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Metalithic Systems Digital Wings

Audio PC Recording System By Martin Walker
Published February 1998

Metalithic Systems Digital Wings

Multi‑channel PC soundcards are now arriving in droves, but this one is rather different, and incorporates a potential 128 tracks, using unique hardware technology. Martin Walker channels his efforts.

If I told you that you could now buy a complete PC hardware/software package, including a suite of DSP plug‑ins, to enable you to record and play back up to 128 tracks of digital audio, for less than £300, would you believe me? Digital Wings for Audio (DWA), from Metalithic Systems, does just this, and its other claim to fame is that it does it without needing a PC with a NASA control specification (a Pentium 90 and 24Mb of RAM is recommended, although you can scrape by with 16Mb). This is achieved by "rendering all the track information into a single stereo file" using special hardware on the soundcard. Every time you record a new section, or edit an existing one, only the relevant section is re‑rendered, and if you want to remove an existing track in the mix, it subtracts the appropriate data from the composite mix. Clever, eh?

Currently, the card provides two analogue inputs (one of which can be switched between balanced mic and unbalanced line levels), and a single stereo analogue output, which puts it in line with the majority of stereo soundcards. There is also a 5‑way D‑type connector providing a 1‑In/1‑Out MIDI interface, which you can access by attaching a standard soundcard MIDI cable adaptor. However, an optional BreakOut Box (BOB) should be available shortly, and this will give balanced XLR and quarter‑inch jack connectors, as well as AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital I/O, which puts DWA into a more professional arena.

In keeping with DWA's different approach, the software looks unusual too, with a colourful 'fun' interface, complete with animated buttons. As Metalithic Systems themselves say "At first DWA looks and feels a little different. But work with it for a few hours, and suddenly everything else seems old‑fashioned." Let's find out if they're exaggerating.


Figure 1: The main Project Editor page is a riot of colour, and if you move the cursor over any of the graphic buttons, they animate to indicate their function.Figure 1: The main Project Editor page is a riot of colour, and if you move the cursor over any of the graphic buttons, they animate to indicate their function.

The Digital Wings hardware is a full‑length (9.5 inches) ISA soundcard. Some PCs are severely restricted when it comes to installing these, so it is worth checking inside yours first before parting with any money. Only one of the four ISA expansion slots in my machine was suitable, the rest being obstructed by assorted heatsinks and processor fans. As always, it's best to check the installation details in the manual before starting, to see whether the hardware or software should be installed first. In this case, since there are several hardware jumpers on the card which may need setting prior to plugging it in (Digital Wings is resolutely non‑Plug and Play), you need to pre‑check for the availability of one IRQ and one Port Address. These default to IRQ 5 and 250h (hexadecimal). Whilst address 250h is a good choice, as it seems to be generally available (the Soundscape system reviewed last month uses it for the same reason), the only available IRQ settings are 4, 5 and 7. I did a double take here, as IRQ4 is nearly always used by the COM1 port (for the mouse), and your parallel port (LPT1) will use either IRQ5 or IRQ7. This will leave most people with a choice of only one IRQ, which could involve users in the dreaded resource shuffling (altering the settings of another card to make way for DWA). In this day and age I really do think a few more IRQ options should be provided.

In Use

Figure 2: The Recording console provides a familiar graphic soundcard mixer interface, along with a comprehensive transport bar.Figure 2: The Recording console provides a familiar graphic soundcard mixer interface, along with a comprehensive transport bar.

Fortunately, the actual hardware and software installation proved fairly easy (since I had removed my previous soundcard, the biggest potential source of clashes, in advance). The first thing that strikes you when you run the software is its colourful nature. I wonder whether Metalithic Systems carried out a user survey before committing every user to a fixed colour in an overall scheme that resembles an explosion in a toy factory? Serious Audio (the UK distributors of DWA) tell me that more sober colour schemes in line with the English temperament will probably appear as an option shortly.

The main software window is the Project Editor, and this shows the current contents of a project as parts, much like the Arrange page in Cubase (see Figure 1 on page 94). Below the title bar are (from left to right) the Function buttons (more on these later), the Transport bar (stop, play and record), and the Time display (in either seconds or bars:beats:ticks). There's a MIDI tempo slider which allows you to send out MIDI Song position pointer and clock messages to sync an external sequencer, and the MIDI sync facility allows DWA to be MIDI master, MIDI slave, or free‑run from its own internal clock. Finally, there are four Zoom buttons, to allow you a more detailed view of part of the current display area.

