I use the Antelope Audio Zen Studio as the primary interface in my studio. I absolutely love it - it's very powerful, yet easy to use. Plus, the preamps are clean and sound incredible!
A ton of greatness with little compromise
I am quite impressed with the quality of the zen. In my own research and blind tests of any AD converter in this price range, the tastes are subjective but it's all a very close race and winner at the time depends on the material being ran through the units.
I find the conversion to offer great stereo width, tight low end, focused clear mids and a high end that smooths out any harshness similar to running through a hardware console.
Though I bypass the preamp stage when recording or using DI I have tried the units many preamp and DI inputs and they are great. The sound is very big and detailed and transparent.
I had heard in the past of driver or software issues but Antelope must have cleaned those up as for me, everything was plug and play and over one year of usage I have not had one issue with the unit or drivers, nor have I had to reinstall drivers or software.
The USB latency has been rather rock solid when recording and I do like the many I/O options that allows me to patch in hardware effects into the mix with ease.
Antelopes proprietary software to control the units inputs and outputs is robust but has a learning curve to tackle.
I personally do not use the on board DSP effects because of the separation between Antelopes software and the DAW but it seems you can either apply them in tracking or patch them in as if a hardware effect which is neat but I really wish they had vst versions instead.. they are very high quality but it just disturbs the work flow to have to use their console software outside the DAW.
All in all, great unit.. I didn't even touch on the portability factor which just pushes this into its own league.
Still Loving It!
I`ve had mine for about a year now, and it`s crazy good. Never had any issues. I`m building up more of a hardware rack, and that`s where this shines vs. the Orion Studio. You see, this has 8 channels of D-Sub in, so you can use it as a converter-only. You cannot do this with the Orion Studio. Don`t get me wrong-the preamps are great, and I do use them. But sometimes you want a Neve or an API. The inserts are great too, for some light compression going in. For flexibility, this is much better than the Orion Studio.
Thanks to Joe James at Sweetwater for steering me to the right tool. Joe gives up his time and imparts some great advice on what is currently the best going on to fit your needs. I do a lot of location recording and am always looking to lighten the load. He recommended this unit, and WOW was he right.
My first use was doing a 7 track recording with a small orchestra and 2 different soloists. Easy to set up and plug into a macbook pro with my DAW. Worked flawlessly, sounds beautiful. I don't need the extra boxes and can depart with most of it now. I was worried about running long cables and how the phantom would work - no problems. Preamps are stellar on this thing.
I wish it had more control on the box itself, but the software is pretty remarkable and no giant learning curve to understand.
The amazing ins and outs makes this an all around tool for just about any engineer/recordist/artist/band.
Really can't say enough good things about it.
Anything But Subtle
I don't have much to add to Ullanta's terrific review, but here goes:
Normally, one considers swapping out a preamp, clock or converter to be an incremental upgrade; one expects subtle improvements over typical prosumer performance, beginning at about a thousand dollars per channel, but in upgrading all three at once with Antelope's USB 2.0 Zen Studio, I'm fully flabbergasted at the improvement in both the quality of my tracks and in my ability to hear them. The increase in focus, clarity and detail is simply stunning, even on virtual instruments and tracks recorded elsewhere. Then, when you consider that the Zen Studio features 12 preamps and can record up to 24 simultaneous channels; at under $100 per channel, it may appear foolish to buy anything else, IF you need this much horsepower, but there are a couple of caveats.
First up, you can't rackmount it without an add-on kit, which takes up TWO rackspaces, because the unit runs very hot, possibly due to the hi-tech oven-controlled clock, and secondly there are some terrific extra features that are frustratingly difficult to access-a digital mixer with compression, EQ and even a great-sounding algorithmic reverb, all of which SO far can only be controlled with...a mouse. (and no scroll-wheel implementation,either) There is also no manual to speak of; basically just a quick start guide on Antelope's web site and mention of a DAW plugin that presumably will allow access to the goodies noted above from within your DAW, at some point. As of this writing, it's vaporware, so far as I've been able to determine. There is also no provision at present for managing any of this awesome firepower from a control surface, which is a doggone shame, because the unit itself provides a total of three buttons and one clickable knob, but as others have mentioned, many of these minor annoyances can and probably will be fixed in future firmware updates. Nonetheless, the Zen Studio's tremendous connectivity and awesome sound quality put it in a class all its own.
Wow wow wow!!
Man, this came today and I hooked it up and listened to some familiar music. Wow what depth and width! Super super clean! Call Parker Rousch! He recommended this to me. Wow... Again blown away
I was initially looking to upgrade to a dedicated converter setup such as a Lynx Aurora so it seemed silly when my sales associate suggested a "portable interface". He made some great points so as usual I took his advice. As soon as I set it up and listened to the mixes I was working on it became obvious I made the right decision, I could hear things so much clearer and the low end I thought I had wasn't there at all. This is an amazing box and although I don't necessarily need the included pres they are nice to have and also sound great. I will eventually upgrade to an Avocet or Satori but I have no intention of using anything other than the Zen Studio for conversion.
The Only Option
The idea of replacing my Alpha Link with an interface with built in press felt kinda amateurish at first, but I was wrong. The quality of preamp you get in this box is wonderful. Almost reminds me of ISA type pres i.e very clean and honest without being too dry.
