I started exploring PC based digital multi-track recording well over a decade ago, when it was expensive and impractical. After investing over $5,000 in the endeavor, I eventually wound up with a system that exceeded my much maligned cassette based 4 track portable studio. Fast forward and Cakewalk just sent me their most recent solution, a $99 hardware and software package promising the world and more. I know what you’re thinking, this is a joke right? Not so fast, read on…
Hardware SpecificationsNumber of Audio Record/Playback Channels
- Record: 1 pair of stereo
- Play: 1 pair of stereo
- REC SOURCE switch = ANALOG: Full duplex (except for 96 kHz setting)
- REC SOURCE switch = DIGITAL: Recording only
- PC interface: 24 bits
- AD/DA Conversion: 24 bits (linear)
- ADVANCE DRIVER switch = OFF: 16 bits
- Digital output: 32/44.1/48/96 kHz
- Digital input: 32/44.1/48/96 kHz
- AD/DA Conversion: 32/44.1/48/96 kHz
- ADVANCE DRIVER switch = OFF: 32/44.1/48 kHz
- Line input jacks: -10 to +4 dBu
- Guitar input jacks: -30 to -16dBu
- Mic input jack: -40 to -26 dBu
- Line output jacks: -10 dBu
- Digital input (Optical mini type)
- The same jack serves as both the Mic Input jack and digital input connector
- Digital output (Optical mini type)
- The same jack serves as both the headphones jack and digital output connector
- Conforms to IEC60958 consumer format
- ADVANCED DRIVER Switch
- Guitar/Mic Switch
- INPUT VOLUME knob
- PHONES VOLUME Dial
- SAMPLE RATE Switch
- 96kHz MODE Switch
- INPUT MONITOR Switch
- REC SOURCE Switch
- USB Connector (B type)
- Line Input jacks (L, R) (RCA phono type)
- Line Output jacks (L, R) (RCA phono type)
- Guitar/Mic Input jack: 1/4 inch phone type)
- Mic Input jack (Plug-in powered miniature phone type)
Digital Input connector (Optical mini type)
* The same jack serves as both the headphones jack and digital output connector.
- Headphones jack (Stereo miniature phone type)
Digital Output connector (Optical mini type)
* The same jack serves as both the Mic Input jack and digital input connector.
Supplied from the computer Current Draw
200 mA Dimensions
- 160 (W) x 58 (D) x 28 (H) mm
- 6-5/16 (W) x 2-5/16 (D) x 1-1/8 (H) inches
165 g / 6 oz
One of my big initiatives lately (and mostly at the behest of my beautiful and beloved wife), has been to spend less time within my fortress of solitude and more time within reach and earshot of other humans that occupy the home. So when I noticed on the packaging of the UA-1G that it was geared to work well in a mobile environment, I thought ok, you asked for it. Throw a $99 multi-track studio in a box at me and then tell me to use it on my laptop? Ok, where’s the hidden cameras? Where’s Allen Funt? I did fall off a turnip truck, but not yesterday, I’ve done this before, and it takes a monster machine to do this right!
Now granted, my laptop can probably beat up your laptop, I bought it specifically for gaming and other intensive apps. I was hoping sometime around 2050 to be able to do multi-track recording on a laptop so we’ll see where this goes, because if this is achievable on any laptop, in my mind it’s a huge step forward. Here’s the machine spec just so you know:
- ASUS G50Vt-B1
- Intel Core 2 Duo T9550 (2.66GHz) Processor
- 15.4″ WSXGA+ (1680×1050) Display
- 4GB DDR2 Memory
- 640GB (2 x 320GB 7200RPM) Hard Drive
- DVD Super Multi
- NVIDIA GeForce 9800M GS 512MB Graphics Card
- Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium 64-Bit
Cakewalk is by no means new to this game. They were a pioneer in home studio technology, being one of the first to bring commercial quality recording capability into your bedroom. Now owned by Roland, a name synonymous with pristine quality, this old dog is kicking out a few new tricks. Setup was a breeze. I first loaded the windows driver, then the Sonar LE software package, and then plugged in the interface. It truly couldn’t be easier. The UA-1G was immediately recognized by windows and by Sonar LE.
The hardware is simple enough. It’s about the size of your average notebook power supply but thinner and much lighter. The tactile feel is great, it’s got that matte black rubberized feel to it that I’ve come to love on my gadgets. The in and out jacks feel solid, and the input adjustment knob is large enough to grab quickly and tweak the signal. I really like the hardware knob for volume adjustment as well. One of the big problems with these types of systems when they first came out was that everything was a mouse click, and coming from the days of huge consoles, this was a horrible thing to stomach. The UA-1G has just what you need where you need it while maintaining a very portable form factor. In addition, it’s powered by the USB port you plug into, no external power supply is needed. Cakewalk UA-1G, you are now officially, my new best friend.
