Terratec EWS88MT

PCI Soundcard

Published in SOS October 1999
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Reviews : Computer Recording System

The launch of yet another 8-in/8-out PCI soundcard might seem little cause for raised eyebrows, but Terratec have a few surprises up their sleeves with the EWS88 MT. Martin Walker prepares to be amazed.

It's not long since I last reviewed a Terratec soundcard (the EWS64 XXL in SOS July '99), but their new EWS88 MT is a completely different beast. Gone are the consumer 16-bit converters, along with the old-fashioned ISA format -- this new card is a compact PCI design that seems designed from the ground up for use by more serious musicians. With eight analogue inputs and eight analogue outputs, along with S/PDIF digital input and output and MIDI In and Out, it looks ideal for those who want to do some serious 8-track recording. This impression is further strengthened by the audio spec: the converters are capable of 24-bit, 96kHz operation, and are mounted separately in a 5.25-inch-wide module. Although this module can be mounted in any suitable CD-ROM-style drive bay in your PC (like those of the EWS64 series) and connected to the soundcard using an internal ribbon cable, it can also be attached by a two-metre-long multicore cable and mounted externally. This makes far more sense for many people, since having a host of cables sprouting from the front of your PC is often not convenient.

However, I've left the best till last -- the price of the Terratec EWS88 MT is just £399, which makes it significantly cheaper than any comparable card on the market.

Overview

The EWS88MT is just five inches long, and the backplate features a D-Type connector for use if you choose to mount the module externally, a pair of phono sockets for S/PDIF input and output, and a 3.5mm M

TERRATEC
EWS88 MT
£399
pros
Excellent value for money!
Breakout box can be mounted inside or outside the PC.
Low-latency ASIO drivers for main eight channels.
Low-latency DirectX-compatible driver for additional stereo monitor output.
cons
Dynamic range is less than that of some 20-bit designs.
summary
A well-thought-out soundcard, with a good sound and a wide range of versatile features at a bargain price.

onitor Out jack socket. This provides a 16-bit D-A converter for monitoring stereo playback. Also on the card are a pair of 4-pin analogue sockets to simultaneously connect two CD drives (for instance a CD-ROM and CD-R drive).

The 5.25-inch breakout box actually contains the converter circuitry (unlike the recent Gadget Labs Wave/8*24 system) -- in fact there's more circuitry inside this box than there is on the soundcard itself. Terratec have used four of the AK4524 Codec chips from AKM Semiconductors, each of which contains an A-D and D-A converter, as well as a variable-gain input stage.

The majority of sockets are all on the front panel, including two horizontal rows of eight gold-plated phono sockets (the top row for inputs, and the bottom for outputs), with a pair of 5-pin DIN sockets for MIDI In and Out at the right-hand side. The overall effect is undeniably cute, and thankfully the breakout box is sufficiently heavy to stay put when mounted externally with 16 phono leads attached to it.

At the back of the box is an identical D-Type socket to that on the soundcard backplate, to attach the supplied 2-metre-long umbilical if you prefer to mount the box externally. If you want to install the breakout box in an internal PC drive bay, a tiny adaptor board is provided that clamps securely into the module's D-Type socket using a pair of knurled screws. You then connect the supplied ribbon cable between the other end of the adaptor, and a socket on the soundcard. For internal mounting a set of drive-bay screws is provided, while for external use you get a set of four rubber feet -- it's good to see a little attention to detail!

For those who anticipate needing more channels in the future, it's comforting to know that you can (except when running Windows NT 4.0) have up to four cards installed alongside each other, to give a total of 40 inputs and outputs (32 analogue and four stereo digital). To make sure that they stay locked in perfect sample-accurate sync, two additional sockets appear on the card: CN2 has three pins, and CN1 has five, fitted with a jumper between two of them. This jumper designates the card as Master; if you add further cards, you connect the supplied internal sync cable between CN2 on the Master, and CN1 on the slave (after removing its master jumper).

