Grace Design m101

Audient’s iD22 Audio Interface: The Backbone of Your Voice-Over Studio

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 12 Comments
Audient iD22 ad/DA interface and monitoring system

the Audient iD22 – click to enlarge

Every day, new audio gear is developed, manufactured and heavily hyped.

Most of what I see falls into two categories: MOTS and VOAT.

More Of The Same and Variations On A Theme.

Brochures of these new products never fail to praise technological breakthroughs and stunning design features. But let’s be honest. Most microphones still look like grey grille-topped pipes. Studio monitors are built like boring black bricks and painted plastic is overused in the pro audio world. 

Rarely do I spot a glimmer of inspiration, innovation or craftsmanship. But when I first saw Audient’s iD22 desktop audio interface and monitoring system, I knew intelligent design was still alive and kicking!

Based in Hampshire, England, Audient was founded in 1997 by David Dearden and Gareth Davies. Major studios worldwide, such as Abbey Road Studios, Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie Studios and House of Blues, USA, use Audient’s mixing consoles, preamplifiers and monitor controllers.

With the iD22, Audient has condensed these three elements and paired them with digital converters offering up to 96kHz resolution and USB 2.0 connectivity. It comes in an all-metal compact package (about 7” by 9”) that looks as good as it sounds. It’s almost everything a voice-over professional can wish for, and a lot more.

PREAMPLIFIERS

A fine preamplifier can make a mediocre microphone sound like a million bucks. The iD22 has not one but two top-notch class-A preamps that are identical to the ones found in Audient’s consoles and standalone preamps. Each channel provides 60dB gain.

Does a voice-over really need two preamps? Not really, but many colleagues use a shotgun mic like Sennheiser’s MKH 416 for promos and commercials, and another, less muscular mic, for things like audio books and e-Learning.

As I was testing the iD22, I loved the fact that I could easily switch between mic 1 and 2 without losing any time plugging and unplugging. If you’re using the iD22 in a recording studio setting, the second pre can be used to plug in a talkback mic.

The preamps themselves are pretty much silent and stand out in transparent clarity and uncolored detail. They are designed to sound large and to produce a clean low-end and a nicely defined hi-end.

Trust me, these pre’s alone are worth the $599 price tag. Listen to a comparison between my Grace Design m101 single mic preamplifier ($685) and the Audient. Without telling you which is which, can you pick a clear winner?*

The iD22’s top panel (see picture above) has metal preamp switches for phantom power, a -10dB pad, a polarity flip (phase invert) and a high-pass filter (set at 100 Hz with a 12 dB/octave slope).

If you own a mic pre you like very much (or need to keep for sound matching purposes), you can patch it into the insert return jack. This bypasses the Audient mic amp and gives you a pure signal path.

CONVERTERS

Let’s talk about the 24-bit/96kHz AD/DA converters. Why are they such a big deal?

Every time you record your voice on a computer, the analog signal has to be turned into digital information that can be stored, manipulated and sent to the client. The better the conversion, the better the quality of the recording.

When listening to digitally stored audio, the opposite conversion happens. A Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) turns the bits and bites back to analog so you can listen to it on your speakers or headphones.

Cheaper converters can sound metallic, unmusical and thin. The converters on the iD22 are flawless and produce a realistic, crystal clear sound in all frequencies. During a one-month test period, there were no glitches or computer crashes (something that was happening more and more with my old FireWire converter).

The headphone amplifier (fed by an independent DAC) has plenty of gain and produces a full, rich sound. Before getting the iD22, I was seriously thinking of buying an audiophile headphone amp in the $300 price range. After listening to the one on the iD22, I took that off my wish list. It’s that good!

MONITOR CONTROLLER & CONNECTIVITY

Another item that is often bought separately but that’s an integral part of the iD22, is a monitor controller. You can connect two sets of speakers via TRS jacks to the iD22. The big silver knob in the center of the console sets the monitor volume digitally. Beneath the knob are switches that dim (up to -30dB) and mute the signal.

