Turtle Beach have a reputation for producing some of the best PC soundcards available, and the new, loftily‑named Multisound Pinnacle and Fiji cards have been eagerly awaited since their predecessors, the high‑spec Tahiti and Multisound Classic cards, were discontinued. Janet Harniman‑Cook scales new heights...
Soundcards are without doubt God's gift to PC‑assisted music recording; the best ones are true studio‑quality devices offering excellent digital and analogue audio recording features, on‑board synths and multi‑port MIDI interfaces. The audio cards most favoured by serious Windows soundcard‑based hard disk audio recording systems for the last two years or more have been the Turtle Beach Multisound Classic and Tahiti cards, and the Digital Audio Labs CardD range. The Turtle Beach Multisound Pinnacle and Fiji cards replace the earlier Multisounds and are the last products launched by Turtle Beach Systems per se: as reported on the news pages in this issue, the company has now merged with Voyetra.
The Multisound Pinnacle (£479 inc VAT) is a formidable PC music recording tool contained on a full‑length ISA soundcard, offering 16‑bit digital audio recording using 20‑bit internal DACs. Also included are a Kurzweil GM wavetable synth chip set with 24‑bit reverb and chorus, a MIDI interface with up to 48 MIDI channels, a WaveBlaster header for daughterboard synths, such as the excellent Yamaha DB50XG, and a Motorola 56002 DSP for enhanced full‑duplex simultaneous recording and playback at a variety of sampling rates (11.025, 22.05, 32, 44.1, and 48kHz). SampleStore, a massive 48Mb of RAM, can be installed for user sample playback, and a bargain‑priced optional S/PDIF daughtercard digital audio I/O is also available. The minimum specification PC recommended is a 486 DX 2‑66 with 8Mb of RAM. The Multisound Fiji card is a standard‑size card, but functionally the Pinnacle and the Fiji are identical, apart from the Pinnacle's Kurzweil chipset and SampleStore RAM — so if you bear these simple differences in mind, you can read all observations from this point onwards as relevant to both cards. As the Fiji omits the Pinnacle's synth and sample store, it works out £100 or so cheaper.
The Pinnacle bundle consists of the soundcard, three floppy disks containing drivers and utilities for Windows 95 and Windows 3.1, the manual, and a CD‑ROM with a complete version of Voyetra Digital Orchestrator Plus v2.11.17 MIDI + Audio sequencer. The Fiji package just includes a standard‑sized card and the setup floppies. The spiral‑bound 160‑page manual helpfully includes chapters to guide you through installation in Windows 95 and Windows 3.1, as well as giving information on the bundled applications and utilities, short introductions to MIDI and digital audio, and technical specifications.
The rear panel of the Pinnacle has a 15‑pin 'D'‑type connector for a joystick or the external MIDI port connector, and four stereo mini‑jack sockets for Mic In/Digital, Line In recording, Auxiliary Playback and Analogue Output. During playback, both digital and analogue signals are output together, allowing you to monitor the output whilst recording to DAT, and also to make analogue and digital copies at the same time — so you shouldn't be alarmed when you see only a single Pinnacle output driver present under the Hardware Playback Setup dialogue in your audio applications.
Installation: Climb Every Mountain
The first step in the installation process is to configure the soundcard. Firstly, if you are using it, add the SampleStore RAM; next, change jumper settings for installation preferences, microphone type and digital I/O, if necessary. Having done this, connect your CD‑ROM audio output cable to the card if required, and fit your synth daughterboard to the WaveBlaster header socket. I erred on the side of caution, and, wishing to avoid conflicts with the other audio cards I already have installed, I did not use the Windows 95 install option, choosing instead to configure the PC system resources manually. Windows 95 Plug and Play capability is useful if you are installing the card onto an empty PC, ie. one without MIDI cards, other soundcards, a modem and so on.
Installing soundcards can be tricky and requires great patience, so if you do get into a muddle and feel like starting again, always use the Killpin or Killfiji uninstall programs — if you attempt to uninstall manually by deleting files in the Windows Explorer or File Manager, you could end up with an even more scrambled PC, and experience all manner of strange goings‑on when trying to run applications such as sequencers and audio editors that use soundcards. If you really must use your PC to run games as well as your music recording system, uninstall all other sound and MIDI cards, and physically remove them from the PC, then build from the bottom up. First install the Pinnacle, and check that it's working correctly, then re‑install your MIDI interface card, if you use one. Test this too and then, finally, re‑install your other soundcards, but Beware — Configuring a PC for Games can Seriously Damage the Health of your Recording System!
The Pinnacle produces 16‑bit quality audio using 20‑bit internal DACs, and Turtle Beach claim that the resulting >97dB signal‑to‑noise ratio is the best found on any soundcard currently on the market — although of course this figure does not take account of other noise introduced into the analogue audio chain by the PC itself. The Pinnacle sounded vibrant and musical, presenting a spacious, well‑defined soundstage that exhibited pleasing warmth and presence in the mid‑range frequencies, with a translucent, detailed top response underpinned by a robust and punchy bass. Stereo image definition is sharper and cleaner than on the Multisound Classic and Tahiti cards, and recording through the analogue inputs was free from DC Offset — a further improvement on the older Multisounds.
