Aardvark's newest soundcard and breakout box are claimed to provide all the recording facilities PC owners could ever need, with excellent sound quality and at an affordable price. But how does the Q10 fare on the SOS test bench?
Aardvark have an enviable reputation in professional circles for the quality of their AardSync studio word clock generators, and the design of their Direct Pro soundcard range also places great emphasis on sound quality, going so far as to encase critical components such as the audio converters in an electrically screened box to keep external interference at bay. This perfectionist approach has been retained in the latest addition to the range, but the Q10's specification is more ambitious than those of its stablemates.
Compared with the Direct Pro 24/96, which I reviewed in SOS April 2000, the Q10 provides far more inputs and outputs, as well as dispensing with the chunky desktop interface in favour of a rather smarter 1U rackmount case with an eye‑catching purple paint job and moulded silver front panel. This compact case is stuffed with features, including eight mic/line analogue inputs, four of which also have TRS inserts and globally switched phantom power, and two of which can be used to DI guitars by switching in Aardvark's proprietary EFR (Enhanced Frequency Response) high‑impedance preamps. There are 10 analogue outputs, as well as a separate monitor output to eliminate soundcard latency, and a headphone output. On the digital side, both A‑D and D‑A converters are 24‑bit/96kHz capable, and the Q10 also provides co‑axial S/PDIF in/out, word clock in/out, and a single MIDI in/out.
It's an impressive combination of features, and at first glance would seem to cater for just about any recording duties you could imagine. Aardvark's aim is to eliminate the need for an outboard mixer, and to this end the supplied PC software provides complete control over recording, monitoring and mixing, as well as including a digital patchbay.
The purple rackmount case is certainly colourful, although once bolted into a rack the effect is considerably toned down, since the top and bottom are then invisible. The remainder of the front panel sports a 'sculpted' look that initially looks liked milled aluminium, but is in fact moulded plastic. However, it still seems extremely sturdy. Neutrik Combi sockets are provided for each of the eight analogue inputs, allowing you to plug in a balanced XLR mic cable or a balanced/unbalanced quarter‑inch jack cable for line‑level sources. On the right‑hand end of the front panel are rotary level controls for the rear‑panel monitor outputs and stereo headphone output, both of which receive the same signal, along with a standard quarter‑inch headphone socket. Above the latter is a very fetching red illuminated Aardvark logo, although if you find this too distracting you can adjust its brightness using the supplied utility software, or turn it off altogether.
The four TRS‑wired inserts for inputs 1 to 4, eight line outputs, and the L and R monitor outputs just mentioned are all on rear‑panel quarter‑inch jacks: the digital, sync and MIDI I/O are also located on the rear panel, as is a 25‑way D‑type connector which connects via the supplied six‑foot long shielded cable to the 5.5‑inch PCI interface card. This houses one of the trademark Aardvark black boxes, shielding the majority of the circuitry from view, although the converters themselves are all in the rackmount case, in yet another black box. Surprisingly, given that 48 Volt phantom power is available, no external power supply is required for the rack case: all its power is derived from the computer.
To complete the bundle there's a 39‑page printed owner's manual, a CD‑ROM containing Windows 95/98 drivers and a Control Panel utility, and a second CD‑ROM with a full version of Cakewalk's Pro Audio 9. Until Sonar superseded this popular MIDI + Audio sequencer earlier this year it was used by a huge number of musicians, particularly in the US, and even though it now commands a much lower price, it's still a worthwhile inclusion.
I like the fact that the Aardvark drivers support every model in their range, including the older Aark 20/20 and 20/20+, 24, TDIF, Direct Pro 24/96, Direct Pro LX6 and Q10. This makes for far less confusion when updating, and also ensures that if improvements or bug‑fixes are added, all Aardvark soundcard users immediately benefit. The latest drivers support MME, DirectSound, ASIO 2, and GSIF formats, although currently only for Windows 95, 98, and ME, and can apparently support up to four cards simultaneously, although I wasn't able to test this aspect. Beta drivers are available for downloading from the Aardvark web site for Windows NT and 2000, but don't support WDM or multiple cards. Both WDM and Mac drivers are apparently also in development, but no release dates had been announced by the time I finished this review.
I had no problems physically installing the Q10 PCI card, and my Windows 98SE PC detected it correctly and was happy to run it alongside my other two soundcards. Once the latest version 5.20 drivers have been installed by Windows, you also need to install the Q10 Control Panel utility (confusingly given a desktop shortcut named Aark Manager) by running the Setup.exe file on the CD‑ROM, and then rebooting your PC. Both the driver inputs and outputs appear in Windows as stereo pairs labelled '1,2 Direct Pro Q10' through to '9,10 Direct Pro Q10'.
