Great sound, flexible, tough, balanced, professional I/O, MIDI I/O, expandable, built-in DSP, bus-powered — these features and traits shouldn't have to be mutually exclusive in a compact, mobile AD/DA interface. Yet, here we are in 2017, and I was still fiending for the perfect portable solution (admittedly, from way up high upon my privileged reviewer perch). Well, I think I've found the best yet in the RME Babyface Pro, an obsessively engineered, no-compromise portable interface with four analog inputs and outputs, plus TOSLINK I/O for either S/PDIF or ADAT Optical (the latter with SMUX support).
I'll be honest, the thing that first attracted me to this particular interface wasn't necessarily all of the above, but that it was seemingly the only compact USB bus–powered brick that I could find which included balanced XLR connectors without requiring a breakout cable. The Babyface Pro has a solid, machined aluminum frame, and the XLR sockets are built right into that metal housing for a confidence-inspiring, stage-ready snug fit. I had been looking for quite a while for a small interface that I could use for both on-stage performance and portable recording — one that wouldn't come with a ton of the usual compromises. Most portable, bus-powered interfaces I've seen have plastic housings, not enough I/O, or inefficient power draw over USB, which degrades converter performance or affects driver stability unless you use an often-optional power supply. That, or they require a separate dongle or breakout cable for primary analog I/O, most of which don't even terminate in balanced XLR. The engineers at RME must have heard my wailing all the way over in Germany, because this latest iteration of the Babyface just checks all the boxes, and then some.
The Babyface Pro has impressive specs, including AD/DA conversion at sample rates up to 192 kHz. The interface is class-compliant on Windows, macOS, and iOS; and a high-performance ASIO driver with ASIO Direct Monitoring is available for Windows. (Note that using Babyface Pro with an iPad does require a separate power source.) The front — really, top — face has four LED meters for stereo input and output metering; a large jog wheel for preamp or output gain adjustments; four multifunction buttons for I/O and parameter selection; and two more buttons dedicated to monitor-dimming and track-selection operations. The XLR ins and outs for channels 1 and 2 are in the rear; and the left and right sides of the unit are where you'll find TOSLINK, USB, DC power, MIDI (which requires the included breakout cable — can't win ‘em all), two TRS line inputs for channels 3 and 4, plus 1/4'' and 1/8'' headphone jacks running in parallel. Interestingly, the headphone outputs offer different output impedances of 10 Ω and 2 Ω respectively, so you have some flexibility in matching your preferred headphones or IEMs. All of this tucks into a housing that measures just 4.25'' × 1.4'' × 7.1'' and weighs in at a solid 1.5 lbs. The housing has four rubber feet that keep it firmly on your desktop, but also has a machined "quarter 20" female socket on the bottom (1/4'' diameter with 20 TPI), should you want to mount it to a mic stand, video rig, etc.
Another nice roadworthy touch is the box the unit ships in, which is an injection-molded plastic storage case with internal compartments to store the included right-angle USB 2.0 cable and MIDI breakout cable. While this is a great idea that I wish other manufacturers would consider, my case unfortunately arrived with one of its two clips either damaged or just really loose, and I didn't feel confident carrying the Babyface Pro around in a case with just one working latch. Additionally, the MIDI cable was incredibly hard to get in and out of its molded compartment. Overall, I ditched the case in favor of toting the unit around in a camera bag. RME gets points for trying, and no, I definitely don't think users are deliberating the purchase of this awesome interface over the included (underwhelming) case, so this is the most minor of irritations.
RME's software console, with its consistent UI across all of the company's interfaces, is available for Windows, macOS, and iOS. It's called TotalMix FX, and it has both its fans and its detractors. I know that Andy Hong, as an owner of multiple RME interfaces [Tape Op #63, #88, #91], is a firm member of the former group, but I was initially one of the latter. That said, TotalMix has grown on me after much use and tutorial consultation. It's deep and detailed, with a three-band parametric EQ and a high-pass filter available on every channel, plus mixer snapshots, customizable layout presets, mute/solo/fader grouping, and sends and returns for very usable reverb and delay. All of the mixing, routing, and DSP effects are handled by the Babyface Pro's onboard FPGA chip, so TotalMix is light on your computer's CPU. Once you become comfortable with the flexible signal-flow capabilities and dense UI, setting up things like complex M-S tracking, multiple cue mixes, and even talkback routing becomes easy to do. Thoughtful touches include a row of dedicated software playback channels, one-click submix or "free" routing views, and a per–stereo-pair width control. There's even a spreadsheet-like matrix view for all of your routing if you want to forgo the mixing-console UI. Once I got used to the interaction between the physical controls on the Babyface Pro and the TotalMix software, I was good to go. I could control all of my basic gain and mix settings via the hardware, even channel panning, while diving into the software for changes in multipoint routing or DSP. While the learning curve isn't radically different from other software mixers, I'd advise spending some quality time with the manual (or YouTube) to get the most out of TotalMix FX.
In my testing, I used the Babyface Pro extensively as a mobile recorder and also as my go-to rig when playing live with bands — relying on the unit for DAW output (normally Ableton Live) and cue-mix monitoring. As a stage interface, this thing is perfect. I can output super-clean audio with incredible fidelity and crazy low latency, over trustworthy balanced XLR cables — while simultaneously monitoring a separate near-zero-latency cue mix over IEMs — with my analog synths and two vocal mics going into my DAW for live looping and processing. Did I mention MIDI sync, too? As a mobile recording device, the Babyface Pro also rocks. The conversion is pristine, with insane frequency response (especially at 192 kHz — check the specs published on the RME website); and the mic preamps are clear and open-sounding with a ton of available gain (up to +65 dB). At various times, I tracked live percussion, acoustic guitar, piano, and even a lengthy live speaking event, directly to Pro Tools sessions ranging from 44.1 to 192 kHz — all without a single hiccup from the drivers.
Moreover, the hardware controls offer a number of neat and useful tricks. For example, holding the Dim button down for two seconds changes the main output volume to a previously set value, and that value can be set at any point on the fly by holding down the Set button for two seconds — which is a useful shortcut for increasing or decreasing output levels when playing live. Note that when the Babyface Pro is connected to a USB 3.0 host, only the USB 2.0 protocol is utilized, but the interface functions normally connected to computer ports of either standard.
If it wasn't already apparent, this little box is super flexible. I didn't get a chance to test the Babyface Pro with my iPad (which would require an external power supply, not included, plus an Apple Camera Connection Kit/Lightning adapter), but deep-diving into the manual revealed steps on how to activate a standalone mode by powering on the interface without being connected to USB, such that the unit can act as a converter sans computer, or standalone stereo mic preamp. The manual even has recommendations for powering the interface from rechargeable LiPo batteries and setting up MIDI or OSC external controllers! Can you say, "German-engineered"?
So, I'm spoiled now. I think I've found one of the best possible portable, bus-powered recording solutions out there in the Babyface Pro. But better yet, I know that I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of what it's capable of. To be fair, I'm not sure my wallet is as enthused as I am, but hey, there are worse vices than audio engineering. Right?