Emagic Audiowerk8

PCI I/O Card

Published in SOS July 1997
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Reviews : Computer Recording System

Digital audio recording on computers has been possible for several years now, but without expensive multi-channel I/O units, the inputs and outputs from computer-based systems have been limited to simple stereo jacks. Now, several inexpensive multi-output PCI I/O cards are coming onto the market. PAUL WHITE looks at Emagic's solution, and decides he knows what he likes...

 

I get the impression that a lot of people would like to move into hard disk recording, but are put off by the fact that multiple-output systems tend to be very expensive (with the exception of C-Lab Falcon-based setups), while more affordable systems usually rely on a cheap stereo in/out soundcard or use the built-in audio capabilities of a Power Macintosh or similar computer. This year's NAMM show promised some improvement in this situation, with several companies showing more reasonably priced I/O hardware. One system that attracted a lot of interest was Emagic's Audiowerk8 PCI card, offering eight audio outputs and two audio inputs plus S/PDIF I/O. The card comes bundled with its own 8-track software, called VMR, short for Virtual Multitrack Recorder, and this is a pretty good description of what you get -- an on-screen virtual representation of a tape machine with a smattering of hard disk-type copy and paste edit functions. Fun though VMR is, of greater importance is the fact that Audiowerk8 also runs with Logic Audio (version 2.61 upwards), providing an incredibly powerful MIDI + Audio desktop studio at a very accessible price. Prior to Audiowerk8, the only satisfactory way to get multiple audio outputs from Logic Audio was to use Digidesign's Pro Tools hardware, and while this is actually very powerful and well supported by third-party DSP plug-ins, it is priced well beyond the reach of the majority of recording musicians. Though Logic Audio doesn't currently provide on-board effects in the same way as Cubase VST does, version 3.0 (due this summer), promises to redress the balance, making the Audiowerk8/Logic Audio-based studio potentially more self-contained.

Two Audiowerk8 cards may be used at the same time to provide 16-track operation, but when used with Logic Audio, a single Audiowerk8 card can support up to 24 tracks of audio, computer and hard drive permitting. Optional daughterboards are planned for later in the year which will provide three more S/PDIF digital I/O ports or an ADAT optical interface.

The question all non-Logic Audio users are asking concerns the compatibility or otherwise of Audiowerk8 with other leading audio sequencers. At their press conference in January, Emagic were a little non-committal on the subject, but said that they were engaged in dialogue with other manufacturers, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see. However, according to the CD-ROM that comes with the package, the card is compatible with the Apple Sound Manager, and therefore will work within any third-party programs that can use Sound Manager. The catch is that the current version of Sound Manager only supports 2-in, 2-out operation, which rather defeats the object of having an 8-output card!

Audiowerk8, complete with its bundled software costs under £500, and because of its PCI format, it will run on any of the newer Apple, Mac clone or Pentium PC machines that support PCI expansion slots. The 18-bit oversampling audio converters and S/PDIF I/O phono sockets are all located on the circuit card, but because of the lack of panel space, the analogue ins and outs come as a short bunch of cables terminating in phono sockets. At the card end, these connect via a single 'D' connector with securing screws. A weighty ferrite block is clamped around the cable bundle, presumably as a means of reducing the amount of RF (radio-frequency interference) getting into and out of the card. Each of the phono circuits is identified by a small, printed fabric flag.

As the Mac version of the software was ready first, I installed the card into a modestly specified (603e/166MHz) Apus Power Mac clone rather than into my Pentium PC (which still isn't right in the head since the last time I installed new hardware!), and the installation went without hitch. Providing you remember to ground yourself to the computer chassis before installing the card (to avoid static problems), the process is a doddle -- just plug in the card, then click on the Install icon for VMR on the supplied CD-ROM. Moments later, VMR is installed, and after restarting the computer you're ready to roll.

VMR

Using VMR, Audiowerk8 provides the virtual equivalent of an 8-track tape machine, including transport buttons, input meters with record select, solo and mute buttons for each track (see Figure 1 and its key for an indication of where each of the buttons is to be found in the software). The file format is SDII (mono) for Mac users and WAV for PC users. There's also a 20-point Location memory and an auto punch-in/out system based on the left and right locators, though you can also punch in and out on the fly, as you can with a traditional hardware recorder. The system uses the familiar tape analogy, so before you start work, you have to click the button with the tape icon to set up your virtual tape. Another good point about creating a virtual tape to store your songs is that a separate folder is created for each tape, enabling you to keep track of your audio files.

