Ego Sys' WaMi Box is one of a very small number of recording interfaces for laptop PCs, providing analogue, digital and MIDI I/O along with a synth/sampler, DSP effects and mixing — and no fewer than six separate software control utilities. Martin Walker gets to grips with it. Eventually...
The last time Ego Systems appeared in these pages was in SOS September 2000, when I reviewed their flagship WaMi Rack 24, a clever combination of four analogue inputs with switched mic preamps, eight analogue outputs, co‑axial and optical S/PDIF I/O, and four MIDI Ins and Outs. This time round I'm looking at the only other WaMi (Wave and MIDI) product currently in their range: the WaMi Box, a high‑quality audio and MIDI solution for laptop owners which connects via PCMCIA. This also has a generous and novel combination of features. There are two analogue ins and four outs with 20‑bit converters, optical and co‑axial S/PDIF I/O, and a single MIDI In and Out, but it's what hidden that makes it unusual — an internal hardware DSP mixer with 17 reverb/chorus programs, a two‑/four‑band stereo graphic EQ, and a 64‑voice sampler/synthesizer.
The WaMi Box is also compatible with the DLS (DownLoadable Sound) standard. It comes with 16Mb of RAM, and 1Mb and 4Mb wavetable sound sets are supplied in both GM and GS formats. In addition, Ego Sys have recently joined forces with Terratec to port their EWS64 technology to the WaMi Box, albeit in a slightly cut‑down form, allowing the full 16Mb of RAM to be used to create large sampled instruments using Terratec's Ed!son sample editor. So, with 20‑bit audio recording and playback, a MIDI synth, and a sampler, the WaMi Box looks perfect as an all‑in‑one solution for PC laptop owners.
The WaMi Box consists of two components, the external unit and a PCMCIA adapter. Unusually, two cables — one half a metre in length, the other a full metre long — are supplied, so you can choose whichever length you need for a particular job. The metal case of the external unit looks very sturdy, is just 14cm wide by 9cm deep and 3cm high, and is finished in exactly the same grey‑speckled crackle finish as the WaMi Rack. The I/O sockets are spread over the left‑hand, rear, and right‑hand sides of the case, with their descriptions labelled around the three edges of the top plate to make them easier to see at a glance. The left panel contains the stereo headphone output and stereo mic input, both on gold‑flashed quarter‑inch stereo jack sockets, along with the 15‑way D‑type connector for the PCMCIA adapter. The rear panel contains a row of eight gold‑flashed phono sockets for left and right Line In, Line Out 1, 2, 3 and 4, and S/PDIF co‑axial In and Out, while the right‑hand panel houses twin Toslink connectors for S/PDIF Optical In and Out, and two five‑pin DIN sockets for MIDI In and Out.
The front panel uses LED indicators to indicate power on and signal activity at the audio and MIDI I/O sockets. These light up green when a signal is detected, and red to indicate an audio overload. The final four green LEDs indicate the current choice of input — mic, line, co‑axial digital, or optical digital — and pressing the adjacent momentary push‑button selector cycles through these options. Any signal plugged into either of the digital inputs will be simultaneously output from both formats of digital output, as well as from the analogue line outputs. This is useful if you want to convert one format to the other, the only restriction being that the WaMi Box's converters run at a fixed rate of 44.1kHz. However, this can be useful in itself, since you can convert 48kHz DAT recordings into 44.1kHz 'on the way in' in real time.
Whipping off the top cover revealed a very compact and tidy circuit board containing, among others, two Crystal chips: a CS8420 sample‑rate converter and a CS4226 surround sound codec. The latter handles the WaMi Box's A‑D and D‑A conversion, and actually includes six 20‑bit D‑A converters along with its stereo 20‑bit A‑D converters, even though the Box has only four analogue outputs (and even though recordings can only be made at 16‑bit resolution). Although the full six‑speaker 5.1 surround spec is not supported, the WaMi Box's V‑Space 3D processing algorithms will work with either two or four speakers.