Installation And Setup

The soundcard should fit easily into any PC, and my physical installation went without a hitch. I decided to install the breakout box externally, not only because having the audio sockets separated from the PC was more convenient for me, but because it also allowed me to test the effect of having a two-metre cable between

  Packing In The Bits  
  Despite the obvious attractions of 24-bit/96kHz recording, you should bear in mind that it takes three times as much hard disk space (about 16Mb per mono minute) as 44.1kHz 16-bit recordings. This huge increase in the amount of data being shunted to and fro is also likely to cause your maximum simultaneous track count to plummet by a similar factor.

Both 24-bit packed and 32-bit unpacked modes are supported by the EWS88 MT driver when recording or playing back 24-bit files, and you can save some CPU overhead if you can set up your software accordingly. All transfers across the PCI buss are 32 bits wide, so 24-bit packed transfers send 24 bits of the first sample and the first 8 bits of the second, followed by the final 16 bits of the second and the first 16 bits of the third, the final 8 bits of the third followed by the entire 24 bits of the fourth, and so on. These must then be unpacked at the other end, which takes extra CPU overhead.

By sending a single 24-bit sample and 8 dummy bits on each 32-bit transfer (32-bit unpacked), no extra CPU overhead is needed. Many applications (like Wavelab and Cubase) now have 32-bit options, and if the soundcard driver supports this mode, you should use them. The Yamaha DSP Factory and SW1000XG cards were among the first to support these 32-bit unpacked transfers, and it's encouraging that other cards like the EWS88 MT are following suit.

 
soundcard and box. I used Windows 95 and 98 for my tests; in both cases the drivers were installed automatically on reboot from the CD-ROM, along with the EWS88 MT Control Panel. This can be launched either from the new desktop icon, or the one on the Taskbar. Terratec supply the EWS88 MT with drivers for Windows 98, 95 and NT 4.0, along with ASIO drivers for those with Cubase VST. Interestingly, Terratec recommend using Windows 98 rather than Windows 95, promising "better timing and a higher overall performance".

After the seven manuals supplied with the EWS64 XXL, I was also very relieved to see just a single manual in the EWS88 MT box. This covers installation of hardware and drivers, has a very informative section describing the many different aspects of the software drivers, a comprehensive guide to the Control Panel, and a short section with brief descriptions of the other main applications on the CD-ROM. A lot of useful information is included, but I do wish that the English version had been translated by a native speaker. With sentences like "In summary at this point, let it be known to the 'mixer and tape-experienced musician' that the described routings correspond to a mixer of a switch between a tape and line setting" don't really make for easy reading.

Once the card is installed, you find a host of new devices to choose from in your multimedia software. The MIDI input and output both appear simply as EWS88 MT MIDI, but the audio options are rather more extensive. The 16-bit stereo monitor output (EWS88 MT Monitor WavePlay) appears as separate entry with DirectX support. This will win lots of admirers, since you could use it to run a software synthesizer with very low latencies of 10mS or so. The corresponding EWS88 MT Monitor WaveRec lets you record the analogue output from any CD drives attached to the 4-pin connectors on the soundcard.

The eight analogue inputs and outputs appear in stereo pairs (EWS88 MT WavePlay 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, and 7/8, and EWS MT WaveRec 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, and 7/8), while the S/PDIF input and output appear as EWS88 MT WavePlay S/PDIF and EWS88 MT WaveRec S/PDIF respectively. A final pair labelled EWS88 MT Interleaved Play and EWS88MT Interleaved Rec allows true multi-channel recording and playback with eight channels of audio contained within a single WAV file. Not many other cards provide this facility (those that do include the Sonorus STUDI/O and Creamware's Pulsar and TDAT 16) but it is becoming increasingly desirable as surround sound and other sample-accurate sync issues become more important.