So far, so good, but having arrived back at the desktop, when I first launched the Control Panel I experienced a weird display problem, with several of the graphic images appearing in completely the wrong positions. However, the card itself seemed to be working perfectly, so I emailed a screenshot showing the problem to Aardvark and carried on reviewing. I was most impressed to receive a workaround solution within 24 hours — resetting 'Icon Spacing (horizontal)' in Windows Display Appearance to its default value of 50 — and a promise that this will be fixed in the next driver update.
DSP Control Panel
The Q10 Control Panel graphics are in Aardvark's familiar house style, complete with 'analogue' VU meters and faux rack handles. Controls for the eight analogue inputs and the S/PDIF input are ranged across the left‑hand side, while those for the 10 playback channels and monitor output are on the right, just as you might find them on an analogue mixer. Each of the analogue inputs has a three‑way gain setting, chosen in software by clicking one of the three buttons labelled M2, M1, and L, along with a rotary gain Trim knob. M2 provides gain settings from 75dB to 52dB for low‑output mics or distant signals, while M1 ranges from 55dB to 32dB for close‑miking or low line‑level signals, and L can provide up to 15dB of gain or up to 8dB of attenuation for really hot signals. To maintain high audio quality, the software controls actually change gain settings in the analogue preamp circuitry in the rack, before signals reach the A‑D converter.
Beneath the gain controls are vertical peak‑reading meters, which can be globally switched in the Advanced menus to read either pre‑ or post‑fader levels. They incorporate a text readout of peak level, along with a peak overload 'LED', and have a range of some 40dB, with the colour changing from green to yellow when it reaches ‑5dB, and to red when it reaches ‑2dB. Compared with the often vague input meters provided by many other soundcard manufacturers, I found them a pleasure to use, and for once as informative as their hardware counterparts.
The bottom part of each input channel strip has a fader calibrated from +6dB to ‑66dB and then Off, with a text box readout of its current position, mute and solo buttons, horizontal pan slider, and a Link button shared between each pair of adjacent channels to gang the faders for use when recording stereo signals, as well as the Gain, Mute and Solo settings. The S/PDIF input channel loses the gain controls, but instead has a useful Lock indicator to show that a valid clock signal has been detected, while its meters and faders are grouped together. When recording, the pre‑fader signals are always available to your audio application, while the post‑fader mix can be used both for monitoring and for recording.
There are several other neat touches relating to input settings — if you depress the front‑panel Phantom button to supply the first four mic inputs with power, the Phantom indicator lights up in the Control Panel, while if you depress one of the front‑panel switches from mic/line to guitar mode for input 7 or 8, the Control Panel switched gain settings disappear, and the rotary gain Trim alters to provide gain settings from 41dB down to 18dB, although strangely this isn't mentioned in the owner's manual.
The bulk of the software playback area of the Control Panel is devoted to monitoring, with five sections labelled 'PB 1,2' through to 'PB 9,10,' each comprising a stereo fader with text box readout of current position, L/R level meters, and Mute and Solo buttons. Like many other designs such as the M Audio and Terratec ranges, these controls are not connected to the physical hardware outputs. Instead they control the relative levels of each stereo playback channel in a separate monitor mix, the overall level of which is controlled by a further pair of faders and monitored by a further pair of peak‑reading meters.
Source Select enables you to choose your sample rate, the options being internal 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, S/PDIF, or external word clock, and the Q10 supports both 16‑bit and 24‑bit resolutions. Personally, I suspect that the supported settings will cope with the vast majority of real‑world situations, but I know that many musicians are keen to try out 96kHz recordings. Aardvark don't officially support a 96kHz option, apparently because it's impossible to guarantee that all PCs will be able to manage recording and playback of all eight input and output channels simultaneously when running at 24‑bit/96kHz. However, with a suitable application that lets you force a sample rate you can still attempt this, and I successfully managed to record and play back 24‑bit/96kHz files with both Wavelab 3.0 and Sonar 1.02, although I did experience an annoying pause of a second or two each time recording or playback commenced. Unfortunately you can't use this approach with Cubase, since it only supports the sample rates provided by the ASIO driver.
The Routing window lets you allocate a selection of possible signals to each of the 10 hardware output sockets on the rack's rear panel. The possibilities comprise Analogue 1 through to Analogue 8, S/PDIF L and R, Playback 1 through to 10, Monitor L and R, Silence, and Tone. The Analogue and S/PDIF options let you directly monitor the signals at any of the analogue or digital input sockets with true zero latency. Tone is a handy sine‑wave signal for calibration or fault‑finding, albeit at the nonstandard frequency of 1.4kHz, while Silence simply ensures that the output in question receives only digital silence. Whatever is routed to outputs 7 and 8 also appears at the S/PDIF Output, and as mentioned previously, the headphone output receives the same signal as the rear‑panel Monitor L/R sockets. Most users will route the playback channels to outputs 1 to 8 so that they can hear the playback of individual audio tracks or software synths, but if you instead choose Monitor L and R as a source you can hear the combined mix as set up in the Software Playback section of the Control Panel, which is very handy for setting up a control room or headphone mix when recording or overdubbing.
