A new selection of soundcards from Germany promises excellent audio quality at extremely competitive prices, with a selection of I/O options to suit most buyers. Martin Walker tries out the first model in the Marian range.
The German company Marian Digital Audio Electronics is not one I've come across before, but if you visit their web site you'll soon discover some familiar products in their range, including SEKD's Siena, which I reviewed in SOS July 2000. A little further research on both the SEKD and Marian web sites showed that while each markets a unique range of soundcards, Marian obviously designed the SEKD range as well as their own, as they show the Arc, Prodif, and Siena products in their list of products alongside their own new Marc range under review here.
There are currently four products in Marian's Marc range. The Marc 2 provides stereo analogue I/O capable of 24‑bit/96kHz, along with both co‑axial and optical S/PDIF inputs and outputs, while two other models both use the name Marc 4, but form separate MIDI and DIGI versions. Both have four analogue ins and outs, and musicians will be pleased to see that these use stereo quarter‑inch jack sockets rather than the less reliable but more common 3.5mm jacks or phono sockets. The Marc 4 DIGI also has a Toslink optical S/PDIF In and Out, a digital audio CD input, and the ability to be linked to the Marc Extender. This is a tiny backplate and circuit board combination that adds a word clock input and co‑axial S/PDIF input and output, along with a flying lead adaptor providing a further digital input and output in AES‑EBU format using XLR plugs.
The subject of this review is the Marc 4 MIDI, which in addition to the four analogue inputs and outputs provides two MIDI inputs and outputs. Marian claim that the MIDI streaming and filtering is optimised by their drivers, which are currently available for Windows 95/98 and NT 4.0, providing both DirectSound and ASIO 2.0 support. However, for many musicians the most immediately appealing feature of this range will be the prices: the Marc 2 is just £189, while the two Marc 4 models are £225, and the Extender just £69.
The Marian Marc 4 MIDI PCI expansion card is just under five inches long, but is one of the few I've reviewed to date that manages to fit full‑sized quarter‑inch jack sockets on its backplate. Each of the four sockets is stereo, providing Out 1/2, In 1/2, Out 3/4, and In 3/4 respectively. The MIDI I/O uses a 9‑pin D‑type socket, and a breakout cable is supplied that terminates in four standard in‑line MIDI sockets. Usefully, the functions of all five sockets are engraved on the backplate, which makes connections quicker and easier. An additional 8‑pin connector on the card itself is labelled Sync Bus, and allows further cards to be locked with sample‑accurate sync to the first.
The analogue converters are AKM AK4524s, as also used in Aardvark's Direct Pro 24/96, many of the Creamware range including the Powersampler, M Audio's Delta 44 and 66, and Terratec's EWS88MT. One slightly unusual feature, or rather a lack of one, is that the Marian products (including the SEKD Siena) aren't buss mastering devices. Most other soundcards are still buss mastering so that they can take charge of the PCI buss at will, but apparently Intel are keen to dissuade manufacturers from doing this since it makes it more difficult for their soundcards to co‑exist peacefully with other devices (remember all the audio click problems caused by badly written PCI graphic card drivers a couple of years ago?). The important thing is that the card can still transfer data without involving your main CPU, and you don't have to take over the buss to do this.
As soon as I browsed through the User's Guide I knew I'd seen the utility software screens somewhere before, and a little digging back into my screenshot archives showed a strong family resemblance to the utilities supplied with the SEKD Siena that I reviewed in SOS July 2000. For once, the version 1.01 drivers supplied on the CD‑ROM with the soundcard proved to be still the most recent available, despite being released on 26th July 2000. Mind you, if they're already bug‑free then why release any further updates?
Existing Marian drivers for Windows NT 4.0 can be used with Windows 2000, but they currently support multiple processors only when the drivers run under NT. And for those who are desperate to install and use Windows 2000, remember the advice I gave in last month's PC Musician feature — your MIDI timing may be badly affected if you use drivers originally written for NT.
The Marc 4 proved easy to install, being correctly detected by Plug and Play, and when I returned to the desktop I had an extra icon on my Taskbar labelled 'Settings for Marc 4 MIDI'. Double‑clicking on this launches the Marc 4 MIDI Manager, which is a tiny panel with four tick boxes. These comprise Analog Inputs, Analog Outputs, Settings, and Always on Top. Ticking any of the first three launches further windows, while the fourth forces both the Manager and any other open windows to float on top of every application so that they remain visible at all times.
