Published in Tapeop #82
15 March 2011
Several years ago, I wrote about being a Nomadic-Utopist — a true “N-ut” being someone that believes that utopia is not fixed in space and time, but can occur anywhere, anytime, and anyplace… and in a blink of an eye, that fleeting moment might be gone! At the time, the E-MU 1616M (Tape Op #52) was my provisional panacea; its portability and quality allowed me to capture sonics in unlikely locations when inspiration hit. Well, the Roland Octa-Capture takes compactness, quality, and features to a new level. Although I’m beyond picky with my portable (and only) setup, the Octa-Capture is my new audio interface of choice, and I can see this box being a near-perfect extension of N-ut recording for years to come.
First let me give some background for why all the other boxes were dethroned. Us N-uts are also plug-and-play plebeians and therefore good ol’ USB 2.0 is our dear friend and security blanket. Setup time, baroque driver installs, esoteric Mac versus PC FireWire dilemmas, and outdated PCMCIA cards are all our enemies because we just need a system that supports the inspired moment — so we can get down and get the work down in the limited space and time at hand!
Not only does the Octa-Capture stack up spec-wise to the best of the portable FireWire bunch, as a USB interface, it sets new standards. For its price, I would venture to say that it is in a class by itself. Right out of the box, it looks better than advertised; its durable metal casing, crisp detailing, and compact form-factor are all meticulously refined into a really attractive piece of gear. Installation of the driver from the CD was easy and fast on my Windows 7 64-bit laptop, so much so that I can’t even remember the steps — which is a good thing. Just to mention, it came bundled with the LE edition of Cakewalk SONAR. I already use the Producer edition, so I skipped this part of the install. [SONAR X1, the most recent version, is reviewed in this issue. –AH] One thing to note is that the ASIO driver is very “polite”. If you have other ASIO drivers on your machine, Octa-Capture’s will initially “step out of the way.”
The Octa-Capture packs an amazing eight mic preamps, all with XLR/TRS Combo jacks and phantom-power capability. It also has eight TRS outputs, stereo S/PDIF digital I/O, and MIDI I/O. It can handle up to 10 channels of I/O simultaneously. (Setting the sampling rate to 192 kHz limits the simultaneous channel count to four in and four out.) For this amount of connectivity, one of the most striking features is the low knob count. Coupled with the large and very useful backlit LCD display, each of the minimal controls therefore ends up doing a lot. Usually simplification through multi-function tends to actually complicate things, but I was pleasantly surprised at how intuitive and clear it was to access to all the functions. And if infinitely-rotating, push-to-click knobs aren’t your thing, you can use the well-designed software panel/mixer/patchbay, which I’ll get into later.
As an initial test, I plugged in my trusted AKG C 3000 mic and started tracking a variety of sources. To be honest, I was underwhelmed at first by what I construed as the flat, “non-vivid” sound quality of the preamps in comparison to the sound of the E-MU 1616m’s “hotwired” preamps, which I had grown so accustomed to. For better or for worse however, every box seems to have its own ghost in the machine; at full input gain, an unexplainable chemistry of harmonic coloration, compression, and mojo create a distinct resonance, and the E-MU certainly had its charms in this department. But in layering many instruments, the 1616m’s sweet and thick mid-highs easily got overcrowded — so much to the point where I found myself unconsciously composing sparse songs that focused more on differentiated timbres and textures.
On the other hand, I’m now finding the flat, “objective” tonal quality of the Octa-Capture incredibly liberating, especially for more layered compositions. Before, I was constantly switching out mics; recording guitars through different amps and preamps; and applying any myriad of tricks to give each sound its own tonal space. Just with the C 3000 straight into the Octa-Capture, however, I overlaid tenor and soprano saxes, tenor voice, and neck-pickup Les Paul tones — all of which have competing mid-high frequencies. The exact same tune that I had previously recorded on the E-MU with chunky results finally sounded balanced, open, and detailed when recorded on the Octa-Capture. If I can get this variety of layered sounds without collision using just one lowly mic and such little effort, the portable N-ut landscape all of a sudden opens way up.
To explain the technical reason for the transparent sound of the Octa-Capture, Roland explains that its VS Preamp utilizes a Class A design with premium components, and the analog circuitry throughout is streamlined as much as possible, eliminating multiple knobs and switches from the audio path to minimize any signal deterioration and coloration that would occur from routing the signal path through unnecessary elements. Even the LED overload indicators and level meters are controlled by the DSP to avoid degradation. I really believe this is a breakthrough in engineering that places the Octa-Capture over its competitors in terms of sonic clarity.