Given the versatility of the Q10, the Presets page is a great time‑saver. You can save the current settings of each and every software control for later recall, rather like taking a snapshot. Each one of your selection of personal Presets can also be named and deleted, making them an ideal way to recreate the input selection, gain settings, and monitor mixes that you set up for a particular session. I can see this being of particular use in small commercial studios.
Advanced Driver Options
The Advanced window provides a further four tabbed pages of settings. General is mainly devoted to a display of hardware serial number, driver and DSP versions, but here you can also select pre/post‑fader metering, consumer or professional S/PDIF flags and, more significantly, whether your '9,10 Direct Pro Q10' inputs record the signal from the S/PDIF input or the combined Monitor mix. The Software page provides a handy display of the status of all record and playback channels as either In Use or Idle. This could be a great help when fault‑finding, especially when attempting to run multiple applications, since the Q10 drivers have multi‑client capability. The Output Levels page lets you choose between +4dBu/‑10dBV levels individually for each of your eight main outputs, while the contents of the ASIO And DirectX page are also duplicated in the ASIO Configuration utility which can be launched separately. This provides buffer size adjustment for both ASIO and Direct Sound drivers, a 16/24‑bit choice for the ASIO driver, and a way to limit the number of both inputs and outputs appearing to ASIO‑compatible applications: this will help conserve your PC resources, and may also help you when attempting to run several applications simultaneously.
Finally, there is an ASIO Turbo Mode, which can be activated in nearly all cases, and which further reduces latency, I suspect by reducing the number of ASIO buffers. Overall, the Q10 Control Panel is an extremely comprehensive utility that proves fairly easy to use, although some of the controls are quite small and fiddly.
As always, the first test I tried was playback using a wide variety of acoustic, electric, and electronic sounds, with music ranging from unaccompanied vocal and percussion to rock band, dance and orchestral music. This not only lets you hear the D‑A converters (always most important if you're using them to make mixdown decisions), but also the stability of the internal clock, which largely determines how focused and detailed digitised sounds are.
My new Echo Mia card provided much stronger competition than the 20‑bit Echo Gina I've used as a benchmark in the past, but the Q10 still beat it quite easily, with noticeably sharper stereo imaging and focus, letting you hear further into the music. In an effort to isolate this improvement, I tried patching the S/PDIF out of the Q10 into the S/PDIF in of the Mia, and switching it to use this external clock. This tightened up the Mia sound quite a bit and made the two cards sound very similar, which would seem to prove the superiority of the Q10's clock — Aardvark have an enviable reputation in this area. It also made me suspect that the Q10 uses similar AKM converters, a fact later confirmed by Aardvark.
RMS background noise as measured in Wavelab was a typical ‑93dB at 16‑bit/44.1kHz, but I got slightly higher‑than‑usual figures when running at 24‑bit resolution. The best I could manage was ‑97dB at 44.1kHz (measured with the input gain set to L, and with the gain Trim at 0dB), although this didn't deteriorate any further when I forced the Q10 into 24‑bit/96kHz mode. However, these slightly disappointing 24‑bit figures are still significantly better than the 16‑bit ones, and Aardvark later confirmed my impression that their final design was based on listening tests as well as specs. They give higher priority to products that sound good to the ears, and judging by my listening tests I would endorse their decision.
The discrete circuitry of the mic preamps sounded quiet, clean and smooth, with an extended frequency range. They also proved remarkably sensitive, and I doubt that the additional gain of the M2 setting will be required very often. Aardvark won't be drawn on the details of the EFR (Enhanced Frequency Response) process of the guitar inputs, but did confirm that the input impedance is a high 1MΩ — just what guitarists need to maintain top end and punch. To find out more, I set up a test rig using the linear frequency sweep generated by MDA's TestTone plug‑in and then measured the frequency response for myself using Nick Whitehurst's excellent FFT plug‑in. It proved to give HF boost starting at about 1kHz, rising to about +18dB at 16kHz (see screenshot). I tried it out with a variety of guitar sounds, and while it certainly added a pleasing top‑end bite that worked well in most cases, it might prove too aggressive and forward for some applications, as well as accentuating fret and other background noise.
