Ever since M-Audio was purchased by Avid, the parent company of Digidesign, the industry speculated on whether or not Pro Tools would run on M-Audio interfaces. M-Audio has long enjoyed a reputation for making some of the best-sounding, cost-effective audio interfaces on the market, so a pairing with Pro Tools software would be a huge boon to low and mid-budget recordists. It was recently announced that a new version of Pro Tools LE would indeed support most M-Audio interfaces, including the FireWire 1814, their flagship FireWire box. See the M- Audio website for a complete list of compatible interfaces; almost all of their interfaces will work with the new version of LE. We recently received a copy of Pro Tools M- Powered (PT MP) and an 1814 so we could try out the new pairing. My interest in the two was severalfold. Firstly, I was looking for a second PT rig (my first is a 002 Rack) to use for location recording and overdubbing with a PowerBook. Secondly, producer/engineer Thom Monahan recently introduced me to the concept of syncing two 002's together via MIDI, thereby doubling PT LE's track count and available outputs, and I wanted to explore this option further. As there are already many published reviews on Pro Tools and M-Audio hardware, this review will compare and contrast the Digi 002 interface and PT LE with the 1814 and PT MP.
The 002 Rack and 1814 are FireWire interfaces with similar I/O complements. There are lots of small differences between the two, however-the most apparent being physical size. The 002 is a 2U rackmount device while the 1814 is about the size of paperback book and is only rackmountable with an accessory rack tray. The 002 uses an industry-standard IEC power cable, while the 1814 can be FireWire buss-powered (six pin only, or you'll need to use the insidious wall wart). For permanent studio installs, the 002 is a more obvious choice while laptop users might prefer the smaller, buss-powered 1814; as my second interface, the 1814 is a perfect choice. As you get into the I/O options, there are even more differences. The 002 has eight analog ins and outs that are all balanced. The 1814 has eight unbalanced ins and four balanced outs. The 1814 also has two front-panel, balanced mic/instrument inputs on Neutrik combo jacks. The 002 has a maximum sampling rate of 96 kHz. The 1814 also supports 96k, but the outputs can go to 192k, as can the two front-panel inputs. Both devices have MIDI I/O with the 002 having two outputs and the 1814 only one. Both support S/PDIF up to 96k. Both support eight-channel lightpipe up to 48k, but only the 1814 supports four- channel 96k S/MUX over lightpipe. Both units have built- in headphone monitoring with the 1814 having two headphone jacks and the 002 one. The 002 also has more extensive monitoring I/O that's not on the 1814. One of the biggest differences is the availability of wordclock I/O on the 1814. The 002 is a very robust, professional- looking rackmount unit while the 1814 has more of a home-recordist look and feel that matches its much more affordable price. The 1814 also uses an inexpensive breakout cable instead of dedicated jacks for MIDI, S/PDIF and wordclock. Again, as a second interface, the 1814 is a perfect fit for me.
I wish I could say that installation of PT MP software went smoothly, but it ended up taking a few hours. We ran into compatibility issues with Mac OS X 10.4.2 (Tiger). Thanks to DUC, we figured out the fix. If you're running Tiger and getting DAE error 1092 on startup, you'll need to upgrade to all the latest versions of PT MP and M-Audio FireWire drivers. Then, you'll need to find the folder «Mac Hard Drive/Library/CFMSupport» and delete the following files: DAE, Digidesign DSP Manager, DigiDirectIO, DigiHardwareSetup, DigiHwGUI, and DigiSystemInterface. Then reinstall PT M-Powered 6.8r2. You'll also need to download and install the PACE iLok software if you haven't already done so. This is another big difference between PTMPandPTLE;PTMPusesaniLokkeyinsteadofa serial-number, disc-based authorization. One last install note is that M-Audio strongly recommends not hot- swapping the FireWire cables to the 1814 and not hooking it up until the drivers are installed.
