Apogee has long been known for its expertise in digital audio converters. In recent years Apogee has introduced a series of audio interfaces aimed at mid-level and pro studios. Apogee products at the high end of the price range have been out of reach for most home studios, but with the introduction of the Duet Apogee hopes to bring high-quality conversion and tight software integration into the hands of budget-minded buyers.
What it is
The Duet is a two-channel, 24-bit/96 kHz FireWire audio interface that has two balanced XLR inputs with 48V phantom power, two unbalanced instrument inputs, two unbalanced line outputs, and a stereo headphone output. The Duet also has two multi-segment level meters and a multi-function controller knob. The Duet is a small interface that sits comfortably on a desktop and is finished in a matte aluminum similar to that of Apple’s MacBook Pro. The design is visually appealing and fits nicely into a studio desktop. Designed specifically for the Apple platform (sorry, Windows users), the Duet is a Core Audio device that integrates tightly with GarageBand, Logic Pro, or any other application that supports Core Audio—meaning virtually all Mac DAWs and audio programs besides Pro Tools. The Duet connects to audio inputs and outputs with a proprietary multipin I/O breakout cable that attaches to the interface via a D-Sub connector. Audio devices connect to one of six individual breakout connectors: 2 XLR, 2 1/4” instrument, 2 1/4” output. The modular design lends to the Duet’s overall portability and helps keep the interface placement flexible. A FireWire cable connects directly to the Duet on the backside and there is a single headphone port on the front—it can be used as a high-quality headphone amp without the breakout attached.
Meet the Maestro
Setting up the Duet is straightforward and a well illustrated manual helps guide new users along. Apogee includes their Maestro software which provides software control of all the Duet’s functions. Since the Duet has a single controller knob, getting to know the Maestro mixer and configuration is critical for getting the most out of the Duet. The Duet/Maestro package requires a Mac G4, G5 or Intel CPU, 1 GB of RAM, OS 10.4.10 or later, and one FireWire 400 port. The Maestro software consists of 3 screens: Mixer, Levels, and Advanced. The Mixer screen is used to create a mix of input signals and software playback while recording. Input signals routed through the mixer are sent directly to the headphone and main outputs for latency-free monitoring. A fader, pan slider (for inputs) and large graphic meters are included in this screen. The look of the Maestro’s interface is just as appealing as the Duet itself and new users will quickly become familiar with the controls. The Levels screen is used to set input and output levels for the Duet. Each input has a software dial that controls the preamp gain and a dropdown menu to set the input gain range (levels can also be set numerically by typing a value into the level box). There are 4 possible gain ranges including XLR Line (+4 dBu), XLR Line (–10 dBV), XLR Mic, and 1/4” Instrument. Such a wide gain range means that the Duet will interface with nearly anything you can throw at it from pro level preamps to microphones and guitars. Additional controls in the Levels screen include a check box for phase reverse and phantom power. Finally, a group check box allows both input levels to be ganged together for simultaneous adjustments, convenient for stereo recording. The Advanced screen is used to set mute parameters, mic gain range, meter display and rotary encoder MIDI assignments. During a recording pass it’s usually necessary to mute the monitors but not headphones to record without feedback through the monitors. Since the Duet features one shared monitor path for the speaker and headphone outputs, Maestro includes some options for dealing with this situation. By setting check boxes you can separate the mute function for speakers and headphones—for instance, to avoid feedback the headphones can be set to remain un-muted while the monitors are muted. This makes jumping between recording and playback as simple as muting or un-muting the Duet.
Gain The Duet has two distinct mic/instrument gain modes, maximum and click-less operation. In maximum mode the Duet delivers from +10 to +75 dB of mic pre gain, with the consequence of an audible click during adjustment due to a relay switch used after the first 10 dB of gain. In click-less mode the gain is reduced slightly, but no relays are used and gain adjustment is silent. The hardware meters can be set to display input levels, output levels or whichever is currently selected in Maestro. In addition to controlling input and output levels the hardware rotary controller can also deliver up to 4 MIDI commands to software. The Maestro Advanced screen is used to set parameters for each MIDI command including Continuous Controller number, MIDI Channel number, and value.
In cahoots with Apple
I reviewed the Duet using both GarageBand and Logic Pro on a quad core G5 Mac with 4 GB of RAM. Apogee and Apple have been working closely for some time now and it really shows in their product integration. In fact, the integration is so tight that Maestro installs a dedicated Duet control panel for GarageBand and Logic Pro.This virtually eliminates the need to use Maestro while working in these DAWs—a nice touch from a workflow standpoint. Another nice integration is that all of the Duet’s level information appears directly in a heads-up display box similar to the semi-transclucent Apple volume control.
I often start writing songs in GarageBand because it’s a quick and dirty way to start working with an idea quickly. I’m a guitar player and when I’m writing music I like to have quick access to an electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, and a vocal mic. The Duet is the perfect companion in this scenario. I connected an electric guitar and bass to the two 1/4” inputs, and two separate microphones to the XLR inputs (one for acoustic guitar and one for vocal). The Duet only allows two simultaneous inputs, but switching between mic and instrument inputs is as simple as choosing from the dropdown menu in the Duet control panel. Conveniently, the Duet remembers level, phase and phantom power settings for each input, so level selections remain as you switch between mic and instrument inputs. I was skeptical about an interface with a single control, but I was quickly won over by the Duet’s simple and effective control capabilities. Using the Duet’s control knob is a two-step operation. First, push the knob to select a function (input level, output level, or MIDI control). Next, turn the knob to change the selected parameter. Finally, press and hold the knob for two seconds to mute the outputs (push and hold again to un-mute). Because the Duet is constantly giving you on-screen feedback in the heads-up display, it’s very easy to tell which parameter you’re controlling. In Logic Pro, the Duet kept pace with the same smooth integration as GarageBand and performed flawlessly while I worked. The Duet delivers superb audio quality from input to output. I have a handful of reference tracks that I like to use to evaluate new equipment and environments. Listening to these tracks through the Duet convinced me that Apogee has put a lot of engineering expertise into the Duet’s design. Ounce for ounce, transient details and stereo imaging seemed more precise through the Duet than my reference interface (a Digi 003). As I recorded and mixed with the Duet I found it easier to focus on the small details of mic placement, panning and eq selection. I didn’t have a high-end Apogee converter to compare, but the Duet sounds very good for an interface at this price point. The mic preamps in the Duet are quiet with ample gain and easily handled a variety of sources including line level from an external preamp, dynamic mics, ribbon mics, condenser mics and direct instrument inputs. There is very little color to the Duet’s preamps, but there’s plenty of quiet gain to capture anything from a classical ensemble to rock guitar. Once I was familiar with the Duet it faded into the background and let me focus on creating and capturing music. For the small home studio, songwriter, or mobile recording setup the Duet is a first-rate interface that brings Apogee quality at an affordable price. If you don’t need more than two inputs at a time and you’re more concerned with quality over quantity, the Duet is definitely worth checking out.
Price: $495 More from: Apogee Electronics, 1715 Berkeley St., Santa Monica, CA 90404. 310/584-9394, www.apogeedigital.com. Nick Casares is a musician, producer, engineer, and web designer living and working in Colorado.