Soundscape's new range of PCI cards offers a unique combination of features, including latency-free, DSP-assisted routing and mixing, the freedom to combine VST plug-ins and DSP-based effects, and multi-client driver support for all host-based Windows recording applications.
Soundscape's computer-based recording systems were last reviewed in Sound On Sound in April 1999 (Mixtreme) and October 2000 (R.Ed), after which corporate politics stifled development for a couple of years. Since the system returned to its original owners Sydec Audio Engineering, however, they have been busily developing and releasing new hardware and software at a pace that has delighted long-time users. In view of the latest developments, in-depth reviews of the various systems on offer have become overdue. This month's article will focus on the Mixpander Power Pak and Mixtreme 192. The Soundscape 32 and Soundscape 16 Digital Audio Workstations, together with the Soundscape Editor software, will be reviewed in the near future.
Soundscape is generally perceived as a high-end recording and editing system aimed primarily at the professional market, and particularly suited to broadcast applications. This is undoubtedly where the company's products have gained their reputation for reliability, sound quality and efficiency. However, while continuing to develop the Soundscape 32 and Soundscape 16 DAWs, Sydec Audio Engineering are showing their continuing commitment to native recording with two new products, the Mixpander Power Pak and the Mixtreme 192, which follows in the footsteps of the well respected but ageing Mixtreme.
The Soundscape range of products is extensive and, since some of the products can be interconnected and configured in different ways for different purposes, it may be useful to start with a general overview before examining the details of the hardware and software on offer.
Soundscape Native Systems
Soundscape's 'native' products are aimed at the users of host-based PC audio software packages such as Sonar, Cubase, Nuendo, SAW Studio and so on, and include the Mixtreme 192 and Mixpander Power Pak. The Mixtreme 192 is a PCI audio card that provides up to 16 inputs and outputs at up to 48kHz, eight inputs and outputs at up to 96kHz or four inputs and outputs at up to 192kHz across two TDIF ports (with several options for format conversion), a 192kHz-compatible S/PDIF option and comprehensive clock synchronisation facilities. Most importantly, the Mixtreme 192 features an on-board DSP for mixing and real-time effects. It is a natural successor to the original Mixtreme card launched in 1999, its192kHz capability bringing it right up to date.
The Mixpander Power Pak is a new concept. It consists of a full-length PCI card with on-board DSP for mixing and effects, linked to an external input/output module via a proprietary Expansion Buss. Three different input/output modules are available: the iBox 48-TA features 24 analogue inputs and outputs and 24 TDIF inputs and outputs, all of which can operate simultaneously to give a total of 48 inputs and 48 outputs. The iBox 64-MADI-TA adds a MADI port for up to 64 simultaneous inputs and outputs (see Mark Wherry's review of the RME HDSP MADI in last month's SOS for more on the MADI protocol and what it can do), while the iBox 64-MADI combines the TDIF and MADI ports but has no analogue ports. The Mixpander Power Pak can operate at up to 96kHz.
It should be noted that the Mixpander, the PCI card that powers the Mixpander Power Pak, is not a new device. What is new is the ability to use it in conjunction with PC-native software. Originally, it was an add-on for the Soundscape digital audio workstations, to which it connects via the Soundscape Expansion Buss. In that configuration the Mixpander adds extra DSP power to mix and add effects to the audio tracks and input or output signals from the Soundscape DAW unit (which is external to the PC that controls it). It also enables audio streams to be routed in both directions between the Soundscape DAW unit and the host PC. In the Mixpander Power Pak, the iBox simply takes the place of the external Soundscape DAW unit so that audio signals can be routed directly to and from the PC via the PCI buss.
The Mixtreme 192 and Mixpander Power Pak are controlled from the Soundscape Mixer software. This is, in essence, a stand-alone version of the mixer from the full Soundscape Editor, running on the DSP(s) of the audio card. Multiple Mixtreme 192 cards and Mixpander Power Paks can be used together in a single system. In fact, even the original Mixtreme can work along with the new cards, a fact that should please long-time Mixtreme users who already own DSP plug-in passwords (yes, in this case the plug-ins can run on the new cards as well!).
