Manufacturer's Site: www.presonus.com
Reviewed by: A. Dorian
PreSonus have been known for affordable quality products for musicians that get the job done. According to PreSonus:
"the FireStudio Tube is a world-class 24-bit/96k professional FireWire recording system loaded with the perfect combination of inputs and outputs for bands, producers, musicians and engineers to produce commercial-quality recordings."
To see if this is true, this month Alexander Dorian puts the FireStudio Tube through the paces of a full rock band production and reports back the results.
The FireStudio Tube is a one rack space firewire (IEEE 1394) recording interface capable of recording at up to 24-bit/96K. It allows for 16 channels of simultaneous record and playback using ten microphone pre-amps, six line level inputs, 6 line level outputs and a headphone output.
It features 16 inputs and 6 outputs simultaneous record/playback channels. Two of these inputs are what PreSonus calls SuperChannels (tube microphone/instrument preamplifier with analog limiter), 8 XMAX microphone preamplifiers, 2 PreSonus microphone/instrument preamplifiers, 6 balanced TRS line outputs, MIDI Input/Output. It also features a 16x8 FireControl DSP mixer/router, JetPLL Sync and high performance A/D/A converters (114 dynamic range). The FireStudio is Windows and Macintosh compatible. Multiple FireStudio Project and FireStudio Tube audio interfaces can be chained for expanded capability and to allow flexibility for different setups. According to PreSonus, you can daisy chain up to four FireStudio Projects or FireStudio Tubes together in any combination. The FireStudio Tube package also comes in with the ProPak Software Suite including Cubase LE 4 audio production software and other light versions of popular programs and plugins ( Reason Adapted, Drumagog, Camel Crusher, etc.). and a DVD called "Cubase LE4 Demystified" which has a great tutorial to get you started on the system. A driver CD is included with drivers for Mac OSX 10.4 or later and Windows XP and Vista (only 32-bit drivers). According to PreSonus, a 64-bit driver is due towards the end of 2009. For running on Windows, PreSonus recommends a CPU of 1.5 GHz. although they say it will run on a 900 Mhz machine. Minimum memory (RAM) is 1 GB. On the Mac, PreSonus say that you'd need a CPU PowerPC G4/Dual 1 GHZ or faster, and it will also run on all the newer all Intel-based Mac models. Again, minimum of 1GB of RAM is recommended. The supported FireWire port is IEEE 1394/400 Port.
The FireStudio Tube was a breeze to install on my AMD X2 4200+ dual processor machine loaded with 4Gb RAM. All I needed in Windows XP was to run the provided driver CD, shut down the system, connect the device to the firewire port on my PC, power back up. Windows automatically recognized the audio interface and proceeded to install the drivers. Cubase LE 4 took some time to install as it required registration via Cubase and a validation process via Synchrosoft (validation software package). After the install, I managed to configure the FireStudio Tube as per the provided DVD instructions in LE4 and start recording right away. On my first session I got some erratic behavior in LE4 when trying to normalize a track. It turns out LE 4 had a release version bug that was fairly common so I had to download the latest patch. After updating LE4 to version 4.1.2 it also turned out the Syncrosoft software needed to be updated, so yet another download was required from Synchrosoft before I was ready to go.
The FireStudio Tube front accommodates the 2 tube channels which come on Neutrik combo inserts, so you can use them with XLR or 1/4 inch inputs. Each channel has rotary controls for Gain, Drive, Limiter and Gain Makeup. A button to turn on phantom power and a meter with 80Hz low cut filter button and a limiter on/off button. Next to these are the rotary controls for the 8 mic XMAX preamps and on/off buttons that engages phantom power by each two channel pairs (channel 1 and 2, etc.). Next to that these is a mic input jack (1/4 inch stereo) and rotary controls for Phones and Main, power on button and a LED light indicating sync status.
On the from right to left one can find the 8 mic inputs (XLR) numbered 1 to 8, line inputs (1/4 jacks) numbered 9 to 14, and the output pairs on 1/4 jacks 1 to 6. On the left of these is the midi jack with the FireWire 1 and 2 ports underneath it and the built in power supply.
The top of the unit has one vent hole through which one 12ax7 tube gets cool air and I also suspect because they wanted to accent the fact that this unit has a tube preamp section. According to PreSonus the 12AX7 is a dual-element tube and they use each element separately to run both preamps. Changing the tube doesn't void the warranty, so that is good news for those that like changing tubes to get a different character.
The PreSonus FireStudio comes with a FireControl mixer which lets you adjust latency settings, assign monitor mixes to 3 output stereo busses and a headphone mix. All inputs can be monitored in real time without latency on all inputs and outputs. The mixer software can also save different mixer settings so in case you have a session that you need to recall - you can easily recall from your presets.
