Despite the obvious attractions of portable recording systems based around laptop computers, high-quality compatible audio hardware is scarce. That looks set to change, however, now that Echo Audio have adapted their popular Mona and Layla 24 interfaces for laptop use.
The Mona and Layla rackmount units connect to a laptop using a specially designed PCMCIA card and cable. Users with laptop and desktop computers can switch the rackmount unit between the two, as long as they have both the PCMCIA card and the PCI card.
Those looking to buy an audio interface for a desktop computer are faced with a difficult task in choosing from the extensive range of PCI, FireWire and USB-based products on offer. For the laptop owner, though, there are far fewer options. To begin with, by no means all laptops have FireWire ports, and opting for a USB interface (arguably not the wisest decision at the best of times) can be particularly problematic if your machine doesn't have one of the relatively few reliable USB chipsets. The only other option has been to find an interface which uses a laptop's PCMCIA (or 'CardBus') slot, but aside from Digigram's VX Pocket and RME's new Hammerfall DSP, these have been thin on the ground. Now, however, American company Echo Audio have just released two of their well-established and well-respected audio interfaces, the Mona and Layla 24, in laptop versions, employing a CardBus card and newly designed interconnect cable instead of the original PCI card.
The Mona and Layla 24 are clearly aimed at different types of users. Both use a CardBus card that links to an external, 19-inch rackmount unit housing A-D and D-A converters along with a range of analogue and digital audio connections, but the features on offer differ significantly. The Mona is something of an all-in-one solution, with built-in mic preamps, phantom power and metering. Its six analogue outputs make it suitable for monitoring and mixing in 5.1 surround format, and the inclusion of an eight-channel ADAT interface provides extra flexibility.
The Layla, however, is probably better suited to the user who already has a mixer and/or outboard mic preamps as it offers eight analogue inputs and outputs that operate at line level only, along with eight channels of ADAT-format digital I/O, but has no metering. Both have S/PDIF connections on dedicated phono sockets, and the ADAT optical connection can also be switched to handle S/PDIF optical instead. Sadly, though, ADAT and S/PDIF can't be used simultaneously even if you opt to use the phono sockets for the latter. Both the Mona and Layla provide word clock I/O, and the latter adds MIDI as well (see the Specifications box for more details).
Both the Mona and the Layla rackmount units look and feel exceptionally well put together. The brushed aluminium front panels give them a very classy air, and the feel of all the controls and connections inspires confidence. The interfaces connect to the CardBus card using a 12-foot cable sporting a computer-style nine-pin plug at the breakout box end and a compact 30-pin connector which plugs into the card itself. I'm pleased to say that both the Mona and Layla use decent IEC 'kettle-lead' mains power cables.
They say that first impressions count for a lot, so it was unfortunate that the first time I tried out the Mona and Layla was in conjunction with an Apple Titanium Powerbook that was clearly struggling with some sort of software conflict and may well have had a damaged CardBus slot. I won't go into details, but let's just say that most of the recordings I made were of various expletives and gnashing of teeth, all in crystal-clear 96kHz, 24-bit audio of course! After this inauspicious start I tested with a Gateway laptop running Windows 98.
Opening up the Mona's packaging first of all, I was met with an absolutely unmissable single-sheet leaflet entitled "For best results do this first!" which described the hardware and software installation procedure. An auto-booting installer on CD-ROM offered to install Windows drivers, the bundled Cubasis VST software, and product manuals (in PDF format, together with Adobe Acrobat Reader if necessary). I opted pretty much for everything, and after shutting down the laptop, inserted the CardBus card and connected the rackmount unit to it. On booting up once more, Windows detected the new hardware, installed the necessary drivers, and I was up and running. A more hassle-free installation I couldn't imagine.
Echo provide drivers in ASIO format (as used by the bundled Cubasis VST and other sequencers) along with WDM and VXD drivers for the various incarnations of Windows, including 98, ME, 2000 or XP. If you have a Mac you'll need OS 8.6 or higher. In Windows 98's Multimedia control panel the input and output options for the Mona or Layla are accurately reflected, as are Layla's MIDI connections, and I had absolutely no trouble persuading Windows to route audio via the interfaces, although Echo recommend disabling playback of Windows' system sounds.
A software console for configuring the Mona is included as part of the installation, and a capital letter 'M' in Windows' Taskbar provides easy access to it. Initially the Mona console can be a bit confusing, but it's covered in depth, along with all other aspects of the interfaces and their software, in the excellent PDF manual. The console allows latency-free hardware monitoring to be set up between any input and output, and other essential aspects of the Mona's operation, including clock source, can be configured with it. A preference page opens up some other setup options, and it was very nice to see a dither option for the digital inputs here.
Installing the Layla 24 was similarly straightforward, but its console software is necessarily more complex to cope with the greater number of analogue inputs and outputs, and of course instead of a capital 'M' in the Windows Taskbar you get an 'L'. The console also includes some MIDI configuration options. In both cases, I was impressed with how easy installation of these interfaces was. Echo have clearly done a very good job, and their Windows and ASIO drivers seem to be absolutely reliable.