I had no startup issues whatsoever. I plugged it into my MBP and it popped right up in my audio interfaces. The routing is fairly simple and just makes sense.
Build quality is outstanding and just feels solid. I can now throw it in my back pack with my Mac Book and I am a rolling studio able to track a decent sized live gig.
UPDATE: Raises the bar for classical recording!
OK, I've been using the Zen Studio extensively for about a month now, and have a good feeling for its strengths and weaknesses. I will say first and foremost that the strengths are great and set the Zen well above any competitor (for my purposes at least), while the weaknesses I'll discuss are all addressable by firmware or software updates, and Antelope has shown itself to be very responsive to customer feedback, and I've been told by their easily-accessible senior staff members that many of my comments will indeed be addressed in firmware/software updates that will be out soon.
THE SOUND: The Zen is a very transparent interface that doesn't add its own personality - an excellent device for classical work. I can't yet separate the influence of preamps and converters (I will be making more extensive comparisons with other preamps soon), but the combination here is beautifully unobtrusive - no appreciable noise, even at high gains, no frequency emphases, no blurring or high-end harshness. It handles high mic outputs at high vocal frequencies very well... better than anything I've used except my Millennia HV-3Ds. I record a lot of operatic sopranos, and their dynamic range really exercises all aspects of a preamp. I've found that loud soprano passages are where most preamps (and some converters) start to show their weakness, growing harsh or even artifacty; the Zen has been handling these with exquisite smoothness and, again, transparency. Also, in recording live opera, the distance from the singer to the mic varies during the performance from 6 inches to 40 feet. Combining the wide dynamic range of the material at the source and this tremendous variation in distance to the mic, you can see how demanding this is on preamp and converter quality. The Zen has proven itself to really excel here. I'd feel comfortable, finally, using this interface in most location situations without the Millennias in front of it.
FEATURES: The outstanding feature of the Zen is its ability to handle 20 simultaneous analog inputs (12 with the excellent preamps, 8 line-level only). The size and complexity of my portable system is significantly reduced - no more external units connected to the main interface via ADAT! It is common that I need more than the 8 analog ins on most competitive units, and somewhat common that I need more than the 12 that are offered by the highest-analog-count competitors, and rare indeed that I'd need more than 20. So this is basically what I've been waiting for for a long time! The converters are better than I'd find in outboard ADAT units, the pres are excellent, so there's no reason to lug a separate interface and one or two ADAT units for 99.44% of my projects - this little unit will handle them all. It will take up to 16 channels of ADAT input as well if ever its needed - though only a maximum 24 channels can be sent to the computer via USB simultaneously. So, as the main feature and the one that alone makes the Zen worth the price - this and my Millennia HV-3D alone give me 20 analog channels of quality suitable for - really, perfect for - the demands of high-dynamic-range classical recording. Many of the other features are useful as well, especially the recallable settings of the control panel, the on-board mixing, flexible routing, etc. There's a lot of DSP power and flexibility that I'll likely never use, but which will be of great utility to folks working in other genres.
RELIABILITY: The system has been rock-solid reliable in both real-world situations and in "torture testing" where I recorded 20 analog channels at thigh sample rates for a number of 6-12 hour runs. There were one or two issues with the process of early firmware updates on the first day I had the Zen that frighteningly made the Zen seem fried... but a system reset button-combination cured this. So... if this happens, don't be worried until you've gone through the system reset procedure (remove power, apply power while holding the up and down buttons).
IN USE: The biggest change I needed to make to accommodate the Zen has to do with the fact that EVERYTHING is controlled via the computer GUI - preamp gains, phantom power, metering, etc. As in my testing I've generally NOT used the Millennias (which have nice big physical gain knobs), I've felt some frustration with the gain setting. Especially when you have to juggle between DAW windows and the Zen Control Panel GUI. And, even more, because in the current implementation the GUI knobs are hard to control, the gain numbers are near impossible to see. Metering is also difficult to see, both in the GUI and on the device front panel. There's really no reason for this... the GUI just uses tiny, tiny numbers with a lot of space around them, and no resizability. There are also several controls that are dangerously easy to hit by mistake when crowding your screen with Zen Control panel and DAW windows. Metering during recording is not such a problem as I can use the much better meters in the DAW (though it would be nice if the front-panel meters were a bit clearer); but metering of factors in the on-board mixers is a problem, especially metering the main outs of these mixes - there seems to be no meter for this in the mixer views. So - this is a big change, and currently, the implementation makes it more problematic than it should be. However, the folks at Antelope have recognized these issues, and have solutions in the works. Specifically mentioned also has been the addition of the ability to set preamp gains using the big knob on the front panel. And oh, the front panel! The only controls are the big knob (which rotates and clicks), the up and down buttons far away from it on the right, and the "Power/Standby" button right next to the knob on the left. This is a dangerous and counterintuitive button placement - the Power button seems like what you would push to select between the functions of the knob, and indeed can be accidentally pressed when reaching for the knob. While the unit is active via USB, the Power/Standby button doesn't shut the device off, it just stops functionality of the GUI... but in my testing, pushing the button again to get the GUI back (and ALL CONTROL IS VIA THE GUI) always resulted in a glitch in the recording. So... not a button that should be anywhere where it can be accidentally pressed. I hope that Antelope will address this in firmware (I'd love to be able to completely disable the button, or use it for something else since Standby is not clearly useful); until then I've made a physical block to insure its never pushed (gaffers tape and a toothpaste cap!).
