The RME UFX
Last month, I reviewed RME’s new portable interface, the Babyface (you can read the write-up here), and to say that I was an instant fan is a major understatement. I bought the unit within the first day of playing around with it, and I’ve used it for overdub and location recording on pretty much every project that’s demanded it since. For my own project studio however, I needed something a little more full featured. So, when the UFX – RME’s new 30 x 30 flagship interface – finally came into stock, I figured I’d give it a little test drive. Given how pleased I’d been with the Babyface, my expectations were, no doubt, unreasonably high. After all, the core elements of every flagship technology RME produces, from conversion to clocking to preamps, all went into this little box. If the Babyface looked squarely poised to take on the Apogee Duet, the UFX no doubt is setting its sights on the Ensemble. Having never worked directly with the latter, I cannot compare the two. Butt I will tell you is that the UFX has somehow managed to meet (or exceed) my expectations in nearly every sonic facility. If there is a comparable interface to be had at the price, I certainly have never heard it (if you have, please send me one so I can build it a shrine). The only stock interface I have ever heard that I can say is definitively better is the Prism Sound Orpheus. It also happens to cost well over twice what the UFX does.
Design and Build Quality/Ease of Use
Before anything else, let me just say that RME has to have set some sort of record for the sheer amount of stuff they have crammed into a single RU box with the UFX. The connectivity alone is insane: 30 inputs and outputs, 12 of them analog (if you include the mic pres and stereo HPAs), Firewire or USB 2.0 interface protocol, AES/EBU, Optical S/PDIF and ADAT I/O, BNC word clock, midi … heck, the only thing it doesn’t have is coaxial S/PDIF. Given all that connectivity, it’s a wonder the UFX is as elegant and clearly laid out as it is. The physical inputs are crammed in like clowns in a Volkswagen, and yet nothing is difficult to access, poorly marked or even aesthetically cramped feeling.
For me, however, the single greatest part about the physical layout of the UFX is the front panel input connectivity. The mic pres/DI ins, the headphone outs and one set of the MIDI I/O – essentially everything you’ll find yourself frequently connecting and disconnecting gear to – is placed on the front panel. Clearly RME understood that most potential buyers of this unit don’t have complex enough setups to warrant patch bays, and often have very tight space constraints as well (certainly true for my own small studio space). Never again (well, at least as far as this piece of gear is concerned) will I find myself having to fumble blindly around the back of my rack contorted into some seventh level yoga pose with a flashlight in my mouth just to plug in a microphone. My back thanks you RME.
In every facet, major and minor, the build quality follows suit. Top quality parts (including all Neutrik connectors) are used for every analog input, and the physical chassis itself is pretty much what you’d expect from “Made in Germany.” Knobs and controls feel solid and sturdy, and every connection feels dependable. Small touches like aluminum rack handles for easy mounting and dismounting abound, and even the seemingly microscopic display on the front panel is so well laid out and so high resolution that ultimately it’s both highly functional and eminently usable. Every way you slice it, the UFX is a classy piece of gear.
From the software side of things, the Total Mix FX software I felt was too complex for the Babyface makes perfect sense here, and frankly, once you figure out a couple of the major idiosyncrasies of its design, it’s actually fairly straightforward and extremely functional. The tiny metering on the gorgeous front panel LED screen is understandable, given the physical limitations of a single RU box, and for nearly every function that you can adjust with it, the context menus are quite simple to navigate, and the text very readable. Most importantly, you can adjust nearly every setting either on the physical unit or on the Total Mix FX software depending on taste. This may seem like a minor point, but the flexibility of being able to make gain adjustments with a physical knob while still keeping your DAW windows up front is a major plus for me. My only qualm is that (at least as far as I can tell) you can’t select a single channel and blow up the metering on the small LED screen. It would be very helpful to have a larger set of stereo meters for PPM monitoring on stereo buss mixdown and mastering.
One minor caveat emptor worth mentioning is that there are still a couple of bugs in the firmware (at least as of version 1.79). Every now and again, the digital channels will decide that it’s time to throw a rager and start spitting up digital drek on every channel. It’s nothing that a quick hardware restart won’t fix, and I’ve no doubt that it will get ironed out in future firmware updates, but it can be a bit of a minor annoyance. And to be fair, it’s not something that has ever plagued me in the middle of a session. It either happens within a few seconds of start-up or it doesn’t.
The UFX performs such a staggering number of functions that I’m not even sure where to start here. In my mind, however, the core function of any quality interface should be conversion, so lets begin there. Simply put, it’s stunning. The first thing I do to test an interface is always to run a few carefully picked reference tracks through it, in order to get a feel for the clocking and digital-to-analog conversion, as well as how well the monitor-control (if indeed there even is monitor control), functions. And even with my expectations duly bolstered by the experience I’d had with the Babyface just a month earlier, my jaw hit the floor when the sound first came on. This is a level of quality that’s starting to enter the genuine elite class. Yes, there are some professional studios I’ve worked in with Meitner and Mytek conversion and Antelope rubidium clocks that produce a yet more mesmerizing sound. But they have also paid tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars for that luxury. This, at a price the dedicated home studio owner can swing, comes impressively close, and it’s lightyears ahead of anything else I’ve heard within several thousand dollars of the price. The imaging, control and detail on playback are breathtakingly subtle and controlled.
