Recently, I picked up Steinberg's new UR22 USB audio interface. This interface is a 2-in/2-out, bus-powered audio and midi interface aimed at the home studio and mobile markets. Although it is the smallest unit in the Steinberg's UR series, the UR22 does come with a fair amount of features including a pair of Yamaha's much touted "D-Pre" mic preamps which incidentally can also be found in Yamaha's MGP Series mixers.
Steinberg/Yamaha interfaces have scored very well with many users for their stability and consistent reliability. Although this is my first experience with Steinberg hardware, I've been running Cubase as my preferred DAW of choice since SX1.0, so I am coming at this as a user who's only dealt with Steinberg products from a software point of view. Even though I have been a loyal customer for over 12 years, it has not been without its low points, but with the recent glowing praise for releases like Cubase 7 and Cubasis for iOS, it seems Steinberg can do no wrong at the moment. Suffice it to say, I have been on the fence about upgrading to a new audio interface and the UR22 definitely seems the business.
Out of the Box
The UR22 comes bundled with the usual suspects mainly consisting of drivers disk, operations manual and a redeemable voucher for a full version of Cubase AI 6 which can be downloaded directly from Steinberg.net. It should be noted that this download is only accessible by registering your UR22 via the Steinberg website and you will need to register your UR22 before doing so. Take care that you don't accidentally throw this voucher away as your redeemable download access code is printed on it.
The registration process is straight forward. I logged into my existing "MySteinberg" account, clicked on the Product Registration link, selected UR22 from the "Hardware" dropdown and then entered my serial number (which can be found on the bottom of the unit under the "SER No." barcode). You can also enter your Cuabse AI 6 download access code in the same page. Once registered, you will find your activation code by clicking the "Registered Hardware" tab under the "Show Registered Products" link.
The UR22 is a bus-powered unit which means all the power that is needed to run the unit is done through a USB cable. If you're a Mac user, installation of the UR22 should be a relatively simple plug & play scenario. For Windows users, the UR22 comes bundled with a set of 32-bit and 64-bit drivers which can be found directly on the drivers disk. Running the disk application setup will automatically detect what version of Windows you are running and install the appropriate driver. One thing I would like to note which I found disconcerting was the lack of downloadable UR22 drivers on the Steinberg website. Normally, I check a manufacturer's website when installing new hardware on my system in order to download the latest drivers. At the time of this review, no driver links could be found on the Steinberg website. This could be a real pain in the ass if a customer loses their driver disk so keep that in mind if you're one of those people who throw away installation disks out of preference for downloading the latest and greatest drivers for the manufacturer's website. (Looks like downloadable UR22 drivers are now available on the Steinberg website)
The Yamaha Steinberg USB Driver has a control panel allowing you access to sample rate and buffer settings as well as version information of the audio driver (currently v1.7.1). Typically, most audio interfaces give you access to a quick launch icon in the notifications area of your taskbar in Windows. Unfortunately, this isn't the case when installing on Windows7 and I had to manually create a quicklaunch shortcut for it (the executable for the control panel can be found under your "Program Files > Yamaha" directory). Sample rate settings range from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz, with ASIO buffer size settings ranging from 64 samples to 2048 samples.
The UR22 is encased in a full metal chassis and is substantially heavy for such a small unit, weighing in at 2.2 lbs. The front of the unit has two Neutrik Combo A Series hybrid connectors combining a 3 pole XLR receptacle and stereo ¼" phone jack in one XLR housing. Although the housing itself is made from injection molded plastic, Neutrik is a well known high-quality connector manufacturer which adds a bit of reassurance that these will support substantial wear and tear. There are also five rotary knobs for gain control, all made of what appears to be durable plastic. The knobs themselves feel very solid with no wiggle room and an extremely smooth range of motion that does not give too easily. This is definitely reassuring for someone who may be using the unit in a live setting and can do so without fear of accidentally turning a volume knob to abrupt levels easily. One thing I will note is that the knobs do protrude just over a ¼" from the unit's housing. This could potentially make it easy to break them off if something heavy where to land on them with enough pressure or if the unit where to be dropped accidentally. However, they do feel rugged enough to withstand substantial force. The front of the unit also contains a small plastic impedance switch and a ¼" phone jack that have some wiggle room which shouldn't be too disconcerting but is worth mentioning. The remaining connectors located in the back of the unit also appear to be built from durable plastic but are mounted firmly to the unit.
