Early on, Focusrite earned the respect of audio pros with the release of serious, professional mic preamps, consoles and rackmounted channel strips. Some pros were disappointed when the company started playing to project studios, feeling that their early offerings in that market fell short of the sound quality associated with the Focusrite name. In recent years, however, Focusrite has blurred that line and delivered great sound at modest prices, pleasing engineers at all levels. On top of that, their innovation doesn’t stop at sound quality, but has embraced connectivity and flexibility in the digital domain. The new Saffire line includes the Saffire PRO 40, PRO 26 and PRO 24. Each is designed to connect via FireWire 400, and they are among the first multichannel interfaces to provide Thunderbolt connectivity.
While Apple computers continue to provide FireWire ports, others have phased them out, choosing Thunderbolt as an alternative. This has left many engineers turning to USB 3 interfaces. However, sharing the USB bus between hard drives and interfaces can lead to unnecessary bottlenecking. Having two buses to handle data has always been handy, and now, using a FireWire-to-Thunderbolt adapter, the Saffire drivers can interface with a FireWire-free PC.
Saffire PRO 40
The Saffire PRO 40 packs a good amount of I/O and connectivity into a single-rackspace unit, while also offering plenty of opportunity for expansion. The PRO 40 offers eight analog inputs and 10 analog outputs. Also included are a pair of Toslink I/O connecters as well as coax S/PDIF I/O and MIDI I/O on standard 5-pin DIN connectors.
The analog inputs each have a corresponding five-segment LED meter on the front panel. They each connect using XLR/TRS ¼-inch combo jacks, two of which are mounted on the front panel, the other six on the back. All eight inputs are designed to accept line-level signals through the ¼-inch component, and the first four can be made to amplify high-impedance, unbalanced, instrument-level signals, as well.
Each also offers a phantom-powered mic preamp, accessible through the XLR. While the Saffire MixControl application allows a user to switch between line and instrument signals when a connection to the ¼-inch jack is detected, there is no way to bypass automatic selection of mic versus line signals. This seems to be the trend with gear using these types of combo connectors. This, unfortunately, forces the user to choose one or the other when wiring the back-panel connectors into a patch bay.
The back panel also includes a group of eight ¼-inch output connectors, seemingly designed for taking splits or stems out through an analog mixer, routing to outboard effects, or building individual mixes to feed different headphone amplifiers. There is also a dedicated pair of 1/4-inch “monitor” outputs, designed to feed active monitors or a power amplifier. The level sent to these outputs can be controlled using a knob on the front panel; the front panel also features two headphone jacks, each with their own level controls. Signals can be piled onto the buses feeding any of these connectors by using the Saffire MixControl application.
Saffire MixControl features attractive graphics and clear labels. As is typical on FireWire and USB interfaces, the designers have taken into account that larger sessions will require higher DAW buffer settings, which will lead to latency in monitoring. The included MixControl software mixer allows the combination of low-latency input signals with latent DAW returns. While the inputs are A/D-converted before hitting the mixer, there is no noticeable delay. Besides mixing inputs with outputs, the MixControl panel allows more flexible control over multichannel monitoring setups. In the software, analog outputs could be grouped into stereo, stereo-plus-subwoofer, quad, 5.1 or 7.1, and then controlled by the monitor knob. It’s nice to see interfaces with enough I/O to accommodate surround actually take advantage of the opportunity to do so.
The optical connector can be used for S/PDIF as well as ADAT. The coax is meant for straight, 2-channel stereo S/PDIF signals, but does support encoded AC3 streams. Both types of digital connection can be used simultaneously, so potentially you could use four S/PDIF channels, or eight ADAT signals plus stereo S/PDIF, for a total of 10 digital inputs and 10 digital outputs. On top of that, the PRO 40 has two Thunderbolt-compatible EIE1394 FireWire 400 connectors, so one can be used to connect to the host while the other is available for daisy-chaining another Saffire unit. When linking two PRO 40s, you have access to the 16 available analog inputs, plus 20 digital inputs, all of which will be recognized as one giant interface by a DAW.
For the review, I received all three interfaces, along with Focusrite’s OctoPre Dynamic, an 8-channel mic preamp with an ADAT optical output. Connecting the PRO 40 and the OctoPre built a powerhouse of 16 analog inputs, with 16 mic pre’s, all housed in two rackspaces. When I first made the optical connection, it occurred to me that there was no dedicated BNC wordclock connection, so I would have to clock through the optical cable itself. While embedded clock signals, especially through an optical cable, are not known to be the steadiest, Focusrite’s engineers have taken great care to ensure the tightest clocking between multiple devices using the Jet PLL low-jitter, high-resolution clocking system.
I wound up using the Saffire’s internal clock as the master and slaving the OctoPre to it. I pressed the clock selector on the OctoPre and it didn’t lock within a few seconds, so I tried the opposite configuration. I had the same unresponsiveness. After switching back and forth a few times, it locked in the original configuration and never gave me another problem.
Having 16 inputs can be great for tracking things like drum kits or larger ensembles, but I most appreciated it when doing setups on a smaller scale. Often with smaller interfaces, you just accept the fact that going from a bass pass, to a guitar overdub, to a vocal overdub, you’ll just change the setup before each layer. It’s so beneficial to the flow of a session to have everything set up in advance and just jump from element to element with no downtime.
