Allen and Heath ICE USB Multitrack recorder review

What if? The question digital never tires of answering. What if my usb audio interface could be detached from my computer and become a stand alone recorder? What if, my stand alone USB recorder could be attached to my computer to serve as an audio interface. Well, Mr. Allen and Ms. Heath must have been wondering the same thing, for just such a beast has been released by A \& H under the monicker of ICE-16.

At the heart of the ICE is an Archwave chip and here A&H are in pretty good company, Prism Sound use an Archwave solution for their Orpheus and Apogee for their Ensemble. Of course there’s plenty of room outside the Archway chip for manufacturers to distinguish their products in the analogue side of the their products.

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When you build hybrid devices of any kind one of the questions that looms large is the issue of compromise. `Will the comprises inherent in design built to a price out weigh the advantage of the hybrid itself?’

When we look at the ICE-16 it’s pretty easy to see what sort of compromises have been made, this is a cost concious piece of hardware, the street price of the ICE-16 is well under a grand, inputs and outputs are all at line level and are unbalanced, jacks on the way in and phonos on the way out. All this fits snugly into a one U format, hence the phonos on the ouputs. Having said that the build quality is very good, the unit solid and the buttons and switches give rise to road ready confidence.

 

 

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I started by pluggin it into my XP machine where it replaced an Edirol UA101, eight in and eight out with two mic preamps on the front panel. Difficult to compare like with like but the current offering from Roland the Octo-Capture UA-1010 complete with eight mic preamps is about seventy percent of the cost of the A\&H.

So, `What happened to my mic preamps I hear you cry?’ And the answer to that is very simple, `You already have them in your mixing desk. Why pay for them twice?’ You don’t expect your multitrack to have mic inputs and the ICE is closer to a multitrack than it is to a bog standard PC audio interface. The idea behind the ICE-16 is that you strap it across the direct outputs of your desk and hey presto you have a 16 track recorder. But in this day and age is sixteen tracks enough? Probably not, (and note I think this would be just as true if the ICE offered 24 tracks) however you can daisy chain ICE-16s over firewire to get you a 32 tracks into your computer. Well you can, I only had one. The other option when using the ICE as a stand alone recorder is to `sync’ two ICE-16 recorders via the nine pin mini-din socket on the back of the machine. It has to be said that hardware is in front of firmware here and the current firmware doesn’t support sync, but promises for early 2013 abound.

Anyway back to the plugin, XP (I should say there’s also Windows 7 support, but no Windows 8 as yet, and core audio support in OSX means no drivers required) hurries off to find a USB driver and of course fails. So download the latest from A\& H and run the install routine. Bingo, up comes the ICE, no restarts or other painful behaviour, you have a 16 in/out box attached to your machine. The firewire install works exactly the same way, follow the instructions and it’s pain free.

ICE16-D_3Quarter_Left_02_2800The simplicity of the ICE means not much tweaking is available, there’s a front panel switch to select input or output monitoring and a button for each channel allows you to monitor channels singly or combined. Each channel also sport signal present leds (one for each channel illuminating at signals above neg 40 odd and paired with red warning led that lights up when you have 6dB of headroom left before clipping) give you a visual indication of what is going on. There’s no gain control on the hardware input or output and none in the software control panel — what you see in level terms is what you get.

Moving to ICE as a stand alone recorder, the first point is it’s a fixed format device at 48 or 44.1kHz it is a sixteen channel device, at higher sample rates (88 or 96K) the track count is reduced to eight. There’s no option to `arm’ tracks, it is all or nothing. And here the quality of your drive comes into play. Hight bit rates require a faster drive and probably a drive will be better than a `stick’. In order to get max data rate through the device the ICE formats your device with 32kbyte clusters and if you have a drive that you think should be faster then try formatting it in the ICE before use. It’s worth noting that the ICE-16 doesn’t support NTFS, it’s a FAT32 party.

So plug in your drive, if the drive is new to the ICE it will test it to give you a speed indication `Slo’ being too slow, `Hi’ gets you 24 bit and `Lo’ sixteen bit. The bit depth is set automatically, depending on the speed of the device. And here we begin to meet one of the ICE’s limitations, although the display is a fetching and bright blue you only get three digits and all control is through the transport keys. The device isn’t complex but if I were you I’d tape a copy of the menu structure to the top of the machine, especially for the first few gigs. The really sharp among you will be wondering how can you fit a comprehensive time display into three characters, you can’t. A single press on the time button will tell you have much record time you have available up to 99 minutes. Above that is a delicious mystery, have I got enough space to record that one off, never to be repeated 101 minute long Jam reunion gig? Only time will tell. The same limitation occurs in playback you can’t see how long you are into the file being played back or indeed its overall duration.

I think what this means in real life is do your homework before you set out. Sixteen channels of 44.1kHz audio at 24 bits requires about eight gig an hour. With each track recorded as a mono wav the FAT 32 maximum file size limits you to about eight hours of recording at 48 kHz. In brief buy a decent USB hard drive and always start with it empty, you know it makes sense.

I think we have seen that the ICE-16 is not without compromises, your not buying a fully featured stand alone sixteen track recorder. Your not going to replace your 2 inch Studer with one of these. But if you want 16 in and out at your PC and you have mic amps already covered then this is a good option, and if you want a sixteen track to record the gig PC free, at the press of one button this is for you. Especially if you envisage going to 32 tracks later. And for FOH the ability to do virtual sound checks is the icing on the cake, or the ICEing on the cake, sorry.

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