CONCLUSION: I am loving the Zen... and importantly, I'm loving it more every day rather than having the common fading of the "new purchase glow." It is truly excellent and beautiful in functionality, which is what counts most. The ergonomics of the controls and metering are serviceable, but need a lot of improvement... but in the short time I've had the Zen, I've seen a lot of updates to address user concerns, and I've gotten personal responses from Antelope folks that make it clear that they are working hard and effectively to address the issues I have. So, that is the beauty of the GUI-based system - it can evolve and improve, and the beauty of Antelope seems to be that they are indeed dedicated to such evolution and improvement. So, for me this is in current form a five-star device with a few issues; but with an update or two (which have been said to be on the way) will be elevated to some higher state beyond the rating system. The Zen really has raised the bar for similar products, and is unmatched in portable utility for classical work. Bravo!
Everything you need... in a backpack
I am a pro classical musician who does a good amount of studio work all over the country as well as owning a small on-location recording business for the last 15 years - so I've heard good and bad, and I am super impressed with this thing!
First set-up was easy enough with some firmware updates - took about 10 minutes total. The first thing I noticed was the conversion quality. WOW! Even CD quality stuff sounded better than I've heard just about anywhere. The AD/DA on this thing is fantastic. Warm but crisp, detailed, clear, and super transparent.
I was most impressed in a session with a trombone choir in a nice hall. Due to the extreme dynamic range of this type of ensemble I would normally lug a rack of crap, but using the Zen, some KM184s, C-414XLSs, and TLM103s made a very nice, spacious, clear, deep, uncolored, neutral recording with enough headroom to go from the very quiet ambiance of the hall to the loudest passages without sounding strained or compressed. I've heard (slightly) better preamps, don't get me wrong, but NEVER 12(!) of this high quality in one tiny unit that also converts at this level. It's really really impressive.
The control software is fairly intuitive and really responsive. My only issue is that there is no way to control the window size of the interface. I find myself squinting a lot as there are some features (level and peak meters) that are very small.
Overall - Get one, sell your rack, get a backpack, and you're set.
Best Recording Purchase I ever made. Buy it!!
Yes I m blown away. I have owned several converters and cards over the years. Right out of the box, usb hookup, etc. I am running 192khz. I have read everything I have been able to read about sample rate bit depth. A important person once said, "Use your ears!" Well its not my first rodeo, but I do not claim to be anyone but what I am. I am a small home studio owner, soundman, musician and been doing it all a long time. I got into the savings and there it went. The price you pay for this box with all of many ways you can add more converters for inputs and the preamps, you are getting something worth way much more. (but dont tell them that) This money is high for my $500 dollar budget, but sometimes you just got to take the dive into something that is good. I think this might be the best for price for sure. I agree with everything everyone has said. Took me a little bit to figure out the drag and drop, which really being used to doing more. It was kind of too easy?? Well as far as DAW integration, I use SAWSTUDIO. I know its not in all the stores, but I think it is the best, easiest GUI, less than 6mb., runs slick, and the man behind it Bob Lentini is the tech support and you can ask him anything anytime. My DAW integrates with this thing so well, I really dont use much of the interface with the ZEN with the exception of the preamp section. These preamps are great. I have no idea what they have done, but produces what you hear going in is what is printed. PHAT as hello. No sizzle on the top, clean detailed from top to bottom. I hear high detail in all effects. All effects with the slightest mouse moves, makes a noticeable difference in the sound quality. Voice now I hear things in voices I have never heard before. I hear voices!! Digital inputs and outs I use a lot. I have a dangerous source box and both are great boxes. The headphone outs in the ZEN are great. It seems slightly better than the dangerous. Dont know how they did it, but they did it. At my age, it will probably be all I ever need. I don’t know of anything better anyway, but I am trying to think with all it does, what would ever get better, unless something comes out that eventually pumps wifi into your head and you walk around in a euphoric juke box running through your body 24/7. Don’t laugh it probably will happen. You sitting there, reading for months, trying to get the best you can out of your home Studio, like the fat cats do, without a 2nd mortgage, finance company run, sell your Best les paul, well maybe that. You can do it!! Naw this box is really great. Everything Is built in and sounds great. For my SAC and SAW buddies out there, adding two converters and dsub connector can give you I think 36 inputs (fuzzy math guy here) Dsub will get you an extra 8 outs also. Now if you are doing a live deal, a fast Azz laptop (you know the brand) FAST AZZ! On stage, router, and laptop, ipad to walk around with in the audience, no snake etc. You are going to get a quality
Compact front end of a PA system. I still cannot believe it does what it does. It’s the most natural sounding box I have ever heard hooked to a computer. So dip down in that savings, make the wife mad for awhile and go for it. Good Luck and Eat a Peach!!! Oh thanks Jim Swain for helping all these years. You da man! You da man! You da man! And Antelope told me this morning a bag and rack mount system is coming out soon.
Loving the Zen...
I'm in Australia in the boondocks, recording a band in a house. Zen and my laptop give me all the power and flexibility I need to get the job done. Preamps clean and punchy, onboard effects strong, perfect clocking, mixing smooth and precise. And quick setup, too. Got right to work with 6 mics, two sets of phones, and monitor set. Thanks Antelope Audio! I can go work anywhere now.
