Personal-studio owners often face a dilemma when it comes tobuying audio cards for their computers. Less-expensive cards neverhave enough inputs and outputs, but professional-level cardstypically offer more I/O than you need in a small studio setup. Whypay for features you'll never use?
Fortunately, Aardvark has introduced a new system that aptlyaddresses the personal-studio user's needs and budget. The DirectPro 24/96 offers plenty of analog inputs and outputs without goingoverboard. It also includes S/PDIF inputs and outputs, a headphonemonitoring jack, and software that turns the Direct Pro 24/96package into a truly self-contained studio system.
THE HARDWARE STORE
The Direct Pro 24/96 consists of three parts: the PCI host card,the audio interface box, and the connecting cable. The card's solidconstruction and resin-encased processor conveys quality andreliability (see Fig. 1). The powerful digital signalprocessor (DSP) provides standard digital-audio processingoperations and compression, EQ, reverb, as well as a mixingcontrol-panel application for real-time input monitoring.
The card's faceplate provides S/PDIF input and output jacks oncoaxial (RCA) connectors. Surprisingly, the S/PDIF jacks aren'tlocated on the interface box, where they would have been moreconvenient. Instead, the S/PDIF connections are on the card, wherethey're easier to daisy-chain when multiple cards (as many as fourper system) are installed. The first card acts as the master,running on its internal clock. A slave card, set to external clock,syncs to the master card by connecting the master's S/PDIF out tothe first slave card's S/PDIF in. That slave card's S/PDIF out thenconnects to the S/PDIF in of the next slave card, and so on.
A 25-pin port connects the card to the Direct Pro interface box,which houses the analog I/O and the corresponding 25-pin inputconnector. The 6-foot connecting cable is a standardstraight-through pin-to-pin shielded cable, so it might be possibleto replace it with a high-quality cable as long as ten feet.
The Direct Pro interface box has four Neutrik combination jackson the front panel (see Fig. 2). Those inputs can acceptXLR mic, as well as ¼-inch balanced (+4 dBu) or unbalanced(-10 dBV), plugs. A phantom-power switch supplies 48V to all fourXLR inputs for professional condenser mics and DI boxes that needphantom power. The mic preamps on those four inputs are clean,quiet, and well worth the difference in price between the DirectPro 24/96 and the less-expensive Direct Pro LX6 (see the sidebar“The Lighter LX6”), which lacks the preamps and XLRconnections. The XLR mic inputs on the Direct Pro 24/96 have 60 dBlevel trim, so you can't plug line-level signals in to them; youmust use ¼-inch plugs for that.
The interface box's front panel also provides a headphone jackthat is optimized for headphones with 60 to 150 ohms impedance.When simply listening to audio playback from a digital-audioapplication, the headphone output level is comfortable, but you caneasily hear what is going on around you, even with headphonesdesigned to minimize outside noise. That could be bothersome duringrecording situations. Unfortunately, no front-panel volume controlto adjust headphone levels is provided; the software control panelhandles that function.
The rear panel features four ¼-inch jacks that providebalanced or unbalanced outputs. Their levels (+4 dBu or -10 dBV)are set in the Direct Pro software. In addition, two RCA jacksserve as auxiliary “consumer level” outputs (-10 dBV).Those outputs can function as the monitor mix for all inputs,outputs, and effects, or as a third pair of outputs (5 and 6),which are handy for surround-sound mixes. A set of MIDI ports onthe rear panel lets you connect MIDI instruments or use theinterface to produce MIDI Time Code if your digital-audio softwaresupports that capability.
The Direct Pro system comes with MME and DirectX drivers forWindows 95, 98, and ME; ASIO drivers for VST applications; and GSIFdrivers for NemeSys GigaSampler and GigaStudio.Drivers for Windows 2000 and the Mac OS should be available soon.The system is fully compatible with Sound Blaster and most otheraudio cards. Because of hardware conflicts, however, you can't usethe Direct Pro 24/96 with Echo cards or Digidesign's Digi 001system.
