If you want to move to the heady heights of true multitrack hard disk recording on your PC, there are plenty of rival systems on the market. Martin Walker looks at what you need to consider in making your purchase decision, and rounds up the alternatives. This is the last article in a two‑part series.
When you begin to consider upgrading from a comparatively simple PC hard disk system based around a stereo soundcard to one incorporating a multi‑channel card, a whole new confusing world opens up before you, full of different companies with designs on your money. So why, you might ask, would you want to get involved with multi‑channel cards at all?
Well, as we saw last month, stereo‑only cards can be used with modern multitrack sequencers, but your PC's processor needs to be able to cope with the strain of mixing down your multitrack audio data to a single stereo pair in real time when you play back your recordings. Herein lies one of the advantages of a multi‑channel card; along with more hardware channels, the multi‑channel soundcard often comes with extra DSP (Digital Signal Processing) power to help with the workload and provide extra features, leaving your PC's processor in a far happier state. However, this does give rise to confusion where high‑end soundcards are concerned, since access to all these extra facilities may be provided in various ways.
Before we get as far as narrowing down the multi‑channel audio options, we need to consider the subject of MIDI support. Many manufacturers bundle their multi‑channel soundcards with proprietary software for handling digital audio, so that every audio function integrates and performs well. However, few of these software packages provide MIDI support as well as audio, meaning that if MIDI is essential to the way you work, you have to run a MIDI‑only sequencer alongside the audio software.
Whilst many people achieve this quite successfully, and you are unlikely to have major problems sync'ing the two applications together in theory, there is plenty of scope for timing problems. Judging by the number of people having trouble keeping MIDI and audio together in Cubase VST (where everything is under the control of a single application), the thought of running two completely separate programs may put some people off. Running two applications also means that you are likely to be constantly weaving and dodging between two sets of windows, which some people find tricky without resorting to a huge monitor screen that allows both application windows to be seen at once.
The only case where running separate audio and MIDI applications on a PC causes no problems at all is where dedicated audio hardware runs independently of the PC processor. Soundscape's SSHDR system (latest version reviewed back in SOS November '97) and Studio Audio and Video's SADiE are both examples of this professional stand‑alone approach. In both cases, the PC is only used to update the screen display and send the occasional command to the free‑running hardware, so that the bulk of the PC's processing power is still available to synchronise a MIDI sequencer if required. This sort of professional self‑contained audio system is recommended to those who would prefer not to rely on the power of their PC's processor for audio. However, I consider such systems beyond the scope of this roundup; the multi‑channel PC soundcards included this month all rely significantly on the processing power of the PC, whether or not they help it out by providing on‑board effects.
To ensure maximum compatibility and a minimum of problems, many manufacturers provide a complete hardware and software system to handle audio recording and editing. This is sensible, given the problems that PC musicians can encounter getting certain combinations of audio hardware and software to work together. However, this approach does rely on the manufacturer getting the audio software right from day one. These complete packages have the advantage that the software component knows exactly what the hardware is, and can be optimised accordingly, but if you buy a complete proprietary system, you are then tied to the support provided by that manufacturer, and are reliant on them to continue adding support for other features not present in the initial release. If you need MIDI support, you also need to make sure that your sequencer of choice can be successfully synchronised to the proprietary audio software.
Sadly, all too often, as companies rush to recoup their large initial investment and suffer the pressures of setting up hardware production lines, enthusiastic marketing people pressurise the R&D departments into releasing software before it is truly ready. Although the bulk of the functions may work, early purchasers often find 'greyed out' menu items (indicating functions that have yet to be implemented) or help files littered with promises that certain vital features will be included in the next free update.
If you'd rather not synchronise separate audio and MIDI applications, you can of course opt for one piece of software that combines the two functions (a MIDI + Audio sequencer) and add another company's multitrack audio I/O hardware to give you extra facilities, as well as potentially taking a significant load off your PC processor. However, this approach also requires care. Although some I/O hardware is designed to integrate well with a particular MIDI + Audio sequencer (for example Emagic's Logic Audio with their own Audiowerk8 hardware, and Steinberg's Cubase VST with the forthcoming Lexicon Studio System), many other systems only currently provide access to advanced audio handling features (such as on‑board EQ and effects) when the hardware is used with the company's own proprietary audio software. Ensoniq's PARIS (reviewed in SOS January '98) is, at the moment, a completely closed system; audio can only be dealt with using the supplied software. DAL's V8 system [reviewed on page 132 of this issue] does have some audio support in Cakewalk Pro Audio 6, but you cannot currently access any of the EQ or effects unless you use the supplied MxTrax software for audio recording at an additional £500 (although this situation will probably change as third parties provide other software support). This is often the case — if the hardware is capable of exotic features, you usually need special (often proprietary) software to access them.
