Cymatic LR-16 Live Recorder - Mike Rivers – Useful Audio Stuff

Cymatic LR-16 Live Recorder - Mike Rivers – Useful Audio Stuff
Cymatic Live Recorder LR-16 Review
Mike Rivers ©2013
Live multitrack
recording has been
around since the days
of analog tape, but only
recently have we been
able to bring home a
multitrack recording of
a gig on a bar band’s
budget. Several of
today’s small format
digital consoles such
as the PreSonus StudioLive or Mackie i series incorporate do double duty as a
multi-channel computer audio interface in addition to the usual PA mixing chores.
With a single USB or Firewire connection to a computer, you can record each
input to its own track. On good days (or nights) everything goes smoothly, but
computers can get cranky at the most inconvenient times, making us wish there
was a more bulletproof, but still affordable solution.
Enter the Cymatic LR-16 Live Recorder. Its design goal was to make the capture
of live audio from a mixing console as simple and foolproof as possible. While it
sounds like a one-trick pony (there are a couple of other tricks up its sleeve),
understand that this was the intent. By keeping settings, options, and controls to
a minimum, using a dedicated processing unit and embedded software that won’t
change other than when there’s a factory update, and not skimping on build
quality, they’ve delivered a robust and reliable device that does just what’s
required, in a way that’s about as immune to operator and system errors as
possible.
The short version of this review is that it does just what it’s intended to do. You
can take it out of the box, hook it up, press the Record button, and you’re
recording. You could use again and again and never have to change a setting.
But wait! There’s more. Back in the studio (or in the field, if you insist on bringing
your computer) it also functions as a 16-input by 2-output USB audio interface
suitable for recording, overdubbing, and mixing the whole band.
The Grand Tour
At the 2011 Winter NAMM show, Archwave, a Swiss developer of audio-tocomputer interface chip sets and drivers used in a several contemporary
computer audio interfaces (I use that term a lot – it’s a fancy name for a fancy
“sound card”) was showing off their new DM1500 component, an integrated
circuit which, all by itself, interfaces up to 128 channels of 24-bit audio to USB or
Firewire at sample rates up to 192 kHz. At that show, they were demonstrating
the chip’s capabilities in hopes that someone would develop a product around it.
At the Fall 2012 AES show, in a corner of the Lewitt microphones booth, I noticed
this innocent looking box labeled “LR-16,” carrying the Archwave brand name. I
concluded from looking at the connectors and menus, that it contained one of
their new USB interface chips. It wasn’t quite ready for sale at the time, but by
the Winter 2013 NAMM show, the Cymatic brand was born, with the LR-16 Live
Recorder as their (so far only) product.
The LR-16 measures 9¾” wide by 6½ deep, with the top panel sloping from 2½”
at the rear to 1½” at the front. It weighs in at 2 pounds plus the quarter-pound line
lump universal (100-250 v, 50-60 Hz)
power supply. If you have an old laptop
computer bag that your new 19-inch
Eight-Core Widebody doesn’t fit, it’ll
probably work fine for toting the LR-16.
The chassis is steel, the top cover is
tough plastic, about 0.15” thick. The unit
has a very solid feel to it. The plastic
cover, buttons, and its single knob (the
headphone volume control) have a
rubberized surface.
Six menu buttons surround the 1½” x 2½” orange LCD panel, with five larger
buttons below the display serving as transport controls. The buttons are dark until
power is applied, then they illuminate to show their functions.
The front edge of the box has a headphone jack, its volume control, and a USB
Type A connector for the storage media. The rear edge contains the sixteen input
jacks, a stereo monitor output jack, the power switch, coaxial power supply
connector, and a USB Type B connector for the computer interface.
Lifting the hood, we find the Archwave
DM1100 chip (a slightly scaled down
version of the DM1500) – it’s the large
square on the left, AKM 5358 A/D
converters, half a gigabyte of RAM, and a
flash memory chip that contains the
firmware. Construction is on three good
quality circuit boards, one for the LCD and
buttons, one for the headphone amplifier,
and the main board contains the I/O,
converters, and brains. The top panel LCD circuit board is connected to the main
board with a ribbon cable while the headphone amplifier board connects with just
a few wires. The jacks are mounted directly to the circuit boards and aren’t
secured to the sheet metal panels, but their footprint is quite large and they seem
quite sturdy as they are.
Gozintas and Gozoutas
Here’s where it gets interesting. The inputs are on ¼” TRS jacks, but unlike what
you’re likely expecting (balanced/differential inputs), they’re wired so as to
connect to the most common configuration of a mixer’s Insert jacks. An Insert
jack is generally in the signal path between the mic preamp output and equalizer
section. Plugging anything into the Insert interrupts the signal path, providing an
output for an outboard signal processor and an input to bring the processor’s
output back into the channel. The tip of the LR-16 input jack picks sends the
Insert Send to the A/D converter. In addition, that signal gets turned around and
sent back to the Insert Return (the console jack’s ring) to maintain the integrity of
the mixer channel signal path. There’s a 110Ω resistor in the return path to
simulate the output impedance of a signal processor that’s typically connected to
an Insert.
If you want to feed the LR-16 from a console direct output or another line level
source, the best way to do this is to use an oddball unbalanced cable (the LR-16
input is unbalanced, remember) built with TRS plugs on both ends, with the ring
disconnected on the LR-16 end.