When tracking acoustic guitar, I was pleasantly surprised by the “sound” of the preamps. Given the number of them and the size of the unit, it was quite clear that there were no tubes or transformers. For an op amp, there was a lot of character in the lower midrange and bottom end. The bass was really tight, and there was a greater clarity in the midrange than what is usually heard from units in a similar price range. It’s hard to say which played a greater role in the transparency of the top end: the analog circuit topology or the converters. Either way, there certainly wasn’t a trace of the digital grit often found with lower-price converters. There was a clear, articulate sound that some might find a little dark, but I found preferable to the cheap, harsh, artificial top end that some preamps and converters will use to create the illusion of detail.
This worked really well when tracking a bass through one of the instrument inputs. The bottom was full without being loose, and each note popped through the mix while tracking. The recorded sound took well to EQ, and a slight low-mid scoop with a subtle bump on top really helped the bass cut in the overall mix. Because the original sound didn’t seem to have been subjected to a pre-fab EQ, my subtle adjustments were able to stay natural sounding and never grainy or abrasive.
Cutting vocals on top of a track that already had a lot of layers and effects required a little action in the Saffire MixControl software. Everything was labeled clearly, and the metering painted a clear picture of which signals were active. It was a snap to build a headphone mix with the appropriate amount of playback-to-input ratio. I later realized that I could instantiate the MixControl plug-in right in the Pro Tools mixer and switch the track to input monitoring there. This is innovative. With so many peripherals offering a software mixer panel in a separate app, you would think this would be a more common implementation, and it was certainly welcome here.
Taking all of this into account, the PRO 40 on its own is a great interface, but the building potential is probably the most exciting feature. The idea that four rackspaces filled with a pair of PRO 40s and a pair of OctoPres could give you 32 channels of totally usable input at a completely reasonable price tag is very exciting. If you are looking to build a portable rig for tracking bands in their practice spaces, or live performances, this would be a very solid option.
Saffire PRO 26
The PRO 26 has a slightly reduced feature set relative to the PRO 40, but a lot of the core components are the same. It’s smaller—the same footprint as a 13-inch MacBook Pro, so it sits nicely beneath the computer on a desktop.
Here, six analog inputs are available, with six balanced outputs. Any of the six inputs can accept line-level signals, but the first four can also work with microphone or instrument signals. The first two have front-panel TS/TRS connections for instrument and line-level signals, respectively, and a pair of rear-panel XLR jacks. The next two have XLR/TRS combo jacks on the back panel, and the last two are simply 1/4-inch TRS jacks with no gain controls. The front panel has one headphone jack, five-segment LED meters for each of the inputs, and a monitor control knob. Given the six available analog outputs, the PRO 26 can also support monitoring up to 5.1, using the front-panel monitor knob as a control room level.
While coax S/PDIF is offered in both input and output, optical digital is input-only. The optical input still supports ADAT optical and SMUX, in addition to S/PDIF. This means you could still add an 8-channel mic preamp with a digital out for 14 analog inputs, though two of them will require you to provide your own mic preamps. The PRO 26 has only one Thunderbolt-compatible FireWire 400 port, so you cannot chain two of these units together off of a single connector on your computer. You can, however, chain a PRO 26 to the extra FireWire 400 port on a PRO 40, and once again, DAWs will see them as a single interface.
My experience with the PRO 26 was very similar to my experience with the PRO 40. I was impressed when recording instruments like distorted electric guitar or tambourine, which have the potential to get harsh when captured by lower-price converters or preamps. The fine line between being able to cut through a mix, and being savagely bright, was toed very nicely.
Saffire PRO 24
The PRO 24 is the micro version of the other two interfaces. Actually, micro might not be the word, as it’s pretty large for its class and took up a good amount of space on the desk. The PRO 24 shrinks its price tag by offering just four analog inputs and six analog outputs. Two of the inputs are line-only, and two offer mic, line and instrument compatibility through a pair of TRS/XLR combo jacks. Coax S/PDIF in and out are provided, but ADAT-ready optical connectivity is offered only on the input side. Also, like the PRO 26, there’s a single FireWire connection and a single front-panel headphone jack with volume control.
I tried to make the PRO 24 my go-to portable interface. I needed to record some quick Foley for a short. One of the biggest challenges for any pre or interface when recording Foley is keeping the self-noise down, and the PRO 24 did a great job. I was recording footsteps and cloth for a wider outdoor shot, and it was simple to get the top end to sit in the scene. The no-hype top end of the Focusrite preamps made for an easy job.
Using it as my portable monitor controller proved to have mixed results. The lack of an optical output lost it some points right away. Using the analog outputs with the onboard volume control or connecting headphones showcased the above-average D/A converters, with a reasonably good stereo image and a pleasant amount of detail.
Due to its rather large size and inability to be more universally compatible, the PRO 24 would not be my first pick for an all-around, everyday interface. If you are looking for an inexpensive unit to stay connected and track voiceovers, vocals or simpler applications, the preamps sound very nice, and the monitor controller gets the job done well.
Brandon T. Hickey is a regular Mix contributor.
The Saffire line makes it easy to create combined interfaces that can be recognized as a single unit. This can be done with many other units using Mac’s Core Audio driver. With your devices connected, simply go to the Audio window of Audio MIDI Setup. Click on the “+” sign in the bottom left and choose Create Aggregate Device. Give your device a name. In the pane to the right, check the inputs and outputs you want to include and choose which device will be the clock master. In your DAW, change your Playback Engine or input and output devices to the one you just created.
PRODUCT: PRO 40
PRICES: $499.99 street
PROS: Good amount of I/O with expandability. MixControl plug-in is brilliant. Very good-sounding unit.
CONS: No dedicated BNC wordclock connection. No way to bypass automatic selection of mic versus line signals.