The Analog Inputs window has two areas, Level Meter and Fader. The Level Meter section launches two pairs of stereo 'LED ladder' displays that show the peak level of signals present at the four inputs. These have a 60dB range, with the top 10dB shown in red, and also have a very useful peak hold facility. The vertical Fader controls appear beneath the meters and are calibrated to alter the input gain setting from +18dB to ‑40dB. Each fader can be muted, and the fader pairs can be ganged together for stereo operation.
The Analog Outputs window also provides a Fader option to launch two pairs of sliders, this time calibrated from 0dB down to ‑60dB. This is a similar range to those of the inputs, but this time only attenuation is provided. I'm never sure why manufacturers provide these, since invariably they operate in the digital domain, so that the best signal/noise ratio is only available if you leave them full up at 0dB. In this case it's also strange that the faders can't be lowered further than ‑60dB, since this prevents you fading any output to complete silence. I suspect that most users will in any case use the level controls in their MIDI + Audio sequencer instead.
The Analog Outputs Level option launches a set of peak‑reading meters identical to those of the inputs, except that they are 'wired' pre‑fader, and therefore display the full WAV playback level whatever the position of the output faders. Just as with the SEKD Siena, I feel that the lack of a text‑box readout for any of the faders is an oversight. Most people shouldn't find this a problem with the output faders, but it does make achieving repeatable input gain settings almost impossible. Thankfully, every fader returns to a default 0dB position every time you reboot, and since this normally gives the best figures for dynamic range this is where I left them for my subsequent measurements.
Two further options are available in the Analog Outputs window, and both relate to input monitoring. If you tick the Monitoring box a new section appears above the output meters containing three further buttons, labelled In 1‑2, In 3‑4, and OnRec. The first two allow you to listen directly to the signal at either of the two stereo input sockets with zero latency, via either of the two stereo outputs. If neither of the buttons is activated you will hear the normal WAV playback signals.
The OnRec button can be used in conjunction with zero‑latency monitoring, and works by detecting when the soundcard's recording mode is activated. As soon as you enter record mode you hear the input signal with zero latency. The optional PunchIn Mon function adds a fourth button to each pair of outputs, labelled OnPunch. This requires your audio application to provide a special call to the soundcard drivers to function, but automatically switches zero‑latency monitoring on only during the period from a punch‑in to a punch‑out. I understand that this does work with SEKD's Samplitude, but since the ASIO 2.0 drivers provide a Direct Monitoring tick box, Cubase VST and Logic Audio users won't need it.
The final option in the Manager window is Settings, which launches another two‑page window. The Audio page houses controls for Synchronisation of multiple cards (see box on page 138), and a selection of options for the DirectSound drivers, while the MIDI page contains comprehensive filtering options for each of the MIDI Inputs and Outputs (see box, right).
The DirectSound section of the Audio page is unusually comprehensive. Latency can be set automatically, as it is by default (to 60mS), or adjusted manually over the range 1mS to 100mS. Some applications ignore this setting, and others like Cubase VST let you adjust the number and size of the DirectSound buffers directly, but it's good to have the opportunity to tweak things a little more.
The tick box for 'Optimised Cursor Handling' isn't mentioned in the Marc 4 MIDI manual, but apparently uses "various positioning methods for the current application", and may resolve any problems you get when the cursor playback position doesn't accurately correspond to what you're hearing. There's also a tick box labelled 'Restrict Playback Format to:', which is designed to overcome the annoying Windows habit of using real‑time sample‑rate conversion if DirectSound attempts to open the driver with a different sample rate from the one currently being used by your audio application. Once this is ticked, two associated drop‑down boxes let you choose 8‑bit or 16‑bit depth, and 22.5kHz, 44.1kHz, or 48kHz sample rates. If active, these settings override any set by the audio application, and ensure that sample‑rate conversion isn't accidentally used.