An alternative that’s nearly as good (and recommended in the LR-16 manual)
uses an off-the shelf TS female to TRS male adapter, often called a “stereo plug
to mono jack” adapter (Radio Shack part number 274-1520). This adapter
connects the tip and ring of the TRS end together providing the insert return path,
and does no harm as it only shorts out the 110 Ω resistor.
If you’re connecting the LR-16 to an unbalanced output with this adapter or an
equivalently wired cable, everything will be fine. However, if your source is
balanced, you’ll want to know what to do with the ring on the source end. If it’s a
singled ended balanced output, which is typical of many balanced outputs on
compact mixers, either leaving the ring open, tying it to the sleeve, or using a TS
plug will work fine. But if it’s transformer balanced, you’ll need to tie the ring to
ground in order to get a signal. If it’s an active balanced output, depending on the
configuration, you may need to ground the ring, leave the ring disconnected, or it
won’t matter either way. Check the manual for your signal source.
One thing you don’t want to do
when connecting a balanced
output to the LR-16 is to use a
TS-TS cable. The ring contact in
the LR-16 will contact the sleeve
of the plug, connecting the 110Ω
resistor between the source (tip)
and ground. Since most outputs
are designed to work into a load of at least a couple of kilohms, this will
significantly lower the signal level feeding the LR-16 and may cause the source
output to be distorted or clipped.
So what if you want to use a channel Insert for its real purpose? That’s where
things get tricky. You’ll need to build a special cable or breakout box to provide
inputs and outputs to the external signal processor. You’ll need to decide
whether you want to record the unprocessed or processed signal and connect
things accordingly. You can kludge something up as suggested in the product
FAQ, quoted here with some edits (I couldn’t have made this up): “The easiest
way to get around this tricky connection is to use a TRS to 2 TS Male cable
(commonly called an “insert cable”) as well as a TS male to 2 TS Female Y
adapter. Connect the TRS end to the Insert jack on the console and the TS Send
plug to the processor input. Connect the Y adapter to the processor
output. Connect the Return plug to one branch of the female Y adapter and
connect a TS to TS cable to the other branch of the Y adapter to the LR-16 input,
putting a TS Female to TRS Male adapter between them.”
If I were re-designing the LR-16, I’d put an additional set of jacks on the rear
panel to provide a replacement for the “lost” Insert jack on the mixer. Those jacks
could even have a switch to select whether to record the direct or the processed
signal. Since it’s a pretty good bet that with a 16-channel mix, you won’t be using
more than eight outboard processors, adding a third row of jacks would provide
eight insert points. Since there’s no compelling reason, other than to preserve
your sanity, of having the recorder channel numbers correspond directly to the
mixer channels, if the duplicate insert jacks were on 1-8 and you needed a
compressor on mixer channel 14, you could record that channel on one of the
first eight and put something else into input 14 if necessary. In my dreams:
This all sounds more complicated than it will be for most users, most of who will
simply be plugging cables between the console’s insert jacks and LR-16 input
jacks. You’ll want to get a couple of 8-pair TRS snakes to keep your wiring neat.
Cymatic recognizes that not everyone will have all the right cables so they’re
working on an accessory cable package.
Given that the unit is designed to connect to unbalanced channel insert outputs,
its inputs are unbalanced, with a load impedance of 12 kΩ measured between tip
and sleeve of the jack. This is independent of whether the ring is open or
connected to the tip with an adapter or jumper. When connected to a mixer’s
Insert jack as Cymatic intended, that 110Ω “turnaround” resistor is in series with
the return signal. This resistor, along with the input impedance of the Insert return
(typically in the 5k to 20 kΩ range), forms a voltage divider, with most of the
voltage being dropped across the insert return input. On a Mackie VLZ3 mixer,
the Insert Return Zin is 5.2 kΩ, yielding a negligible 0.35 dB loss across the 110Ω
resistor. Don’t sweat it. Since the “insert turn-around” is passive and purely
resistive, if you use decent shielded cable and avoid ground loops, there’s
nothing to degrade the channel signal when making a detour through the LR-16.
The inputs have no level adjustment, only a pad that can be switched on or off.
With the pad on, the maximum input level before clipping is +20 dBu. With the
pad off, it tops out at +8 dBu. Another way of looking at it is that with the pad on,
you have 16 dB of headroom above a nominal “professional” operating level of
+4 dBu. With the pad off, you have 16 dB of headroom above the nominal
-10 dBV “consumer” operating level. As long as you’re reasonably conservative
when setting your mixer’s input Trim control, this should work out fine, allowing
sufficient headroom for both the recorder and the mixer. With some mixers,
however, when you try to squeeze the last bit of gain out of the preamp, the
Insert output level can reach around +24 dBu, which will cause the LR-16’s input
to clip. With proper system gain structure, there should be no reason to push the
mixer’s input gain that hard.
There are two stereo analog outputs, both unbalanced, on left/right-wired ¼” TRS
jacks. The headphone jack on the front panel has a volume control while the rear
mounted Line Output jack has a fixed output level. Both outputs are driven from
the output of the internal monitor mixer. The maximum output level at the Line
Output jack is +8 dBu. I’ll get into this a little deeper when I talk about the mixer,
but unless you drop the LR-16’s mixer channel levels below their default 0 dB
setting, when recording a bunch of tracks with fairly hot levels, the mixer will clip.
The tracks will be recorded just fine and will mix properly in your DAW, but you
might be distressed at what you hear when you plug in a set of headphones
while you’re recording or playing back a multitrack project.