The Soundscape Mixer can be connected to other Windows applications (such as MIDI + audio sequencers) via 64 input and output 'streams' (that's 64 in each direction, falling to 32 at high sample rates). In Soundscape terminology, a 'stream' is an audio channel that connects the DSP-based mixer to the native world. The software also offers many other possibilities, some of which will be detailed later.
In Depth: Mixpander Power Pak
The Mixpander Power Pak includes the Mixpander PCI card itself, an iBox, the Expansion Buss cable to interconnect them, and the Soundscape Mixer software. The Mixpander card itself comes in two versions, with five or nine DSPs. The review system consisted of a Mixpander/9 with nine DSPs, and an iBox 48-TA.
Installing the card is extremely easy. However, if you are going to buy a Mixpander Power Pak, make sure you choose a host PC that has enough room for a full-length PCI card. This should not be a problem with a well-designed computer motherboard, but in some cases the space behind a PCI slot can be restricted by the presence of large electronic components. Thankfully, the Mixpander is quite happy to share an IRQ (as long as the other device can also share), so in practice, any slot should do. Sydec have a record of top-class driver support, and the Mixpander Power Pak uses a tested Sydec technology. Driver installation is therefore straightforward and the drivers support MME, ASIO 2, DWave (for SAW Studio) and GSIF (for Gigastudio). Windows XP requires a WDM driver when the Mixer Software is launched for the first time, and again this can be installed quickly. The iBox connects to the Mixpander via the Expansion Buss cable, which is rather short at three and a half feet, meaning that the iBox has to be placed very close to the computer. This is required by the real-time nature of the Mixpander Power Pak's operation.
The iBox 48-TA, iBox 64-MADI and iBox 64-MADI-TA share the same exterior design, with a contoured, light-grey aluminium front panel, recessed LEDs and round black buttons. The review unit looks stylish in a way that photographs cannot quite convey, and the build quality is superb, suggesting robustness and attention to detail. Clearly, 48 individual inputs and outputs could not have been fitted into the 2U-high chassis, especially considering that the iBox 48-TA also features three TDIF connectors (and the iBox 64-MADI-TA variant also features MADI connectors), so the analogue I/O emerges on 25-pin D-sub connectors, for use with eight-way looms. The pinout of the analogue connectors conforms to the Tascam DB25 I/O specification.
The front panel features an On/Off switch, headphone output (without volume control — the volume must be adjusted in software), buttons and indicator LEDs for the internal routing, sample-rate selection and clock source selection, and a metering section with 24 LEDs that can be used to monitor the analogue or output signal levels. The LEDs are tri-colour, changing from green to amber to red according to the signal level. There is also an 'XS' LED to indicate diagnostic mode, in which certain global settings can be made, such as selecting which TDIF port should be used for synchronisation when the Master Clock source is set to TDIF, selecting 64/32-channel or 56/28-channel MADI mode, and selecting a multiplex (four-channel) or high-speed (eight-channel) mode for the TDIF ports.
Since any group of inputs (analogue, TDIF or MADI or the Expansion Buss) can be connected internally to any group of outputs, the front-panel controls allow the iBox to be used as a stand-alone format converter for any equipment that uses at least one of its supported audio formats. For instance, an iBox 64-MADI-TA could act as a perfect TDIF-to-MADI and analogue-to-MADI converter for an RME HDSP MADI soundcard. Note that since the MADI protocol supports up to 64 channels, the 24 analogue and 24 TDIF inputs and outputs can be connected simultaneously to the MADI outputs and inputs. The iBox 48-TA is also an ideal TDIF/analogue converter for Sydec's own Soundscape 32, which features three TDIF ports.
However, the full potential of the iBox is only realised when it is connected to a Mixpander to form the Mixpander Power Pak. In that case, besides audio data transmission, the Soundscape Expansion Buss is used to control the iBox remotely, and some of the front-panel controls are over-ridden by the Soundscape Mixer software. For instance, the Sample Rate and Clock buttons are deactivated, and the corresponding indicator LEDs reflect the settings made in the software. The front-panel routing matrix is also completely disabled since all inputs and outputs can be assigned freely and individually to the input, output or send elements of the virtual mixer. This means that you can use any combination of analogue, TDIF and MADI inputs and outputs to achieve up to 64 channels, depending on the iBox model and sample rate. In other words, any sound source connected to any input or output of the iBox can be connected to any input, output or send of the Soundscape Mixer, without ever repatching a cable and with, at most, two clicks of the mouse. For instance, mixer strip 1 could be stereo and receive signals from analogue inputs 9 and 10, mixer strip 2 could be mono and receive signals from TDIF input 22, while mixer strip 3 could have a six-channel input and receive signals from MADI inputs 3 to 8.
