Pro-level FireWire interfacing for those on a budget
By Craig Anderton
Editor in Chief, Harmony Central
Focusrite makes a wide range of interfaces, from simple USB interfaces with added DJ capabilities to the Liquid Saffire 56, with 28 ins and 28 outs. While many would say—with considerable justification—that their "signature feature" is award-winning mic preamps (the Saffire mic preamps are used in all products in the Saffire line), the bundles included with their interfaces, as well as the mixer application, drivers, and global operation are important features as well.
The Saffire Pro 14 is cross-platform, working with PPC or Intel Mac OS X 10.5.8/10.6.2, and AMD/Intel Windows XP SP2 (32-bit only), Windows 7 (32/64-bit), or Windows Vista (32/64-bit). The interface supports FireWire 400, and 2GB of RAM is recommended (which I feel is the minimum for any system that does music anyway). Unlike USB 1.1 interfaces, which often top out at 48kHz sampling rates (or sometimes 96kHz with reduced I/O), the Pro 14 can do full 24-bit/96kHz operation.
For I/O, you have two Focusrite Saffire preamps with combination jacks (XLR/instrument/line inputs). The instrument input impedances are spec'ed at 10Megohms; that's beyond the range of what I can measure, but the clarity with DI guitar supports the spec. Switching is automatic between mic and line inputs, although you need to use the included mixer applet to switch from line to instrument.
Phantom power is enabled for both inputs simultaneously via a front-panel switch, which has an accompanying LED indicator to show when phantom power is on. If you're not familiar with Focusrite's Saffire preamp technology, the hallmark is clarity and low noise, with a transparent quality—these are not intended to be "character" preamps. The performance is excellent.
There are also two 1/4" TRS balanced line inputs, switchable between high and low gain via the mixer applet, coax S/PDIF in, and two "loopback" inputs. These allow recording the audio from one program into another program (e.g., playback from a QuickTime player into a DAW).
Outputs are four 1/4" TRS balanced jacks, coax S/PDIF out, and stereo 1/4" headphones out jack. The Pro 14 also includes physical MIDI in and out, with 5-pin DIN connectors. I'm always surprised at how many companies seem to think MIDI is optional, but I consider it an essential feature for an interface—apparently so does Focusrite.
The Pro 14 can be bus-powered, but for situations with 4-pin FireWire connections (e.g., laptops), you can use the included external, globally compatible AC adapter. Control-wise, there are front-panel gain controls for the pres, as well as separate monitor and headphone volume controls.
The Mix Control application is intuitive to use and allows for flexible routing. I also like the look, as I believe good-looking software can be inspirational. But, that's not all you get. There's a VST/AU plug-in suite with Compression, EQ, Gate, and synthesized (as opposed to convolution) Reverb. Far from being an afterthought, these are useful plug-ins that, even if you already have equivalent software, provide a useful alternative. If you get a Focusrite interface, make sure you install these and check them out—you might be surprised at how many times you insert them into a project.
The additional Xcite+ DVD-ROM includes a Lite version of Ableton Live 8, as well as a full version of the Novation BassStation plug-in (a personal favorite—I really like the sound), and 1GB of loops/samples from Loopmasters. Although the Loopmaster content is available online for free, that's licensed only for non-commercial demo use whereas the version included with Pro 14 can be used in personal music projects, including ones released commercially. And you don't just get loops, but also samples suitable for loading into keyboard and other sample-playback instruments. This is all useful—not throw-away—content that covers a wide variety of genres, and adds considerable value to the package.
One big question about any interface is "will it work with my system?" Focusrite is diligent about posting specific system requirements, and in several years of reviewing Focusrite interfaces, I've had only one problem—and it was due to an outdated graphics card driver. Once that was brought up to date, the interface worked perfectly (and the process taught me a valuable lesson about keeping all drivers updated, not just the audio ones). Here are two more tips: Although Focusrite doesn't specify a particular FireWire chip set, TI chips are generally considered best for audio; and with laptops, wireless cards can interfere with audio operation. Disabling wi-fi can often solve mysterious audio performance problems with any interface.
It's probably no surprise that the Pro 14 performs as advertised, and then some; Focusrite has been around the block, and has the interface thing down. However, a FireWire interface with extremely high-quality preamps and these kinds of specs, at this price, occupies its own niche: High performance on a budget for smaller studios and post-production suites.
Features & Specs
- 8 inputs (including 2 software loopback inputs), 6 outs
- Channels 1 and 2 accept mic, line, and instrument-level inputs
- Bus-powered, or use the included AC adapter
- 5-pin DIN MIDI I/O
- Separate headphone output with volume control
- Operates up to 24-bit/96kHz
- Portable for laptop-based recording
- Impressive mixer applet and software bundle
Sure, there are lots of interfaces—but Focusrite combines their award-winning preamps with high-performance, cross-platform FireWire operation at a reasonable price.