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STEINBERG UR-RT4 AUDIO INTERFACE - AudioTechnology

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July 14, 2018

The Neve name may be the ultimate clickbait for gearheads. Will Yamaha’s collaboration with Rupert Neve Designs keep us engaged beyond the headline? 

Review: Andrew Bencina

No doubt, the first thing you noticed about Steinberg’s UR-RT desktop interfaces were those tailored Rupert Neve Designs transformers, integrated into the signal path as switchable inserts following the Yamaha-designed D-PRE preamp outputs. Beyond the RND-adornments, the two UR-RT boxes are fairly straightforward: the four in/two out UR-RT2, and six in/four out UR-RT4, each channel 24-bit/192k audio and MIDI to and from Windows, macOS and iOS devices, via USB 2.0. Notwithstanding the differences in channel count, size and price ($599 and $999 respectively), the UR-RT sisters share the same hardware, driver and bundled software (Cubase AI, Cubasis and Basic FX Suite of VST3 plug-ins). For this review I was working with the more amply endowed of the two.

UR WHAT UR

The UR-RT4 is built like a brick house. It’s reassuringly hefty, plain-looking yet refined, and bedecked with silky aluminium knobs. While few of the connectors are obviously panel-mounted, the boards are secured to the chassis in key locations (particularly at the USB connection) and there is no ‘play’ during connection and disconnection. While it flirts with the look of a rack-able interface — it’s basically 1RU high if you minus the rubber feet, and about two thirds of a rack unit in width — it’s officially a desktop unit. It’s powered by a 12V DC wall wart with a generous 2.5m cable, though the absence of a locking connection or cable restraint is mildly troubling.

On the front you’ll find four combo connectors (two Mic/DI, two Mic/Line), each with LED peak indicators — additional signal indicators would have been a welcome addition — and a +48V phantom LED per pair. Regrettably, phantom power is switchable in channel pairs only. The switches are located at the rear of the unit on the recessed panel, affording some protection against accidental activation. 

Next to the inputs are four illuminated switches for the insertion of the RND transformers (more about the trannies later) and the input gain controls for each channel. The pots appear to provide analogue control of gain, with no stepping or associated gain indication within the RT4’s software interface, they also don’t feature a numerical legend. Space is tight, and for my fat little fingers there was just enough room to adjust one without disturbing those alongside. The RT4 is blessed with two discrete headphone outputs each with their own level control — and there was plenty of level on tap. The first mirrors the Master/1-2 outputs while the second is software-switchable between outputs 1-2 and 3-4. Alongside these is a level control for the Master output.

The rear accommodates a smattering of TRS I/O pairs: Line Inputs 5 & 6, the Master stereo bus (post Output pot), as well as Line Outputs 1 & 2 (pre Output pot) and 3 & 4. MIDI DIN I/O, USB and a switched power input (it’s not as common as it should be) round out the connections. 

While there’s certainly a great deal crammed elegantly into limited space the absence of any digital audio connections (ADAT, AES/EBU or S/PDIF, for example) may be notable for some users. I’d hazard the absence of per-channel phantom switching, and lack of access to physical control of the available polarity and HPF toggle functions might be more contentious for some. I must stress however, that I don’t see these choices as negatives. They are choices. Choices that put the RT4’s likely user in perspective. 

WORK WITH ME

Installation to a Windows 10 system using the packaged CD was straightforward; as we’ve come to expect. I also elected to download and install Cubase AI, using the bundled license. At over 6.5GB I wonder if the CD couldn’t be replaced with a thumb drive and also include a recent version of the DAW for both Windows and macOS to make things even simpler. Cubase AI is not prescribed, but if you don’t have any existing DAW affiliations the provided version is relatively powerful and incorporates direct access to the RT4’s settings and monitor mixing capabilities. You can even save custom configurations within each project. For the remainder of this discussion I’ll instead focus on the dspMixFx application, required by all non-Cubase users to configure the driver and DSP settings.

