With Digigram's VXpocket PC Card, recordists who use notebook computers can now have 24-bit recording capabilities without carrying around anything extra.
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With Digigram's VXpocket PC Card, recordists who use notebook computers can now have 24-bit recording capabilities without carrying around anything extra. A number of manufacturers have made or attempted to make PC Card audio devices over the years, with mixed results. Digigram learned a great deal from the development of its PCXpocket line of special-purpose PC Cards, and with the VXpocket the company ventures into territory where few have gone and lived to tell the tale (see the sidebar "What Do They Do for an Encore?").

The VXpocket is one of only two pro-quality PC Card audio devices currently available for mainstream audio applications, and it's the only one that doesn't require an external box. It's also the only device on the market that gives PowerBook users an alternative to their built-in audio system.

MAXIMAL MINIMALISMThe VXpocket is a Type II PC Card (formerly known as a PCMCIA card) that offers two channels of high- quality analog or digital audio I/O for Macintosh and Windows 95, 98, and NT notebooks. It supports 16- or 24-bit recording at sample rates of up to 48 kHz. Analog inputs and outputs are on balanced XLR connectors, and S/PDIF coaxial digital I/O is on RCA connectors.

The package also includes a bare-bones manual and drivers for Macs (Sound Manager and ASIO) and PCs (Wave and ASIO). Your computer must have a Type II PC Card slot, and Windows users must have a free IRQ.

ANSWERED PRAYERSRarely have I seen an installation as smooth as the VXpocket's. On my Toshiba notebook (a Pentium II/266 MHz with 96 MB of RAM running Windows 98), the Plug and Play process worked exactly as it should. I was recording in two minutes. Note, however, that the haphazard implementation of PC Card expansion slots in notebook computers is one of the industry's best examples of a poor standard, so your installation experience may differ.

I downloaded the latest drivers from Digigram's Web site, and they also installed without a hitch. Version 2.20b and higher of the ASIO drivers for the Mac and Windows 95 and 98 offer 24-bit support and let you select internal or external clock through the digital input. The next revision will add DirectSound support for Windows 98 SE and Windows 2000. It should be available by the time you read this, so check for the latest update.

IS IT LIVE?To get a feel for the VXpocket's sound and operation, I recorded an off-the-shelf CD through the unit's analog inputs. The playback sounded fine, if a bit quiet. By raising the Analog In slider in the VXpocket Mixer (a simple applet that I'll discuss later), I was able to raise the gain to its proper level. Once I did that, the VXpocket's recording was barely distinguishable from the original version. As you might expect, my 24-bit recording sounded even more like the original. The VXpocket's sound is clean, quiet, and uncolored-everything you've always wanted from your laptop's audio.

If you're into field recording (and isn't that the point of notebook audio?), you'll appreciate the fact that the VXpocket supports microphone-level as well as line-level inputs. You'll need an external phantom-power source to use condenser mics, but you can plug in dynamic mics and start recording right away. The Mixer allows you to switch between line-level and mic-level input gains.

WIELDING THE UNWIELDYAt first I was taken aback by the VXpocket's bulky XLR connectors. Size and weight are critical factors in notebooks and their accessories, so why burden your portable setup with a clunky cable cluster? On the input side, the rationale is obvious. XLRs let you plug high-quality mics right into the card.

On the output side, though, the logic is less clear. I like being able to plug my notebook right into my mixer's balanced inputs, but in the field the absence of a headphone output is frustrating. I don't want to drag along a headphone amp for mixing or editing by the pool or during a long flight.

APP PERPLEXINGThe Mixer is an unassuming but powerful (and occasionally puzzling) applet essential for controlling the card properly (see Fig. 1). It doesn't install automatically, but you can set it to load at startup if you wish. The manual says nothing about the Mixer, but the Mixer's short Help file tells you most of what you need to know. The Help file's only weak area is its description of how to set input levels.

Input levels are controlled with the Mixer's Analog In slider and two numerical parameters, Nominal In and Headroom In, which are set in the Advanced Input dialog box. Together the two settings are the equivalent of a mixer's input-trim pot. For example, to record a live performance from a mixer's stereo line out, you'd set Nominal In to the mixer's line-level output (typically -10 dBV or +4 dBu). This lets the VXpocket know what incoming level to expect. Next you'd set a Headroom In value reflecting how hard you expect to push that line out. The VXpocket deducts this value from the input gain to give you a margin of error before clipping occurs. After setting Nominal In and Headroom In, you'd make fine adjustments with the Analog In slider.

