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Digital Audio Labs V8

Multitrack Hard Disk Recording System By Martin Walker
Published March 1998

The V8 Main Board.The V8 Main Board.

Hard disk recording always stretches any computer to the limit, and if you want eight simultaneous tracks or more you'll definitely need help. Martin Walker finds out whether the V8 system can come to the rescue.

How would you fancy slotting a soundcard into your PC which would give you access to up to 16 simultaneous inputs and 16 simultaneous outputs, as well as an expandable onboard DSP setup that provides so much processing power that you can run loads of real‑time EQ and effects from a Pentium 90MHz? This is exactly what Digital Audio Labs (DAL) claim for their new expandable V8 system, which, although it initially seems expensive, looks more and more capable the longer you examine it.

The philosophy behind the V8 system is to provide a 'modular DSP architecture' that allows you to start with an engine (the Main Board) of sufficient processing power to run alongside various other add‑on expansion cards, as well as interfacing to the world of analogue via an entirely separate set of audio converters outside the PC (the Big Block). DAL's CardD+ (the original CardD was reviewed in SOS January 1994) has an excellent reputation for audio quality, and this has been carried over to the new V8 system. Signal‑to‑noise ratios in excess of 90dB are quoted, as is crosstalk between channels of below ‑100dB. All the analogue inputs and outputs are balanced, to make interfacing as painless as possible, and levels can be either ‑10dBV or +4dBu, selectable via software. Unlike the Soundscape system, reviewed in the November issue, the V8 system allows you to use any existing PC hard drive for recording, and since drivers are provided in general Windows 95 format, you can also run the V8 system from any existing Windows 95 sequencer.

Before you expire from excitement, I should also tell you about the on‑board DSP power. Although the Main Board contains two industry‑standard Motorola 56002 DSP chips, these are used to provide the basic I/O functions. However, there are three expansion slots on the Main Board, to add up to three DSP superchargers. These each contain a further two 56002 DSP chips, running at 80MHz, which give a huge boost to the total DSP power available. The idea is to provide additional horsepower which can take some of the load from the PC's main processor, so that lots more real‑time EQ and plug‑ins can be run. The final carrot is that these plug‑ins are not to be developed at some time in the future by some previously unheard of company: some are already available, including a special version of the famous Waves Native Power Pack. The only drawback to these excellent plug‑ins in their NPP format has been that a top‑flight effect such as Trueverb takes something like 60% of the total processing time when running on a Pentium MMX 200MHz. With the V8 system, this overhead will be borne by the DSP chips, leaving the main CPU lots more time to move a larger number of tracks.

Let's wipe up the pool of drool, separate fact from fiction, and see what happens in practice.

Socket To Me

The Big Block audio converter box.The Big Block audio converter box.

The Main Board is a full‑length ISA expansion card that carries out all the digital duties. This is the nerve centre of the V8 system, and since it's so long it may cause problems in some PCs (see the 'Easy or Hardware' box) but should fit fairly easily into any PC with an ATX motherboard design. It contains enough horsepower to provide a maximum of 16 simultaneous Ins and Outs (connected to any combination of the associated hardware options). There's a single socket on the back of the card, and this attaches to a digital cable that runs to the outside world — there are no audio signals inside the PC. Although it looks like a 50‑way Centronics to 50‑way SCSI II cable, it isn't, so make sure you keep it separate from your SCSI cables, as you might damage the V8 if you plug in the wrong one. At the other end of this cable you connect one or more Big Blocks. These come in a 2U rackmounting case that is a lot more than a breakout box, since it contains all the audio converter circuitry. It has eight balanced analogue inputs and eight balanced analogue outputs, all of which are provided on quarter‑inch TRS balanced jack sockets, and which feature 16‑bit delta‑sigma A/D and D/A converters.

Both input channels 1&2 and output channels 1&2 have their sockets duplicated on the front panel for easy access; plugging a lead into a front‑panel input disconnects the corresponding input on the back panel, but the duplicated outputs are paralleled, so that you can use them both at once. Input and output levels and gains are set in software (see later) and all audio processing is carried out at full 24‑bit resolution inside the PC.

Digital I/O is comprehensive, to say the least. There are S/PDIF sockets — a pair of co‑axial phonos and a pair of optical TOSlink sockets on the back panel, with an additional duplicated pair of co‑axial phonos on the front panel — and AES/EBU, with a pair of XLRs front and back as well. Only one of the total of five digital inputs can be active at any one time, and again this option is set in software. The outputs can also be software selected, as either AES/EBU (front‑ and back‑panel sockets both active), or S/PDIF (front‑ and back‑panel co‑ax, as well as back‑panel optical) are all available simultaneously. Also on the back panel is an IEC mains socket and a Centronics 50‑way digital input socket, along with a further one to connect additional Big Blocks if you need more I/O capability (up to the maximum of 16 ins and 16 outs). The final feature on the front panel is a red 7‑segment LED display that uses the decimal point as a power indicator, and the remainder of the display to show a unique ID number, used when attaching multiple Big Blocks to the V8 Main Board.


