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.
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.
I love the fact that I can switch between mic 1 and 2 without losing any time plugging and unplugging (although you need the virtual mixer to set that up). 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 price tag. Listen to a comparison between my Grace Design m101 single mic preamplifier 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 I like the idea of having a virtual mixer at my disposal, the software is not intuitive to use. The other day I wanted to add another microphone to the mix, and after it was plugged in, I couldn’t get it to work using that mixer. That’s something that should be a plug-and-play thing. Most of my colleagues aren’t audio engineers, and they don’t want to spend hours experimenting to get simple things done.
For voice over purposes, the iD22 has too many buttons I don’t need, like dim/cut and the three function buttons. What I would like to see is an additional 3.5 mm headphone connection. I have one set of cans for critical listening (the Austrian Audio Hi-X55’s), and I use my Beyerdynamic DT880’s for recreational listening. I keep on having to plug them in an out, and that’s inconvenient because I have to go to the back of the unit to make the switch. Why not put the outputs in the front, like on the much smaller iD4?
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. For out of studio recordings I recommend the USB-powered Audient iD4 which retails for $200. If only it had a high-pass filter, and I would use it exclusively!
At around $500 the iD22 is not the cheapest preamp for your studio. The Motu M2 costs about $170, and the new SSL2 is $230. Both are solid alternatives.
Lastly, my unit developed a nasty electronic buzz after six years of constant use. After a quick repair it’s back in action, but since I treat all my equipment with a velvet glove, I was disappointed it had broken down in the first place. I’m not the only one this has happened to, and from what I have heard, after-warranty repairs aren’t cheap.
SUMMING IT ALL UP
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 six hundred dollars. 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.