Installing drivers in a laptop is exactly the same as with a desktop or tower PC, since PCMCIA devices are detected in the same way as PCI expansion cards. However, although they are hot‑swappable, you have to power down your laptop before plugging them in for the first time for the detection procedure to work properly, and you should always close all audio and MIDI applications before removing the card to avoid crashes. My WaMi Box came with the version 1.1 installation CD‑ROM, which not only contained the driver and utility software, but also demo versions of Cakewalk Home Studio, Cubase VST/24, Sound Forge 4.5, and Wavelab. However, the Ego Sys web site had version 2.0 drivers available for download, providing new support for both DirectSound and ASIO 2.0, as well as more stable MME drivers. The recent tie‑up with Terratec has also seen the previous WaMi Box mixer utility replaced by a far more comprehensive version from Terratec, complete with their Ed!son sample editor. This now makes it possible to use the WaMi Box as a sampler using its 16Mb of internal RAM.
The only fly in the ointment is that while the version 2.0 driver download is just 118K in size, the full set of five new zipped files for the drivers, application software, new manuals, SoundFonts, notes and utility programs totals 11Mb. However, the 7.5Mb wamiboxfonts.zip file is the same as that on the Installation CD‑ROM, so all you actually need to download are the other four zipped files totalling a much more manageable 3.5Mb. If you already have previous WaMi Box drivers installed on your laptop you should first run the supplied egoclear.exe file and then manually delete the drivers inside Device Manager to clear all traces of previous versions.
The only problem I had during installation was a crash when rebooting, which I traced to a conflict with the existing MPU401 MIDI interface provided by the laptop's internal soundchip. Since a gameport wasn't present on the laptop I was using there was no point in having this driver running anyway, so I disabled the device inside Device Manager, and had no further problems.
The WaMi Box has only one stereo input, but its drivers let you choose the number of audio playback channels from within the Settings page in Device Manager. Although the default is two, up to 32 stereo channels can be selected, and you can balance their relative levels as well as adding various amounts of the built‑in reverb and chorus to each one. The effects use on‑board DSP for their processing, so there is no drain on your main CPU, but since there is a fixed amount of available DSP power, you have to trade off the number of channels against the maximum number of synth and sampler voices. No specific figures are provided, but the manual mentions that 'voice borrowing' will occur from the MIDI synth when DSP power is running low, and eventually from the Wave channels as well. However, this is still a useful way to make your laptop processing power go rather further than normal.
The virtual channels make choosing the appropriate driver option inside your choice of MIDI + Audio software a little more difficult. On the audio side, there is only ever one stereo recording channel, which appears inside audio applications as WaMi Box Synth Record. Playback channels are labelled as WaMi Box Synth Play #1, #2, #3, and so on, depending on how many stereo channels you have enabled. On the MIDI side the 64‑voice synth option is labelled WaMi Box MIDI Play, while the external MIDI input and output are WaMi Box MIDI Record and WaMi Box MIDI‑1 respectively. As with the audio playback channels, you can also choose the number of virtual MIDI channels available and balance their levels.
Once the new drivers are in place you install the various other applications by running the WAMI Box.exe file, which leaves you with six new shortcuts to the Audio In Panel, Control Panel, Ed!son, FX Panel, Set Manager, and Virtual Channels utilities. By far the easiest way to proceed is to launch Control Panel, since this also contains launch buttons for the other five. It also provides a simple audio mixer panel divided into four sections — Record, MIDI, Wave, and Master — to set the level of each sound source, its pan position where appropriate, and the overall volume. There's also a fader to set the signal mix between outputs 1/2 and 3/4, if the FX Panel switch is set to four‑channel mode (see later). A Master level fader controls overall volume of all three signals, and both this and the Wave panel also feature Mute buttons.
The WaMi FX Panel is identical to that of Terratec's EWS64, and contains a total of nine panel sections labelled MIDI, Wave, Mod (which is not currently supported), Audio In, Record, Reverb, Chorus, Equalizer, and V‑Space. The majority of the controls are for adding effects to different aspects of the WaMi Box. The MIDI and Wave sections handle routing to the effects. Each contain Reverb and Chorus send controls, along with a switch that decides whether or not each signal is also routed through the EQ and V‑Space effects. The Wave section also has an FX/4Ch switch that lets you choose between adding the internal effects or using Line Out 3 and 4 as effect send outputs. The Audio In section provides a Reverb send control, plus Echo send with associated On/Off, Delay, and Feedback controls.