So what's all the fuss about the UR22? Well, lets take a look at its key features:
- 24-bit/192 kHz USB 2.0 audio interface
- 2 Class-A D-PRE mic preamps supporting +48V phantom power
- 2 Analog XLR/TRS combo inputs (Hi-Z switch on input 2 for electric guitar), 2 TRS line outputs
- MIDI In/Out
- Headphones jack with independent level control
- Zero-latency hardware monitoring with mix balance knob
- USB-powered for mobile recordings
Most of the features that come with the UR22 are pretty standard and are what to be expected for a unit in this price range. But there are several features that will tip the scale for most users when making a decision to purchase this unit. For me, it was the inclusion of MIDI In/Out, the "D-Pre" mic preamps, compatibility with existing Steinberg software and up to 24-bit/192 kHz of recording quality.
The traditional MIDI In/Out connectors are not something I currently have any use for since I'm using a USB controller... BUT they are nice to have if at some point I decide to upgrade my current controller with something more full featured and need to free up a USB slot.
As far as stability goes, it seems that most Steinberg interface users are in accord that their interface drivers are dependable and very stable, at least from what I've read. There's also the compatibility between Steinberg products which they are well known for. Steinberg does mention that existing Cubase users will benefit from the UR22's auto-setup functionality, enabling the complete I/O setup to be handled directly from within Cubase and automatically embedding it into Cubase's production environment. After having mediocre luck at best in the stability department over the last two years (won't mention any names but it rhymes with Wackie Flapjack), this is one extremely welcome feature.
Next up we have 24-bit/192 kHz of recording quality. With most compact USB powered interfaces capping off at 48 kHz, this is a first for an audio interface in this class. But is this really necessary? For some, this is a purely subjective argument. While it is true that there is a substantial difference in audio resolution between a waveform recorded at 44.1 kHZ and 192 kHz, the likelihood that you will hear the difference is minimal. That's not to say that some users can't or won't, but if you're simply looking to use the UR22 for basic recording and playback purposes, this should be a moot point. However, if you work in a field that requires recording resolutions from 96 kHz or higher, then the option is nice to have.
Lastly, I'm a huge fan of well built mic preamps and Yamaha's "D-Pre" preamps are somewhat of mystery to me. I've owned a fair bit of Yamaha gear over the years and they are definitely one of my favorite manufacturers of audio equipment. It's hard to say this without sounding like a fanboy, but if you're a Yamaha fan like I am, then you know there's a certain sound that is associated with Yamaha gear. So I found myself intrigued by the inclusion of these "D-Pre" preamps in the UR22.
For basic everyday use such as listening to music or streaming audio online, the UR22 works very well. Nothing special going on here but it is nice to have an audio device stable enough to use in the simplest of scenarios without dealing with occasional pops or drop outs. In my case, having dealt with this kind of behavior for over two years, it's hard not to feel spoiled. Switching between different sample rates during playback will cause dropouts but this is to be expected. The nice thing is you don't have to unplug and replug the unit back in for it to resync. Just double click on the media file you were playing or reload the page you were streaming from and you're back in business.