The FireStudio Tube offers a built-in power supply, which operates on US or European voltage! PreSonus has also improved the phantom power switching compared to the FP10, which now turns only 2 channels at a time on the XMAX preamps and separately on each front SuperChannel tube preamp. The midi connector is very close on top of the firewire ports. Apparently in order to be able to fit the power supply transformer inside the unit PreSonus had to extend the midi in/out jacks via a proprietary patch cable which then hooks at the midi port. Considering that the firewire ports are essential for this unit's operation it is possible that during a session connecting a midi device could knock off your firewire cable. Also losing the midi extension could mean waiting a few weeks for a replacement.
For the recording trials I conscripted a friend's band who wanted to record a few songs. They already had a PA and drum mic setup at their studio so I pretty much needed to just bring in a PC, the FireStudio, a few mics and cables. I had to track on headphones as the room did not have any separation for a recording setup so I used a pair of AKG K240 headphones and a pair of isolation headphones for the drum tracking. The band was going to record drums first with scratch tracks of guitar and bass, replace these with the keeper tracks later and overdub vocals last. This particular drummer uses triggered kicks so I was looking forward to record a safety midi take of his performance. However, it turned out that the midi cable didn't work with the interface. Apparently there was a recall of these cables and PreSonus shipped a replacement immediately. Since midi was out of the question I plugged in the somewhat dull triggered kick signal to the front tube preamp, dialed in about 60% "Drive" grit from the tube and made it a bit livelier. The limiter also let me increase the input amount and get a more consistent recording. I used the second tube preamp for the snare, again dialing in some tube grit and using the limiter option to squash the level up a bit. The rest of the kit (4 toms, overheads) went to the XMAX channels on the back of the unit. The scratch guitars I recorded via a DI in case we wanted to keep anything to be reamped later, and via a Hughes and Kettner speaker emulated DI box so we can keep the volume low but still provide a live feel. The bass I recorded direct from the amp out to an XLR input on the FireStudio. At this point I had still all 6 line inputs open if I needed to record more sources.
For monitoring I sent a few separate headphone mixes - line out 1and 2 went to the bass player and guitarist via a small mixer, line out 3 and 4 went to the drummer via their PA mixer. I was monitoring the band via headphones. Thus, I was able to quickly supply them with a custom monitor mix on the spot and save the session settings in the PreSonus FireControl mixer software for recall. From there on I powered up Cubase LE4 and the session ran smoothly. For the rest of the sessions I took even less equipment since we were tracking only guitars and bass so just a PC, the FireStudio, few mics and cables. When recording the overdubs I found myself reaching out for the 2 SuperChannels as they definitely had more mojo than the XMAX preamps. I especially liked the interplay between the gain, drive and limiter knobs as these allowed me more tonal control and sounded more musical.
The XMAX preamps sound clean but were a bit underpowered on some of the mics I used and I really had to increase the gain almost to maximum which introduced some noise on the channel.
So after finishing overdubs I proceeded to mix in my home studio which consists of a few outboard fx, preamps and a monitoring system. For this band I felt that my outboard Roland SRV-3030 reverb was a better match than the CubaseLE4 reverbs so I set up a reverb send/return in LE4 which then went to the outboard unit. I also wanted to reamp some of the guitar so I ran outs from the DI guitar tracks in turn to outboard guitar preamps which then I recorded back in Cubase. I tried to add some more dimension to the kicks which were triggered and sounded a bit stale at the mixing stage again so I loaded Drumagog which worked for a bit but sadly started to glitch on me with audio cutting out so I had do give up that idea. Instead I used the provided Camel Crusher plugin which generated some extra harmonic content. I quickly found out that my system was becoming maxed out due to some guitar reamp plugins so I had to use the highest latency for a smoother operation. While on this subject I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Presonus mixer software also offers "Operation Mode" settings which can be changed depending on how much processing power you want the audio card to keep control of. In my case I settled on Safe Mode 2. I then proceeded to commit to tracks the DIed guitar parts so I can free processing power. Overall, I found LE4 to have the essentials for completing the mix, so it would be enough for seeing a project from start to completion in most instances. I would probably supplement it with a few paid or freeware plugins as the modulation and time effects in LE4 were a bit lacking.
While at it I decided to try and see how the FireStudio Tube will perform with other recording programs I had installed. It worked great with my main recording software, Sonar Producer 7, with only very rare audio dropouts. My scratch practice software/recorder is Riffworks 2. It wrecked total havoc on the soundcard driver and Cubase by locking it out and apparently doing some damage to Cubase, so I had to reinstall the drivers and LE4 again. Riffworks are aware of the problem but apparently I am the only one using this audio interface and so far they haven't been able to fix the issue.
I am very impressed with this product as it allows a full band to record together at the same time. It has enough features that it could also appeal to a small studio owner. The SuperChannels are a definite winner and I like the fact that PreSonus have created an easy to use out of the box package that can keep musicians, home recordists, and small studios happy for a long time.