Of Exceeded Expectations and Money Well Spent...
Where to begin on a Zen Studio review? Everything about it has proven to be beyond my expectations and it was money well spent. Coming from the Apogee camp, I was taking a leap of faith when I ditched my Apogee Quartet and sprung for the Zen. I was happy with the Apogee unit for the most part, but I was quickly outgrowing the Quartet's limited I/O (even when adding another 8-channels worth of external ADAT preamps). But I have since realized that not only did I gain way more I/O with the Zen, but I also moved forward by leaps and bounds by way of the Zen's audio quality (AD/DA conversion, mic pres, everything...). Plus I actually 'get' the Zen's Control Panel Software routing matrix that Antelope uses for the Zen's I/O (which is something I've always struggled with when using the Apogee software).
Overall Sound Quality: Here is the biggest reason I love the Zen. It really does sound amazing. The AD/DA conversion and clocking is something you just need to hear to understand. It's really hard to describe because it all just sounds right. Accuracy, depth of field, stereo imaging, balance across the entire frequency spectrum, etc. It excels at all of these things and yet somehow has a smooth vibe that doesn't cause fatigue after hours and hours of critical listening when working on tracking or mixing. I feel like I can trust the Zen's presentation of things...if there's a problem in a mix then the Zen lets me hear it. And the improvement in sound quality of the Zen over the Quartet is not subtle at all. I'm not going to bash the Apogee stuff, but the Zen has been a major improvement sound-wise.
Mic Pres: This is another area of marked improvement for me. I've not been bashful about how I describe these mic preamps with friends or on forums, etc. To my ears the Zen's pres sound like a mix between a Millennia Media HD-3V (depth of field, honesty, revealing, WYSIWYG), an Avalon (warmth, smoothness, supple mids), and an API (heft, balance, punch, authority). I'm not going to claim that the Zen's pres are exactly any of those other preamps, but those are the closet comparisons that I can offer. Not a ton of obvious coloration or unusual personality traits going on with the Zen's pres, but they definitely hold their own with each of those other pres.
Routing: I love the Zen's routing matrix. It just makes sense to me. I simply grab the icon of the input that I need to route, and then I assign it to whatever output(s) by just dragging the icon onto the output's icon. Simple and efficient. And I especially appreciate the fact that Antelope incorporated user presets (beyond the five preset tabs in the Control Panel Software). I have a couple routing schemes put together for when I'm recording and re-amping guitar tracks. Drum tracking. Vocal sessions. Etc. And the Zen's routing possibilities are deep and can adapt to whatever work I'm doing. Also the Zen's routing matrix has helped standardize more of my workflow in Logic Pro X (e.g. using dedicated input channels for specific jobs, dedicated aux busses in Logic to specific Zen outputs, etc). Once I've determined how many active track inputs, sends/returns, aux busses, etc that a given Logic project needs, then the Zen's matrix is like using a virtual patch bay. Just grab and drag. Pretty straightforward.
Stability: I bought the Zen shortly after it was first released, and yes there were some early issues with drivers (BTW, I'm on Mac OSX), but honestly the tech support at Antelope has been good to me throughout. They've always handled my questions and issues quickly, and ultimately they fixed those first few bugs in short order. Aside from the first couple days of those early drivers being troublesome, things have been fine for me since. The Zen usually gets 6-8 hours of usage from me for five or six days of the week and it's been stable and doesn't crash or misbehave. Also, I usually set Logic Pro X's I/O buffer size to either 32 or 64 samples, and a couple of the current recording projects I'm in the middle of are running well over 100 tracks each, and several of those tracks are being routed to-and-from external outboard gear via the Zen's DB25 I/O. Plus a good amount of AU plug-ins are being used throughout. And again...no hiccups or crashes. The Zen is extremely fast and efficient.
To say that the Zen is worth every penny is an understatement. It could've cost twice as much as it does and it still would've been a worthy purchase. But the best thing about the Zen is that it does it's job day-in-day-out on such a high level of quality and it helps me focus on getting my work done and makes my workflow more efficient and helps me make my music sound better than it would've otherwise. That's money well spent...
What I was hoping for
I've had this now for a couple of months. After getting used to the GUI its now a breeze to use. The sound is transparent, the system is rock solid stable and the ability to record up to 20 tracks is very nice. Actually more than I can use - though I've added a Warm Audio preamp to give me some additional 'color' if I want it. Sound quality is outstanding. End of story...except.
The lack of physical controls doesn't bother me but the interface has ridiculously small metering if you are using the mixer to see headphone levels - same with the input levels for the preamp and the line inputs. The overage indicator in the input area is literally the size of a pin head. Really, you couldn't make it gigantic like the size of a ball point pen head? If you use the monitor volume in the GUI it zippers but the big nob on the front does not. Go figure. Finally I wish the headphones outs were a little more powerful. I'll probably have to get another D-sub connector so I can use the line outs to my regular headphone amps.
Don't let the list of cons dissuade you, this puppy is good and worth what I paid for it. Hoping some future update addresses the cons since they are mostly software related.