DWA can play back up to 128 tracks, and there are also some additional tracks for sync and 'scratch' purposes. The parts all appear in the lower portion of the Project window, with the number of the track displayed as a vertical strip on the left‑hand side of the screen. Audio can be imported from existing WAV files, recorded directly, or downloaded as samples from the Metalithic web site. In addition, GRP (group) files can be imported: these are special DWA files that link several parts. All the files and groups associated with a particular project are organised into a File Bin (for storage, not for throwing away).


Figure 3: Supplied as part of the DWA software package is Way Cool Edit, a slightly modified version of the Cool Edit 96 WAV editing package, providing a huge variety of audio transformations.Figure 3: Supplied as part of the DWA software package is Way Cool Edit, a slightly modified version of the Cool Edit 96 WAV editing package, providing a huge variety of audio transformations.

The Recording Console provides a familiar‑looking mixer for the soundcard inputs, along with a clutch of input select buttons. The top four buttons select the record source (stereo Line 1, Line 2, CD, or mono Mic), and in this mode, the input faders set monitoring levels during playback, but record levels are fixed (it is better to optimise the levels in your external mixer). When the bottom button (Mixed) is selected, the title 'Monitor Levels' beneath the input faders changes to 'Input Mixer' (see Figure 2 on page 98), and in this mode the input faders do set relative record levels, along with the HD Monitor fader. This allows you to set the balance of previously recorded tracks on the hard disk, when everything is being 'bounced down' to two tracks. The Master Fader raises or lowers the levels of all other faders. Also in the Recording Console is a more comprehensive transport bar, which, in addition to the normal stop, play, and record buttons, provides 'go to beginning', 'go to end', fast forward and fast reverse buttons. There are also four sets of user‑programmable auto‑location points — markers to enable you to jump quickly between sections of your song.

If you activate Play/Record Region mode from the Project menus, and select a portion of your song, you can also Punch In and Out. DWA uses the fact that there are so many tracks available by creating a new part at the appropriate place in the first available track, rather than overwriting existing data. In a similar way, Loop Recording mode uses the next available track every time the selected region loops — this is something that will cause many smiles among musicians, since so many people tend to play round and round a loop when perfecting a solo. The beauty of the DWA approach is that each time your solo jumps to the next available track, the previous one is also muted. At the end of the recording process you're left with a series of takes to audition, from which the best ones can be kept, and the rest discarded.


Figure 4: The Mixing Console is essentially a set of volume/pan settings, one for each part. Selecting a group of related parts allows you to edit these settings in a familiar mixing environment — if some of the selected part form a group, not only can the group be mixed, but clicking on the mixer group button shown here causes the individual parts to appear for tweaking.Figure 4: The Mixing Console is essentially a set of volume/pan settings, one for each part. Selecting a group of related parts allows you to edit these settings in a familiar mixing environment — if some of the selected part form a group, not only can the group be mixed, but clicking on the mixer group button shown here causes the individual parts to appear for tweaking.

Editing can be carried out on individual parts, or several parts can be linked to form a group, which can, for instance, make it easier to deal with multiple tracks comprising a drum kit. Clicking on any part selects it, and shift‑clicking allows you to add other parts to define the group. Once you have everything selected, clicking on 'Create Group' (using the F9 key, the button provided, or from within the Group menu) links these parts together, and from here you can deal with them as a single unit. Moving, copying and deleting parts (or groups) follows fairly standard procedures, but another useful option exists to save a group to disk, for later importing into another project. All editing operations are non‑destructive, and undo and redo functions are provided. This sensible approach does tend to generate many temporary files, so the Purge command allows you to clear these permanently, once you're sure that your edits are final, as well as deleting any track data that has been removed from your project, but which still remains on the hard disk.

Right‑clicking on a part brings up a context‑sensitive Hot Menu of editing options, including Mute, Rename, Play (a single part), Editor, and Effects (see later for more details on these last two options). When you right‑click on a Group, a similar Hot Menu appears, along with the extra options Mute Group, Play Group, Group Attributes, and Ungroup.

Time Marks and Snapping work in a similar way to Quantise in a MIDI sequencer — you can 'snap' one piece of audio to another, or to a Sync Track. When you move the cursor over any part (or group), a small additional horizontal arrow will appear if you are close to any Time Mark, either to the left (before) or right (later). If you click on the part while this additional arrow is visible, you can then move and drop the part anywhere in a blank area as normal, but if it overlaps an existing part, it will jump to the nearest Time Mark, to ensure that the drop is exactly in sync with this existing part. Sync Tracks allow you to create these Time Marks: from the Generate Sync Track option, you can select the length, tempo and time format (seconds or MIDI measures). If MIDI measures are selected, a fourth 'Rhythm' option can be selected, and then additional marks can be placed at every quarter, eighth, sixteenth, or thirty‑second note spacing, by selecting from a drop‑down menu. Once the new sync track has been placed exactly where you want it, you can subsequently edit it, by once again calling up a right‑click Hot Menu. This brings up a new editing screen, where you can select any mark and then drag it to any new position.

