Field recordists are a unique crowd.
We don’t quite fit with theatre mixers, or sound recordists on set. Sound designers and Foley artists are a closer match, but they record sound effects indoors instead of in the wilderness we explore.
The craft of field recording is a narrow one. Recordists often have to assemble tools meant for other disciplines. Sound quality is essential, of course, but so are other traits required for capturing sound as we record clips beyond the studio: mobility, durability, and reliability.
When mastering field recordings I use a basic Pro Tools set up. It worked well enough for years, but I longed for something modern that would complement the field recording craft more closely.
I had heard about the Apogee Duet years ago. It was introduced in 2007, and updated in May of 2011 with new software and hardware. I decided to take the plunge and upgrade my gear.
I’ve been using the Duet 2 for about a month now. I’ll share my impressions, and explain how it can help field recordists master their tracks.
A Solution for Field Recordists
As field recordists, we’re away from the studio often while recording in the wild.
I travel while recording sound effects. Sometimes I’m away from my studio for months gathering clips. I wanted a way to master sound effects while on the road. The package had to be robust, and exceptional quality. It also had to be well-designed, and compact, and operated with little fuss. I didn’t want to be fiddling with bulky gear or tangled cables when cutting in a pension at the end of a long day of recording foreign atmospheres. I had travelled across Europe in 2006 for three months with such gear and, believe me, it was awful.
Thankfully, technology has evolved. MacBook Pro laptops can handle mastering tasks effortlessly. They are sturdier and lighter. Pro Tools became hardware-independent with version 9. That expanded the available options for audio interfaces. But which to choose?
I was drawn to Apogee’s Duet 2. I had used Apogee gear in the past, and had been impressed by their design sense, and manufacturing quality. And, of course, Apogee is well known for perhaps the most important element of an audio interface: sound quality. They use superior AD/DA converters, and their equipment has a reputation for sterling sound quality.
So, I upgraded to Pro Tools 10 and plugged in the Duet 2.
My thoughts? First, I’ll describe the Duet 2.
Duet 2 Features
What is the Duet 2 all about?
Well, it’s an USB audio interface with top-flight 192 kHz/24-bit-capable AD/DA converters. It’s bus-powered, which means it draws power from the host computer, and thankfully doesn’t require an additional AC outlet.
Audio input is via two combination XLR and 1/4″ jacks. The Duet provides phantom power and line level input with 75 dB of gain. There are four outputs. The primary output is via two balanced 1/4″ connectors. The final two outputs are a stereo 1/4″ headphone jack. The input and output connectors (save the headphones) are arranged with a breakout cable. Apogee offers a separate breakout box accessory (see images below) with 2 1/4″ inputs, 2 XLR inputs, and 2 balanced XLR outputs. That’s $100 more.
The Duet itself is operated by a multi-function push-button controller knob. It also has two software-assignable touchpads, and a crisp OLED display.
The unit is controlled by Apogee’s Maestro 2 software, which, in addition to standard I/O control, offers features such as dimable outputs, phase invert, soft limit, sum to mono, and more.
That’s an impressive list of features. As you can probably tell by the input and output options, as well as the compact size, the Duet 2 was meant for mobile creators. I think they had session musicians and DJs in mind, but field recordists can take advantage of its size and features.
However, the Duet 2 is pricey ($595). There are dozens of other interaces available that are considerably cheaper. The Focusrite Scarlett ($199), TC Electronic Impact Twin ($357), Tascam US–200 ($99), and Avid Mbox ($599 with Pro Tools included) are options.
Another tier of gear veers closer to the Duet 2. Focusrite offers the Forte ($599), which is similar even in styling to the Duet 2. RME’s Babyface ($749) is more expensive, but provides 10 inputs and 12 outputs. Both Focusrite and RME converters are also reputable.
So what is the appeal of the Duet 2?
Well, it comes down two major reasons. The first is design.
The Duet was designed to work with the Mac. It’s not a cross-OS Frankenstein software mashup. The focus on Macs may be why the Duet “just works.” Like Mac products, part of the appeal is its classy design, solid construction, and intuitive interface.
But of course, the real reason the Duet shines is its sonic quality.
Before we get to that, I’ll describe my impressions of unpacking, installing, and using the software.
I was quite impressed by the Duet. It’s a bit smaller than a paperback. It feels solid. And it should. It features an aluminum casing with a nice rubberized back so it won’t slide around on your desk. Cables connect firmly.
The controller knob is about the size of a silver dollar. It functions as a jog wheel which rotates in bumpy, grooved steps. This adjusts the levels. Pressing the knob down cycles through the inputs and outputs. At 2- and 11-o’clock are two touchpads, completely flush with the surface of the unit.
