Presonus fires up with this powerful 24-channel interface in a single rack… oh, and a remote.
Text: Brad Watts
The Presonus Firestudio has been resident in my racks a number of months now and I must say it’s been a great little Firewire interface. When I say ‘little’, I mean in physical size only. The single rackmount box provides a truckload of features, is readily expandable, and sports the facility to add the nifty MSR remote control. While I’ve had the actual Firestudio interface for quite a while, the (optional) MSR remote control unit only landed recently. So now that I’ve finally got the entire package in my hands, it’s on with the show.
Presonus has been going through a change of design direction over the last couple of years and now appears to have settled on a consistent theme. Although not quite as heavy duty as its previous milled aluminium designs, this change of aesthetic has produced some cool gear that’s great value for money, and somewhat underrated.
FIRE HYDRANT CONNECTORS
The Firestudio houses eight microphone preamp inputs and gain controls spread across the front panel. Each preamp features a single clipping LED alongside its gain control, the first two of which also accept high impedance instrument levels, such as guitar and bass. The inputs are Neutrik combo ports allowing both XLR and jack connection to the unit. At the left hand end of the Firestudio are two phantom power buttons for instigating 48V in two banks of four. These light up brightly when engaged, and project a dashing blue glow. The right hand end of the unit houses a headphone output with level control, master output control, power button and sync LED. Both are, again, that dashing shade of LED blue, with the sync LED switching to red if the unit fails to find a sync source – either via the Firewire connection to the host computer or via the various digital options.
T’ord the stern of the Firestudio you’ll find a more than reasonable I/O quota. To start with there are 10 balanced analogue outputs – eight general-purpose TRS jacks and a pair of TRS master outputs. Six of these are earmarked for surround monitoring, or just the masters for stereo, if you prefer. Four dedicated jacks add a send & return insert section over Inputs 1 and 2, without the need for specialised insert cables. These jacks can also be used as line level balanced inputs to Inputs 1 and 2, while the send outputs provide an immediate output from Preamps 1 and 2 before digital conversion. This covers a multitude of options. For example, it allows the Firestudio to act as a standalone set of stereo converters without the need to even begin configuring the unit via software. Following the analogue I/O is a standard Cat-5 connection that links to the MSR remote control unit, which I’ll discuss shortly. Beside this is a pair of RCA inputs – these are simply an auxiliary stereo input that are only accessible when using the MSR unit. Next to these are RCA S/PDIF connectors and four TOSlink optical connectors, which provide access to a further eight channels of I/O at sample rates up to 96k – SMUX is of course the protocol for 96k operation. Following are BNC wordclock connections, MIDI in and out, two Firewire 400 ports and the screw-in power supply connection – which interestingly will accept between 12-24V DC or 15V AC. The whole unit is sensibly and clearly laid out, with my only real complaint (again) being the dual banks of phantom power rather than discrete switching per channel.
The supplied Firestudio control software is comprehensive; offering a barrow-load of functionality, including the facility to route up to nine separate mixes for headphone monitoring via the eight sets of analogue outputs, ADAT/SMUX outs, and the S/PDIF output. You’ll need an appropriate ADAT lightpipe-equipped D/A unit to get this happening, along with the corresponding number of headphone amps (as with any multiple headphone mix setup). As the unit stands by itself, it can route five headphone mixes from analogue and S/PDIF outputs. I did find a few items that weren’t available via the control panel that were present in the Windows version of the software. For example, the digital lightpipe I/O couldn’t be seen from Channels 17–24. This doesn’t pose a restriction for most Mac users as your DAW software sees the additional outputs – Logic 7 (and 8) both accessed the full complement of 26 ins and outs, as did the supplied Cubase LE software – and the distributors assure me that there are upgrades imminent.