Waveform Editing

Since you're dealing solely with audio, once you get beyond simple recording, moving, and copying of parts, you need to actually see the waveform in order to perform any more detailed edits. Double‑clicking on any part shows it in Waveform mode, and holding down the Shift key when zooming in or out changes the vertical resolution of the screen, which enlarges the waveforms, making it far easier to view the details. Once in Waveform mode, you can click and drag to select any Region inside the part — for the purpose of adding a fade to the waveform at a particular point, for example. There are four options: fade‑in with linear curve; fade‑in with logarithmic curve; fade‑out with linear curve; and fade‑out with logarithmic curve. These fades are totally non‑destructive (the audio data is not changed). Regions can also be used to cut, copy, paste, and replace portions of the waveform inside a part.

Far more extensive digital manipulation is provided by the supplied Way Cool Edit package (see Figure 3 on page 100), and this can be launched directly from the Project Editor by selecting a part and then selecting Effects from the Hot Menu, or by clicking on the dedicated Launch Cool Edit button. Way Cool Edit is essentially Cool Edit 96 (see the full review in the July 1997 issue of SOS for more details), a very popular shareware package with extensive options. Way Cool Edit is fast and lean, and already has an enviable reputation in many circles. However, the publicity material claims that DWA "incorporates a comprehensive suite of DSP plug‑ins". Good as Cool Edit obviously is, many people will find this description of it rather misleading, although it is still strictly true.


The final parts of DWA relate to mixing, and there are two sections to this aspect of the package. The Mixing Console option allows you to select any part, parts, or groups, and give them individual levels and pan positions. It's useful, if you are attempting to mix a section of music, to select all the relevant parts, as you can then loop play them while tweaking levels and positions. However, with each part having its own mini mixer 'channel' (see Figure 4 below), this aspect of the software can rapidly become unwieldy, and indeed there's a limit of about 20 faders that can be displayed and calculated at any one time, depending on available RAM. Many multitrack recording systems provide overall track level controls that you can move while you listen to playback, but this is a lot more difficult in DWA, since every time you move the fader belonging to a part, the relevant section of the stereo rendered track must be recalculated.

The second part of the mixing process is Mixdown Project, and this reduces all or part of the entire project into mono, dual mono (left and right WAV files), or stereo. You can use this either to reduce a set of edited takes into a single composite solo, or to create a single stereo master for transferring to DAT or CD (with suitable hardware).

In Use

I started by performing my standard signal‑to‑noise ratio test, using Sound Forge. Selecting the DWA hardware as a standard soundcard produced a peak noise figure of 69dB, and an RMS one of 80dB (the RMS figure is more in line with the way real signal‑to‑noise ratios are measured, but in computers the rough‑and‑ready peak noise level is still a good indicator). These figures are typical of most soundcards passing through my machine to date — you may well get a better figure in your machine, but there are never any guarantees inside a PC. When recording and listening to DWA in context, the sound quality was clean and crisp, with little obvious background noise — perfectly acceptable for many projects.

To test out DWA's 'rendering', I recorded a one‑minute section of stereo piano, followed by stereo strings, then some guitars and bass — eight tracks in all, which, using 5Mb per minute at 44.1kHz, produced around 40Mb of data. In fact by this stage, what with undos and fluffed takes, I ended up with an additional 84Mb inside the Temp folder. After using Purge to delete the Undo/Redo files, as well as any other tracks removed from the Project window, there was still 74Mb, but the remainder were obviously temporary files. I then did a mixdown to a 'stereo wave' (this took about 15 seconds), and another 10Mb file appeared. At each stage, after recording, it only took a few seconds of 'rendering' before the stereo mix started playing back, although calculations were still going on in the meantime. The publicity material suggests that "to obtain an unprecedented 128 tracks, DWA 'renders' them from two tracks in a similar way to 3D graphics programs. This eliminates the need to store more than two tracks on disk". Certainly, the final stereo mix only amounted to a single stereo WAV file, but the remainder of the file sizes suggest that you will generate 5Mb of data for each and every minute of each track. However, the clever part of DWA is the way it manipulates up to 128 tracks 'behind the scenes', and this is still a powerful advantage.