With the mixer running just below clipping, the headphone amplifier will put
32 mW into 60Ω, a common impedance for modern headphones. You’ll get
slightly less power, about 27 mW, into 15Ω phones, which is typical of some of
the modern in-ear phones or ear buds. The headphone amplifier stage isn’t too
happy driving an impedance this low. With the mixer itself running just below its
maximum output level, the headphone amplifier begins to clip when the
headphone volume knob goes past about 3 o’clock. Given the high ambient
sound level in a live setting, you may want to use an external headphone
amplifier to get your headphones up to ear bleeding level.
Noise and Distortion
My first test was to record a 1 kHz tone at a level of –1 dBFS. Total harmonic
distortion + noise (THD+N) of the playback measured 0.035% at the LR-16’s Line
Output. It’s interesting to take a closer look at what this single value represents.
Looking at the spectrum of the recording of a single tone can tell us a bit about
how audible the distortion is likely to be. Two or three percent second harmonic
present in the output is nearly undetectable to the human ear, and in some cases
sounds better than with no distortion, but odd-order harmonics of the input signal
not present in the original source can be heard at much lower levels. This is what
a 1 kHz tone looks like when recorded at –1 dBFS. Note the large peak at 1 kHz
(this is what we want) and the multitude of peaks above 1 kHz (which contributes
to distortion):
Note the second harmonic (2 kHz) peak at –84 dBFS, which equates to 0.006%.
The third harmonic is around –93 dBFS (0.002%), but there are measurable odd
and even harmonics out to about 7 kHz. What’s a bit unusual here, and I have no
explanation for it, is that there’s a sideband (which isn’t a harmonic) 0.5 kHz
above the fundamental (1.5 kHz) that continues to show up 0.5 kHz above each
harmonic of the fundamental. These sidebands are pretty low in amplitude, about
–100 dBFS (0.001%) so they fall into the “interesting” category rather than
pointing to trouble.
Repeating this experiment with the test signal recorded at –10 dBFS, we see a
similar harmonic spectrum but with the even harmonics pretty much petering out
after the second harmonic. Odd harmonics continue, however, at around
-108 dBFS (a pretty trivial 0.0004%), though the sidebands at 1.5, 2.5, 3.5 kHz
etc. continue at about the same level as the harmonics of the fundamental.
The noise floor of a file recorded with the pads on, with the input terminated by a
100 Ω resistor to simulate the source impedance of a typical mixer Insert output,
runs around -116 dBFS, which is pretty darn quiet. The spectrum display tips up
below 100 Hz, but that’s typical of FFT analysis. What’s significant on the low
end is that we don’t see the AC power line frequency (60, 120, or 180 Hz)
contributing to the noise floor, and this is a good thing.
If you’re curious about that blip at 8 kHz, well, so am I. I observed that same
frequency when conducting this same test on another interface that I reviewed
recently. However, in testing both, when I swapped out another interface in the
same test setup, that 8 kHz noise spike wasn’t evident. I suspect that it may
come from the computer and some interfaces are more susceptible to letting it
through than others. It’s at a low enough level not to be bothersome.
The User Interface
Since the LR-16’s primary purpose is as a grab-and-go multitrack recorder, it’s
important that the user interface be straightforward with all of the important
controls clearly visible. Although there are a few menus, this goal is met fairly
well. Here’s the control panel. This illustration was borrowed from the manual
and the actual illumination of the buttons is orange rather than white:
Most important when you don’t have a lot of time or attention span (like just
before the music starts) is the row of five buttons at the bottom of the control
area. Unlike the buttons found on most handheld recorders, these are fairly large,
approximately ⅜ x ⅝ inches, and equally important, the function icons are
illuminated so it’s easy to aim your finger at the target. The “target” at the right
hand end is the Record button, with its symbol changing from orange to red when
recording. It’s a one-button record system, no need to press Pause/Play or press
Record a second time to actually start “rolling tape.” Pressing the Record button
takes priority over anything else. Regardless of what mode it’s in, when you
press the Record button, it records.
The two leftmost buttons look like they’re for Rewind and Fast-Forward, but they
aren’t. When the LR-16 is in its standby mode, they’re used to scroll through
takes for playback. In the Player mode, they scroll through the songs, duplicating
the ▲ and▼ buttons. They’re inactive in both the Record and Play mode, though
it might be a useful implementation in the Play mode to locate the song (Take)
that you want to hear if you don’t know the Take number.
The Mode button toggles between the normal multitrack recorder mode and the
stereo Player mode. When in the Player mode, the display lists (by file name)
audio files stored in the Music folder of the connected storage medium. This is
where you load your walk-in or break music. The ▲ and▼ buttons on the right
side of the display scroll through this list, the Select button makes the selection,
and then the Play button starts playback. There may be a future plan (suggested
by the fact that if the Music folder is empty, “Playlist Empty” is displayed when
the Player mode is selected) to add an editable playlist feature so you can
choose the songs you want to play, in a specified order.
Something that might strike you as odd in the Player mode (it did, me) is that the
LR-16 plays only 44.1 and 48 kHz WAV (Wave) files. There’s apparently no
MPEG decoder included in the firmware, so it can’t play MP3 files. If MP3s are
present in the Music folder, they won’t even appear on the file list. This is likely to
be an inconvenience as most people have their music collection in MP3 format
these days, and that’s where your break music will most likely come from.
