Field Report: Steinberg UR44
Oct 1, 2014 9:00 AM, By Chris Wygal
The 1990s introduced the idea of �virtual reality.� While it seemed strange that a computer could replicate physical touch and experience, less than 30 years later we are taking full advantage of it. The audio recording industry has wholeheartedly replaced familiar rack mounted audio gear with VST (virtual studio technology). Developed by Steinberg during the birth of the virtual reality era, audio �plugins� are frequently preferred over actual hardware. Additionally, DAWs live on laptop computers. An entire studio fits into a carry-on bag. What happened to all the knobs and buttons?
USB 2.0 I/O interfaces have all but eliminated real-time control. Mixing and processing are done in �post,� and the physical control of signal flow is done in an edit window. Thankfully, by way of offering a high-quality interface for non-linear editing and DAW control, Steinberg''s UR44 delivers a powerful solution. The rugged six-input USB interface is packaged with the dspMixFx UR44, a virtual on-screen mixer that brings back the comfortable functions of faders, knobs and all the other mixing surface favorites.
What It Is
The UR44 is a rugged metal box with four XLR-type and phone-type inputs on the front panel. These jacks offer options for mic and line-level inputs as well as two high-impedance inputs for guitars. Each input has gain control and 48V phantom power as well as red peak indicators. The front panel is also home to two headphone jacks with volume control and a master output control. The back panel houses two �� jacks for inputs five and six, four �� jacks for line outputs and �� jacks for the main outputs. All the jacks facilitate balanced or unbalanced connections. Additionally, there is a standard MIDI I/O interface, USB 2.0 plug and the power connection. The UR44 will interface directly with an iPad, and the �CC MODE� switch (also located on the back panel) must be turned on for this function. Six sampling rates from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz are available, as well as 11 buffer size options.
The Virtual Tour
The UR44 comes with an installation CD with the USB (ASIO) driver, dspMixFx UR44 mixer application and UR44 Extension, which allows the device to link properly with Cubase AI. The CD also includes the Basic FX Suite, providing the Sweet Spot Morphing Channel Strip, REV-X and Guitar Amp Classics. While guitar amp simulation may not apply to most radio production environments, it can still be used for some great effects! Cubase AI is free with the UR44 and the aforementioned downloads will work seamlessly with other DAWs and editors via the dspMixFx UR44, or by employing them as VST3 plugins.
dspMixFx UR44 is a powerfully nifty virtual mixing board that displays six input faders, a DAW fader and a master fader. It has highly granular input and output meters and two mixing surfaces via �Mix 1� and �Mix 2.� Up to 20 user-defined presets can be stored. Each input channel has a stereo link feature, high-pass filter, phase inversion, effects send, pan, mute and solo controls. Additionally, each fader has on/off and edit enable button for the Sweet Spot Morphing Channel Strip. This is where the serious toys are made available for real-time dynamic processing and equalization. Traditional attack, release, ratio and knee functions are a mouse click away. A parametric equalizer and side chain filter live on the channel strip as well. The �drive� knob adjusts how much compression is applied to the process. However, for ultimate adjustment and control the �Morph� knob adjusts the �Sweet Spot Data.� Sweet Spot Data is pre-determined combinations of compression and equalization parameters. The function is very much experimental in the way it is used. It is, however, excellent for quickly finding a preset that works in a particular application. Once the �sweet spot� is found, store it! The most valuable aspect of the dspMixFx UR44 mixing, equalization and processing is that it is done in real time allowing for live monitoring of the effects. When a preset produces the right results, the parameters can be recorded and monitored live each time. All the processing is hardware-based, so there is no latency when monitoring.
In addition to the Sweet Spot Morphing Channel Strip, four guitar distortion effects are available on each fader channel. The master fader houses �Rev-X� digital reverb effects. Each input send function is automatically routed to Rev-X, where hall, room and plate reverbs can be crafted for highly accurate and clean acoustic effects. A three-dimensional grid displays the parameters of the effects based on time, frequency and signal level. The Rev-X parameters include reverb time, initial delay, decay, room size, diffusion, high- and low-pass filters and a few other familiar acoustic effect adjustments.
All in One Box
The UR44 boasts extremely quiet input and output preamps. The noise floor is practically non-existent, even while critically monitoring with headphones. During testing, two popular condenser mics and a well-known dynamic mic were used. The inputs were smooth, full and quiet. The UR44 introduces no measurable noise to the signal chain. Its size and weight (3.5lbs) make is easily portable or installed, taking up very little room in both situations. Plus, for those tried and true audio gurus who still want knobs and faders, the dspMixFx UR44 offers it onscreen with all the same functions.
Wygal is the programmer and engineer for Victory FM at Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA.