Apogee's all-in-one preamp, converter, and monitoring system offers all the essential features in a 1RU-height FireWire audio interface. There are eight analog inputs, four of which can handle mic, instrument, or line levels; eight analog outputs; a set of ADAT optical ports; and S/PDIF I/O-totaling eighteen inputs and outputs that can be utilized simultaneously. Additionally, there are two headphone jacks that can individually take routing from any of the nine output pairs. The mic preamps have 75 dB of gain, suitable for even low-power ribbons. Two of the mic inputs have full-balanced inserts so you can add your favorite analog processing before conversion to digital. The converters handle standard rates up to 24-bit, 192 kHz. Additional multiple Ensembles can be daisy-chained and aggregated within software to look like a single interface with all available I/O. Furthermore, Apogee's Core Audio driver and Maestro software will even allow you to use Ensemble together with Apogee's higher-spec Symphony PCI and PCIe-based interfaces (Tape Op #59). And with the latest firmware (downloadable from Apogee's website), Ensemble can operate as a standalone converter. (The latest software also squashes an Apple FireWire bug that resulted in random offsets (latency) of recorded audio.)
I asked Tape Op's database developer and longtime Logic user, AJ Wilhelm, whom you may know from his past appearances as a TapeOpCon panelist, to give me his thoughts on the Ensemble system that's been his main rig for some time now. Here are his opinions (followed by more of my commentary). -AH
I was very impressed with the Ensemble's usability and sound quality. Something I should mention about this interface is that it only works with Mac OS X and it unapologetically favors Logic Pro. It works well as a general purpose audio interface and with apps such as Ableton Live, but it has a special integrated control panel for Logic Pro.
This unit seems focused on the project studio user as compared to some of Apogee's other offerings. It really allows me to do living room and mobile overdubs that sound as good or better than the tracks recorded in the "real" studio. The Ensemble really lends itself to the laptop musician while retaining the level of quality associated with the Apogee name. (There's even a DC-powered version, Ensemble Mobile, aimed at true laptop use for location sound and remote recording.)
This interface may be a bit expensive compared to other FireWire interfaces with similar features, but the four built-in mic preamps are clean and big. They also do not exhibit the obvious artifacts that I am accustomed to hearing in some of the more affordable interfaces. And sometimes it's the little things that impress me, like the Ensemble's two headphone jacks and a volume knob which push-toggles between them. This totally rules while overdubbing in the same room as a singer or guitarist, as you can assign different outputs to the headphone outs. The four preamps share their own single knob which works the same way. This prevents you from having to mouse around while getting levels, at least for the four included preamps anyhow.
I would say everything about this unit is fantastic except for the lame metering lights. I would almost prefer the Apogee Rosetta's minimal approach to these blurry blue things, but neither is very good. Aside from that, the software panel works pretty well for monitoring. The onboard preamps seem to mix well with some more boutique style preamps. I even enjoy the mechanical clicking I hear in the unit when I change the digitally-controlled preamp gain from the software control panel. Well, I have to agree to with AJ on most points. The preamps do sound exceptionally clean, and the converters are very focused in typical Apogee fashion, which I think of as being midrange-forward (in a good way), although less midrange-forward than Apogee Rosetta and AD/DA-16X converters (which are what I own). Ensemble is Apogee's lower-cost offering, but it sounds better than many top-tier products from other manufacturers. In other words, you won't be disappointed with Ensemble's sound, given its price point and capability.
Butasmanyofyouknowbynow,Iamnotfondof Apogee's form-over-function thinking of the user experience. First of all, the LEDs are blindingly bright; in an indoor-lit studio, it's very hard to read the labels of the controls, let alone keep your eyes on the unit, when most of the LEDs are lit. (By the way, I'm talking about all the status LEDs. The audio-level LEDs aren't too bright, but as AJ stated, they're also not too useful because they're neither labeled nor precise in segmentation. They're more like mood lighting than actual audio meters.) Second, it takes multiple physical actions (and staring at the too bright LEDs) to change something as simple as a mic or headphone level. You can of course forgo the front-panel interface altogether and use the Maestro software. But turning virtual knobs, even with the ability to set a preference for what mouse movement equates to what rotational direction, is a major pain in the ass. (Thankfully, the virtual faders in the Ensemble panel integrated in Logic are vertical instead of rotary.) Plus, there are some switches that are only available in software, including mic/line/DI selection, mic polarity, phantom power, soft limit, and operating level. None of this equates to efficiency or confidence on the part of the person setting up mics during a session with an engineer, operator, and/or assistant all implementing a producer's vision. But this just makes it absolutely clear that Ensemble is designed for the single-operator project studio and not for a professional environment, even though its sound quality excels over many so-called professional interfaces. At least Ensemble doesn't require unlabeled button-combinations for changing even basic settings that plague other Apogee products. So while my Rosetta 800 and AD/DA-16X interfaces are adorned with cheat settings written on strips of artist tape, the Ensemble remains undecorated.
What about latency? I pulled out my trusty Tektronix digital scope and measured full roundtrip latency (analog in, converter, FireWire, host software, back to FireWire, converter, analog out) with the Ensemble connected to my quad-core Mac Pro. At 44.1 kHz, with Cubase 4's buffer set to 256 (the smallest size I could use without experiencing dropouts), I measured 17.4 ms total latency. In Logic Pro 8 with a buffer size of 32, also at 44.1 kHz, total latency was 7.12 ms-quite impressive for a FireWire interface. At 96 kHz, I had to increase Logic's buffer to 64 to escape major audio havoc; here I measured 6.48 ms latency. If these numbers seem too high for you (and keep in mind that sound travels through air at about 1 ft per ms, so for a guitarist, a 7 ms delay is equivalent to standing 7 ft away from the amp), you can use hardware monitoring via Maestro's control panel mixer. I measured full roundtrip latency of 0.6 ms for hardware monitoring.
Despite my complaints about Apogee's user experience, sound quality and high-performance software make Ensemble a winner, and I would definitely recommend Ensemble as a top choice, all-in-one FireWire interface for Mac OS X, especially if you're running Logic. ($1995 MSRP; www.apogeedigital.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.