Test Drive: USBPre from Sound Devices

front-panel

Simple is Better

The USBPre’s entire success rides on its simplicity. On the left are the Level In pots that control the level for all inputs. In the middle you will see various buttons for Phantom Power (yes friends it’s 48v for your condenser mikes). Next, you’ll see input buttons and LEDs to switch from one source to another on each channel, left and right. Next to those, you’ll find VU LEDs that are indeed accurate! Mono buttons for your phone monitor and power LED are next. Then, to the far right, are the Mix and Phone volume pots. The Mix will allow you to monitor just the input of the USBPre, the computer, or a combination of the two.

The entire front measures about 1.7” high by 7.25” wide by 4.25” deep. This helps add to the versatility of the package! The USBPre AND its cable can fit nicely into a small laptop case with ease. So, your entire mobile studio fits in one bag. Try bringing your Audicy and putting it in the overhead compartment next time you have to hit the road!

Show Me Your Good Side — Get It In

inputsGetting down to it, the Input side (left hand side if your looking directly at the USBPre) is very simple as well. Mic 1 and Mic 2 are XLR, phantom powered inputs for microphones. You can turn phantom off for balanced pro inputs. Next are the line level or DI inputs that are good for balanced TRS or instrument inputs like guitar pick-ups or keyboards. The RCA Tape 1 and 2 inputs accept consumer level inputs perfect for a portable CD, MiniDisc, DAT, or cassette player.

On the underside of the USBPre is a 15db mic pad for mikes that are really too hot. The pad can be inserted for each channel independently.

Get It Out

outputsAccording to the documentation, “...The USBPre can drive headphones to dangerously loud levels—take caution when raising the headphone level.” This made me chuckle. This feature just allows some of us in the industry not have to turn our hearing aids up to compensate. Thanks, Sound Devices!

Both 3.5mm and ¼-inch headphone outs are included with the USBPre. No adapter needed if you are using cheapy phones on the road.

PC Audio Out is there to feed powered loudspeakers or consumer level DAT, MiniDisc, and CD recorders. This is PC audio only, not a mix of the live line coming in. The audio software on your computer controls the level of the output.

This next part is killer. In addition to the inputs on the other side of the unit, you have digital S/PDIF I/O. Coaxial digital connectors can be used on any digital device that you may have—CDRs, DATs, anything. Output sample rate is covered later.

The USB port “B” connector connects the USBPre to the computer.

Scotty, Give Me More Power!

The USBPre gets its power from the computer. So, in theory, you can bring this on the road, and depending on your battery life, CPU, and mic power consumption, this could be, nay, IS, a self contained unit! Now, be advised that this will suck the batteries down faster, even more so if you are using phantom power. But, given the flexibility to be self contained and AC wireless, it’s a small price to pay. Power consumption varies depending on your laptop and usage, but I used both my laptop and USBPre in phantom mode for close to 45 minutes before I had to change batteries.

device-control-panel

Control Me – Make Me Write Bad Checks

Part of the USBPre’s installation drivers includes a nice GUI that allows you to set the box’s attributes. You punch a button or check mark on the screen, and it changes it on the box. Nice. If you want to configure your box for a certain type of default, you make your selections, then check the Button Lock, and you won’t have to worry if you accidentally punch the buttons on the box while your recording. Using the digital portion of the USBPre, one will need to pay special attention to make sure input and output sample rates match, anything outside of the supported bit rates will cause some bad audio. I could get ultra technical in this review, but I’d rather point you to Sound Devices USBPre website for the nitty gritty: http://www.usbpre.com/specs.htm

Wrapping is Always Good

At press time, the street price for this unit at BSW (Broadcast Supply Worldwide www.bswusa.com) was $540.00. Considering I paid over $700 dollars for a DigiGram VX Pocket a year and a half ago, this is a steal! In all, the sound of this device is simply unbelievable. PC and Mac users alike will find the USBPre to be an easy and simple solution for any type of recording. Having said that, certain problems with Pro Tools and other issues are being addressed as this review is being printed. Check the Sound Devices website for specific details.

I do voice work all over the world. The USBPre will replace a suitcase of equipment for my mobile applications. This new invention will help simplify how I do my production on the road—from simple VO to a fully produced SAWPro session at the client’s place of business. The USBPre is a much-needed piece of gear that everyone who needs a quick, clean, and reliable replacement for other higher priced and less user-friendly sound cards. Is it a sound card? Is it a mixer? It’s almost a combination of the two. Get one. You won’t be sorry. To borrow a line from Billy Crystal: “…you’ll SOUND marvelous!”

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