Korg Soundlink DRS 1212

Multi-channel PCI Audio I/O Card

Published in SOS July 1997
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Reviews : Computer Recording System

Although it also forms part of the all-encompassing digital SoundLink system, Korg's 1212 PCI card offers a stand-alone, cost-effective option for getting multitrack digital audio in and out of your Mac. PAUL WHITE discovers that digital audio recording relies on going through the proper channels...

 

This is undoubtedly the year of the multi-channel audio I/O card, and with so many low-cost variants coming onto the market, computer-based audio without the restriction of a single stereo input and output seems certain to win over a lot of users. Multiple inputs and outputs are standard requirements for serious users -- multiple inputs to allow the concurrent recording of multi-instrument sessions, and multiple outputs to interface with an external mixer. Exactly how those inputs and outputs are presented accounts for the main differences between competing products. Korg have built their card to form part of the SoundLink DRS system, and you may recall that we reviewed the SoundLink 168RC digital recording console in the December '96 issue of SOS, but while the 1212 I/O PCI card is designed to integrate fully with this mixer, it may also be used as a stand-alone breakout box for a MIDI + Audio sequencer, or a tapeless multitrack recorder.

12 TIMES ABLE?

Built on a full-length PCI card, the 1212 I/O PCI can handle 12 simultaneous inputs and outputs, but unlike most other systems, the main interface is the ADAT standard optical port. Two further inputs and outputs are provided on conventional S/PDIF ports, and there's also an analogue stereo pair of connectors accessible via stereo quarter-inch jack sockets on the rear of the card. Moveable jumpers on the card allow the analogue audio level to be set to either -10dBv or +4dBu. The audio converters are very much state-of-the-art, and are allegedly the same as those used in the new Alesis ADAT Meridian (see the interview with Marcus Ryle in the last issue of SOS). The input is 20-bit enhanced dual-bit delta-sigma, while the output is 18-bit linear. Because the converters reside within the computer, the noise performance is somewhat at the mercy of adjacent circuitry and the quality of the computer's power supply, but a weighted figure of 90dB is quoted. This is typical of the better soundcards, although the digital I/O shouldn't suffer because of being on a PCI card.

Adding up the eight ADAT channels, the two S/PDIF channels and the two analogue channels makes up the 12 in the board's title, but for professional use, there's also word clock in and out connections (see the 'Word clock' box elsewhere in this article for more on this), and an ADAT 9-pin Sync socket, allowing the host software application to run in tight sync with an ADAT.

Does this mean that the 1212 I/O PCI is only of any use to ADAT owners? Not at all -- the ADAT optical interface is now a widely adopted standard, and looks set to become even more so. Even Korg's Trinity has an ADAT output option, and of course, Korg's 168RC recording console uses the ADAT interface. Yamaha's new digital consoles all have optional ADAT interfacing, and the same is true of other affordable digital consoles, such as Mackie's digital 8-buss. However, I'll concede that in an otherwise all-analogue environment, the 1212 is of limited use unless you have an ADAT to link it to, or unless you buy the optional outboard converters, which will set you back more than the price of the card.

SOFTWARE SUPPORT

A multi-channel audio card is only as good as the software that supports it, and by the time this card is first on sale, it will probably only be supported by Macromedia's Deck II (version 2.6 of this is being bundled with the 1212 by Korg, but only for the first few months the card is on sale), and Cubase VST v3.5 for Power Macintosh (apparently due in the summer). There's also a piece of utility software (see Figure 1) included which enables the 1212 to be used as a digital router, allowing any input to be piped to any output. A DSP chip on the card handles the routing, and also allows the various gains to be changed, but there's no mixing facility.

Emagic are reputedly including the card in their future support plans for some time towards the end of the year (apparently it's different enough in concept from Audiowerk8, also reviewed in this issue, not to cause a conflict of interests), and most of the American big players have been approached, though it's too early to say who's signed up, other than BIAS for Peak. At the time of writing, there's no PC software support for the card, though future PC integration seems likely.

 

"Given its surprisingly low cost, the 1212 is rather special."

 

I checked out the card in an Apus Power Mac clone, and though Korg had apparently tried the board in a number of Macs and clones with no problems, I found the fit so tight that I had to remove the securing nuts from the two jack sockets on the rear panel before the card would fit. After a little shoving and swearing, I managed to coax the card into place (while heeding the usual anti-static warnings, of course). Bundled with the card was a CD-ROM containing Macromedia's Deck software, the necessary 1212 I/O PCI support files, the 1212 software on floppy disk, and two breakout cables, one for the S/PDIF phonos and one for the ADAT sync and word clock connectors. These cables are an inescapable fact of life due to the
tiny amount of rear-panel space available for a typical card, though the ADAT and analogue I/O is fitted directly to the rear panel. The software installation is straightforward, after which the machine must be re-started to allow the 1212 system extension to load.