After this, everything went smoothly, and I'm happy to report that PT MP looks and feels pretty much like PT LE, with only minor differences. One of the biggest differences is the lack of low-latency monitoring mode. The buffer sizes are bigger too. With PT LE, the buffer can be sized from 64-1024 samples. PT MP's buffer size is 128- 2048. The bigger buffer is great for mixing, but during recording, the latency was detectable even at the minimum 128 samples. The workaround was to mute the track being recorded in Pro Tools and use the 1814's zero- latency pass-through monitoring mode. Another big difference is that the Hardware Setup option in PT MP transfers control to the 1814 control panel. This worked smoothly going back and forth.
Comparing the digital I/O between the two systems, there are tradeoffs. The 1814 is an either/or choice between the S/PDIF and lightpipe. This means sixteen maximum inputs and twelve maximum outputs. At 48k, the 002 has the edge here as it supports eighteen ins and outs. At 96k however, the 002's lightpipe is disabled, leaving only ten ins and outs. On the 1814, you can enable S/MUX and get four channels of lightpipe at 96k, but in the end, you get only eight output channels compared to the 002's ten. But, when recording on the 1814 at 96k, you get twelve inputs instead of the 002's ten. One other big difference is the 1814's ability to clock from an external wordclock. This is an option that should really be on the generally more "pro" 002. In fact, if you could take a few features from the 1814, like the wordclock and S/MUX lightpipe implementation, and put them in the 002, you'd have the ideal mid-priced Pro Tools interface. The 003 maybe? PT MP does not support the 192k sampling rate option on the 1814. We tested this feature with Logic Pro 7, and it worked fine.
Using a somewhat-fragmented, Oxford-equipped Pacific Pro Audio FireWire drive connected between the PowerBook and the 1814, the system seemed to work really well. The CPU and disk-usage meters stayed surprisingly low until the system was pushed hard. Recording sixteen tracks at 48k moved the meters pretty high, but the system held up. Trying to record twelve tracks at 96k wouldn't work until we set the buffer size to the maximum 2048, which leads to too much latency if you're tracking a band that needs to monitor themselves through the software. You'll need to experiment with low buffer sizes and higher DAE Playback Buffer sizes to find the balance that works for your system. On the other hand if you just monitored through the 1814, you could record twelve tracks at 96k! We also downloaded the Nine Inch Nails song "Only" in PT LE format from the NIN website and fooled around with that. It was 24 tracks, and the CPU and disk-usage was very minimal. File compatibility as well as plug-in compatibility (RTAS and AudioSuite anyway) between PT MP, PT LE, and PT HD seemed pretty flawless from the tests we ran.
My final test, and one of the reasons I wanted a second rig, was to finish tracking an album for a band that I've been recording. My studio has been too busy for us to record the last few songs, and we were also looking for a raw drum sound with minimal mic'ing. Therefore, we went to the band's rehearsal space with the 1814 and PowerBook. I brought several mic preamps, including a UA 6176, a Grace 101, a Joemeek VC1Q, a Fletcher/Trident A- Range, and two of the new Chameleon Labs 7602 Neve 1073 clones (look for a review here soon). Most of these preamps have balanced outputs, but I didn't have any problems going into the 1814's unbalanced inputs. The session went great, and I was able to get a great drum sound with a technique I learned at TapeOpCon2005 from Ross Hogarth that only uses two mics, albeit two rather specialized and not-inexpensive mics. If you missed Ross at TapeOpCon, you'll have to wait for his interview next issue when he explains this.
Bottom line: PT MP is a great, low-priced entry into Pro Tools, especially if you already own a compatible M- Audio interface. The 1814 is a good choice if you don't already own an interface or if you're looking for a second rig. As noted, the 1814/PTMP combo gives the 002 a pretty even run for its money but costs $400 less (street). It's nice to see that recordists and studios on the Pro Tools platform have so many more options available to them now. (1814 $599.95 MSRP, PT MP $349.95; www.m-audio.com)