Instead of offering eight or more inputs loaded with mic preamps in a never-ending quest for bang-for-buck, some companies are designing two-channel units that put the emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Such is the latest USB interface from TASCAM for both Mac and PC. The UH-7000 costs about the same as a mid-priced multi-in/out interface, but its analog I/O is limited to two channels, with two built-in mic preamps. It's capable of 24-bit, 192 kHz operation, and TASCAM has done a bang-up job of making this a high-end unit with premium sound.

The UH-7000 is a 2RU-height, half-rack unit, but it is made for tabletop use, with feet and no rack ears. Connection to computer is via USB 2.0. The drivers and firmware should be checked, downloaded, and installed before firing up the unit. Installation, including new firmware, was as smooth as a shoulder rub. The front panel is simplicity itself with three buttons and three knobs. The power button on the left is single function, but the two smaller buttons on the right do double duty. If you push the left button, the UH-7000's Mixer Panel application opens up on your computer, while the right-hand button toggles the link state of the output volume knob. Link controls the headphone and main volume together, while unlink, no surprise, gives control of only the headphone, resetting the main output to full volume. If you hold either button down, phantom power is engaged for its respective mic input. The rest of the front panel is occupied by the 1/4'' headphone jack and status LEDs for sample rate, link, and phantom power. That leaves plenty of space devoted to each channel's input knob and associated 20-segment meter. The knobs are big, feel solid, and offer just the right amount of resistance. The peak-hold meters hang for a second at the highest point, providing great ease in setting input volume. They are nice enough that I wish they could be switched to output. The back is busier, with XLR mic inputs, 1/4'' TRS line inputs, and XLR line outputs. XLR jacks handle digital I/O, switchable between AES/EBU and S/PDIF formats. Analog and digital I/O can be used simultaneously, for up to four channels of audio between the UH-7000 and your chosen DAW. There are no instrument-level DIs on the unit, and neither are there inserts.

The included Mixer Panel software is straightforward yet flexible, incorporating a three-tabbed UI. The Interface tab is for status and settings like driver version, sample rate, clock source, etc. The Mixer tab is for controlling the UH-7000's onboard mixer. When set for the default Multitrack Mode, it offers mixing of input signals to the DAW, routing of input and DAW signals to the outputs, and a cross-fader for low-latency monitoring. You can choose either the mic preamp or the line input for each analog input channel. The digital channels can be mixed and routed separately from the analog channels. Plus, the mixer has access to four virtual output channels from the DAW. Switching to Stereo Mode simplifies everything, mixing everything into a single stereo track that goes to the DAW and all of the UH-7000's outputs simultaneously. The Effects tab is for the built-in effects. The usual suspects are available, including various dynamics, EQ, and reverb effects. I found the latter most useful, allowing the artist to hear reverb in the monitor mix without having to commit reverb to the DAW recording.

When I first listened to the UH-7000 during playback of a song I was almost finished mixing, the first thing that jumped out at me was the vocals, and I immediately felt that they could use a touch more reverb. I could hear just that much deeper and cleaner into the song. At home, I use a long-in-the-tooth but still useful TC Electronic Studio Konnekt 48. It delivers excellent sound for a home studio, and I never experienced any problems transferring projects between home and studio. The difference in conversion quality between the TC and the TASCAM is obvious to the trained ear. The TASCAM's capture is a little deeper and more distinct, so the edges of the sound, especially distorted guitars and such, are smoother and more realistic. The UH-7000's preamp is an even bigger step up in quality. Although transformerless (like just about every other built-in preamp design), it's smoother, with no hint of the graininess found in the TC and most interface preamps I've tried. It even holds its own against standalone preamps like my Rupert Neve Designs Portico II [Tape Op #82] and Warm Audio units [#91, #97] at home, as well as the Neve and API preamps at The Kitchen Studios. Not to say that the TASCAM preamp sounds like these transformer-based designs — its sound isn't as "big" as Neve's, and its highs aren't as sweet as API's — but I wouldn't hesitate to use it alongside these for its clear image and full lows. The only thing I wanted was inserts for the TASCAM preamps so I could use analog compressors going in. John Painter at The Kitchen thought that the UH-7000 was a steal just for its preamps. Importantly, the UH-7000 doesn't offer direct outs for the preamps, so our preamp evaluation required both A/D and D/A conversion for the TASCAM, which makes for quite a compliment on both the TASCAM preamp and conversion!

TASCAM has hit a sweet spot with its UH-7000 — great converters, mic preamps that can play with the big boys without being sent home crying, and a price the working stiff can actually justify. For the singer/songwriter, DJ, location recordist, or in-the-box musician, the UH-7000 delivers a step up in sound quality from the usual fare. And with its digital I/O, you can integrate its premium mic preamps and converters with a multichannel interface that you already own.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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