Close up of a keyboard.

Review: Focusrite Saffire PRO 24 DSP Firewire Interface

The Saffire PRO 24 DSP is a 16 in 8 out audio/midi firewire interface from Focusrite, with a street price of around £249 in the UK. It is attractively styled and housed in a sturdy metal case.

Front view of Focusrite's Saffire Pro 24 DSP firewire interface.

The front panel boasts two headphone outputs, a monitor level control, five-step LED input level meters, and two Nutrix/jack input sockets with input level controls. There are buttons for monitor dim, monitor mute, and 48v phantom power. The rear panel has six output balanced quarter-inch jacks, the firewire socket, the stereo I/O SPDIF sockets and the on/off switch. The Saffire can be powered by firewire, or its own supplied PSU. The PSU design is very thoughtful, with a voltage range from 100v-240v and a variety of attachments to accommodate various different types of plug.

Rear view of Focusrite's Saffire Pro 24 DSP firewire interface.

The PRO 24 DSP comes with Mix Control software, allowing comprehensive routing of the inputs and outputs. The mix control also has a Virtual Reference Monitoring section, or VRM for short, where different studio speakers are emulated through headphones.

Looking down on Focusrite's Saffire Pro 24 DSP firewire interface.

There is an abundance of audio/midi interfaces on the market using USB or Firewire, so the choice can be overwhelming. However, the Saffire has some features that make it stand out from the crowd. One such feature is, as already mentioned, the two headphone outputs, each with its own volume control. This in itself would have been good but Focusrite, through their Mix Control software, allow different mixes to be sent to each headphone output, along with effects as well! This means, for example, a vocalist could have some comfort reverb added (but not recorded) to his/her mix, while the engineer could have a dry mix. Focusrite even include a reverb plugin, along with compression and EQ plugins too.

Another noteworthy feature is the LED display. Five-step input LEDs give a clear indication of the signal level, helping to ensure that a healthy signal level is going into the unit. Having LED meters, as opposed to just a single LED that only lights to show the onset of clipping, helps diagnose problems by confirming that a signal is present, even if it cannot be heard, therefore narrowing down the source of the problem.

The Saffire Mix Control is a little bewildering at first. With the many signal routing and monitor selection options available it’s easy to have the wrong combination selected, resulting in no sound output. Consequently, I would definitely advise against buying this unit on a Friday if you are intending to use it in a recording session at the weekend.

Focusrite Saffire Mix Control screen view.

Setting Up

The driver and software installation went smoothly. Users may be confused when the computer asks three or four times for the software to be installed, giving the impression that there is an installation problem when really it’s just different parts of the same software package that require separate installation.

In Use

Initially I had problems with noise from the Saffire, which didn’t go even with all inputs disconnected, so I contacted Focusrite support. The support was very good, and helped me trace the source of the problem to my firewire card. Focusrite recommend firewire cards with Texas Instruments or VIA chipsets, and although my card had a VIA chipset, replacing it with a different brand (but still with a VIA chipset) cured the noise problem completely.  With a new card installed, and my Saffire up and running, I was finally ready to start work. I began mixing the audio for an album I was producing for a singer.

My next project, two or three months later, involved using midi. This is where I ran into problems again, specifically hung notes (notes that continue to sound when they should have stopped), and notes chopped short. I tried many different settings, both in my software sequencer and in the Saffire’s Mix Control, all to no avail. Once again I contacted Focusrite, and once again my e-mail was answered promptly. After several e-mail exchanges Focusrite admitted that there was a problem with their driver, and were currently working on a fix (this was October 2010).

Virtual Reference Monitoring

Screen shot of the Saffire Mix Control VRM section.

I have read farourable reviews of Focusrite's VRM technology in the music press but have two concerns. The first is that the sound of the emulated speakers is going to change depending on the headphones being used, and we are not told which headphones give the truest tonal representation of the speakers. My other concern is that the speakers being emulated appear to be mostly from the lower end of studio monitors in terms of price. It would have been nice to have a collection of really high-end monitor emulations. Nevertheless, it’s a nice addition. There is even a choice of studio set ups and listening positions.

Midi Problem

A year on and between projects, having ditched my Saffire for another audio/midi interface, I returned to the PRO 24 in the hope that the new Texas Instruments firewire card I had installed in my computer (the exact card recommended by Focusrite), or the latest driver update, would fix the hung note problem. Unfortunately there was no improvement at all in the performance, I still had hung notes.

There’s always a possibility of a mismatch somewhere along the line when using computers and digital technology, so I decided to try my Saffire on a completely different computer, using different software. The result: slightly fewer hung notes, but more chopped notes! Clearly the midi problem remained.

Conclusion

I have read a number of rave reviews about the Saffire PRO 24 DSP, but these seem to be from people who have just purchased the product, and therefore haven’t fully tested all its features, or people who primarily use it to record audio, and therefore haven’t tried out the midi.

Internet forums reveal a number of people with hung note midi problem. When listing their equipment the Saffire PRO 24 DSP, and the Saffire PRO 40, a stable mate of the PRO 24, appear with uncanny regularity. It would seem that others are having problems with hung notes without realizing the problem most likely originates from their Saffire.

The Saffire certainly has a lot going for it in the audio department, but due to the on-going problems I’ve had with the midi performance I cannot recommend this product.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that just because the Saffire doesn’t work on my system it doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t work on another system. However, I’m no novice, and the Saffire remains the only piece of hardware, or software, to date, that I have been unable to get working.

I would be interested to hear about your experiences with the Saffire PRO 24’s midi performance. Just send a short note using the Contact form.

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Updates

September 2011: With regard to the hung note problem, this is an e-mail I received from Focusrite:

‘We now have an updated version of Saffire Mix Control, 2.4 that you can download from our website. This includes a new driver release that could solve your problem. This is an issue that we are working with the driver manufacturer to try and resolve, and this release may fix it.’

I installed the Mix Control 2.4 and unfortunately the problem remains!

January 2012: With regard to if an updated driver is available yet, this is the reply I received from Focusrite:

"We are currently working on a new version of the driver that improves midi stability. It is currently in our test system, and so it shouldn't be too much longer before it is made available, provided all goes well."

May 2013: Prompted by visitors to this site I have been testing the Saffire with an updated Mix Control – Mix Control 3. So far I have found it to be much more stable than the 2.4 version I was using. In fact I’ve only encountered what 'might' have been two chopped notes over a period of several hours use, and no hung notes. If there are no more suspect glitches by the time I have finished the project I am working on, I will be able to report that my Saffire is working exactly as it should.

I will be testing the latest update to the Mix Control, version 3.2, in the coming weeks.

May 2014: Unhappy with the Inpute and output latency, I stopped using the Saphire PRO 24 DSP a year ago.

 


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