multi-channel
audio interface
Apogee
Symphony I/O
There’s always a compromise
to be had when it comes to
interfaces, says
STEPHEN BENNETT, but could
Apogee have come close to
compromise-free perfection
with its Symphony I/O?
I
n my experience, no matter what audio interface
you buy, there are still compromises to be had.
Get one with a PCIe card for ultra low latency?
Can’t use it with a laptop. Get one with ultra high
quality converters? Doesn’t have enough inputs and
outputs. Get one for your Pro Tools HD system? Can’t use
it to its full potential with Nuendo. Apogee has a deserved
reputation for high quality interfaces and, with its AD/DA
16x units, full compatibility with Pro Tools HD. Its latest
interface, the Symphony I/O, appears to be an attempt
to consolidate the company’s long
experience in interface design to
produce a product that appears to be
the ideal candidate as a central hub
of a modern digital studio – but is it,
as first appears, all things to all pros?
Overview
the Reviewer
STEPHEN BENNET T has been
involved in music production
for over 25 years. Now based in
Norwich he splits his time between
writing books and articles on
music technology, running his
own Chaos studios and working in
the Electroacoustic Studios in the
School of Music at the University of
East Anglia. He’s also a filmmaker
with several music videos and
short films to his credit. www.
stephenjamesbennett.co.uk
42
headphone sockets are doing on an interface that’s so
obviously meant to be tucked away in a rack or machine
room? Well, that’s part of the unit’s flexibility, as we’ll
see later.
The rear panel sports a multi voltage IEC mains
connector, wordclock connections, and USB and Ethernet
sockets – the latter, intriguingly, not in use at the time
of writing. The Symphony ‘Main’ multi-pin socket is for
connection to Symphony 64 PCIe, Symphony Mobile
Express/34 cards or Avid HD PCIe cards, while the ‘Thru’
socket is there for you to add another
Symphony I/O for extra physical ins
and outs. The unit has fan assisted
cooling which, though much quieter
than the one on my Avid 96 I/O, is
obviously noisier than something
that relies on convection cooling –
but it is temperature controlled and
therefore shouldn’t cause much of an
issue (and didn’t during the review
period). The rest of the rear panel is
dedicated to the feature that gives
the interface its name – the I/O
module slots. I/O obviously stands
for Input and Output – and there’s
plenty of choice, available.
“The Symphony I/O
benefits from Apogee’s
C777 clock technology and
the company says it’s the
best sounding converter
it has ever made – which
is quite a claim from a
company renowned for its
audio quality!”
The Symphony I/O is an Apple Maconly expandable interface capable
of capturing audio at up to 192kHz at
24-bit resolution (USB connections
are limited to 96kHz). It can be used
either with Apogee’s own Symphony
64 PCIe cards (a small format PCIe
card with two multi-pin outputs,
each providing 32 channels of audio
for Symphony I/O racks), Avid’s
Pro Tools HD cards (Mac and PC versions supported), in
Standalone mode just as a A/D D/A converter or using
the USB connection – all switchable from the front panel
via what Apogee calls the Audio Interface Mode (AIM)
technology. There are versatile and user selectable input
and output configurations, and multiple Symphony I/O
units can be connected to increase the physical input,
and output counts. The Symphony I/O benefits from
Apogee’s C777 clock technology and the company says it’s
the best sounding converter it has ever made – which is
quite a claim from a company renowned for its
audio quality!
The I/O Modules
Currently, Apogee has four I/O modules available, two of
which can be installed at the same time. They have the
following configurations: eight channels of analogue
I/O with eight channels of AES I/O, eight channels of
analogue I/O with up to eight channels of Optical I/O,
16 channels of analogue outputs with up to 16 channels
of digital inputs, and 16 channels of analogue inputs
with up to 16 channels of digital output. A microphone
pre-amp module has also been announced that, sadly,
wasn’t available at the time of review. It provides eight
The Hardware
Housed in an elegant 2U 19 rack mountable box,
the Symphony I/O’s front panel is uncluttered.
Two push-to-click soft knobs select and control
the parameters displayed on the OLED panel,
which is itself situated underneath a panel
containing a bank of clear, programmable,
10-segment LED bargraph meters and a large
sample rate display. A power switch and two
independent headphone sockets complete
the picture. You may be wondering what
aud i o media september 2011
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apogee i symphony i/o
>
microphone preamps, four instrument inputs, and
eight balanced insert points. It works alongside
one of the analogue I/O cards and is apparently
based on Apogee’s Trak 2 mic pre-amp design, so
it should be up to the job.
Analogue inputs are via Tascam format
D sub connectors (apart from the instrument
inputs, which are on quarter-inch Jacks), while
the various digital interfaces are on D sub, XLR.
RCA, or optical connectors depending on which
I/O cards you have fitted.
The Maestro 2 Software
Apogee supplies a different version of its
Maestro software for the Symphony I/O than
its older interfaces, but if you’ve used Maestro
before, you’ll have no issues with this one.
Right at the end of the review
period, the full release verion
4 was announced, with full
support for OS X Lion. During
the review I used the Beta
release of the same software
and had no problems installing
and running it on 10.6 Macs.
Version 4 brings, amongst
o t h e r g o o d i e s, t h e U S B
recording mode
(limited to one
Symphony I/O unit)
and the ability to
hang up to four of the interfaces off
a Pro Tools rig. Though the set-up
parameters can be accessed from
the Symphony I/O’s front panel
(handy in Pro Tools mode), I found
it much easier to do everything
through Maestro 2.