The Menu button brings up one menu when in
the Recorder mode and a different one when in
the Player mode. The Player menu selects
how the files in the Music folder are played.
Normal plays the single file selected, repeat
plays that file over and over, continuous play
plays the files sequentially starting with the one
selected. Shuffle plays all the files in the folder in random order.
The Recorder menu is where most of the menu
action is. Selecting any item brings up a
submenu where you actually do the work.
Sample rate and width (word length) is
straightforward – just click on your choice from
the four presented.
The Input Sensitivity and Monitoring (mixer) menus are similar in appearance
and are based around the 16-channel mixer graphic. The input sensitivity (pads)
menu has a “set all pads” shortcut, which is initially displayed when this menu is
selected. All pads can be toggled on or off together using the Select button. To
guide you in your choice of input sensitivity, if there’s audio present, the lower
section of the display shows the signal level for
each channel. If any of the meters are entering
the upper (peak) segment, that channel likely
needs to have the pad switched on. The ▲
and▼ buttons cycle the cursor (indicated by
the box surrounding the switch icon) through
the channels, with the Select button toggling
the pad for the selected channel on or off.
The Monitoring menu controls the monitor
mixer when the LR-16 is in the Recording
mode. Setting up a mix requires a multitude of
button presses so it’s unlikely that this feature
will be used very often. The top bars in the
graphic represent the channel volume, the
boxes with the dots in the center display
channel Mute or Solo status. Pan position is represented by the ┘,└, and ┴ icons
with thicker vertical bars either side of center indicating intermediate positions.
The way it works is that the Select button cycles through the volume, mute/solo,
and panning values. When highlighted, the selected value can be set using the
▲ and▼ buttons. A fourth press of the Select button removes the highlight from
the mix parameters, and in this state, the ▲ and▼ buttons select the channel to
be adjusted.
The channel volume and pan position are not continuously variable from this
menu, but rather, are in pre-defined steps. Pan is pretty straightforward, with
settings of 30, 60, 90, and 127 left and right from 0 (center). Volume is not so
simple. I’m sure there’s a scheme here, but the choices presented when scrolling
through the settings seems to depend both on whether you’re scrolling up or
down, and where you started. You have seven choices, of which one is 0 (full
on). Starting from 0 and going down, you get -1, -3, -7, -15, -31, and -63 dB.
Going up from -63, you get -50, -24, -11, -4, -1, and finally back to 0 dB. To make
the setting the channel monitor levels even more subject to guesswork, you can’t
make adjustments when in the Record or Play mode, only when it’s in standby
and monitoring the inputs. While there will still be a lot of button presses involved
in making an adjustment, allowing mix adjustments while recording or playing a
multitrack recording is on the “to do” list for a future firmware update.
The mixer has less headroom than the inputs. Even when running only two
channels panned full left and full right, a 0 dBFS peak comes pretty close to
clipping the mixer if the channel levels are set to 0 dB (full level). With all sixteen
channels running at safe but not overly conservative levels, I found that by
setting all the mixer channel levels at –15 I could avoid clipping in the
headphones or line output. Having all channels at the same level hardly
constitutes a mix, but at least you can hear what’s going in.
The Delete and Format functions are self-explanatory. Both are selected using
the Select button, and require confirmation before doing the deed by pressing the
Mode button. Kudos to the user interface designer to make you press a different
button than the one used to select a destructive function from the one used to
confirm the operation. It could save you from doing something you really don’t
want to do.
The Back button returns you from whatever
menu you’re in directly to the main screen. In
standby, the current take number and the total
number of takes are displayed. Pressing the
Play button starts playback, and activity is
confirmed by moving meters and a string of
rolling ►symbols moving across the screen.
Pressing the Record button advances the take number and begins recording. A
string of rolling ● symbols indicates recording activity.
The time display in the upper right corner displays different times depending on
what you’re doing. When playing a recording, the time display counts down,
indicating the amount of time to the end of the recording. When recording, the
time displayed is the time remaining until the 4 GB file size limit set by the FAT32
disk format is reached. It’s a function of the sample rate and word length, but
using the ballpark burn rate of about half a gigabyte per hour for 48 kHz, 24-bit
audio, this will display between 8 and 9 hours if you have more than 4 GB of disk
space available. It counts down from there. When in standby, pressing the Select
button displays the time remaining for the full capacity of the recording media.
The bottom section of the standby/recording/playback
display is devoted to channel level metering. These
are pretty crude meters, with only three “segments” to
each meter (four, if you count “off”). The lower
segment (signal present) indicates a record level of
-30 dBFS. The line a bit above the center represents a
-30 |+5 |+17 |<-30 dBu
conservative but nominal record level of -15 dBFS, and the
segment above the line is the “peak” indicator, illuminating at -3 dBFS. The
meters should live in the segment just below the line most of the time, and rarely
if ever should hit the peak region. That middle segment represents a pretty wide
dynamic range, however, so there’s some ambiguity as to how close a track is to
clipping until the top segment lights up.
The final menu, Display Settings, consists of contrast and brightness
adjustments. Brightness has a range of 0 to 25 and works like most display
controls that are labeled “contrast.” It adjusts the viewing angle at which contrast
is good. 6-8 works well for desktop operation. Contrast has just two settings, 0
and 1, which are really two levels of LCD brightness. You might want to use 0 if
you’re working in the dark. It only changes the LCD brightness, however, not the
illumination of the buttons.