The Reverb panel itself provides controls to select one of eight different program types including rooms, halls, plate, delay, and pan delay, and also has further controls for Time, Feedback, and Level, while the Chorus panel also supplies a choice of eight program types including four different choruses, feedback, flanger, short delay, and feedback delay, along with Delay, Feedback, Level, Rate and Depth controls. Both sections have a global effect on/off switch, while chorus also has an EQ/V‑Space send switch to divert its output signal through the Equalizer and V‑Space. If either the Reverb or Chorus sections are enabled, analogue outputs 3 and 4 are automatically disabled. This, I suspect, is due to lack of available DSP power: the manual mentions that switching off effects will leave more for other 'virtual devices'.
V‑Space is a basic 3D algorithm suitable for either a two‑ or four‑speaker setup, while the Equalizer can be used in either two‑ or four‑band mode, and features draggable points in a frequency response window, along with manual gain and frequency controls beneath.
Finally, the Record section simply has a switch labelled Mix/Audio In. In the Audio In position, you can record the signal present at the mic or line input sockets, while Mix records the entire output of the mixer, complete with any DSP effects used. This is ideal when recording a master mix, since both MIDI and audio signals will be included in the final stereo recording.
Most of the controls in the FX Panel, such as the level and pan positions and effect settings, can also be set using NRPN MIDI messages, while various internal MIDI synth settings can also be adjusted using SysEx commands.
The Virtual Channels window contains a virtual LCD‑style display with two horizontal rows of 16 boxes, where you can select any one of the available channels, depending on how many have been enabled in Device Manager. The currently selected virtual channel can then be muted by clicking in the lower box, and various settings altered using the sliders beneath. Here you can adjust its overall audio Volume and Pan position, the MIDI Synth channel volume for this virtual channel, and the Reverb and Chorus return levels for this audio Wave channel. There is also a wave pitch slider, and a Reset button to return all channel settings to their default positions. If the effects are disabled, the Reverb and Chorus controls are replaced by a single surround‑sound panner, which mixes the level between all four Line outputs. Moving this in the horizontal direction also moves the normal pan control in the main Mixer, while up/down movements set the relative levels between outputs three and four.
The Audio In window contains a volume fader to set the input signal level for recordings, along with a mini Pan fader and Mute button beneath. To the right of this are three more faders to control the level of Echo, Reverb, and Chorus. Confusingly, the Echo and Reverb sends are duplicates of the ones in the FX Panel (moving one updates the other in real time), while for some reason there is no Chorus send in the FX Panel.
You can select startup sound banks for the MIDI synth from a page in the WaMi Box Properties section inside Device Manager, and this is useful if you want the same default bank ready for action every time you boot up. For more specific requirements, launching the Set Manager from the WaMi Box Control Panel is the easiest option. Here you can load and delete multiple sound sets up to the 16Mb maximum space available, and use the Mute and Solo buttons to hear single banks in isolation.
Banks are recognised in three formats: Terratec TTS, Dream 94B (the format used by the supplied files), or Creative Labs' SoundFont SF2 (the most common). There are now lots of commercial, shareware, and freeware SoundFonts available, and you can also design your own using Ed!son. Sample‑processing and synthesis options include an oscillator and a 12dB or 24dB/octave resonant low‑pass filter, each with its own ADSR envelope generator, along with two LFOs.
Ed!son certainly looks the part, with its impressive graphic interface, complete with draggable envelopes and a built‑in graphic keyboard for auditioning your sounds. One extra entry in its File menu adds a great deal to its versatility: Akai Import allows you to grab sample data from any Akaicompatible CD‑ROM. It's a good job I spotted this, since I could find no mention of it in any of the manuals. Although 16Mb probably doesn't sound like a huge amount of sample memory nowadays, it's still possible to do a lot with it, and once you've got used to Ed!son's quirks the WaMi Box's sampling and synthesis facilities could be very valuable to the musician on the move.
Playback quality of 16‑bit audio files was very good, and the difference between the WaMi Box and my Echo Gina was subtle, with only a slight harshness and lack of clarity from the WaMi at the top end. However, as I explained in last month's PC Musician feature, audio quality can be somewhat dependent on the laptop grounding, so I spent some time investigating this aspect.