Both the UR-RT4 and RT2 incorporate an onboard SSP2 DSP chip to handle monitor mixing duties. While they can run standalone, with the last configured Scene (including the capability to run as a four-channel preamp with inputs routed directly to outputs), you need the software interface to access many controls. 

Sample rate and Buffer settings are standard but you’ll also find settings for the cutoff frequency of Input 1-4’s HPF, channel assignments for Headphone bus 2, level calibration for line inputs 5 & 6 (-10dBV or +4dBu) and Loopback (the routing of driver output pairs back into the equivalent driver inputs; handy for recording screencasts, presentations, software instrument outputs, or any number of other possible uses). dspMixFx allows users to configure up to two low-latency monitor mixes (under Windows 10 the roundtrip latency was 0.94ms when running at 48k) blending input sources with software outputs. The mixer incorporates EQ/Compressor channel strips and four Yamaha guitar amp emulators which can be monitor-only or applied to recordings. An effects send routed to the REV-X reverb is also included. All of these useful and highly usable onboard effects are also bundled as VST3 plug-ins. Just be sure to check they’re supported by your DAW.

If you’re monitoring via your DAW, the roundtrip latency performance doesn’t equal market leaders’ but it’s definitely within a good range for most applications. Steinberg do however deserve credit for accurately reporting this latency within the driver (add the Input and Output latency figures to determine roundtrip latency). While latency performance was mid-market, this additional buffer may explain the far more positive results in my audio stability testing; which will be at least as important for those considering live applications. 

The real issue with dspMixFx and the RT4 is the lack of DSP power. While the smaller RT2 may be well served by the onboard DSP, it’s not possible to insert a mono instance of the channel strip onto all six input channels of the RT4. What’s more, the amp sim (only one per device) and channel strips cannot be chained, the use of even a single amp simulator cuts the number of available channel strip inserts to two, and while volume and pan controls are unique to the two discrete monitor ‘Mixes’, per-channel reverb send settings are only active in one of the mixes with the return applied to both. Notwithstanding, for many simple applications all this would likely be a non-issue. What the dspMixFx mixer does, including the saving of effect settings and mix scenes, it actually does very well; it’s just not as full-featured a mixing experience as those currently offered by RME or MOTU devices, of similar channel counts.

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE?

I know, I know. I’ve buried the lead. What you all really want to know about is those Rupert Neve-designed transformers. Perhaps most importantly, the UR-RT4 sounds pretty damn good. I very quickly jammed out a little five-track ditty (drum machine, P-bass, synth, high-strung acoustic guitar and electric guitar) using Radial JS and Lehle splitters — along with calibration tones — to record simultaneously to channels with the transformers enabled and disabled. For my test ’control’ chains, I used a Radial JDV mkIII DI and UA 2108 preamp. For starters, the D-PRE channels performed very nicely indeed. In fact, the difference between the recordings made through these channels and the controls were at times negligible. When ABing against the ‘transformed’ recordings, the differences weren’t drastic, but they were notable. In very simple terms they had slightly less sparkle but more punch and low end bloom; and for some sources this augmentation was definitely worthwhile. Interestingly, when carrying out earlier listening tests for the DACs and headphone channels I’d noted a similar, though not as pronounced, voicing when making comparisons with other reference devices. While it’s not trying to be everything for everybody, the UR-RT4 does have a sound and it’s more musical than scientific.

MORE OR LESS

It might seem trite to point out that the Steinberg UR-RT4 is a UR-RT2 with more; but it’s the extras that let you know where ‘UR’ priorities rest. The I/O count expands while the DSP and digital interface options remain static. Steinberg deliver more of less to keep things simple for users who care about capturing a variety of tones with a minimum of fuss. The bundled cross-platform software options make it an ideal platform for recording musicians or perhaps an upscale solution for podcasters and vloggers. Sometimes a Super Supreme or Long Island Ice Tea is just too much, the UR-RT series identifies a few key ingredients and lets you season to taste.

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RIDING THE TRIPLE J WAVE

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Issue 59