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Frontier Design Group Wavecenter

WaveCenter running under Steinberg Cubase VST.WaveCenter running under Steinberg Cubase VST.

There's plenty of choice when it comes to audio cards for Windows 95/NT PCs – JANET HARNIMAN COOK finds out what sets the new WaveCenter from Frontier Design Group apart from the pack.

The WaveCenter, from US developers Frontier Design Group, is a multichannel audio card that offers up to 10 channels of simultaneous studio quality audio playback, eight channels of recording, and a choice of digital interface options. You can connect directly to ADATs, digital mixers, hardware effects processors, digital audio workstations (DAWs), digital video recorders, CD players, CD recorders and synthesizers. Thanks to the card's support for three digital I/O formats – Alesis optical, S/PDIF optical and S/PDIF electrical – ADAT users can transfer all eight tracks to the PC at a single pass, and the WaveCenter can also be used for format conversion between S/PDIF optical and RCA phono, and between Alesis ADAT Lightpipe and S/PDIF. The versatility of the card is further enhanced by the inclusion of a very capable 1‑in/3‑out MIDI interface, and if 10 audio channels aren't enough for you, two WaveCenter cards can be run in tandem on the same PC to give you a staggering 20 digital audio output channels.

To interface with the world of analogue audio, however, you will need some additional hardware, as the WaveCenter has only digital connections. Fortunately, Frontier Design Group offer two external converter boxes that add multichannel analogue inputs and outputs. The Zulu is a 4‑in/8‑out device, and the pro‑orientated Tango offers eight analogue outputs, word clock synchronisation, and up to eight audio inputs. The possibility of the hostile PC electrical environment introducing noise into the analogue signal chain is eliminated, because audio data is transferred optically to the Zulu or Tango in either 8‑channel Alesis ADAT Lightpipe or stereo S/PDIF format. Furthermore, as the Zulu or Tango can be positioned up to 10 metres away, the analogue electronics can be kept at a safe physical distance from the PC (see box for further details on the Zulu and Tango interfaces).


Frontier Design Group Wavecenter

The WaveCenter can be used on PC computers running either Windows 95 or Windows NT; drivers for both systems can be found on the WaveCenter installation disk. The Windows 95 WaveCenter drivers are MME‑compatible, so the card can be used with standard Windows stereo audio editing and recording software such as Steinberg WaveLab, Sonic Foundry Sound Forge and, significantly, with any applications that support multichannel audio cards. At the time of writing these include Steinberg Cubase VST, Cakewalk Music Systems Cakewalk Pro Audio 6, Emagic Logic Audio, IQS SAW Plus and SAW Plus 32, and Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro. The availability of multiple simultaneous audio inputs and outputs presents exciting possibilities to the computer musician – it makes it possible to feed audio in real time to outboard analogue devices such as mixers and effects processors, and record the processed signal to disk. You could also use different WaveCenter channels independently to monitor audio from several audio applications, for example when using a MIDI+audio sequencer, a multitrack audio recorder and a specialist wave editor at the same time.

The Wavecenter Package

Frontier Design Group Wavecenter

Besides the card itself, the WaveCenter package includes a floppy disk for the Windows 95 and Windows NT drivers, a printed 72‑page User's Guide, a MIDI breakout adapter, and a cable to connect the WaveCenter card to the digital output of a CD‑ROM drive. As a 16‑bit ISA card, the WaveCenter goes against the current trend in multichannel audio card design that favours the faster, cross‑platform PCI bus. This seems to make little difference in practice, however, as the WaveCenter performs extremely well. The short length of the card means that lack of space should not be a problem with non‑ATX PC systems.

The back plate of the WaveCenter contains two TDIF optical connectors that can function either in Alesis Lightpipe or S/PDIF mode, two RCA phono S/PDIF connectors, and a 9‑pin D‑connector for the MIDI interface. One slightly surprising omission is the lack of any form of analogue output monitoring. The slim printed manual contains clear step‑by‑step instructions to guide you through the installation and operation of the WaveCenter, and also contains useful information for the newcomer to digital audio.

Software First

Frontier Design Group Wavecenter

Soundcards can be incredibly tricky to install, and with the WaveCenter it is important to install the software before the hardware. This allows Windows to (hopefully!) detect system resources that are available for use by the card. In general this works well, and installing WaveCenter on a larger, more populated PC should be a relatively simple matter as the card is relatively undemanding of precious Windows system resources; it requires only a single IRQ and a 16kB block address in the PC's upper memory area for all of its multiple channel audio and MIDI port activities. Sometimes, however, it may be necessary to first remove all the other devices that compete for the limited PC system resources – devices such as other soundcards, MIDI interfaces, video grabbers, samplers and SCSI cards – and install WaveCenter on the resulting 'vanilla' PC configuration.

For this review, I first installed WaveCenter on the PC in my music studio, and then on my more humble office machine. Inevitably, Sod's Law prevailed, and whereas installation on the office PC was no problem, I only managed to install the WaveCenter on the studio machine after a good deal of confusion – and after resorting to the 'vanilla' route. The problem in this instance proved to be my Adaptec 2940 PCI SCSI card, which I suspect of not telling the whole truth in the Windows 95 Device Manager about the system resources it commandeers!

Incidentally, you should take care when handling PC cards to avoid any damage that may be caused by static electricity from your hands or clothing. The safest way to pick up cards is by the edges or back plate, and at all costs avoid touching the components on the circuit board lest you corrupt the data programmed into the chips. If possible wear an anti‑static strap, which are available from most electronic component suppliers for about £10.