Having tested the interface for weeks, it was a pleasure to have the monitor control as well as all the other functions at my fingertips. The layout of the front panel is intuitive and also includes three programmable function buttons which can be used to activate alternate speakers, the talkback function or switch to mono. You’ll also find four LED’s for the output VU-meters.

iD22 rear view – click to enlarge

The iD22’s rear panel has two fully balanced insert points allowing you to connect outboard gear like a compressor and an equalizer to the unit. The whole system can also be expanded via optical outputs and inputs supporting both ADAT and S/PDIF. You’ll also find two combi jack inputs for your microphones plus a discrete JFET DI input to plug in any electric instrument such as a guitar or a drum machine. When in use, it replaces the second mic input.

VIRTUAL MIXER

All these inputs are listed in the mixer app (see picture below) that can be accessed once the software has been installed.

That’s right! On top of the above features, you also get a mixer console on your desktop. Some of the inputs can be hidden to make the interface even easier to read without scrolling. The monitor section of the app controls the buttons on the interface with simple clicks. All the way to the right there’s a routing matrix allowing you to assign any source to any analog or digital outputs.

this virtual mixer can be expanded – click to enlarge

If all you’ll ever use is a quality USB mic and recording software, a mixer is overkill. Bear in mind that the iD22 wasn’t specifically designed for voice-over purposes, but rather to record music (Watch this video. The audio was recorded with an iD22!).

But think of it this way. Having a mixer will give you the option to add music or sound effects to your audio. A number of colleagues have gained new clients who are happy to pay good money for fully produced spots. You also need a mixer if you want to set up an ISDN chain or a “mix minus.”

What’s a mix minus? It’s a set up on your mixer console for when you’re using a phone patch or Skype. The person on the other line will hear everything that’s playing, including you, but the caller does not hear his or her own voice. That way there’s no echo or feedback howling into your recording. Using mix-minus, a caller can direct your voice-over session without being recorded.

CUSTOMER-CENTERED

The last thing I want to mention is something that doesn’t come in the iD22 box and that can’t be found on your computer screen. It’s Audient’s documentation and customer service. When a lot of functionality is squeezed into a relatively small system, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options, especially if you have little or no audio engineering experience.

The accompanying PDF manual is well-written and detailed. On Audient’s website you’ll find a number of excellent video tutorials to help you set the system up and configure it to your needs.

Get this.

When I had specific questions, Audient’s managing director Steve Flower personally answered my emails within 24 hours, even on weekends. That’s not something he did because he knew I was writing a review. I’ve heard the same from other users who have contacted Audient. A responsive company clearly cares about its clients.

WEAKNESSES

click to enlarge

At this point you might be wondering whether you’re reading an advertorial for the iD22 or a serious review. Even though the pros greatly outweigh the cons, this interface isn’t perfect. 

Strangely enough, the iD22 doesn’t come with an on/off switch. I’m all for conserving energy, and I don’t want my gear to be on all the time. The power cord that comes with plugs for every continent, is rather short (5 feet/1.5 meters). Since it’s sold as a desktop unit, you better be close to an outlet.

Even though the iD22 is compact, it’s not ideal for recording on the road. Yes, it’s sturdy, but because it’s not USB-powered and can’t run on batteries, it needs to be plugged into an outlet.

A competitive product like the RME Babyface is much more portable (it fits in your hand) and it’s bus powered. According to Audient, the iD22 requires a solid supply of energy to provide enough current for the preamps and converters to be at their best.

The Babyface is compatible with Mac OS 10.5 and above, Windows XP SP2, Vista and 7. The iD22 is compatible with Mac. I tested it with OS 10.9.0 (Mavericks) and it functioned flawlessly. Windows drivers became available at the end of March, 2014. 

SUMMING IT ALL UP

the Audient iD22 audio interface and monitor controller in the Nethervoice voice-over studio

the iD22 in the Nethervoice studio – click to enlarge

With the iD22, Audient is moving out of the professional studio and into the self-recording market without compromising anything. The build quality of this interface and monitoring system is equal to the quality of the sound. It’s fabulous! The design is as pleasing to the eyes as it is functional.

