Late in 1998, famed synthesizer guru Tom Oberheim founded SeaSound with the stated purpose of manufacturing high-quality, reasonably priced digital recording and audio products designed to address the practical needs of musicians. The company has achieved its goal with its first release, the Solo, a cross-platform PCI card and audio interface package that offers a host of innovative features at a very competitive price.
The Solo can handle the functions of several different pieces of studio hardware. It's a high-quality audio interface with two channels of analog I/O; two channels of S/PDIF I/O; and excellent 24-bit, 96 kHz converters. The rack-mount unit also offers two custom mic preamps with switchable phantom power; MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports; and a complete monitoring section with a simple, built-in mixer and a pair of headphone amps.
For those interested in recording into their computers with a minimum of additional gear, purchasing the Solo could obviate the need to buy a separate mixer, mic preamp, and MIDI interface. Musicians with more full-blown setups will also find the Solo's versatile feature set quite useful. Let's take a closer look.
SOLO I/OThe Solo consists of a PCI card and a handsome, metallic blue, 2U rack-mount interface that connects to the card via a 25-pin cable; this cable also supplies power to the interface from the computer. The rack unit houses most of the Solo's connections and controls. On the front panel are an XLR mic connector and a 11/44-inch instrument jack for each of the unit's two input channels. Each channel also has a front-panel Trim control that governs both the mic and instrument input, and a Record Mode switch that enables it for recording.
Line-level signals are brought into the unit via a pair of 11/44-inch inputs on the back panel, where you'll also find two 11/44-inch auxiliary inputs that you can use to bring in stereo sources for monitoring purposes. The line and auxiliary inputs are unbalanced because SeaSound's designers felt that most users would be desktop musicians who wouldn't need to run cables longer than 15 feet. The rear panel also sports two 11/44-inch TRS insert jacks for patching effects such as compression and EQ into the recording chain.
In addition, the back panel is home to a variety of 11/44-inch outputs. The stereo Master outputs can be used to feed a DAT machine or other mixdown deck. The stereo Control Room outputs can connect to the monitor inputs on an external mixer or drive a pair of powered monitors directly. You can use the Direct outputs as an aux send, with the signal returning through the auxiliary inputs. This lets you monitor with effects but print a dry signal.
I'm not happy about the placement of the Solo's S/PDIF jacks, which are located on the PCI card rather than the interface. Depending on the layout of your studio, this arrangement could be inconvenient. For instance, I was using a guitar effects processor with an S/PDIF output, and I wanted to connect it to the Solo. This meant I had to crawl behind my studio desk and plug directly into the PCI card. Of course, there are work-arounds. You could connect the card's S/PDIF jacks to a patch bay, or plug a couple of male-to-female RCA cables into the S/PDIF jacks as extensions. Nonetheless, considering that the rest of the unit is so elegantly and thoughtfully designed, this flaw surprised me a bit.
ADD THIS TO THE MIXThe Solo's built-in mixer is definitely its most innovative feature. When you use it in conjunction with the various I/O jacks on the interface, you can mix and monitor signals that are being recorded as well as existing audio and MIDI tracks.
The mixer's design is simple but effective. Each of the two front-panel input channels and two rear-panel line inputs has its own level control, which governs how much signal is sent into the computer and to the two front-panel, 11/44-inch headphone jacks. These inputs also have monitor-pan knobs. Of the four Monitor Mix knobs, two control the monitor levels of all inputs (mic, instrument, line, and auxiliary), and two govern the audio coming back from the computer. A 10-segment, 2-channel LED ladder on the front of the unit helps you set levels; it can be switched to display input or output. You also get a peak-hold switch and four clip-indicator LEDs. In addition, the Control Room outputs, Master outputs, and both headphone jacks have their own separate volume knobs.
Overall, SeaSound has designed the Solo's mixing section very well. When you use it with the built-in mixers and effects plug-ins found in audio-recording software, you have everything you need-from a mixing and monitoring standpoint-to do an entire project. The only things that the Solo doesn't provide are a set of headphones and a pair of powered monitors.
WILL YOU MIDI ME?In keeping with the all-in-one design of the Solo, MIDI In, Out, and Thru jacks are provided on the back of the interface, and MIDI activity LEDs are on the front panel. Granted, these can't match the performance of a multiple-port MIDI interface, but for the desktop musician at whom SeaSound is targeting this product, a limited MIDI interface may well suffice. After all, there are plenty of musicians who get the majority of their synth sounds from a single GM module or even a Sound Blaster-style card.
The audio capabilities of the Solo are far superior to those of the typical PC sound card, but it doesn't provide internal synth sounds. Therefore, if you have a Creative Labs Sound Blaster or a similar card, it's a good idea to use it along with the Solo. I was able to use the Solo with an Alesis ADAT-PCR card and a Sound Blaster Live Platinum card, which is a testament to its well-written drivers.
TESTING 1, 2, 3Getting the Solo up and running was a snap. First I downloaded the latest drivers from the company's Web site. Then I installed the Solo's "plug and play" PCI card into my Windows 98 computer without a hitch. (The Solo is compatible with both Mac and Windows 95/98 computers and most software that supports ASIO, Sound Manager, or WAV drivers.)
I tested the Solo on a 450 MHz Pentium III system with 384 MB of RAM; I also witnessed the card performing well on a 400 MHz Celeron system with only 64 MB of RAM. I had no compatibility problems using the Solo with the following products: Sonic Foundry's Vegas Pro, Acid Pro 1.0, Acid Rock, and Sound Forge 4.5; Cakewalk's Pro Audio 9; Steinberg's Cubase VST; and Emagic's Logic Audio Platinum 4.0. The Solo comes bundled with Steinberg's Cubase AV as well as SeaSound's Solo-o-meter, a utility that gives you onscreen metering and the ability to change sampling rates and signal routing. (At the time of this review, Solo-o-meter was available for the PC only.)
I tested the Solo's custom mic preamps (designed by Oberheim and the team at SeaSound) while cutting vocal tracks with a CAD E-100 mic. The results were uniformly excellent. In fact, when it comes to sound quality, I'd rank the Solo's preamps with many of the dedicated preamps that I've used. I was able to plug the mic into the Solo's XLR input, switch on the phantom power, engage Record mode, and go! That's one of my favorite things about the Solo: the signal path is short and direct, unlike the serpentine routings of a standard mixing board.
However, just because the Solo lets you bypass your main console during tracking doesn't mean your mixer is destined for the scrap heap (or eBay). In fact, my 16-track analog board has found a new life as a submixer. I run the outputs from gear such as my synth module, vocal processor, and computer sound card into the mixer, and run the mixer's sub outputs into the line inputs on the Solo. That way, I don't have to do a lot of repatching when I want to print a track to disk from one of these sources. This setup also makes it easy to add EQ and effects in the analog domain prior to recording the signal.
THE LAST WORDSeaSound really did its homework and came up with a truly innovative and practical design for a sound card-audio interface product. And despite the many features not found on rival systems, the price is more than competitive. The first time you get your hands on the rack-mount box and give the knobs a turn, it'll be obvious to you that the company didn't skimp on parts. From the elegant exterior design to the smooth control pots to the well-placed connectors on the front and back, this product is a winner.
My only complaint is the placement of the S/PDIF jacks, but in the end that's only a minor point. I highly recommend this impressive product. Whether you're contemplating your first audio card purchase or looking to replace or augment your current model, you should strongly consider going Solo.