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Emagic EMI 2|6 USB Audio Interface

July 1, 2002
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Emagic's EMI 2|6 USB audio interface is a nifty and convenient solution for notebook-toting recording musicians. Despite its diminutive size, the EMI (Emagic Multichannel Interface) provides computer-based recordists with two analog inputs, six analog outputs, and stereo S/PDIF I/O. One feature that makes it unique among USB interfaces is its ability to output 6-channel surround. In combination with the right software, the EMI 2|6's latency is sufficiently low to make it especially useful for use with virtual instruments.

TAKE IT WITH YOU

Not only is the EMI 2|6 portable, but it's equally at home with a Mac or a PC. It's approximately the size of a videocassette, only slightly heavier, and much sleeker in its transparent blue shell (see Fig. 1). The analog inputs and outputs are provided on RCA jacks, and another pair of RCA jacks provides the coaxial S/PDIF I/O. I was concerned that the EMI 2|6's recessed ⅛inch jack for stereo headphones would be inaccessible to the ¼inch-to-⅛inch adapter for my headphones, but it worked fine despite the fact that the connector was at least a 16th of an inch away from being fully inserted.

Two switches let you select between analog and digital input and between the EMI 2|6's internal and external clock reference. A row of clearly labeled LEDs indicates the status of those choices as well as power, sampling rate, signal present, and whether input or output is 24-bit. A rotary volume control varies the headphone level independently of the analog outputs.

Ordinarily, the EMI 2|6 is powered by the USB connection. If your computer can't provide adequate power, however, a jack for an optional power supply is available ($14.95). Often I've thought, “It would have been so easy for the manufacturer to anticipate the problem and build in a solution.” I have to give credit to Emagic for seeing to it that a small additional expense could make life happier for a few of their customers (not to mention their technical support crew).

CATCH-22 KHZ

When I read Emagic's online information on the EMI 2|6, I interpreted the phrase “six playback and two recording channels at professional 44.1/48/96* kHz, 24-bit audio quality” to mean that I would be able to record and play back 24-bit audio at the same time. I was disappointed to discover that that wasn't the case. (The asterisk in the QUOTEd phrase refers the reader to a note indicating that 96 kHz resolution is limited to stereo I/O. Note that 96 kHz support is not yet implemented on the Mac, although it may be by the time you read this.)

You're required to choose either 24-bit playback with 16-bit recording or 24-bit recording with 16-bit playback (see Fig. 2). According to Emagic, the problem is a result of USB 1.1's limited bandwidth. Stereo 24-bit operation in both directions is theoretically possible with the EMI 2|6 hardware, but the current drivers don't support it. Fortunately, such limitations aren't catastrophic; for most musicians, making the choice doesn't represent a major sacrifice. Users who understand exactly what they're buying will find the EMI 2|6's advantages to be well worth the compromise.

Using Steinberg Cubase VST/32 5.0 and Emagic Logic Platinum 4.8, I was able to get the EMI 2|6 operating in its 24-bit-one-way/16-bit-the-other-way modes. I'm willing to accept its limitations because recording and monitoring are rarely mission-critical at the same time. When you're tracking at 24-bit resolution, 16-bit monitoring is usually more than adequate for judging whether microphone placement is correct and performances are good. If you can't hear the bass player make a mistake at 16 bits, you're not going to notice it at 24 bits.

UP AND AWAY

Installing the EMI 2|6 drivers on my Celeron/1 GHz notebook (running Windows XP) couldn't have been easier. I downloaded the latest drivers from Emagic's Web site and ignored the drivers on the CD. (The documentation stated that that was the correct procedure.)

The only significant problem I encountered with the EMI 2|6 presented itself immediately. I was unable to achieve any form of 24-bit operation under Cakewalk Sonar, because Sonar doesn't support ASIO or EASI drivers. (According to Emagic, I should have used the Windows MME driver.) For a remote recording session the morning after I made that discovery, I had to opt for normal-bandwidth mode, meaning 16-bit stereo input and output. Although I was disappointed to have to settle for a lower bit depth, many fine recordings have been done with 16-bit resolution. If the recording was terrible, it would be my fault, not the interface's.

The gig was recording a talented flutist in a downtown church, and the EMI 2|6 captured the best and the worst of the situation. The combination of the flutist's tone and the church's acoustics made for moments of exquisite beauty, and the interface quietly and accurately reproduced every nuance. Later that night as I edited the session through headphones, I could also make out the distant but startlingly realistic sound of a transit bus that passed the church every 12 minutes.