Routing And Mixing

As you might expect from a Terratec control panel, there are plenty of options, but they seem to have learned from their mistakes with the earlier EWS models, and this one is well laid-out and comparatively easy to understand. The information is presented on three main 'pages', along with a fourth 'About' page containing version details of the driver, control panel, and current preferred devices.

The first page is 'Routing Analog Input Levels', which contains the setup controls for input sensitivity. You can switch each input individually to either +4dBu or -10dBV sensitivity, and a vertical fader lets you add up to 18dB more gain if required in 0.5dB steps. The Stereogang controls let you move both faders in a stereo pair simultaneously. The Auto button (not mentioned in either the printed or electronic manuals) operates like the Trim mode of the Event soundcards: with a suitable input signal present, you click on the button to arm it, and the gain fader is then set to its optimum position automatically when the same button is released. Sadly, there are no input level meters in this page, so you have to rely on the Clip LED above each fader to set levels manually. The illumination point can be set at 0, -1, -2, or -3dB below clipping.

Although there is a huge amount of flexibility here, it is disappointing that the sensitivity can't be reduced below +4dBu to allow the full output level of a typical hardware mixer to be used. Once your mixer output meters read 0dB (

"Any soundcard whose spec contains the magic words 24-bit and 96kHz is bound to do well, but at £399 for eight ins, eight outs, and S/PDIF I/O the Terratec EWS88 MT has to be an absolute bargain."
giving a +4dBu output level) you will run into clipping, leaving a further 12 to 16dB of unused headroom on the mixer.

The right-hand side of this first page controls routing, and each of the available hardware outputs (1/2, 3/4, 5/6, 7/8, and S/PDIF) can carry a variety of sources, including the similarly numbered WavePlay signal (for normal playback), or any of the input pairs (for monitoring purposes). In addition, Out 1/2 and the S/PDIF Out can also have the output of the Digital Mixer routed to them.

The controls for this Digital Mixer are on the second page, and let you mix together all of the 10 Wave output signals as well as the 10 Input signals. This combined signal can be routed to either or both of the 1/2 and S/PDIF outputs. Each of the 20 input channels has a fader and level meter operating over the full 144dB range of a 24-bit signal, a Pan control, and Mute and Solo buttons. Stereo input pairs can also be ganged together using the Stereogang button. The Master Volume section on the right of this page has similar facilities apart from the Solo buttons. More features unmentioned in the manual also appear here -- Unmute All and Unsolo All are self-explanatory, while Post lets you switch the input level meters between pre- and post-fader operation.

If you simply want to use the EWS88 MT as a multi-in/multi-out soundcard interface for your MIDI + Audio sequencer, you can ignore its digital mixing options, and use those provided by your software. However, it does give you some versatile options, especially since the drivers are multi-client, and can therefore be allocated to multiple applications. You could, for instance, use one pair of the 12 MME WavePlay channels for the combined stereo output from your audio sequencer, another for a software synth, and the WavePlay S/PDIF pair to add the digital audio output from another soundcard. You would then still have a further 10 analogue audio inputs to mix in the audio outputs of further external MIDI hardware, samplers, and so on. There are no EQ or Aux send facilities, but you could still do a surprising amount without resorting to buying a hardware mixer.

Overall Settings

The third page of the Control Panel software contains the important master settings. With the Master Clock section set to Internal, you can choose a sample rate between 8kHz and 96kHz from the drop-down menu alongside. When it is switched to External, you can lock the entire card to the embedded clock signal arriving at the S/PDIF input; once a valid signal appears its sample frequency appears alongside the External button. The Rate Locked switch can be useful if you want to ensure that you always use a specific sample rate. Once a sample rate has been set and locked here, attempting to record or play back a sample at another rate inside an

