The Aardvark Aark 20/20+ is a component recording system that features rock-solid construction and high-quality sound. Like other products in its niche, the Aark 20/20+ includes a multichannel sound card, outboard A/D/A converters, and a breakout cable. Though its individual features don't always place it at the top of the heap in every category, it's a worthy successor to the company's successful Aark 20/20 card.
With a large number of similarly configured systems available today, prices for such products have become fairly competitive. Still, selecting the right card for your needs can be a difficult process. I'll discuss what the Aark 20/20+ has to offer, and why it might be a good choice for you.
THE HOST WITH THE MOSTThe heart of the Aark 20/20+ is a single-slot PCI board, which Aardvark calls the "host card." Unlike some audio cards, the Aark host card's circuitry is shielded in a protective casing (see Fig. 1). This shielding, along with converters that are housed in a separate external unit, reduces RF interference from within the computer. Moreover, the card's solid feel lends it an air of indestructibility. I can't say whether that impression is justified, but it does inspire confidence in the card's construction.
Installing the host card involves several steps. First, insert the card into an open PCI slot, then turn on your computer and install the low-level drivers as instructed by the dialog boxes. (Because the card is a Plug and Play device, Windows 95 or 98 should automatically detect its presence when you boot up your system. See the list of frequently asked questions on Aardvark's Web site for a discussion of known incompatibilities.)
After the low-level drivers are installed, you'll need to install the Aark Manager software. This utility is used to configure any Aark 20/20-series or Aark TDIF cards that you may have in your system. (You can use the Aark 20/20+ with other Aardvark products, such as the original Aark 20/20 card.) In fact, it is possible to use four Aark cards in one system simultaneously. Just be sure to connect the proper converter box to its corresponding card. For example, the Aark 20/20+ supports both balanced and unbalanced lines, whereas the previous version supports only unbalanced lines. Because the converter boxes are designed for use with a particular host card, any mismatch will cause the system not to work.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOXA 6-foot, shielded 25-pin cable connects the host card to the back of the Aark 20/20+ interface box. The cable length is more generous than what I've seen in some other card systems, but I would still prefer that it be longer. Although Aardvark will not guarantee performance if a longer interface cable is used, some users report that they have successfully used 10-foot cables with the Aark 20/20+. If you decide to build your own cable, make sure it is properly shielded and wired. Otherwise, you will seriously damage the Aark 20/20+ and quite possibly your computer as well. Also keep in mind that your warranty becomes void if you use a host cable not issued by Aardvark.
The interface box (see Fig. 2) is powered via the host card, which draws its power from the computer. This reduces the possibility of ground loops and makes for clean, quiet operation. The box's eight shielded 20-bit A/D/A converters further minimize RF interference from other elements within the computer system. Moreover, the front-panel analog I/O connectors use TRS jacks, which also helps prevent noise. The front panel provides a pair of RCA jacks for electrical S/PDIF I/O. They can be used simultaneously with the eight analog inputs and outputs for a total of 10-channel operation.
The back panel of the interface box provides optical S/PDIF I/O, which can also be used for 8-channel Lightpipe I/O when the $299 ADAT expansion option is installed (more details to follow). Next to the optical jacks are the MIDI In and Out ports. Though you can use the ports as your main MIDI interface, one set of 16 MIDI channels may not be enough for many users. In all likelihood, most users will employ the MIDI ports strictly for MIDI Time Code synchronization. Moreover, users with the ADAT option installed will probably use the MIDI ports with the ADAT sync adapter, which has a pair of MIDI jacks on one end and a 9-pin ADAT sync jack on the other.
The interface box also contains two BNC connectors for word-clock I/O. You can use an external word-clock signal for a timing reference, or you can link multiple Aark units in a master-slave chain to ensure that they all operate in perfect synchronization.
KEEPING TABSYou control the Aark 20/20+ system's signal routing by way of the included Aark Manager software. Clicking on the Aark Manager icon opens the Aark 20/20+ Control Panel, which is divided into five tabs. The first is the Hardware tab, which shows, among other things, the relationship between the inputs and the selected output sources.
Most of the time, you route inputs to their corresponding outputs. However, there may be times when you want to route inputs to the Monitor Bus outputs. For instance, you may want to create a headphone mix that is separate from the signals going into the computer. Or perhaps your audio program does not let you monitor an input signal while it is being recorded. In either case, just use the Hardware tab to select the analog or digital outputs you want to use as the monitor bus, and select Monitor Left or Right from the drop-down menu in the Output Routing Source column.