As I worked, I was surprised that I had to relaunch Logic Platinum every time I switched from 24-bit playback to 24-bit recording. In fact, even changing the latency settings required me to relaunch Logic, but that should be less of a problem for you once you've settled on your optimum settings.

SIX CHANNELS, NO WAITING

One of the EMI 2|6's selling points is its low latency. It is theoretically capable of a delay as short as 4 ms between input and output at 48 or 96 kHz, and as short as 8 ms at 44.1 kHz. A software synthesizer's response should be half that amount, because it requires no audio input. On my computer, though, the lowest usable latency was 12 ms. Because that's acceptable for most applications, I don't regard it as a significant shortcoming.

If latency lower than 12 ms is critical to you or if your computer can't get even that low, the EMI 2|6 offers hardware monitoring, reducing latency to virtually zero at the cost of being unable to use your software's mixer to add effects and balance the input signal. Hardware monitoring doesn't help anyone using software synthesizers, however.

It's important to note that the latency figure cited in the EMI 2|6 configuration window is a one-way figure (as it is with other software), and that it only refers to the driver's latency. That best-case scenario of 4 ms cited earlier, then, is achieved at the 2 ms setting. Many other factors contribute to total latency, from A/D/A conversion to the behavior of the host program. Those other factors are probably the reason that the latency I achieved was slightly longer with Cubase (under ASIO) than with Logic Platinum (under EASI).

As in all things related to recording, you should let your ears, not your eyes, be your guide. What my ears told me is that with my setup, I can use the EMI 2|6 quite successfully to play software synthesizers at a latency setting that feels snappy and responsive. When recording sax or vocals, I might choose software monitoring; when I am working with a client, though, I am far more likely to depend on the tried-and-true method of direct hardware monitoring.

THE LIZARD OF OS

If you're considering adding the EMI 2|6 to your recording setup, read the system requirements carefully and take special note of the supported operating systems. Adhering to OS requirements is one of the bugaboos of dealing with USB audio devices in general. Implementation of OS support for USB audio on Macintoshes and PCs has been maddeningly gradual. The EMI 2|6 supports Mac OS 9.1, but it does not yet support OS X. Windows ME and XP are the only way to go on a PC; the EMI 2|6 will function under Windows 98SE or 2000, but the digital input is not fully supported. (Under 98SE, you can't set the one-way latency lower than 20 ms.)

Despite its minor limitations, I like the EMI 2|6 quite a bit. It sounds good, it's easy to use, and it's an inexpensive way to delve into surround mixing. Its compact size makes it ideal for remote recording. Heck, even my headphones take up more space in my bag! It even comes in its own little leatherette gig bag. For the musician on the go or for anyone on a budget who needs multichannel outputs, the EMI 2|6 is worth a look.

Minimum System Requirements

EMI 2|6

MAC: G3/266; 64 MB RAM; OS 9.1; USB port

PC: Pentium/233; 64 MB RAM; Windows 98SE/ME; compatible sound card; USB port

EMI 2|6 Specifications

Audio I/O (2) RCA analog inputs; (6) RCA analog outputs; (1) S/PDIF coaxial I/O; (1) ⅛" stereo headphones output (with Volume)
Driver Support ASIO, EASI, MME, DirectSound/WDM, Apple Sound Manager (16-bit only)
Bit Resolution 24-bit input with 16-bit output; 16-bit input with 24-bit output
Sampling Rates Mac/Win: 44.1, 48 kHz (2 input/6 output); Win: 96 kHz (2 input/2 output)
Dimensions 4.49" (W) × 7.56" (L) × 1.34" (H)
Weight 1.19 lb.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Emagic
EMI 2|6
multichannel audio interface
$399

FEATURES 4.5
AUDIO QUALITY 4.5
EASE OF USE 4.5
VALUE 4.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Sounds good. Lightweight, portable, and convenient. Multichannel output. Headphone output with volume control. Low latency.

CONS: 24-bit operation is input only or output only, not both. Currently, 96 kHz operation is available for Windows only. Recessed headphone jack is awkward for adapters.

Manufacturer

Emagic USA
tel. (905) 649-5115
e-mail emagic@emagicusa.com
Web www.emagic.de

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