Though the card will run in pretty much any PCI Power Macintosh or clone, the way that the applications are increasing in power means that anything slower than a 166MHz machine is likely to find its way to a car boot sale in well under two years. Indeed, the word from the industry is that what we currently consider to be state-of-the art will be entry-level by the year end, and that anything running below 200MHz is a poor investment. You just have to look at Cubase VST to see where the power goes -- once you start running a few bits of plug-in software at the same time, you're pushing the limits of even the fastest current machines. Korg were able to show me a beta version of Cubase VST v3.5 which supports all 12 inputs and outputs of the 1212 I/O PCI card, and I'd love to tell you about the other features (such as the proper internal bussing system), but this will have to wait until the full SOS review of Cubase VST v3.5, when we'll let you know how the software interfaces with other PCI I/O cards like the 1212. However, I can tell you that the beta version runs OK with the card, and I was allowed to take a screen dump to show you what the interface looks like (see Figure 2).

APPLICATIONS

The problem with reviewing any card like this one is that its capabilities are limited mainly by the software that supports it. For example, you might ask me how many tracks of audio you can run with this card, but to be honest, that isn't the card's concern. The card can give you up to 12 simultaneous outputs, but these could come from submixes of more than 12 tracks. On the other hand, your system might only be capable of 6-track playback, in which case you shouldn't spend your time looking into the other six outputs and waiting for something to appear as if by magic! Furthermore, if the host application has on-board mixing and routing options, you might want to use some of your I/O to service aux sends and returns for outboard effects. The number of tracks the host application can provide depends to a large extent on the model of computer and the speed of data transfer to and from the hard drive. Some systems enable you to employ multiple hard drives to get more tracks of playback, and although this is not currently supported, there are plans to allow multiple 1212 I/O PCI cards to work together in the near future.

Even without a host software application you can use the 1212 I/O utility to route digital audio between S/PDIF and ADAT. The manual explains how to route data from a DAT machine or similar source to any pair of ADAT tracks, or vice versa, and it's also possible to take the output from an ADAT, process it via an S/PDIF device, such as a Lexicon reverb, then route it back onto two other ADAT tracks. The sync source for the card can be set to word clock, ADAT or internal. The common sample rates may also be selected, and transfer methods are described for ADAT systems both with and without an Alesis BRC. Using the included Deck multitrack software, audio may be transferred from ADAT, edited, and then returned to the ADAT with very precise synchronisation between the two systems. To use the 1212 I/O PCI with Cubase VST, in a situation where the system needs to be sync'ed to MIDI Time Code (MTC), a synchroniser box that can convert MTC into word clock is required (Korg recommend MOTU's Digital Time Piece).

As part of the test, I loaded the card into a Mac that already had an Emagic Audiowerk8 card fitted, and found no conflict problems, even when both pieces of software were booted up. The 1212 I/O PCI also runs happily alongside a Digidesign Audiomedia III card, though there seems to be no way to use them simultaneously.

SUMMARY

This PCI card is perhaps best suited to the ADAT user and/or digital mixer user, but because the ADAT protocol is so widely supported, the possible applications are far greater than this. What's more, the ADAT link can handle up to 20-bit audio, so there's a certain amount of 'future-proofing' built in to allow for higher resolution digital recording. Korg have their own stand-alone external converters for anyone wanting to go the analogue mixer route, but to be quite honest there are probably more cost-effective solutions for people wanting to work in this way.

As with any computer audio card, though, the main limiting factor is not what it can do, but how well it is supported. For the immediate future only, the card will be bundled with Deck II v2.6, but other than that, the choice is limited to Cubase VST v3.5, and later on, Logic Audio and BIAS Peak. Success in the States hinges on the acceptance of the card by such products as Opcode's Studio Vision, MOTU's Digital Performer and Cakewalk Music Software's Cakewalk embracing the concept.

Given its surprisingly low cost, the 1212 I/O PCI is rather special. Not only does it have 12 outputs, it also has 12 inputs that can be used simultaneously, and the ADAT sync facilities look impressively tight. From my viewpoint, the main attraction of the system is that you can patch into a digital mixer using simple optical cables to create a very flexible desktop studio that has the ability to interface with other digital components, such as ADATs, DAT machines and effects units with S/PDIF connections. If you're staying analogue, this may not be the best card for you, but if you want to build your studio around a digital mixer, then, for the money, there's nothing to touch the Korg 1212.