Note that two iBox 48-TAs could be combined to provide a Mixpander Power Pak with 48 analogue inputs and outputs. The first one would be connected to the Expansion Buss port of the Mixpander, the second one would be connected to the first one via TDIF and act as a TDIF-to-analogue converter.
The Real-time Advantage
Based on the description of its hardware components, you might view the Mixpander Power Pak as a soundcard on steroids with the iBox as a super-sized breakout box. This, however, is only a small part of the true picture. There is a lot more to the Mixpander Power Pak, and simply calling it a soundcard is the same kind of understatement as calling a PC a typewriter. The Mixpander Power Pak could just as easily be described as a hardware digital mixer with effects that fits into a host PC. While it does lack the physical faders of an external hardware mixer, it is entirely controllable from a MIDI hardware control surface via the Soundscape Console Manager utility. The Sydec catalogue also includes mic preamps that can be connected to the TDIF ports: the budget iBox 2-Mic and the high-end ADDA 2408R. With 48 inputs and outputs (or 64 with an iBox 64-MADI or iBox 64-MADI-TA), the Mixpander Power Pak rivals many conventional digital mixers and in terms of effects-processing capabilities, routing flexibility and configurability, it outperforms them comprehensively. And since several Mixpanders and iBoxes can be combined, it's also an expandable mixer that will always have the same small footprint.
Crucially for the purpose of this comparison, the Mixpander Power Pak does not suffer from the latency of a host-based mixing system, since — unlike software mixers that run on the CPU of a computer — the Soundscape Mixer itself does not require buffers to be set, as long as you use its DSP effects capabilities rather than inserting VST effects (of which more later). Of course, D-A and A-D converters themselves have a processing delay, and some of the algorithms used by the DSP effects may also impose a processing delay, but this is on a par with the kind of 'real-time' operation provided by dedicated digital audio hardware. In the full Soundscape Editor program, which uses the same mixer, the processing delay is reported for each element of the mixer and the value is 0 in a lot of cases!
DSP-Powered Mixer Plug-Ins
Sydec Audio Engineering have developed a proprietary format for DSP-powered effects, and both the Mixpander and Mixtreme systems include Audio Toolbox, a set of simple but efficient and clean-sounding effects featuring a three-stage compressor with limiter and gate, a chorus/flanger, a delay and a dithering processor. Some of the biggest names in effects, as well as some relative newcomers, also support the format, including CEDAR Audio (with the rather amazing Auto-Dehiss), Drawmer (SDX100 compressor/expander/gate), TC Electronic (Reverb, Dynamizer multi-band compressor), Aphex (Aural Exciter and Big Bottom Pro), Acuma Labs (Saturated Fat, an amp simulator for guitar and bass, and Final Mix, a complete mastering tool), Spin Audio (Roomverb for Soundscape, Spindelay), Sonic Timeworks (Compressor X, a 'virtual analogue' compressor), Wave Mechanics/Sound Toys (Reverb), Arboretum Systems (Hyperprism, a suite of effects) and Dolby Laboratories (Surround Bundle, including Dolby encoder, decoder and Pink Noise Generator plug-ins).
The quality of these plug-ins varies from fair to excellent. Highlights include the Drawmer SDX100 compressor and Acuma Labs' Final Mix, while the Spin Audio Roomverb is by far the best reverb for Soundscape, better sounding than the VST versions of Roomverb and sonically comparable to some hardware processors in the £1000 price region but with far more control. CEDAR's Auto-Dehiss also deserves a special mention for its ease of use and quality of results.
Some of the DSP plug-ins are more ordinary (for instance, Acuma Labs' Saturated Fat is usable, but rather basic compared to something like IK Multimedia's Amplitube VST plug-in). However, because they run on dedicated DSPs, the Soundscape format plug-ins feel like hardware effects and this is where they all shine. Monitoring through the effects in real time while recording dry and wet versions of a signal simultaneously is simplicity itself.