The MxTrax software provides full access to every nook and cranny of the V8 system — here each I/O port can be accessed and have its parameters changed.The MxTrax software provides full access to every nook and cranny of the V8 system — here each I/O port can be accessed and have its parameters changed.

Once the hardware drivers and utility software have been installed, the Windows 95 installer will pick a suitable I/O address to be used by the hardware, which you note down before switching the PC off as requested. At this point you check the DIP switch settings on the Main Board (see 'Easy or Hardware' box) and then install the card. When you next boot up your PC, the V8 hardware will be initialised, as it will be every time you boot up your PC in future. Any connected Big Block(s) will have an ID number (which will appear in the display) assigned to them during this process. Multiple BBs will each get a different ID, to distinguish between each set of eight inputs and outputs. It only takes a few seconds to interrogate the hardware. The Main Board finds all attached peripherals and options, registers them, and then makes them available to the software.

The Big Block analogue I/O box can also be fully configured using software; individual inputs and outputs can have their sensitivities altered to suit ‑10 or +4 levels, and all inputs and outputs are actively balanced, although, once again, this can be software‑adjusted on a project‑by‑project basis (to suit the external equipment attached at the time). The DAL website suggests that you could set inputs 1‑4 unbalanced at ‑10dBV levels, and 5‑8 as +4dBu balanced, to suit a particular project. However, during my efforts to make the V8 work in my PC, I discovered that these adjustments can only currently be made using V8‑aware applications, and not by the Windows 95 Wave Driver software. It seems bizarre that no separate utility is provided, since the V8 advertising specifically mentions being able to use your favourite audio software. It's a bit like being invited to buy a swimming pool, and then being told that you can only use the shallow end.

This is a system with an impressive specification, and great expansion possibilities.

If you opt to buy V8‑aware software, there's a package called MxTrax available, which is specifically designed for the hardware and written by the same people who gave us FastEdit for the CardD soundcard. There are various other 'V8‑compatible' applications too, and these directly call the V8 software drivers. Currently, apart from MxTrax, the latest update of Cakewalk Pro Audio 6.01 is V8‑compatible, as are Emagic's Logic Audio 2.6 and a new version of Samplitude 3.0 from SEKD. If you already use these applications, it would be wise to check just what extra V8 facilities they can access.

To allow V8 to work with other standard Windows 95 applications, you can also install a 'Wave Driver', by using the Add New Hardware section within Control Panel. The manual provides step‑by‑step instructions on the procedure. Once installed, the V8 system is seen by standard Windows 95 software as four separate stereo soundcards, providing access to all eight channels of a Big Block. If you expand your system, up to four such Wave Drivers can be installed, each giving access to another eight ins and outs. The big distinction is that only V8‑aware applications can access the real‑time DSP power and software‑configurable options — other packages can access all the ins and outs, but nothing else. DAL are trying to make it as easy as possible for other software developers to produce V8‑aware versions, and any product that does fully support the more interesting parts of V8 will earn a 'Gearhead Approved' symbol.

In Use

Once you've installed one of the standard multimedia Wave Drivers, you can use this supplied utility to route inputs and outputs as required.Once you've installed one of the standard multimedia Wave Drivers, you can use this supplied utility to route inputs and outputs as required.

Rather than going right in at the deep end with the supplied MxTrax software, I decided to start by trying the V8 with the audio applications already on my hard disk. It was here that I began to encounter problems. The most I could get out of any application when playing back audio was a couple of strangled squeaks, despite the fact that the supplied hardware diagnostics utility passed all its tests with flying colours. I downloaded a newer set of drivers from the DAL website and installed these, but still no joy. I also re‑installed the hardware with a different I/O setting (by changing its jumper switch settings), re‑initialised the drivers, and tried several different available IRQ and memory settings. Finally, I removed a total of three other expansion cards from my PC, just in case anything was conflicting that didn't appear on the comprehensive print‑out of resources already used by my PC. Nothing cured the problem, and in the end, despite the best technical efforts of Et Cetera (the UK distributors) by telephone to get the system working in my PC, they had to send me a complete PC with V8 already installed. This is what they had wanted to do in the first place, but when the system is advertised as a series of components at individual prices, this does suggest that users ought to be able to personally install the system. I have never encountered any such problems with eight other soundcards that have been installed in my PC.