Ticking the 'Available Playback Devices limited to:' option lets you specify whether DirectSound uses Playback Outputs 1‑2 or 3‑4, or neither. This can be a great help with some applications that assume that you only have a stereo soundcard, and don't give you the option of selecting your output when using DirectSound drivers. The third and final section at the bottom of the Audio page gives you a tick box to suppress error messages caused either by clock or sample rate conflicts, should you wish to do so.
The advantages of having reliable quarter‑inch jack sockets for the audio inputs and outputs are somewhat offset in practice by the problem of finding a suitable set of cables to connect them to your other studio gear. The easiest solution is to buy the Y‑leads sold for use as mixer inserts.
I started by measuring the background noise of the A‑D converters to see how quiet recordings would be, but since results always vary with input gain I wanted to set this to 0dB to give a sensible default reading. However, given that the settings of the input gain faders have no text readout, I initially found it almost impossible to set them accurately to 0dB by eye, until as mentioned earlier I discovered that rebooting returns them all to this position anyway, which gave me much more consistent readings.
At 16‑bit/44.1kHz I got a fairly typical ‑92.8dB, while at 24‑bit/44.1kHz this dropped to a fairly good ‑96.6dB, and opening out the bandwidth to 96kHz caused the noise level to rise slightly to ‑96dB. This meets the printed specification, and these figures are similar to those of other cards using identical AK4524 Codec chips. At 24‑bit/44.1kHz these figures have ranged from ‑93dB with the Aardvark Direct Pro 24/96 to ‑100dB with the Creamware Powersampler. This variation proves that while converter noise is significant, the contribution of the remaining analogue circuitry does affect the final result.
However, you certainly can't judge converters on noise alone, and auditioning playback quality with a variety of material ranging from unaccompanied vocal, jazz quartet, rock ensemble, dance and orchestral music demonstrated the now‑familiar superiority of the AK4524s over the converters on my own Echo Gina card. The Marc 4 gave a slightly more open sound with more precise stereo imaging, a greater sense of detail and depth, and a subtly warmer bottom end. Recordings showed similar improvements, especially at 24‑bit.
When using the MME drivers, the audio outputs appear in applications as Marc4‑M Playback 1‑2 and Marc4‑M Playback 3‑4, while the inputs are Marc4‑M Record 1‑2 and Marc4‑M Record 3‑4. The MIDI Ins and Outs have similar designations, and I experienced no problems when sending large amounts of MIDI data to and fro. I was also impressed with the MME driver performance: using NI's Reaktor I managed to run the MME drivers at their lowest 10mS setting, and got the DirectSound drivers down to 15mS before playback broke up. Attempting to change from Automatic to Manual latency settings using Marian's Control Panel utility actually made things worse.
The ASIO drivers will be the most important to most musicians, so I was interested to see whether these performed as well as those of the SEKD Siena, which managed 3mS latency. Like nearly all other aspects of the Marian range, the ASIO Control Panel gives more options than normal, with the ability to choose which of the input and output pairs are 'seen' by the ASIO application. This can be extremely useful when running stand‑alone soft synths alongside your MIDI + Audio sequencer — not all drivers let you allocate some ASIO output pairs to the sequencer and other pairs to a soft synth using DirectSound or MME drivers. The buffer size can be adjusted to virtually any value in samples, and defaults to 800 bytes and a latency of 18mS.
The lowest setting I would recommend would be 128 bytes, which gives a latency of 3mS — exactly the same as I managed with the Siena drivers. At this value I got no glitching at all, although the CPU load was starting to rise, simply due to the huge number of interrupts being generated. You can also alter the Execution Priority for transmission of ASIO data using a horizontal slider. It defaults to the highest setting, but if you reduce the value it gives progressively greater priority to real‑time calculation of plug‑ins. You may be able to use this to tweak a few more simultaneous plug‑ins out of your system when only running a few audio tracks, but beware low settings, since they can quickly result in stuttering audio.
With four analogue inputs and outputs along with two MIDI inputs and outputs for just £225, the Marian Marc 4 MIDI should find plenty of customers, as will the Marc 4 DIGI version at the same price. If you require this number of inputs and outputs rather than the more common eight ins and outs, then there are few competitors. Aardvark's Direct Pro 24/96 is four‑in/four‑out, but includes mic preamps and built‑in DSP effects and costs a hefty £600.