I had the WaMi Box plugged into Red Submarine's laptop (also reviewed in this issue), and using this there was no discernible difference in background noise during playback when running on battery or mains power, or when recording using a mic. I used Wavelab 3.0 as usual to measure the RMS background noise during recording, and measured a good ‑92.5dB RMS using the line input — just half a dB worse than most 16‑bit PCI soundcards. Recordings sounded good through both the mic and line inputs, and you can add the built‑in effects on the way in if you wish.
However, when recording audio from other mains‑powered devices like MIDI synths I did get some hum, as well as background noises when the mouse or hard drive were used. These noises disappeared altogether when running the laptop on battery power, so this is what I did during takes.
I had to spend some time tweaking Cubase's ASIO Multimedia drivers before I got them working reliably, and eventually got the best results after choosing 'DMA Block Output' as sync reference. Surprisingly, I also managed to get glitch‑free operation right down to three buffers of 1024bytes, giving me an excellent latency figure (for MME) of 186mS, and with these settings I had no problem running a 26‑channel audio song. However, whatever the buffer size I could only manage a maximum of three Wave Play channels to use as multiple outputs for adding effects. The new DirectX drivers also proved successful with a default 204mS latency, although using these you can only select one stereo output channel at a time from those activated however many you enable, and they only work for playback.
Sadly, I had to spend ages altering settings for the new ASIO drivers before I managed to get them working in a glitch‑free fashion. They give you two playback options inside Cubase — 'WaMi Box ASIO Play (2 channels)' and 'WaMi Box ASIO Play (4 channels)' — but the four‑channel version still only gives you a choice between the two stereo outputs in Cubase, not both at once. There is also a single 'WaMi Box ASIO Record' driver option with a tick box to activate the inputs, along with a drop‑down four‑level priority box.
The default buffer size is 4096 samples, giving a latency of 93mS, but this can be adjusted anywhere between 16384 samples, giving a latency of 372mS suitable for a very slow machine, right down to 512 samples for a latency of 12mS. Initially I found it impossible to get glitch‑free playback with any buffer size setting, until I disabled the inputs and selected two‑channel playback. With these settings and the 700MHz Pentium III Red Submarine laptop I managed to get right down to the lowest 12mS latency with no sign of audio glitching at all when replaying a song with 24 audio tracks, and I'm sure I could have managed more.
However, switching to four‑channel playback or activating the inputs gave me lots of glitching whatever I did. This problem with playback was subsequently confirmed on a different laptop running the WaMi Box and the same ASIO version 2.0 drivers. Users have been waiting for these drivers for a long time, so it's a big disappointment that you can't record using them, despite their excellent 12mS playback‑only performance. Judging by my findings you would be safer recording using the MME drivers for recording, and then switching to ASIO during playback.
The supplied GM and GS MIDI SoundFonts in 1Mb and 4Mb sizes are fine for general use. However, they were produced way back in 1997, and most musicians will want more modern sounds for their compositions. Ed!son is certainly comprehensive enough if you want to create your own sound banks, although you could use any SoundFont editor such as Creative's Vienna, Time Signature's Wien, or even convert from other formats using Amazing Sounds' CDxtract utility.
I found the built‑in effects and controls very confusing to use (see the User Interface box on page 202). The built‑in chorus effects sound good for audio processing, but the reverbs are all rather metallic and are easily surpassed by most modern software plug‑ins. You can therefore make things a lot simpler by ignoring the reverb, chorus, and echo effects altogether and using plug‑ins instead, as long as you have sufficient CPU power. If you take this decision the extra virtual channels also become largely redundant, which further simplifies use of the WaMi Box.
Digital transfers worked well, with the Audio In LED displaying the presence of a valid clock signal, although as with any design that employs sample‑rate conversion on the input you don't get a bit‑for‑bit copy of the incoming signal, even when both sample rates are identical. However, being able to use the WaMi Box as a digital signal converter and sample‑rate converter is also useful, as long as you're happy with its fixed 44.1kHz output rate.
The WaMi Box's audio quality is very good, and although only 16‑bit recording and playback is available this is perfectly adequate for the majority of purposes, as long as you are careful to keep your levels within a few dB of clipping. The synth/sampler is a valuable addition, and along with the 16Mb of built‑in RAM adds a great deal to the package. However, the built‑in effects are poor, and the Terratec‑written drivers and utility software extremely confusing, so serious musicians will probably choose to give themselves an easier life by disregarding the effects and the virtual channels.