Once the Et Cetera PC system arrived, things went more smoothly, and I could finally listen to the audio quality and run the MxTrax software. The Wave Drivers certainly worked with everything I tried, and using Sound Forge I measured the noise level of an analogue input at ‑88dB (unweighted), which is very respectable. Sound quality was clean and warm (delta‑sigma converters do tend to have this reputation) but I did notice a delay of a second or so before playback began. This didn't cause any problems but was long enough to make everything feel rather sluggish.

MxTrax has been designed from the ground up to work with the V8 system, and therefore provides access to every possible hardware adjustment, as mentioned previously. The mixer section (see screen shot) is also fully configurable — you create the mixer of your dreams by dropping faders, pan controls, aux sends, EQ modules and mute/solo buttons onto a blank mixer panel, using the Components Toolbox. Once you've finished designing a single channel, it can be duplicated to build a complete console. The input and output connections to each send and fader are configurable, so you can assemble as many busses as you like, to suit your way of recording. Full ADAT transport control is also on offer if you have added the MDM Custom Interface card (see 'Expansion Possibilities' box), and real‑time effects can also be patched in if you have extra DSP power added. Each design of mixer can be loaded and saved to hard disk, and you can save a particular mixer with the project data. This all worked well, and seemed very comprehensive, but MxTrax is currently the only piece of software that can fully access the power of the V8 system, and it may not suit everyone.


The mixer in MxTrax is fully configurable, and even Automation is available, which allows fader and pan control movements to be recorded and played back.The mixer in MxTrax is fully configurable, and even Automation is available, which allows fader and pan control movements to be recorded and played back.

This is a system with an impressive specification and great expansion possibilities. However, unless you have a PC dedicated to audio use (and this is a sensible idea), you may find your ISA slots already too well populated to take full advantage of the possibilities. Most people should be able to fit the Main Board, but as for adding the other expansion cards, such as the MDM Custom or Deuce Coupe (see 'Expansion Possibilities' box), you'll need a fairly empty PC to start with. Et Cetera feel exactly the same — they are proposing to distribute the V8 through a few selected dealers, and primarily as an already‑installed part of a complete PC system package. This cocoons the end user from potential installation problems, which, judging by my teething troubles, is probably a good thing. Buying a complete system will appeal to those who want a turnkey solution, so suitable software will need to be pre‑installed as well. Currently, only the MxTrax package directly supports the V8, to provide access to the juicy DSP bits, and although this software is comprehensive, it is unlikely to suit everybody. With any luck, other software developers will produce additional support for the V8 system, which will make it a much more attractive proposition.

For a system that includes the Main Board, Big Block and MxTrax, the total price would be around £3700. This system gives eight simultaneous ins and eight outs. If you have an ADAT digital 8‑track machine, you can add another eight ins and eight outs (to make full use of the potential power of the 16‑channel Main Board hardware) by plugging in an MDM Custom card (total system cost £4250). Alternatively, adding another Big Block (total system cost £5400) would give 16 analogue ins and outs, which would be ideal for recording a complete band with live drum kit. Additional real‑time DSP power for real‑time effects would require one or more DSP modules, at £450 each.

One of the beauties of V8 is that it is modular — you could start with a basic system and expand as required in the years to come.

You get the picture — this is not a budget hard disk recording system. You really need to spend at least £4000‑5000, plus the cost of your PC, to get a fully‑fledged system — but then you'd have an extremely powerful setup. Of course, one of the beauties of the V8 is that it is modular; you could start with a basic system (Main Board and a single Big Block) and expand as required in the years to come. However, with this projected total outlay, any potential purchaser will have to consider the possible long‑term future of the V8 system. It must also be said that ISA buss cards do seem to be slowly being phased out, but I understand that DAL are already investigating the possibility of PCI alternatives. They do have a long‑term commitment to developing the V8 system over a number of years, so it will be interesting to see what future developments occur.

Certainly, there is great potential, and it is encouraging to see that Waves have already produced a V8 version of their plug‑ins, but until some more software developers get behind it, this is not a PC equivalent of Pro Tools for the Mac. I never thought that I'd end up recommending that people look at a Mac system, but I suspect that anyone interested in a complete system at this sort of price will also have a Mac equivalent on their shortlist, and Digidesign already have huge support from other software developers.

I wish DAL well with the V8 — it's a brave venture, and producing a high‑end PC system like this is to be applauded, especially with an engine capable of 16 simultaneous ins and outs. However, for high‑end audio hard disk recording, the PC needs a totally reliable solution to recommend it to professionals, so buying it as part of a complete PC system would seem more sensible than attempting the DIY approach. The bottom line has to be that if this is the sort of spec you're looking for, go to a participating dealer, and see and hear the V8 in action for yourself. If it does what you want, and is within your budget, put it on the shortlist.