As a result, anyone wanting to expand into the world of multi‑channel cards who is determined to stick with an existing MIDI + Audio sequencer will find more 'open' soundcard hardware better suited to their needs, at the expense of some of the specialised features. Event's range of multi‑channel cards, for example (Darla, Gina and Layla) provide an extremely open approach, which makes it very easy to use them with most MIDI + Audio sequencers, but there are no special effects on board the cards (although these are mooted for a future driver release which will run specifically with Cubase VST). In general, unless the soundcard specifically claims compatibility with your chosen MIDI + Audio sequencer, you should tread very carefully.
Since so many 'closed' systems have limited compatibility with a large number of MIDI + Audio sequencers, it would be extremely useful if some manufacturers provided utility mixer software that at least allowed you to change soundcard EQ and effect settings from a separate application window (much as most of us do with synth editors already), so that you could carry on with your favourite sequencer without missing out on the juicy bits. Some soundcard manufacturers are already working closely with MIDI + Audio sequencer developers to add more specific support along these lines in the future, and the current situation for specific combinations of soundcard and MIDI + Audio sequencer may well change as new drivers are developed. I will try to keep you informed of such changes in the PC Notes column, although the Internet is also a good place to keep abreast of the latest developments.
In general, any card that includes MME driver software can be accessed from any Windows 95 MIDI + Audio sequencer, and this support includes any digital inputs and outputs (see the 'Digital I/O' box elsewhere in this article). If the entry in the table at the end of this article reads 'Multi', then all audio channels can be accessed as multiple pairs of stereo drivers. The 'Stereo' entry for the Emagic Audiowerk8 card is because only a single stereo pair of tracks can be accessed from standard Windows 95 software.
Many of these systems can be expanded at a later date, although sometimes this may mean adding another soundcard running in sync, which may cause you difficulties if your PC is already well populated with expansion cards. Running multiple soundcards (along with the separate sets of drivers required for each) may indeed be possible, but watch out for any warnings of potential long‑term timing drift between MIDI data and your digital audio, and check that you still have enough PC resources to cope. Some cards offer single drivers that can run several cards, and these will be much easier to set up, but buying a card with sufficient channels in the first place is always a safer bet. Try to anticipate future requirements, rather than attempting to expand on an ad hoc basis, and you shouldn't go far wrong.
The entries shown as expandable systems in the table at the end of this article are those that have a powerful engine on the soundcard that already supports more I/O channels than initially supplied with the package, and which can be expanded by plugging in additional converters or interfaces. One thing to watch out for with manufacturers' specs is that complete software/hardware systems often quote the maximum number of output channels, but fail to mention that these are actually mixed in software or hardware before emerging via a single stereo hardware output. Since this can also be done by a standard stereo card with a package like Cubase VST, I have tried to compare like with like by giving figures in the table for hardware I/O outputs, so that you can see just how many separate sockets there will be.
On the input side, many people only need to record a maximum of a single mono or stereo performance at once, so two input channels may be quite sufficient. If you ever envisage a time when you will need to record several musicians simultaneously onto discrete channels, or record a multi‑miked drumkit, then you will require more simultaneous inputs. At the multi‑channel level, digital I/O is a must for many people, as it allows you, at the very least, to transfer your recording to other media, such as DAT, without loss of quality, as well as affording you the possibility of adding more exotic digital outboard devices later. However, you can still back up your recordings to removable‑cartridge hard drives, or burn direct to CD‑R, without exiting the digital domain, so S/PDIF or AES/EBU digital I/O may not be a necessity for everyone.
