Unlike its siblings, though, the UCX ships with a stylish remote control modelled after RME’s Babyface interface/monitor controller. Meanwhile, a quick inspection of the back panel reveals that like the larger Fireface UFX reviewed in SOS January 2011 (/sos/jan11/articles/rme-fireface-ufx.htm), the UCX features both USB2 and Firewire connectivity. It also features newer converters, which are said to offer still better noise and distortion measurements than existing RME interfaces.
However, the really exciting features are the ones that are hidden from view. Like all RME interfaces, the UCX works with the company’s acclaimed TotalMix control software, which is almost certainly the most comprehensive low-latency monitor mixing and routing utility available with any audio hardware. But the addition of the ‘X’ to the product name denotes that, unlike the standard Fireface UC, this interface shares the enhanced hardware processing features of the flagship Fireface UFX; so, not only does its TotalMix FX utility give you all of the usual dizzying possibilities when it comes to mixing and routing, but you also get EQ and dynamics on every input channel, plus global reverb and delay as auxiliary effects.
What really raised temperatures at the SOS office, though, is the feature I’ve saved until last. An apparently minor addition to TotalMix is the ability to store up to six complete Fireface UCX setups in the unit’s firmware, whence they can be recalled using the front-panel controls in situations where the unit is not hooked up to a computer. This permits the UCX to be used as a stand-alone mixer and format converter, but is also key to an ability that is currently almost unique: the Fireface UCX can operate as a multi-channel audio interface for Apple’s iPad tablet computers. There, I told you it was exciting!
I’ll report back on the iPad functionality presently, but first, a brief overview of how the Fireface UCX functions as a conventional audio interface — brief, because it does most things in ways that are familiar from the Fireface UC and the Fireface UFX, so I’ll refer readers to those reviews for more detail.
As mentioned above, the UCX can connect via Firewire or USB, and requires separate drivers for each protocol; if you’re likely to swap, you’ll need to install both. In general, RME’s policy seems to be that if they can make it digitally controllable from software, they will, and in fact there are no analogue controls on the unit at all. Everything from preamp gain and phantom-power switching to headphone volume and output levels is controlled digitally, and the single front-panel control is an endless rotary encoder which can be switched to manipulate various important parameters. When the Fireface UCX is connected to a computer, these controls simply mirror actions that could be performed just as well by adjusting controls in RME’s TotalMix FX software, but you don’t have that option when the UCX is used stand-alone, or as an iPad interface.
The latest version of TotalMix FX is so comprehensive that it puts some DAW mixers to shame, and were I to describe it in detail, this review would be twice as long. In essence, its main window provides each output pair with its own independent mixer, in which every input and every return from the DAW has its own channel. (I find the ‘two row’ option helpful in conceptualising the signal flow here — it displays the inputs and software returns on a single input row, and the outputs on a separate row beneath them.) Each audio input has its own compressor, EQ and aux send for the global delay and reverb, while many other options, including polarity reversal, phantom‑power switching, and even M/S decoding, are available when their channels are expanded. Unlike RME’s Babyface, and like the Fireface UFX, the UCX’s reverb and delay are generated internally rather than in the host computer, so remain active in stand-alone mode. In conjunction with the company’s superb drivers and Digi Check analysis tools, TotalMix FX remains unequalled by any other manufacturer I’m aware of, and forms a powerful reason to choose RME over the competition. Just be aware that the sheer volume of features and options means that it can take a little getting used to!
It will surprise no-one to learn that the Fireface UCX performed flawlessly even in my less-than-ideal Windows laptop, nor that it sounds very good indeed. I didn’t have access to any earlier RME devices for comparison, so can’t say whether the new converters offer an audible improvement, but its audio quality is notably crisp and clear, with precise stereo imaging. The preamps are likewise clean and neutral, and the digital gain controls make it easy to match gain across channels for stereo recording. The headphone amp is also very good.
