Your Dollars at Work: Saffire Weapon

Kole here.

If you've listened to any of our shows over the past two weeks, you've probably heard me beaming about the new piece of gear I've acquired.

More accurately, I've been acting like Jojo the circus boy with his pretty new pet..

What's so special about it? First, let me describe how we USED to record.

As I laid out in an earlier backer blog entry, it's important that each host is on their own track when you record. Everybody's recording setup is a little different, and their audio may require varying levels of processing (equalization, compression, noise reduction, etc). This also makes it possible to edit out overtalk, coughing, interjections, and the like. Various hiccups, both figurative and little.

Way back in the summer of 2010, I graduated from college and lost access to my student radio station's studio. I met a stranger in the parking lot of the Eastgate Mall here in Cincinnati and exchanged $100 for an M-Audio Fast Track Pro, which is the 1995 Ford Taurus of recording gear. It'll get you where you're going, but it won't be fancy. Also, its pre-amps are noisy as shit.

Microphones came and went, but eventually I settled on this setup: Locally, I run a Heil PR-40 into a dbx 286s microphone pre-amp and compressor. A splitter comes out of that, running audio into the Fast Track, and into the Line-In of an old Macbook Pro I have lying around. I'd then run a headphone line from the Macbook Pro into the other input on the Fast Track.

When it was time to record, I'd fire up Logic Pro X, point the two inputs to two separate tracks, and then go to town. It worked relatively well, unless more than two people joined a call. Then the recording would be me on one track, and everyone else on another. It was barely better than running every input through a single mixer.

You have to have more than one waveform, and "double enders" (each person records their own audio) won't work. I can write about that later if you want.

That lack of expandability combined with the noisiness of the pre-amps (and the fact that it had no-head room) to make everyone coming in through a Skype call sound worse than they needed to. It's hard to avoid Skype compression entirely, but you can massage it away.

That is, until the Fast Track itself starts taking a shit. Half the time when I fired it up to record, people would sound like static ghosts from the Silent Hill Otherworld. Our tracks were getting noisier and noisier.

Even though I had a road map set out for gear purchases using the Patreon money, it was time to jump ahead a few steps in the tech tree. Taking some of your kindly donated Patreon money, combining that with some of the network's emergency coffers, and loaning the network some of my own money, I set out to replace the most important piece of gear in our setup.

I've kept a gear wish list running for a good long while. I'd identified interfaces that address the Fast Track's shortcomings, but most of them have serious problems.

The Mackie Onyx 1620i Firewire mixer is a workhorse, but it's gigantic and it requires a rat's nest of patch cables to establish mix-minus.

The Apogee Quartet is a sexy, naughty piece of equipment. It's also incredibly expensive, clocking in at $1400 new.

The Apollo DUO Core is rack-mountable and really expandable. It's a studio in a box, but it's also $2000.

Running down the price spectrum, I was tempted by the low price tag on the Presonus Audiobox 1818VSL. It's a little icky that it doesn't let you switch between Mic and Line on your inputs (something even my dinky Fast Track Pro does), but the price was right. I was going to buy one of these until I read reviews saying that the USB 2.0 chip in it doesn't play nice with modern USB 3.0 jacks. It's a useless piece of junk.

Digging a little deeper, the best fit for Duckfeed's needs was the Focusrite Saffire Pro 40. It varies wildly in price between $600 and $400, but I was able to snag it at its lowest price.

This magical box has eight (8!) combination line/microphone pre-amps. It can accept 20 inputs and send out 20 outputs. It's rack mountable, so it stays out of the way of the rest of the setup. It plugs in through Firewire, which is nice too.

A line-out goes from each laptop (or, eventually, Mac Mini) into an input on the back of the box. Another line runs from the Saffire's output back to the Mac Mini.

The real magic, though, is the software... and what it lets us do.

Most modern interfaces include software mixing and routing applications, which let you control your audio signal like a podwizard. The Saffire MixControl program lets you arbitrarily assign any number of inputs to any number of outputs. You can also run several of these mixes together. They happen with no latency, since all of the audio is routed inside of the box before it reaches the DAW.

If you're following where I'm going, you know I'm about to talk about mix-minus.

The technique comes from old school radio. The idea is that remote callers, hosts, and guests need to hear what everyone else is saying, but not themselves. That would be distracting because of all of the lag associated with telephones and Skype. On an analog mixing board, you'd have to have enough Auxiliary Sends to create a special mix that would be fed back to each individual host.

Example: We're recording Bonfireside Chat with Gary, Kole, and Murph. Gary needs to hear Kole and Murph. Kole needs to hear Gary and Murph. Murph needs to hear Gary and Kole. That's three separate mixes that need to be created and routed. On a physical mixer, that's several patches.

With MixControl, all I have to do is set up a mix for Gary that includes Kole and Murph, and a mix for Murph that includes Gary and Kole. Couple this with another mix that goes to my headphones (combining all three hosts, since lag doesn't matter for local hosts), and you have what you need. Everyone can hear everyone else, and Logic Pro X records each input simultaneously.

At this point, the only thing limiting your number of hosts (up to 8) is the number of computers you have handy to run Skype into your mixer.

The pre-amps are clean and powerful, and you don't have any of the "hiss" that comes from pumping the Fast Track to get the gain you need. With the opportunity to sweeten each individual track, you can get a more consistent tone and edit out anything that might distract the listener. It's a professional piece of equipment, for an operation that's becoming increasingly professional.

We still need other gear, of course. Our second dbx 286s is coming this week, along with an audio rack. Ideally we'd have three Mac Minis, each with a dbx 286s in between them and the Saffire. We also need a network switch that can run gigabit ethernet to each box, so it doesn't sound like our Skype is sick. These are improvements that will happen over time, thanks to your generous efforts with the Patreon campaign.

Eventually it's going to be ridiculous that all of this is happening in the second bedroom of my Cincinnati apartment. Again, that's a bridge to be crossed much, much later.