If you’re a voice-over pro, you can simply plug in your microphone(s), your headphones and your monitors and connect the unit to the computer. Once you’ve uploaded the software and adjusted the settings in the mixer app, you’re good to go. From that moment on, no client will ever reject your auditions because of poor audio quality. I predict the opposite will happen. Customers will seek you out because of your sound.

Even if you do not use all the functionality that’s built into the iD22, this is still a lot of bang for your buck. Try buying two world-class preamps, pristine AD/DA converters, an audiophile headphone amp, a monitor controller and a mixer for a total of $599. That’s a tall order. My current single microphone preamplifier alone costs almost seven hundred dollars, and I prefer the pre’s on the iD22.

With this compact, sturdy interface, there’s no need to stack up and connect different boxes from different brands, hoping they will work together. All the elements of the iD22 are designed to make you sound your best and built to help you focus on your craft, instead of having to worry about technology.

To me that may be the best benefit the iD22 has to offer!

It’s my top pick for best voice-over gear of 2013, and it’s staying in my studio.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Many thanks to colleague Scott McDonald in Finland who was the first VO to choose an iD22 (read his blog here), and to Audient for the evaluation model. 

PPS Be sweet. Please retweet.

*Number one is the Grace Design m101 and number two is the Audient pre.


More Studio Secrets Revealed

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 25 Comments

You’ve seen the inside of my voice-over booth. Now it’s time to talk about technology.

Don’t worry, I’ll do my very best not to be too technical, if only for my own sake.

When it comes to the tools of the trade, I subscribe to the “less is more” philosophy. Life is complicated as is, and in my studio I’d like to keep things as simple as possible. 

Without exception, my clients ask for audio that’s “unfooled around with”. Most of them are much better equipped to do post-production sweetening in their studios, if that’s what they want.

I have no inclination to compete with all the high-end bells and whistles their engineers have at their disposal. As long as I can give them clean and clear audio, they’re happy and I’m happy.

Mac MiniComputing Power: the hardware

At the heart of my studio is a Mac Mini with a dual-core 2.3 GHz Intel i5 processor running OS X Lion. It came with 2GB of memory, but thanks to a removable bottom, it is very easy to add more memory to your mini. If you let Apple do it for you, 8 GB will cost you $400. It took me ten minutes to do it myself for less than $45. At the time I even got a $10 rebate and free shipping!

Sorry, but I’m not going to get into the Apple versus PC discussion. I’ve used both and I have found Apple to be more reliable and user-friendly. I do want to tell you what prompted me to get a Mac Mini.

Reason number one: it barely makes any noise. When it does, it produces a whisper that’s almost inaudible.

Some colleagues have a studio with two separate areas: a sound booth and a control room. The computer is usually outside the booth. I combined both spaces, which means that my desktop sits next to me in my studio. The Mac Mini uses very little energy and it rarely ever gets warm. That makes it amazingly quiet.

Secondly, this computer stays in my studio. It doesn’t have to go on the road with me. Otherwise I would have bought the Macbook Air (no moving parts and also nearly silent).

Third: I already had peripherals such as a flat-screen monitor and an ergonomic mouse. I just added a wireless keyboard. Tip: if you want to connect a standard analog computer monitor or LCD to your Mac Mini, you need a Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter.

What the Mac Mini doesn’t have is an optical drive to play and burn CD’s or DVD’s. For that purpose I bought the Macbook Air SuperDrive which can be plugged into one of the four Mac Mini USB 2.0 ports.

The actual move from PC to Mac was very easy. It took me about a week to get used to my new computer and the operating system. It’s all rather intuitive. A few weeks ago we did add a MacBook Air to our household. This is no ordinary laptop. It is a work of art!

Apple Time CapsuleBackup, please!

We’ve all heard horror stories of friends who lost months if not years worth of irreplaceable data when their system decided to take a permanent break. Backing up is something all of us should do, but we often don’t. We forget. We tell ourselves that we’ll do it tomorrow or the day after. It’s just one more thing to think about, and that’s why I wanted a backup system that would do the thinking for me.

I now have an Apple Time Capsule with a 2 TB hard drive, designed to work with my operating system (although it works with PC’s too). After an initial backup which lasted several hours, it now backs up both computers in our home quickly, wirelessly and automatically. Installing it was a piece of cake. The Time Machine feature in the OS detected the Time Capsule and within minutes it was up and running.