There is one notable exception: the CEDAR Auto-Dehiss plug-in has a substantial processing delay. However, since it is primarily aimed at sound restoration specialists and would typically be used across a stereo master channel, this delay will not be a problem in most cases, and the sonic results are breathtakingly good!
Soundscape Mixer Software
The key to the flexibility of the system is the Soundscape Mixer software, which defaults to being launched automatically when you boot up the host PC — if this is not required, you can remove the corresponding shortcut from the Windows startup folder. When the Mixpander Power Pak is running, a Soundscape icon is displayed in the Windows System Tray, and double-clicking that icon opens the Soundscape Mixer window.
The Soundscape Mixer is a 128-column virtual mixing console where everything can be customised by the user. Enough ready-made mixer configurations are provided to start work immediately in typical recording situations, and these configurations can be freely edited and saved under new names; it is also possible to start from scratch and design your own mixer exactly as you want it.
For each mixer column, a mixer strip can be inserted using the Create tool. Each mixer strip has an input at the top and an output at the bottom, and the input and output can be mono, stereo or multi-channel (with four, six or eight channels). The output can also be mono, stereo or surround. Once a mixer strip has been inserted, any number of 'mixer elements' can be added to it. Mixer elements include further inputs and outputs, sends, track inserts (to link to Windows applications for recording and playback), EQ modules, an M/S decoder, peak meters and faders, plus effects provided by Sydec or third-party companies such as Aphex, Drawmer, Spin Audio or TC. VST effects and Instruments can also be inserted anywhere in any mixer strip. This sounds simple, and it is, yet it is difficult to fully comprehend how powerful this concept really is until you actually try the Mixpander Power Pak. Any configuration you might want is really only a few clicks away. Mixer elements can also be moved, so that for instance, effects plug-ins can be reordered easily in a mixer strip without losing your parameter settings or having to save and reload them. The signal path is always from the top to the bottom of the mixer strips, so it is very easy to visualise. Mixer strips can also be moved and copied freely within the virtual mixing console.
VST and VSTi support is new to Soundscape and deserves at least a paragraph in this review. VST and VSTi plug-ins that are installed on the host computer can be inserted freely at any point in the Soundscape Mixer, just like the DSP-powered mixer elements. Double-clicking on a VST or VSTi insert opens the plug-in's interface, and in the case of VST Instruments a MIDI control port and channel can be selected using drop-down menus under the title bar. However, while the VST and VSTi plug-ins are just as easy to insert as the DSP plug-ins, they run on the CPU of the computer, so audio needs to be routed to and from them using some of the available native 'streams'. This allocation of streams for connection to native plug-ins is completely invisible from the user, and no streams are used between native plug-ins that are inserted consecutively in the same mixer strip. However, the process inevitably involves some buffering and thus introduces latency — the buffer size can be set in the Settings menu.
VST compatibility thus adds an extra level of flexibility to the Soundscape Mixer at mixdown time, when latency-free operation is not crucial, but the DSP-based plug-ins remain the better choice while recording. However, VST compatibility also adds a level of convenience. You can start your computer and start playing a virtual instrument immediately if the default configuration of the Soundscape Mixer includes VSTi elements. Layering VST Instruments is also extremely easy.
As for signal routing, the key is to understand the respective roles of the physical inputs and outputs, internal mixer busses and native streams. The physical inputs and outputs are the actual connectors on the back of the iBox 48-TA. The internal busses can be used to route the signal between different points in the mixer. The 'streams' allow audio signals to be routed in either direction between the Soundscape Mixer and any number of Windows applications (typically including a MIDI + Audio sequencer). The input, output and send mixer elements can be assigned to any physical input or output, internal buss or input or output stream. In practice, this means that anything is possible. For instance, if you want to route the signal in a mixer strip to a reverb plug-in in another mixer strip, just insert a send (which can be individually set to pre- or post-fader mode) and assign that send to an internal mixer buss connected to the mixer strip where the reverb plug-in is inserted. Repeat the procedure for any signal you want to send to that reverb. If you want to send your signal to an external effects processor, assign the send element to a physical output connected to that external device. The return from the effect will be a physical input that can be inserted within the same channel as the output or anywhere else in the mixer, such as a dedicated effect return mixer strip. There is literally no limitation to the way you can stack mixer elements or use the inputs, outputs, busses and streams, apart from the actual DSP power available. With a Mixpander/9, that means more power than you would normally expect from an external hardware digital console in the Mixpander Power Pak price range, especially since you can use multiple instances of power-hungry effects such as reverbs.