  Brief Specifications  
  Analogue Inputs: 8 off, switched +4dBu/-10dBV sensitivity with additional 18dB gain available in 0.5dB steps.
Analogue Outputs: 8 off, switched +4dBu/-10dBV sensitivity.
Analogue Connectors: unbalanced gold-plated phono sockets.
Monitor Output: 16-bit/48kHz, using 3.5mm stereo jack socket.
S/PDIF: up to 24-bit 96kHz operation supported.
MIDI: In, Out.
A-D Converters: 24-bit 64x oversampling (part of AK4524 Codec chip).
Input Dynamic Range: 100dB (A-weighted).
Internal Path: 24-bit.
D-A Converters: 24-bit 128x oversampling (part of AK4524 Codec chip).
Output Dynamic Range: 110dB (A-weighted).
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.002% (A-D), <0.006% (D-A).
Supported Bit Depths: 8, 16, and 24
Internal Sample Clock: 8, 9.6, 11.025, 12, 16, 22.05, 24, 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96kHz.
 
y other applications will flag an error. The I/O Board section shows that the breakout box is correctly attached, and a Calibrate button recalibrates the converters if the box has just been reconnected.

The middle section of this page lets you globally switch the analogue output levels between +4dBu and -10dBV, and independently set the Copyright and Original bits in the S/PDIF output signal to prevent further copying of your music. The DMA Buffer Transfer Latency setting lets you tweak the real-time response of software synths when using the Windows MME driver (apart from the 16-bit Monitor output, which uses a different driver). Settings range from the default 20mS down to 8mS and up to 28mS, and should be tweaked as low as your system can manage reliably (mine managed 16mS before breaking up). Terratec recommend first optimising the number and size of audio buffers from inside your audio software application, and then lowering the DMA Buffer transfer latency to a value just above where you start to get dropouts.

The ASIO drivers offer a range of unusual buffer sizes (from 2688 samples/buffer down to 336 samples/buffer), providing latency values at 44.1kHz from 60mS down to an excellent 7mS if your PC can cut the mustard. However, they don't support the new ASIO 2.0 hardware switching (largely I suspect because of the number of hardware switching options). This page also appears automatically when you click on the ASIO Control Panel button inside the Cubase VST Audio System Setup window. The ASIO Buffer size is set from a drop-down menu, and usefully the latency for the current sample rate is shown beneath the buffer size menu.

Still more options appear in the bottom section of this page. The Display colour scheme can be altered (apparently this was a top request from existing Terratec users), and the Wave Playback

"As you might expect from 24-bit converters, the sound quality is well up to scratch, although as I keep saying in these pages, anyone used to 20-bit converters won't notice a huge difference -- at least not at this price level."
/Record Mode has two options. You should use Multi-Track mode when you want to dedicate the soundcard to a single multitrack application -- all driver inputs and outputs will then be locked in sync at the same sample rate. If you want to open several applications (such as a MIDI + Audio sequencer and a software synth) then the Multi-Application mode should be selected, when multi-client capability is available.

Finally, on each of the four pages of the Control Panel software, the extreme right-hand side is dedicated to the Scene Memory and Card Select functions. The settings of every control can be loaded and saved using the Scene button, which launches a small window with options to Name the current settings, Save them, Load previously saved scenes from a scrolling list, and Delete unwanted ones (see screenshot). If you have more than one EWS88 MT installed you can control each one separately using the Card Select buttons.

In Use

As you might expect from 24-bit converters, the sound quality is well up to scratch, although as I keep saying in these pages, anyone used to 20-bit converters won't notice a huge difference -- at least not at this price level. The RMS background noise, measured using Wavelab, varied as the input gain was altered (as you would expect), but with the input gain controls left at 0dB it measured –93.1dB at +4dBu sensitivity, and –92.8dB when the input sensitivity was increased to –10dBV. These figures are well up to scratch, and roughly equal to those of a wide variety of other quality soundcards such as the Emu APS, Event range, Gadget Labs Wave/8*24, and Yamaha DSP Factory.