During recording, I did miss having the option of a metronome, but it would be easy enough to sync up a MIDI sequencer and generate one from there. I also noticed a few small idiosyncrasies: although during playback the song position is indicated by a scrolling vertical line in front of the normal parts, it disappears behind the parts when they are in waveform mode, which does make things more difficult to see. The cursor also seems to be invisible during the first take, and loop recording only seems to operate after this first take as well.

What we have here is some extremely clever hardware, but with a system that currently shows just the tip of an iceberg of potential.


Digital Wings for Audio tries so hard to be clever and different that it sometimes goes too far, and ends up somewhere between a rock and a hard disk. The aim of the software is to provide a complete system which removes many of the potential problems in using soundcards, HD recording software, and third‑party plug‑ins, all from different manufacturers. Unfortunately, Metalithic Systems rather shoot themselves in the foot by implementing DWA as a full‑length ISA card with limited jumpered IRQ settings — this pre‑Plug and Play combination could still make initial installation more tricky for some people, especially if there are other cards already in the PC.

Although a complete system can remove some potential problems, buying a proprietary solution means that you are somewhat tied to the support of a single manufacturer. To their credit, Metalithic Systems are promising BOB (the BreakOut Box), as well as extra features such as downloadable hardware upgrades via the Internet. Version 1.5 of the software (also "available soon") promises eight discrete inputs and outputs using BOB, and real‑time effects are also hinted at for a future version, along with support for SMPTE and MTC.

Anyone considering a budget hard disk recording system will find DWA excellent value as an all‑in‑one hardware/software package. However, serious musicians will certainly want the breakout box as well, when it is released, to provide digital I/O and more inputs and outputs. As the total price rises to around the £4‑500 level, the lure of 128 audio tracks has to be weighed up against the merits of other, more traditional systems, such as the new 8‑channel Event Gina card (reviewed in the December '97 issue of SOS). PC musicians will still need to buy a MIDI sequencer to run alongside DWA, and nearly all of these now offer at least token audio support already. Real‑time audio processing is also something that many people aspire to at the moment, and this is a possible future upgrade, as are multiple inputs and outputs. However, all we can judge is what is currently available, and the bottom line is that this is an extremely clever system, with seemingly massive potential for future developments. Currently, it certainly achieves what it sets out to do — provide lots of tracks for people with modest PCs. All you have to do is decide whether this is what you want.

How Do They Do That?

To perform all of the clever bits in DWA, Metalithic Systems use a technology called 'Reconfigurable Logic', and this redesigns special ICs known as FPGAs (Field‑Programmable Gate Arrays) on the fly. The key component is nanoprocessing (nP), and this is achieved by using a reconfigurable RISC processor embedded in the FPGA chip. Multiple nPs can be implemented on a single FPGA to provide increased performance through parallel processing. The whole system has been dubbed Wingware, and the Nanoprocessor has also been patented by Metalithic.

Essentially, what Wingware is doing is reprogramming the hardware to suit the current application, and this can happen thousands of times per second. Imagine a custom DSP chip inside an effects unit — Wingware could be this chip, and then a fraction of a second later be something entirely different, depending on how it is programmed. This means that it could also be asked in the future to perform completely different functions, by a new set of instructions downloaded from the MSI Website — the distinction is that this will be a hardware update, rather than a software one, so it can be far more powerful. Any software routine run by DWA can have its performance boosted if the function is transferred to hardware, and the signal then diverted to this hardware sub‑routine. Many multimedia requirements could be superbly served by such a system, which effectively provides the equivalent of multiple processors running inside a single chip, and at a comparatively low cost.

The DWA system also contains a 64‑channel synthesizer engine, built into one of the FPGAs. This is currently used by functions such as fades and pans, as well as MIDI, but will feature much more strongly in future releases.

What we have here is some extremely clever hardware, but with a system that currently shows just the tip of an iceberg of potential. Of course, we can only judge by the tip, and hope that the rest appears shortly to fulfil its promise. To give you an idea of the power available, the Tomahawk cruise missile uses FPGAs, which are dynamically reconfigured depending on whether it is travelling over land or water, in a fraction of a second. Effectively, this means that it is reprogramming its own brain during use, which is a rather frightening thought.


  • Excellent value for 128‑track capability.
  • Clever Loop Recording.
  • Good clean sound.
  • Much further system potential.


  • Long card and limited IRQ settings for hardware.
  • Hardware only appears as a standard stereo soundcard to other applications.
  • Misleading advertising of both DSP plug‑ins and hard disk storage requirements.


For anyone who really needs up to 128 tracks, and has a modest PC, this is the only way to go. For those with less grandiose track requirements, there's a lot of other competition already providing real‑time effects on multiple tracks.