Mediatrix Audiotrix 3DXG

Soundcard

Published in SOS May 1998
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Reviews : PC Soundcard

MEDIATRIX AUDIOTRIX 3DXG PC SOUNDCARD

In a market already awash with soundcards, it takes a clever company to find a niche that hasn't already been filled. MARTIN WALKER finds out what tricks this new card has up its anti-static sleeve.

Mediatrix Peripherals (of Quebec, Canada) will be a name that's new to many people, but their Audiotrix 3DXG is a deluxe consumer card that manages to make you sit up and take notice straight away. Rather than offering a daughterboard socket, and then using as a sales feature the fact that you can install the Yamaha DB50XG board, Mediatrix cleverly integrates a DB60XG card (effectively a DB50XG with added analogue input), with its own full-duplex recording circuitry, into the Audiotrix card. Users of the 3DXG can thus have those Yamaha sounds from day one, along with an MPU401-compatible 1-in, 1-out MIDI interface.

pros & cons

MEDIATRIX AUDIOTRIX 3DXG £231

pros
XG sounds built-in.
All WAV files have access to Yamaha effects.

cons

Confusing routing implementation.
No true multi-client MIDI drivers provided.

summary

A consumer soundcard with an excellent MIDI synth, and good-quality WAV capabilities with multi-effects. This should suit someone who wants to play some games, but requires better than games quality MIDI for serious use.

The reason I've dubbed this a deluxe consumer card is that although the DB60XG sounds will appeal to musicians, SoundBlaster, SoundBlaster Pro and Adlib (FM) compatibility are provided too, which makes it suitable as a general-purpose games card as well. Yamaha technology also provides these functions, in the form of a single OPL3-SAx chip which combines an audio codec (Coder Decoder), DOS games compatibility, and FM synthesis. In the same consumer vein, a microphone input is provided (which supports dynamic or electret models), as well as a line-level input and speaker and line-level outputs. Also part of the package are a pair of multimedia speakers, a SoundBlaster-compatible MIDI cable, the driver floppy disk and a CD-ROM applications disc.

INSTALLATION

The 3DXG is a 16-bit Plug and Play ISA buss card. At seven inches long, it should fit in most slot positions, although with the daughterboard attached it is a little thicker than normal overall (physically, it's a pair of cards sandwiched together), so you have to be careful that nothing is touching neighbouring cards before applying the power. If you're unsure about this, slip a sheet of paper between any parts in danger of touching, and then nothing can possibly get shorted out. Before plugging in the card, it's worth checking the manual for the default settings of the five hardware jumpers, as two of these are inaccessible beneath the daughterboard. Fortunately the factory defaults should suit most people, which will save separating the two cards to get at the jumpers.

As I already have a lot of expansion cards in my PC, I always read the manual first, to find out what resources a new card needs -- then I already have a good idea what clashes I might get. As a consumer card with SoundBlaster and Adlib compatibility, the Audiotrix requires quite a lot of system resources -- six I/O addresses, two IRQs, and two DMAs. As I already have an AWE64 Gold card in my system, the easiest thing was to remove this, as the number and type of resources were similar, and the chances of getting both cards working together are pretty slim anyway. Having disabled the appropriate AWE64 drivers from Device Manager, I switched off, removed the AWE64 and plugged in the 3DXG.

The new card drivers were installed fairly painlessly (but see the Multi Mania box). Despite Plug and Play, I did have to manually allocate the resources in my machine, but this is due to several legacy cards, and I had to do exactly the same with my AWE64. The Audiotrix is really no different from any other games-compatible soundcard in this respect, and if you have no other soundcards installed you shouldn't have many problems. However, I did think that it was a bit heavy-handed of Mediatrix to advise removing all existing soundcard drivers from Device Manager before installing the card -- if you're removing an existing soundcard to install the Audiotrix this would be fair enough, but otherwise leave well alone.