The S/PDIF digital daughterboard automatically configures and appears in the audio port options of your application. When switching between analogue and digital sources on the Pinnacle, it is advisable in most applications to re‑configure the card from the Pinnacle hardware and driver setup utility (Settings.exe) before altering your application's audio hardware settings. Click on 'Setting Driver' and reset the 'Wave In Default'. If switching to Digital, you may need to click on Refresh first. Hurricane DSP technology enables the Pinnacle to run full‑duplex simultaneous recording and playback, which is enhanced by the ability to adjust audio data throughput speeds during playback to accommodate different sample rates.
Kurzweil MA1 Synthset
The Pinnacle features a 128‑voice wavetable synthesis GM set with 4Mb of data‑compressed ROM, giving 32‑note polyphony over 16 channels via its own internal PC MIDI port. To allow games compatibility, the synth has its own set of PC system resources (IRQ and memory addresses) and defaults to IRQ 9. GM voice sets can be notoriously uneven in quality, and vary between the dire and the desirable, so after all the pre‑release 'it's a Kurzweil!' buzz, I felt a little underwhelmed when I first listened to the Pinnacle voice set in its default dry state. But when I added copious amounts of the onboard 24‑bit Reverb and Chorus effects, the voices came to life — they should prove a valuable and distinctive addition to most MIDI synth collections. What you get is a wonderful collection of sweeping, evolving ambient synth voices, a good piano, great drum kits with long cymbal samples, excellent pizzicato strings, superb tuned percussion and timpani, good trumpets and trombones, and more (see the separate box on the MA1 for more details). The remaining voices are for the most part competent, although some of the strings and the electric guitars are disappointing, and of course there are the usual joke bagpipes — it's amazing how often these GM monstrosities turn up in Scottish BBC TV soundtracks! But overall, the Pinnacle's Kurzweil set is quite classy, and well worth the price difference over the synth‑less Fiji. A MIDI implementation chart for the Pinnacle is not included in the package, but can be obtained from the 24‑hour Turtle Beach Faxback line, on 001 510 624 6296. You simply call this number on your ordinary phone, and request document #261 to be sent to a fax number of your choice.
Waveblaster Synth Daughterboard Header
Both the Fiji and the Pinnacle include a Wavetable header connector for fitting a synth daughterboard, and fortunately, Et Cetera Distribution had sent along a Yamaha DB50XG to try this out with the review Pinnacle. The DB50XG installation was easy; no adjustments were required to the Pinnacle or the PC, and the daughterboard automatically appeared in the port lists on Logic Audio v2.5, Cubase v3.03 and Cakewalk Pro Audio v5. The output from both synths is summed to the soundcard's main output with the analogue audio. If this feels crowded, it is possible to modify the DB50XG to provide a discrete output — see Martin Walker's article on making the most of daughterboards in last month's SOS.
Your own WAV sounds may be triggered via MIDI from SampleStore RAM. The Pinnacle doesn't ship with RAM installed, but should work with any 60ns (or better access time), single‑sided, 72‑pin, parity SIMM stick obtainable from your local dealer or from one of the many listed in computer magazines, such as the weekly Micromart.
Wave files can be loaded from your PC hard drive or from CD‑ROM to the SampleStore RAM via the Pinnacle control panel. Each sample replaces a instrument in the GM synth set, is scaled across a user‑defined key range, and can use the on‑board digital effects. Once set up, sample bank configurations containing samples, key maps and program information can then be saved. The Pinnacle bundle includes Wave for Windows SEII to get your audio editing off to a flying start. Turtle Beach are rumoured to be working on an editor that will create loops and multi‑sample sets, but for the moment, you are limited to single‑hit samples, which work well enough when used for simple instruments or sound effects. At a pinch, you could even use the SampleStore RAM for replaying chunks of vocals and voice‑over.
The Fiji and the Pinnacle packages include: a Mixer applet for controlling the level of the audio sources going through the cards' analogue output (the digital output level is fixed, as it is determined directly by the soundfile data), and a hardware and driver setup utility, which is used to switch input between analogue and digital. The Pinnacle also comes with an additional control panel for configuring SampleStore, manually adjusting Reverb and Chorus levels for each MIDI channel, and setting the overall card output and balance levels. Other applications bundled with both cards are: the previously‑mentioned Waves for Windows SEII soundfile editor; the Sierra Audio Rack (an easy‑to‑use front end that includes a mixer, wave and MIDI file players, and a controller to play CD Audio discs from the CD‑ROM); Mouse Player, a useful on‑screen MIDI keyboard; and Microwave, which, sadly, is not a virtual Waldorf synth, but a simple PC soundfile editor with trim and normalise functions.
The Pinnacle package CD‑ROM also contains the full version of Voyetra Digital Orchestrator Plus v2.11.17 — a surprisingly comprehensive low‑budget MIDI + Audio sequencer/editor (currently £129) with MIDI Piano Roll, Event, Notation and SysEx editors, a MIDI mixer, a Track editor, an Audio editor with drag and drop, and a selection of digital audio effects processors including DC Offset correction, normalise, fades, reverse, a compressor/gate, and sample rate conversion. Also to be found on the Digital Orchestrator Plus CD‑ROM are six Windows video tutorials in AVI format, to help you learn to use the application, and demos, MIDI drum patterns and Sound Gallery song construction wave files.
