Back at NAMM a couple of months ago, we gave you a preview of the Zen Tour from studio hardware heavyweight Antelope Audio. A gorgeous, yet powerful little desktop box that borrows many features from it's bigger brothers. A rugged build, loads of ins/outs, and the ability to process studio-grade effects without taxing your computer. All this at a price that won't break your bank, but is it worth it? Let's take a look.
There are countless options when it comes to audio interfaces. With so many factors to consider before buying, it can seem almost overwhelming. Price, power, i/o, size, etc. Most people want the best bang for their buck, which has created a race to cram as many features into as tiny of a box as possible. But, for the sake of this article, let's say you want to spend less than $2000, need a decent amount of ins and outs, and are interested in being able to get professionally modeled effects that won't destroy your CPU. This leaves you with only two main options. Either the UAD Apollo Twin or the Antelope Audio Zen Tour. Now, let's say you need more than two ins, then you are left with the Zen.
The Zen Tour has an impressive amount of connectivity with 11 analog and digital ins, and 12 analog and digital outs, as well as four preamps. On top of that, you can get near zero latency thanks to the Thunderbolt connectivity (cable not included). That's nearly double the UAD Twin. The chassis is an all-metal build, with a black and dark gray colorway. The Tour has a clean face, with a total of only four buttons, which give you instant access to monitor switching and various gain levels, a touch screen, and a large wheel used to control whatever is on screen. The unit has some decent weight to it as well, which makes it feel like a serious piece of gear. Just on looks alone, this thing is fantastic.
Moving into the large touchscreen, you have a mini mixer with all the levels of each line, lined with buttons that allow you to select different monitoring options. On top, you can change the source of the connection, i.e., Thunderbolt, USB, ADAT, etc., as well as the sample rate. If your uses for this interface are basic, this is essentially all you need to know, but in these modern times, basic use isn't an option for most. This is where the Zen Tour Launcher, the accompanying desktop assistant, comes into play. From here, you can access the good stuff.
From the assistant, you can route any in, to any out, via the routing matrix. You also have access to different mixers, as well as accurately modeled onboard FPGA effects (Field Programable Gate Array), with companies like Overloud and BAE providing their own additions. Removing the taxing CPU drainage of professional level plugins from your computer is huge, especially if you are running multiple chains of them. This has been the main selling point of UAD and DSP (Digital Signal Processing), and seeing other companies integrate this into their products is great.
*Prediction: Since UAD and Antelope both have sub-$2000 DSP/FPGA interfaces, I predict we will see something similar from Apogee, possibly this year. Seeing as they recently released the new Ensemble, a new desktop unit isn't out of the question. Perhaps they will replace the Duet and Symphony lines?
Now that all the facts are out of the way, let's get to the user-review. After seeing it at NAMM, I really couldn't wait to get my hands on the unit. When it finally arrived, I dove in right away. Coming from an Apogee Duet2, which is solid but very basic compared to the Zen, I was immediately greeted with a strange tone. I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was, but something sounded...off? Most of the music I listen to and make has majority mono elements that don't need much stereo spread. But even still, things sounded a bit flat. Not a good flat, like you would want for a mixdown, but just boring. Things seemed to lack any life. I wasn't sure what was going on, so I switched back to my Duet and could instantly hear a difference. After much frustration and many an explicative, I finally realized that the unit was playing everything in mono. I discovered this after doing turning on my mono switch in Ableton and hearing zero difference. The issue plagued my productions, although, in the end, I supposed they benefitted from it.
Zen Tour Routing Matrix
To fix this, I had to go to the Launcher program and pan the monitor outs hard left and right. This solution is one way to solve it; the other is to change the routing signal. Another issue I have with the launcher is that it's pretty confusing, and not very intuitive. Reading manuals is important, but even still, the software is rather intimidating. There is a learning curve when trying to understand the software. And on a personal note, I think it looks terrible. I like clean and straightforward layouts, and this is not that. Again, this is an opinion, and some might find it to be great. I will say that the ideas they have put into the program are there. It reminds me of iOS before it made the jump to the flat look. Maybe future versions will clean things up and make it a bit less confusing. The routing matrix isn't the most welcoming thing, but once you do a bit of reading and start playing with it, it can become a very powerful tool.
When it comes to the FPGA effects, they all sound great. I've never even played with any UAD products, so I have no reference for how these would compare. I would imagine, however, that if they want to be a serious competitor, they put in equally as much work. I liked the guitar effects, as well the BAE EQs. It took me quite a while to understand how to utilize them properly, and after chatting with their tech-support, I enjoy using them. Having a proper vintage EQ has its benefits over Ableton's native one, although I still love you EQ8!
If you are curious as to the difference between FPGA and DSP, imagine this: DSP is an external processor that has its own CPU, and runs code to use effects for example. While this is ideal for your actual computer's CPU, the DSP unit has its own CPU ceiling, and the more intensive of the plugins, the more CPU is used. Also, when using, let's say, ten vintage EQs, every instance of that EQ is draining CPU and creating a greater lag. This most likely won't be a problem for most, but for some, this can be bad news. FPGA, on the other hand, relies on actual circuits to run effects. This means there is no CPU ceiling to prevent you from using 40 vintage BAE EQs, and without creating greater lag. Instead, it's a matter of real estate, and the bigger the chip, the greater the power. But, enough of the nerdy stuff.
So what are my final thoughts? Overall, it's a very well build machine, with serious power under the hood, but not-quite-so-inviting-software. If reworked a bit, it could make a difference. The unit looks fantastic sitting on the desk, and all the buttons, as well as the jog-wheel, are of superior quality. The touch screen is pretty solid, although it takes a more precise touch to make sure you press the right button. If they made the on-screen buttons a bit bigger, this could probably be easily remedied. The amount of ins and outs this unit has is extremely impressive, and the added FPGA ability potentially gives this an edge over the Apollo alone. Add to that the killer plugins that are already on board, not to mention that Antelope told us at NAMM that all future plugins would be free as well. As for the price? An acceptable price of $1500.
An impressive amount of ins/outs, great build quality and FPGA processing with amazing free plugins
• Intimidating software that isn't pretty to look a, one definitely needs to read the manual to understand how to operate fully and touch-screen can be a bit unresponsive if not precisely pressed