Martin Walker muses on whether there is really any such thing as a bad soundcard, and extends some helpful advice on how to make sure you get the right one for your needs.
This month I finally bought a new soundcard, the Echo Mia, to replace my much‑loved but ageing Gina, and I was reminded of my seven‑part set of PC music FAQs, entitled 'Which Soundcard?', on the new SOS forum. When I wrote them I took a structured approach, starting with basic advice such as always buying based on what features and support are available now, and not on promises of things to come, and then going on to discuss recording quality and how much benefit you are likely to get in the real world when moving up to 24‑bit converters.
However, I devoted three of the seven FAQs to what I consider fundamental issues — such as how many inputs and outputs you actually need, whether or not you need digital I/O to transfer recordings from other gear or sync to it, and what benefits you can expect from cards with extra onboard DSP. By the time you reach the final FAQ, 'So which one should I buy?', you should be in a slightly better position to judge the merits of the many features provided by the multitude of modern soundcards, and be able to make a more informed choice based on what you want to do with your soundcard.
I know that it's human nature to want someone else to help you make the final decision, but even so I was rather surprised, the last time I visited the SOS forum, to find that this final FAQ had been read more than twice as many times as any of the preceding ones. Mind you, this ties in with one of the most popular questions on many music forums, namely 'I've got £??? to spend. Which soundcard should I buy?'
Judging by the many and varied answers to this question I've come across over the last few years, many musicians either swear by the soundcard they are currently using, or totally damn it — there are few happy mediums. These opinions are obviously based on their personal experiences, and whether the particular model lives up to their original expectations or has caused them any problems.
Now I know that I'm lucky enough to have been able to try out a total of 46 soundcards to date, and that my technical background in electronics and computers puts me in a rather better position to cope if I do experience trouble, but if even half of the problems attributed to specific soundcards were based in fact, the companies in question would surely have gone out of business long ago.
So what goes wrong? Well, firstly there's still a lack of information about compatibility. Plenty of musicians with non‑Intel‑based PCs buy new soundcards on the assumption that they will work with any PC and are then furious when their PC won't even boot up after the soundcard is installed. I can understand their frustration, and fortunately soundcard manufacturers are now recognising that there are plenty of musicians with Athlonbased machines, and are making it more obvious on their web sites which components are and are not compatible with their products. If you can't find this information on the web, a quick phone call to the distributor or manufacturer before you make your final decision should soon resolve the matter.
The second main issue raised on forums is of soundcard driver availability. Many people say they have been waiting for a particular driver for six months or more, and are understandably angry at this. Personally, I would never buy any music product that didn't fulfil my current needs — promises are just that, and much can go awry between an announcement by marketing people and the release of a final bug‑tested version of a new driver.
Just as many forum grumbles relate to the quality of existing drivers, and the quantity of bugs they still contain. Of course, some bugs do exist, and I also discover the odd one during my many soundcard reviews — mostly minor ones, but sometimes ones that no‑one else has discovered, which manufacturers are surprised that no‑one else (including themselves) has previously spotted.
However, some musicians seem to struggle for months, buying soundcard after soundcard and trying to eradicate problems such as clicks, pops and system crashes that they attribute to soundcard driver bugs. However, I suspect that many of the causes lie in the rest of the PC in question. This would explain why many other musicians with exactly the same card have no problems at all, and is another reason why I've covered Multi‑booting in my PC Musician feature elsewhere in this issue.
The result of all this is that some musicians become convinced that certain makes of soundcard work well, and others don't, which explains much of the 'hate mail' for particular manufacturers on various Internet forums. Judging by my own experiences with a wide range of soundcards, I don't believe this. Sure, the occasional rogue design causes a lot more problems than most of the others, and in other cases one particular model becomes well known for working reliably with almost any system, but in general there is no such thing as a 'bad' soundcard.
Making An Informed Choice
All of which brings me right back to the start of this month's column. Why did I end up buying the comparatively low‑cost 2in/2‑out Echo Mia when I've tried out so many more expensive soundcards in my PC? Well, I don't personally need to record more than one stereo input at a time, but have been using Gina's multiple outputs until now to run Cubase VST and GigaStudio, along with a few soft synths. However, although I do have rackmount effects for use with my sampler and hardware synths, I don't use them on the soundcard outputs. For these I use software plugins, so that I can add effects to individual instruments.
So, as Mia has on‑board DSP mixing, I don't personally need multiple outputs either. Virtual ones are perfectly adequate, and save me paying for lots more DA converters that I don't really need. And once the DSP has mixed down my four outputs to a single stereo one, I only need to allocate two channels on my hardware mixer, rather than up to eight as I do at the moment. In addition, like many other cards I've reviewed recently, Mia uses one of the latest AKM 24‑bit/96kHz converters, that give noticeably better sound quality than the older 20‑bit ones of my Gina card, even when recording at 16‑bit. The final factor for me was Mia's balanced analogue I/O — my mixer also has balanced inputs and outputs to take advantage of these, so for me it proved the perfect solution.
