesign 003 was probably the flagship of the non-HD, ProTools hardware options. But in many ways, the Profire 2626 trumps Digidesign’s own 003 hardware. For starters, the Profire 2626 has eight mic preamps where the 003 has only four (although the 003 has four D.I. inputs where the Profire only has two). The 2626 provides 24 inputs and outputs to ProTools M-Powered software while the 003 only offers 18 in and out. The unit is capable of sample rates of up to 192k when used in conjunction with practically any other DAW software, making it more cutting-edge, versatile and future-proof than the 003. The 2626 also has built-in DSP for creating latency-free cue mixes – critical in a host-based system.
Furthermore, if you’re a ProTools HD user, the 2626 can act as additional I/O for your HD rig one minute, and a second independent ’Tools rig the next, which a 003 system can’t manage. The 2626 also combines with LE in a similar fashion. This versatility makes it a great hardware option for people moving between HD and LE projects.
Sticking with the positives a bit longer, the routing options in the 2626 driver’s pane are excellent. The ability to rearrange the order of converter input options via a simple drag-&-drop window is a great innovation and a real time saver. Moving mic channels from 1-8 to 17-24, for instance, is a piece of cake. It’s particularly handy with my setup – I use mainly outboard pres via an RME ADI 8/DS converter box or a Fireface 800 configured for operation in stand-alone mode. Conversely, the 2626 can also be setup in stand-alone mode to provide extra channels of conversion for the Fireface when using non-ProTools recording software such as Cubase or Logic.
The Profire 2626 has a well thought out, good looking and feature packed front panel with facilities to burn. Starting from the left, there are two D.I. inputs with mic/D.I. switches and gain control pots. The eight front panel gain pots also have –20dB pads engaged via ‘pull knobs’ (no sniggering now). Phantom power is available in banks of four. There are two headphone outputs and master volume control, both with software routable outputs – and lastly, a power switch.
Around the back are the XLR combo jack inputs, eight 1/4-inch outputs, two ADAT lightpipe In and Out ports, a 9V power socket and a nine-pin jack for connecting the MIDI, S/PDIF and Wordclock I/O breakout cable. Everything connects to the host via either of two 1394a Firewire ports.
Another fantastic feature of the Profire 2626 is its ‘auto S-MUX’ capability. For the uninitiated, S-MUX is a transfer protocol that enables high-resolution sampling rates over ADAT connections. The trade off here is fewer channels. So for instance, my RME ADI-8 DS running at 44.1 or 48k is an eight-channel converter, but when using S-MUX it can operate as a four-channel unit at 88.2 or 96k. What’s great about the Profire 2626 is that it automatically detects the devices attached to the ADAT ports and applies the appropriate S-MUX parameters according to the selected sample rate.
All the digital connection paraphernalia on the 2626 has worked without a hitch since I’ve been trialling the unit, so let’s briefly turn to the sound of its ‘Octane’ preamps. In a nutshell, they sound great and I wouldn’t hesitate to use them in a session for any number of source sounds. What’s more, having a hardware pad on all eight mic channels makes them infinitely more useable.
The mic pre/converter all-in-one solution is all the rage these days, of course, so some of the Profire’s competition should be duly noted. Firstly, there’s the Presonus Firestation. It too has very formidable preamps, a similar build quality and feature set for around the same price, but no ProTools software compatibility. The MOTU 896 also has excellent routing and works seamlessly with Digital Performer and many other Software DAWs, but again, no ProTools software.
I must reign in this steed however, and quickly point out that the ProTools M-Powered software must be purchased separately to the 2626, though at under 400 bucks, it’s a pretty affordable program. One thing to remember, however, is that you’ll need the ProTools Music Production Toolkit for the full 48 active M-Powered voices within the mixer, as with ProTools LE. Personally, I think limiting the track count is a terrible option in 2008 and I wish Digidesign would dispense with this limitation once and for all. It’s also unfortunate that ProTools M-Powered has a maximum sample rate (just like Cubase 4) of 96k, which doesn’t take maximum advantage of the Profire’s capabilities.
With M-Powered ProTools software being exactly the same as ProTools LE, I declare the M-Audio Profire 2626 the next best thing to ProTools HD. If you want an affordable ’Tools rig with plenty of I/O, it really is the main contender. If Logic Pro 8’s pricing put the cat amongst the pigeons in the DAW sector, surely the 2626 will put a mouse amongst the elephants in the AD/DA hardware sector. Its sheer affordability will certainly reinvigorate the ProTools brand if the whole M-Powered thing hasn’t already.
Like the Audiophile 24/96, the Profire 2626 is built as a keeper. If you want ProTools but can’t afford HD, this is arguably the next best thing.