Antelope Audio has been in the converter and clocking manufacture business for over 20 years now. The Orion 32 HD is the latest in the Orion series, sporting similar topology to the Orion 32+ but with a sleek black look. However the Orion 32 HD offers something quite different in terms of connectivity. No Thunderbolt, but the key selling point of the Orion 32 HD is not just the 64 channel USB 3.0 interface but the additional mini HDX ports on the rear that offer access to the 32 analogue and 32 digital inputs and outputs plus 32 digital ins and 32 digital outs.
Looking at the unit we see a satin finish, brushed aluminium look front panel in black. On the very left there is a circular power button but the unit can also be powered on and off remotely via the software. Interestingly the software can run on any computer on the same network as the unit and of course multiple units can be run simultaneously too. Adjacent to the power button are the indicators for the three different types of clocking, the temperature regulated Oven mode is default, external clocking can be used via the Word Clock connections, in which case the lock icon will illuminate. Finally if you have the Antelope 10M “atomic clock” you can clock to super high speed. Of course the intent of the high frequency atomic clock system is to reduce jitter, with the aim of optimal audio reproduction.
There is a central black trapezoid window behind which sits a seven segment LED display for sampling frequency along with a more detailed OLED display that gives menu options, alerts and can show a mini meter-bridge for I/O levels. The adjacent Frequency Up and Down circular button allow menu control along with the Antelope button that sits on the opposite side of the screen. Whilst most of the key functions are available via the unit’s menu system, the remote control software is significantly more ergonomic. Finally on the front panel there are five push switches with LED indicators for preset selection. This could be quite useful as you might have a specific set-up used for tracking and one for playback, perhaps even a preset for songwriting. The unit is only 1U in height which is remarkable in terms of the amount of I/O that it offers, and Antelope proudly remind us that there is no fan so it has silent operation. Venting is stylish and is located on the sides of the unit so some care should be taken during installation planning, but the unit never really got too hot.
On the rear we have the obligatory IEC connector for power. There is a cluster of BNC connectors for the 10M input and Word Clock I/O plus a couple of gold plated phono sockets for S/PDIF in and out. TRS quarter inch jack sockets supply what Antelope describe as “Mastering grade” monitor outputs which can be separately trimmed and assigned via the software, in addition to the 32 analogue outputs of the unit. This actually proved incredibly useful as it allows a super quick setup without the use of an additional console, since the analogue inputs and outputs are all on D-Sub 25 connectors. Two mini HDX ports are present for connecting to your Pro Tools system and there is even a MADI I/O port. There are ADAT lightpipe sockets, 2 in 2 out and finally the USB 3.0 socket. Of course the unit comes with a rather high quality USB 3.0 cable. USB 3.0 can be used to for all 64 I/O channels of audio up to 192kHz, and in the case of using the unit for a Pro Tools system, the USB simply connects the remote control software.
So what is the benefit of having the HDX connectors and USB 3.0? Well Antelope have focused on a gap in the market for visiting producers bringing laptops into studios. The whole HD system can be wired in as normal with the Pro Tools rig, yet simultaneously the USB 3.0 system can be used to record to, and stream from an additional computer. So for example you can stream audio from your HD rig, whilst playing back synced audio from a native DAW on the same or another computer. Audio can be passed live to all digital outputs, and there is almost unlimited scope for streaming stems or multi-tracks from one computer to another, all in a real time rather than using a file based system. Of course you could use the MADI and ADAT to create additional backup recordings if you wanted to, perhaps for a live rig.
The remote control software has come along leaps and bounds since the original release of the Orion and offers extensive routing and internal mixing with a rather nice reverb, dubbed Auraverb. There are also 16 AFX slots for EQ and compression FPGA FX plug-ins. These plug-ins run within the remote control software rather than your DAW but it’s simple enough to drop in a hardware insert in your DAW and send audio to any of these AFX processing chains. Latency seems to be measurable but is very low. The AFX slots offer standard EQ and Compression but also a growing range of vintage EQ and compressor models. Up to eight plug-ins can be dropped into each of the 16 AFX slots and simply clicking on a link button can pair these for stereo use. At the time of reviewing the EQ collection was quite extensive offering devices from BAE, plus a variety of classic models, that are reminiscent of API, SSL, Pultec and many more. Most of these performed admirably, and exactly as you would expect. The BAE models offer a particularly smooth sound, Antelope have gone to great lengths to offer several different models from each brand as well.
These EQs proved particularly useful for tracking, though in a mixing context the integration is still a little awkward. For example because the processing does not use a standard plug-in format a remote software session preset would have to be saved for each individual mix project. Perhaps it would be beneficial for Antelope to focus on having some kind of plug-in that could be saved with a project to recall the AFX set up, maybe even for automation too. However, it is possible during tracking to print clean and processed versions of each track, so for the old- school recordist who doesn’t mind tracking via EQ processing this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
The Feed Forward generic compressor offers all the features you would expect but the only vintage compressor included in the FPGA FX system at present is the FET-A76 model. Clearly based on a blackface 1176, the software sounds rather nice. It overdrives in a pleasant way and actually has one of the most realistic responses that this reviewer has found in a software model, particularly when used on drums. Hats off to Antelope for bringing that to the game, of course tracking through the software model is possible and certainly added a great feel for vocals and snare.
Setting up the Orion is not the simplest of processes but once the driver and launch software are installed from the Antelope website and the unit is registered, full control is attainable from the remote software. All inputs and outputs can be patched to each other with a simple drag of a mouse and the four internal near-zero latency mixers can be accessed in full depth.
At £3049 the antelope Orion 32 HD is by no means a budget interface, however the small footprint of the unit belies the extensive onboard I/O and processing. It has to be said that this is an excellent sounding piece of equipment and compared to other Pro Tools and Pro Tools compatible convertors you do get a lot of bang for your buck. The converters are right up there with the best and coped well with all sorts of sources at different input levels. They seem to capture transients exactly as you would hope. Antelope have shown consistent user friendly attitude in terms of providing all of the models for the FPGA FX system and software updates free of charge to users. It looks like it’s going to be that way for the foreseeable future as well and hopefully the guitar amp modelling FPGA FX will arrive for Orion 32 HD soon. The Orion 32 HD would make an ideal interface for small and large studios alike and the FPGA FX processing brings something to the table that sits well with both HD and native systems, allowing engineers to track with processing more confidently and at negligible latencies.