In the previous issue, I wrote in my "Gear Geeking" column about selling my Pro Tools HD 2 rig and buying a new 2.66 GHz quad-core Mac Pro, an Apogee Symphony PCIe audio interface card, and one each of Apogee AD-16X and DA-16X converters (A/D and D/A respectively). I already owned an Apogee Rosetta 800 AD/DA converter (Tape Op #40). I mounted X-Symphony cards into all three converter units and hung them off the Symphony card. I loaded the Mac Pro with 6 GB of RAM and four HDs totaling 1.75 TB, with some of that storage set up as a striped RAID-0 volume for enhanced performance. The system sounds absolutely stunning, and it's so damn powerful, I have yet to do a project on it that comes even close to maxing the CPU and HD loads. And by the way, it cost significantly less than what a "comparable" PT HD rig would cost. (Now there's a can of worms!)
What would be a comparable system in PT land? All that Apogee gear retails for $11,380. Add a grand for Logic Pro 7, and we're at $12,380. If we build an all-Digidesign system with 24 channels of analog I/O, we're talking two 192 I/O units, plus an extra 8-channel 192 AD card as well as an extra 192 DA card. Then at least an HD 2 Accel base system just to handle the I/O, bringing the PT total to $21,475. Whoa, that's a $9100 difference. Even if you argue that PT HD doesn't need a bad-ass computer because of its on-card DSPs, you're still talking at least $6000 saved. (See my "Gear Geeking" column in this issue for more on this.) Plus, that figure doesn't account for the upgrade in sound going with Apogee converters.
The AD-16X and DA-16X utilize the same C777 technology that makes Apogee's Big Ben master clock (Tape Op #51) tick. That, in conjunction with top-shelf conversion and well-designed analog circuitry, makes these converters sound significantly clearer to me than the Digidesign 192 I/O (at all sample rates). Also, there's a certain immediacy to the midrange sitting forward in Apogee's soundstage that I like-something I hear in both my Rosetta and my AD/DA-16X pair. It's as if the most important aspects of the image are color-corrected and better-defined. Is it splitting hairs to compare sound quality at this level? If you're spending that much money, you better be splitting hairs!
Well, all that great sound wouldn't matter if you couldn't get it on and off your HD efficiently, especially if you're concerned about latency while tracking. And here's where Symphony kicks butt, despite it being a "native" system. Symphony's high-performance driver allows Logic to run with a Core Audio buffer size of 32 samples on my Mac Pro without dropouts. (Even while playing back 32 tracks and recording an additional 24!) In advertisements, Apogee claims a full analog-to-analog roundtrip (AD-16X, Symphony, Logic, Symphony, DA-16X) takes 1.6 ms at 96 kHz. To verify, I pulled out my Tektronix digital scope and measured timing in and out of a record-enabled track in Logic. At 96 kHz, a 32-sample buffer yielded 1.5 ms of round-trip latency; 64-sample, 2.16 ms; 128-sample, 3.5 ms. At 44.1 kHz, the numbers were 3.36 ms, 4.8 ms, and 7.72 ms respectively. Again, that's full roundtrip. Keep in mind that sound travels through air at approximately 1 ft per ms. So if a guitarist is standing with her ear 5 ft from her close-mic'ed amp, with a 3.36 ms roundtrip delay at 44.1 kHz, she'll hear the amp in her headphones coming back from Logic before she hears the actual soundwaves in
the room. Which means with Logic and Symphony, latency is a non-issue. What if you're using an application that's not as efficient as Logic? With Cubase, the lowest I could go for I/O buffer size without experiencing dropouts was 128 samples, which I measured as 7.72 ms roundtrip latency at 44.1 kHz. If that's too high for you, then all you have to do is open up the mixer window in Maestro, Symphony's control panel software for Symphony. Symphony's on-card mixer allows you to bypass the host application and create cue mixes with almost-zero latency. With Maestro, you can also route audio between multiple, concurrently-running Core Audio applications through Symphony's virtual channels.
I should mention here that in general, Symphony and Maestro play well with everything. But if you change your master clock's rate between boot-ups, Symphony's driver complains about misconfiguration on the X-Symphony bus while powering up. When you open up Maestro, the first thing you have to do is reset the clocking, but for reasons that I can't explain, every now and then, the spinning color wheel of death appears. I've had to Force Quit out of Maestro numerous times, with multiple attempts at resetting the clock and reboots when Maestro freezes. This can be a real session killer, and the only advice I can give you is, don't change clocking if you're in the middle of a multi-day Logic session. New software from Apogee that addresses this problem is in Beta right now.
What about the usability of the hardware? Well, I've said this before. When it comes to Apogee gear, I write down my "cheats" and tape them to the front panel. Using Apogee gear is like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time; insufficiently labeled, multi-function button fields require you to push one button while holding down another.
On the 16Xs, one of my favorite pat-head-rub-stomach tricks is to hold down the up-arrow button while powering up. This puts the interface into Advanced Option Routing mode, whereby the AD-16X talks to Symphony with 16 channels of analog input and 16 channels of digital output (standard or single/double-wire AES/EBU or S/MUX 4-capable ADAT), and likewise, the DA-16X appears with 16 analog outs and 16 digital ins. Together, the pair appear as 16 channels of analog I/O and 16 channels of digital I/O-a total of 32 channels. Unfortunately, the analog and digital I/Os are staggered (e.g. Ins 1-16 analog and Outs 1-16 digital; Ins 17-24 digital and Outs 17-24 analog). Good thing Logic (unlike Pro Tools) allows external inserts on different I/O pairs (e.g. send on 17, return on 1). Other features worth mentioning include Apogee's UV22HR dithering on outputs, Soft Limit on inputs, and "universal connectivity" via optional X-Bus cards for Pro Tools HD, PT Mix, and FireWire. (Although I wouldn't recommend using an AD/DA-16X pair for Pro Tools due to the staggered I/Os in Advanced Option Routing mode.)
What do I think of Logic Pro 7? Well, if a new version doesn't come out soon (and I think a new version is sorely needed), I might write up a review of the current version in an upcoming issue. But my one sentence take on Logic is this; its audio performance is stupid-awesome, but its user-interface is stupid-complex. (AD-16X $3495 MSRP; DA-16X $3495; Symphony PCIe or PCI-X card $795; X-Symphony card $200; www.apogeedigital.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.