Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Digidesign Digi 003 Control Surface & Audio/MIDI Interface [Mac/PC] review

Digidesign's LE range has received a comprehensive overhaul in the last year, and the new flagship 003 and 003 Rack incorporate many improvements over their predecessors.

After many rumors, Digidesign recently announced the replacements for their popular 002 and 002R interfaces. The new models are called, perhaps unsurprisingly, the 003 and 003R. As with the M Box 2, it's clear that these are not intended to provide anything radically different from their predecessors. There are some new features and many improvements, but the basic functionality or philosophy behind the products hasn't changed, and of course they still come with the highly respected Pro Tools LE DAW software. Like the 002, the 003 combines a multi-channel audio and MIDI interface with an eight-fader control surface, while its rackmount sibling includes the interface without the control surface. Most of the enhancements that have been made thus relate to the 003, as the 002 had more features than the 002R to start with! However, there are some improvements that apply to both models.

Universal Benefits
Many prospective buyers will welcome the inclusion of word clock input and output ports on both the 003 and 003R. This was a feature first offered in the LE range of interfaces with the introduction of the M Box 2 Pro. The word clock in and out ports let you connect BNC cables to synchronise your 003(R) to incoming word clock signals, and synchronise other devices to Pro Tools-generated word clock. Unlike the M Box 2 Pro, what's more, the 003 can clock to external signals at up to 96kHz. Sync indicators on the front panel show the active external clock source, from word clock, SPDIF and ADAT.
Digidesign have also introduced into the 003 family the second headphone output they added to the M Box 2 Pro. The two headphone outputs normally mirror outputs 1/2 in Pro Tools, and are independent of the monitor outputs, but the second headphone output can mirror outputs 3/4 when the '3/4-HP2' switch is selected. Both headphone outputs will be fed with the Aux In signal when Aux In (to monitor) is enabled. The headphone outputs are not affected by the Monitor Mute switch, but do follow the Mono switch.
The new arrangement is ideal for having a second headphone output for the 'talent', allowing you to create a separate monitor mix routed to outputs 3/4, leaving the main outs routed to outputs 1/2 for the engineer to monitor without disturbing the talent.
Another improvement is the addition of a second monitor output, which is great for having a second 'domestic reference' set of speakers attached to the system without needing another box to connect them.

New Mic Pre-amps
Digidesign have apparently completely redesigned the mic preamps for the 003 and 003R, and I am surprised they haven't made more of a song and dance about it. The dynamic range has been improved by nearly 6dB and the total harmonic distortion has been reduced from 0.04 percent to 0.0007 percent, which is a five-fold improvement. The first four inputs no longer have separate line sockets, but reviewing the spec, the DI inputs on the first four inputs cover this role as well.
The 003 features separate metering and LED 'ring' position indicators on each channel.
So do the technical improvements on these new preamps translate into a better sound? I used my Sennheiser MKH40 mic and compared the sound though a variety of routes, taking care to level-match each route so the comparisons would be valid:
MKH40 to 003 preamp
MKH40 to Focusrite Octopre to 003 via ADAT
MKH40 to 002R preamp
MKH40 to M Box preamp
The 002R was the poorest of the bunch — not bad, really, but the others were better. I was surprised at how good the preamps in the original M Box were, the only thing that let them down being a comparatively high noise floor. The 003 preamp compared very well with the Focusrite Octopre sound. If anything, the 003 sounded a little brighter, and it had the best low-frequency performance, with a richer and rounder sound. Consequently, popping was the most noticeable on the 003. The noise floor was every bit as good on the 003 as on the Octopre and subjectively was possibly slightly better. Having the word clock out on the 003 was great, as the 003 was the master clock on the system. With my 002R I have to clock Pro Tools with the Octopre, which always concerns me, as I don't know how stable the Octopre's clock is.
I have to say, though, that I am disappointed that Digidesign didn't take the opportunity to increase the number of mic preamps in the 003/003R up to eight. This would have made the units even less dependent on additional equipment for recording complex sessions. Having eight internal preamps, with the ability to add a further eight using something like a Focusrite Octopre, fed into the 003 via the ADAT port, would offer 16 channels of mic preamps in a very compact package.

The 003 as a controller
The 003 is designed to function as a flexible MIDI control surface for software other than Pro Tools, and its MIDI Map buttons allow you to specify what messages its various controls should send when you put the 003 into MIDI mode. The 003 supports two different banks of MIDI Map presets, corresponding to MIDI Map buttons A and B, and you can edit, name and recall custom MIDI map presets. Digidesign have produced a separate comprehensive MIDI Mode Guide to assist you to configure the 003; it didn't get installed on my system and I couldn't find it on the install CD that came with the 003, but a quick search of the Digidesign web site soon turned it up.

