Sunday, June 10, 2012

Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 Firewire Interface



Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 Front and Back Panel

I’m running Mac Lion and Pro Tools 10 on a 2 x 2.4 GHz Quad Core Intel Xeon Mac with 32GB of RAM. I make my living with this and other Macs. In the past, I have run into problems by trying to be too close to the cutting edge. Just before I began the installation of the Focusrite Saffire MixControl and driver software, I did a search to see if there were any problems. I called the US offices of Focusrite in California and asked to speak to someone who could talk to me about any conflicts. I spoke to Raul Resendiz, who assured me that there were no worries, but pointed me to the Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 download page to get the latest version of the driver and MixControl. The install was easy.
I’ve been using Pro Tools LE software since Version 6, and have become very comfortable with it. In front of a DIGI003R, I have GML and Millennia Media preamps going to an RME ADI-8 DS A/D converter with an ADAT lightpipe that goes into the DIGI003R. So I bypass the Digidesign preamps and A/D conversion. The result is a much cleaner, higher-quality signal than a DIGI003R can provide.
Focusrite’s MixControl, an I/O matrix and GUI monitor controller, adds a new wrinkle. I mentioned to Resendiz that Pro Tools already had that, and having another screen of things to click on sounded redundant. Do I need another monitor to see this other screen? That might be a deal killer for me. Resendiz said that once the system was configured, I wouldn’t even have to have MixControl running, unless I wanted to use it for routing audio to external devices, e.g., for setting up complicated headphones mixes. I powered down the DIGI003, swapped the FW400 firewire cable, ADAT lightpipe and other audio cables to the Saffire Pro 40 before powering it up. Not seeing an instant reaction, I thought something might be wrong, but the Saffire Pro 40 takes a few seconds to power up.
I started Pro Tools, and chose Saffire from the Pro Tools Playback Engine menu. A light on the Pro 40 front panel indicated the firewire connection was working. I chose the Saffire from the Pro Tools setup menu. Resendiz then steered me to the Pro Tools I/O. We first deleted all of the input settings, then clicked on the restore defaults button. The system found the Focusrite driver software and instantly repopulated the input matrix. I did the same with the output matrix. When I checked the inputs and outputs in Pro Tools, they were now looking at the Saffire Pro 40, instead of the DIGI003R. Just deleting everything and loading defaults is a neat trick. You can also save I/ O setups as separate files. To get back to my DIGI003R, I did the same set of steps, but chose the DIGI003R.
SAFFIRE PREAMPS
The eight Saffire Pro 40 preamps don’t have as much gain as my GML preamps. I first used my low-sensitivity beyer m160 ribbon mic to record voice though both the GML and Saffire preamps. The GML was a little clearer, the Saffire a little thicker, but the differences were very slight. Once I equalized the gains, the preamp noise was about the same. The taper on the Pro 40 gain pots is different. You really have to crank them up a bit before the gain rises.
I did further experiments with my Schoeps cmc641 microphone and GML preamps and Saffire preamps with my Martin D28S acoustic guitar. While not exactly the same, the Saffire preamps did very well. Note to self: The preamps are better than expected for the price, and so is the analog-to-digital conversion. I found no appreciable latency issues, but I wasn’t building a very complex session. If you have big sessions and start to have latency issues, Focusrite makes RTAS MixControl, a utility plug-in, that enables Pro Tools users to blend monitor mixes between audio inputs and DAW output signals during tracking, enabling performers to hold on to true zero-latency monitoring.
I use the Aux inputs on my DIGI003R to monitor the audio from my Mac tower. The Saffire Pro 40 doesn’t have aux inputs, but I was able to use two of the eight channels to achieve the same result. In doing so I did run into one problem. The 1/4” jacks on the Saffire Pro 40 are very slightly larger than those on the DIGI003R. As a result, the connections were just a little loose. If the plugs were moved in a certain way, there was a slight ground buzz, indicating a bad connection. A quick in/out motion with the plugs worked, and a connection was made that didn’t buzz.
A better way to get sounds from the computer system and other applications into a Pro Tools session is through the Pro 40 Loop Back feature. You do that by accessing the sound and audio control panels of the operating system, and choosing Saffire as the output device. The audio then travels down the firewire cable from your computer to the Pro 40, instead of the usually noisier unbalanced system audio output jack. I was able to route soundBlade LE, iTunes, Toast, Quicktime and Soundtrack Pro and web radio through iTunes through the Pro 40 and to my monitors or to record directly into Pro Tools. You don’t have to be running Pro Tools to hear the audio, and you can vary the volume using the Pro 40 Mix Control interface. Pro Tools has a similar capability, but it always seemed to get hung up somewhere, go a bit nuts, and I’d have to reconfigure. So this was a big help, and I could actually record the audio into Pro Tools.
The front panel of the one-rack-space Saffire Pro 40 is straightforward. There are two 1/4” TRS/XLR combo jacks for the unit’s first two inputs. These inputs handle mics or instruments. Phantom powering is applied to inputs 1-4 and 5-8 using two front panel buttons. There are six other knobs for the other inputs whose combo TRS/XLR jacks are mounted on the back. A simple 8-channel LED meter shows activity on all eight inputs. A master monitor output knob with Dim and Mute is followed by two separate headphone outputs, each with its own control.
In addition to the six other inputs, the back panel features eight TRS line outputs assignable by the Saffire Mix Control GUI, a 1/4” TRS pair for Stereo Main Monitor output, ADAT optical and SP/DIF coaxial I/Os, two FW 400 jacks, two old school DIN MIDI jacks and an IEC standard power receptacle. The Pro 40 may also be used as a simple standalone mixer if all you need is the front panel controls. Simply configure MixControl with the Pro 40 connected to your computer and select “Save To Hardware” from the MixControl File menu. You can also daisy-chain multiple Pro 40s for more inputs and outputs.
I found the MixControl with its Input, DAW and Mix selections to be a bit challenging until I got used to them, but they don’t get in the way of normal operation. I did notice that the peak flashers on the MixControl GUI indicated overs where none appeared on my Pro Tools files. Perhaps they use a similar -3.0 flash point to my RME ADI-8 DS.
IN CONCLUSION
The Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 is proof that the price of technology continues to come down, as the capability and quality rise. Nicely Done!
Ty Ford may be reached at www.tyford.com
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