When I use the Mixpander as part of a Soundscape DAW system I tend to pile on effects without a thought for DSP resources. For the purpose of this review, I set out to build a mixer specifically as an example of what is possible. Starting from an 'empty' mixer, I created 16 stereo mixer strips (32 audio channels across 16 track inserts) with each channel featuring an Audio Toolbox dynamics processor with noise gate, expander and three-stage compressor and a four-band EQ. I then added a mixer strip with a stereo TC Reverb and a stereo delay, with sends in three other mixer strips to access these effects. I also inserted a master strip with a Drawmer compressor plug-in, a TC Dynamizer multi-band mastering compressor, an Aphex Aural Exciter and an Aphex Big Bottom Pro. I then added effects as inserts in several mixer strips: three more stereo TC Reverbs, one Hyperprism Phaser and one Hyperprism Quasi Stereo, three more Audio Toolbox delays. By that stage the processing power resource use had reached 96.7 percent for one of the eight DSPs that are used for effects and 82.9 percent for another. Four DSPs were running at around 45 percent, one was running at 9.3 percent and one was still unused at 0 percent! In other words, I had tapped barely half of the available power. These figures were obtained at 44.1kHz and demonstrate that a single Mixpander/9 has far more than enough power to tackle most real-life mixing jobs. Bear in mind that all these effects operate in real time and that they do not use any computer CPU power at all — you can run all these DSP effects before you even start to use the computer's CPU for VST effects, and regardless of how many audio tracks you are playing back or recording!
The number of inputs and ouputs, internal busses and native streams available in the software depends on the Soundscape hardware configuration. For a Mixpander Power Pak, it is up to 64 inputs and 64 outputs (with an iBox 64-MADI or iBox 64-MADI-TA), 36 busses and 64 input and 64 output streams. These figures are for 48kHz operation. At 96kHz the number of streams is reduced by half, while the number of busses remains unchanged. All the inputs and outputs remain accessible up to a total of 32, unless a multiplex mode is selected for the TDIF connectors (the iBoxes can deliver eight input and output channels at 96kHz via TDIF, but other TDIF-compatible equipment may not have this capability and may require a multiplex mode — in which case the Soundscape hardware can adapt).
A Mixing Example
The screenshot on the right (click for larger view) illustrates a few of the routing possibilities of the Soundscape Mixer. The mixer strip in column 1 receives a signal via the analogue inputs 19 and 20. The signal goes through a peak meter and a Drawmer SDX100. Next, streams 17 and 18 send it to and from a sequencer; then busses 17 and 18 are used to send the signal to the mixer strip in column 2. The original signal continues in the first mixer strip through a four-band EQ and a TC Dynamizer.
In the column 2 mixer strip, the signal goes through a peak meter and a Roomverb plug-in before being sent to an external processor via analogue outputs 11 and 12 and returned via analogue inputs 5 and 6. The outputs of both mixer strips are assigned to busses 31 and 32, so their signals can be combined in another mixer strip (not shown).
More Than A Soundcard
With all this power and the freedom to configure the virtual mixer exactly as you want it, the Mixpander Power Pak is suitable for a wide variety of applications. In some cases, you will simply want to route audio between the outside world and your Windows-based music production software, and some of the preset configurations will allow you to do this straight away. However, the flexible routing, multiple inputs and outputs and real-time operation will also allow you to easily set up different headphone mixes and monitor through DSP plug-in effects with no latency while recording dry and wet versions of every signal if you want to. And it does not end here. For instance, you could use the PC with Mixpander Power Pak as a huge multi-effects processor for an external analogue mixing console, running multiple DSP-powered plug-ins connected to the console's insert points. Or you could use it for multiple instances of a high-quality reverb with absolutely no CPU load. Anything is possible, because the mixer architecture is entirely up to you, and building a mixer is easy, simple and even reasonably fast, since mixer elements and entire strips can be moved and copied.