To set the VXpocket for mic-level inputs, Digigram recommends starting with a Nominal In value of -27.0 and a Headroom In value of 0.0. If you need more gain, you must choose a lower Nominal In value; -30, for instance. If this seems counterintuitive, just remember that you're telling the VXpocket that the mic's output is lower and therefore needs more boost.

If you're importing digital tracks via the S/PDIF connections, set Nominal In and Headroom In to 0.0 and center the Analog In and Digital In faders to get an accurate digital clone of the source. When you export digital material, you select Consumer (S/PDIF) or Professional (AES/EBU) format in the Advanced Output dialog box.

The Mixer gives you control over one of the card's most valuable features: a direct monitor loop. This loop feeds the incoming signal directly to the output for real-time monitoring. The incoming signal bypasses your software, so it won't suffer from latency, but the bad news is that you can't apply plug-in effects. A fader and mute button let you adjust the monitor signal without affecting recording levels.

COAXIAL COAXINGAfter spending years coaxing better audio out of my notebook than it was ready to give, I had a great time using the VXpocket. It sounds good and is easy to use. Its mic- or line-level operation makes it extremely flexible for field recording. I tried plugging a Shure SM58 mic directly into it and running a condenser mic through a tiny tube preamp, and the VXpocket happily and accurately recorded the results in both instances. Its real-time monitoring function made overdubbing tracks easy and pleasant.

The only glitch I encountered during my tests was an occasional dropout error in Cakewalk's Pro Audio 9, and that happened so seldom that I don't know whether to pin the blame on the VXpocket or another variable. If you're looking to turn your notebook into a serious DAW, give the VXpocket a listen.

Perhaps out of wishful thinking, a number of people have hailed the VXpocket's cousins in the PCXpocket series as viable options for mainstream music production. I made the same error on my Web site prior to the introduction of the VXpocket. Similar hopes were pinned on two recently released multichannel versions of the PCXpocket.

Unfortunately, the PCXpockets don't support popular, commercially available music software. The PCXpockets are special-purpose devices intended for testing, measuring, and industrial applications, and they include onboard processing for which custom applications must be written, often by third-party software developers. Moreover, a PCXpocket costs twice as much as the VXpocket.

The good news, however, is that Digigram has just announced two new VXpocket models, of which one, the VXpocket 440, is the first PC Card to support four input channels at once. The 440 brings multichannel audio to notebook recording, offering four balanced inputs and four balanced outputs on XLR connectors. It features the same 24-bit converters as its stereo sibling, as well as S/PDIF digital I/O. In another first for laptops, Digigram has added SMPTE (LTC) time-code input, a move that will certainly be welcomed by anyone doing video work in the field. The 440 should be available in July for $1,069.

Due to the bandwidth limitations inherent in PC Cards, the 440 doesn't offer full-duplex recording on four inputs and four outputs. When it's operating in Full-Duplex mode, you get only one stereo input and one stereo output, as with the original VXpocket. To get four simultaneous inputs or two simultaneous stereo inputs, you need to shut down the outputs completely. You won't be able to monitor previously recorded tracks, but you can monitor all four inputs in real time just as you can with the VXpocket. Similarly, to access all four outputs at once you must give up on the idea of recording at the same time.

At the time of this writing, Digigram was planning the VXpocket v2 upgrade, which adds SMPTE (LTC) time-code input to the original complement of stereo analog and digital I/O. Digigram built time code into the card's original design, so owners need only purchase a new cable for $75 to employ the upgrade feature. Version 2 will sell for the same price as the VXpocket ($729).

It's important to note that applications requiring Sound Manager or the Microsoft Wave protocol can't use the LTC input because those two standards don't support time code. To take advantage of the new VXpockets' synchronization capabilities, you must use either an ASIO-compatible application on the Mac or PC or a DirectSound-compatible application on the PC.

Having seen so many PC Cards abandoned or discontinued, I'm impressed by Digigram's accomplishments in the VXpocket series. Not only has the company succeeded where others have failed, it has done so with attention to detail and an ear for high-quality audio.