The only other controls are the power switch on the rear and headphone volume
control on the front - simple and self-explanatory. Panel illumination passes the
back porch test – With the unit on the back porch on a bright day, I was able to
read the display and clearly identify the illuminated buttons.
Software and the USB Audio Interface Mode
A bonus feature of the Cymatic LR-16 is that, when connected to the USB port of
a computer, it functions as a 16-input, stereo output audio interface. The simple
capture mode, while great for live shows, doesn’t offer all the studio comforts to
which we’ve become accustomed – no edits, no punch-ins, no quick locates or
markers. Connect the LR-16 to your computer, however, and you have sixteen
input channels, enough to put a dozen mics on your drum kit, record basic tracks
with the whole band playing, or make live-in-the-studio recordings directly into a
DAW program.
It’s plug-and-play with MacOS 10.5 or later. Windows (XP, Vista, 7, no word on
Windows 8 yet) requires installation of an ASIO and WDM driver package. To
assure that you’re using the latest software, you must download the installation
file directly from the Cymatic web site. The Windows installer includes a control
panel application for the mixer that makes adjustment of the monitor mix much
more convenient than the fiddly buttons on the hardware control panel (which do,
indeed, work in the USB interface mode). The Windows control panel also
provides adjustments for both ASIO and USB stream buffer sizes, and offers the
ability to name the input channels should you want something more projectspecific than Line 1, Line 2, etc. The Mac doesn’t yet have such a software
control panel. For those on the go-go-go, the LR-16 USB audio interface is class
compliant and connects to an iPad using the USB camera adapter cable.
I have neither a Mac nor an iPad with which to test its performance, but I installed
the Windows software on a both a Windows XP (SP3) and Windows 7 system.
The installation went smoothly on the Windows 7 system, however the XP
installation was a bit rocky. As an ASIO interface, it worked fine under both
operating systems, but I was unable to get the mixer control panel working with
the computer running WinXP. It didn’t complain about anything during
installation, but as soon as I put the mouse cursor over the mixer’s task bar icon,
the icon disappeared without even giving me an opportunity to click on it. The
mixer application just wouldn’t start on this computer.
I firmly believe that no two Windows computers are alike, so I tried installing the
software on a second XP system, and this time I got a clue – it was looking for
Microsoft NET Framework 4.0. After uninstalling the driver, installing the required
version of NET Framework, and re-installing the driver, everything, including the
mixer control panel, worked on computer number two running WinXP. I installed
NET Framework 4 on the troublesome XP computer, but I the problem with the
disappearing icon remained and I was still unable to start the mixer control panel.
I might be the only person left with a Windows XP DAW system, and hopefully
installation under Windows 7 is not as iffy.
When in the stand-alone mode, only 44.1 and 48 kHz sample rates are
supported, however, in the USB Interface mode, it can operate with all 16 inputs
at 88.2 and 96 kHz sample rate as well.
Here’s a screen shot of the mixer control panel (Windows 7):
Note that the right hand edge is cropped. That’s not a sloppy screen capture job
on my part; it’s how it actually looks on the screen. I tried two different monitors
at assorted resolutions but that’s as far as it goes. I assume this is a buglet that
will get fixed in a future release. Nothing important is missing, it’s just rather odd.
The unlabeled set of knobs above the faders are pan pots which, along with the
faders, are continuously adjustable from the software control panel.
If you’ve used any other audio interface with a built-in monitor mixer, this one will
be familiar, perhaps with one exception that had me puzzled for a while. The
built-in monitor mixer is primarily there for overdubbing, so you can hear a mix of
previously recorded tracks along with whatever you’re recording on a new track.
In addition to controls for each of the input channels, there’s usually an extra
stereo fader placed to the right of the last input channel on the mixer control
panel to control the volume of the DAW playback in the headphone mix. I didn’t
find it on the LR-16’s mixer control panel, however.
Rather than a fader dedicated to DAW playback,
the LR-16 handles that function with a fader that
adjusts the balance between the DAW playback
stream and the mix of the sixteen input sources.
Since it’s oriented horizontally, it’s called a crossfader. It’s easier to see the cross-fader in this
screen shot of the “shrunken” version of the mixer,
which you get when you click the Minimize button at
the top of the mixer window. When fully left, you
hear the input mix but no DAW playback. When fully
right, you hear the DAW playback, but no inputs.
When starting the USB interface mode, the crossfader defaults to full right so you can’t hear the
inputs in the phones until you slide it toward the left.
At first I thought that the mixer didn’t work when in
the USB mode, but then I opened the control panel
and noticed that the cross-fader was at 100% playback. Pulling it back toward the
center brought my inputs into the mix. It’s just a different way of doing a familiar
thing.
So, can a Mac user (or one with a recalcitrant WinXP setup like one of mine) take
advantage of the built-in DSP monitor mixer without having access to the mixer
software control panel? Or must we deal with a higher latency monitor mix
through the full DAW signal path?
Well, sort of. In the USB Interface mode, only the LR-16’s Menu button is active.
This brings up an abbreviated menu consisting of Input Sensitivity (pads on/off,
which you’ll need for level setting), Display Settings (brightness and contrast) and
Monitoring. Selecting Monitoring brings up the mixer in the LCD, at which point
you can monitor the inputs. You can even adjust the mix by stepping through the
channels and then stepping through the level, mute/solo, and pan for the
selected channel, for as long as your patience holds out. However, selecting
Monitoring using the LR-16 controls shoots the cross-fader fully to the left
(inputs), turning the DAW playback fully off in the monitor mix. You can hear
yourself, but you can’t hear the track to which you’re playing. Gotcha!
