Metric Halo LIO-8 by asenna
The Metric Halo LIO-8 is a scalable, upgradable and professional Firewire based audio interface. When looking for a true upgrade from my Apogee Duet and Digidesign 002R, I eventually settled on the LIO-8 as the true winner in feature set, build quality, sound quality and truly remarkable capability. It is a high definition unit with record settings from 16 bit 44.1 kHz all the way to 24 bit 192 kHz. Also equipped with on board DSP capabilities and software functionality, the LIO-8 hits on all cylinders.
Light and only 1 rack space, the LIO-8 is deceptively deep. It is something like 14 inches deep. The electronics are housed in a super rigid shell which dismantles with very few screws. The LIO-8 can be powered by industry standard camera batteries or via an included power supply. It connects and can daisy chain Firewire 400. It can operate with or without a computer.
The unit has 8 inputs and 8 outputs wired to Tascam spec'd DB25 connectors. It has 3rd generation AD/DACs on all I/O and an additional set of 3rd generation converters on the headphones output (lovingly labeled "Cans"). It also sports a DB25 connector for balanced sends for further flexibility. There are two DI connections on the front of the unit that automatically route to line in 1 and 2. If you have another source going in through the DB25 connector into 1 or 2, it will actually mix both signals together. Kind of an interesting choice given that most companies make it an either or kind of choice. There is also a DB25 connector for AES/EBU digital connections in addition to the MIDI, Woodclock and SMPTE I/O.
Looking at the back panel one notices a blank slot labeled "Mic In" where the optional mic preamp upgrades begin. You can install up to 8 preamps, or 4 at a time, in the LIO-8 if you find that mere line level conversion isn't going to do it for you. The installation of the mic preamps is very simple and can be done at home with a couple of tools anyone who even think about buying this should already have.
The LIO-8 is also +DSP enabled with a small bundle of plug-ins that are processed with Metric Halo's +DSP chip. The +DSP license unlocks dozens of useful plug-ins, the processing power of which, are handled in the unit with near zero latency. So, for example, if you wanted to throw a little reverb into a cue mix for a vocalist, you can do it with the LIO-8 before the audio even routes through your DAW.
Unique in the interface world in Metric Halo's MIO Console software. Unlike other DSP mixers, MIO Console does nothing for you in the way of routing other than create some templates to get started with. This is a good thing. Imagine buying a console and having the whole thing already wired up by someone else who didn't have your work flow in mind at all. Would you rather just work within some kind of pre-imagined framework, or would want to completely customize your work flow? Any professional user may find templates or presets useful places to begin or to experiment with, but by and large we want to customize, we want to dictate to the hardware how it should be routed, not be dictated to. In MIO Console you can basically route anything, anywhere and monitor it all before it travels through your DAW. This means extremely low latency.
MIO Console also gives you access to MH's Monitor Controller, which is a software based monitor controller. It is fully customizable and you can even calibrate different sets of output paths to particular monitor levels. Say you have one set of monitors that turning up to -12 is way loud but another set that it is too quiet. You can tweak the virtual output knob to calibrate to a level you set. This means the virtual output knob will behave as a coherent level adjuster across monitors sets without having to worry about jumps in levels.
This software even records! If you are one of those folks that would prefer just to turn on and hit record, you can basically use your computer as a hard drive to capture audio and let MIO Console and the record function do the rest. There is so much more to MIO Console that it would take up entirely too much virtual ink here so let's just say, you can pretty much do anything with it. Not to mention that in practical use, it is rock solid, that is, in my personal use, it has not crashed once.
There is a learning process to the way the hardware and software interact. As I mentioned, they really don't do anything for you. That said, if you have had your hands on a console and know your signal routing, it isn't difficult at all. I had output coming out of speakers mere minutes from turning the thing on and installing the software. The drivers and software are rock solid, no hiccups, no slow screen redraws, nothing. The hardware is very responsive to the software as well. The only thing more fun than creating your own personalized mixer and routing, would be to do the patching yourself on a real console (sorry, I kind of like patching things).
I only use the LIO-8 with Pro Tools 9 but again, there was no mystery here. I am used to new gear and especially a new interface, to kind of throw up ro*******s and confuse me and generally not work as expected at the beginning (and especially with PT 9). Other than hardware related issues (read below in "Customer Service") nothing got in my way using the LIO-8. I had more trouble with my Duet and getting Pro Tools to "see" it. Same goes for the Audio MIDI Setup as well. Even when my Duet was plugged into the power and connected via USB, it almost always needed to be reset for the OS to "see" it. Never an issue with the LIO-8... ever.
Patching this baby up is problematic for those who don't already have DB25 snakes, but really once you get over this aspect, it is actually quite nice to reduce cable clutter. Again, it is more fun to patch TRS snakes in my opinion, or at least not as satisfying but I tell you, when I look at the back of my rack it is nice to see it a little more clean and easier to navigate. Anyone need some cheap 8 X 8 TRS snakes? Ha! I am looking into getting an XLR patchbay once I purchase the ULN-4 part two to eventually get all 8 mic pres.
Honestly, I have some out board mic pres that I am primarily using at the moment so perhaps I will post a follow up to this gigantic review to comment more on that. Also, some hiccups as of late have made it difficult to do more testing at this time, read on...
It seemed that a better portion of the 90s and 2000s were racked with truly terrible tech support. It was almost as if companies were reeling with the complexity of computers interfacing with audio and it seemed almost Sisyphean to hope to get someone on the phone or return an email. One would typically get either an incredibly impersonal and indecipherable engineer who might be nice enough but could never explain to a regular Joe how to troubleshoot something. Or you would get a "God's-gift-to-IT" type who you could tell was getting some kind of bitter amusement to your problem, which to them probably had some obvious fix.
These facts have led me to do most of my own troubleshooting with computers and therefore, I actually know a lot more about the way my Apple computers work with interfaces than most. That said, my first LIO-8 unit did not arrive well. It had issues from the beginning and simply was not operating as it was supposed to. The issue I was having was so esoteric and completely unlike any they had experienced before that the amount of troubleshooting was quite exhaustive. I wont go into details because ultimately the issue has been settled but needless to say, it was not a common issue their engineers were aware of. We finally decided the unit was messed up and they replaced my unit with a new one within a week! Now, all of this might sound like, "well, duh, of course they are supposed to do that!" It isn't why they did it or even that they were supposed to, it was the way they encouraged me to troubleshoot and in such a way that I actually learned something about the way their product works. I felt as though I had a true technical partner in solving the issue.
One's expectations ought to be high for company that commands such a high premium for their products. Mine were and I was not disappointed. Metric Halo runs a truly remarkable business run by even more remarkable people.