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I have to confess that when I saw the early ads marketing Symphony I/O with its sleek Scandinavian hi-fi aesthetic and big rubber feet, it looked to me like something built for audiophiles or home recordists. Is Apogee abandoning the pro user I wondered? Were they dumbing down their converters? As I researched Symphony I/O further, I realized that my assumptions were completely wrong. Symphony I/O is a thoroughly thought out next generation converter system that sounds great and works in a very wide range of applications.
When I decided to upgrade my Pro Tools HD TDM system, I also needed to look at new conversion options. I've been a long time Apogee user for several reasons. First off, the gear sounds great. Secondly, it holds it's value. My first Apogee converter was an AD-500 that I paid $2000 for. It sounded great, and we mixed a lot of records with it as the front end to DATs, ADATs, and our Digidesign Sound Tools system. When I finally sold the 16-bit converter, 24-bit converters were the norm, but I still got about $350 for it on eBay. In contrast, I sold our Sound Tools system at the same time, which originally cost about $6000, and that sold for $38. Also, running a commercial studio, you need gear that clients and engineers know and have confidence in. Apogee gear has always been something that clients react well to. I often have prospective clients call and say, "I want to mix my project with your Apogee converters." This works for me.
Finally while I looked at a lot of other converters, Symphony I/O packs 32 channels of connectivity into a 2RU-height unit at a relatively cost-effective price-point. A modular layout provides two slots for I/O cards. In our case, we loaded our Symphony I/O with 16 channels of analog and 16 channels of AES/EBU. This allowed us to keep our older Rosetta 800 (Tape Op #40) in the system via AES/EBU on one card and our Universal Audio 2192 (#39) via the second card (although we could have hooked up the 2192 via the S/PDIF ports as well).
We've had the system in the studio for nearly six months now, and the feedback from engineers has been universally great. Everyone seems to think Symphony I/O sounds better than the older Digidesign 192 I/O converters and the Rosetta too.
Shortly after installing our Symphony I/O, I bumped into engineer John Paterno (Tape Op #54), who also bought a Symphony I/O, and unlike me, he did some pretty extensive A/B testing. Here is what he had to say. "I'd been hearing good things about both the new Apogee and Avid converters, so I wanted to get them together along with a few others to compare. Joe Barresi (#23) was gracious enough to offer his place to do it, so we calibrated levels to and from the converters to make the playing field as even as possible, and listened to both pre-recorded music and a few items tracked live. While I thought the Avid was good, the Apogee was
definitely my favorite, and a few more tests at home confirmed it for me. It doesn't sound like any Apogee piece before - nor any other converter, for that matter. It's a whole new thing to me. The low end is big and clear; there is no - for lack of a better term - 'resonant area' in the midrange; and the top end is open but not hyped. Really 3-D. And the imaging is super as well. I also love the fact that I can switch it to Standalone and USB modes in addition to Pro Tools mode. I can basically use it as my monitoring converter for any audio I play, from Pro Tools to a digital out from a CD player, to the output of the computer which now supports USB audio interfaces. And the headphone outs are very useful too. One of them is hooked up to my 'mini stereo' that I use a lot for mixing. It sits across the room, but I can mute the audio and change the volume via the Maestro software. I've been quite impressed with this box. It's exceeded my expectations. And when it comes to audio gear, I'm pretty picky!" (Check out tapeop.com for a link with more details on John's A/B test.)
One thing I really like about the system is that because all the I/O is essentially in one unit, we've been able to get rid of the Lucid clock that used to be our master clock for the various converters we had. Symphony I/O uses the same clock as Apogee's Big Ben master clock (Tape Op #51), so we now have Symphony I/O as the master clock, and it clocks the other converters via AES/EBU. It's much simpler to use now, as Pro Tools is set to internal clock, which is much easier for freelance engineers to deal with. It should be noted that Symphony I/O has both word clock I/O and Avid-compatible Loop Sync BNC connectors should you need either of them.
We've been using Symphony I/O with a Pro Tools HD Native card (Tape Op #84), but this is only one of several modes and systems it can work with. It will work with any current Pro Tools HD PCI card. It also works with Apogee's Symphony 64 PCIe card, which makes for an ideal system for anyone running Logic, Cubase, Nuendo, Digital Performer, Ableton, or any Core AudioDAWorapp-orevenProTools9or10.Ona Symphony system running Logic, the round-trip latency, from analog input to a record-enabled track in Logic back out to an analog output, is 1.8 ms at 96 kHz with a 32-word buffer - a pretty impressive spec and equivalent to the time it takes sound to travel 2 ft through air. Symphony I/O also works in USB 2.0 mode with all the DAWs mentioned above, providing 16 channels of I/O at up to 96 kHz. Lastly, in Standalone mode, analog and digital connections can be made directly to/from Symphony I/O so it will work with S/PDIF, AES/EBU or ADAT Lightpipe on your computer or DAW interface. This would allow connectivity with older Pro Tools LE and Digi 002 systems, for instance.
Speaking of I/O, this is another one of Symphony I/O's strengths. A variety of I/O modules are available for its two slots. As I mentioned earlier, we opted for a total of 16 channels analog and 16 channels AES/EBU, using two identical cards, each with 8 analog and 8 AES/EBU channels of I/O. There are several other modules available: 8 channels of analog I/O plus 8 channels of Lightpipe I/O; 16 channels of analog inputs plus 16 channels of optical outputs; 16 channels of optical inputs plus 16 channels of analog outputs; and 8 mic preamps with insert points plus 4 instrument-level DIs.
Symphony I/O is a versatile next-generation converter system with lots of options, but how can you deal with all these options when given only two knobs on the front panel? Well, one knob selects functions while the other adjusts their values, so you can do quite a lot with them. But to be honest, I hate these kinds of two-knob UIs! Luckily, I've never even touched the front knobs because Apogee also has their Maestro software that does a much more elegant job of controlling
Symphony I/O. The software communicates via USB and every aspect of Symphony I/O can be controlled from Maestro's intuitive screens: levels, routing, clocking, sample rates, metering, as well as Apogee's signature soft-limit mode (which, on Symphony I/O, has 4 different settings independently selectable for each input). You'll also need Maestro to set up routing in Standalone mode, but once it's set up, you can disconnect the USB cable and the computer is not needed.
We've been really happy with Symphony I/O here at The Hangar, and I feel like it's not only a good audio investment, but that I'll likely still be using it in ten years, which is not something that you can say about a lot of digital hardware, as it tends to become obsolete quickly. But Apogee has always been a step or two ahead of the curve sonically, and Symphony I/O's versatile architecture leaves a lot of room for future options, expansion, and upgrades. If you're looking for a high- end, versatile converter system, you really need to consider it.
($3690-$5685 MSRP depending on configuration; www.apogeedigital.com) -JB