I experienced no real problems during the review period running the Q10 with a variety of software. With Cubase 5.0 r6 I managed to run a buffer size of 256 bytes with ASIO Turbo Mode activated, giving me a glitch‑free latency on my PC of an excellent 5mS at 44.1kHz. The GSIF drivers also worked without a hitch, even used in multi‑client mode alongside Cubase, although I did have to raise the ASIO buffer size to 448 samples in ASIO Turbo Mode when running both simultaneously, increasing the latency to 10mS.
Using Sonar proved just as rewarding, and I managed to lower its mixing latency down to 12mS when playing back both audio tracks and real‑time DX Instruments simultaneously. The DirectSound drivers didn't fare quite so well, and running Native Instruments' Pro 52 in stand‑alone mode I managed only a reasonable 30mS latency, but DirectSound is becoming less and less important nowadays, since so many applications support other driver formats that offer better latency anyway.
I also carried out my normal digital tests of the S/PDIF I/O, by sending playback from the Q10 S/PDIF output to my DAT recorder, and then rerecording it back to the Q10 through its S/PDIF input. This created a perfect bit‑for‑bit copy, as you would hope.
Overall, I was very impressed with the sound and performance of the Q10, despite its somewhat higher than average 24‑bit RMS background noise measurements.
I've reviewed various soundcards with high‑quality mic/line inputs in the past. Aardvark's own Direct Pro 24/96 (SOS April 2000) offered four mic/line inputs and four line outputs, Echo's Mona (SOS October 2000) offered four mic/guitar/line inputs and six line outputs, while the ill‑fated SeaSound Solo Ex (December 2000) offered two mic, two guitar, two line, and two aux inputs, and a single stereo output. All would prove useful for project studios where a variety of instruments need to be recorded, but none provide enough discrete mic channels to record a whole band at a sitting.
I've also reviewed various eight‑in/
eight‑out line‑level soundcard designs such as Echo's Layla, M Audio's Delta 1010, and, at a lower price point, Terratec's EWS88MT. However, the Q10 genuinely moves beyond all these products by providing a full eight high‑quality mic preamps plus two guitar preamps, as well as a comprehensive and very well‑designed software mixer, all for a very reasonable £789. The Q10 is possibly the first product that will let you record an entire live band using a single 1U rackmount box and soundcard combination, without employing loads of other gear, except perhaps a compressor/limiter or two. For those who want a compact setup without sacrificing their options or compromising on audio quality, the Q10 should prove ideal.
- Analogue inputs: eight Neutrik Combi sockets with outer XLR for mic signals, inner balanced/unbalanced quarter‑inch jack socket for line.
- Input options: globally switched 48 Volt phantom power on inputs 1 to 4, individually switched EFR high‑impedance guitar preamps on inputs 7 and 8.
- Inserts: four, on input channels 1‑4, using TRS‑wired quarter‑inch jack sockets.
- Analogue outputs: eight, balanced/unbalanced, +4dBu/‑10dBV.
- Monitor outputs: two, balanced/unbalanced, +4dBu, with level control.
- Headphone output: one, with level control.
- A‑D converters: 24‑bit, shielded.
- D‑A converters: 24‑bit, shielded.
- Dynamic range: 110dB D‑A, 100dB A‑D.
- Total harmonic distortion + noise: 0.002% at 1kHz.
- Frequency response: 7Hz to 22kHz, ±0.5dB at 48kHz.
- Digital I/O: S/PDIF in and out.
- MIDI I/O: one in, one out.
- Sync I/O: BNC word clock in and out, MTC (via MIDI), and S/PDIF clock.
- Supported bit depths: 16 and 24.
- Supported sample rates: 32, 44.1, and 48kHz.
Stated System Requirements
- CPU: Pentium 233MHz or better.
- OS: Windows 95, 98, or ME.
- 64Mb RAM (128Mb strongly recommended).
- 1GHz Pentium III Coppermine PC with 256Mb PC133 RAM, running Windows 98SE.
- Motherboard: Asus TUSL2C with Intel 815EP chipset.
- Graphics Card: ATI Rage 128.
- Installed soundcards: Echo Mia, Yamaha SW1000XG.
- Tested with: Cubase 5.0 r6, Wavelab 3.0, Sonar 1.02.
- Eight high‑quality mic preamps.
- Excellent subjective sound quality.
- Low‑jitter internal clock tightens up detail.
- Versatile DSP mixing and monitoring options.
- 24‑bit RMS background noise is slightly higher than usual.
- 96kHz sample rate not officially supported.
- EFR guitar inputs may prove too forward for some applications.
Aardvark's Q10 provides a unique combination of eight mic preamps and two guitar preamps, added to a more traditional eight‑in/eight‑out soundcard format, which should prove perfect for any musician who wants to record a small live band without investing in loads of other gear.