Direct Pro 24/96 Specifications
Resolution 24-bit Sampling Rates 32, 44.1, 48, 96 kHz Frequency Response 7 Hz-44 kHz, ±0.5 dB @ 96 kHz Dynamic Range 110 dB (D/A); 100 dB (A/D) THD+N 0.002% @ 1 kHz Analog Inputs (4) combo connectors: XLR mic inputs (60 dB level trim) withphantom power (48V); ¼" unbalanced line inputs at -10 dBV (30dB level trim); ¼" balanced line inputs at +4 dBu (30 dB leveltrim) Analog Outputs (4) ¼": +4 dBu/-10 dBV; (2) aux RCA: -10 dBV Digital I/O 24-bit S/PDIF; optional AES/EBU MIDI I/O (1) In, (1) Out Sync I/O S/PDIF digital clock, MTC Dimensions (breakout box) 7" (W) 5 2.25" (H) 5 8.25" (D); 2U rack-mount adapteroptional Weight (breakout box) 4 lbs.
For best performance, adjust the size of the Direct Pro's audiobuffers if you plan to play VST instruments in real time usingDirect Pro's audio and MIDI capabilities. The default ASIO drivervalues have too much latency (29 ms); reducing the buffers' samplesize brings the latency down to a respectable 12 ms or less.(According to Aardvark, an enhanced ASIO driver with latency as lowas 4 ms should be available by press time.)
GigaSampler users will discover that they can play only16-bit audio, even though the card and the program are quitecapable of 24-bit output. That is not a problem with the newerNemeSys GigaStudio, however, because the Direct Prooutputs GigaStudio's audio at 24-bit resolution.
The Direct Pro's construction and audio quality are indeedimpressive, and the software that manages the system is equally so.The Direct Pro's Control Panel window looks and acts like a 1052hardware mixer, letting you record four channels at once andmonitor audio inputs and outputs with zero latency (see Fig.3).
The four input channels on the left correspond to the physicalinputs on the audio interface box. Input channels 3 and 4 can beswitched between the third and fourth analog inputs and the S/PDIFinputs on the card. The S/PDIF inputs, however, can't be used astwo additional inputs along with all four analog inputs.
The six channels in the middle of the mixer are dedicated toplaying tracks from a multitrack digital-audio program; eachchannel can play more than one track. For example, you can take sixrhythm tracks playing back from Steinberg's Cubase VST andmix them in real time with four live mic or line inputs. The totalnumber of tracks depends on your computer's CPU, available RAM, andhard-drive speed.
Each of the four input-channel strips provides adjustable mic-and line-level trim settings, as well as a simple but effectivecompressor with threshold, ratio, attack, and release controls. Inthe middle of each channel strip, a 3-band EQ offers ahigh-frequency control centering on 8 kHz, a low-frequency controlcentering on 220 Hz, and a midrange control with a frequency sweepbetween 50 Hz and 15 kHz. You can boost or cut all three frequencybands by 12 dB.
The fader section of the four input and six playback channelsfeatures several common controls, including Reverb knobs thatcontrol the amount of reverb sent to the channel strips. The inputstrips provide individual faders along with level meters and pansliders. The stereo playback channels provide left- andright-channel faders and their corresponding level meters. All theinput and playback channels include Mute and Solo buttons.
Stereo buttons to the left of inputs 1 and 3 lock thecorresponding channels to their neighbors on the right to formstereo pairs. The Pan controls become locked hard left and right,and changes made to either channel in the stereo pair areduplicated in the other channel.
One advantage of using the Direct Pro's real-time effects isthat they don't burden the computer's CPU, because the effects arehandled by the onboard DSP. Another important advantage is that youcan use the built-in effects without recording them; for example, Ilike to add reverb when monitoring a vocal track or use EQ as arough guide for determining later EQ settings without actuallyrecording the effects. However, you can engage the Record FX buttonon any of the four input channels and then record the effects inreal time to the corresponding tracks, though you can't use thebuilt-in effects when recording at 96 kHz.