The Multisound Pinnacle is a superb audio card, and with the optional digital I/O card fitted, it is stunning value for money; if you add a Yamaha DB50XG daughterboard as well, to complement the on‑board Kurzweil MA1, the Pinnacle becomes the supreme PC music recording card. If you are on a lower budget, the Fiji is similarly hard to beat when fitted with the optional digital board and a Yamaha DB50XG. This said, both the Pinnacle and the Fiji cards would be improved for studio use if they had professional audio connectors, and the Pinnacle could help to conserve precious PC resources if, like the Multisound Classic, it used a single set of IRQ and memory addresses for the whole card including the on‑board synth.
To sum up, the Multisound Classic and Tahiti were a hard act to beat, but the Pinnacle and Fiji pull it off in style, confirming Turtle Beach's reputation for building some of the world's sweetest PC soundcards. Both cards are highly recommended: watch out for attractively‑priced sequencer and Pinnacle/Fiji bundles.
Many thanks to Simon O'Donnell.
Kurzweil MA1 Instruments
When you next go to your local music store, take a listen to these voices, but first crank up the on‑board 20‑bit Reverb and Chorus effects from the Pinnacle's control panel. Some voices have long envelopes, so hold down that chord, listen and wait:
- VOICE 01: GRAND PIANO — Good rich tone across the whole key range.
- VOICE 46: PIZZICATO STRINGS — Crisp, lively octave pizzicato strings — great for arpeggios.
- VOICE 50: STRING ENSEMBLE #2 — Rich orchestral string pad.
- VOICE 52: SYN STRINGS #2 — Great evolving ambient pad sound, with a long envelope featuring filter sweeps.
- VOICE 57: TRUMPETS — Solid and bright with a good rasp — useful for both solo and ensemble use.
- VOICE 87: LEAD FIFTHS — Big, bright resonant filter sweep.
- VOICE 96: SWEEP PAD — Fat analogue‑like pad synth with lovely flutey top registers.
- VOICE 108: KOTO — So clean and crisp that you can almost smell Japanese cherry blossom!
- VOICE MIDI CHANNEL 10: DRUM KIT — Great basic GM kit with punchy toms and timbales, plus excellent cymbals with good loops and smooth fades.
PC Requirements And Reference System
The Reference PC used for this article consisted of an Intel Pentium 100 CPU running Windows 95, a PCI motherboard with Intel Triton 82430 VX version 3 chip set and 256k pipeline burst cache; 32Mb of RAM; 2.3Gb of free hard drive space; a 2Mb PCI video card; a 17‑inch SVGA monitor; a MQX32m SMPTE/MIDI card. My second soundcard was a Turtle Beach Multisound Classic with on‑board Emu Proteus 1XR.
Pinnacle And Fiji Features
- MPC‑standard Windows soundcard.
- Enhanced full‑duplex operation for simultaneous recording and playback using Motorola 56002 DSP chip.
- 16‑bit recording with 20‑bit DACs using 128x oversampling.
- Signal‑to‑noise >96dB @0.01% THD (A‑weighted).
- Optional digital I/O card.
- Waveblaster header for fitting daughterboard synth such as a Yamaha DB50XG.
- Windows 95 Plug and Play‑compatible.
MULTISOUND PINNACLE ONLY:
- 32‑voice Kurzweil MA1 MASS synth engine with default GM synth set and 24‑bit reverb and chorus effects.
- MAST SampleStore RAM for user MIDI voices, expandable to 48Mb RAM.
- MIDI supports 48 channels over 3 ports (1 each for onboard synth, daughterboard synth and external MIDI).
- Software bundle includes Voyetra Digital Orchestrator CD‑ROM.
MULTISOUND FIJI ONLY:
- MIDI supports 32 channels over two ports (one for the synth daughterboard and one for external MIDI).
The Pinnacle is a receive‑only device that recognises MIDI messages on 16 channels, and responds to controller messages for bank select, modulation, data entry, volume, pan, expression, sustain, sostenuto, soft pedal, reverb depth, chorus depth, data increment, data decrement, Reg. Param. LSB, Reg. Param. MSB, All Sound Off, Reset All Controllers and All Notes Off. Program Change and SysEx receive commands are also supported.
- Superb audio quality.
- Classy Kurzweil MA1 synth sounds (Pinnacle only).
- Stunning value for money with digital I/O option.
- Parallel digital and analogue audio output.
- Digital daughterboard does not consume additional PC system resources.
- Daughterboard synth connector.
- Slightly expensive if digital I/O option not used.
- Audio and on‑board synth share a single stereo output.
- Uses mini‑jack connectors.
The Pinnacle and Fiji cards provide high‑quality audio and MIDI processing power that should satisfy users of the new generation of pro music production applications, from MIDI + Audio recording to Red Book CD mastering packages.