Those who have been following Antelope Audio’s product releases over the past year or so will be aware that HDX compatible versions of these high-end studio interfaces are now available. These forgo Thunderbolt connectivity for a Pro Tools HDX port that can be run simultaneously along with the USB 3.0 connection, even to different computers. Well Antelope has done it again and packed more than you thought possible into a new 1U rack audio interface, the Orion Studio HD is essentially the HDX compatible version of the Orion Studio Rev.2017, so if you do prefer a Thunderbolt connection then the option is available.
The Orion Studio HD offers 12 mic pres/line inputs on XLR/TRS combi-sockets with the four front- mounted inputs also offering High Impedance mode for instruments. These instrument inputs have plenty of headroom and even give low output passive guitars a nice tight, punchy sound. Antelope has really hit the nail on the head with the two front panel reamp outputs. Most modern smaller studios will love the idea of tracking guitar direct from the control room and reamping either live or later. The reamp outputs could be a little hotter but the trim control allows amps to be driven harder on the input stage.
The front panel has a handy encoder wheel, OLED screen, talkback button (with a recessed mic) as well as an A/B monitor button. So the rack can effectively function as a monitor controller. The rotary encoder controls all main input and output levels along with data entry. The unit is simple to use in this manner but the control software offers the complete routing and mix controls. The talkback mic, whilst a little noisy, is definitely a welcome addition to the average non-console tracking studio.
There are a couple of headphone outputs on the front panel that can be assigned individual mixes or can even receive two mono sources each, so totalling four cue mixes, perhaps for a mobile rig. The headphone outputs are powerful and clear and coped well even when tracking drums. The remaining eight microphone preamp inputs can be found on the back panel, there are 16 analogue outputs on DB25 sockets and a pair of TRS insert points. There are also Word Clock, ADAT and SPDIF connections plus outputs for Monitor pairs A and B. Unlike some of the larger units in the range the Orion Studio HD employs an external power supply, but it does have a rather heavy duty locking barrel connector.
There is some registration required when first booting up, and the option of upgrading to the latest firmware may be available, remember firmware updates include the latest AFX effects. The Orion Control Panel software allows almost infinitely flexible routing options to be implemented. Despite not being a networked audio system, the unit allows control from other devices connected to the same network. There is even a smartphone app for Android and iOS, ideal for tweaking gains from the live room for example.
I/O ports can be connected with a simple drag and drop interface or a matrix. Complex routing configurations are a breeze, internal digital effects and external hardware processing are simple to patch, and each I/O port point can be labelled by the user. Out of the box there is some customisation required in terms of routing your physical I/O to the USB or HDX record and playback ports. Whilst this is a little tedious, routing can be completed fairly swiftly using the matrix window and presets for each session (or global presets) can be saved and shared between other Antelope products.
The four internal mixers are ideal for either super low latency cue mixes, using hardware input monitoring on your DAW or even creating on the fly rough mixes. You could even, at a pinch, perhaps output a live stream from the unit for podcasting or live video productions. The mixers offer Level and Pan controls and Mixer 1 has an aux send for Antelope’s Auraverb reverb. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews this is an incredible sounding reverb with a nice balance of flexibility and simplicity. There are some great presets that can be printed or just used for cue mixes whilst tracking. It’s even possible to route a send from your DAW to the Auraverb.
The AFX section offers hardware based digital effects, Antelope has chosen to use Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chips for the processing rather than conventional DSP. This is an interesting choice and they say it offers more flexibility and power. We have 16 channels of AFX processing to play with, each occupying up to 8 processors. However, you are limited to 32 compressors and 40 EQs at once. Possible uses include mixing inserts and processing on the way into your DAW, you can even route parallel chains. For example, you may want to track a vocal using a FET- A76 compressor and a BAE 1084 EQ model, as well as taking a clean backup print of the vocal.
Antelope has been continually expanding the range of vintage modelled effects — and it’s all free for registered Antelope users. Along with the generic EQ and compression there are licensed digital models of BAE and Gyraf Audio products. Antelope has also recently released a set of six new vintage-style compressors. The dbx-inspired VCA160 sounds great on bass, the x903 tames vocals and guitars nicely and there is even an Altec-style compressor, the ALT-436c which I reached for almost every day. The officially licensed Gyraf Gyratec X is a lovely characterful compressor and the Tube176 and Stay-Levin models definitely invoke the classic sounds of the original hardware tools.
Overall the selection of AFX models is more than satisfactory. Some of the EQs can get a little sharp if cranked, but in general the sounds are pretty close to the hardware. The A-76 FET compressor really adds that spank that you are used to from an 1176 on a snare, the 4K EQs come in black, brown, orange and pink and each offer a solid workhorse EQ with a clear punchy flavour. There are even classic Neumann, API and Pultec style EQs that do exactly what you would expect of them. I found myself using the VEQ-HA32 (inspired by the Harrison 32c) and BAE 1073 style EQs most often, but the options are almost certainly there for your individual preference.
Antelope and Overloud (maker of TH3 amp sim software) have teamed up to supply guitar amp and speaker cabinet models that run in the AFX rack. These proved rather useful for live tracking without amp spill to the drums. Also they were useful for tracking then comping guitar parts at a reasonable volume before reamping through a cranked head and 4x12. Having near latency-free guitar processing certainly will be a welcome feature to many producers and studios — however the cabinet modelling is not quite in same league as some contemporary plug-ins — yet.
Overall the studio HD was a pleasure to use offering low-noise, smooth and clear I/O. The front panel control room functionality is excellent and the FPGA effects make the unit an incredible workhorse worthy of any professional studio. Granted the unit is by no means at the low end of the market in price (retailing at £3,155) but it certainly packs a lot of functionality into a small box and the conversion sounds excellent. We can undoubtedly expect more models of vintage processors (and hopefully guitar amplifiers) to come along in further updates, so the future looks — and sounds — bright for Antelope users. If you are looking for a new front end for your HDX system, or you just want a native interface that can hook up to your local studio more easily, the Orion Studio HD might just have what you need.