Sound quality has always been a strong selling point of Soundscape products. In Mixpander Power Pak it depends on several software and hardware factors, including the audio recording application being used. The algorithms used in the Soundscape Mixer software are exactly the same as used in the Soundscape Editor for the high-end Soundscape systems. This mixer had phase accuracy long before it even became a concern to mainstream manufacturers. It sounds remarkably precise and transparent and this clarity is always maintained (unless the material demands otherwise, of course), regardless of the number of audio tracks being played back or merged into the same buss. The other crucial element is the iBox. I tested it both as part of the Mixpander Power Pak with Cubase SX 2.0 as a recording application and as a stand-alone converter for a Soundscape R.Ed, and compared it to several other units including a Yamaha 01V96 and Sydec's own Soundscape/Apogee I/O 896, a multi-format eight-channel unit with AES-EBU, analogue, ADAT and TDIF I/O. I was extremely impressed by the iBox's performance in this company and have to conclude that it is a bargain, especially considering that it provides up to 48 channels of conversion depending on the application, while costing considerably less than certain eight-channel conversion units! At a time when exotic products are being marketed specifically to improve the summing performance of native software mixers, anyone who has doubts about the summing of their sequencer would be well advised to listen to a Mixpander Power Pak.
The Soundscape Mixer software is compatible with Windows XP and Windows 2000. Multimedia, WDM, ASIO 2, DWave (for SAW Studio) and GSIF (Gigastudio) drivers are provided. The input and output 'streams' are available for selection in the Windows control panel (Multimedia and WDM) and in the relevant applications. The drivers are multi-client, so multiple applications can access the streams using different drivers, which will be very important to users who run various programs in parallel. Cubase and Nuendo users should note that the driver of the software version I tested imposes a limit of 16 ASIO streams in each direction, but this limitation should have been removed by the time you read this review. Direct Monitoring, which is already available for the Mixtreme 192, should also be implemented for Mixpander Power Pak by that time, although you may want to check these points with Sydec if you are thinking of purchasing a system. Sydec has a long track record of listening to user requests, addressing any support issues quickly and releasing software only after it has been thoroughly tested. Unsurprisingly, the Mixpander Power Pak has been rock-solid every time I have used it, in line with my previous experience of the Soundscape DAW systems. The same goes for the Mixtreme 192. While these are new products, they build on an existing foundation so there are no 'teething troubles' to worry about.
The Soundscape Mixer supports DSP-powered mixer plug-ins in the proprietary Soundscape format. The range on offer is not huge, but covers most of the basics, especially considering that essential tools such as EQ and an M/S decoder are provided as standard, and there is a choice of third-party compressors, reverbs, delays and so on. The integration of VST (and VSTi) plug-ins goes a long way to make up for the limited choice of DSP plug-ins, but the latter have several advantages, real-time operation being one of them. They also benefit from a very easy-to-use copy protection system. Enabling a plug-in only requires a password to be entered once and for all in the Soundscape application. This password is generated according to the serial number of a DSP embedded in the Soundscape hardware, and since the plug-ins also need the DSPs to run in the first place, this copy-protection system is remarkably secure. This means that the passwords are valid for any number of installations and there is no requirement for on-line authorisation, no challenge/response procedure, and no hassle if you ever need to reformat your hard drive. The plug-ins can be used on any PC that hosts that particular piece of Soundscape hardware, and the corresponding plug-ins are enabled for all the Soundscape cards that run from the same instance of the software (if you have for instance a Mixpander Power Pak, an old Mixtreme and a new Mixtreme 192, the passwords entered for the old Mixtreme will enable the plug-ins for all three cards as long as they are operated from a single instance of the Soundscape Mixer — which is the normal way to operate this kind of configuration). This system is safe for third-party developers and practical for the users. With this, and the huge potential of the Mixpander Power Pak, there is hope that more plug-in developers will join the fray. Please check the 'DSP-Powered Mixer Plug-ins' box for more information on the available plug-ins.
In Depth: Mixtreme 192
The Mixtreme 192 is a 16-input/16-ouput half-length PCI card with DSP, which comes with two backplates. The main backplate features a TDIF port and two RCA connectors for Master Clock input and output, while the other backplate carries another TDIF port and a 9-pin connector for MIDI, with ribbon cables for connection to the card itself. Installation is as simple and straightforward as that of the Mixpander. In fact the same MME, ASIO 2, DWave and GSIF drivers are used, and the card type is detected automatically during installation. Like the Mixpander, the Mixtreme 192 can share an IRQ.