 

ALL HANDS ON... MACROMEDIA DECK II

Since its original manufacturers OSC were taken over by Macromedia in 1995, Deck has evolved to incorporate a lot of the functionality that was previously only available as add-ons, and the universally disliked limited-install disk protection system has been dropped. Deck II v2.6 is basically a multitrack recording package capable of handling up to 32 tracks on a 604 Power Macintosh, and fewer tracks on less powerful machines, as well as supporting Apple's internal AV hardware. Note that no matter how powerful your Mac, multiple drives will be needed to get anything like 32-track playback, and a more realistic figure is around 12 tracks per single hard drive.

Although Deck II is a multitrack recording package and not a MIDI sequencer, it is possible to import MIDI files for playback along with the audio, and there are facilities for MIDI and SMPTE sync as well as for mapping Deck II's level and pan sliders to MIDI control. The software is also compatible with Digidesign hardware, including Audiomedia cards, Sound Tools II or the original Pro Tools 422 4-channel systems. Version 2.6 of Deck II also has full support for the 1212 I/O card.

Screen redraws have been accelerated, there's a scrolling cursor (on Power Mac only) and the handling of imported stereo regions has been improved. Extensive non-destructive editing is also available, along with crossfading between regions, and digital mixing. As an existing Pro Tools user, I perceive Deck II as providing a similar working environment, but with a largely simplified facility set. This similarity extends to the support of plug-in effects and processors from the likes of Waves, though these are in Adobe Premiere format rather than Digidesign TDM. These plug-ins process audio destructively insofar as a new file of the processed data is created, but if sufficient disk space is available, the original files may be maintained intact.

 

SOUND MANAGER

To make full use of the 1212 I/O PCI's facilities, the host digital audio application has to be specifically written to support the card, but limited functionality can be accessed by any application that supports Apple's Sound Manager. Sound Manager controls the computer's sound input and output facilities, from warning beeps to multimedia sound, but most computers' audio facilities are far inferior to those found on a dedicated professional audio card such as the 1212. Via Sound Manager, the 1212 can be used instead of the computer's own audio facilities, but with the limitation that Sound Manager supports only two inputs and two outputs. These may be either analogue or digital, but ADAT sync can't be accessed from Sound Manager. The 1212 I/O utility is then used to decide which audio inputs and outputs will be used.

However, configuring Sound Manager to use the 1212 I/O card doesn't automatically shut off Sound Manager's own signal routing, which means that you could route the same signal to the same destination twice -- once via Sound Manager, and once via the 1212. Because of slight delays, this usually results in a metallic or flange-like sound, so to avoid this the host software should be used to turn off the audio patch-through feature for Sound Manager. Alternatively, you could turn down the volumes of any channels assigned to Sound Manager, or even mute the 1212's channel routing. If you think this sounds like an unnecessary fiddle, I agree entirely, but it seems inevitable in a situation where you're effectively running two routing systems at the same time!

 

WORD CLOCK

Word clock is a valuable addition for professional applications, including any application that requires continuous audio resync, as without a word clock to sync to, it's possible that long audio tracks within a sequence containing MIDI and audio data could drift out of time with the MIDI sequence. Whenever two digital audio devices are connected, there needs to be some way of keeping the sample rates of the two machines synchronised. If data arrives slightly too early, or slightly too late, it is lost or corrupted. The rate of data transfer is synchronised using word clock, a clock that 'ticks' once for every bit of data transferred, and when data is being transferred between two machines, one machine (usually the sending machine), must provide the word clock for both -- or both must be slaved to the same external word clock generator.

In simple digital applications, such as transferring data from one DAT machine to another, the word clock is sent along with the data, so a single co-axial cable is all that's needed. However, more sophisticated systems send the word clock separately, the Alesis BRC being one example. This means that when S/PDIF signals are being routed to ADAT via the 1212 I/O PCI, the BRC must be fed a separate word clock to keep the signals synchronised. When transferring data from ADAT via the 1212 I/O PCI, the card should be set so that the ADAT is the clock source. When editing ADAT audio data alongside MIDI sequencer tracks, it is advisable to leave the sync source set to ADAT, even when the ADAT is not running. Failure to do this can result in the timing of the ADAT audio and the audio files played back via the 1212 I/O PCI drifting slightly.

 

pros & cons

KORG 1212 £599

pros

• Inexpensive.
• ADAT interfaces as standard.
• Ready for PC use once software support is forthcoming.

cons
• Costly to add the analogue converters for use with analogue mixers.
• As with most cards, usefulness is limited by the software.

summary
An inexpensive way to get into multitrack digital audio for
those with digital mixers or ADAT-compatible hardware.

 

info

£ Korg 1212 £599; Deck II (available temporarily from Korg) £249; 880A/D rackmount A/D converter £599; 880A/D rackmount D/A converter £499.

A Korg UK, 9 Newmarket Court, Kingston, Milton Keynes MK10 0AU, UK.

T +44 (0)1908 857100.

F +44 (0)1908 857199.

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