It's always a treat to review a Focusrite audio interface. For many years now, the British audio manufacturer has combined its sonic expertise -- gleaned from decades of building large-format consoles and rackmount signal processing gear -- with a substantial understanding of what computer-based recording musicians want and need. That results in interfaces that are elegant, feature-rich, easy to use, and sound great.
In this quick review, we'll take a look at the latest offering from Focusrite: the Saffire PRO 26, a tabletop interface that offers up to -- take a wild guess -- 26 inputs and outputs.
The Saffire strategy
Focusrite has made a possibly controversial design decision with the release of this new interface. The "fire" in the Saffire name comes from FireWire, and that's how the Saffire PRO 26 talks to your computer. Some folks will be scratching their heads, because you don't see many new computers with FireWire ports on them nowadays -- so what's the rationale behind an "obsolete" port for a brand-new interface?
There are lots of computers in the field right now that have usable FireWire buses for handling digital audio. Until a year or two ago, almost every Mac sold in the 21st Century had FireWire, and there are a fair number of Windows PCs with solid FireWire implementation. The newest Macs use the Thunderbolt standard rather than FireWire, but attaching the Saffire PRO 26 to them requires nothing more than an optional adaptor for the FireWire cable. And speaking of cables, the Saffire PRO 26 has a FireWire 400 port, but comes with a cable that connects to the FireWire 800 port seen on most modern Macs.
If your computer has a FireWire bus available, using it for digital audio makes a lot of sense. It's certainly possible to put a digital audio interface on your USB port, but USB is a "dumb" interface that relies on the computer doing the traffic control. If your audio interface is sharing the USB data load with a keyboard, mouse, MIDI control surface, and one or more hard disks, you run more risk of dropouts and difficulties than if your audio interface is happily cruising along by itself on the FireWire bus.
Put this all together and combine it with the fact that the Saffire PRO 26 offers this kind of robust, reliable performance at a cost comparable to that of a similarly featured USB interface, and you have a compelling argument for keeping the fire(wire) burning.
Housed in a compact enclosure that can run on FireWire bus power or with the included AC wallwart power supply, the Saffire PRO 26 offers up to 24-bit/96 kHz recording and playback on six analog inputs, ten digital inputs (stereo S/PDIF plus 8-channel optical ADAT), six analog outputs, and two digital outputs on S/PDIF. Add in a pair of "loop-back" inputs, where audio created in one computer program can be routed through the interface and recorded by another, and that gives us our 26-channel I/O count.
Inputs 1 and 2 have front-panel 1/4" TRS jacks that override the rear-panel XLR mic inputs; a pair of front-panel buttons let you choose between line level and Hi-Z instrument level for each one. Inputs 3 and 4 have rear-panel combination XLR/TRS jacks for mic or line-level signals; Inputs 5 and 6, and all six Outputs, are balanced TRS connectors on the rear panel. Digital I/O is on RCA for coaxial S/PDIF and Toslink for 8-channel ADAT input (4 channels if running at sample rates of 88.2 or 96 kHz). The Saffire PRO 26 also has MIDI I/O, and can use either the coaxial or optical digital input to slave to another device's word clock.
The front panel controls include the aforementioned Line/Instrument switches as well as 8 dB pad switches for Inputs 1 and 2, 48V phantom power switches for two pairs of Inputs (1/2 and 3/4), gain controls for the first four analog inputs, and 5-step LED meters for all six. There are separate and independent output level controls for Monitor, Headphone 1, and Headphone 2, the latter having a pair of 1/4" TRS front-panel jacks, and the Monitor control has Dim (18 dB level reduction) and Mute buttons as well.
The Dim and Mute functions don't affect the Headphone signals, and they're designed to prevent pops and clicks that can damage your speakers; you can hear the audio swiftly but not instantly ramp down to silence and back up again when the Mute button is engaged or disengaged.
A lot of the Saffire PRO 26's power in the tracking studio is enabled by Saffire MixControl, the control and routing program that comes with the interface as a free download. This control panel software lets you configure the interface to provide up to eight (mono) or four (stereo) low-latency monitor mixes for artists. It can store and recall a variety of settings, and comes with several basic templates to help you get started.
The main panel of the software, shown in the screenshot, is a tabbed virtual mixer with one tab for each of your mixes. Each input channel has a meter (with clipping indicator), level fader, pan control, stereo link button, and controls for mute, solo, and Pre-Fade Listen. You can choose which channels are heard in each mix (up to 18 of them, selectable from the 16 physical inputs and/or up to 8 DAW tracks), adjust levels and panning without affecting what's being recorded in your DAW, and use the Routing Section to determine which tracks are sent to the various physical outputs.
In effect, this gives the Saffire PRO 26 a significant subset of features you'd expect in a monitor controller (see the article elsewhere in this issue for a discussion of those handy devices), complete with the ability to adjust level, dim, and mute either or both sides of a stereo mix. You can configure the outputs for multiple monitor sets, for surround playback, or feed a subwoofer if desired; about the only control that's missing is a Mono switch.
As an added bonus, the Saffire PRO 26 can remember one of its mixes in internal memory even when removed from the computer, making it a handy standalone mic/line mixer for live use in a pinch. A lack of visual feedback and fine tweakability limits how much you can do with a mix stored in this fashion, but it's a cool extra feature.
The Saffire PRO 26 is a relatively recent release; I had my test unit for about three weeks before we went to press, and put it through its paces on a variety of tracking and mixing projects in my personal studio. In all applications, I felt it gave me what any recording musician would want -- over and above its operational flexibility and wide feature set, it just plain sounded good.
Focusrite knows how to put preamps in an audio interface and have them sound great. The pres in the Saffire PRO 26 were clean and clear without being sterile. The Instrument inputs did a good job of capturing the sound of my electric guitars; Focusrite doesn't list an input impedance for them, but I'm guessing it's in the hundreds of kilohms. Outputs sounded lush and crisp, reproducing high-resolution audio beautifully, and the two Headphone outputs offered plenty of gain without any distortion or hashiness.
The Saffire PRO 26 drivers require Mac OS X 10.8/10.9, or Windows 7/8. My DAW software on my two test Macs worked with it perfectly, as did the loop-back function. Oh, and Focusrite was kind enough to loan me a FireWire/Thunderbolt adaptor for my review, and I can report that the Saffire PRO 26 worked flawlessly over Thunderbolt for anything and everything you'd expect it to do -- no extra drivers, no hitches, no fuss.
All in all
I won't deny the fact that I'm a big fan of FireWire audio interfaces. While I do good work with USB interfaces as well, there's something comforting about knowing my interface is doing its thing without tripping over something else on the bus, and I applaud Focusrite for keeping this option available for recording musicians along with a relatively seamless bridge to the next era of audio connectivity over Thunderbolt.
The Saffire PRO 26 represents a solid audio I/O solution at a great price. Stop loading down your USB hub and check it out.
More from: Focusrite, www.focusrite.com