Thursday, April 09, 2009

PreSonus Firebox Review

It doesn't matter how much wonderful audio-editing software you have in your computer...if you only use the computer's standard line and headphone jacks, you're severely restricted.

What that means is that you can only record a single stereo channel -- and play a single stereo channel -- at any one time. You can't record multiple instruments all at once. You can't output different tracks of your music to separate devices. And lord forbid you try to set up an effects send system (outputting one or more tracks on a separate channel, sending them through an external effects processor, then returning them on yet another channel for separate mixing).

Ever since I started working with computer editing systems I've restricted myself to this single input/single output setup. A few days ago I decided to change that.

You can buy a lot of external recording boxes to plug into your computer, but I had certain specifics in mind:
  1. Preferably firewire, because my USB ports are all used up.
  2. Preferably powered BY the firewire port, because my power bars are already dangerously overloaded.
  3. At least four inputs capable of accepting line-in cables. Most boxes only allow some combination of two line OR two mic inputs, which defeats the purpose for me. One reason I want this box is so I can digitize old cassette four-track masters, so I need four line-ins.
  4. Ability to do an effects send.
  5. Works with my Intel iMac.
  6. Works with Logic Studio.
I ended up calling Carbon Computing in Toronto and talking to the most knowledgeable guy in the world. He immediately told me what I needed: the PreSonus Firebox. And like a jerk I bought it from Long & McQuade down the street, because they had it in stock for $440.

The Presonus Firebox plugs into your firewire port, gives you six inputs (two of them S/PDIF only), two gain knobs (controlling the four non-S/PDIF inputs), four outputs, and separate phone/main outputs (each with its own volume knob). As an added bonus it serves as a MIDI in/out controller (so I can finally ditch my ancient and flaky M-Audio device) and comes with Cubase LE, which I'll never use (but I might be able to snag its free plug-ins).

NOTE: The Firebox's first and second inputs -- the ones on the front -- are "Neutrik Combo Connectors." This means that you can plug either XLR or 1/4" cables into them, though it isn't obvious at first. If you're wondering how you can get four 1/4" cables into a device that only appears to have two 1/4" inputs, that's plug the cables into what APPEARS to be an XLR but is really so much more. Whew!

Setting It Up

The Firebox is tiny -- 1 half-width RU -- so when you get everything plugged in it looks like Medusa. The firewire port seems a little weak, which could slow your workflow down a bit (see below).

I connected it to my iMac's firewire port and -- presto! -- it displayed a happy blue LED, which meant it was interacting properly (its drivers are already included in the OS X Core Audio, so there was no need to install anything).

I opened up the Mac Audio MIDI Setup application and...there it was! PreSonus FIREBOX! I could choose it for my default input and output and it instantly appeared as a MIDI device. Sweet. Once I chose it in the MIDI Setup application I was able to hijack it with Audio Hijack Pro. Even sweeter!

Since the instruction manual in the box states that the Firebox only works with Power PC Macs, I downloaded the latest Universal applications. Besides the expected control panel and mixer, they also came with a firmware updater. "Hmmm," I thought. "Obviously I should update the firmware first."

So I did. The operation completed successfully...and the light on the Firebox turned red, and it disappeared from the Audio Hijack drop-downs. This means badness. Re-inserting the fireware cable didn't help. There is also no way to turn the Firebox off and on, which is actually sort of annoying.

Convinced that I'd managed to scramble the inside of my device in only five minutes, I did a forum search for this problem and discovered that many people were reporting it: "I just updated my firmware and now my Firebox's LED is always red!" The answer from PreSonus technical support personnel? "If your Firebox stops working, bring it in and we'll repair it." BALLS TO THAT!

Rather than weeping I did the next best thing: I restarted my iMac. As it booted up the Firebox light went blue, then red,! It stayed blue! Life was good once again.

Next I opened Logic Studio and set my audio preferences to use the Firebox. I tried recording from inputs one and two: perfect. I hooked my speakers up to the Firebox main outs: perfect. I redirected my Logic audio tracks to different outputs: perfect. I set up an effects send situation and did a round-trip through my Lexicon MX300: PERFECT!

Other than the abnormally short MIDI cables connected to the Firebox breakout cable, and the fact that the device gets a little bit warm after a few minutes, the only problem I've noticed so far is that if you unplug the firewire cable -- which could be easy to do accidentatlly, since the port is so exposed -- Logic Audio immediately bitches and refuses to recognize the Firebox until you re-start Logic. So watch out.

I have yet to try the MIDI capabilities or do any serious recording with the Firebox, but I'm pretty sure I have a winner here. It's a great mid-range product, perfect for those who don't want a toy but also don't need to record a church choir. I'm thrilled that I can finally used my external effects processors again, and get some really killer reverb without draining my CPU. Bliss!


Jenn said...

ok, I have no idea what all that stuff is about, but I have to ask: why didn't you call the local carbon store?

Adam Thornton said...

I did, and they told me to call the Toronto Carbon store. :)

dance MIDI samples said...

Wow this is really detailed and just shows what some companies are like.

Anonymous said...

Bought the Firebox last Saturday and am stoked. A lot of bang for the buck. Have it running with Cubase and it's working great. Great PC software, for sure. A mini studio with 6 simultaneous inputs and 8 outputs with digital mixer and array of solid recording software for under 300 bux! I recall buying a $400 cassette tape 4-track recorder back in the early 90's that was a joke compared to to the capability of this thing.


mc jack handy said...

Hey! Nice post. I have a question. I'm attempting to digitize my humongus cassette collection and thought the firebox would be perfect. I get signal through inputs 3 and 4, but it's so faint - using garageband I've got the recording input pegged and checked the presonus software mixer setting. Don't know what I'm doing wrong.. do you have any experience in this arena?

Adam Thornton said...

Hi Paul,

I'm not using Garageband so I'm not 100% sure of what's wrong. I found the Firebox mixer to be really confusing and I can't say that I really understand it even now.

That said, if you can hear the input then you MUST be on the right track. Try recording within Garabeband and then just mess around with the Firebox Mixer settings. Try some different configurations within the mixer. Try plugging your cassette deck into 1&2. I'm certain that your problem is simply a configuration issue, and nothing that can't be overcome.

I'm no audio genius but I find that by trying different combinations of inputs and outputs and mixer settings, I eventually find what I want. When the Mixer becomes involved, the whole concept of audio recording rises to a new and somewhat abstract level. If worst comes to worst, stick with inputs 1 and 2 and see what happens...

Anonymous said...

I bought one of these for $169. Free shipping and it came with two xlr cables for free. Website is

Mark D. said...

Caution. Does not work with Windows Vista. This is why the price is coming down. If you buy it, you will likely be dead in the water when XP has gone the way of the dinosaur. Sooner or later you'll want to move beyond XP and your box will be toast.

Anonymous said...

Is working well with Windows 7

Unknown said...

So it's not working good with Vista, but is working great with Windows 7? I may be able to get one at a great price too.

Using a couple keyboard, though. So i'm hesitating between this and an Alesis MultiFire8.

thanks for the preview!

Unknown said...

oops, also have to add that I'll be using soft-synths. anyone has empirical comments on this front?