Multi!Wav Digital PRO24 £499
The AdB range is distributed in the UK by Et Cetera, who seem to handle everybody except the Spice Girls. This card aims for ultimate audio quality by providing a full 24‑bit audio transfer path and shielded audio transformers, as well as an option to upgrade to 96kHz operation. It is one of several cards that basically provide digital I/O facilities, along with a single D/A converter for monitoring purposes, rather than a full‑blown recording and playback system. This is ideal for those who prefer to have their A/D conversion work done outside the PC, using a DAT recorder or stand‑alone converter box. AES/EBU, optical and co‑axial formats are supported, as is word clock. A special Quad output mode lets you separate the analogue and digital outputs for 2‑In/4‑Out capability. Real‑time digital format conversion is also supported, from optical to co‑axial, or S/PDIF to AES/EBU (or vice versa). The card comes bundled with Steinberg's WaveLab SE, which supports full 24‑bit digital editing, as well a modified version of Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge XP. If you want a professional card with lots of digital options, but only need stereo analogue monitoring facilities, this should be on your shortlist.
...if the hardware is capable of exotic features, you usually need special (often proprietary) software to access them.
TDAT 16 £1695
Creamware products are distributed by System Solutions, whose Atari support has an excellent pedigree. Strictly speaking, both the MasterPort and TripleDAT cards should have been included in last month's stereo card roundup, but they end up here since they are advertised as 4‑In/4‑Out devices. In fact, these four channels consist of a single stereo in and out, and a single stereo digital in and out. They are both complete solutions, since they come with software, and the actual soundcard is identical in both systems. The first, the less expensive MasterPort system, provides real‑time 4‑band parametric EQ, as well as many off‑line effects such as compression, limiting, expansion, delay, and pitch‑shifting. MIDI users will have to sync up a sequencer to run alongside the proprietary software, but MME drivers are also provided, so you can run any MIDI + Audio sequencers. TripleDAT is an altogether more comprehensive system intended for mastering applications, with integrated CD‑writing software also included as part of the suite. In addition, up to 256 software channels are available, as opposed to the 16 of the MasterPort.
Since both systems use the same card, there is an upgrade path for MasterPort owners to the full TripleDAT package. It is also likely that the hardware may become available by itself for anyone solely interested in running an existing MIDI + Audio sequencer.
The third Creamware system, TDAT16, is a 16‑channel PCI solution, and each of the two digital optical I/Os can be switched between S/PDIF and ADAT format. In ADAT format the full 16 channels are available, and you could either connect an ADAT machine or an D/A converter box to either connector (Creamware have the A8 and A16 D/A rack boxes in their range). The onboard DSP provides real‑time sample rate conversion as well as a wide range of real‑time effects, and the supplied software allows up to 256 virtual audio tracks. The Creamware range has a good reputation for audio quality.
Session 8 + 882 Interface £2677
Session 8 + 888 Interface £3840
The Session 8 system was reviewed in SOS way back in July 1993, and is still available from Digidesign, whose Pro Tools systems for the Mac are an industry standard. Both of the Session 8 systems quoted here provide eight channels of analogue inputs and outputs, but the more expensive 888 Interface has more extensive digital I/O, with an extra four AES/EBU In/Outs in addition to the single S/PDIF provided by the 882 interface. The Session 8 hardware consists of two ISA cards, and the supplied software provides access to the on‑board parametric EQ, as well as Level and Pan automation. Integration with existing sequencers was well catered for by Steinberg's Cubase, but only in its XT version, and this software has now been superseded by Cubase VST. Still, Digidesign have been hinting at developments recently that may yet put this system back in the running — watch this space!
CardD+ Digital I/O £249
Digital only CardD £299
The CardD+ was covered in last month's stereo card roundup, but there is a digital only add‑on card available for this (the I/O version), as well as a stand‑alone digital‑only CardD. For many people, this has proved the ideal quality stand‑alone solution for several years, although DAL's cards have a reputation for sometimes being difficult to install. However, once sorted, there are no problems with audio quality, although this range is beginning to look a bit long in the tooth nowadays.