The PCI version of the Mona was reviewed in Sound On Sound by Martin Walker back in October 2000. He commented then on its excellent sonic performance, particularly in terms of dynamic range and accuracy. I can only agree with him — both the Mona and the Layla 24 are fine-sounding interfaces with superb on-paper credentials. I've always found good A-D converters to be characterised by noticeable clarity and separation in the treble registers, and a subjective 'sweetness'. The best I've heard are those in MOTU's 1296 interface as well as some dedicated outboard converters such as the Apogee Rosetta. For the price, you wouldn't expect the Mona or Layla to sound quite like a Rosetta, but they get mighty close, and having a 96kHz option makes you feel pretty good even if you never have cause to use it!
I do, however, have some reservations about the Mona's guitar inputs, which to me sounded a touch weedy. For comparison purposes I recorded guitar (and then bass) directly through the Mona's inputs, and then through an M‑Audio DMP2 outputting into one of the line inputs. The cheap-and-cheerful DMP2 can hardly be described as esoteric, but it's an astonishingly capable little mic preamp and DI box. In all cases, and with very careful level matching, guitars sounded fuller and somehow more articulate going through the DMP2. I had few complaints with Mona's mic inputs, though as you might expect, a good, dedicated outboard voice channel still sounded subjectively better.
My only other concern about the Mona and Layla is to do with the connection between the CardBus card and the breakout cable, which looks like it could suffer if, say, something was inadvertently dropped on it. Echo have assured me that they decided on the card/cable connection only after extensive testing, and that there have been no problems with all the laptop units they've shipped so far. Nevertheless, I still feel that it's a potential weak spot — not necessarily for a home-studio setup, but maybe for a travelling rig. At one point, for instance, I experienced a spike of digital noise on all four inputs of the Mona when I slightly repositioned my laptop, causing the cable to be lightly strained, though I'd stress that this happened only once, and was not a problem at any other time during the several weeks I had the interfaces on test.
Both the Mona and the Layla 24 sound excellent and, with virtually no exceptions, proved very reliable during the time I spent with them. They were easy to set up and nice to live with, and would be suitable for both the first-time audio interface buyer and, by virtue of their word clock connections, a more experienced user looking to add a mobile recording setup to a pre-existing studio. It's also worth mentioning that Echo sell their PCI and CardBus interface cards separately from the rackmount units if need be, so both the Layla and Mona can easily be shared between desktop and laptop systems.
Ultimately, the Mona and Layla 24 are among the best-specified PCMCIA/CardBus based interfaces on the market, and are available at a price which competes with similarly specified PCI and FireWire-based products. The fact that neither is expandable might be a problem for some, but for the majority of laptop users, who want a good-sounding interface to use at home and on the road, they're the business.
As I mentioned in the main text of this review, the Mona and Layla differ significantly in the range of inputs, outputs and other features they offer. The Mona's analogue inputs are all on the front panel in the shape of four combination XLR/quarter-inch sockets. Plugging in an XLR cable configures an input for microphone-level operation, whilst the quarter-inch sockets are for balanced or unbalanced line-level signals. They'll also handle a high-impedance guitar input, courtesy of the front-panel 'Guitar' switches. All four inputs have trim controls which can dial in up to 60dB of gain for the mic preamps, and up to 40dB for the line-level inputs (50dB with the Guitar switch depressed). Phantom power is available to all four mic inputs, and turned on or off with a front-panel switch.
The Mona's six analogue outputs are on balanced (+4dBu) XLRs and unbalanced (-10dBV) phonos. There's optical digital I/O switchable between ADAT and S/PDIF formats, and a dedicated S/PDIF input and output on phonos. BNC connectors for word clock (in and out), a three-pin IEC mains socket, and the nine-pin breakout cable connector round off the rear panel. Finally, on the front panel, there's a power switch, a remote footswitch socket, a nice loud headphone output (with volume control) and four 10-segment input level meters.
The Layla, in comparison, is more of a 'no frills' interface. The front panel has only a headphone output with volume control, and a power switch. Around the back there are eight software-switchable -10/+4dB line inputs and outputs, all on quarter-inch sockets and all balanced/unbalanced. There are the same arrangements for ADAT and S/PDIF as the Mona, and in addition to a pair of word clock BNCs there's MIDI In, Out and Thru.
The on-paper audio performance of the Layla and Mona is the same, and both achieve very impressive results. Frequency response for the balanced line inputs is 10Hz to 22kHz ±0.25dB with 110dB dynamic range (A-weighted). For the outputs, dynamic range is greater still at 115dB (A-weighted). Both A-D and D-A converters are 128x oversampling designs with 24-bit resolution, and support sample rates from 8kHz right through to 96kHz.