An optional S/PDIF daughterboard is available, which allows the RCA connectors to be used as S/PDIF input and output (Mixtreme owners should note that it is not the same daughterboard as on the old card). The daughterboard was supplied with the review model. Two jumpers must be removed in order to install it, then the daughterboard's two connectors fit neatly onto two rows of pins on the Mixtreme 192. When the S/PDIF daughterboard is fitted, the RCA input connector can be used for either S/PDIF or Master Clock, selectable in software, while the RCA output functions as an S/PDIF output. Note that the S/PDIF functionality does not increase the number of available inputs and outputs. When used, the S/PDIF input replaces the highest-numbered pair of TDIF inputs (15 and 16 at 48kHz, 7 and 8 at 96kHz, 3 and 4 at 192kHz). The S/PDIF output simply duplicates the signal transmitted via the highest-numbered pair of TDIF outputs (so you can have 18 simultaneous outputs, but with two duplicated channels, you cannot output more than 16 different signals).
Comprehensive Master Clock synchronisation options allow the Mixtreme 192 to be used in combination with all sorts of devices. Word clock, Superclock and Frame Clock are supported — the term Frame Clock indicates a clock signal whose frequency is not necessarily equal to the sample rate (for instance, when using a multiplex TDIF mode at 96kHz or 192kHz, the Master Clock signal has a frequency of 48kHz). Frame Clock is also available with a 90-degree phase shift.
The flexible TDIF implementation will also allow the Mixtreme 192 to connect to just about any TDIF-compatible device. Single-wire TDIF is available at 96kHz for communication with other Soundscape equipment with eight inputs and outputs on one single TDIF port. Multiplex modes are available at 96kHz and 192kHz (providing respectively four and two inputs and outputs per connector). The number of inputs and outputs is 16 at up to 48kHz, eight at 96kHz and four at 192kHz, regardless of the chosen TDIF mode.
For multi-channel connectivity to other formats, Sydec offer Mixtreme Power Paks that include one Mixtreme 192 with two iBox 8Lines or two Mixtreme 192s with one iBox 48-TA. Beyond this, the Mixtreme 192 is compatible with the whole Soundscape range of input/output modules via the TDIF interface. At the time of writing this includes the iBox 2-Line (two-channel analogue-to-TDIF conversion with TDIF Thru port), iBox 8Line (eight-channel analogue-to-TDIF conversion), iBox 2Mic (two-channel analogue-to-TDIF conversion, line level or through preamps) and iBox 4AES (four-channel AES-EBU-to-TDIF conversion with TDIF Thru port), the Soundscape/ Apogee I/O896 (with analogue, ADAT and AES-EBU-to-TDIF conversion), the ADDA 2408R (high-end remote-controllable eight-channel microphone preamp designed jointly by Sydec and Digital Audio Denmark), the iBox 48-TA (as reviewed in this article) and the MADI variants: iBox 64-MADI-TA and iBox 64-MADI.
Note that while the Mixtreme 192 sports a MIDI input and output, its MIDI functionality is limited to APP support (ASIO Positioning Protocol). APP allows sample-accurate synchronisation of an ASIO application such as Cubase or Nuendo to external time code (LTC, VITC or MTC). APP support is therefore invaluable for any application that involves synchronising an ASIO-capable sequencer and an external tape machine or video recorder.
The Mixtreme 192 is controlled from the Soundscape Mixer software, which I've already described as part of the Mixpander Power Pak. The application's Settings menu displays different options depending on the installed hardware, and Mixtreme 192 and Mixpander cards can be combined if required. The mixing facilities are essentially the same, except that with a single DSP the Mixtreme 192 cannot run as many mixer strips or plug-ins as the multi-DSP Mixpander/9 and Mixpander/5. It does, however, provide no-latency monitoring and flexible routing for the 16 inputs and outputs with a few effects such as compressors, chorus or delays, or a smaller number of more DSP-hungry effects. As can be expected, the number of effects is further reduced at high sample rates. At 44.1kHz, you could run 16 mono channels, each with Sydec's Compressor/Expander/Gate plug-in, two bands of EQ per channel and a master channel. At 192kHz, the Mixtreme 192 has enough power to route the four input and ouput signals as required but should not be relied on for effects.