The software provides a clean,
easy to understand interface (unlike
some other multi-input interfaces)
and I found I was setting various
parameters and routing inputs
and outputs within minutes and
without recourse to the manual.
The latest version allows you to
create a low-latency direct monitor mix – but
only in USB or stand-alone mode. I assume
Apogee will eventually incorporate this feature
when using the Symphony 64 card in a future
update but, as its PCIe allows you to work at
much lower latencies than USB, it may not be
much of an issue – especially if you’re working
with a mixing console.
The software can be run in full screen or a
minimised form, which allows easy access to
mutes, volumes, and other useful stuff – once
you’d configured the Symphony I/O for a
particular AIM type (which handily remembers
all your settings, including calibration and signal
routing) this probably would be the way you’d
have the software displayed on your monitor.
“Under critical
listening conditions
the Apogee proved
a match for my
Metric Halo, and I
can’t fault its audio
quality at all.”
In Use
During the review period, the Symphony I/O
performed flawlessly in all modes. After I’d
downloaded the latest version of the driver,
Maestro software, and firmware, my first port of
call was to connect the Symphony I/O directly to
my Avid Pro Tools HD system, replacing the I/O
I normally use. To use the Apogee unit with Pro
Tools, the USB cable must be connected as well
for Maestro 2 control – though in practice, once
configured the Symphony I/O slotted in neatly to
the Avid system without further recourse to the
Apogee software.
Moving across to another Mac Pro fitted
with the Symphony 64 card (using the supplied
cable to connect to the Symphony I/O interface)
allowed me to more easily compare the interface
with similar quality units from other companies.
I usually use a Metric Halo ULN-2 for these sonic
comparisons as it’s my ‘to go’ interface and while
its inputs and outputs are limited compared with
the Apogee, it should at least give an indication
of how it stacks up to the likes of Metric Halo’s
LIO-8 – which is a more natural competitor
to the Apogee unit. Under critical listening
conditions the Apogee proved a match for my
Metric Halo, and I can’t fault its audio quality at all.
Converter quality is so good now at the higher
end that it’s really just nit picking to choose
which ones I prefer. Suffice it to say that I’d be
happy to record and mix with the Apogee. If you
forced me at gunpoint, I’d say the Symphony I/O’s
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aud i o media september 2011
>
apogee i symphony i/o
was using it – which I feel is
a pretty good accolade for
this type of product.
Conclusion
>
The Symphony I/O upholds
Apogee’s pedigree with
respect to audio quality
while adding expandability,
flexibility, and ease of use
into the equation. It works
beautifully as an alternative
or companion to Avid’s own
Maestro 2: Symphony I/O in USB audio mode.
interfaces in a Pro Tools HD
system and just as well as
on its own, either with
Apogee’s 64 PCIe card or
the basic USB connectivity
– while its audio quality is at
least on a par with its peer
competitors.
I t s m o d u l a r n at u re
means that Apogee can
update and enhance
the feature set when
required, and Apogee
Maestro 2: Routing Symphony I/O and Symphony 64 PCIe card.
appears to be a company
that listen to its customers
character was ‘transparent and dynamic’ – but I’d
– as the incremental
be dancing about architecture, so please don’t.
upgrades and improvements to the system
Maestro 2 allows you to set various Soft Limit
since its launch demonstrate. To that end, it
modes (-2dBFS, -4dBFS, Soft Saturation and
can’t be long before you’ll see Thunderthighs
Soft Crush) and this feature is
(sorr y, Thunderbolt) on a
designed to take off the edge
Symphony I/O.
when hitting the stops – which
I think Apogee has got it
may be useful if you’re working
just right with the Symphony
in a live situation or to if you’re
I/O and I’m looking forward
out to create a deliberate effect.
to seeing how the system
Talking of live recording
develops over the coming years.
brings us to the USB Audio
∫
mode. Whipping the Symphony
I/O out of the rack, I used
it, without problems, to track
16 channels of a live concert
with my 2.2 GHz Macbook
Pro, using Logic Pro 9.1.4 and
a buffer size of 128 (7.8ms).
This capability, combined with the latency free
....................................
monitoring mode, should mean the Symphony
I/O is perfectly useable for those without access
to PCIe slots. USB audio has come a long way in
I N F O R M A TI O N
the last year or so (as interfaces such as RME’s UFX
demonstrate) so while some may be unhappy that £Symphony Base Chassis: GB£1,330.00 (exc.VAT)
it’s not a Firewire socket that’s on there, the USB
All option cards: GB1,573.00 (exc.VAT)
connectivity is perfectly capable of providing the
Symphony 64 PCI-E card: GB£715.00 (exc.VAT)
ins and outs at low latencies without breaking
a sweat. The fan noise wasn’t a problem in this A Apogee Electronics Corp., 1715 Berkeley Street,
situation (but it wasn’t a particularly steamy night,
Santa Monica, CA 90404, USA
even for jazz) and the two headphone sockets T +1 310 584 9394
were particularly useful in a live context. The first W www.apogeedigital.com
I/O module’s analogue outputs act as the main
stereo monitoring outputs with a default 20dB A UK Distributors: Sonic Distribution, 3 Hunting
pad over them – though you can change this
Gate, Hitchin, Herts, SG4 0TJ
if you wish. Altogether, the Symphony I/O felt T +44 (0) 845 500 2500
like a mature product and after a while I forgot I W www.seelectronics.com
“The Symphony I/O
upholds Apogee’s
pedigree with respect
to audio quality while
adding expandability,
flexibility, and ease of
use into the equation.”
aud i o media september 2011
45