It seems that every new computer-based audio-product release offers more channels, fancier features, higher audio quality, and, on occasion, a lower price. Aardvark is a strong participant in the battle for your computer audio dollars, and with the Direct Pro Q10, your money buys more than ever before. The Aardvark Q10 provides ten channels of 24-bit audio I/O, eight mic preamps, a software-controlled mixer, and a host of other goodies.
Q IT UP
The Aardvark Q10 consists of a PCI-based host adapter, a rackmountable interface box, and a cable that connects the two. The 6-foot cable was long enough to reach from my computer to the ideal mounting spot in my equipment rack (right beneath my patch bay). If your studio is more spacious, you might wish that the Q10's cable were a bit longer.
The PCI card is heavily shielded and contains only the connector for the audio interface cable. All A/D and D/A conversion takes place in the external interface box, and all of the audio, MIDI, and synchronization connections are located there. I definitely prefer the Aardvark Q10's scheme to products that put audio, MIDI, or sync connections on the host card itself, an arrangement that requires me to crawl behind my computer and curse the rat's nest of cables back there.
Silver with bright purple rack ears, the Aardvark Q10's interface box certainly stands out. I realize that manufacturers need to capture the attention of an increasingly fickle public, but I'm spotting a disturbing trend in my equipment rack. I thought my studio looked good when everything was composed of austere black rack units; now I have Joemeek green, PreSonus blue, JLCooper gray, and (sigh) Aardvark purple.
The Aardvark Q10's front panel contains eight combo jacks that accept XLR and ¼-inch connectors (see Fig. 1). The line-level inputs can accommodate +4 dBu and -10 dBV signals on balanced or unbalanced connectors. Mic inputs 1 through 4 come with 48V phantom power, but a single switch puts power on all four jacks. The phantom power doesn't affect the line-level inputs. When I had only one or two condenser mics in use, I hooked line-level sources to the other powered connectors, and no inputs were wasted.
Inputs 7 and 8 can accommodate high-impedance, low-level sources such as electric guitars. By activating one of the two guitar switches on the front panel, you can plug a guitar directly in to the Q10 without using a direct box or a separate preamp.
Also on the front panel is a level control for the monitor outputs and a headphone jack with its own level control. A bright red LED glows when power is applied, and believe it or not, you have software control over the brightness of this power indicator. The interface box has no separate power connector and is powered entirely from the cable to your computer.
BEHIND THE BOX
The Q10's rear panel, in addition to the connector for the host adapter cable, sports in and out connectors for MIDI, word clock, and S/PDIF. It has eight balanced ¼-inch analog channel outputs and four channel inserts hardwired to input channels 1 through 4.
Two additional outputs, Monitor L and Monitor R, are intended to feed your control-room monitors. Typically, you run your master mix signal through those outputs. However, you can route quite a variety of signals through them. The only technical difference between the monitor outputs and the other analog outputs is that you can control their volume with the front panel's Monitor Level knob.
Aardvark offers driver support for Windows MME, ASIO2, DirectSound, and Tascam GigaStudio (GSIF), but, unfortunately, only for the Windows 95, 98, and ME platforms. MME and ASIO drivers for Windows 2000 and XP are in the beta stage; I tried them, but they weren't quite ready for prime time. Hopefully, official 2000 and XP drivers will be available by the time you read this. According to Aardvark, WDM and Macintosh drivers are in development, as well.
Installing the Q10 software is straightforward. Windows recognizes a new Plug-and-Play device as it boots up, and you simply point to the Q10 driver on the installation CD. Once the driver is in place, you install the Control Panel software from the CD.
IN COMPLETE CONTROL
The Direct Pro Q10 Control Panel gives you total control of the Q10 hardware, allowing you to set and check levels, route audio, and configure every aspect of your Q10 system (see Fig. 2). The Control Panel consists of one main screen and some ancillary dialog boxes. The window isn't resizable, but an Always on Top option lets you keep it visible when other audio software is active. You can even decide if the onscreen mixer will be blue, silver, red, or gold. As many as four Direct Pro Q10s (or any member of Aardvark's Direct Pro series) can be installed in your system at the same time. The Control Panel provides a menu command to switch between any installed host adapters.
The Control Panel's left side presents eight fader groups, one for each analog input, and a stereo fader for the S/PDIF input. In addition to a fader, each analog fader group has a mic/line switch, a trim control, and a level meter. The meters have peak indicators (which can be switched off); they light when an overload condition exists.
Each fader group also has numerical indicators for trim, fader position, and level (or peak, if you prefer). For stereo operation, Link buttons ensure that settings for adjacent fader groups remain identical. Each fader group provides Mute and Solo buttons and a Pan control. The sole purpose of the Pan control is to place the channel's signal in the Direct Pro Q10 monitor bus. You'll use your audio-recording software to establish pan settings in your recordings for the input channels.
Channels 7 and 8 lose their mic/line switches when you activate the guitar switches that are on the interface box. The S/PDIF fader group is identical to the others, except the mic/line switch and trim control are replaced with an indicator for digital signal lock. Because it represents a stereo signal, the S/PDIF fader group has no Pan control.
To the right of the input-fader groups are five stereo faders that represent the playback channels from your audio software. Accompanying each fader are peak/level meters with overload indicators for the left and right channels, a numerical indicator of the fader position, and buttons for mute and solo.
