- by George Petersen
in Road Tests
Some time ago (FRONT of HOUSE, June 2013) we checked out the Cymatic Audio LR-16, a 16-channel recording solution for capturing 16-tracks of live audio from analog boards. At $499, it was priced right, but besides having a 16-rack limit, it also was built in a non-rack configuration — issues when considering gear used in a live environment.
A few months ago, Cymatic began shipping its uTrack 24, a single rackspace unit that offers 24 tracks of recording/playback of balanced analog audio to your external USB 2.0 hard disk. Recording to USB Flash drives is also possible, but not recommended.
An onboard DSP mixer under iPad, iPhone, front panel or computer control lets users create and monitor a stereo mix of all 24 captured inputs via a headphone output (or two TRS audio outputs) with control of level, panning, mute and solo for all 24-inputs. The internal DSP mixer can generate a monitor mix having a lower latency when monitoring tracks you’re recording, than is typically possible when monitoring through DAW software.
Two units can be cascaded for 48 tracks. A single uTrack 24 can record at 16-bit or 24-bit resolution at 44.1/48/88.2/96 kHz, but is limited to eight-channel operation at the two higher rates.
The uTrack 24 can also function as a stand-alone 24-track 24-bit/96 kHz ASIO/WDM computer interface, for sending live audio directly to an iPad or PC/Mac workstation. Along with the audio data, the uTrack 24 can store and playback MIDI data. The uTrack 24 and its OEM developer ArchWave also support the CopperLan (copperlan.org) networking framework for command and control of musical instruments, pro-audio and show control. This opens some interesting possibilities for handling/playing back complex show data, automation files, etc.
Front to Back
Shown in Fig. 1, the front has: a USB port for connecting a hard disk; a smallish monochrome LCD display showing status and setup navigation; a rotary data encoder; dedicated buttons for Menu/Loop, Back and Browse functions; large illuminated transport/record keys; main output volume; headphone jack and volume; and a footswitch jack that can be set for play/pause or record start/stoop functions. Quite noticeable is a large 24-step LED ladder that can show the activity of all tracks -30dB glowing green, yellow at -6dB and red for clipping; alternatively, it can be set to operate as a single meter for any selected track.
The rear panel has three D25 sub connectors for the analog line inputs; three D25 subs for the analog line outs, stereo main outputs on two balanced TRS jacks; BNC word clock I/O; sync in/out for cascading multiple uTrack24’s; a MIDI output (this can output MIDI data from any standard MIDI file stored in the folder with the audio tracks); a USB output that’s used when the unit is employed as a front-end of a computer interface; and an RJ-45 Ethernet port for connecting to a router or network for Wi-Fi control.
There’s also a 12 VDC barrel jack that connects to the external in-line power supply. Here I would have preferred a locking connector, especially on a device used to capture/archive live shows. In lieu of that, I used gaff tape to secure the connection, but that’s somewhat inelegant, to say the least. (Cymatic plans to add a strain relief in future versions.)
The back panel also has an expansion slot for future add-ons. So far, Cymatic has announced a MADI Module option card (due mid-2015) equipped with I/O in coaxial BNC and optical formats for direct recording from any MADI source or virtual sound check playbacks.
File Formats and More
The uTrack 24’s maximum 24-bit/48kHz resolution for 24-track recording yields about 5.3 minutes of recording per GB, so a relatively compact 200 GB USB pocket drive yields some 1,066 minutes — about 18 hours — of 24-track record time. And a 1 TB drive would provide five times that amount.
The uTrack24 is specifically designed for continuous audio capturing of audio over longer periods of time. When recording, the uTrack24 stores data from multiple input channels into a single multichannel wave files. Many DAWs only handle a 2 GB max file — just over 10 minutes of 24-bit/48 kHz 24-track capture.
As live 24-track recordings often exceed that 2 GB file limit, the uTrack 24 has an intelligent file-splitting system that automatically creates a new multichannel wave file (“chunk”) as the 2GB threshold is reached. A gapless process stores all the segments into a common folder. On playback — such as for virtual sound checking — the unit seamlessly plays these segments. Transferred to a DAW, these could be manually lined up, but as a timesaving tool, Cymatic offers free (Mac/PC) uTool software, to break the multichannel WAV files into separate mono files and automatically join the segments into a continuous file.
The uTool application also lets users create detailed playlists, complete with volume level latching, custom file names and output assignments for playback through the uTrack 24. Besides simply offering a way to create walk music to play during band breaks, the playlist function opens up some creative avenues for specialized playbacks in situations like theater or presentation audio.
Out Here in the Fields
Once the uTrack 24 arrived, I was anxious to take it out in the field for some real-world testing.
You will need a fairly fast hard disk — I used a 1TB Seagate Backup Plus, a 5,400 RPM model that supports data transfer rates up to 4.8 Gbps. It worked fine with the uTrack 24. However, the drive must be formatted as a FAT 32 file system (this can be done directly uTrack 24’s front panel), which is robust, but the reformatting will wipe any existing data from the drive. The drive I used cost under $70 — and stores 90+ hours of 48 kHz 24-track sessions, so dedicating a drive or two to audio capture is highly recommended.
Another thing you’ll need is a lot of D25 cabling. Fortunately, everything is wired in the standard “Tascam” format, so D25 cables with your terminations of choice (D25, TRS or XLR) are readily available. However, depending on the cable quality and lengths you require, figure on spending another $250 to $1,300 — or more — for the connections. And until the MADI card comes out, uTrack 24 is limited to analog I/O sources.
Operations are straightforward. No computer necessary and it’s pretty much plug-and-go. Before recording, just set up the record parameters (sample rate, bit depth, number of tracks, etc.) and hit the record button. A “pre-record” function constantly stores a short segment in a buffer while the uTrack 24 is powered up, so it’s actually storing audio before you hit REC — a nice touch for gigs where the band gives you no warning when they’re ready to play.
Otherwise, things are pretty simple. There are no track arming buttons. Whenever you hit the REC key, all the tracks go into record mode. So even if you only have 21 inputs, you’ll be capturing all 24 tracks.
The fun really opens with the just-released, free uRemote Wi-Fi control app for iOS and OS X/Windows devices. This provides easy remote access to all setup parameters, playlist/file select, and offers a large mix screen for setting up monitor mixes with faders, pan, metering, mute/solo buttons and transport keys — all routed to the uTrack 24’s headphone feed or stereo TRS outs. The mix screen isn’t slick, but definitely does the job. The remote control aspect is great. Need to start recording from across the venue using your iPhone? No sweat. Equally useful is the metering screen, which displays levels on all 24 inputs/tracks in high resolution, along with transport controls. I would like to have more metering control, possibly with switchable ballistics, but it works fine as is. And the audio performance of the AD/DA converters is top-notch. No problem here.
At $999, the Cymatic Audio uTrack 24 provides a easy-to-use, affordable solution to capturing audio from analog sources. The uRemote and uTool apps definitely step it up a notch and make for a simple and flexible system. It will be interesting where this goes in terms of incorporating technologies such as CopperLan and MADI in future versions. But it’s a great start so far.
At a Glance
On-the-Go Show Capture
A no-computer-needed solution for capturing/playing 24-track audio analog sources, with useful uRemote Wi-Fi control software and uTool file management utilities.
PROS: Affordable, simple to use, easy analog interfacing.
CONS: Currently limited to analog-only I/O, tracks are captured in segmented multichannel wave format, non-locking power connector.
Cymatic Audio uTrack 24
Manufacturer: Cymatic Audio
More Info: www.cymaticaudio.com