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Guillemot Maxi Studio ISIS

PC Soundcard System By John Walden
Published June 1999

Logic Audio Pro ISIS and the Console 8/4 software running together. Output levels are displayed in Console 8/4, while Logic is playing the arrangement.Logic Audio Pro ISIS and the Console 8/4 software running together. Output levels are displayed in Console 8/4, while Logic is playing the arrangement.

Guillemot's MAXI Studio ISIS PCI soundcard system for the PC seems to offer a lot of bang for the buck. John Walden dives in to find out what all the flap is about.

French company Guillemot have carved themselves an interesting niche in the PC soundcard market, sitting in the middle ground between the consumer Soundblaster‑type cards and systems aimed at the more serious PC‑based musician. The company's Maxi Sound 64 Home Studio card (reviewed by Martin Walker in SOS February '97) was one of the first consumer‑priced cards that allowed full‑duplex audio recording via hardware, and also featured a 64‑voice GM/GS soundset and a sampling capability. I purchased one of these cards to experiment with when I was making my own first tentative moves away from tape and into the world of hard disk recording. While it was never going to allow me to master a CD, the audio and MIDI performance were certainly a notch above those of other cards at the price. Since that time, Guillemot have released a number of other soundcard systems, all pitched a little way above the mass of consumer‑level cards available.

The Maxi Studio ISIS PCI soundcard, announced at the winter NAMM show, forms the latest of the line and, on paper at least, appears to offer an impressive range of audio and MIDI facilities for the PC musician at a very affordable price. The advertising claims that the card and its bundled components form the basis of a 'professional‑quality studio'. At a price that leaves you with change (albeit something small, round and suitable only for a wishing well) from £250, this is an impressive claim. So does the ISIS deliver on Guillemot's promises?

Open The Box

Guillemot Maxi Studio ISIS

The ISIS (Interactive Sound Integration System) package consists of a combination of both hardware and software. Indeed, if you own a PC with a reasonable specification (see the 'Hardware Requirements' box on page 40) and a MIDI keyboard, the ISIS system contains all you need to start work on those MIDI and audio‑based compositions.

On the hardware front, the core of the system is a PCI card which, via a daughterboard, connects to an eight‑in/four‑out (plus S/PDIF) breakout box. The PCI card features the usual mini‑jack mic in, stereo line in, stereo line out plus a second stereo line out for surround sound as well as a MIDI/joystick port. As standard, the card is supplied with 4Mb of RAM (not ROM) that, by default, holds a GM/GS‑compatible sound set. The RAM is expandable up to 36Mb by inserting a suitable 32Mb SIMM into the single slot on the main card (although only the standard 4Mb version was available for review). As I'll explain, the RAM can be configured to hold other, user‑defined soundbanks. In addition to the 64‑voice polyphony of the onboard synth, a further 16 channels of MIDI out are available to drive external devices.

A ribbon cable connector on the main card connects to a daughterboard, from which a fairly generous (approximately 2m) cable connects to the external breakout box. At this price, the box is one of the main features that makes the ISIS stand out from the crowd. It features a combination of eight analogue inputs and four analogue outputs, all on unbalanced quarter‑inch line‑level jacks. Both the A‑D and D‑A converters are 20‑bit. The box also includes stereo 32, 44.1 or 48 kHz S/PDIF inputs and outputs on either RCA or optical connections. Audio can be routed out via any of these outputs, though the internal synth sounds can only use outputs 1 and 2. Finally, on the rear of the box are standard MIDI In, Out and Thru DIN connectors.

The software bundle is also quite impressive. As well as the necessary drivers, Guillemot provide a suite of utilities to control the hardware and configure the sounds held within the onboard RAM. Also included are Logic Audio Pro ISIS (close to Logic Audio Silver in specification), Cool Edit Pro SE and Sonic Foundry's Acid DJ (one of several cut down and 'themed' versions of Acid now available). CDs containing demos of various Cakewalk and Steinberg software complete the package.


The Instrument Manager program main screen showing a multi‑layered keyboard split and the various synthesizer parameters for the currently selected split/WAV file.The Instrument Manager program main screen showing a multi‑layered keyboard split and the various synthesizer parameters for the currently selected split/WAV file.

The very clear instructions in the Quick Install manual described how to insert the ISIS card into a free PCI slot on the test PC (see the Testing Times Box). The daughterboard requires a second backing plate, but does not itself occupy either a PCI or ISA slot. On power‑up, Windows 98 detected the new card and prompted me to supply the appropriate CD. Software installation proceeded without a hitch, including the versions of Logic, Cool Edit Pro SE and Acid DJ. Finally, I ran a setup routine from an extra floppy disk, which also installed updated drivers for the card.