When recording at 24 bits, the background noise certainly dropped, but not as much as I was expecting: at 44.1kHz it measured –99dB RMS, while at 96kHz it dropped to about –98dB RMS. Although these figures are roughly in line with the quoted 100dB A-weighted figure for A-D performance, I did find this somewhat disappointing, since my 20-bit Event Gina manages measures about –104dB, and the 24-bit Gadget Labs Wave/8*24 measured –105dB. I tried various adjustments in the Control Panel, measuring with both open and closed circuit inputs, and with and without the digital mixer, but these figures remained unchanged. However, they still give a useful improvement over the 16-bit figures, and background noise levels are not the only issue that affects audio quality.

The ASIO drivers worked very well, and my Pentium II 300MHz PC managed the lowest buffer setting of 336 bytes, giving a 7mS latency. The S/PDIF I/O also performed flawlessly, with bit-for-bit-accurate

  Bundled Software  
  Apart from the drivers and Control Panel utility, the supplied CD-ROM also contains a wide variety of useful (and not so useful) software. Top of the useful list must be Emagic's MicroLogic AV 4.0, followed by Samplitude Basic (a multitrack audio editing suite), WinJey (a versatile player for audio CDs, WAV files, MP3, and MIDI files), and BuzZ (an advanced freeware tracker tool).

The bundled version of MicroLogic is a special EWS88 edition, which checks for the Terratec soundcard when you launch it. It doesn't recognise or let you use any other installed soundcards, but does provide a good basic spec with up to 16 audio tracks (supporting 24-bit/96kHz files if required), two effect busses, and a subset of Logic Audio's new built-in effects. I suspect that most musicians buying an 8-in/8-out soundcard will soon outgrow a package only capable of 16 audio tracks, but this is still a worthwhile inclusion in the package.

Also on the CD-ROM is the 'HotStuff !!!' folder, a veritable cornucopia of assorted musical shareware, nearly 67Mb of assorted Terratec desktop backgrounds and logos, and a selection of WAV files of various bodily noises probably produced after spending too long at the local pub.

 
transfers to and from my DAT recorder.

Having a separate 16-bit monitor output is certainly useful, since it can not only be used for general-purpose Windows audio duties, but also pressed into service for a software synthesizer or sampler without having to worry about splitting up the eight main audio channels between applications. I tested this by running Cubase VST with all eight ASIO channels, and simultaneously running Native Instruments' Reaktor on the standard MME 'EWS88 MT Monitor WavePlay' output. It worked perfectly, but needed a 170mS latency setting with my PC to avoid audio break-up. However, switching to the 'EWS88 MT DirectSound' driver allowed me to use the lowest 10mS setting with no problems at all. I did experience some nasty distortion on this output in the review model, but since it only occurred on the left channel it seems safe to assume a dodgy unit rather than a design fault.

Final Thoughts

At this price, the EWS88 MT simply doesn't have any competition if you really have to have 24-bit converters. One obvious candidate is the Gadget Labs Wave/8*24 (reviewed in SOS August '99), which provides balanced inputs and outputs, as well as a better 105dBA dynamic range, although its 24-bit converters have a maximum sample rate of 48kHz, and it's a little more expensive at £489. However, its S/PDIF I/O is an extra, bringing the total price to £609, and this makes it 50 percent more costly than the EWS88 MT. The only other contenders are considerably more expensive (such as the Event Layla at a street price of £700).

Any soundcard whose spec contains the magic words 24-bit and 96kHz is bound to do well, but at £399 for eight ins, eight outs, and S/PDIF I/O, the Terratec EWS88 MT has to be an absolute bargain. In practice, those used to 20-bit cards won't really notice a significant difference in performance, although the improvement over 16 bits is certainly significant. Terratec have really done their homework on this one, and it shows. With this spec, and at this price, the EWS88 MT looks destined to sell by the bucketload.

 information
£399 including VAT.
Terratec Promedia
+44 (0)1600 772111.
+44 (0)1600 716744.
Click here to email
www.terratec.co.uk

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