Before other musicians and soundcard manufacturers turn on me, let me reiterate the words for me. Each of us has differing requirements and budgets, and this is why there are so many high‑quality soundcards available to choose from. So if you're planning on buying a new soundcard, think long and hard about what exactly you want to achieve with it, and write a shortlist of the features you need to do this. The procedure should help you narrow down the number of inputs and outputs, thrash out questions of digital I/O format and DSP support, and generally identify suitable models.
Check with shops, or on the manufacturer's web sites, which of your choices is compatible with your PC, and whether or not they already have suitable drivers for your current operating system, and you should end up with possibly two or three alternatives. Now check the forums to see what other musicians are saying about them, and your final choice is far more likely to do what you really wanted it to in the first place. Good luck!
PSP Audioware have added to their range with another plug‑in. Like previous offerings, this one concentrates on enhancing sounds rather than mangling them beyond recognition.
MixTreble features four sections. The first is a dynamically‑tuned low‑pass filter devoted to Hiss Removal, while the second is a high‑frequency compander designed to revitalise Transients. The Enhancer adds a clever twist to our old friend stereo widening, by including a high‑pass filter, so you can leave the bulk of your track as it is while spreading the transients and HF detail that define location. The Harmonics section adds odd and even harmonics above the chosen filter frequency, and there's a switchable soft‑clipping facility. MixTreble's aim is to improve the signal‑to‑noise ratio and add air and detail to individual tracks or the final mix, and in many ways it succeeds. A demo version is available for download, but the full version will cost just $30 to register.
- SpinAudio's new 3D Panner Studio plug‑in follows up their 3Dpanner Lite, released a year ago, and takes 3D audio positioning to new heights of sophistication. Compatible with both DX and VST formats, both products feature an easy‑to‑use display that lets you drag and drop objects anywhere in the horizontal (front‑back and left‑right) plane. They also feature Far and Near field modes, Distance simulation, Interaural Time Difference correction, to position sounds 'inside the head', and support Skins technology to completely change their look. 3D Panner Studio adds the ability to position sounds in the vertical plane, for the complete 3D experience, supports switchable HRTF (Head‑Related Transfer Function) data sets, and has a special Pad display that lets you choose different instrument icons for each audio track, and view up to 32 of them simultaneously to see a complete 3D mix in a single window. VST Automation is supported, although the plug‑in is really designed for static use, and you may hear some glitches with automation (3Dpanner Motion Effects is specifically intended for this function, and will be available later this year).
Like all dummy head‑related techniques, the 3D effects only really work with headphones, but if you're interested in spatial localisation, download the demo version immediately. The full version is $95, and various discounts and even free updates are available for existing SpinAudio customers.
- Italian developers Anwida Soft are a new name to me, but apparently they have been working on digital audio software since 1995! They've just released a freeware version of their $149 DX Reverb plug‑in. DX Reverb Light supports both mono‑in/stereo‑out and stereo‑in/stereo‑out formats, and offers true stereo reverb that won't affect imaging. Compared to its more upmarket brother (which offers eleven algorithms and ten control parameters), the Light version offers just one algorithm and four parameters, but with an attractive graphic interface, 24‑bit/96kHz support, and 64‑bit internal precision. I'm sure the Anwida download page will be very busy!
- Yamaha have firmly squashed rumours that their SW1000XG soundcard has been quietly dropped by announcing a whole batch of new drivers for it. Already released are Windows 95/98/ME version 2.50, which cures problems with large SysEx dumps. The ASIO portion also reduces latency to 28mS for 32‑bit operation, as well as providing an adjustable buffer size.
The same drivers also support Yamaha's DS2416 DSP Factory. They allow multiple applications to access this card simultaneously, and provide better performance for those people who are using both cards.
- Steinberg have recently made a free interactive recording studio software available for download on their web site. Cubasis InWired is an 8.4Mb download that supports up to 48 audio channels and 64 MIDI channels, comes with VB1, Neon, and LM9 VST Instruments, and lets you mix down to stereo or RealAudio. It even runs on Windows 95, although if you have Windows 98 or ME you can also create music with other people over the Internet using Rocket Control — in this case, project files are stored on the Rocket web server. I can also see some musicians installing this on their dedicated soft synth PC!
- Ntonyx have just released a new version 3.0 of their Style Enhancer (reviewed in SOS November '99). Its new Variable parameter provides wide‑ranging user control for each style, and the Transformation Regulators now have double‑coordinate X‑Y controllers, which make it far easier to alter two parameters in real time. You can now save your own style presets, and there's a Drums Adjuster tool for fine‑tuning the velocity parameter, again in real time. In addition, there is now a total of nine additional Style Sets (30 in each) to supplement the ones supplied with the main application.