A Flexible Audio Interface, Designed for Artists – Steinberg UR44

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I’ve decided, after lots of discussions with cash strapped artists in the market for a flexible but good quality budget interface, that talking in depth about its tech specs, is for the most part, entirely at odds with what they really want to know. Which, considering they are primarily artists and not engineers is, is it any damn good! Which generally translates to meaning flexible enough to cover a range of recording requirements, has good monitoring, cue mixing capabilities, onboard midi, headphones outputs loud enough for drummers, tough enough for the road, small enough to fit in a shoulder bag with everything else, will work with their computer/iPad and is ultimately and unsurprisingly, great bang for buck!

So, since this isn’t a technical review, I’ll start with a simple summary. The Steinberg UR44 is a great USB (not USB powered) interface that will meet most upcoming recording artists requirements given its range of functionality and cost, currently circa €290. It’s built like a tank with a quality feel. It’s packed with a good range of I/O options and quality components and is absolutely capable of helping to capture great sounding recordings of your music or other audio.

So how good is good? My view is, it’s very good. The Yamaha Class-A design D-Pre mic pre’s are excellent and well proven. They do of course have their limitations and those limitations are exactly what you ought to expect. Don’t count on being able to use a typically low output passive Ribbon mic on a quiet source without having to crank up the input level knob to max, thereby introducing the inevitable and most likely unwanted background and unit noise that comes with such an operation. This also goes for the popular Shure SM7B and any other low output dynamic mics.

There is though plenty of gain available with the UR44 for your typical condenser mics and assuming your recording loud sources for the dynamics, again you’re also good to go. Quiet sources with most dynamics and passive ribbons require mic pre amps with more available quiet gain, usually acquired as dedicated separate units, with good ones costing approx €650 upwards for a single channel. Nevertheless, smart use of mic choice, placement and gain staging shouldn’t hinder you from getting a really good recording with this unit.

The UR44 incorporates its own onboard DSP FX, built in effects including a Compressor, EQ, Reverb and Guitar Amp Sims which you can apply to your input signal on the mic/line inputs 1 to 4 and on line inputs 5 and 6. Importantly, only 4 inputs can use the channel strips at any one time with the remaining two having access to reverb only. This can be set up so you can record the FX on each of your channels or just simply monitor them and apply your FX during the mixing stage. Users of non-Steinberg DAW software can access the DSP controls from the included dspMixFx software, and for users of Cubase and or Nuendo, the DSP is accessed from within the DAW. There’s no facility for adjusting the DSP functionality from the unit itself so a computer or iPad is required. As a note, the reverb utilises three really great Yamaha REV-X Reverb algorithms.

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All the FX provided can prove extremely handy during the tracking stage in helping to control and manage the signal and they perform extremely well when applied typically and or creatively. The Amp Sims are also not too shabby but can’t see them being used as a Sim in the final mix. If you’re already using one of the better known, higher quality Amp Sims on your track but having to record guitars again after already starting the mix and you’ve already had to push up the interfaces record buffer to its max, the option to play and record with zero latency through the UR44 using the onboard FX/Amp Sim is a massive plus of this unit. The FX are also available as plugins within your DAW, but only if your DAW reliably hosts the VST3 plugin format, so Cubase and Nuendo users are good to go but you’ll need to check regarding other VST3 friendly DAW’s. An additional drawback is you’ll need to buy a Steinberg USB eLicencer to install the supplied activation code on for the plugins taking up a potentially much needed USB slot.

I tested the UR44 on my Macbook Pro, OSX 10.9. A PC running Win 7 Pro, SP1 and iPad iOS 7.1.1 and it worked flawlessly on all. All of my systems have Pro Tools HD and Pro Tools HD Native, Logic (Mac only), Cubase, Nuendo and Ableton installed on them. Install was straightforward and presented no issues. I was only able to test the included VST3 plugins within Cubase and Nuendo and predictably, there were no issues. In fact the integration of the controls for the DSP in the mixer window was a great move by Steinberg and having the same plugins available to use in channels is a very handy. The seamlessness of it all makes for a great workflow.

Whether you’re an artist or a band looking to record your next single, EP or album, there are enough good quality inputs, outputs and built in FX to cater for your tracking needs. Along with the four Yamaha Class-A design D-Pre mic pre’s there are two additional line level inputs switchable from +4db to -10db, two independent headphone outputs with plenty of volume for your drummer, main mix outputs, 4 additional outputs, midi in/out, a global high pass filter setting with a selectable range from 40Hz to 120Hz which can be very useful indeed and peak meters. Being mains powered is a drawback regarding true portability as is not having a digital out, but it arguably makes up for this in terms of usable and practical functionality, especially considering its price.

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All functions performed well, some beyond expectation during test while using it in a typical situation. Suffice to say that with the UR44, it’s possible to record a very decent recording indeed. Like I’ve already said, typical and or creative use of the onboard FX, good mic placement and a good grasp of the correct use of gain staging can produce excellent and rich results, void of unwanted noise and artifacts. A really great unit from what is continuing to prove to be a great partnership between Steinberg and Yamaha. If their MR series are anything to go by in terms of reliability, you should be happily making music with this unit for years to come.

To note:
If you’re looking to connect your iPad 2 or higher to your UR44, you’ll need to purchase the Apple’s Camera Connection Kit.

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