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Portable Audio Interfaces

Palm sized USB or FireWire devices proliferate By Frank Moldstad

Looking for a convenient way to record and play back audio with your computer? A new breed of external audio interfaces that connect via USB or FireWire eliminates the hassle of setting up a PCI sound card. These units are small enough to fit in a backpack, can be moved from one computer to another easily, and since theyre external, dont suffer degradation of audio quality from being inside a noisy computer environment.

A number of these units were on display at the recent NAMM show in Anaheim, CA, including about half a dozen that are new on the market. They range widely in price and features, starting with Art Technologies $99 USB Micro PRE. Most have features not found on sound cards, such as built-in mic preamps.

Heres a recap of the new portable audio interfaces we saw at NAMM.

Alesis IO|2
Alesis bowed an eye-catching two-channel interface called the IO|2 thats housed in an annodized aluminum case. The $299 MSRP unit is USB-powered and delivers 24-bit/96k specs. Shipping this spring, it includes two XLR mic inputs with 48V phantom power and two quarter-inch balanced line inputs for instrument input. In addition to the quarter-inch balanced main outputs, it includes TRS inserts on the input channels and a TRS headphone output. Plus, it has a 24-bit S/PDIF I/O for direct digital recording, and includes MIDI in and out jacks.

In addition, the IO|2 comes bundled with a copy of Steinbergs Cubase LE recording software. www.alesis.com



Korg TP-2
Another of the coolest-looking of the new mini audio interfaces was being shown by Korg, the TP-2 dual tube preamp. Although it's not a FireWire or USB device, it has S/PDIF optical and coaxial digital outputs for connection to a computer. It has analog VU meters that give off a bluish glow. The two 12AX7 tubes are positioned in a clear enclosure right above the VU meters, giving it kind of a bug-eyed personality.  The unit  was actually introduced at Summer NAMM, but just began shipping in October.

The TP-2s two independent channels can be linked for stereo recordings, and the unit  features independent phantom power, pad, phase, low cut and Hi-Z switches for each channel. The digital outputs are supplemented with balanced XLR and 1/4" TRS inputs and outputs. Korg actually has two versions of this interface; in addition to the TP-2, its offering the TPB-2 as an optional card that fits in the Korg D32XD and D16XD recorders. The Korg TP-2 carries an MSRP of $699 while the TPB-2 is priced at $579. www.korg.com

Focusrite Saffire
Focusrite, one of the audio industrys most venerable names, announced a brand new portable audio interface at NAMM called the Focusrite Saffire that includes  features aimed at professional audio engineers. This FireWire interface includes onboard Digital Signal Processing and 24-bit/192k sampling, and comes with integrated software for control of the unit via a computer. The software was designed by the same team that produced Focusrites LiquidControl and Forte Suite.

The DSP options include compression, reverb, amp modeling and EQ. These are not only available for recording and monitoring -- they can also be used as a suite of plug-ins from within a recording application, Mac or PC. The software helps route the DSP plug-ins, and for monitoring can help create up to five separate user-defined stereo mixes of all incoming signals and recorded tracks from the recording platform.

The Focusrite Saffire has four inputs and eight balanced outputs for separate headphone or monitor mixes, or up to 7.1 surround monitoring. It also includes S/PDIF I/O for digital ins and outs, as well as MIDI I/O.
 
Availability is set for the first quarter of 2005, and pricing has not been announced. www.focusrite.com

A.R.T. USB Micro PRE
Another new interface was the USB Micro PRE from A.R.T. (Applied Research and Technology ), a USB audio interface with a standalone Phono preamplifier. With a retail price of just $99, this device is designed as an interface between a computer and a variety of analog and digital sources. Among its features is a standalone phono preamplifier, for connecting a turntable to a computer. The analog inputs can be switched between phono and line level signals. The USB Micro PRE also has digital connectors, with both Optical TOSLINK inputs and outputs and S/PDIF inputs. These enable the device to be used as a digital audio to USB interface.

Other features include a low cut filter for removing rumble and wind noise, front gain trim control and signal/clip LED, and a front panel USB monitor/headphone jack. It will be available in  April 2005. www.artproaudio.com

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Related Keywords:audio interfaces, USB, FireWire, mic preamps, sound card, NAMM

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