Though the tape recorder model has been adhered to pretty rigidly in the way VMR is presented, the track waveform display rather gives the game away. Furthermore, there are many editing functions that would be impossible on a normal tape-based machine. For example, you can remove a track to free it up for re-use, but the audio data doesn't have to be deleted -- the file still exists, so it may be brought back in later if needed. Track data may also be copied, so that if you're doing a lot of risky editing or punching in, you can still go back to the original if there's a disaster. It's also possible to normalise track data to get the peak signal level up to maximum.

Most digital recorders come with a manual the size of the Yellow Pages (the really big ones have manuals the size of SOS!), but Emagic's proud boast is that most of what you need to know is printed on the back of the box. While this is both laudable and impressive, it isn't exactly convenient to have a squashed cardboard box on your manuals shelf, but to be fair, once you've read it, you probably won't need to refer to it again. Such information as you can't glean from the box comes in a small supplementary manual of less than 20 pages.

 

"Audiowerk 8 is just what the recording musician has been asking for."

 

Above the transport controls is the main time readout (the largest time display in the VMR window). The two smaller time displays above the main readout are the left and right locators, upon which all the main editing functions rely. The values of these locators can be changed from the keyboard, or via the mouse, either by clicking on the Set Locator buttons (see Figure 1) or, even more simply, by clicking on values in the main time display and dragging them onto the relevant locator display. The reverse is also true; you jump to the stored locator values by dragging the value from the relevant locator onto the main time display. The left and right locators are useful when using the Autodrop function (Emagic's term for auto punch-in) in combination with Cycle (loop) mode to record a number of alternative takes of a part -- the left and right locators then mark the ends of the part you want to keep recording. After recording various takes in Cycle mode, you can then audition them all and select the best one. The Autodrop function includes a pre-roll time, and Cycle may also be used simply to loop around a section for rehearsal.

Above the left and right locators are the Position Displays (see Figure 1 and key), which show the stored autolocate points. You can store up to 24 of these, but you can only see six of them at any one time, as there are only six displays in the VMR window. Again, autolocator points may be stored by dragging values from the main time display, or the left or right locators, and you jump to the autolocate points by dragging the values from the position display to the main time readout. For those who don't like mousing around, a comprehensive set of key commands is also provided to enable users to access the left/right locators and position memories very quickly.

During editing, source tracks are selected using Solo buttons, and the destination track with Record. Sections may then be copied, moved, exchanged, or replaced with silence. A similar process allows multiple sources to be selected (between the same time locations, of course), and bounced to a new destination. The Edit button (the one marked with the diagonal arrow above the main time display) is instrumental in all editing activities; after selecting your source and destination tracks and times, pressing this button brings up a simple on-screen dialogue box that allows you to select the precise function you want (for example, Copy, Move, Exchange, Silence and so on, as described above). Audiowerk8 supports both mono and stereo file recording using the stereo link button between the track pairs, located under the level meters. If stereo files are bounced, they must be sent to a stereo destination. It's also possible to bounce all eight tracks down into stereo, via an external mixer, onto two of the original tracks, without losing the original audio data. This means that you can create submixes using external effects and EQ, as with a conventional tape machine, except that you don't have to leave two tracks free to do it.

IN USE

Using VMR isn't unlike using one of the new stand-alone 'personal' digital multitrackers, such as Fostex's D80 or Roland's VS880, in that the tape analogy is combined with the basic essentials of digital editing, but without any frills. However, VMR doesn't have any sync facilities, as it's assumed that if you're working with MIDI or as part of a more professional system, you'll be using Logic Audio with the card.

VMR's user interface has a reassuringly simple, robust 3D feel to it, with large, familiar buttons and clear displays of both 'tape' position and recording level. A large button marked with an 'A' and a 'D' toggles between digital and analogue inputs, and tracks are armed for recording exactly as with a hardware machine. There's also a useful varispeed-style function in the form of the Pitch button. You can name tracks, either by choosing a preset name from a pull-down menu, or by entering up to 12 characters of your own, and as the track is recorded, its waveform is displayed in the track waveform window. Track data may also be moved from one track to another. Despite all of VMR's useful features, I can't help thinking of Fisher Price whenever I look at the screen (if they don't currently produce a 'My First Digital Multitrack Recorder', it's only a matter of time!).

When used from within Logic Audio, Audiowerk8 comes up as one of the available audio device options in the Audio Object parameter box, and, once selected, it works in pretty much the same way as any other audio interface device. Track 1 and 2 Audio Objects have faders, panning and stereo linking, as well as record buttons, mutes and solos, but there's no EQ, as there is if you use Pro Tools hardware. The remaining Audio Objects are outputs only, as Audiowerk8 can only record on up to two tracks at any one time.