It's amazing. everything about this box is great. strong headphone amps, high quality converters really make every mic and preamp sound exactly as it should. Massive I/O through usb 2.0. But, I would suggest this unit for you if it were not for the fact that support might dry up over the next few years. Consider an Orion Studio, because the support for new plugins and applications is very good and it seems to be their flagship single space interface
Amazing Sound Quality
The sound quality and 12 mic Pre amps are amazing for the price. I came from a Black Lion Audio Modded Avid 003 rack. The BLA was great but this is better in my opinion. Sound Quality is 5 Stars.
Where I am a little disappointed from an ease of use perspective is the Audio routing. It is a little confusing and not very user friendly. Once you understand it, it makes sense, sort of...
I have a few ideas that I will send to Antelope to improve the usability. Additionally the on-line manual is horrible. I am sorry, I am just telling it the way it is. Pretty much useless in its current state other than to show you what each section of the control panel in called.
Again, I am really please with the sound quality but the control panel usability leaves a lot to be desired.
Phenomenal sound. Comprehensive features. Great Unit!
The Zen Studio is an excellent piece of gear. Exceeded my expectations in most areas. The AD and DA conversions are both crisp and incredibly clean and real. Listening to acoustic guitars in playback is a total joy. The pres are also great sounding, these are clean with just the tiniest touch of appealing color. My one misgiving, using USB, was no issue at all. The only reason it's not a full 5 is that detailed documentation, especially on the control panel, is sparse. Also, the internal DSP lacks a reverb, which is the one thing singers tend to really want in cans. Antelope says the reverb will be coming in a firmware update at no charge for owners. Minor issues. Phenomenal unit!
EXCELLENT SOUND QUALITY!!! Opened up my mixes to a whole new dimension!!!
First off, I want to give Antelope Audio a big thumbs up for such tremendous sound quality coming from this unit! I went through and redid a few mixdowns using this as my monitor output and I was truly able to take sounds to the next level and hear things that weren't there with my Apogee and Presonus interfaces. I am excited to record some vocalists here in the near future!
My reason for giving 4.5 stars was also that things were a little rocky to get started initially (the software initialized with the 1 KHZ tone generator active and sent a deafening tone out that I struggled to diagnose and remedy at first), but I am sure that Antelope will be able to get all of these little bugs and quirks sorted out with future firmware and software updates. Can't wait to get some tunes finished with this interface!!!
Superb Sound / Superb Support
First off, I didn't give it a full 5 stars, because it was a bit of a rocky start. Nothing major, but it wasn't at easy as plug, and play.
That being said, being on the cutting edge of technology, and being one of the first few users of this product, I expected that, and Tech Support was extremely helpful in a timely fashion. The openness of communication between us, left me feeling very confident, that I had purchased the right product.
Once, I was up and running, I immediately noticed during play back that i was back in the company of high end conversion. The depth, and the width of the sound field was very noticeable. The low end sounded very tight and controlled for lack of a better term. It wasn't loose, and unpredictable.
Next, i set up an AKG C414 to track an acoustic guitar, and I also did a voiceover test. What I noticed on the preamps, and conversion was that there was a weight, in the low to low mid range, that kind of reminded me of my API preamp. The top end was very detailed, but not harsh at all.
So far I am super impressed by what I have heard, and looking forward to full on tracking soon.
The control panel is laid out in an extremely user friendly way. Its much easier to wrap my head around versus other control panels I have used.
Not that this affects sound quality, but the interface is beautiful to look at. The way the routing is color coded helps tremendously in knowing exactly where you are sending signal.
I was a tad nervous, about getting used to the workflow, but it has honestly been very easy to get used to, and the flexibility of the unit will make it very useful for different tracking situations.
Being able to easily upgrade the firmware gives me hope, that we will see some cool modifications for the Zen in the future. Did I mention the sound quality???
I was very stoked about the Zen from it first being announced, because it fit my workflow so well. Having the ability to have that much I/O, and12 mic pre's all through USB is simply amazing.
Id like to thank Dennis here at sweetwater, for taking the time to chat and answer all of my questions, and making the sales transaction a breeze.
Great job Antelope!
Great job sweetwater!
Excellent piece of hardware but...
I got my zen up and running with Reaper with no issues what so ever, I can't fault the product or the stock software. The only reason I'm giving it 4 stars is because of Presonus and Overloud. These two companies have been giving me serious headaches setting up their software. If you create an account with Google or Facebook you will not be able to register your version of Studio One because of the software login, and Overloud provided Antelope with an invalid license key for Rematrix, which I have yet to get working, and antelope customer support basically said "sorry that's their problem, we can't help". For the amount of money this thing costs, these problems are unacceptable.
Antelope Zen Studio
I should start out by saying that the four star rating that I just chose for the Zen Studio may fail to do it justice. What I can say is that I hear a remarkable improvement in the playback sound of Zen compared to the Apogee Duet (older version) that I have been using.
I have rough mixes that were made in a very well appointed pro studio, to which I need to add my own vocals and in some cases, guitar and/or mandolin/dobro. When I plugged in the Zen, for the first time since the original recording sessions, I started hearing the sound of the stereo mixes as they had sounded in the pro studio. It definitely increased my excitement about my work. Sometimes the qualities that are brought to a recording by the addition or subtraction of a piece of gear or a plugin seem pretty subtle to me so it may be that some other people just have better "ears" than I do, but this is a difference I can hear and to which I can attest.