As a recording interface, there’s very little to dislike about the Fireface UCX, and my only real reservation is that, like the UC, its compactness brings disadvantages as well as benefits. It requires an external power supply, the MIDI I/O is on flying leads, and compared with some interfaces in this price bracket, its two mic preamps and single headphone socket make it less of an ‘all in one’ product.
So far, all of the above will be familiar from previous RME interfaces, and as far as Mac or PC use is concerned, the main new development is the inclusion of RME’s Basic Remote (see ‘Remote Possibilities’ box). But, of course, the big news concerning the Fireface UCX is that it works with other things besides Macs and PCs: namely, the iPad…
There are already quite a number of USB interfaces and dedicated gadgets that can be hooked up to an iPad via Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, which turns an iPad’s docking port into a USB connector. However, almost all are restricted to stereo in/out operation. This is because working with iOS (or at least with most apps) requires that an interface operate in class-compliant mode. Not all USB audio interfaces offer a class-compliant mode, and those that do usually only meet the specifications for class compliance under USB1.1, which caters only for stereo in and out. The Fireface UCX is different: it includes an alternative firmware that turns it into a class-compliant USB2 device, which currently permits compatible apps to address up to eight mono inputs and a single stereo output. It’s the first device I’ve encountered that can present eight simultaneous inputs to the iPad, although, in the interests of fairness, I should mention the one other device already on the market that can apparently do so: Tascam’s US800.
Switching the UCX to class-compliant mode involves a series of front-panel button presses which is short enough to remember easily, but long enough that you’re never going to do it by accident! At present, the class-compliant firmware disables the digital inputs: RME say that they have not been able to make the unit sync reliably to an external digital clock with the current iPad operating system (although as this review went to press, they made available updated firmware which activated the digital outputs for the first time: ADAT 1-8 mirror analogue outs 1-8, but with independent level control). The latest version, iOS 5, is required, and the Fireface UCX is compatible with first- and second-generation iPads, but not with iPhones, iPod Touches or anything else beginning with ‘i’. At the time of writing, moreover, there is but one iPad app that supports simultaneous recording of more than two tracks: Harmonic Dog’s Multitrack DAW (www.harmonicdog.com), which costs a measly £6.99. Armed with an iPad, the Camera Connection Kit, a copy of Multitrack DAW and a Fireface UCX, I set out to see whether the iPad really has the potential to be a serious multitrack recording tool.
In my case, the first step was to update the UCX’s firmware using a downloadable utility from the RME site. This is simple and painless, but only works over USB at present, so you will need to install the USB drivers for it even if you only ever plan to use it over Firewire. Once that’s done, all you need do is switch it into class-compliant mode, plug the Camera Connection Kit into the iPad, and connect a USB cable. The iPad recognises the Fireface and, at least in the review system, no further messing about is required.
As it’s currently the only app that supports the recording of more than two simultaneous sources, I devoted most of my testing time to using the Fireface UCX and iPad with Harmonic Dog’s Multitrack DAW. Compared with other iPad apps, it is rather plain from a graphical point of view, but benefits a lot from being coded in assembly language, which means that it is very slick and responsive. I used the basic version, which supports a total of eight tracks, but for the princely sum of £5.49 you can upgrade to a 24-track version.
Each track can be mono or stereo. Tracks are added by tapping the + symbol, and tapping on the track header that appears brings up options for arming the track and choosing its input, as well as solo, mute and effects options I’ll come to in a minute. Tracks can’t be named, though recorded regions can be. With other USB hardware selected, the available input options are limited to Mono 1, Mono 2 and Stereo; but with the UCX attached, you can choose from eight mono inputs or four stereo pairs, corresponding to the UCX’s analogue inputs 1-8. You can arm as many tracks simultaneously as you need, whereupon recording is as simple as hitting the large Record and Play buttons at the bottom of the screen. It worked flawlessly the first time I tried it, and it worked every time after that.