A quick fix for this would be a software update that moves the cross-fader to the
center when engaging the monitor mixer from the hardware control panel when in
the USB Interface mode. A better solution would be to add a 17th fader to the
LCD monitor mixer display to allow adjusting the balance between input mix and
playback levels.
While input-to-output latency is mostly of no concern when capturing a live
performance, minimizing the delay between the source and when you hear it in
the headphones is important when tracking with a DAW. When monitoring
through its DSP mixer, input-to-output latency is about 2.5 milliseconds. The
manual calls this “zero latency” – I say jokingly that this is only true for large
values of zero. I’ve recently reviewed a couple of interfaces with DSP monitoring
that have less than 1 ms of monitoring delay, so the LR-16 is a bit behind the
power curve here, but it’s substantially better than monitoring through the DAW
where latency, even with a well-optimized system, can be 10 milliseconds or
more.
In Use
When the LR-16 is doing its primary job of capturing audio from a mixer’s
channel insert jacks, operation is as simple as plugging in the cables, checking
the levels, and pressing the Record button.
Well, there are a couple more things deserving mention. When first powered up,
it checks to see if it’s job is going to be as a recorder or an interface. If neither a
computer nor USB recording medium is connected, you’ll be prompted to
connect it one way or the other. If it sees a recording drive connected, it performs
a test to verify that the drive is capable of keeping up with the data rate of your
selected recording format. It doesn’t remember that you’ve used that drive
before, so it performs this test each time it’s powered up with a drive connected.
Also, it does a little housekeeping when you press the Record button. The
button’s LED will blink red for several seconds before it turns solid and the actual
recording starts. These utility operations take a little time, so don’t wait until the
downbeat before pressing the Record button. The speed test takes only a few
seconds with a hard drive, though with a large capacity USB thumb drive, the test
can run for a few minutes.
I don’t have a stash of commercially built USB hard drives, so when I first started
experimenting with the LR-16, I tried to use drives that I use with my Mackie
HDR24/96 recorder, both open on the bench using a USB adapter and installed
in one of my USB drive cases. These are all older IDE drives, and while all are
perfectly capable of recording 24 simultaneous 48 kHz 24-bit tracks with the
Mackie recorder, most of them failed the LR-16’s test. With some combinations
of drive and USB adapter, the drive wasn’t recognized at all (though it worked
fine when connected to a computer) and the test failed to start. Sometimes it
started but stalled without a failure message after a minute or so. I went through
a handful of thumb drives that I’d collected from various sources, and only a
couple of those passed the recording test. Cymatic doesn’t attempt to maintain a
list of recommended thumb and hard drives, but the LR-16 web page has a link
to the Tom’s Hardware web site which maintains a list of drives and speed
ratings to use as a guide. I finally broke down and bought a current model
Toshiba 500 GB USB drive for fifty bucks that worked fine. Other than quick
checks with a thumb drive that tested OK, I used that commercial USB drive
when working in the Recorder mode.
Formatting the drive can be an issue. The LR-16 uses the FAT32 file system. If
you connect a drive formatted for another file system (NTFS, for example, which
is the only way a standard Windows system will format a drive larger than 32
gigabytes), you’ll get a message informing you that the file system is incorrect
and inviting you to format it. THINK! If you’re re-purposing a drive that you’ve
been using for backups, formatting will destroy all of your stored data. It’s
probably best to dedicate a drive to the LR-16 and stick with it.
When recording to a thumb drive, you’re limited to 16-bit word length. Apparently
that’s all they consider safe for the medium. I’ve always considered 16-bit
recording to be adequate for rough-and-tumble live recording, but then I’m
accustomed to having more control over the record level than what’s offered with
the LR-16. The advantage of using 24-bit resolution in a situation like this is that
you can be more conservative with the record level and boost it digitally after the
fact without increasing the system noise level. I think it’s cool that you can use a
thumb drive with the LR-16, but it’s probably only practical for recording a song or
two at a rehearsal as opposed to a full live set that might be included in a
released product.
While I’m talking about disk stuff, first a reminder – the LR-16 records only
uncompressed PCM files in WAV format – no space-saving MP3 files here. This
uses about half a gigabyte per hour per track for 24-bit resolution at 48 kHz
sample rate. It also records all 16 tracks whether you need them or not. You can
record a lot of shows on a 1 TB drive, but not much on an 8 GB thumb drive. An
additional menu item to select 16, 8, or 2 track recording is under consideration
for a future firmware update, but for now, consider that it gobbles about 8
gigabytes per hour. Interestingly, there’s a configuration file written to the disk
that, among other things, specifies the number of tracks to record. Of course I
tried changing this to see if I could make an 8-track recording, and of course it rewrote the file (for 16 track recording) as part of the drive test.
Each recording pass (from when you start to when you stop – there’s no Pause
when recording) gets its own folder under the Recording folder created on the
drive, with the folders named as Take_nn. Each Take folder contains sixteen files
named Chan_01.wav through Chan_16.wav. I was a bit surprised when I first
looked in the Recording folder to find no time and date associated with the files.
Then it dawned on me that there’s menu item on the LR-16 for setting the date
and time, so it doesn’t know when the file was created. I have a little file date
editor utility on my computer that I used to time stamp the file in order to keep
track of what’s what.
The date stamp doesn’t seem to bother the LR-16, but when I renamed a folder
from Take_01 to something meaningful, it no longer shows up in the LCD when
scrolling through takes. Since once the session is over, it’s not likely that you’ll
want to play it back on the LR-16, it’s probably worth renaming the folder once
you get the drive to a computer. You can continue to use the drive in the LR-16
with renamed folders and it just ignores them, naming the next recording
Take_nn, using the next consecutive number from the last take of that name that
it finds. If you’ve renamed all of the Take folders, it’ll name your next recording
Take_01.
Something that I discovered (fortunately by testing, not while recording
something important) is that the LR-16 doesn’t take loss of power very gracefully.
If you lose power or inadvertently switch it off before pressing the stop button and
letting it do its housekeeping, you’ll have a folder with the take number and all the
WAV files within that folder, all about the correct size for the time it’s been
recording. However, there’s no audio information in the files. The disk drive’s
activity flashes intermittently while recording, so I expected that data was being
written to it continuously or in reasonably sized chunks, with the worst case being
to lose a little data just prior to the power loss. Not so, apparently. Perhaps the
audio is buffered in that on-board RAM and not actually written into the files until
the recording is stopped normally. For critical recordings, it might be worth
including a small UPS in your field recording kit.
Once you’ve recorded a show with the LR-16, you’ll need to mix those tracks.
Typically you’ll import the WAV files into a DAW and mix “in the box.” I imported
a concert’s worth of tracks into Reaper, Studio One, and Pro Tools 10 without a
hitch. If you didn’t use all sixteen channels, once the files are in a visible format
as DAW tracks, you can quickly delete those with no audio and go about mixing.
For mixing, the LR-16 works fine as a stereo playback interface. I preferred to
use my Lynx L22 since that’s the default interface on my studio computer, but if
you don’t already have a good quality audio interface, the LR-16 is a big
improvement over the built-in audio hardware in most computers.
I’m a hands-on mixer and prefer not to mix with a mouse when I can avoid it, so
for mixing a couple of concerts that I recorded with the LR-16, I used my Mackie
1640i mixer as the DAW playback interface. The 1640i offers sixteen output
streams that can be assigned as outputs for each of the tracks and appear as
inputs to the mixer channels. With this setup, I could mix on a real hardware
console just as if I was mixing the show live, only I could do things over, try
different approaches to the mix, and, where appropriate, apply software plug-ins
to the DAW tracks before sending them to the mixer. This is low budget hybrid
mixing at its best.
The USB Interface mode is more at home in the studio than on the road, but
remember – it has no mic inputs, only unbalanced line inputs. Any DAW program
that can talk to an ASIO driver will see the LR-16 as a 16-input, 2-output audio
interface, allowing you to record up to 16 tracks simultaneously. There’s no
reason why you can’t use this setup in the field as well, though that defeats the
LR-16’s best feature – that you can don’t need to take a computer to the gig in
order to make a multitrack recording.
To check out its performance as an interface, I used my Mackie 1640i mixer as
the “front end”, connecting the mixer’s Insert outputs to the LR-16’s inputs, and
the LR-16’s line output to the mixer’s Tape inputs. This provided me with sixteen
pretty good mic preamps plus a bonus - real analog source monitoring. Although
the LR-16’s internal mixer with its 2.5 ms latency is satisfactory for instruments, I
found it to be somewhat annoying when tracking vocals due to the comb filtering
that occurs when the direct acoustic sound of a singer’s voice combines at his
ear with the slightly delayed sound in the headphones. While it’s fairly easy to get
a balanced monitor mix when using the mixer control panel application, it’s pretty
cumbersome to operate using just the front panel controls.
So for studio work, rather than monitoring inputs through the LR-16, I used the
Mackie mixer instead. The full mixer is available for setting up a monitor mix, with
the DAW playback added in by pressing the “TAPE” button in the Mackie’s
monitor section. It’s necessary to disable Input Monitoring on the DAW track(s)
you’re recording (you just have to click the right button). This prevents the input
signal from getting into the monitor mix through two paths, once directly through
the mixer and again, delayed by several milliseconds, as part of the DAW mix
that’s coming back to the Mackie.
I could have used any of my better mic preamps rather than the mixer’s preamps
via the direct outputs, but that would have required special cables or adapters.
Since this setup was to check workflow and not sound quality, I didn’t bother. I
know it’ll work because I tried it during bench testing.
To learn how the other half will probably use the LR-16 in the studio, I recorded
and mixed a couple of songs “in the box” and monitoring the mix in progress from
the LR-16’s Line output. Most DAWs nowadays can use the ASIO latency value
reported by the interface’s driver to adjust the position of newly recorded tracks
to compensate for the delay. I let Reaper figure out the latency compensation
and my test tracks automatically aligned within about 25 samples at 44.1 kHz
sample rate, about 0.5 ms. Good enough!
When using the LR-16’s output for your control room monitors during mixing, you
might want to cheat and use the headphone output instead of the Line output,
since it has a volume control.
As far as DAW compatibility goes, I checked out the LR-16 with Reaper, Studio
One, and Pro Tools 10. Pro Tools was it’s usual cranky self when being
introduced to a new interface, but after a couple of restarts and setting up the I/O
matrix, it settled down. The other programs just ran with it once the LR-16 was
selected as the audio I/O device.