On rebooting, the test PC started up first time. Checking the Device Manager showed that Windows 98 could see the ISIS card alongside the other PCI audio card installed (a Yamaha DSP Factory). The ISIS used one IRQ, a number of different I/O address blocks and one DMA channel. The Control Panel Multimedia audio settings showed the ISIS analogue inputs and outputs as a series of stereo pairs. The S/PDIF input is paired with inputs 7/8 and the S/PDIF output with outputs 1/2. The internal synth and the additional MIDI Out port were also available. A quick bit of experimentation demonstrated that all the various audio, digital and MIDI ports were functioning correctly. While installation may be less trouble‑free on some PCs (particularly those that are already overflowing with expansion cards or which contain older, pre‑Plug & Play devices), on the test system I was up and running within 30 minutes of opening the box.

Software Control

Having got everything installed, I then turned to the documentation for the software. An introductory manual to the ISIS software and a slim Logic Audio Pro ISIS manual are all that are provided in printed form. More comprehensive documentation is supplied on CD as Adobe Acrobat files, and while this is not as convenient as having hard copy, it does keep costs down. The printed user guide suffers a little from French to English translation and this perhaps makes some of the technical details of the software a little more difficult to follow. There is also a useful (if somewhat unorthodox) explanation of digital audio basics that includes the quote "Cinderella's pumpkin doesn't get transformed into a carriage though and thankfully Demi Moore remains Demi Moore!" for which I'm sure we can all be glad!

An icon added to the Windows Taskbar during installation provides easy access to Guillemot's applications for control of the ISIS system. This allows the card to be flipped between two 'modes', Multimedia mode and Console 8/4 mode. Multimedia mode is intended for games and more general computer use. It provides access to the basic MIDI and audio functions of the card plus the surround sound, EQ and DSP (reverb, chorus) capabilities, but not the breakout box. Console
8/4 mode is of more interest for multitrack audio recording as this gives control of the breakout box but removes access to the surround sound, EQ and DSP. The loss of these effects functions might appear to be a bit of a shame, but on a PC with reasonable grunt, the CPU‑based effects built into the supplied version of Logic are likely to be of more use. As well as the usual Windows mixer volume controls, and the Media Station (for playing back MIDI files, WAV files and audio CDs), three separate applications allow the audio and MIDI capabilities of the card to be configured.

Console 8/4 provides a simple mixer view on the rack inputs and outputs (see screenshot on page 36) for setting levels. This is broken down into three sections. The 'input' and the 'output' sections are self‑explanatory. The 'monitor' section allows you to set the levels at which input signals will be monitored at each of the outputs, without altering the level of recording as set by the input controls.

The other two Guillemot applications are the Instrument Manager and the Soundbank Manager, both of which are concerned with the card's MIDI synth/sampling functions. The Instrument Manager (see above) allows WAV files to be converted into sound samples stored in the card's RAM, so you can (with a considerable amount of time and effort!) therefore build up your own individual sounds from single or multiple WAV files for playback via MIDI. Once a sample is loaded, keyboard splits can be defined and the sample playback parameters for each split adjusted. In addition, layering is possible so that an individual sound can be built from several WAV files, each of which has its own split and playback parameters. Some example files are included on the CD, and the Acrobat documentation for the Instrument Manager goes into considerable detail about the use of the wave generator, filters, LFOs and EGs. While the Instrument Manager provides a lot of sonic potential, you will have to be a pretty dedicated synthesist to get the most from it. To make things a little easier, the documentation could really do with tutorial sections based around the sound files included on the CD. Some aspects of the Instrument Manager felt a little clunky (there is, for example, no support for long file names) by comparison with most current Windows software.

Once individual instruments have been defined, they can be combined using the Soundbank Manager. Each soundbank is made up of 128 MIDI banks and each MIDI bank is made up of 128 instruments. It is therefore possible, RAM permitting, to have up to 128 x 128 instruments in a single soundbank. Again, some sample soundbanks are included to complement the GM soundbank that is loaded by default. The software allows you to place individual sounds into any position (MIDI bank and patch number). Once loaded into the onboard RAM, these sounds become accessible from your sequencer.

Of course, all this software to configure the card is only of any use if it then functions with your MIDI + Audio applications. On the test PC, the card passed this stage with flying colours. The version of Logic Audio Pro ISIS ran without a problem. I was able to play back 16 channels of audio alongside a MIDI arrangement without the system breaking into a sweat, even using many of Logic's CPU‑based effects, both on some individual channels and running reverb and delay on two stereo busses. Although the level of performance will inevitably be very dependent on PC specification, it does suggest that the card can cope with a good workload in the right PC. The system also coped with playing back an MIDI + Audio arrangement (with effects) while simultaneously recording on four new tracks via four of the eight analogue inputs. I was able to replicate all these functions on my own full version of Logic Audio Platinum 3.6.

The supplied versions of Acid DJ and Cool Edit Pro SE ran without a single problem, as did an MIDI + Audio arrangement recorded via the ISIS in Cakewalk's Guitar Studio. Finally, I ran the demo version of Cubase VST supplied with the card and, while I could not save any completed songs, playback of audio and MIDI along with some VST effects worked fine.