The only real options at a similar price point are M Audio's Delta 44 and 66, both with identical converters and extremely similar audio performance to the Marc 4 range. Neither have MIDI I/O, but the Delta 44 version is slightly cheaper at its current street price of £199. If you need digital I/O, the Delta 66 (reviewed in SOS January 2001) provides co‑axial S/PDIF for about £279, whereas Marian's Marc 4 DIGI provides Toslink optical‑format S/PDIF. Your choice may well be determined by what other digital gear you need to interface, but Marian users have the attractive option of adding the Marc Extender to the Marc 4 DIGI and having both types of S/PDIF interface as well as AES‑EBU I/O and word clock for a total price of £294.
Marian have obviously looked at the market carefully and made sure that their products fit neatly into gaps left by other manufacturers. It's obviously still early days for their own range, but by the time you read this the English version of Marian's web site should be in place, or at least a new section added to Et Cetera's own web site for UK users of these products. However, as manufacturers they already have a well‑established reputation through their SEKD‑marketed products, and this looks set to continue. Judging by the Marc 4 MIDI they could well become a force to be reckoned with at the budget end of the market.
- Analogue connectors: unbalanced stereo quarter‑inch jack sockets.
- Analogue inputs: four, maximum input level: +8dBu.
- Analogue outputs: four.
- MIDI: two MIDI ins and outs.
- A‑D converters: 24‑bit 64x oversampling (part of AK4524 codec chip).
- D‑A converters: 24‑bit 128x oversampling (part of AK4524 codec chip).
- Signal‑to‑noise ratio: 95dB.
- Total harmonic distortion + noise: <0.005 percent (90dB).
- Frequency response: 20Hz to 40kHz at 96kHz sampling rate.
- Supported bit depths: 8, 16, 20, and 24.
- Supported sample rates: 11.025kHz to 96kHz.
You can sync different cards in the Marian range together, and even sync them to other SEKD cards like the Siena or Prodif Plus, since they all have an identical Sync Bus connector. The most useful combination for most musicians is probably a Marc 4 MIDI and Marc 4 DIGI, since this will provide a total of eight analogue inputs and outputs, two MIDI ins and outs, and S/PDIF optical in and out. You could even add a further Marc Extender card to this combination to provide word clock in, co‑axial S/PDIF in and out, and AES‑EBU in and out, but if you really do need this much I/O then you should probably be looking at a more upmarket card in the first place.
In a multiple‑card setup, one card should be set to act as Master. This will then generate the Sync Bus clock signal, as well as start and stop signals, and all other cards should be set to Slave so that they lock their timing to the sync signal received from the Master. There is also an Autonomous setting, which can be used when you want a card to remain totally separate from others connected to the Sync Bus chain. This could be useful if you want to run a stand‑alone software synth on one card and a MIDI + Audio sequencer on another, for instance. You also have the choice of sync'ing both 'Record and Play Devices', or only 'Playback Devices' or 'Record Devices'.
The Marc 4 MIDI's utility software MIDI page contains a comprehensive selection of filtering options, as well as a tick box for MIDI Stream Optimising, which strips all unnecessary information from transmitted MIDI commands. Filtering can be separately set up for MIDI inputs 1 and 2 as well as for outputs 1 and 2, by selecting the appropriate device name from the drop‑down box. For each of the four devices there is a set of both Command and System Data filters.
There are seven Command Filter types — Note on, Note off, Polyphonic aftertouch, Channel aftertouch, Control/Mode change, Program change, and Pitch Wheel control — and 11 System Data Filters, allowing you to filter System Exclusive, MIDI Time Code, Song Position Pointer, Song Select, Tune Request, Time Clock, Start, Continue, Stop, Active Sensing, and System Reset data. This is an extremely comprehensive set of options, although I don't know how many people will need them, since the majority of sequencers will allow you to set up similar filters.
- High audio quality.
- Extremely good value.
- Capable of low latency.
- Uses quarter‑inch jack sockets for audio I/O.
- No text readout of utility fader positions.
- English language web site not available at time of review.
With four high‑quality audio ins and outs, plus two MIDI ins and outs for just £225, the Marian Marc 4 MIDI should fly off the shelves.