It was almost (maybe always) necessary to power the LR-16 off and on again
when switching from USB Interface mode to Recording mode. This manifested
itself as a bad case of what I call “reviewer-itis” – when the reviewer (me) is trying
out all sorts of things while the unit is on the bench. Normally you’ll be in one
mode to do one job, turn the unit off off, take it somewhere else, and turn it on
again to do another job, so I doubt that this small inconvenience will ever occur in
real use.
In the USB Interface mode, the LR-16 will operate at 2x sample rates (88.2 and
96 kHz). The bad news is that, at this time, this doesn’t work properly. You
indeed get 96,000 samples for each second of recording, however there’s a bug
in the driver that, when using 2x sample rates, sets up the A/D converters
incorrectly. The result is that every other sample has the same value as its
neighbor (note the dots in the figure). In effect, sampling is at 48kHz rather than
96 kHz.
Please don’t use this example to
perpetuate the seemingly undying
Internet rumor that sampling leaves
out data, turning a sine wave into
stair steps. It only does that when it
doesn’t work right and the
waveform graphic is expanded to show individual samples. I discovered this
when checking the frequency response at 96 kHz sample rate to see how far
beyond 22 kHz it went. To my surprise, it tapered off at about 23 kHz. The output
returned as I increased the input frequency, but at an alias frequency. Cymatic
said “oops!,” figured out the problem, and promised to have it corrected in the
next firmware update.
Wrapping It Up
The Cymatic LR-16, unlike so many new products that lead you to believe that
they’ll do everything including the dinner dishes, is designed for one primary
purpose – to record a live show with as little bother as possible. The design is
well executed; it looks good, appears to be sturdy and well constructed, sounds
fine, and integrates smoothly with the sort of mixer that’s typically used for shows
where a sixteen-track recording is sufficient. It can function effectively beyond the
basic 16 track capture job, but once you get out of its comfort zone, you’ll find
that there are some limitations and compromises that may make the job more
difficult with the LR-16 than with a device designed primarily to be a multichannel computer audio interface. But for no-hassle 16-track recording of a live
show, it’s hard to beat.
If you aren’t plugging it directly into Tip-Send-Ring-Return mixer insert jacks,
you’ll need to give some creative thought to getting signals into it, but that’s about
the only thing that doesn’t come naturally. When recording a live show, your PA
mix serves as your control room monitor, but I still like to be able to be able to
check that all of the channels are getting to the recorder, there are no loose
connections, and no hum nor buzz. For that, I want to be able to solo channels in
the headphones while recording. It’s not sufficient to solo channels at the PA
mixer since that doesn’t account for the connections between the mixer and
recorder. If I didn’t lose count along the way, it takes 7 button presses per
channel just to flip the LR-16 mixer’s Solo on or off. And if you want to set pans
and adjust levels to get a more balanced headphone mix, that could be a
gawdawful number of button presses. But as long as you’ve verified your
connections and keep your cables in good shape, you’ll probably feel reasonably
confident that it’s working if you can see the meters moving.
At $500, the Cymatic LR-16 is a good bargain, both as a 16-channel recorder
and as a 16x2 USB audio interface. Remember when budgeting, however, that
it’s not a complete package in itself. For live work, you’ll almost certainly need to
buy or make cables or adapters for connecting its inputs, and I’d advise getting a
USB hard drive that you can dedicate to your live recordings. In the studio, either
you’ll need to connect it to a mixer (which, of course could be the same mixer
you use for live work if it’s available between gigs and not stored in the
drummer’s trailer in his driveway) or outboard mic preamps.
So who’s it right for? If you presently own a mixer that incorporates a multichannel computer interface and you’re already taking a portable computer along
to record your gigs, as long as you’re having good success with this approach,
there’s no need to switch. But if you’re still using an analog mixer (and there’s no
reason not to, as long as it works for you) and you want to start making multitrack
recordings of your shows, you’d be a good candidate for an LR-16. It’s less
bother than fooling with a computer when your primary job on the gig is to play
for the audience. It might also be a good addition to a house sound system so
you can offer multitrack recording to the bands that play there.
My wish list has both grown and shrunk during this review as I keep reminding
myself of the unit’s primary function. A few things that I’d like to see in future
updates are more convenient access to solos and mutes when recording, “live”
control over the internal mixer during recording, a way reduce the number of
recorded files when you don’t need all 16 channels, and, of course, 96 kHz
recording that works correctly. Still, as the first version of a first product, I think
the company has done a good job. Hopefully there will be enough people who
recognize the value of a dedicated recorder so that they can keep the product
alive and improve it.
Key Product Points:
•
•
•
Simple connection and operation, nearly bulletproof
Good sound
16x2 USB interface adds value for studio use
•
•
•
You’ll probably need to buy or make input cables
Difficult to navigate through a monitor mix
Power loss equals recording loss, needs power backup for
critical projects
Resources:
Cymatic Audio – for more info, full specs, manuals, FAQ
http://www.cymaticaudio.com
File size vs. time calculator
http://www.sounddevices.com/support/calculator/
Verbatim FAT32 Format Utility
http://www.verbatim.com/includes/binary_details.php3?show=1&id=840
Ninotech Windows File Date Editor
http://www.softpedia.com/progDownload/Ninotech-Date-Edit-Download78687.html
For questions, comments, corrections, and brickbats re this review:
http://mikeriversaudio.wordpress.com
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