The Mixpander Power Pak and Mixtreme 192 have a lot in common. Indeed, they can even run together as one system. However, they are clearly aimed at different segments of the market.
When the original Mixtreme was released in 1999 it was exceptional in every respect. Combining multiple inputs and outputs and DSP-powered effects on the same card was a new approach, and Sydec Audio Engineering were so ahead of their time that it took several years for other manufacturers to design similar products. It still has few competitors today that offer the same range of features. However, specialised DSP effect cards such as the TC Powercore and Universal Audio UAD1 have appeared, and the competition has increased in terms of multiple input/output cards.
The Mixtreme 192 is a timely update that allows the Mixtreme concept to interface with modern equipment that supports high sample rates. It is ideal for studios that require synchronisation with video or any setup that uses a TDIF-capable mixing desk such as the Tascam DM24, the forthcoming DM3200 or any Yamaha console with a TDIF card. The DWave driver also makes it an obvious choice for SAW Studio users. The flexibility of the software mixer is a definite advantage over multi-channel soundcards that only offer limited routing facilities, while the S/PDIF option and the various interfaces available from Sydec allow the Mixtreme 192 to be used with non-TDIF equipment. And just as with the Mixpander Power Pak, VST and VSTi plug-in support also means that having a Mixtreme 192 in your computer allows you to switch it on and play a virtual synth or sampler without launching a full-blown sequencer. It is also easy to layer VST Instruments or save and reload favourite configurations. The Mixtreme 192's appeal might have been more universal with a pair of analogue inputs and outputs and perhaps one more DSP to cope with effects processing at high sample rates. But if its specifications fit your requirements, it is a winner.
However, the star product is definitely the Mixpander Power Pak. This is as unique today as the original Mixtreme was on its release. Indeed, nothing else offers as much in one package: up to 64 simultaneous inputs and outputs via a single PCI slot (depending on iBox model and sample rate), remote control of the iBox, a superb audio conversion unit, a DSP-powered software mixer that operates in real time like a hardware digital console yet offers the superior flexibility of software, access to a range of exclusive real-time plug-ins, a huge amount of DSP power, comprehensive driver support and a potential for upgradeability either by adding compatible cards (should 64 inputs and outputs ever become insufficient) or connecting the components to a fully fledged Soundscape DAW... there is not a single product on the market today that can match all these features, and while the Mixpander Power Pak is not cheap it represents excellent value, costing no more than some eight-channel rackmount D-A conversion units!
The Sales Network
Now that they control the marketing and distribution of their product line, Sydec Audio Engineering have decided to cut out the middle-men, bypassing the usual dealer network and lowering their prices in the process. They rely on 'RSCs' and 'CEs' for local product demos. RSC stands for Regional Soundscape Centre, the main calling point for communication and technical support for a given country. CE stands for Centre of Excellence. Typical CEs are professional studios where potential purchasers can see and try out Soundscape equipment. This means that the demos are provided by engineers or producers who use this equipment on a daily basis and know it inside out. Note that the CEs do not take orders, so this is not a 'pressure situation', just a chance to get information from knowledgeable real-life and full-time users rather than from salespersons.
Soundscape hardware products can be purchased either from an RSC, or direct from Sydec, who ship worldwide (from Belgium) and can be contacted by phone or email. Soundscape software (including optional plug-ins) can be purchased on-line for immediate download. The Sydec Audio Engineering web site also features a comprehensive Downloads section and several user forums.
- Flexible software mixer.
- Latency-free mixing and processing.
- Huge amount of DSP power.
- Huge number of inputs and outputs.
- Good sound quality.
- Excellent driver support.
- Cable to connect Mixpander to computer is rather short.
- Digital connections only, as standard.
- Limited DSP power at high sample rates.
A natural and worthy successor to the original Mixtreme. With 192kHz compatibility, 16 input and output channels, flexible routing and real-time effects, the Mixtreme 192 has few competitors and should be at the top of your shortlist if its specifications suit your needs.
Mixpander Power Pak 48 (as reviewed) 3519.13 Euros; Mixtreme 192 (card only) 346.63 Euros. Prices include UK VAT; see Sydec's web site for details of other bundles and products.
Soundscape worldwide sales +43 (0)658 423 490.