Price: £79 each More info: M-Audio System requirements: 1.8GHz multi-core processor with Windows XP SP3/Vista 32/64 (PC) or OSX 10.5.5 (Mac) Key features: Supplied with 49-note keyboard (KeyStudio), microphone (VocalStudio) or audio interface (RecordingStudio)
ProTools M-Powered Essential software for recording, editing and mixing
Supports up to 16 tracks
Virtual effects rack
Structure Essential virtual-instrument with over 60 presets
Up to 8 simultaneous virtual-instrument tracks and 8 MIDI tracks
3GB of loops provided
Very powerful software, 16-bit or 24-bit resolution, Macs and PCs, laptop or desktop, all catered for
ProTools will intimidate newcomers, have to use 'official' M-Audio devices, limited to 48kHz sample rate (despite FastTrack's capabilities), supplied mic stand unsuitable for the heavy Producer USB
M-Audio, part of the Avid (video-editing) empire, is well-known for music creation products like soundcards, handheld audio recorders, preamps and keyboards. Recently, it launched a trio of very affordable (£79 each) products for the aspiring home musician on a tight budget. All are compatible with MacOS and Windows PCs - software and drivers for both platforms are on the same DVD-ROM - and include a cut-down version of the famous music industry professional ProTools software.
Add a touch of imagination plus a modicum of talent, and creating some music - whether soundtracks for home movies or a chart-style 'flava' - with nothing more than a home computer becomes a distinct possibility.
ProTools Essential KeyStudio contains a four-octave 49-note keyboard with a 'feel' that is better than one has any right to expect at this price. The KeyStudio connects to your computer via USB rather than the industry-standard MIDI; thanks to its virtual MIDI driver, though it can work with the supplied ProTools M-Powered Essential software (or for that matter third-party packages, like sequencers and virtual synths). Experienced players will appreciate the features on offer, which include velocity-sensitivity, transpose buttons (you can go up or down an octave), sustain-pedal socket, pitch-bend and modulation wheels.
Also included is a simple USB soundcard 'dongle', with an audio input (for recording) and an audio output (for monitoring). You'll need this to run the software, because it's a 'qualified audio interface' - the only compatible variety. Just plugging in the keyboard is not enough! Even with the dongle installed, you can't use your existing soundcard. This is a pity, especially if it happens to be of better quality than the dongle.
The accompanying driver provides a wide-range input-level control that allows it to accommodate signals ranging from low-level (microphones) to high (line-level sources, like external keyboards and tape decks). We found that the audio output provided enough juice - just! - to drive our trusty Sennheiser HD480 headphones.
If keyboard-jamming doesn't appeal you could consider the VocalStudio version, which gives you a microphone instead. This solidly-built metal-cased device - called the 'Producer USB' - is obviously styled to resemble the famous Neumann U87 studio mike, and like this iconic piece of hardware, the Producer USB is of the condenser variety. Don't expect similar performance, though - the whole Vocal Studio package does, after all, sell for a tiny fraction of the U87's £2K price! At the heart of the Producer USB is a single mike capsule of surprisingly-good quality and the directional characteristic needed for vocal work. A blue LED indicates that power is applied, and identifies the sound-capturing 'front' of the microphone.
It alas can't be used independently of a computer; instead of an XLR jack is a USB port - a peek inside the unit reveals a Micronas 'jungle chip' that converts the analogue signal from the mic into computer-friendly digital form. Also in this chip is a digital-to-analogue converter that drives the headphone socket, which is needed for monitoring.
The mic is supplied with a robust desktop stand and carrying case - what you don't get, though, is a 'pop' shield. Considering its budget price, it sounds remarkably good with a fair dynamic range and decent frequency response - but we suspect the budget Micronas audio chippery isn't conveying the capsule's full potential.
The third RecordingStudio package will give you the best results sonically if you want to work with off-board analogue gear. It's supplied with a FastTrack USB audio interface that includes a 24-bit/96kHz analogue-to-digital converter and a 24-bit/192kHz analogue-to-digital converter. The VocalStudio mike and KeyStudio USB dongle are both built around the same less sophisticated (in audio terms, at any rate) Micronas USB audio device, which on paper at least provides 24-bit decoding but only 16-bit encoding - both with maximum sample rates of 48kHz.