Easy Or Hardware

Before you decide whether the V8 system will suit your requirements, you'll need to check inside your PC to see if it will accept a full‑length expansion card. Although the newer ATX motherboards allow full‑length cards in nearly all slots, many 'baby‑AT' motherboards have severe limitations when it comes to fitting any full‑length expansion card. The Main Board is an ISA expansion card, and at just over 13 inches long is the biggest I've ever seen! Fortunately, one of the four ISA slots inside my PC could manage this — of the remaining three, one was blocked by a loom of wires connecting the front‑panel switches to the motherboard, and another two were obstructed by the processor heatsink and fan. Frankly, few mainstream expansion cards are more than three‑quarter length nowadays, so it's not surprising that many PC motherboard manufacturers don't view this as a problem.

At first I seriously thought I'd have to admit defeat and wouldn't be able to get it plugged in at all, but eventually I managed to shoehorn the Main Board into my PC by bending the card slightly along its length, and wrapping a sheet of paper around it where it pressed against other components on the motherboard. I must admit to having my fingers crossed when I first switched on, but it passed every one of the hardware diagnostics tests. The three DSP modules were still well out of the way of anything else, but the supplied SRAM induction module ended up touching the CPU heatsink, only separated by my sheet of paper. This is not the fault of DAL, but a limitation of some motherboards. However, unless you're happy ferreting about inside your PC, this is one card that may need a practised pair of hands to install.

There's also a set of DIP switches to set, for selecting a single I/O address — the default setting is 300h (hexadecimal), but mine came from Et Cetera set to 240h, which is probably a better option for most people, as it is more often unused in most PCs.

Spec Check

The first thing I noticed about the V8 soundcard was that it contains two chips from Xilinx, a company specialising in FGPA (Field‑Programmable Gate Arrays) that I first discussed in detail as part of the Digital Wings Audio review in the December '97 issue of SOS. However, since all the audio circuitry resides within the Big Block, it is this specification that is most relevant to the musician.


  • A/D conversion: Dual 16‑bit delta‑sigma, 64x oversampled.
  • D/A conversion: Dual 16‑bit sigma‑delta, 8x oversampled.
  • Sampling rates: 44.1, 48kHz.
  • Input s/n ratio: 91dB A‑weighted.
  • Output s/n ratio: 96dB A‑weighted.
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz‑20kHz (+0/‑0.25dB @48kHz).
  • Crosstalk @ 1kHz: ‑107dB.

Expansion Possibilities

The V8, as you've probably already gathered, does a lot more than providing the engine for the eight ins and eight outs of the Big Block. It can run up to 16 simultaneous inputs and outputs across the V8 buss, which means that more Big Blocks can be attached if required. The V8 can also support additional internal cards, which are available in several forms and connect to the Main Board using internal ribbon cables. The Deuce Coupe (not supplied for this review) is a stereo analogue, stereo digital card that also fits into an ISA slot. Its main function is to provide separate stereo mastering and monitoring facilities, but existing owners of a CardD can also integrate this into the V8 system in a similar way. Multiple Deuce Coupe cards are supported by V8.

The MDM Custom is another 8‑bit ISA card that integrates with the Main board. This provides an interface to an ADAT, with 8‑channel optical input and output, as well as a 9‑pin to 25‑pin sync cable which locks the V8 with the ADAT, and which provides full transport control of the ADAT from V8‑aware applications (such as MxTrax), as well as sample‑accurate sync. Again, multiple MDM cards are supported by V8, as long as you have spare expansion slots.

One reason why the V8 card is so large is that there are also three available sockets for DSP expansion, each of which can hold a DSP Supercharger module (£449) containing two Motorola 56002 chips running at 80MHz. This is what provides one of the main attractions of the V8 system — far more real‑time power to run digital processing software, such as the V8‑specific Waves Power Pack, which is already available. Where the high‑powered PC runs out of steam, a V8 system will still be going strong. Finally, the RAM Induction Module (£449) adds 128Kb of fast SRAM for "enhanced time‑dependent algorithms", and this is used to enhance the performance of delays and reverbs.


  • Up to 16 ins and 16 outs simultaneously.
  • Expandable modular design for interfacing additional analogue and digital devices.
  • Excellent audio quality using Big Block external converters.
  • Impressive real‑time DSP processing power with an expanded system.
  • Support for Waves plug‑in bundle from day one.


  • Motherboard manufacturers are beginning to slowly phase out ISA expansion slots.
  • Full‑length card may not fit in all PCs.
  • Only MxTrax software can currently access all the V8 facilities.


This is an impressive‑sounding system, with excellent theoretical possibilities for further expansion. However, its high cost, as well as its multiple ISA‑card structure, makes it more suitable as a complete PC turnkey system than for an end‑user DIY approach.