Which brings me to the supplied software kit bundled with the Firestudio. These include the aforementioned Cubase LE – ample enough to get any recording needs fulfilled – and Sonoma Wire Works’ Riffworks Jr., which is a neat little app for quick loop-based composition. Then there’s a bunch of virtual instruments and plug-ins such as an ‘adapted’ version of Reason, IK Multimedia’s Amplitube LE, BFD Lite from FXpansion and the Lounge Lizard electric keys from Applied Acoustic Systems. There’s even a copy of Drumagog LE and a stack of loops and samples to run along with it. All up, a none-too-shabby package of gizmos that will get you up and running without spending another cent on software.
Now, onto the MSR remote control. The MSR is one of the cleverer devices I’ve seen in recent times – a controller that’s an integral part of the audio interface for which it’s designed. This has been an issue for thousands of computer-based recordists for years – the small matter of master volume control, talkback and speaker selection. Up until quite recently the only remedy for attenuating the output from your audio interface was either a small mixing console or a passive attenuation pot between your outputs and the monitors. The big end of town – pro mastering houses and the like – have access to expensive bespoke options. And, more recently, we’ve seen units such as the Mackie Big Knob and Presonus’ own Central Station fill that gap quite convincingly – by essentially taking the concept of a console’s master section and supplying it separately. But most of us are still shunting our ‘pristine’ audio out through a cheap little console.
Now we have the MSR control unit. It’s a simple desktop device that offers control of monitoring volume and talkback, along with monitor dim, mute and mono. You can also switch between a couple of pairs of monitors and add a separate sub output. There’s even an extra pair of headphone outputs that pump out quite a high amount of gain. Each headphone output sports its own level control.
The MSR is a pretty tidy little box – that no doubt owes its aesthetic to the Central Station – that connects to the Firestudio via a single Cat-5 ethernet cable. The talkback button on the unit works either momentarily (when you hold it down) or in ‘latch’ mode when you give it a quick jab – as all talkback buttons should behave. Just don’t forget it’s on when you have it in latch mode and say something you’ll regret through everybody’s cans.
I like the addition of an XLR input for an external talkback mic (no 48V by the way) but I’m at a loss as to why Presonus has reconfigured the surround output numbering. Outputs 1+2 are earmarked ‘left’ and ‘right’ (fine so far), but following that, Outputs 3+4 unusually feed the ‘rear left and right’ monitors, with ‘Centre’ and ‘LFE’ driven from Outputs 5+6. Not really the way things are generally done in surround circles (so to speak). Regardless, the MSR is a neat little addition to the Firestudio and should prove to be a winner if you can’t afford the Central Station monitoring system – a class act for the money.
HOME & HOSED?
So how does the Firestudio sound? Well, personally I believe Presonus has pulled quite a few rabbits out of hats of late, especially with regard to the sound of its Class A mic preamps. Their ‘XMAX’ design is a high-voltage (30V) system that will give you smoother top end and a more solid bottom end due to the extra headroom gleaned from higher voltage designs – hence the reason the Firestudio can’t run on bus power alone. These are the first pres I’ve ever heard in a mid-level interface that actually offer some character, rather than merely attempting to be clean and technically ‘accurate’. They sound very nice indeed. Guitars distort with a smooth wholesome crunch and vocals don’t ‘splinter’ as is so often the case in ‘prosumer’ preamps.
The company is hardly a stranger to preamp design, having built eight-channel preamp units for many years, and it shows in the sound of the Firestudio’s pres. Equally as important (like most sensible audio manufacturers of late), Presonus has made real efforts to reduce jitter artifacts. In the world of Firewire connectivity this is no mean feat, but recent generations of interfaces are definitely getting the problem licked. Presonus’ particular brand of jitter reduction is called JetPLL, and is claimed to ‘virtually eliminate’ the effects of jitter. Having had the unit for a few months, I managed to pit the Firestudio against quite a number of similarly priced devices, and for the money, Presonus certainly has a competitive unit on its hands. Against units such as the Digidesign 003 and boxes from TC Electronic, the Firestudio held its ground. Couple this with the fact that you can feasibly get 24 channels of I/O at 96k via the Firestudio, and you have a worthy competitor to units such as the Fireface lineage from RME. A winner of an interface.