The sole reason for wanting to try out the Octa-Capture in the first place though was to have an ultraportable rig for recording a live ensemble. For the real test, I easily packed it with an arsenal of mics and cables into a medium-sized shoulder bag and drove down to rural Pennsylvania, home of my ex-bandmate Wil Vorticite of the post-punk band Wept (which also included Xopher Davidson, interviewed in Tape Op #44). While warming up, we placed five mics on the drum kit, two on a stereo guitar setup, and one on the second guitar. With eight input cables and six output cables coming out of both sides of this small box, it really did look like an octopus!
A huge timesaver was the Octa-Capture’s Auto-Sens function. By selecting any of the channels with a couple pushes and twists of the Pre-Amp knob (I selected all eight inputs in this case), you can allow the DSP to find the ideal input level for each channel. I found this function to be consistently conservative (as it should be), so some minimal tweaking afterwards to finesse the adjustments on a couple channels might be desirable. Also, in setting up the mix, the Device Panel accessed through the tray icon on your computer is crucial. It includes the preamp controls, mixers, and patchbay and is super clear and easy to navigate. Although you can access all this functionality through the built-in LCD panel on the box itself, it’s much faster having it all laid out on your computer screen where you don’t have to scroll through multiple menus.
As I expected, recording eight simultaneous channels was effortless. And with the extra headroom on channels 7 and 8, which are designed specifically for extreme dynamic signals such as kick drums, I avoided any clipping on all eight tracks on the first take. The built-in compressors for a rock setting were a huge plus. Each can be individually controlled per channel, which allowed me to get some big phat waveforms down from the get go — great raw material to work with instead of having to err on the conservative side, without having to later summon a too-dynamic but overall weak signal into existence through software plug-ins, nor having to deal with the aftermath of high noise floors.
Finally, an indispensable function for ensemble recording was the ability to dial up four completely different stereo monitor mixes for each of the performers. As there are some basic reverbs built in, each of the mixes can have their own environment as well; so for instance, a horn player or vocalist would really benefit from a bright hall reverb on only their mix to help them stay on pitch. Since all of this mixing and signal processing is being done by the Octa-Capture’s DSP, your computer is free to focus its resources on what it should be doing best — running your recording software only.
In terms of the DSP, I also want to digress a bit and talk about latency. There is of course the option of direct monitoring just as with many other boxes, but a kind of dream-come-true for me in terms of portability was the ability to plug my guitar directly into the Octa-Capture and track through SONAR and the Guitar Rig plug-in. Previous interfaces never allowed me to do this without perceptible monitoring delay, which was a real drag (literally). With the Octa-Capture, however, its terrific low-latency performance has opened up whole new possibilities of feeding live takes through software plug-ins. Also, those of you that have been plagued with latency-ridden sputtering issues of SONAR’s step sequencer, especially when running Session Drummer, can now enjoy rock-solid performance. When opening up SONAR’s audio options, the latency defaulted to 5.8 ms for me, which is setting 6 (on a scale of 1-10) when you go deeper into the Octa-Capture’s control panel. The manual says 1 ms is possible, but it would sputter for me at around 3 ms (without any optimization of my computer’s hardware or system settings).
Before I finish this review, I want to lay out my list of gripes, in order of descending importance, as minor as they may seem. I wish the Octa-Capture’s software panel had input level meters and triggers for Auto-Sens. Granted, most DAWs have input levels on their channel strips, but having meters and Auto-Sens buttons in the software panel would allow me to set up a multi-channel recording session quickly from one place. It would be helpful to have just one persistent LED that indicates that phantom power is turned on somewhere on any one of the inputs. You either have to memorize what you were doing for your last session, page through each input on the LCD screen, or rely on the indicators in the software panel on your computer screen. If you’re forgetful like me, you could accidently leave phantom power on somewhere and then potentially damage something you plug into an input. Although it’s great that the Octa-Capture comes with a right-angle power cable, I wish it also come with a right-angle USB cable, as the USB jack is right below the power jack. Since you’ll be checking the LCD display often (see my first two gripes), you’ll find yourself tilting the box up a lot, which will put a lot of pressure on the USB cable as well as the jack itself. If you don’t plan on rackmounting the unit, it’s definitely worth replacing the cable. [USBFireWire.com (Tape Op #70) is a good source for angled cables –AH]
These aside, I have to say that I am more than impressed with the Roland Octa-Capture. It’s extremely well-designed from both the hardware and software perspectives, which allows it to be feature rich but at the same time easy to use. Its transparent sound, ultra-stable performance, and high I/O count, coupled with connectivity via the ubiquitous USB 2.0 format, puts it in a class by itself. ($599 street; www.rolandus.com)