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Review: RME UCX Interface

Connecting an interface up to an iPad sounds like a novelty, but there’s nothing toytown about RME UCX’s next-gen converters; making any session, even on your iPad, clearer than the last.

By

22 June 2012

Review: Cal Orr

RME is rather prolific in releasing the next latest and greatest audio interface. Each with more bang for your buck than the last, and ever-increasing technical specs, onboard DSP, and interconnectivity to burn.

Enter the new UCX, a half rack unit with 18 I/O at up to 192k, BNC wordclock I/O, S/PDIF I/O over coax or optical, ADAT I/O, and 2 x MIDI I/O via breakout cable. Operation with your computer is via USB 2.0 or Firewire 400 but, wait for it, the UCX is also Class 2 compliant, which means it can interface as a sound card for Apple iPad or iPad 2 [we haven’t tested it with the new iPad, but should be fine — Ed]. 

If I was trying to guess what the RME R&D team were up to when conceiving the UCX I think they were aiming fairly and squarely at duos or singer-songwriters who have a laptop or iPad and want to record numerous channels at once and/or use their interface as a digital console in a live situation. Of course the beauty of the UCX and iPad combo is that there are no moving parts or fans, so recording acoustically with your DAW handy — and without the need to stick your computer in its own padded cell — is finally an option. This is just one of the UCX’s strong selling points on a long list of worthy attributes — so let’s get to it.

POWER PACKED

Due to the abundance of features the UCX requires powering from mains via a power pack outputting 15V DC. The power pack tip has a handy LED that shines green, letting you know power is OK prior to the back panel on/off toggle switch. My only reservation here is that the power pack tip is a bit wobbly in the socket. Perhaps a trade-off of the smaller design is a limit in plug choice. 

The front panel has two Neutrik combo connectors that will accept mics requiring +48V phantom. The preamps are the same as RME’s Micstasy range with 65dB of digitally-controlled gain and are highly useable for a wide range of applications. The optional Autoset function confines the dreaded overload to history as an intelligent algorithm musically adjusts mic gain free of the sonic artefacts of limiting and additional circuitry. Beside these are two TRS instrument inputs that have clipping and ‘signal present’ LEDs. All four front inputs are digitally controlled by the centrally positioned push button, rotary encoder. I tried diving in and setting things up but soon realised a read of the manual was in order to familiarise myself with the abbreviations and acronyms (the UCX has a readout similar to the Fireface 400 and is not as informative as the UFX Fireface reviewed in Issue 76).

CONVERTING UP

RME claims the converters are the best it has supplied with a Fireface to date and after a month of testing I’m not going to refute that. I could hear a substantial difference to my 13-year old RME ADI-8 and I could tell my Fireface 800 was not quite as sonically transparent. The new converters also boast incredibly low latency, that’s independent of the recording sample rate. From a steady 44.1, right up to 192k, the latency remains at 14 samples for the A/D conversion, and 7 samples for the D/A. That means 0.4ms at 48k!

The digital latency, along with the ability to store six different setups for standalone operation, and its portability, makes the UCX a handy little singer/songwriter digital mixer too.

All of this sonic integrity and professional I/O does not come cheap, but I can’t see any company combining this value with high performance and local in-house servicing. Particularly when you include RME’s onboardTotalmix DSP mixer, which provides virtually unlimited routing possibilities, EQ and compression as well as simple delay and reverb effects. On top of this the Fireface UCX is currently the only professional interface that can provide eight in and eight out to an iPad in Class Compliant mode making the asking price very reasonable in my opinion. 

NEED TO KNOW

  • PRICE

    $1,999

  • CONTACT

    Innovative Music: (03) 9540 0658 or info@innovativemusic.com.au

  • PROS

    • iPad connectivity
    • Incredibly low latency turns UCX into live digital mixer
    • Local, professional servicing/warranty support

  • CONS

    • Power connector socket a little wobbly
    • iPad Camera Connection a dud USB solution

  • SUMMARY

    Although small, RME’s UCX packs everything in. Enough I/O to meet most requirements, sizzling new converters with minimal latency, and 65dB of digitally controlled gain all in half a rack space. Best of all, it can connect to your iPad, for a portable, noiseless recording — and live — rig.

REMOTE ACCESS

RME makes an optional Advanced Remote Control, which adds six freely programmable buttons and indicator LEDs, having stopped shipping the standard remote that only had one.

BACKGROUND CONNECTIONS

RME supplies its usual complement of professional interfacing: the remainder of the analogue inputs (5-8), S/PDIF I/O on coaxial, eight channels at 48k over ADAT I/O (four channels at 96k/two channels at 192k if your ADAT converters support SMUX2 and SMUX4), wordclock I/O on BNC connectors, a socket for the MIDI breakout cable, a socket for the optional remote, Firewire 400, USB connectors and eight balanced analogue line outs — all in that little package!

’APPY DAYS

At the time of writing, the only program in the iTunes App Store that can handle more than two in/two out is Multitrack DAW. However, WaveMachine Labs are in Beta testing for its new 48-track Auria app with the release expected by the end of August. Currently, Multitrack DAW can only record 16-bit files at a maximum 48k sample rate, however that is likely to change in the not too distant future according to the developer.

With several simultaneous eight-track test recordings under my belt I can report back that my iPad 2 recording eight tracks in Multitrack DAW worked seamlessly. Though there is a caveat attached. It’s beguiling, but to get audio into the iPad, you need to attach the $30 iPad Camera Connection Kit. And don’t try any third party device for $5 on eBay like I did, they just don’t work! The other annoying feature of the Camera Kit is that the connection is flimsy and quite often I felt like I could easily break it. Plus on a couple of occasions the USB cable would drag out of the socket and lose connection. I must stress that this is no fault of RME’s and I should really be directing my gripe at Apple for not coming up with a more robust and flexible connection. (A note to manufacturers of iPad components here; if you made a flexible cable that did the same thing as the Camera Connection kit with some kind of lockable USB insert, you would have iPad owners flocking — the current situation is not up to pro audio standards.)

RME’s Fireface UCX heralds the beginning of a new era where it will be possible to make professional multi-track recordings using tablet computers. I have to say it was a joy to record in the same room as my DAW as although I have modified my Mac Pro to make it more bearable, it is still only quiet enough to mix beside, not record delicate, softly played or sung material. The UCX fills quite a nice niche in the sound card market however with its 18 I/O. It won’t be for everyone and I fear that the musician on the go would’ve probably been happy to forego the remote in favour of a more robust MIDI connection.

All things considered, the Fireface UCX is a powerhouse audio interface that cannot be overlooked if you’re in the market for a super sounding interface with phenomenal build quality in a half-rack form factor. 

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