If I had one criticism of the otherwise excellent bundle of software supplied with the ISIS, it would be the lack of audio file editing capabilities. The supplied version of Logic lacks some of the bells and whistles of the full‑blown Gold and Platinum versions (such as strip silence). More particularly, while Cool Edit Pro SE offers a nice introduction to multitrack audio, it does not contain the audio editing functions (such as compression and noise reduction) found in either Cool Edit 96 or the full version of Pro.

Sound Quality

So, in a suitably specified and configured PC, the ISIS card seems to perform in a reliable fashion... but what does it sound like? On the MIDI side, the GM soundset is solid without setting the world alight. The sounds are perfectly useable, but in a direct comparison, I preferred many of the sounds from my ageing Roland Sound Canvas, and there was not much to choose between them in terms of their audio quality. It will be interesting to see if Guillemot support the card by making other soundbanks available that can exploit the maximum 36Mb of RAM.

The audio performance of the analogue inputs and outputs in the external rack are likely to be of greater interest to potential purchasers, given the price of the ISIS. Subjectively, the sound quality seemed good and was certainly a considerable improvement over they company's original MAXI Home Studio 64 card released in late 1996/early 1997. At normal listening levels, solo instruments or vocals sounded clean, and audio‑only mixes showed no obvious noise problems. More interesting was a comparison between the ISIS and the more expensive DSP Factory card also sitting in the test PC. Monitoring the background noise on both cards with identical configurations of input devices consistently revealed something like 6dB higher background noise via the ISIS than through the AX44 inputs attached to the DSP Factory card. In addition, the background noise levels of the ISIS tended to fluctuate quite rapidly, while noise levels from the DSP Factory were much more stable. This suggests that at least some of the extra cost of the Yamaha card has gone into the quality of the A‑D/D‑A converters and the electrical screening.

These data must, however, be kept in perspective. Given the very respectable figures quoted by Martin Walker for the DSP Factory in his article on 24‑bit recording in the March issue of SOS and the considerable price difference between the two units, the analogue audio performance of the ISIS is still very creditable. I would have given my right leg (not arm, I'm a guitar player) a few years ago to get this sort of audio quality out of a portable cassette multitracker or, indeed, some commercial studios I was unlucky enough to record in! With the usual care and attention to the quality of your audio signals, this card will allow you to create some high‑quality recordings at a very reasonable price.


So who should be adding the ISIS to their shopping lists? If you have a well‑specified PC but already have a sequencer and some good MIDI sound sources, then one of the many audio‑only cards reviewed by SOS over recent months (eg. the DMAN's 2044, Event's Darla or Emagic's Audiowerk 8) may be an alternative solution in this price bracket for getting into audio recording. If, on the other hand, all you have at present is that same well‑specified PC, a MIDI keyboard and a desire to dip your toe into the (sometimes) murky waters of PC hard disk recording, then the combination of MIDI synthesis, good quality multi‑channel audio input/output and a bundle of (almost) all the software you would need to get you started is a very attractive one. Before you spend £100+ on a high‑specification 'consumer' soundcard, give the ISIS a very close look. It should do a good job for you and is well specified enough not to be outgrown too quickly.

Testing Times

As regular SOS readers will know from Martin Walker's various dips into the delights of PC hardware, setting up a PC to provide a stable platform for multitrack MIDI + Audio recording can sometimes be problematic. SOS regularly gets comments and queries from readers about problems they have encountered using a particular combination of operating system, sequencer software, soundcard and PC hardware specification. Seeing a product work flawlessly on one PC does not always guarantee that it will run equally flawlessly on a supposedly similar machine. However, for what it is worth, the specification of the PC used to test the ISIS system was as follows:

  • Pentium II 400MHz processor.
  • 128 MB PC100 SDRAM.
  • Asus P2B 440BX motherboard.
  • Matrox Millenium G200 graphics card.
  • Primary hard disk EIDE UDMA Maxtor Diamond Plus 7.5Gb 7,200rpm (for software).
  • Secondary hard disk EIDE UDMA IBM 10Gb Deskstar 14 GXP 7,200rpm (for audio).
  • CD‑ROM and CD‑RW drives.
  • Windows 98.
  • Yamaha 2416 DSP Factory card with AX44 expansion.

Hardware Requirements

Guillemot suggest a 133MHz Pentium processor, 32Mb RAM, Windows 95 or 98 and a hard disk capable of transfer rates of 3.5Mb per second as a minimum specification for the ISIS. To run Logic Audio Pro ISIS, a 200MHz Pentium or Pentium II with 64Mb of RAM is recommended. Multitrack audio will always find the weak link in any PC, so it is advisable to use the best specification machine you possibly can.


  • Excellent package of hardware and software to get you started with PC‑based recording.
  • Competitive price.
  • Enough features to keep you interested!


  • Printed documentation could be improved.
  • GM sounds supplied are a little uninspiring.
  • Would be nice to see some audio editing software included.


For those who are making their first steps into PC‑based MIDI + Audio recording, but who have aspirations to take it seriously, the Guillemot ISIS could make a very suitable starting point.