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Apogee Duet - a perfect pairing of form and function

Jun 7, 2008
Apogee has long been known for its high quality converters and more recently for working closely with Apple to make some of the best native based systems with extremely low latency and performance once only associated with DSP based systems like Pro Tools HD.

In the past Apogee gear might have been a bit pricey for the common man. That changed with the introduction of Apogee's Ensemble - 8 channels of AD/DA in a powerful, one-rack space Firewire based interface for under $2000. That's about $250 per channel on top of getting mic pre's, HI-Z inputs, and digital I/O. Of course, if you don't need 8 channels of AD/DA the recently introduced Apogee Duet might just be the ticket. At under $500 the Duet gives you 2 channels of AD/DA (with the same converters you find in the more expensive Ensemble) via Firewire, with Mic Pre's and support for Line In and Hi-Z Instrument In. As you'll read below, once you start using the Duet you will realize that Apogee has done more than just slap 2 channels from the Ensemble into a box. By paying close attention to design, functionality, and integration with your Mac, Apogee has created a hard to beat two-channel interface that is perfect for roving musicians and home studio setups alike.
Form and function makes a great Duet
    With Duet it is clear that Apogee has put thought into how this interface will work and function. To start, the Duet is extremely portable with a footprint not much larger than a 4x6 photo and only 1.5" thick! One of the reasons the Duet is so svelte is that all the I/O connections are on a breakout-cable. At first I thought the breakout cable would really bug me; and for some maybe they will always prefer built-in connections on the device itself, but the Duet is meant to sit on a desk (with its aluminum case design it looks great beside a MacBook Pro laptop) and having a clean breakout cable to run your mic, line, and instrument cables to and from works out great.

    On top of its compact size one of the first things you notice is there is no AC plug for power –the Duet works off of Firewire buss power only. This is great for portability as long as it doesn't sacrifice other specs like latency performance. As we'll see later the Duet performs great as a low-latency interface.

    The Duet has a pair of LED rows for metering your levels. The metering is much better than the typical single or two led metering found on many stereo interfaces that basically just tell you your signal is present or is overloading. You can set the Duet to monitor Input or Output or to Follow, which basically means that as you "toggle" between the inputs and outputs via the Duet's large knob the metering follows your selection.

    Another interesting design choice Apogee made is to incorporate a single large knob to handle everything from Input to Output and Headphone level settings. Again, some may feel more comfortable with a 1:1 ratio of knobs to functions and usually I am in this camp, but I found I prefer having one, well-implemented large knob rather than 4 or 5 small ones. The Duet's large knob has a push button capability and you simply push down to "toggle" between level settings for Input 1, Input 2, and Master/Headphone Out. The reason this works so well is that on top of the respective LED lighting up on the Duet unit itself you also get visual feedback from your computer monitor. This visual feedback pops up on your Mac's display in the same way that you see a little HUD (Heads Up Display) pop up when you use the volume control buttons on your QWERTY keyboard.
    Apogee has really enhanced the functionality of having a single large knob to access the input and output level settings and even though the Duet is Apogee's least expensive unit they have not skimped at all on the hardware or the software/driver integration.

Breaking out
    The Duet ships with a nice breakout cable that has two outputs (unbalanced 1/4"), two 1/4" inputs that support both line (unbalanced) and instrument levels, and two XLR inputs that accept +4 balanced line level or mic inputs that include 48V phantom power for anyone using condenser mics with a gain range of 10 to 75 dB. If you do the math here you will see that we have 4 possible connection types for input: line (unbalanced and +4 balanced), instrument, and microphone. The Duet has 2 AD converters and you designate which two input sources the Duet will convert via the Maestro software. For instance, I had a mic routed to Input 1 and a guitar routed to Input 2 in the Maestro software. On top of the guitar connected via a 1/4" jack on Input 2 I also had a second mic connected to Mic In 2. If I wanted to go from recording a mic and electric guitar (DI'd) to recording both mics all I needed to do was switch from Instrument 2 to Mic 2 in the Maestro software. This setup is about as convenient as you can get on a 2-channel AD/DA converter.
Maestro please
    The Maestro software is integral to the function of Apogee Duet and extends what the Duet can do. As mentioned above you can select what Input type (Mic, Line, etc.) that the Duet will "see" from the Maestro software. You can also reverse the phase for a mic input, activate phantom power, and group the gain setting for the two channels of the Duet.

    Apogee has coded in some interesting twist into Maestro that can be very helpful. For instance, you can set up how the Mute function works within the Maestro software so that one push of the Mute button (holding down on the main large knob of the Duet) mutes your monitors but keeps the headphones on (perfect for tracking) and when you engage the Mute button again it will mute the headphones and bring your monitors back up (perfect for playback). Essentially, you are toggling between recording and playback every time you hit the Mute button –pretty clever. Maestro also lets you set up some cool MIDI encoder functions for the large knob on the Duet interface, like using it to control a virtual volume control for your software.

    Logic and GarageBand Users Rejoice : Apogee and Apple have incorporated support for the Duet directly into the audio preference panes of both programs (found under Preferences in both Logic and GarageBand). Apogee has really worked to make their interfaces incorporate seamlessly with Macs and to squeeze out every bit of low-latency, native performance that they can with GarageBand and Logic. If you use any DAW software on a Mac, Apogee and the Duet make for a great choice, but if you are using GarageBand or Logic it would be hard to choose anything but Apogee gear in my opinion.

A sweet sounding Duet ?
    Apogee is definitely known for the quality of their converters and the Duet is no exception. The converters sound great (24bit/96Khz), the latency is plenty low (I was able to track/overdub through a guitar amp-modeling plug with multiple backing tracks on an older Mac PowerBook with no problems), and the mic pre's, while clean and maybe a bit too "pristine" for my ears, are of a very high quality for a sub $500 interface and will work out great for recording a wide range of instruments and voices. Bottom line, the Duet is a fantastic sounding interface for the Mac with great drivers, nice mic pre's, portable bus power, and inventive design that is equally adept in a home setup that never leaves the desk or as a perfect laptop companion for high quality recording on the road… and you don't have to worry about forgetting a power cable.

Is there anything wrong with this thing?
    I think if anyone was to find a fault with the Duet it would be in design philosophy rather than sonically.
    If you absolutely don't like the idea of a breakout cable, having one large knob to control multiple levels, and having to use software to engage certain functions than you might not like the Duet. In most case I would fall into this camp, but it seems Apogee knew the limitations that might have to go into a sub $500 converter and addressed each possible pitfall so well that they have turned them into possibilities –like the inventive Mute functions you can set up in the Maestro software.

    Of course, the fact that the Duet does not incorporate a MIDI interface might be an issue for some –but most everyone these days has some sort of MIDI controller that connects via USB. Also, the headphone and master volume are linked and while this makes for a high quality headphone amp it might not be the perfect setup for, say, a DJ.

    It might not be the best analogy, but since the Duet is a Mac only interface I am going to make it anyway. The Duet is like the iPhone of the stereo interface world; it does things a bit differently, is a bit different in looks and functionality, but once you start using it you wish you hadn't waited to get one. Even if it isn't the perfect solution for everyone it will give a nice shot in the arm to all the other audio interface companies to rethink how a small, portable interface can be designed.
This article has been proposed to you by MacMusic in association with AudioMIDI
AudioMIDI is a leading US relleser who also provides great information about a plethora of products commercially available for creating and recording music with a computer.
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