Besides letting you configure audio routing, the Hardware tab also meters audio levels for each analog input and S/PDIF stereo digital input. Furthermore, you can monitor any input or output source pair using the meters in the lower left corner of the Hardware tab. If you select Tone as an output routing source (and as a metering source), you can use this feature to calibrate your mixer with the Aark 20/20+. If you select Silence, you can measure the signal-to-noise ratio of your outboard setup.
There are other options for choosing analog or ADAT inputs and for ADAT Optical or Toslink (optical S/PDIF) outputs. When selected, the input icons read ADAT 1 through ADAT 8. Additionally, each ADAT output appears in the drop-down menus for each output routing source. Unfortunately, you cannot combine the analog I/O with the ADAT I/O to achieve 16-channel operation through a single Aark system. You may use the ADAT outputs while using the analog inputs, and ADAT inputs along with the analog outputs. However, when you use the ADAT outputs, the same audio is sent directly to the analog outputs.
The Software tab further extends the Hardware tab's capabilities by allowing control of the software record channels and playback/monitor routing. Although it may sound as if this tab replicates the functions of the Hardware tab, this is not the case: the Software tab manages the connections between the software device drivers (that is, the Windows MME drivers) and the hardware I/O. The presence of status indicators in this window is helpful because it lets you see precisely which wave drivers are being employed for both recording and playback at any given time. Another screen provides versatile routing and mixing options, which means you may never need to physically rewire the inputs to your system.
The I/O Levels tab is used to set any combination of the Aark 20/20+ inputs or outputs to either unbalanced or balanced levels. (You can combine different types of inputs if needed.) The Keys tab is where the Aark 20/20+ ASIO serial number is located; you'll need this to obtain your free ASIO driver key from the company. The Advanced tab offers additional control over the Aark 20/20+'s performance-for example, switching the S/PDIF Channel Status between Consumer and Professional mode, selecting from among various warning messages that the system uses (if you attempt to play an incompatible file, for instance), and customizing the ASIO configuration settings. You can also restore all the default settings with a single mouse-click.
IF I WERE KINGThe Aark 20/20+ system worked admirably with my computer and almost all of my software. I had some glitches with Cakewalk Pro Audio 8 (until I got the 8.04 update patch), but I don't perceive this as a problem originating in the Aark 20/20+ hardware or software. The sound quality was excellent in all instances, despite the fact that the unit has "only" 20-bit A/D and D/A converters.
However, I feel that a few changes would improve the quality of the system. First, I would like the inclusion of at least a 10-foot cable to connect the host card to the interface box, for greater flexibility in placing the box in a studio environment. I would also prefer to see at least two sets of MIDI I/O.
I'm not particularly concerned about the use of 20-bit converters. I'm sure that some readers might find my stance surprising. Excellent 20-bit performance is sonically superior to mediocre 24-bit performance, and, as I mentioned, the card sounds great. I do wish that the Aark 20/20+ had DirectX drivers, though. (DirectX drivers are expected to be available in the fourth quarter of this year.) In fact, they should be standard on any professional audio card. After all, many modern audio applications can use DirectX drivers to enhance their performance. (Don't confuse the hardware performance enhancements provided by DirectX with the plug-in standard of the same name. The Aark 20/20+, like any Windows sound card, is perfectly happy if your software employs DirectX plug-ins.) The inclusion of ASIO drivers, which can improve performance, is commendable. (A special driver for NemeSys GigaSampler allows very low latency with the Aark 20/20+.)
All told, I believe that the Aark 20/20+ is a solid performer for the money. Although there are other good systems on the market that equal it in features and quality, I would have no problem recommending the Aark 20/20+. It sounds great, and it doesn't have any of what I would consider to be true flaws.
The Aark 20/20+ wouldn't be my first choice if I had an all-digital studio or if I used multiple MDMs to record and play tracks-other multiport digital-only cards would be more cost-effective in this particular circumstance. Also, owners of TDIF-based systems might do better to use the Aark TDIF card instead. However, for those who use one or two MDMs and do computer-based hard-disk recording, the Aark 20/20+ is a worthy addition to the studio. Best of all, it lets you take advantage of both recording technologies.
If you're looking for a well-made multichannel audio-card system for your Windows PC, then check out the Aark 20/20+. It may be just what you need.
Zack Price is a digital audio editor and Windows digital audio consultant in the Chicago area.