The V8 system is an extremely ambitious expandable hardware package, which in the package quoted here provides eight analogue Ins and eight analogue Outs, as well as AES/EBU, co‑axial and optical digital I/O (the quoted system price above, by the way, is reached by totting up the following: V8 Main Board, £1499; Big Block £1699, MxTrax software £499). While this might seem expensive for an 8‑track system, the V8 main board supports 16 Ins and Outs, which may either be catered for by an additional Big Block, or by an ADAT interface at £549. There is enough DSP capability on the Main Board to provide extensive EQ and effect options, which currently can only be accessed through the custom‑written MxTrax software (a package rather like the one supplied with the Ensoniq PARIS system). However, basic support is provided by Cakewalk Pro Audio 6, and Waves have ported a version of their Native Power Pack for V8 use. DAL are also hoping for more extensive third‑party support in the near future. An ISA buss card doing all this is an ambitious prospect, and DAL will probably be working on a PCI version at some stage. This is one to see demonstrated as a complete system, where you can see it being run through its paces, but not really a DIY solution.
I'm sure everyone has heard of this card, but its idiosyncrasies bear repeating. This was one of the first PCI 8‑channel cards to appear, and as it is manufactured by the same company responsible for Logic Audio, it integrates seamlessly with that application, providing a system that would ideally suit those weaned on the Logic range. However, months after its launch, there is still only a Beta version of a standard Windows 95 driver available, and this only gives access to a very basic single stereo pair of channels, making the Audiowerk8 totally unsuitable at the present time for any other MIDI + Audio package. There are eight analogue outputs, and a stereo input, along with co‑axial digital I/O. Recently, a new package bundled with Logic Audio Discovery v3.0 called the Audiowerk8 Home Studio Kit has been launched, and for a limited time this is priced at £499. If you like Logic Audio, this is the card for you. If not, don't even think about it unless a full driver emerges.
Ensoniq PARIS I £2199
Ensoniq PARIS II £2499
Ensoniq PARIS II £2849
The PARIS II system was reviewed in the January issue of SOS, and is impressive from the hardware standpoint, featuring a control interface with faders and knobs, and a range of analogue interface solutions, from a basic 2‑In/4‑Out box (PARIS I) to the expandable rackmounting cage of the PARIS III that accepts a variety of I/O options. The card supports up to 24 simultaneous digital audio data streams at 24‑bit resolution, and any combination of 16 simultaneous tracks split between recording and playback.
The software looks very nice, but provides no MIDI support; you have to run a sequencer alongside for this. The initial software release is not quite complete, with some options greyed out, and there are irritating deviations from standard operating system methods, particularly in the Mac version. However, the crowning glory is a six‑DSP implementation of the Ensoniq DP/Pro effects unit. Once the software is further polished, this is a system that will suit those who primarily want audio recording, and are not worried by the prospect of no integrated MIDI support.
Of the three cards in this range, Darla and Gina have been available since late 1997, with the long‑awaited Layla due for release by the time you read this. All feature at least eight analogue outputs: Gina and Darla have their D/A converters on the soundcard itself; Gina uses a breakout box with quarter‑inch jack sockets, at the far end of a 1‑metre shielded audio cable, and Darla has a small plug‑in box with phono sockets attached to the card itself. All three have excellent audio quality. Darla is analogue‑only, but Gina adds an S/PDIF digital I/O socket pair. Layla houses its converters in a rackmounting case, and also has word clock I/O, as well as an additional two outputs for Left and Right Monitor duty (10 in all), eight inputs, and a single In/Out/Thru MIDI interface on board. It also features balanced or unbalanced audio I/O which is switchable between +4/‑10 levels.
Frontier Design WaveCenter £498
The WaveCenter is marketed as a low‑cost digital 8‑In/8‑Out card, which makes it suitable for those who need to record whole bands (or a fully miked‑up drumkit, for that matter). A versatile option exists, which allows the optical input and output to function in either stereo S/PDIF or 8‑channel ADAT format, along with a pair of phono sockets supporting electrical digital I/O (see 'Different Flavours of Zeroes & Ones' box for more details on electrical digital I/O). A single MIDI input and three independent MIDI outputs are also available.
This is an ideal solution for those who want to interface an ADAT (or ADAT XT) to a MIDI + Audio sequencer. In this case, you will already have converters in the ADAT for analogue monitoring, but for more general‑purpose applications you will need to add an external converter box. Compatibility is claimed with all digital audio software applications.