Tip: as the Time Capsule is backing up, it may interfere with your recording. In my case, I noticed a soft but annoying buzzing sound on the audio file, which disappears when the automatic back-up is switched off.

Look at me!

Next on my list was a webcam which I use for coaching sessions, webinars and Skype. I picked the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C910. The Carl Zeiss optics lens has a wide angle and the video quality is remarkably crisp and clear.

Reviewers also praise the quality of the stereo microphones. That’s not so important to me because my sound comes directly from my studio condenser.

Mac users: don’t get all gaga over all the advanced features listed on the box and in the manual (zoom, face tracking, exposure adjustments). Even though Apple sells this camera in their stores, most of the Logitech functionally works on a PC and not on a Mac. The C910 is also not supported as an iMovie camera, but that’s Apple’s fault.

In summary, this camera gets an A for image quality, but a C- for limited Apple functionality.

Software

There are many different types of DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstations) available for audio production on a Mac. Colleagues with a background in audio engineering like to use Pro Tools. A lot of my voice-overs friends rave about Adobe Audition CS5.5 and Twisted Wave. Until I made the switch, I was a happy Sound Forge™ Pro user.

I won’t be going over the pros and cons of each program. You can try most of them out for free and I’d certainly take advantage of that.

I ended up choosing Twisted Wave because it’s very stable, easy to use and at $79.90 it’s also budget-friendly. Thanks to a great interface, zooming in and out of a waveform is very fast, even when the file is quite long. I particularly like the fact that I can zoom in at great detail for precision editing.

Different clients prefer different audio formats and TW can import, export and convert most of them. It has a time-saving batch processing feature which is especially useful when you’re working on a lengthy e-Learning project with lots of short files that need to be separated out and individually named.

TW doesn’t come with a whole lot of special effects, but new and existing plugins are imported seamlessly. With TW, effects no longer have to be applied one by one, but it’s possible to load any number in an effect stack and still adjust them separately.

Some of you might prefer Adobe Audition CS5.5 because it’s loaded with features such as Noise Reduction, a DeClicker, a DeHummer etcetera. I had already invested in Izotope’s RX2 audio repair toolkit and it’s now an integral part of my Twisted Wave Effects line-up.

I do have two items on my Twisted Wave wish list. I’d love to have a feature similar to Adobe Audition’s Auto Heal function for brushing away audio glitches. It’s like having Photoshop® for your audio! I also like to have my Sound Forge WaveHammer tool back. It applies a tad of compression and normalization to the sound files to give the audio just a bit more oomph.

Controlling the Wave

To streamline my job in the editing room I’m using a ShuttlePROv2 controller. It has 15 programmable buttons, a jog knob and a spring loaded wheel with which I can control the main editing functions in Twisted Wave.

It’s preprogrammed for things like Garageband, iPhoto and iTunes, but it was really easy to program the TW keyboard shortcuts into the Shuttle. With my mouse in one hand and my ShuttlePRO in the other, I can scroll, zoom, cut, copy and paste much faster than with a keyboard.

The ShuttlePROv2 connects to your computer via a USB port and it comes with custom labels for the top 9 buttons. It can be used on either MAC or PC computers and it retails for about $80.

Gefell M 930 Ts & Rycote's InVision™ Studio KitMicrophone and shock mount

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I consider myself to be a very lucky man. In December 2011, I won a Microtech Gefell M 930 Ts large diaphragm condenser microphone in a recordinghacks.com giveaway. This microphone happens to be ideal for voice-over work. To find out why, you should read my review by clicking here.

Because the Gefell did not come with a shock mount, I had to find a suspension system that would hold this small microphone. Rycote, a company based in the UK, makes the InVision™ Studio Kit you see in the picture ($149.99). It’s a combination of a unique, universal shock mount and a very light and effective pop filter. If you click here, you’ll find out what I think of this kit.

I’m using an Ultimate Support® mic stand and their telescoping Ulti-Boom. WindTech cable clips keep the mic cable separate from the stand.

