$449.00, MSRP; $249.00, street
Akai recently released two USB Audio/MIDI interfaces that don't resemble your average boxes, at least ones you’re likely to see made new in this day and age. The EIE and EIE PRO are tabletops, but taller and boxier than many similarly configured interfaces, and sport throw switches, knurled knobs, and analog-style VU meters instead of the usual push-buttons and LEDs. The faceplate lettering and design also harken back to a previous time, but the great thing is, it all hangs together, both in user-interaction and audio production. The units sound fantastic for their price (under $200 and under $250, respectively) and are at once intuitive and quick to operate—even for those who’ve had no experience with vintage equipment. Even the name, Electromusic Interface Expander, is a nod to the unconventionally retro.
The two ruggedly built units are physically identical, in that they share exactly the same dimensions and control layout. The only aesthetic difference is the color of the faceplates: red for the EIE and silver for the EIE Pro. Sonically, the red one is limited to 16-bit audio—good enough for CD quality and anything up to that (mp3s, etc.). The silver Pro version has 24-bit audio and sample rates up to 96kHz. You might wonder why anyone would buy the red version, when a street price of only $50 will get you all the way to pro specs. The truth is, it’s unusual to see projects that require anything above 16/44.1. Sure, it may sound better to record at higher resolutions, but if you traffic in a world where CDs, mobile devices and online distribution rule the day, the red EIE more than covers you. I usually work in the 24-bit domain and then down-covert to 16-bit, but truthfully, I suspect it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d recorded in 16-bit to begin with.
Either way, it’s nice to have a choice, even though the difference of $50 is negligible to most people consider a purchase like this. With that out of the way, comments made in the rest review apply to both units.
The Akai EIE and EIE Pro are USB 2.0 Audio/MIDI interfaces with four inputs (combi XLR/14"), four balanced outputs (1/4" TRS), and four inserts (yay!). In addition to the normal I/O you'd expect to support MIDI (including two 5-pin DIN jacks) and four channels of audio, the EIEs also house three USB inputs (in addition to its main USB port), which allows connection of additional controllers, hard drives, and other peripherals. In other words, the EIE includes a built-in USB hub.
The blessedly simple fact about the EIE is that everything you need to operate the unit is on the front panel. There are no menus, no functions that need to be accessed through a software control panel (the one exception being a single-function control panel to change the buffer settings). The unit is AC powered via a generic wall-wart.
Everything you need for audio is on the front panel, shown here in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. All the controls for adjusting and routing signals are plainly displayed on the EIE’s front panel.
Each of the four channels contains (from top to bottom) a gain knob, Mic/Line/Guitar switch and a combo XLR/14" input jack. Between each two pairs of channels (1/2, 3/4) is a phantom power switch, meaning phantom power activates a pair at a time (Fig. 2). So if you were running a condenser and a vintage ribbon mic in stereo, you’d plug the condenser into channel 1 (with phantom power engaged) and the ribbon in channel 4 (without phantom power), making the necessary inputs adjustments in your DAW channels.
Fig. 2. The channel section of the EIE.
Over on the right side is the master section, which has a headphone jack and volume control, a headphone select switch (1/2, 3/4, All), and a Monitor I/O level knob which alternately monitors the inputs and blends the amount of input signal with the output in the headphones in different schemes (described below). Above the headphone and monitoring section are a pair of meter-select switches for the input or output of the two channel pairs, and a master level knob accompanied by a mono/stereo switch (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3. The master section of the EIE features headphone, meter, and monitor controls, plus a Mono/Stereo switch.
At the top right of the EIE is a pair of VU meters, brightly illuminated with a white backlight (Fig. 4). You’ll have no trouble reading your level status in a dark room or at some distance away.
Fig. 4. The VU meters are a large part of the EIE's charm, and are highly functional.
Around back are four USB and two MIDI jacks, plus the power supply port and power switch (see Fig. 4). One of the USB jacks connects the EIE to the computer, while the other three act as a powered hub to bring peripherals into your computer without either plugging them into the computer themselves or requiring an external hub. This is a nice touch, especially for smaller and mobile setups. Also here are the 1/4" balanced outputs and the TRS insert jacks for each channel. Having insert jacks is handy for inserting a compressor and ensuring you don’t overload the input, causing irreparable clipping.
Fig. 4. The EIE’s back panel features outputs, inserts, MIDI and extra USB ports.
Before plugging in the EIE Pro, you have to install drivers on your computer. (The EIE is class complaint, and therefore doesn't require drivers.) Per the manual, I didn’t even bother with the included disc, going straight to the website to download the latest driver (for this review I used a 64-bit Windows 7 machine). The process was quick and painless. Also installed was the aforementioned control panel, which displays the sample rate (determined by the project preferences) and allows you to change buffer settings. Akai also includes Cubase LE and Ableton Live Lite, both of which recognized the EIE with no problem. My two DAWS of choice, Pro Tools and Cubase, also recognized the EIE immediately, so I was recording in minutes, due to the simple layout of the EIE itself.
I liked having the inputs all on the front panel and on the bottom row. It facilitates quick plugging and unplugging, which you’ll do a lot of when multitracking with a 4x4 unit. It’s also nice that all four channels have equal functionality (Mic/Line/Guitar switches and combi jacks). Having the output and the inserts on the back panel is also to my liking, as these are more set-and-forget. The controls are all instantly discernible and comfortable to work with. I found the meter ballistics quit responsive and good for gauging things like vocal mic technique. If you enter clipping territory, the meter glows bright red. Alarming at first, but quite handy!
Though the unit is simple to operate, the monitoring function has a deeper level that becomes clear once you’re hooked up to your DAW. You use Input Monitor control to effect zero-latency monitoring when recording or overdubbing, the caveat being that on playback, the control needs to be set to maximum to ensure accurate VU metering. But Input monitoring has added functionality when the Headphone Select switch is engaged, operating in three modes: 1) all inputs monitored; 2) no inputs and only computer-output monitored; and 3) computer cue mix on 3/4 and a different signal sent to 1/2. Using a DAW’s cue mix, you can set up several different scenarios that can customize your overdubbing routines. Cool stuff!
I really enjoyed working with the EIE and EIE Pro. An interface is a personal thing, due in large part to the way you interact with it, and I just immediately found everything easy on the EIE—much easier than some other, more horizontally shaped interfaces on the market. The EIE stands tall and is readable and easy to control, especially with one hand (as I’m usually holding my guitar with my other). Its rugged construction, good sound, plain-as-day front panel operation, versatile monitoring options, onboard inserts, and USB hub features all make the EIE an unbeatable deal for the money and a great choice for the mobile or small-studio recordist.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).