Recording is at 16-bit, and though some background hum and interference is evident when you turn the monitoring up, at moderate volume settings with replay stopped you'd have to put your ear to the monitor to notice anything. While a more expensive system with external converters is undoubtedly better in this respect, Audiowerk8 can produce excellent results if you're careful with your record levels. For stereo editing, the S/PDIF I/O provides a much cleaner path, and anyone who has a good DAT machine with an S/PDIF output might want to consider using it as a front end (ie, just using the converters) while recording, to ensure the quietest results.

At the time of writing, the current version of Logic Audio throws up a couple of problems when working with Audiowerk8 (older versions don't recognise it at all), although this problem should have been fixed in the version available by the time you read this. The problems I found related to the input meters not registering until one attempt at recording had been made, and, more seriously, tracks being recorded couldn't be monitored during recording. Check that you have the appropriate version of Logic Audio to avoid disappointment.

SUMMARY

Like all systems with on-card converters, Audiowerk8 is vulnerable to a certain amount of hum and noise pickup from other parts of the computer, or from adjacent cards, but Emagic have done their best to keep this to a creditable minimum. Installation is straightforward, the bundled software is very friendly for non-MIDI sessions, and having multiple outputs finally means that the user on a budget can exploit the full capabilities of an external mixer and effects units. All you need is a small mixer, plus some form of monitoring system, and you can make very sophisticated recordings.

For serious applications, where sync'ing and mix automation are required, Audiowerk8 teams with Logic Audio to produce a very powerful desktop music production system. It'll be interesting to see which, if any, of the other sequencer platforms Emagic decide to support with Audiowerk8, as there are several multi-output audio systems poised to hit the market over the next few months (and one is featured in this very issue -- see the Korg 1212 card review starting on page 156), most of which have multi-platform support. Audiowerk8 is the most cost-effective solution to the multiple output problem to date, but those demanding the best possible sound quality may either have to wait for the digital daughterboard (expanding the system to four stereo S/PDIFs plus ADAT digital I/O), or look at one of the more costly systems based on external converters.

Ultimately, Audiowerk8 is just what the recording musician has been asking for, and though you can get better performance from a professional system, you still have to pay quite a lot more to get it.

 

AUDIOWERK8 SPECIFICATIONS

• Card type: 32-bit PCI Busmaster

• Digital audio format: 16-bit linear

• Nominal sample rate: 44.1 kHz

• Sample rate: Range 40-50kHz, resolution 1Hz

• I/O: Two analogue inputs (-10dBV, unbalanced RCA connections), eight analogue outputs (-10dBV, unbalanced RCA connections), stereo digital input and output (S/PDIF)

• Oversampling: 128 x

• D/A converters: 18-bit continuous calibration

• A/D converters: 1-bit bitstream, 18-bit equivalent

• Total Harmonic Distortion: Less than 0.006% @ 1kHz, 0dB signal level

• Dynamic range: Greater than 90dB, input-to-output, A-weighted

• Frequency response: 20Hz to 20kHz, 0.5dB, Input-to-Output, 44.1kHz

• Maximum audio tracks: 8 tracks with VMR, 12 with Logic Audio Discovery v1.1, 16 tracks with Logic Audio v2.6.5, 24 tracks with Logic Audio v3.0

 

HARDWARE REQUIREMENTS

Audiowerk8 requires a computer with a free PCI slot, and will work with either MacOS machines or Pentium PCs running Windows 95. Both sets of software will be shipped with production systems, though only the Mac version was available for this review. Windows users may use anything from a Pentium 60 upwards, though a P100 or better is recommended, while Mac users may pick any PCI Power Mac upwards from the 601 processor. A minimum of 16Mb of RAM is required.

VMR is able to run with virtually any up-to-date SCSI or IDE drive, and around 5Mb of disk space is needed for each track-minute of recording. Iomega Zip drives apparently allow up to 4-track operation, whereas an Iomega Jaz drive will support eight simultaneous tracks. Emagic have not tested the later Syquest removable drives, but say that their technical specifications indicate that they should work OK.

 

pros & cons

EMAGIC AUDIOWERK8 £499

pros
• Inexpensive way of getting multiple outputs from a computer-based recording system.
• Easy to install.
• Includes digital S/PDIF I/O for DAT transfers and so on.

cons
• Still limited to two simultaneous inputs.
• Noise performance isn't as good as from a system using external converters.

summary
Audiowerk8 is an inexpensive card that delivers the flexibility
users have been asking for, to allow them to use an external mixer.
Only time will tell which other applications come to support the card,
but the more the better.

 

info

£ £499 including VAT.

A Sound Technology plc, Letchworth Point, Letchworth, Hertfordshire SG6 1ND

T 01462 480000.

F 01462 480800.

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