One of my goals was to have enough tracks to record jam sessions and practices at my house and with the 12 built in class A mic preamps and eight line ins, that's well covered. I've got a couple of stereo tube mic preamps that I've collected over the years and I've got them in the array through the lines in, to my real satisfaction. Considering that all this came at a considerable savings over units that have comparable conversion and clocks, and that no unit with those qualities offers so many inputs and other features, I feel better and better about this investment, the more I use it.
Only a few firmware/software revisions from 5 stars?
I plan to revise this review as time goes on, but knowing how eager I was for any user experience with the Zen I’m starting with a preliminary overview before extensive in-the-field testing. This first review will focus on the user experience with the Zen, NOT on sound quality… so far I’ve only tested (but pretty excessively) in an office environment; in the next couple of weeks I’ll do a lot of testing in the concert hall.
So: 11 initial impressions:
1) Installing/activating/starting the Control Panel seems to require internet access. For me, this is a BIG PROBLEM for what is supposed to be a mobile device. If I'm in the field and have a problem, and need to start using another computer, I don't want to have to be internet connected to start working.
2) The control panel software is installed in a hidden directory (.antelope) in the home directory, rather than in the Applications or Utilities folder. It is also named only "1.31". I know it is supposed to autolaunch when the Zen is plugged in, but during troubleshooting I quit the Control Panel and wanted to restart it... and it was nowhere to be found. And, once, it did not open automatically when I powered up the Zen. Software should install in the proper place, and have a name that relates to the product - not just the version number!
3) After installing recommended firmware updates (1.30 and 1.31), the device was non-functional, with a flickering display and and jumping asterisks. The standard reset procedure (hold down “Power” button then push “Down” button) did not work. Luckily online somewhere I found the power up while holding “up” and “down”… and that seems to have fixed things).
4) There is a button referred to as both “Power” and “Standby” in the Antelope docs. I’m not sure what its function is, as the Zen remains active and functions as an interface and with ProTools while in “Standby” mode - it just seems to blacken the software control panel. However, it is right next to the knob that controls the monitor and 2 headphone levels, and it is unlabeled. It just sits in the place one would naturally put a button to select amongst the functions of the knob. But, if pushed, it will introduce a glitch into your recording. This is dangerous! The “Power” button should be nowhere near other controls, and should be labeled. If I keep the unit, and firmware doesn't address this, I'll seriously have to construct a physical barrier to pushing this button. As a classical location recordist, I often have composers and such sitting next to me and wanting to adjust their headphone levels as we go. I am certain that some of them, no matter how instructed, would push this button rather than the knob. I was hoping that the Zen would allow me to not have to bring along a separate headphone amp for small sessions, but the current implementation would force me to.
5) Why waste buttons on the up/down functionality of the two right buttons? There are so few options one button would suffice. I hope future firmware updates will find better uses for them - say, for allowing setting of preamp gain.
6) The preamp gain controls in the software Control Panel are the only way to adjust gain for the preamps, and I find them very problematic! They respond only to vertical motion of the mouse. They are at the top of the window, and I would want them to be at the top of the screen while operating my DAW, but I need to move the cursor half the height of the screen to go from min to max gain... so in practice I have to shuffle the gain up in 3 or 4 gestures in many situations. Ugh! A rotary (vs vertical) mode, or the ability to click where one wants the blue indicator dot to be would be a tremendous improvement.
7) There are many options for metering (on the front panel and in the software control panel), but not the ones I would most prefer. I would like a metering mode that shows all analog inputs (rather than the current either/or of 12 “preamp” and 8 “line” inputs (though “preamp” inputs can be line-level as well). There are 32 spaces available on all the metering screens - there should be some modes that are more comprehensive, and which use the 32 spaces efficiently. It IS possible to group things together to “USB Rec” outputs and meter them as such, but that is not sufficient in some complex playback/monitoring situations where what you’re recording is not the same as what you’re playing out.
8) There's a LOT of dangerous stuff in the software control panel that can be accidentally clicked while recording... the presets, especially, are very close to some of the gain controls. Instead of "Standby" mode, it might be preferable to have a mode that locks out all controls that one wouldn't want touched during a recording pass… that, maybe, shows only gain knobs and headphone/monitor level controls, a little more separated?
9) I don't see any benefit to the odd way that routing is handled / displayed in the Control Panel software. A two-dimensional grid of sources and destinations would be far clearer. An interesting but unsuccessful attempt to try things a different way, I’d say.
10) The whole feeling of the software and documentation is beta-y. This may be a GOOD thing, as Antelope seems to be releasing firmware versions with revisions and improvements pretty steadily perhaps documentation and user interface will be refined once the feature set plateaus. The hardware itself seems pretty solid, and it does seem that basic functions of the software are reliable.
11) After the initial firmware updates and settings reset, the system has been reliable. I’ve been recording sixteen channels to ProTools for a total of over twenty hours these last two days (a kind of torture test) with no problems whatsoever. Heat doesn’t seem to be a problem, though I’ve not been using any preamp gain, which may make a difference. I haven’t done any real testing yet of the sound, but informally, it sounds good.
So, in short, and with the caveat that I’ll be adding actual SOUND aspects to this review shortly, I’ll say that there are some interface issues which may or may not be addressed by software and firmware updates, but overall the Zen seems like a reliable and good-sounding unit. For me, at least, the feature set (basically, the “unmatched by any other portable interface” 20 analog inputs/12 preamps of decent quality) already trumps the interface issues. So I am ready to recommend trying this for anyone in my situation, though for me to start with glowing praise will have to wait until I revise this review after testing the sound in real situations.