Preamplifier

A good preamplifier strengthens the low level signal coming from your microphone to a level suitable for recording, without degrading the signal to noise ratio (S/N). A preamp with a high S/N has very little background noise.

Some boutique preamplifiers can really color your sound and that wasn’t something I was particularly interested in. My ideal preamp needed to be dead quiet, transparent, detailed and clear in all frequencies.

Grace Design M101As I researched preamps within my budget range, I kept coming back to one model: the Grace Design m101.

Built in Colorado, the sound quality is often described as “natural” and “pristine”. I couldn’t agree more. This is a phenomenal preamplifier!

Looking at the front panel, you’ll see a 48V phantom power button, a ‘ribbon button’ which, when engaged, bypasses the phantom power circuit, and a high-pass filter button to reduce low-end rumble and curb the proximity effect of a microphone.

In my review for pro audio dealer Sweetwater, I called this preamp an “Amazing Grace” because it makes my microphone shine.

Audio Interface

In a nutshell, an audio interface connects your microphone and other sound sources to your computer. For audio to be usable by a computer it needs to be digital, and an interface converts your analog signal to bits and bytes. You’ll often find external audio interfaces that include a mic preamp, but since I already had a pre, I opted for the pocket-sized Echo AudioFire2 (discontinued, but still available for around $200).

Echo AudioFire2This device is connected to and powered by the computer via a FireWire bus. I purposely didn’t want to get a USB-interface. The Mac Mini only has four USB slots that fill up pretty quickly and USB devices cannot draw power from the computer. With the AudioFire 2 you can record 24-bit 96 kHz audio with near-zero latency (delay) monitoring.

Because the AudioFire2 has a 400 Mbps FireWire port and the Mac Mini has an 800 Mbps port, you need an adaptor to be able to connect it to the computer. The AudioFire could also use a simple step-by-step  set-up guide. Perhaps it’s my lack of technical insight, but it took me a while to make the right connections (literally and figuratively).

Overall, this sturdy, small metal box performs just fine. It’s more of a necessity than anything else.

Monitoring

Like so many of you, I evaluate my audio in two ways: I use headphones and studio monitors. Gear-guru’s often recommend buying closed headphones to prevent sound leaks from feeding back through the microphone. That’s why I got the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro.

These headphones stay put alright, and they shut outside sounds out (not that ambient noise is a problem in an isolated studio). Over time I found them to be quite uncomfortable. I happen to have a rather large head (thanks Dad!), and I didn’t like the tight grip the Sennheiser had on my ears.

The AKG K 240 semi-open Studio headphones I am using now (also $99), are very comfy and they provide plenty of acoustic isolation. My ears can breathe! After a year and a half, the cups started showing some wear and tear, and I will replace them soon with velvet ear pads.

The AKG has a regular, straight cable which I also prefer. Somehow, things always get caught in a coiled cable, such as the one that comes with the Sennheiser.

Both headphones are excellent for detailed monitoring.

When it came to picking out a pair of speakers a few years ago, my budget was limited and so was my space. At that time I was recording in a cold corner of the attic. For $99 I bought a pair of Alesis M1Active 320USB monitors.

At first I was quite skeptical and I didn’t really expect much from these bookshelf speakers. Once I plugged them in, I was blown away by the fact that so much sound could come out of such a small package. That has not changed.

I’m sure they are no match for a pair of Genelec studio monitors, but for under 100 bucks these Alesis speakers continue to impress me. As you can see, I have placed them on stands at ear hight. It really makes a difference.

Enough already

Alright… I think I’m done shopping for a while, don’t you?

Selecting audio equipment can be a daunting task and it can be a learning experience. Just as a musician has to know his instruments, a voice-over pro has to have a basic knowledge of the tools he or she is using. There’s so much good stuff available these days, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Whatever you do, don’t be intimidated by gear-snobs and audiophiles. Talk to people you trust and whenever possible, try things out for yourself.

Don’t blindly buy something just because some guy at your local Guitar Center told you he loves it, or because Paul Strikwerda wrote about it in his blog.

After all, that’s just a bunch of Double Dutch!

Paul Strikwerda ©2012