Korg are quietly getting some solid support for the 1212, and its Cubase VST ASIO drivers are the first to be released for the PC from any manufacturer. Although it only provides a single stereo analogue I/O (for monitoring), the most interesting feature is the ADAT digital optical I/O, which provides a further eight channels of inputs and outputs, and a further co‑axial S/PDIF I/O, adding up to the 12 Ins and 12 Outs of its name. A 9‑pin ADAT sync connector is also provided for full synchronised ADAT editing inside Cubase VST (complete with chase lock), and word clock I/O. It is possible to run two or three cards in one PC if 24‑ or 36‑channel I/O is required. If you don't use ADATs in the studio, external rackmounting converters are available: the 880A/D and 880D/A provide eight of the appropriate 20‑bit converters.
The Wave/4 is not the cheapest 4‑In/4‑Out card (that privilege is held by Midiman's Dman2044), but at only £50 more, it does include a 1‑In/1‑Out MIDI interface, and a daughterboard socket for smaller WaveBlaster‑compatible cards, but not the larger ones such as Yamaha's DB50XG. If you want multiple analogue channels, but don't need digital I/O, this could be just the job.
Lexicon Studio System £2799
This is yet another system that has people drooling in advance — the latest word on official release dates puts the on‑sale date sometime this month (March '98). The Studio System's main claim to fame is that its DSPs run an official software version of the famed Lexicon PCM90 reverb. However, the Studio will also bypass any potential problems associated with running proprietary hard disk recording software, by being designed from the start to integrate with Cubase VST. I suspect that this will greatly add to its appeal, since VST is already extremely popular, and any hardware support it gets will allow it to achieve more real‑time channels and effects.
The so‑called Core32 system card allows up to 32 channels of I/O, and the LDI‑12T interface is a rackmounting box containing 12 channels of simultaneous I/O, which consists of stereo analogue, 8‑channel ADAT, and S/PDIF optical/co‑axial. The best bit is the PC90 daughterboard, which clips onto the Core32 to provide two discrete Lexicon reverbs using exactly the same architecture as the award‑winning PCM90. ASIO drivers for Cubase VST (both Mac and PC) are very close to completion. This promises to provide true hardware support for an established industry standard MIDI + Audio sequencer, and ought to result in huge sales.
Dman 2044 £249
Midiman DiO £249
The DMan 2044 is the cheapest card of the 4‑channel variety, and you can pay more for many stereo cards. It provides four Ins and four Outs from a breakout box with quarter‑inch jack sockets, and the converters are of the seemingly now standard 20‑bit, 128x oversampling type. An onboard DSP provides reverb and chorus, and there is compatibility with all audio software packages. All it lacks is a digital I/O facility, and this is catered for separately by the so‑called DiO, which provides both AES/EBU and co‑axial sockets, and a DSP which ensures minimal overhead on your main PC processor.
If you aspire to greater than 16‑bit recording, talk to a specialist dealer.
Prodif Gold £352
Arc88 ADAT £923
With such a comprehensive range, thankfully the names say it all. The Arc44 provides a 4‑In/4‑Out analogue solution (using quarter‑inch audio jacks), for those who don't need digital support. The Arc88 extends analogue to eight Ins and eight Outs, connected via a breakout cable to a bank of phono sockets, along with a single optical S/PDIF In/Out. Multiple card support is available, and sync between cards is achieved using an internal patch cable. Both cards are provided with Windows 95 drivers that allow all channels to be accessed as multiple stereo pairs. The Arc88 ADAT also provides an 8‑channel optical digital I/O.
If you aspire to more than 16 bits, the Prodif24 will allow you to record and play back at up to 24‑bit resolution. Both AES/EBU (on quarter‑inch stereo jacks!) and S/PDIF (optical Toslink) formats are provided. The output can be monitored through an 18‑bit D/A converter, and once again any Windows audio application can be used, although there are only a few, such as WaveLab, that currently support the full 24‑bit resolution. The Prodif32 still operates at 16, 20, or 24 bits, but also allows a high‑speed 32‑bit transfer mode that is less hardware‑intensive than the 3‑byte 24‑bit transfer mode. It also removes the analogue monitoring, leaving it at the same price as the Prodif24. The Prodif Gold is also a digital‑only card, but can either operate as a stereo I/O, or switch to 8‑channel ADAT mode. This sort of spec may be ideal for those with ADATs who wish to edit inside the Cubase VST environment. The Prodif96 is a high‑end version of the Prodif32 that further extends the 24‑bit signal to a maximum sample rate of 96kHz (64 and 88.2kHz are also supported).