Preset buttons on the four input channels let you save andrecall the current effects settings. However, you aren't limited torecalling the input effects on their original channels; settingsthat have been used on one channel can be recalled on the otherchannels too. An overall Preset button, located just below theMaster Reverb section, lets you save the current mixer settings,including fader and pan levels, EQ and compressor settings on eachinput channel, and reverb parameters. The mixer also includesbuttons that let you bypass the effects in the input channels.
The Direct Pro 24/96 employs an intuitive drag-and-drop approachto its internal patch bay. Clicking on the Patch Bay button opensthe Patch Bay dialog box. As with hardware patch bays, the PatchBay dialog box lets you reroute audio signals without constantlyplugging and unplugging cables. The Direct Pro patch bay, however,also controls virtual inputs and outputs from your multitrack audioprogram. For example, you can route analog inputs 1 and 2 to theircorresponding analog outputs, or you can connect playback channels1 and 2 from your digital-audio program to the Direct Pro's analogoutputs. To monitor the mix of input and playback channels at thesame time, drag the monitor connection to any of the desiredoutputs. Outputs 5 and 6 are the best choices for monitoring,because they're duplicated at the headphone jack.
You can configure the patch bay in many ways; the manualillustrates a number of common configurations. I have one smallcomplaint, though: to disengage an output, you must connect a cablefrom the Silence input to the appropriate output. That'sinconvenient if you want to erase all connections and start fromscratch. As a work-around, set up a Silence preset; then you caneasily recall it whenever you want. Fortunately, the patch bay letsyou create as many presets as you need.
THE SUM OF THE PARTS
The Direct Pro 24/96, in keeping with Aardvark's reputation, isan excellent-sounding digital-audio system. Its mic preamps arequiet and clean, as are the analog inputs and outputs. The card hasa wide variety of drivers covering almost every piece of Windowsaudio software you could imagine. The forthcoming Windows 2000 andMacintosh drivers will make the Direct Pro even more inclusive.
Furthermore, because the Direct Pro 24/96 uses its own DSP andcontrol panel, you can use the breakout box as a standalone micpreamp and effects processor. You must have the computer turned onand the software control panel running, but the capability can comein quite handy when you're not recording to the computer.
The Direct Pro's mixer program, unlike some software mixers thatare bundled with audio cards, is extremely useful. Although it addsa layer of complexity between the Direct Pro 24/96 card and yourdigital-audio applications, the mixer program's power andflexibility more than make up for any inconvenience. Finally, theDirect Pro's onboard real-time DSP, the direct monitoringcapabilities, and the included full version of Cakewalk ProAudio 9 really make this package hard to beat.
Zack Price occasionally writes under the extremelyunimaginative pseudonym of Zack Price.
Direct Pro 24/96 (Win)
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE4.0AUDIO QUALITY4.5VALUE4.5 RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Excellent-sounding digital-audio system. Cleanmic preamps. Wide variety of drivers. Includes well-designed mixersoftware. Onboard real-time DSP. Direct monitoring.
CONS: No front-panel volume control for headphones.
THE LIGHTER LX6
If you don't need the mic preamps that come with the Direct Pro24/96, you might prefer the Direct Pro LX6. It uses the same cardand includes the same DSP capabilities as the Direct Pro 24/96. Theanalog inputs, however, are line-level only with ¼-inch jacksthat accept balanced or unbalanced plugs. The LX6 also provides avolume-control knob for the headphone output (see Fig.A).
The mixer software for the LX6 is identical to the Direct Pro24/96 software except that the LX6 doesn't have mic input levelcontrols. Instead, its software switches levels between +4 dBu and-10 dBV on the input channel strips.
The basic LX6 package includes Samplitude Project for $499; theLX6/Cakewalk Pro Audio 9 bundle costs $579.
Minimum System Requirements
Direct Pro 24/96
Pentium/200; 64 MB RAM;
Windows 95/98/ME; PCI slot