Good and Bad - Experience after 4 months
So, I read all the reviews of this device, I was advised by Sweetwater to purchase it based on my needs. I went for it as I was looking for a high quality A/D converted with more than 4 pre-amps.
It does sound nice, its compact and looks pretty(?).
Their tech support responds promptly.
I hate to focus on this, but I think its fair given all the glowing reviews out there. I often try to take time before writing a review as things tend to pop up.
First - There is NO manual. I have no idea why, but there is a very basic description on their website and a series of 4 videos showing you how to use this and that is it. Its extremely frustrating as there really isn't a good description of how the inputs/outputs work. I am still struggling with this. If you want a question answered, you need to contact tech support as there is no manual. Very odd
2) I've had multiple issues with the Zen and ProTools. They don't seem to like each other very much. One thing that is annoying (and probably protools related) is that if you open ProTools and want to change (a) Sample rate or (b) latency you have to close protools, change it on the Zen Software interface and then reopen protools. It is super frustrating when you need to experiment a bit with latency issues.
3) Sample Rate - I've had to do a factory reset 3 times in 4 months due to issues with the Zen. Currently I am having major issues with digital nose and problems and it is either a clocking or trouble with the sample rate. Again, I need to do a full factory reset. Third time.
4) Sound Delay with Speakers - This drives me crazy, when I hit play on ProTools or FL Studio or any DAW, there is about a 10-30 second delay from when I hit play the first time till when sound comes from the monitors. I have to turn the volume dial on the Zen Studio up and down to get it to turn on. Its very odd and no solution has been offered as of yet.
5) Buttons on the Zen - Others mentioned this, but the buttons are super annoying and small.
6) Control of Levels - Again, everything is small and hard to see. You control all your levels and inputs in the software on this tiny little knobs. Something really needs to be done about this.
Overall the sound is great, but i do regret my purchase. I like manuals and I like stable drivers. I don't think, for me, the Zen fit this given the cost.
Amazing Sound, but . . .
The Antelope Zen Studio does indeed sound amazing, and has a huge array of features. However, I did drop it down for a few reasons. First, I had my unit for just over a year, one month out of factory warranty, and one day it simply froze and died. Dealing with Antelope support was not easy, nor very helpful. This was one of those cases where Sweetwater's additional year to the factory warranty really saved me. Sweetwater did indeed take good care of me, and I still HIGHLY recommend them to buy any gear, but especially something as expensive as this. So reliability and factory support may be a problem for the Zen. . . or mine could be an unusual case. Not sure. . .
In terms of normal operation, I find that the Control Panel software makes things unnecessarily difficult. The main routing page is fine, a brilliant set up. But dealing with the internal mixers, as well as setting input gains, can be tedious and time consuming, with very poor level metering throughout, except for the dedicated metering pages, which can't be up when any other window is. The meters on the mixers next to the channel faders are difficult to read, and having to go to separate pages for readable meters (losing the mixer page where you make changes!) is a nuisance. The internal Auraverb and AFX processing sound really great, but again are not easy and intuitive to access. In the end, I added a small outboard mixer (with reverb) with the Zen outputs mirroring the inputs just to do headphone mixes with reverb. It's just a thousand times faster to reach over and turn a knob then it is to dig into the very tedious mixer pages on the Control Panel in the middle of a session. Worse yet, the software is very quirky when it comes to saving and loading setups. If you save a scene externally, then change your mixers' pan, faders, mutes, and even input gain settings, then try to reload from the saved file, it doesn't restore the mixer settings, just the routing. This is a major pain!
The Control Panel needs lots of work. It tries to do too much, and in unnecessarily complicated ways. And saving and loading should be the complete unit state, not just the routings of a single scene.
That being said, the unit seriously sounds incredible and is capable of so much. It really is a wonder. I actually love the Zen. Assuming my hardware issue was a fluke, if Antelope could go in and design a really solid, easy to use Control Panel interface, especially redesigning the gains and the mixer pages, and have a comprehensive full time metering page . . . AND reliable, complete unit state saving and loading, it would be hard to beat. Other companies do it (think RME?); Antelope certainly can. But have they moved on to their next target . . . Time will tell. Brilliant unit. Poor software interface. Possible reliability issues.
Quality control issues, reliability issues. I received a non functioning boot looping unit. After some debugging, Antelope replaced the power supply brick and fixed that issue. Now the unit periodically stops producing output, and must be factory reset to regain function, losing all preamp settings in the process. Then there's the driver that also quits working periodically and must be reinstalled to regain functionality. This is something i would expect from hp, not a professional audio manufacturer. To be fair, when it works, it works beautifully, but the more expensive a piece of equipment is, the less tolerance i have for substandard quality.
I've had my Zen Studio for 2 years now. The firmware and control panel have always had a fair amount of minor issues. Today, after it bugged me for the 100th time to update the firmware, I did. And now the control panel doesn't work at all really. It's very frustrating. I've had at least some sort of issue with pretty much EVERY control panel or firmware update.