Zefiro have got a very good reputation for audio quality, and the ZA2 can also perform some nifty tricks courtesy of its 24‑bit DSP. Real‑time sample rate conversion is possible, and for many people this can be a vital part of the recording process, especially if they regularly master other musicians' DAT tapes, either back to another DAT tape or straight to CD‑R. Any rate from 5kHz to 60kHz at 8, 16, or 20 bits can be handled. Other DSP functions include decoding of MPEG audio and EQ. Digital I/O is AES/EBU, optical and co‑axial, and all three can be used simultaneously, effectively giving you a mini digital patchbay. A single 16‑bit stereo analogue output is also provided for monitoring, but there is no analogue recording capability — this card is intended mainly for digital use. Two cards can be locked together for 4‑track work if required.
When it comes to digital I/O, there are several standards. The consumer S/PDIF variety (Sony/Philips Digital InterFace) is either optical (aka Toslink, mentioned last month) or electrical (aka co‑axial, using phono sockets), and each socket can support a single stereo channel at up to 24‑bit resolution. The more professional AES/EBU format is also electrical, but at higher voltage levels. A more advanced optical solution comes in the form of the ADAT optical I/O, which sends eight channels of digital audio down a single optical cable, and this format is ideal if you already have ADAT machines (or other hardware which can operate via this interface, such as Korg's 1212 I/O card and 168RC digital mixer, or Alesis' Q2 effects processor) and want to master on a hard disk recording system. TDIF (Tascam Digital Interface Format) is another 8‑channel standard, used by the Tascam DA family of stand‑alone digital recorders (DA88, DA38, and DA90), and uses a single 25‑pin D‑type connector for input and output signals.
All soundcards will record with 16 bits (which fills about 5Mb of hard disk space per channel minute). A few cards allow 20‑bit recording, and occasionally even 24‑bit, but both these bit depths will need three bytes of hard disk space to store a single point on the waveform, rather than the two needed to store a 16‑bit value. This immediately expands the hard disk space used by 50% in both cases, and your hard drive will be being called upon to work 50% harder as well. If you aspire to greater than 16‑bit recording, talk to a specialist dealer, as you are likely to need professional support.
Frontier Design Group
All of the above are distributed in the UK by:
Valley House, 2 Bradwood Court, St. Crispin Way, Haslingden, Lancs BB4 4PW.
Tel: 01706 228039.
Fax: 01706 222989.
System Solutions, 17‑19 Blackwater Street, London SE22 8RS.
Tel: 0181 693 3355.
Fax: 0181 693 6936.
Avid Technology, Westside Complex, Pinewood Studios, Iver Heath, Pinewood, Bucks SL0 0NH.
Tel: 01753 653322.
Fax: 01753 654999.
Sound Technology plc, Letchworth Point, Letchworth, Hertfordshire SG6 1ND.
Tel: 01462 480000.
Fax: 01462 480800.
Key Audio Systems, Unit D, 37 Robjohns Road, Chelmsford, Essex CM1 3AG.
Tel: 01245 344001.
Fax: 01245 344002.
Key Audio Systems, Unit D, 37 Robjohns Road, Chelmsford, Essex CM1 3AG.
Tel: 01245 344001.
Fax: 01245 344002.
Stirling Audio, Kimberley Road, London NW6 7SF.
Tel: 0171 624 6000.
Fax: 0171 372 6370.
Tel: 01205 290680.
Fax: 01205 290671.
Korg UK, 9 Newmarket Court, Kingston, Milton Keynes MK10 0AU.
Tel: 01908 857150.
Fax: 01908 857199.
GOSH, 2 King Edwards Road, Bath BA2 3RD.
Tel: 01225 313219.
Fax: 01225 405184.
RKMS, Freepost (NG6175), Nottingham NG4 1BR.
Tel: 0115 961 1398.
Fax: 0115 953 3802.