Drivers are provided for DOS (games) use, and, just as with any other SoundBlaster-compatible card, various additions are made to your AUTOEXEC.BAT file during installation. Mediatrix do document these, in case you ever need to remove the soundcard. Other supported operating systems include Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11, Windows 95, Windows 95 OSR2, Windows NT (3.51 and 4.0), and even the beta versions of Windows 98 and Windows NT 5.0!

FEATURE LIST

Onboard synth: Yamaha SW60XG card (4Mb ROM AWM Wavetable).
Synth polyphony: 32 notes, 16-part multitimbral.
Soft synth: 16 notes, 16-part multitimbral.
Effects: Three independent DSP processors (Reverb, Chorus, Variations).
MIDI: MPU401-compatible, 1-In, 1-Out (but also connected to the XG synth).
WAV Sampling Rates: 5.5 to 48kHz (hardware full duplex).
A/D converter: 16-bit sigma-delta codec.
D/A converter: high-precision 18-bit on DB60XG card.
Quoted signal/noise ratio: 87dB.
Once installed, the card appears as three new MIDI devices: the OPL3-SA FM MIDI is the 4-operator FM synth, OPL3-SA MPU MIDI is for the DB60XG and external MIDI port (these are one and the same device), and the OPL3-SA Soft Wave Table MIDI provides 16 additional MIDI voices. The WAV recording and playback drivers appear as a standard stereo pair within Windows. A supplied CD-ROM bundle includes such goodies as Cool Edit Pro LE, Cakewalk Express 5.0, Yamaha's XGedit (of course), and a host of other utilities and demos.

GETTING ROUTED

Due to the availability of XG effects to both MIDI and WAV devices, quite a few options are available for both recording and playback, requiring several mixers. The Windows 95 Mixer applets have the standard record and playback level controls, but a separate 3DXG Mixer controls levels and effect routing for both MIDI and WAV signals (see Figure 1). The MIDI Control section handles the absolute settings for the DB60XG synth, and the Digital Control section does the same for WAV record and playback, with an extra Dry fader to balance up the direct signal against effect levels. For full parameter control of the effects you have to use an editor such as XGedit (you'll need to register the supplied copy to save any of your edits).

The Refresh tick boxes send periodic override levels to the soundcard, to counteract any sent independently during playback of MIDI files, and the Lock tick box allows you to force the audio side of the soundcard to remain active. Normally, playback of any MIDI file will reset the XG synth to retrieve the two notes used to provide the stereo audio input facility of the DB60XG, so unless locked, the audio will be muted as soon as a MIDI file starts to play.

The Windows 95 playback mixer has a host of level controls (see Figure 2). There are others not shown here, but they are best muted and hidden, since with the special routing of this card they can produce instant feedback. The CD Audio input also controls the external Line In level, Synthesizer is the FM level control, and the 3D Wide balance adds an 'Enhanced Ymersion' effect. The Software WT (WaveTable) also has its own control window (see Figure 3), which allows four possible levels of quality, a switch to select SoftSynth or XG/Ext MIDI in DOS applications, and the fairly standard treble/bass and 3D ('Ymersion') controls provided with most consumer soundcards.

When recording, the Windows 95 recording Mixer shows four possible inputs (see Figure 4): CD Audio also controls the Line In signal when recording dry (bypassing the XG effects), and Microphone is self explanatory. Line is again for the line input, but this time through the effects, so that you can record 'wet'. For this option, you hear the effects in real time, but you do need to be careful to set up the levels in the 3DXG mixer, so that the input signal can be heard for recording. Finally, LoopBack allows you to record dry, but still hear effects while you do so.

AUDITION TIME

My Sound Forge noise tests confirmed the consumer nature of the codec, measuring a value for signal/noise ratio of 79dB RMS (69dB peak, both unweighted). I also discovered a small DC offset, but this is easy enough to remove automatically during the record process with most software. With the 50_16.wav test (see the March PC Notes column) I could just detect the -80dBFS tone, giving the Audiotrix a dynamic range of about 80dB. These figures are perfectly acceptable for general-purpose work, and are slightly better than two examples of the AWE64 Gold that I've tested.