Wavetray Applet

When the WaveCenter installation is completed the WaveTray applet should be visible next to the clock in the Windows 95 Taskbar. WaveTray gives an at‑a‑glance overview of the readiness of the WaveCenter, including synchronisation, S/PDIF receive error indicators, and channel status. Clicking on the applet displays a list of WaveCenter configuration options that allows you to define the input and output modes. I found WaveTray useful and informative, but felt that it would be improved if it included meters for signal level monitoring. I found only one bug, which is that occasionally I could only initiate playback if I first closed the applet.


As always with PC systems, the performance of the WaveCenter is dependent on the power of the host computer; Frontier Design Group recommend that you have at least a 486 or better CPU. The reference PC for this review, an Intel Pentium 233 MMX with 64Mb RAM, recorded and played back eight channels without a hitch.

The WaveCenter will play and record mono or stereo soundfiles at a sample rate of 44.1 or 48kHz, and can varispeed and track the clock of external audio devices at any sample rate from 39‑51kHz. The input monitoring latency, ie. the delay between sound arriving at the card's inputs and the return of the monitored signal, is 1026 samples (approximately 22mS at 44.1kHz), which in practice is quite acceptable. By way of comparison this is roughly the same delay that you might experience with a 3‑head open‑reel tape deck running at 30ips.

Channel Architecture

The WaveCenter presents its audio channels as six stereo pairs: the ADAT optical output claims four pairs, while the optical and electrical S/PDIF channels have one pair apiece. Each port functions as if it was an individual full‑duplex stereo audio device – not only can you play back and record simultaneously on all eight channels, but you can also bounce audio between channels.

Each WaveCenter audio port references a common clock, and consequently synchronisation between channels is rock solid. This contrasts with the synchronisation drift that is often experienced when running multichannel configurations from multiple soundcards, and which produces all manner of undesirable effects from a gentle flanging to bizarre arhythmic echoes reminiscent of Stockhausen on bad acid...

Making Connections

The card's outputs can operate in either 4‑channel mode, using the optical and electrical S/PDIF connectors, or in 10‑channel mode using the ADAT optical and the S/PDIF phono sockets. You also have a choice of two input modes: stereo S/PDIF input, or 8‑channel Alesis Lightpipe ADAT format input. Another way of getting audio into the card is to transfer tracks from audio CDs to the hard drive as Windows .WAV files, via an additional S/PDIF connector that connects to the digital output of a CD‑ROM drive. Note that not all CD‑ROM drives are blessed with a digital output, although it should be considered vital in a PC used for professional audio, and not all CD‑ROM digital outputs work as well as others. The Mitsumi 24x speed drive in my review machine, however, worked fine. If you do not have a CD‑ROM with a digital out, you might as well take advantage of this extra input connector, and create an external stereo S/PDIF digital input for a second DAT machine or a CD player. All you have to do is route the cable to a phono socket mounted on a blank PC back panel. If you're still in a DIY mood, you could follow the instructions supplied with the WaveCenter documentation for making an AES/EBU format adapter, allowing machines supporting that standard to be used with the S/PDIF RCA phono input.

To conclude, the WaveCenter is a very fine, sweet sounding and economically priced card that would fit in well with PC recording systems both at the professional and semi‑professional level for a wide range of audio production demands.

PC Requirements

The performance of the WaveCenter audio card is, inevitably, directly dependent on the power of the PC in which it is used. Frontier Design Group recommend a minimum 486 processor, but more satisfactory results will be obtained using an Intel Pentium 166 MMX or better. This review was conducted on a machine with the following spec:

• Intel Pentium 233MMX with SuperMicro ATX motherboard.
• 512k pipeline burst cache.
• 64Mb RAM.
• 4Mb Virge DX PCI graphics card (running at 1080x868 resolution and 64k colours).
• 17" monitor.
• Digidesign SampleCell 2.
• Adaptec 2940 PCI SCSI card.

Tango And Zulu External Converters

The pro‑orientated Tango is a full‑width 1U modular multichannel external digital audio converter for the WaveCenter, featuring balanced analogue I/O, word clock I/O, and ADAT optical in/out/through. (The ADAT through port means that you can archive data to ADAT without repatching.) The basic model is an 8‑channel output‑only device that can be upgraded to also provide either four or eight analogue inputs. These optional inputs feature 20‑bit 128x oversampling converters that give a signal‑to‑noise ratio of greater than 98dB, with 0.002% THD+N. The front panel sports LED level meters, switches for sample rate (44.1kHz or 48kHz), synchronisation type (word clock or optical), and level metering source (input or output). The rear panel carries balanced analogue input and output connectors on quarter‑inch metal jack sockets, along with the ADAT and BNC word clock connectors, and an input socket for the external power supply. The analogue audio inputs and outputs can be switched between +4dBu and ‑10dBV.

The Zulu, Tango's little brother, is a self‑contained 4‑in/8‑out external digital audio converter housed in a 1U half‑width steel enclosure. The front panel has LED indicators for power, optical status, and analogue input levels, while the rear panel carries ‑10dBV unbalanced plastic quarter‑inch jack sockets for analogue I/O, the ADAT optical connectors, and an external power supply input. The Zulu boasts the same DAC specification as the Tango, and its sound quality is excellent.

Although they were developed for the WaveCenter card, the Zulu and Tango can also act as stand‑alone converters for any devices that support the ADAT optical format.


  • Easy to use.
  • Good sound quality.
  • Two cards can be used for 16‑in/20‑out system.
  • Economical with precious PC system. resources.
  • Useful MIDI interface.


  • Installation can be tricky.
  • No input level meters in WaveTray applet.
  • No analogue monitor out.


A great‑sounding multichannel audio card with the added bonus of a 1‑in/3‑out MIDI interface that will more than satisfy the functional and budgetary requirements of smaller pro and semi‑pro audio recording and post‑production facilities.