The remaining fader group controls the monitor mix bus. Separate faders and meters for the left and right channels are provided, in addition to numerical indicators for fader position and peak/level.
The Control Panel's main screen has analog-style meters for the left and right monitor signals, a phantom-power indicator, the brightness control for the interface box's power LED, and buttons to access the remaining Control Panel features. A Source-Select control lets you choose between 32, 44.1, and 48 kHz operation. (The Q10 does not support 96 kHz audio, but such support is supposed to be available in a future software release.) If you want to sync to an external source, use the Source-Select control to select S/PDIF or word clock.
TAKE THE BEST ROUTE
The Routing screen lets you choose an audio signal for each audio output that appears on the back of the Q10 interface box (see Fig. 3). The sources include any input channel, any playback channel, the left or right channel of the monitor mix, a 1 kHz test tone, and digital silence. The S/PDIF always outputs the signal that appears on analog outputs 7 and 8, but I can live with that restriction.
You can create any number of routing presets, representing your favorite configurations for the audio-signal outputs. That's the good news; the bad news is that it takes a whopping six mouse-clicks to recall a routing preset from the main Control Panel screen (including clicks required to close the dialogs you open in the process).
Another set of presets can be yours in only four mouse-clicks, but that's still too many clicks. Those presets let you capture all of the settings in the Control Panel, including output routings, fader positions, trim levels, and configuration parameters. The presets are handy, but what I really wanted was MIDI-based control over mixing and routing. Such capabilities would let me fully automate my mixes with a sequencer and use an external hardware control surface.
A click of the Control Panel's Advanced button brings up a multitabbed dialog box containing all sorts of settings and information. There you can fine-tune the ASIO and DirectSound performance, switch the analog outputs between -10 dBV and +4 dBu operation (each output is individually switchable), and view the in-use status for each of the Q10's five stereo channels.
The advanced-settings dialog also lets you switch the meters between prefader and postfader operation and switch the S/PDIF output between consumer and professional formats. One setting switches the recording source of channels 9 and 10; by default, those channels carry the signal from the S/PDIF input. When you switch them to the Monitor mix instead, you gain instant, all-digital mixdown capability from channels 1 through 8 to channels 9 and 10.
THINKING ABOUT Q
My experience with the Q10 was entirely positive. In my personal studio, I want to simply sit down and play an instrument without having to configure a bunch of software settings. With the Q10's built-in monitor mix and front-panel level control, I could do that easily (though I still had to boot up the computer). I could plug in a microphone, guitar, and keyboard and then record them with ease. I could put the instrument I was playing in a headphone mix with the playback tracks and record only the instrument. I could even mix down my tracks without ever leaving the digital realm. With a modest studio setup such as mine, it's possible to completely replace a mixer with the Q10 and a patch bay.
The Q10's audio quality is excellent. Self-noise was inaudible except at extreme settings. When I connected my Les Paul Studio, the guitar inputs sounded warm and clean. I did a very unscientific comparison between the Q10's mic preamps and a PreSonus MP20 (a 2000 EM Editors' Choice winner). The Q10 held up quite well. The MP20 exhibited a subtle fullness that I couldn't hear in the Q10, but I would have no qualms about using the Q10 for serious recording.
The documentation for the Q10 is adequate but not outstanding. A 44-page manual takes you through the system, and that's really all you need. There's no online help, but frankly, I didn't miss it.
The Q10 is an excellent system for the small studio, provided you run Windows 95, 98, or ME on your computer. My primary environment is Windows 2000 and Cakewalk Sonar, so I'm anxious to see solid Windows 2000 support and WDM drivers for the Q10. If you're looking for a capable system to record and mix down ten channels of audio, the Q10 is hard to beat.
Allan Mettsis an Atlanta-based musician, a software and systems designer, and a consultant.
Minimum System Requirements
Direct Pro Q10
Pentium/233; 64 MB RAM; Windows 95/98/ME; PCI slot
Direct Pro Q10 Specifications Resolution24-bitSampling Rates32, 44.1, 48 kHzFrequency Response7 Hz-44 kHz, ±0.5 dBDynamic Range110 dB (D/A); 100 dB (A/D)Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise0.002% @ 1 kHzAnalog Audio Inputs(8) combo connectors: XLR mic inputs with input trim (phantom power on 1-4) and balanced ¼" line inputs (+4 dBu/-10 dBV) with input trim; (2) unbalanced ¼" hi-Z (replace line in 1 and 2) with input trimAnalog Audio Inserts(4) ¼" TRSAnalog Audio Outputs(8) balanced ¼" channel outputs (+4 dBu/-10 dBV); (2) balanced monitor outputs (+4 dBu/-10 dBV); (1) ¼" stereo headphoneDigital-Audio I/O24-bit S/PDIF RCASync I/O(1) BNC word-clock in; (1) BNC word-clock out; S/PDIF clock; MTCMIDIIn, OutExpansion Card TypePCI, 5" lengthOnboard DSP24-bit, 80 MIPSExpansion Card Connector(1) 6' shielded 25-pin connectorDimensions (interface box)1U × 6.5" (D)Weight6.5 lb.
Direct Pro Q10 (Win)
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE4.5AUDIO QUALITY4.5VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Extensive routing capabilities. Intuitive Control Panel. Good-quality preamps. Clean sound.
CONS: Drivers only for Windows 95, 98, and ME. No MIDI-based controller automation.