MULTI MANIA

The only unusual thing that happened during the installation of the 3DXG was that a little window popped up to tell me that the driver disk was trying to install another version of the shareware program Multimid (already installed) on my system. Sure enough, a newer version of Multimid (3.0) appeared, and it had been configured to provide multi-client capability on both the MIDI In and Out of the Audiotrix card (an extra Multi version of both input and output appear in your MIDI list, and these are the ones to use for multi-client capability). For this card, a multi-client MIDI Out is an absolute must, so that you can access the card to edit its sounds or effects while running a sequencer.

Unfortunately, these Multi versions are extra items in the MIDI driver list, so the Audiotrix card added a total of five MIDI Outs to my system, and this gave me my first chance to directly experience the famous 11 MIDI device limit of Windows 95, with loads of crashes when running normally well-behaved software. I soon cured this by temporarily disabling other drivers to bring back the total to under 11. This shouldn't cause many people a problem unless they have several other MIDI interfaces attached to their PC.

This version of Multimid is specially licensed for use with the card, and fortunately has a transparent option, so that the extra multi-client MIDI devices don't appear as extra entries in the driver list. However, the Audiotrix installation doesn't enable this option, and I suspect I found out why -- when I tried to use it, it worked beautifully, but my PC crashed consistently whenever I tried to shut it down. Disabling the Transparent mode cured the problem.

I did find the multiple mixers very confusing at first, and had to read through the manual thoroughly before I got my head round them. You have to remember that CD Audio really means Line (dry), Line means Line (wet), and LoopBack means Line (audition wet, but record dry). However, once you've cracked it, and finally unleashed the XG effects section onto your WAV playback, everything seems worthwhile. Having this amount of effect power available not only for MIDI sounds, but also for a stereo pair of WAV tracks, gives you a head start inside any MIDI + Audio sequencer. The effect levels are global, but this is the case with many other soundcards, and the Yamaha effects are streets ahead of most generic onboard reverb and chorus sounds. The 3D effect also worked well, greatly widening the stereo image.

I doubt if I need to make any comment on the XG MIDI sounds -- I've been using these on my DB50XG for two years now, and have yet to hear a soundcard chipset that sounds better. The FM synth won't get used for serious music work (it's there primarily for Adlib games support) but the software synth could get pressed into service on occasion, although it's well below the standard of the XG sounds, and Mediatrix make scant mention of it in their

"It's a clever idea to incorporate the Yamaha DB60XG into the
design of the 3DXG."
documentation. The tiny multimedia speakers worked, matched the colour of my computer monitor, and for occasional games use are no doubt handy to have, but musicians will need much better monitors.

SUMMARY

It's a clever idea to incorporate the Yamaha DB60XG into the design of the 3DXG, and this gives very good on-board synth sounds, as well as an excellent three-tier effects system. The overall sound quality is good, and in line with the deluxe consumer description that I used at the start of this review. If you want a soundcard with great synth sounds and excellent effects, and want to use it for occasional games, this would be a good but slightly expensive choice. If you want a card primarily for music, you may find yourself disabling many of the same features that endear it to games players -- the FM synth, joystick port, and so on, which leaves you with an XG synth and stereo WAV recording and playback through the XG effects. This, in essence, is what the forthcoming Yamaha SW1000XG will do (albeit with more effects and WAV channels, plus higher sound quality, but at a significantly higher price).

There are quite a few cards that can do most of what the Audiotrix 3DXG can do, with the exception of adding XG effects to WAV files. You could, for instance, look at either the Maxisound Home Studio 2 or Midiman Dman, both at about £150, and add a Yamaha DB50XG daughterboard, but the total price in those cases would still be about £250, which is slightly more than the cost of the 3DXG. Furthermore, with the separate card and Yamaha daughterboard option you couldn't access XG effects using WAV files. This latter factor, then, is a major selling point for musicians, and if it appeals to you, and you fancy the occasional game as well, the 3DXG is a winner.

  £231.50 including VAT.  
  RKMS, Freepost (NG6175), Nottingham NG4 1BR.  
  0116 961 1398.  
  0115 953 3802.  
  info@rkms.com  
  www.rkms.com  

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