Overall the WaMi Box offers a lot of features in a small space, and is undeniably a unique product. Digigram's VXpocket is the only other PCMCIA audio card currently available, and though it is smaller, it doesn't offer synth or sampler facilities, and is also £100 more expensive. The VXpocket does have
24‑bit converters, although on a laptop the 20‑bit converters of the WaMi Box may well provide a similar dynamic range.
MME and DirectSound driver performance was very good, and were it not for all the problems I had with the ASIO drivers and utility software I would recommend the WaMi Box wholeheartedly. As it is, I can still give it a cautious thumbs up, since it's one of the most compact and cheapest ways to add quality MIDI and audio recording and playback to a PC laptop. However, if Ego Sys can iron out the current problems with their drivers and simplify the software then they will sell far more.
- Hardware format: PCMCIA Type 2 connector with flying lead to external metal case.
- Analogue I/O: one stereo mic and two mono line‑level inputs, one headphone and four line outputs.
- Analogue connectors: phono sockets for line I/O, quarter‑inch stereo jack sockets for mic and headphone, all unbalanced and gold‑plated.
- Line input and output levels: ‑10dBV nominal.
- A‑D and D‑A converters: Crystal 20‑bit delta/sigma.
- D‑A signal‑to‑noise: 108dB.
- Supported bit depths: 8, 16.
- Supported sample rates: 44.1kHz.
- Frequency response: 20Hz to 20kHz (no deviation quoted).
- Digital I/O: co‑axial and optical S/PDIF.
- MIDI: one MIDI In and one MIDI Out with MPU401 compatibility.
- Internal effects: eight reverb and eight chorus programs, two‑/four‑band equaliser, V‑Space 3D algorithm.
Having reviewed Terratec's EWS64 and EWS64XXL (in SOS March '98 and July '99 respectively) I have seen most of the elements of the user interface used in the WaMi Box's version 2.0 utilities before. However, I still found the whole system initially impenetrable. This is largely because even though it's spread over several windows, it has interconnected controls. For instance, to get reverb onto Wave playback you have to make sure you are using Outputs 1 and 2 (since Outputs 3 and 4 are disabled as soon as you enable either reverb or chorus), then open the FX Panel to set the Wave Send Level, reverb parameters and level, and then open the Virtual Channels window, choose the appropriate channel number and set the Reverb return level.
Even more confusing is the fact that controls in some windows may appear and disappear depending on the settings in a completely different one! For example, the surround pan control in the Audio In and Virtual Channels windows is replaced by reverb and chorus sliders as soon as either of these effects are enabled in the FX Panel. Once you get your head round it there's a lot on offer, but it's so spread out that many features don't make sense at all until you've read and digested the documentation from start to finish.
Sadly, even reading the manual in its entirety before you start will prove confusing for new WaMi Box users, since some features aren't mentioned at all, while some that are refer to non‑existent EWS64 controls such as a second MIDI port and a game/MIDI port. Ego Sys should insist that this is revised as a matter of urgency. Perhaps I'm being a little hard on Terratec, but their idea of a dream user interface seems to be a nightmare for most other people, and I haven't had to expend so much effort trying to fathom out what does what for a long, long time.
The WaMi Box requires a bare minimum of a Pentium 75MHz processor, 32Mb of RAM, and a fast ATA hard drive with 50Mb or more free space, although a Pentium 233MHz or higher and an Ultra DMA33 hard drive are recommended. A screen resolution of 800 by 600 with 256 colours is the minimum display requirement, but once again you will probably need a 1024 by 768 screen if you want to run a suitable MIDI + Audio sequencer as well. The drivers will run with either Windows 95 or 98, but Windows 98SE is strongly recommended.
- Capable of very good audio sound quality.
- Valuable sample‑playback synth with 16Mb of RAM.
- Well‑written MME drivers.
- Comprehensive input selection.
- ASIO drivers glitch badly when inputs or four‑channel playback are selected, making them unsuitable for recording.
- Built‑in effects are barely suitable for serious use.
- Utilities and driver software are extremely confusing.
- Electronic manual badly needs updating.
The WaMi Box is a well‑designed audio and MIDI synth/sampler that is currently let down by confusing software and buggy drivers.