In summer 2006, Digidesign released version 2 of their popular M-Box audio hardware. This release was followed just a couple of months later by the M-Box 2 Pro, which increased audio I/O and shifted the device up a gear from a USB to a FireWire connection. Then at the start of 2007, a mini version turned up, allowing users to get their hands on a Pro Tools LE system at a breakthrough low price. All the while, Digidesign 002 users were left wondering when their hardware of choice would receive the inevitable revamp - and in spring 2007 it happened.
The Digi 002 was seen very much as the semi-pro Pro Tools LE solution, enabling effortless integration with the software via high-quality mic pres, extensive audio and MIDI I/O options and (in the case of the desktop version) comprehensive, hands-on control over the software. But the continuous march of technology, alongside the clamouring of Digi 002 users offering advice for future incarnations, means that a sleek new product arrived to replace this industry stalwart.
As with previous Digis, the 003 offers itself in two hardware forms but this time as three potential packages. Firstly, it´s available as the 003 Factory, which combines a desktop control module and interface with a bundled suite of software. Alternatively, you can purchase a rack version, with or without the Factory software pack. For the purposes of this review, it´s the desktop module we´ll be concentrating on.
In case you´re a Digi newbie, here´s an overview of what the 003 is all about. It´s a FireWire-based audio interface, featuring 18 simultaneous channels of input/output. It has eight analogue ins and outs, four freshly redesigned mic pres with independent gain and high-pass filter switches, with digital I/O options via S/PDIF and ADAT, plus MIDI control (more on that in a moment). All of the above applies whether you choose the Digi 003 or its rack equivalent. But if you opt for the desktop version you also get a panel full of controllers - faders, knobs and switches that allow you to operate the bundled Pro Tools LE software that the 003 is principally designed to drive (although this new version has some tricks up its sleeve for third-party software too).
Aesthetically, the 003 is a much better looking box than its predecessor. The slightly brooding, dark grey livery has been replaced by a more beige and cream design, and - in case you´re thinking that sounds a bit safe - rest assured that it all makes for far easier reading and operating. People tend to be split on this: does the design matter, as it´s not exactly going to be audible on the music you produce? But such things do make a difference to working practice. After all, you´re going to spend hours with this in your studio and you don´t want to spend them frustrated by design or squinting at illegible print.
While the 002 didn´t suffer either of these problems too extremely, the 003 is certainly easier on the eye. Despite the sleek exterior, the top panel is actually busier than on the 002, because of some functions that have been added at the interface stage itself. Digidesign have concentrated their efforts on trying to make it easier to do more from the interface, hence the extra buttons. There´s a further design improvement at the top of the unit´s front panel too, as the Digi 002´s short LCD windows (which appeared above each channel strip), have been replaced by one long, continuous pane. This inclines towards the front, is much easier to read and actually does a decent job as a kind of administrative meter bridge.
The first way in which improved ergonomics have been implemented is automation-based. The 003 now offers the opportunity to set up and switch automation modes direct from the front panel itself, with six dedicated switches lying to the left of the eight motorised faders. This is great news and, some would say, overdue. The purpose of having a control surface is to get away from mouse-driven software navigation as much as possible and these six little buttons now mean that a huge Pro Tools function can be run remotely. You can now also assign sends and insert plug-ins direct from the 003 itself, which is no doubt just one of many additions implemented by Digidesign in response to user´s forums. In a move that will further sate public murmuring, the 003 includes a jog/shuttle wheel, which can be used for transport navigation, audio/video scrub and lots more.
Another excellent, long-asked-for feature is the 003´s MIDI standalone mode, which allows you to use the 003 as a controller for any MIDI gear or software - not just within Pro Tools. This is a smart move by Digidesign, who no doubt realise that releasing a hardware box restricted to Pro Tools integration alone would be foolish at a time when several other manufacturers are offering universal MIDI control surfaces. As many of us oscillate between different software packages (most of which offer MIDI control to some extent) this will be of benefit to many users. With any luck it might also signal the shape of things to come for future Digis. After all, if the functionality the Digi 003 offers as a controller for Pro Tools could be extended to support other software applications more fully, then this would only serve to further endear it to potential purchasers.
In practice, the MIDI control functionality works very well. You have to update the 003´s firmware to enable it (a download from the Digidesign website), after which you enter MIDI mode via one the two MIDI map buttons. Thereafter, you can use the sliders, knobs, 45 of the buttons and a footswitch to use the 003 to spit out the MIDI controller information of your choice. All maps can be tweaked, saved and recalled easily.
It´s not just the front panel that´s come in for some modification. The rear panel now offers an additional stereo out, totalling two separate pairs. This is great news for those with more than one pair of monitors, and switching between pairs is as simple as toggling a dedicated button. Continuing on the output theme, there´s also a second headphone output now. Rather than simply doubling headphone one´s signal, the second can be sent its own discrete mix. This will be invaluable to users working in a single room during recording sessions - it means a producer can monitor the overall track while a singer or instrumentalist can be given a more recording-friendly monitor mix. The Digi 003 also provides dedicated BNC Word Clock I/O, which should finally see an end to the clocking problems faced by some Digi 002 users.
In case you´re principally interested in the Digi 003´s audio I/O and really rather enjoy working in a mouse-driven environment, you might be tempted by the 003 Rack version. This offers the same audio, MIDI, monitoring and clocking options as its control-laden big brother, but squeezes into 2U of rack space. Sensibly, it offers the output monitor switches on its front panel. If you decide at a later date that controls are indeed the order of the day, the rack version is compatible with Digidesign´s Command8 and Control24 surfaces, as you´d expect.
That´s all good on paper, but how is it to use? As with previous Digis, working with the control surface alongside Pro Tools LE is a delight. Digidesign have had three incarnations of the hardware to get this right and they succeeded long ago. Very quickly, even for the most devoted of mouse-based Pro Tools users, you´ll find your hand abandoning the mousemat in favour of the 003´s controls.
The ability to set up inserts and sends direct from the interface is straightforward, as is the ability to edit plug-in settings direct from the unit itself. Depending on the number of tweakable parameters in any given plugin, its elements are spread over a number of pages, with settings modified and displayed by the rotary controls above each fader. Most people will probably continue to perform more careful tweaks via the mouse and the onscreen interface, but this is now a viable and handy alternative.
Moving into the various automation modes via their dedicated buttons is straightforward as well. It requires you to hold down the Option button directly below the automation controls - a handy way of making sure you don´t slip into a different mode via a stray finger press. Inevitably, though, the more crowded top panel means that you´ll find yourself searching for a few functions at first. But after a bit of head-scratching, things will quickly fall into place.
By their own admission, Digidesign aren´t expecting 002 users to abandon their hardware in favour of an upgrade to the 003. The updates are sufficient to keep the Digi concept contemporary and relevant but aren´t ‘revolutionary´ enough to encourage mass migration from existing users. This is (in part) due to the fact that the 002 is still doing a good job for many users now - there weren´t holes in the ‘00´ concept that required big fixes.
But the 003´s main strength over its predecessor is the increased sense of integration. The best new feature is the MIDI integration with other software programs, so that a whole bunch of buttons and the sliders can be used to control MIDI parameters. For some users, however, the improved mic pre amps or the additional outputs will be the most welcome updates. One way or another this redesigned box keeps the 00 where it needs to be - as a heavyweight contender for anyone who´s looking to get serious and take control of a powerful, fully fledged Pro Tools LE system.