I found the software to be extremely robust yet simple to use. While any multi-track computer software takes a while to wrap your head around, I found navigating Sonar LE intuitive and logical. When I did get stuck, the extensive built in help section was quite adequate. I cut my teeth using huge sound boards and I still like that environment. Sonar LE incorporates a console view along with the industry standard wave form view which I really love. For those of us that grew up throwing faders and tweaking knobs, this environment lets us enjoy this technology instead of fighting it. Sonar is operable by an external control surface or keyboard if you choose, so it should be easy do dial in an environment that you’re comfortable in.
Click the picture for a larger view of Sonar’s environment.
I’m not a midi guy or a keyboardist. We’ve got a piano and a suitable Yamaha keyboard in the house, but my two sons and wife are much more apt at keys than I. I’m a guitarist and bassist mostly with enough drumming ability to keep a steady beat. So I’m all about the digital audio when it comes to multi-tracking. That being the case, I look for two must-have criteria for these types of solutions:
1. ASIO – As usual, Wiki says it most concisely:
Audio Stream Input/Output (ASIO) is a computer soundcard driver protocol for digital audio specified by Steinberg, providing a low-latency and high fidelity interface between a software application and a computer’s sound card. Whereas Microsoft’s DirectSound is commonly used as a stereo input and output for non-professional users, ASIO allows musicians and sound engineers to process their audio via Windows computer software instead of external hardware.
ASIO bypasses the normal audio path from the user application through layers of intermediary Windows operating system software, so that the application connects directly to the soundcard hardware. Each layer that is bypassed means a reduction in latency, the delay between an application sending sound to the sound being reproduced by the soundcard. In this way ASIO offers a relatively simple way of accessing multiple audio inputs and outputs independently. Its main strength lies in its method of bypassing the inherently high latency of Windows audio mixing kernels (KMixer), allowing direct, high speed communication with audio hardware. Unlike KMixer, an unmixed ASIO output is “bit identical”, that is, the bits sent to the sound card are identical to those of the original WAV file, thus having higher audio fidelity.
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT ever, ever, under any circumstances try to do multi-track recording without ASIO driver implementation. It won’t work. The sound you are attempting to record will be completely out of sync with tracks you’ve already laid down. Therefore, you most definitely want to ensure that your recording environment is picking up your interface as the input and output, and that it is using the ASIO driver. This is easily done under the Audio Options menu.
And one quick note on the input / output settings. Make sure you plug your headphones or external speakers into the UA-1G itself and not your computer when recording. Not doing this negates the awesomeness of ASIO implementation and the UA-1g offers a handy and easy to reach volume scroll wheel. Record and monitor thru the UA-IG.
2. An Amp Simulator
If you’re a keyboardist, you’ll do fine with just about any solution out there, it’s easy to hook up a usb or midi keyboard these days, load up a synth, and make your cheap-o keys sound like world class instruments. But if you’re a guitarist, and you want to minimize cables, complexity, and signal noise, an amp sim is a must. While doing a little pre-review research I couldn’t determine anywhere in the advertising that noted the package included one. Luckily for me it did, and Cakewalk should push this feature hard in their marketing in my opion, it’s a very valuable asset to a huge segment of their targeted market.
That means I don’t have to plug in my amp, and line out or mic it to get some decent tone. There’s little more offensive to me than a direct, un-processed electric guitar sound on tape. It’s horrible, stale, and dead. Many large commercial studios utilize direct boxes for recording bass specifically, but I’ve always hated it. The amp simulator included is not overly extensive, but it’s plenty good with enough presets and ability to customize that you’ll have no problem dialing in a few fun tones that are inspiring enough to get the creative juices flowing. I was able to even dial in a decent clean bass guitar tone even though there’s no preset for bass.
I could go very in depth into the Sonar LE software as it has a ton of functionality, but that review would be something no one would read, so I’m going to just hit the high points. Beyond the ASIO and Amp Simulator, there are a virtually unlimited number of audio and midi tracks you can create. Everything is rendered at 24 bit rate, which is currently the professional industry standard. There is a more than adequate amount of routing and effects processing ability in Sonar LE. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised at the capabilities of this light version of Sonar. I have been using FL Studio Producer Edition for years, and I really didn’t see much missing from LE that I couldn’t live without. And for you keyboardists and midi heads, it’s got all the same stuff I don’t understand about Steinburg Cubase, FL Studio, Ableton, and other packages including piano roll, a fully functional synth, midi clocks, and other associated goodies.