I picked the Zen on sound quality recommendations, and because it had 12 preamps. It delivers on those. But the driver and control panel issues make me wish I'd spent the extra $ for an RME UFX and an 8 channel preamp.
I also still think my 2006 Apogee Ensemble has better sounding converters (but NOT better sounding preamps). So I still use the Ensemble via ADAT as the main converter for my ADL preamps. The Preamp/converter combo in the Zen does beat the preamp/converter combo in the 2006 Ensemble. Every engineer I sent blind tests to picked the Ensemble converters when used with an external preamp.
So buyer beware, Antelope got a very upset email today about the quality of their drivers!! As good as this thing sounds, if it doesn't work every day, every session, it needs to GO!
Zen Studio - Great potential, but not so great in real life
I bought the Antelope Zen Studio from a different retailer in Jan 2016 to take on the road with me, and traded in my UA Apollo and Dangerous Source for it. Using a Mac Pro on OS X (10.8.5) at the time.
I'm writing this honest review to let you know that, despite others on here saying that they've had a great time with the unit, I would like to warn you against purchasing it.
To me the greatest merits of the unit are it's great sound, converters and clock, and the ability to record so many inputs at once. One star for each of these.
I can't say the same about it's drivers and software, though. Like another reviewer pointed out, I experienced issues every few days, even from when I first plugged it in, basically for a whole month.
The issues I faced were that:
1. The software/console app opens up with a 'checking for updates' window that basically is a landing page. If there is a problem with your internet, or their server, or the app itself (which happened to me many times), the app hangs there and then, and you are unable to access the console/mix window.
Multiple uninstall, reinstalls and some terminal magic eventually fixed the problem, only to bring on the next one:
2. It would intermittently (every few days) tell me that there's a firmware update available for the unit, even though I had updated it to the latest version a few days ago. ('firmware glitch') Some times there's both an 'Update' and a 'Skip' button, and sometimes there's only an 'Update' button.
When you click 'update', it checks and loads up this circa 2000 small window with a dropdown menu, telling you that there's no update available. Scrolling down the dropdown menu shows you all of the versions of the software, but they aren't in order either. Very weird.
3. Occasionally, the firmware update glitch would brick the unit, forcing you to restart, untwist (the annoying locking mechanism of the) power cable and then retwist it back in, until all conditions were right for it to be stable.
4. I found the mixer app small and difficult to read, even though i thought the matrix was cool. (the mixer app is not resizable).It wasn't well thought-out, the locations of presets for example aren't remembered by the application everytime you use it. And then when it glitches out, the mixer itself forgets the last set preset forcing you to manually navigate to your presets folder to load the preset.
5. While tech support was responsive ( ihad 25 tickets in 1 month), their advice wasn't that great because of poor coding and implementation. For example they do not have an 'uninstall.pkg' for the zen studio and it's drivers, unlike most other major developers, easily allowing you to uninstall and reinstall drivers. Instead they repeatedly tell you to just delete the downloaded file and re-download the mixer application, oblivious to the fact that there are drivers hidden in your system from them. And on further prodding, they give you a line of code to paste into the terminal app.
6. Lastly, i didn't think the latency of this device was that great. I thought it was average, especially if you're into programming midi and all of that jazz. For live recordings it was good.
I wrote a long review because I really loved the sound and features, but it is completely mind boggling to me as to why some of this driver and firmware issues are still out there. I really wanted to make it work but couldn't deal with the down time and the tech-ing, and so now I have a competitor's piece of gear that has been 100 % stable and easy to install. No regrets!!
Beware! Firmware Issues
Antelope has a hard time keeping up with the newest MAC updates this past year. Until they fix this issue, your Zen Studio will just sit on you desk and be useless... as mine has been for all of December of 2015. I had an Apogee Ensemble that never had these kinds of issues. Although Antelope says they are working on an update, it's been three weeks and still don't have it sorted out.
Their routing software is also confusing and not user-friendly. I will most likely be returning my Zen Studio in for an Apogee Ensemble or Apollo 8p.
This unit sounds amazing. I, however, am one of the unlucky ones for whom it is completely unreliable:
-Firmware updates (how many times do I have to update in one day? I passed 10 updates until it finally was happy, then it started again the next day.) **Chat with tech support- their answer "You unplugged the unit while updating". To be clear, I didn't.
-Digital noise/distortion. It can come and go without notice, at any sample rate or buffer settings. The longer the sessions, the more likely it is to be there. Now, usually about minutes in it becomes unusable. I was online with Tech support available. I initiated chat, waited several minutes, then tech support went offline. Closing hours, perhaps, but two calls to tech just to get going?
-Many forum responses are bogus, blaming the presence of other usb devices, the presence of a Wifi signal. If I swap the Zen with my UFX, no troubles.
-As of today (April 14), you can't even download the manual from the website, nor log in to submit a help ticket.
-I have had similar results on 2 (2012, 2014, updated) Macs. I have an RME UFX which, over both FW and USB, has never once had any such issues, at Max track count, so my two computers are clearly capable.
I love the Zen's sound when it is there, but unless you are fine with toying around, avoid this. It must work for some (many?) people, but 0 for 2 computers, with (so far) not useful tech support, for me is enough.
ZenStudio Portable USB Audio Interface with 20 Analog Inputs, 12 Mic Preamps, Onboard DSP Effects, Multiple Monitor Mixers, and Mac/PC Control Software More Info...
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