Timing is everything. Apogee's latest audio interface reached me barely a week too late (my fault, not theirs) to make my life considerably easier. I spent my evaluation period counting the conveniences I would have enjoyed if I had taken Quartet on my just-completed trip to Los Angeles, recording overdubs and solo acoustic performances for an album project with alt-folk-punk pioneer Michael Knott.
The Happy Club studio is equipped with a pair of MOTU 828mkII audio interfaces in the rack, both modified by Black Lion Audio. The mod doesn't elevate these units to par with the Apogee Ensemble [Tape Op #62], but it's a noticeable stride in the right direction. For travel sessions, I have typically pulled a MOTU from the rack, in addition to any preamps I considered necessary to get better performance (and character) through the MOTU's inputs. For example, my Avalon AD2022 [Tape Op #27] and Langevin Dual Vocal Combo are helpful in getting more personality than the 828mkII alone provides. Barring multitrack concert recordings, most of my remote sessions are for overdubs and don't require ten analog inputs (although I usually need more than two), but still, a rack full of gear doesn't make for compact traveling. This is where Quartet becomes a superhero.
The Quartet is half-rack in width for effortless traveling and wedge-shaped for easy ergonomics. Its design follows the Apple model of simplicity, with a total of nine touch controls accompanied by a single chrome knob. The leftmost touch controls are labeled 1 to 4, corresponding to Quartet's analog inputs. The rightmost controls are labeled A, B, and C; these can be assigned to clear meters, sum output to mono, mute audio, and control up to three pairs of output speakers. Two controls in the middle switch between speaker and headphone output adjustments. Once a control button is engaged, the chrome knob is used for all level changes. The hardware build is rugged and tight. It is apparent that the limiting factor in reducing Quartet's size is the physical I/O at its rear. While Quartet's front panel is the picture of Zen-like simplicity, there is no wasted space in back. Quartet includes four analog inputs on Neutrik Combo connectors, six 1/4'' TRS outputs, two optical inputs for eight additional input signals via ADAT/SMUX, USB ports for computer and MIDI connection, and word clock output. A headphone output is on the side.
An obvious point of comparison is drawn to Quartet's predecessor, the two-channel Duet 2 [Tape Op #89]. Although Duet 2 is considerably more compact than Quartet, this is accomplished significantly by the Duet 2's breakout I/O cable (or optional breakout box). This represents one more thing to lose or break, which is a non-issue with Quartet's solid, one-piece construction. The Duet 2 remains a great unit when two tracks are appropriate, but I find that four inputs are ideal for most of my road sessions, allowing me to record acoustic-based vocal/guitar duets with as much separation as I need. I can track a solo singer-songwriter with one mic each on vocal and guitar, and place a couple of room mics if we've got a nice space. For example, Michael Knott's vocal and heavily road-rashed Martin acoustic guitar were close-mic'ed, while we compressed a large- diaphragm condenser tucked into the shower stall. Quartet would have done all that and allowed me to mic the noisy air conditioner too - with a lot less clutter.
Unlike the first generation Duet, neither the Duet 2 nor Quartet include FireWire connectivity; USB has won that format war, and USB 2.0 is sufficient to carry information to and from a MacBook with very low latency. Apogee measures Quartet's latency at 3.6 ms roundtrip when recording in Logic Pro at 96 kHz with a buffer size of 32. Moreover, Quartet's companion Maestro 2 software mixer can be easily configured for monitoring an input signal directly through Quartet, bypassing the host buffer and avoiding application-induced latency altogether.
Quartet uses the same conversion and preamp technology as Duet 2, with converter design modeled after Apogee's top-of-line Symphony I/O [Tape Op #87]. In other words, Quartet's performance exceeds that of Apogee's popular Ensemble interface. Even with the boost from the aforementioned Black Lion mod, it's no contest between Quartet and my MOTU 828mkII. Quartet lifts a veil from the sound by comparison, particularly toward the high frequencies with a clear female vocal or bright acoustic guitar. Quartet claims 75 dB of gain and behaves well with all of my mics. Dynamics are certainly no trouble, with improved upper-midrange presence versus my MOTU. I found that I actually wanted to make trumpets a bit darker with EQ after tracking through Quartet, since they sounded more sparkly than necessary for blending into a Stonesy rock and roll mix.
For purposes of direct comparison, I recorded a quick cover of "Blue Skies" from the 1990 album Circle Slide by The Choir. The arrangement included voice, Hammond organ, drums (go ahead and laugh at my awful drumming), fretless bass, acoustic guitar, concert bells, and percussion. I used direct instrument signals; mono and stereo tube mics; small and large-diaphragm condensers; and dynamics. All mic and instrument cables went directly into Quartet or 828mkII. No outboard preamps, EQs, or compressors were used. My esteemed recording colleague Matt McCabe mixed and mastered the tracks at Finley Sound in Loomis, CA. Although it was necessary to compensate for gain differences between the two interfaces, Matt treated both mixes as identically as possible during mix and master. Compression and limiting had to be fudged here and there, but there were no equalization changes. You can hear the two recordings at <www.soundcloud.com/jeff-elbel-ping>, with each song titled accordingly. Feel free to email me if you would like to have the individual tracks for closer analysis.
What I hear is that the noise floor of the Quartet is dramatically lower. This improvement was easily noticed on my bass, which was tracked as a direct signal. Quartet's excellent preamps are much better suited to capturing full, uncolored detail without the need of outboard gear. The Quartet vocal sounds more natural, less wooly, and the overall mix has greater clarity and presence. I have been satisfied with sounds I get when pairing specific preamps with the MOTU, but dislike the strident quality produced by recording directly into it. After this trial, I would happily leave my preamps behind and do all of my remote tracking with the unaided Quartet. That translates into traveling light and still having clean socks every day on a road trip.
In other experiments, my old Neumann SM 2 stereo tube mic produced gorgeous sound through Quartet's preamps when tracking an acoustic piano. There was nothing shrill or dry - just natural, clean sound. A pair of AKG C 414s mic'ing a room in stereo were lively and true when capturing a bluegrass trio performance. There's plenty of gain for ribbon mics, which I found with an AEA R84 [Tape Op #38] in front of an Ampeg B-15.
Another great application of Quartet's six independent output channels (which I unfortunately ran out of time to try) is 5.1 surround mixing. As a listener, I'm a surround aficionado. A quick look under the hood suggests that the combination of Quartet's output routing via Maestro with Logic's flexible output capability would make setup for surround straightforward and fun.
I don't have many unkind words to say about Quartet, though I did encounter a couple of mysterious and fleeting snags. Although Quartet is designed to sleep and wake when the host Mac does, there were a few times when I had a channel record- enabled in Logic before sleeping, and Quartet would not pass signal to Logic when awakened. I've never encountered this issue with my MOTU boxes. Another time, I was unable to get Quartet's first channel to respond via the touch panel. Both problems were solved by rebooting the hardware.
Apogee's Ensemble or Symphony would be better suited to my studio environment or for field recording when I need to capture 16-channel mixes from the stage at festival shows. For my typical excursions, however, the 4-in Quartet is ideal for my needs. Evaluating Quartet's superior sound has spoiled me for my other gear, and it now sits at the very top of my wish list. ($1295 MSRP; www.apogeedigital.com)
-Jeff Elbel <email@example.com>