The OLED display presented levels and selections crisply.
Frankly, the unit looks quite sharp.
What about the software?
I found it at Apogee’s website. Unlike other manufacturers, their site is easy to explore, and instructions were clear. The Duet 2 has two installers, one for Snow Leopard, and another for OS 10.7 and 10.8.
After installing the software and restarting my Mac, the Duet immediately updated its firmware. A pop-up window appeared, and, with one click, the Duet 2 became the default I/O for my Mac.
Apogee’s Maestro 2 software allows you to adjust the typical settings: gain, analog level settings, input and output assignment, sampling rate, mix desk, and so on.
There’s also an option to assign the touchpad functions: mute, dim (one-touch level reduction), phase inversion, sum to mono, clear meter peaks, and others.
The software is elegant and clean. I didn’t experienced a single bug, or problem.
Pairing the Duet 2 with Pro Tools was simple: you simply select “Duet USB” from the drop-down in Pro Tool’s Playback Engine menu item.
I opened up a mastering session and auditioned a variety of tracks at a selection of sampling rates. I also played back a mix of genres in iTunes: electronica, jazz, classical, pop, folk, and rock. I tried MP3s, Apple Lossless files, and WAV files.
I tested audio both with Ultrasone headphones, and my self-powered speakers.
So, how was the sound quality?
I found the sound quality far superior than anything other I/O box under $1000. I was actually stunned at the difference.
What was different about the sound? How did the AD/DA converters affect it?
- More definition. I could place instruments, sound effects, and voices with precision. Each had a distinct position, and was incredibly clear, and accurate.
- The soundfield, or breadth of audio, felt like less of a wall. The soundstage deepened, and expanded.
- Bass was crisp. It felt less muddy and loose.
- Frequencies were well-balanced. The Duet didn’t appear to highlight lows, mids, or highs. Well, perhaps the very high frequencies were a touch lower, but not in any significant way.
- It had what I would call a smooth sound. The audio felt warmer, more pleasing to experience, and produced no listening fatigue.
I also tried the Duet’s phantom powered inputs with my Neumann 191-i microphone. The quality was excellent. I didn’t test this extensively since my focus was on editing, mastering, and playback. Field recording captures sounds beyond the studio, so it’s unlikely I’d tote a laptop and the Duet to capture sounds. I have a Sound Devices MixPre that is far more manageable when actually recording in cities and swamps.
An Interface for Field Recording and Mastering
So, would the Duet 2 fit my goals for a field recording audio interface?
Absolutely. It’s small enough to take travelling. It’s solidly built, and easily stands up to bumps and scrapes. It’s simple to use, and is reliable. Sound quality isn’t sacrificed despite its size and format.
Other options, such as the Focusrite or RME boxes, come close with features, durability, or perhaps even sound quality. However, none have them all in one package. The Duet 2 blends simple software, elegant design, and smooth sound quality.
Is the Duet a good value? While it may seem pricey at first, I believe it is worth the cost. The features, ease of use, aesthetic, construction, and lush sound quality are a compelling package, and a worthwhile investment.
But will it work for you?
I’d recommend it based on the audio quality alone. Of course, if you need more inputs and outputs, you’ll need to choose another device. But for sound effects mastering with two-channel monitoring, I find it ideal.
Perhaps you’re out of town recording for a client. Use the Duet with your laptop to review the day’s work in your hotel room at night. Perhaps you’re a student recording during Christmas break. Maybe you’re capturing a few clips on vacation in Asia and want to review your work as you go.
Pack the Duet 2. You won’t sacrifice your workflow or sound quality while away from the studio.
NOTE: New Version Announced
While I was testing the Duet, and writing this review, a new version was announced. It adds some significant features for the same price.
- It is now compatible with iOS 5.1.1 or greater. A USB cable connects directly, and digitally, with iPads, iPhones, and iPods. It supports various iOS recording apps.
- It captures audio at 192 kHz, 24-bit. This is significant in that the digital connection bypasses the iOS’s hardware sampling rate limitations (which top out at 48 kHz, 24-bit, I believe).
- It also includes a USB MIDI connection for a CoreMIDI-compatible keyboard.
- The new Maestro software supports sharing to Dropbox, SoundCloud, and iCloud.
The Duet 2 I tested in this review is excellent. The new Duet improves upon it. This could be a great opportunity for eBay bargain-hunters: within a month the new version of Duet will drive down the price of the one I reviewed here, offering a chance to pick up a superior audio I/O for a deal. We’ll see how the market responds.