Now that I was all ready to go, I first grabbed up my Godin electric, and had to check out the British Overdrive amp sound with the 4×12 open back cabinet. It just sounded too lush and creamy to pass by. So I plugged in, set up a track to monitor the guitar thru and hit a few chords. I was immediately transported back in time when I first picked up the guitar as the tone, to me sounded like a classic Tommy Iomi crunch back in the day. When I first started playing, Zepplin and Sabbath were my favorite things to hammer out while I learned, and this tone took me there. I wouldn’t dare unleash my attempt at Mr. Page on the public at large, but since Tommy Iomi is one finger shy of a full 5 on his fretting hand, I figured I could manage a very abridged few bars of “War Pigs” in order to let you a listen to the built in amp simulator.
After exhaustive noodling thru every 70′s classic rock riff I know ( I found the tone really inspiring), I tried out several of the other tones as well. While the amp simulator included is not as extensive as some dedicated packages out there, I found it much more than adequate, and actually quite fun to play with. After an hour or so of this, my wife insisted I quit making “funny rock star faces” and get on to the more serious side of things. So I saved the track, exported it to MP3 format with the built in encoder, and put the good old days back where they belong.
I opened up a new project, cued up a track ready to record, grabbed my Seagull concert acoustic/electric and plugged in. I decided to do a clean finger picking thing to illustrate the clarity of the package. I can tell you that I was really impressed with the complete lack of noise in the headphones I was monitoring while recording, and in the recorded track itself. The little clip below is a very un-recognizable version of Mercy by Widespread Panic I came up with. I always seem to warm up with it when I pick up an acoustic, and it worked for the purposes here. You’ll notice the guitar is effected with a some Chorus and Reverb. The effects are heavier than I would ever put on a finished product, but I wanted them to be noticeably audible for demonstration purposes.
Media Archiving and Restoration
As a parent, I’ve noticed that the older your children get, the less cool you become. My 10 year old son happened to be hanging around while I was doing my testing. He’s taken an avid interest in drums, keys, and guitar, and of course technology. Most of what he’s ever been witness to me playing, was acoustic guitar, or easy jazz or blues electric, or some jazzy or funky bass. He remarked that he didn’t know I could “shred” the heavy stuff while I was laying down the War Pigs clip. I professed to him that indeed I used to rock! Long before he or his mother came along, I spent a few years rocking it out full time. Those days are long gone, but a light bulb went off. I told him to go pull out a bin of old cassettes that have traveled with me for years and years and bring them to me.
In the meantime I ran to the garage and pulled out the old Teac cassette player, grabbed some RCA cables and headed back to the laptop. I plugged the cassette player into the UA-1G, grabbed the oldest, crustiest tape I could find and slipped it in. I loaded up a new project and used the “Stereo Master” template, hit the record button in Sonar, and the play button on the Teac. What emanated from the headphones was the horrible quality recording of me and one of the first bands I was in, playing an outdoor festival. I was able to dump the entire contents of the cassette onto my hard drive, and am planning on doing a lot of dynamics processing, slicing it up into different tracks and making a CD out of if for us. All of which the UA-1G and Sonar LE should be able to do easily with the included features.
The UA-1G did this archiving easily and never once taxed my laptop. It dumped about 1 hour and 40 minutes of audio straight without a single glitch or pop left on the track. I’m going to get to re-live the glory days as I go thru this process with all of my old recordings, and I can’t tell you what a big deal it is to be able to do this. My son still doesn’t think I’m cool, but he will now at least admit that I used to be! So this was an added bonus I really hadn’t considered, but the UA-1G is going to let me do all this archiving on my laptop as I get time to do it. This is huge!
This was my first home studio, it comprised 600 square feet and tons of equipment.
It’s now this, it comprises 6 square feet, minimal equipment, and has more capability.
Conclusion: The UA-1G is a JamGasmic Must Have!
The UA-1G simply blew me away. As someone who’s seen first hand this type of technology evolve from infancy to today, I can tell you in no uncertain terms, that this package is simply beautiful. I love a good bargain, and especially when it comes to musical instruments or related equipment because I love to see it in the hands of the masses. The UA-1G puts a really shocking amount of functionality within very easy grasp of a lot of people. For $99, I almost still can’t believe it. To me, a good technology is transparent. While playing with the UA-1G, it disappeared, what was left was pure clean fun bundled in a functional tool set.
What’s more is it performed flawlessly on my laptop, making this package truly portable and flexible. Imagine being able to travel and capture those fleeting inspirations quickly, or simply carrying it to a friends house, or being able to capture a 24 bit recording off the soundboard at your next gig. Whether you buy this for yourself or as a gift for someone, you can’t go wrong. I’ve not reviewed or purchased anything recently with this much wow factor, it’s that good. It’s capable enough to do most of what you want, and simple enough to just have fun. Go get it!