The analog-to-digital conversion is equally good. The noise floor is fantastically low, and conversion itself is effortlessly clean and dynamic. One of my favorite preamps in my rack is the AEA TRP, a super high gain, super low noise, dedicated ribbon preamp, and in using it with lesser converters I’ve started to bring up converter noise well before the self-noise of the pre itself (which tends to defeat the purpose given that it’s designed to work with those picky, low output ribbons). But the UFX converters can match it pound for pound well into the high 70db gain range, which is a feat unto itself. Ideal conversion, as far as I’m concerned, is accurate, detailed, transparent and quiet. Good ADC should more or less do its job and get out of the way, and the UFX conversion does exactly that. Once again, this is a level of quality that is starting to break into the level of boutique stand-alones.
The preamps are clearly of the same family and ethos as the Babyface pres, only a lot more so. Clean and extended, but with a hint of low end warmth and overall depth and roundness that seems to typify the new generation RME pres. I wouldn’t classify these as character pres by any stretch, but they’re definitely not cold or clinical. If restricted to a single adjective, “rich” would characterize them nicely.
Most importantly, they are incredibly versatile: 65 db worth of truly clean gain and parallel converters on every mic pre translates add up to give you a ridiculously low noise floor, so there’s probably not a mic in your locker that these pres can’t shine on. Frankly, as impressive as the conversion is for the UFX, the preamps may yet be another step above; these might be the best interface pres I’ve ever used, period. As far as clear, neutral, effortless microphone preamplification goes, you’re looking at a minimum of about $750 per channel on a truly top tier standalone pre to best these. There are some lower cost, more colored pres, like the Black Lion Auteur or Focusrite ISA series, that I might prefer for certain applications, but within the clean preamp camp, the UFX pres are superb.
The versatility of the UFX is staggering. The breadth of its connectivity and the power of its sound quality alone make it enormously capable, but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. From the software side, the complexity of the Total Mix FX software stems directly from its functionality. The channel, mix and playback routing are all infinitely configurable, all settings are recallable, and a huge number of configurations and presets can be saved and stored for easy repetition. All sorts of useful extras, like M/S matrix processing, pan and volume automation, and phase inversion are there if you need them, and surprisingly good DSP powered reverbs, EQ, compression and echos are available on each channel. It’s not exactly mastering grade stuff, but it’s definitely higher quality effects than you’ll find stock in most DAWs. Best of all, it won’t put any drain on your processor or inject any meaningful latency given that it’s all powered from the UFX itself, so at the very least it’s useful for tracking even if you have higher quality plugins for post.
The UFX can even run standalone and record directly to a usb pen drive or external hard drive via the USB input on the front panel, which given its small footprint, superior sound quality and excellent connectivity makes it a real competitor to the likes of Nagra or Sound Devices for location sound and live concert recording. There’s an enormous range of people, from professional recording musicians, who want a quality all-in-one solution to their personal recording and editing needs, to serious project studio owners, who want a top-notch centerpiece to build around, who could benefit from a unit like the UFX.
At $2100, for many, the UFX may well be the most expensive interface they’ve ever even been aware of, let alone considered purchasing. Keeping that in mind, for the level of quality and versatility the UFX provides, nothing I know of within thousands of dollars comes anywhere close. It does so much, at such a high level, while providing such room for future expansion, that the $2100 almost seems like a bargain. There really isn’t anything else out there, with the possible exception of Apogee’s Ensemble (or perhaps more realistically, the new generation Ensemble 2 that is no doubt close on the heels of the recently unveiled Duet 2) that marries the convenience, versatility, ease of use and cost-efficacy of an interface with a quality level on par with some boutique standalone gear. In short, the UFX, at least as of this posting, has no equal at its price.
The Final Verdict
The UFX is a worthy cornerstone of all but the most esoteric, boutique project studios. It can fill a vast multitude of needs in a supremely classy style, and all for a price that’s surprisingly tame given the quality. The pres are good enough to push all but the pickiest low output ribbons, the conversion and clocking are absolutely top notch, and the I/O capability is rich enough to allow you to integrate any and everything you might need for a small studio. If you want one place to start that will give you huge flexibility to expand and everything you need to begin, the UFX is it. Buy a computer, a few quality microphones and some cables and accessories, and the UFX can do everything else. But the highest praise I can give the UFX is that it’s now the centerpiece of my own project studio. Food for thought…
Dev is a professional jazz-fusion composer, singer, sound engineer and front man for the band Wire Spoke Wheels, living and operating in beautiful Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s also co-founder and co-chairman of Frost Audio, a small Michigan based audio company specializing in high performance cables and loudspeakers, all hand-made in the USA. He’ll be releasing his next studio album, Tears of Men, in early 2011. To learn more or hear his work, check out www.devavidon.com