For recording and DAW audio playback, this is where the UR22 really shines. I opened up several large Cubase 7 projects and adjusted the ASIO driver settings. A sample rate of 44.1khz with a buffer size set to 64 samples resulted in an input latency of 3.991 ms and output latency of 4.966 ms respectively. I'm on a fairly dated 2.13 GHz Intel Dual Core system with 4 GB of memory using Windows 7 x64, and at the lowest buffer settings, the UR22 ran flawlessly. One thing I will mention is that results may vary for users running large projects at low settings on the UR22 in versions of Cubase 6.5 or earlier as well as other DAW's. In Cubase 7, Steinberg recently extended its audio engine with ASIO-Guard technology allowing for buffer blocks to be pre-calculated and have them available for the next ASIO block cycle. This stabilizes and improves overall performance for audio processes, and in the lowest buffer settings can add as much as 11.61 ms of buffer latency without any audio stuttering or dropouts. So as you can imagine, already existing low latency in the UR22 coupled with ASIO-Guard technology in Cubase 7 is truly a beautiful thing.
Tracking live recordings to Cubase with the UR22 was also a pleasure. Putting the "D-Pre" mic pres to the test resulted in some interesting results. Both available line inputs come with 48V switchable phantom power in the event you need to connect a condenser mic, but because I mainly use an SM57 for voice tracking, phantom power was not needed. With the input gain set to halfway, the UR22 did an excellent job capturing voice over vocals with minimum background noise resulting in a very clean and transparent recording. Yamaha does mention that the "D-Pre" mic pres in the UR22 help maintain low distortion regardless of the signal level and I was impressed that even when the input gain was set to max, the UR22 did record very consistent signal levels with minimal distortion over a broad amplitude range. As far as overall impression of the "D-Pre" mic preamps go, they are no-frills and transparent mic-pres that do exactly what they were intended to do. Are they mind blowing? Not at all. Will they help you record very clean and uncolored signal? You bet your ass they will and as far as I'm concerned, I can definitely respect that.
*Update - I was recently asked if the internal preamps on the UR22 could be bypassed as well as if the pres have enough gain to run ribbon mics. I verified from Steinberg directly that when connecting through the ¼" TRS input it still goes through the mic pre (to control the gain), so the pres can not be bypassed. The UR22 pres do have enough gain for ribbon mics but per Steinberg's advice, you need to be sure to have Phantom Power off (which turns it off on both inputs) so you don't damage your ribbon.
There are a few flaws which I found somewhat irritating with the UR22. My biggest gripe would have to be the mix knob which adjusts the signal level balance between the signal from the analog input jacks and the signal from the system. Although this may fall under the "nice to have" category for some users, I find it completely unnecessary. But worst of all is that it has been implemented so poorly because even with the mix knob turned completely to the input side, system signal still bleeds through even with the output knob turned to low levels. In my opinion that's a shame because although I personally have no need for this feature, there are many users who do. If you're going to add a feature like this, the least you could do is implement it correctly.
The other irritating feature of the UR22 is ergonomics. The interface just doesn't feel as comfortable to work with as it could. The level knobs are small and placed fairly close to one another or too close to the line ins. There have been several occasions working with the unit at low light settings where I found myself fumbling to find the right level knob to adjust headphone or output volume. Although I understand there are a lot of features to fit into such a compact interface, I still feel the ergonomics of the UR22 could have been designed and implemented better.
Mobility seems to be the name of the game these days as manufacturers scramble to create hardware that is portable, feature-rich and easy to use. Because of this, compact audio interfaces continue to improve while bridging the gap between professional quality and affordability. There are plenty of choices available when choosing a compact audio interface and finding one that fits your needs can be a bit cumbersome when making comparisons. It seems that most interfaces fall under manufacturers who throw everything and the kitchen sink into an interface or manufacturers who streamline features in order to reduce costs. Steinberg's UR22 falls neatly in the middle providing plenty of essential high-quality features without the overkill while keeping things affordable. At a street price of $149, you'd be hard pressed to find other interfaces in its class with as many features. Add seamless Cubase integration with solid reliability to boot and its a very hard deal to beat. My final verdict: solid purchase. If you're in the market for a compact portable USB interface, you won't be disappointed.