New Controls
The 003's control surface has undergone an overhaul with respect to its predecessor. Digidesign have added a proper dual-concentric jog/shuttle wheel in addition to the 002's 'pseudo' wheel, which was actually a set of navigation buttons. The outer ring of the wheel is a shuttle control. When you rotate the shuttle ring, it automatically puts Pro Tools into Shuttle mode, where you can play forwards or backwards at a variable rate, depending on the Shuttle position. The shuttle ring returns to the centre position (no shuttling) when you release it.
The 003 Rack inherits many of the improved features of the 003, including its high-quality preamps.
The inner part of the jog/shuttle wheel is a jog control, and when you rotate this it automatically puts Pro Tools into Jog mode. In this mode, you can move the Session transport (and cursor) forwards or backwards by small amounts, enabling you to find edit points by listening, like we used to have to do before the days of digital audio workstations like Pro Tools. The jog control also has a couple of other functions. It can be used to bank tracks to different faders: to scroll the display of tracks on the 003, you hold the Nudge switch and rotate the inner jog wheel clockwise to scroll tracks to the right or anti-clockwise to scroll tracks to the left. It can be used to continuously zoom in or out horizontally or vertically on all tracks by holding down the Zoom button whilst rotating the wheel clockwise or anti-clockwise. Alternatively, to continuously zoom in or out vertically for all tracks, you can hold Shift+Alt+Zoom and rotate the wheel clockwise or anti-clockwise.
When using the jog/shuttle wheel, keyboard and mouse commands are not supported, and most 003 controls become unavailable except for the 003 faders, which can be used at the same time as the jog/shuttle wheel. You just need to remember that the 003 transport controls will disable the jog/shuttle wheel immediately. Otherwise normal operating mode will be returned a few seconds after you last touch the jog/shuttle wheel. This caught me out for a bit, especially going from jog to shuttle and wondering why it didn't respond immediately.
The 003's arrow buttons haven't changed in function from those of the 002, but I did find a bug in Bank and Nudge modes, whereby Banking or Nudging to any group of faders other than the first eight made the cursor return to the start of the Session. 

Position & Level
The 002 had a set of LEDs arranged in an arc above the rotary encoders, which could either indicate the position of the appropriate rotary control or act as a level meter for that track. On the 003 Digidesign have separated these functions; the encoder indicators now surround the encoders and the meters are vertical LED bar-graphs. What is more, they have added an option whereby the bar-graphs can display the automation status for each track. I have to say, though, that I don't particularly like the shape and feel of the 003's knobs. They are like upside-down top hats, where you get hold of the rim to adjust the control, and they don't sit well in my fingers. I prefer the knobs on the Command 8 and 002.
A major improvement on the 003 is the addition of a jog/shuttle wheel.
New controls include a Save button: pressing this switch twice is equivalent to choosing Save in the File menu of Pro Tools. I had to check the manual on this one after I pressed it once, assuming that would do it, but the button simply flashed at me and Pro Tools didn't save. I presume the double press is to stop accidental pressing of the Save button, but for my money hitting Save should be as easy as possible!
Digidesign have also added a Mem Loc (Memory Location) switch that provides access to all Memory Locations in a Pro Tools Session and can be used to recall Memory Locations. Pressing the Mem Loc button once will make it flash; the LCD display will show the first eight Memory Locations in the bottom row, and the eight channel Select buttons will flash. To select a Memory Location, press the appropriate flashing Select button and that Memory Location will be recalled. If you have more than eight Memory Locations, you can display the additional pages by pressing the Left and Right Page switches. To open and close the Memory Location window, hold down Shift and press the Mem Loc switch.
The 002 features an Input switch that toggles between Auto Input and Input Only Monitor modes for record-enabled tracks. This is the same as the toggle option in the Pro Tools Track menu, or the Alt/Option+K keyboard shortcut. However, the display presents a confusing message when you press the Input button on the 003. When you toggle it so that it is in Input Only mode, the display briefly shows 'AutoIn', and when you press the Input button again to put it into Auto Input, the display shows 'InOnly'. I interpreted this as meaning Pro Tools was in Input Only mode, but in fact it is saying that the next time I pressed this button it would go into Input Only mode. The same approach is used when you're accessing menu items from the 003: the menu item displays what the state will be when you select it, rather than its current status.
Like the same control on the 002, the Enter (OK) button is equivalent to pressing Return or Enter on the computer keyboard, and lets you OK on-screen dialogues or create new Memory Locations in Pro Tools directly from the control surface. However, on this review model, which was one of the first two 003s in the UK, I found a bug with this. The first time I hit the Enter key to create a locate point on the fly whilst in Play, it created a point as expected, but subsequent presses of the Enter button on the 003 were ignored. If I then pressed the Enter key on the computer keyboard, the first press was ignored but subsequent presses on the keyboard did create location points. Once I used the Enter key on the computer, I then got one more go on the 003; subsequent presses were then ignored I went back to the keyboard, and so on.
I took up the bugs I found with Digidesign UK, and a quick call to the States confirmed that they are known bugs which are being 'fast-tracked' for extermination. All being well, there will be an updater to cover them by the time you read this review.
The new Default button can be used in conjunction with a Channel Select switch to reset a fader (or fader-mapped plug-in parameter) to its default setting. For example, you can reset a channel volume fader to its default level of 0.0dB by holding down the Default button and pressing the Channel Select control. This is the same as Alt/Option-clicking a control. Alternatively, to set all channel faders or plug-in parameters to their default settings, hold the Default and Alt/Option buttons and press the Channel Select switch on a track.