Having said that, the FastTrack drivers only support 44.1kHz and 48kHz sample rates despite the hardware capabilities. This, according to Avid, is because the FastTrack's computer interface is only USB 1.0 - which has a much lower data transfer rate than the USB2.0 that virtually all other new gear employs.
The compact unit has inputs for a microphone (balanced XLR, although a 48-volt phantom-power option is absent and so only dynamic mics or condenser mikes with integral power sources are suitable) and a quarter-inch (TRS, or 'tip-ring-sleeve') jack that can be switched from line-level (keyboards or conventional audio sources) to instrument-level (guitar pickups, for example). You also get stereo phono outputs for an audio system, a 3.5mm headphone jack, input/playback mixer, stereo/mono button and simple input-level monitoring (LEDs that indicate -40dB and -3dB from peak-level).
The sound quality is a vast improvement over that offered by many PC soundcards; because it's external, there's a commendable lack of unwanted 'whines' or 'hash'. Oh, and it drives headphones much better than the VocalStudio or KeyStudio dongle. Digitising stereo analogue sources like tapes with the FastTrack is impractical, though. This is because each of the two inputs (which differ in sensitivity/impedance) internally feeds one half of the digitising chain's stereo channel - the XLR the left, and the TRS right. ProTools sees them as two independent mono channels.
Note that although your computer might recognise the hardware when it's plugged in, it's important to install M-Audio's official drivers - we recommend downloading the latest versions from its website. Without them, the 'qualified audio interface' won't be recognised and ProTools M-Powered Essential won't start. As its name suggests, this software is a desktop music-production environment based around the famous ProTools (Avid also acquired Digidesign, the company that gave birth to it). You'll find the latter in just about every professional recording studio - and those with experience of it will be able to get going with these M-Audio products very quickly.
This is not a toy; the overall concept and user interface of M-Powered Essential are very close to that of the professional package; naturally, features are missing although some of these are restored if you decide to upgrade the software to a fuller version - something the package annoyingly reminds you to do with alarming regularity, should you try to access some of the more advanced functionality (MIDI Studio, for example).
Unfortunately, there's no discount for this more advanced version - which you'll pay £199 for. The problem with ProTools M-Powered Essential is also its key selling point - its basis in the industry-standard package. Although undoubtedly powerful even in this 'stripped-down' form, it's simply too involved for beginners and a steep learning curve is thus required. There are plenty of complex configuration windows to deal with, and the 'split' documentation (on-screen, rather than on paper, and catering for all ProTools versions) can be frustrating.
However, persistence pays off. You'll be surprised with the polished results that can be obtained from what is essentially a £79 package. Keyboard players will appreciate the samples-based Structure Essential virtual synthesiser, which is capable of some very effective sounds. The number of presets is somewhat limited, but the various parameters of each can be tweaked beyond recognisability and the changes saved to a new preset. If you don't have the KeyStudio version, you can enter the notes manually with the ProTools sequencer's 'virtual' one. Those who aren't the best players in the world will be pleased to know that notes can be edited to perfection in the sequencer.
The virtual mixer (you can mix down to two-channel, but not 5.1 in the 'standard' version - and the result saved as - for example - a WAV file that can be burnt to CD, or heard via any audio device on your system!) and real-time recording facilities are similar in 'feel' to the professional version of ProTools. You'll need these to record and mix tracks representing the instruments and vocals, the number of which (16) should suffice for all but the most sophisticated of productions. A decent 'effects rack', plenty of loops, 60 virtual instrument sounds, templates and a metronome are provided too. Not so long ago, all of this would have been inconceivable at any price...
If you're considering making music at home, then you can't really go wrong with one of these. For less than £100, you'll have a creative outlet that will give you hours of fun. Just be prepared for some frustration to start with as you get to grips with ProTools - and, for that matter, to follow with when attempts to access advanced features reward you with nothing more exciting than a message telling you a paid-for upgrade is necessary.