We Have Ignition

Like most other interfaces in the LE Range, the 003 Rack is available in two packages, called the 003 and 003 Factory, the difference being that the latter includes an iLok key and a bundle of plug-ins — see Digidesign's web site for details. The 003 is only available in a Factory version.
To coincide with the launch of the 003 and 003R, Digidesign have also updated their free Ignition Pack software bundle. Pro Tools Ignition Pack 2 comes with all new M Box 2, M Box 2 Factory, M Box 2 Mini, M Box 2 Pro and 003 Rack purchases, while the larger Ignition Pack 2 Pro comes with all new M Box 2 Pro Factory, 003 Factory, 003 Rack Factory and Pro Tools HD systems. I am disappointed that the 003R isn't considered a Pro product, meaning you have to buy the Factory version to get Ignition Pack 2 Pro.
The basic Pro Tools Ignition Pack 2 includes:
Ableton Live Lite 6 Digidesign Edition.
Propellerhead Reason Adapted 3.
IK Multimedia Amplitube LE.
FXpansion BFD Lite (three kits, or six with Ignition Pack 2 Pro).
Celemony Melodyne Uno Essential.
Digidesign Xpand!
M-Audio Pro Sessions SE sound library.
Way Out Ware TimewARP 2600 Lite.
Arturia Analog Factory SE.
iZotope Ozone 3 Lite, Trash Lite and Spectron Lite
The Pro version bundled with 003 and 003 Rack Factory adds:
Digidesign Synchronic.
Sound libraries from Big Fish Audio, Cycling '74, Sonic Reality and Zero-G.
Trillium Lane Labs TL Everyphase and TL Utilities.
The packs also include the Pro Tools Method One instructional DVD, a one-year membership to and a one-year subscription to, plus free contest entries (one free entry with Ignition Pack 2, three free entries with Ignition Pack 2 Pro) and a voucher giving you a free Digidesign plug-in when you enrol in a Pro Tools education course.
Digi have made it more difficult for people to install the Ignition Pack software more than once by requiring you to log on to their secure web site to enter an activation code. You then get emailed serial numbers for most products, and Pro users get iLok assets for Synchronic, TL Utilities and TL Everyphase.

Switching Automation Modes
Digidesign have provided Write, Touch, Latch, Read and Off switches that represent the options in the Auto pull-down menu in the Edit or Mix windows. The automation mode can be set from the 003 for a single track, all selected tracks, or all tracks in the Session, and you can also suspend automation globally. The Write, Touch, Latch and Read switch LEDs individually light when at least one channel has the corresponding automation mode. The Off switch LED flashes when no channels are set to Write, Touch or Latch, and at least one channel's automation mode is set to Off. This means that multiple LEDs light when there are channels with different automation modes. When the Meter switch is set to Auto, the Meter LEDs for each channel display their respective automation status.

Digidesign have taken the extra features introduced with the M Box 2 Pro and rolled them into the 003 and 003R. They have also added a number of extra controls and features to the 003: the jog/shuttle wheel is particularly welcome, but the improved mic preamps are the unsung hero in this remodel — shame there aren't another four of them. Digidesign have cleverly chosen to upgrade features that will benefit most users in both the professional and home studio arenas, such as the word clock I/O and extra monitor and headphone outputs. All of the new features make it easier to operate Pro Tools using the control surface rather than a mouse and keyboard, and will suit users who prefer a more tactile connection to their equipment.
Line input duties on channels 1-4 are handled by the DI inputs. The extra pair of monitor outputs is a nice improvement.

The 003 is therefore definitely an improvement over the 002 in all areas, but it's clearly aimed at new customers who would previously have looked at the 002, rather than being presented as an upgrade path for existing 002 users. In fact, Digidesign are offering a range of upgrade paths from all the LE hardware except the 002 and 002R, so this could be a good time for 001 users to benefit from a deal on an upgrade and get their hands on the new Ignition Pack 2 too (see the box above). It is a shame that there isn't an upgrade path for 002(R) users; I will miss the word clock output when I am doing location recording work with my Octopre and 002R, but would struggle to justify the cost of a new 003R, especially as I wouldn't get the Pro version of Ignition Pack 2. Fortunately, Digi have stated that the advent of the 003 does not mean that 002 users will be left behind, and that 002 will be supported in the forthcoming Vista upgrade.

Buy Digidesign Digi 003 Rack + Factory on Amazon

Buy Digidesign 003 Factory FireWire Audio Interface with Pro Tools LE on Amazon

Buy Digidesign Digi 003 Factory Complete on Amazon


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