Just when you thought you had a handle on the digital audio hardware scene, along comes Ego Systems (Ego Sys), a Korean company with a new line of hard disk recording products aimed squarely at the hearts and budgets of personal-studio owners.
The WaMi Rack 24 takes its name from its split personality-it offers both Wave and MIDI functions. Given its digital I/O and sync capabilities, it could have been called the WaMiS/PdiSmpt Rack, but fortunately the marketing folks prevailed. The WaMi Rack combines a compact PCI card with a 1U rack- mountable interface box that is connected by a 44-pin cable (which the documentation carelessly refers to as a "parallel" cable).
Combining four channels of analog input with eight channels of analog output, the WaMi supports 24-bit audio at up to 96 kHz (as of its latest driver release). It also offers stereo digital I/O, 64 channels of MIDI I/O, and synchronization capabilities. Up to four WaMi Racks can be linked together for synchronized operation if you have enough PCI slots (and an available IRQ for each). A Mac version is currently under development.
BACK OF THE RACKThe WaMi's connections fill the entire back panel of its 9-inch deep rack unit; the sensible layout is compact without being cluttered (see Fig. 1). All analog ins and outs use 1/4-inch TRS connections, allowing +4 dBu balanced or -10 dBV unbalanced operation. Putting at least one pair of analog inputs on the front panel would have made connecting and disconnecting mic cables more convenient and would also have provided enough space for XLR connectors. However, cables hanging down the front of your rack would make for a less tidy arrangement, so many users will consider this configuration a reasonable trade- off.
The four analog inputs all feature mic- or line-level operation and +12V phantom power. Both the phantom power and mic preamps are selected for pairs of inputs within the WaMi's software control panel. The eight analog outputs are globally selected for +4 dBu or -10 dBV output level. Stereo S/PDIF I/O is available in both coaxial and optical formats. When selected, digital input replaces analog inputs 3 and 4. Analog outputs 1 and 2 are considered the main analog outputs and are therefore always mirrored by the digital ones.
The WaMi reads and generates SMPTE time code through the usual pair of 1/4-inch jacks and also slaves to or generates standard word clock and 256infinity Superclock on BNC connectors. Four MIDI In and four MIDI Out connectors complete the array of jacks on the WaMi's back. Its front is simplicity itself, with status lights for power, MIDI activity, and SMPTE activity, as well as an 8-segment output-level LED for each of the eight outputs.
UP AND RUNNINGInstalling the WaMi Rack 24 is like falling off a log, but there's one little thing to watch out for: the drivers don't like to be updated, and Ego Sys recommends removing them before installing the newest version. To this end, the company thoughtfully provides a utility called infclear.exe, which can also be found on its Web site as egoclear.exe. Fortunately, I noticed this ahead of time and downloaded the latest drivers before installing the hardware. Instead of using the supplied floppy disk, I directed the Windows New Hardware wizard to the downloaded driver. It worked perfectly, and the unit was fully operational in minutes.
Ego Sys provides no software bundle with the WaMi Rack 24, and the logic of this decision depends on your perspective. The inclusion of even a lite version of a digital audio editor or sequencer would add great value if you were putting together your first system. On the other hand, if you've already made a significant investment in software, bundled programs are merely a waste of money. Because the WaMi Rack 24 is likely to appeal to musicians from both camps, it's hard to criticize Ego Sys's decision.
Drivers are included for Windows MME, DirectSound, ASIO 2.0, EASI, and NemeSys's GigaSampler. Also included is Control Desk, an applet for setting the WaMi's parameters (see Fig. 2). The center section of Control Desk determines how the analog inputs behave, allowing you to choose among mic level, +4 dBu, and -10 dBV. You can select balanced or unbalanced operation and turn phantom power on and off by clicking on the applet's clearly marked buttons. Above the buttons are four input level knobs, which can be ganged to control inputs 1 and 2 or 3 and 4 as a stereo pair.
Along the left edge of Control Desk are buttons for setting the clock source and digital I/O. The digital input features hardware sample-rate conversion, which is engaged or defeated by a large button sensibly labeled "Digital Input with SRC." (For transferring bit-for-bit clones of course, you would defeat the sample-rate conversion.) Below that, another group of buttons sets the source for inputs 3 and 4 as either analog, coaxial S/PDIF, or optical S/PDIF. Farther down the left side, you find selections for word clock, clock source, and consumer- or professional-format digital output.
You select the sample rate with a set of buttons in the upper right of Control Desk. If you select Auto, WaMi adjusts to the settings of your digital audio software when recording from the analog inputs, or adjusts to the format of the digital input when recording digitally. The Input Monitor section lets you pipe a copy of input pair 1 and 2 or 3 and 4 directly to any pair of outputs for real-time monitoring without the latency introduced by first running the audio through the computer. This is a great feature; but the addition of a level control to the input monitor would be ideal, allowing you to mix the signal with other outgoing audio without affecting input record levels. The best way to accomplish that with the WaMi is to assign the input monitor to its own output pair and then to mix it with the other outputs through an external mixer.
To prevent clipping when multiple signals are sent to the input monitor, Control Desk provides two buttons in the Mix Mode section. By selecting Soft, you tell the WaMi to reduce the output monitor levels by 6 to 12 dB depending on how many input signals are present. That allows you to set hot input levels without overdriving the output levels. If you want to bypass this setting, simply select Dynamic. Just below the Mix Mode section is a pair of buttons that can be used to set the level of the eight analog outputs for +4 dBu balanced or -10 dBV unbalanced operation.
For a device in its price range, the WaMi has a respectable set of synchronization functions. It can slave to another device through its S/PDIF input or through word clock or Superclock. It can even get its clock from the digital input while recording through analog inputs 3 and 4. It also features SMPTE time code I/O. A little pop-up panel at the bottom of Control Desk called SMPTE Desk lets you send or receive time code at 24, 25, 29.97, 30 drop, or 30 frames per second. You can stripe a tape easily and even set an offset. WaMi translates incoming time code to MIDI Time Code (MTC) for your digital audio sequencer, and the manual includes several pages of background and instructions for synching with external devices.
WAMI, HOW I LOVE YAThe WaMi Rack 24 was well behaved and a pleasure to use. Although I didn't put it on a bench to confirm its almost-too-good-to-be-true claim of 120 dB dynamic range and S/N ratio, I can certainly vouch for the fact that it is very quiet and sounds great. The more closely I listened, the more I found other weak links in my recording chain.
I would have preferred +48V phantom power, but +12V seems to be common in computer-based devices. Because the WaMi has its own power cord, though, you'd think the computer wouldn't be a limitation. The mic preamps had plenty of gain and a pleasingly neutral sound; unless you've got a persnickety condenser mic that shuns +12V phantom power (as mine does), you're in good shape for plugging your favorite mic directly into the WaMi to record. However, you will want to buy or build a mic cable (or four) that terminates in a 1/4-inch male TRS plug. That way, you can leave the cable plugged into the back of the WaMi and avoid having to fuss with XLR-to-1/4-inch adapters. Ego Sys thoughtfully provides wiring diagrams in the manual for this purpose.
I would like to see a front-panel headphone jack. The WaMi's mic preamps and phantom power obviate the need for a mixer on the input end, so why not complete the circle? My only other quibble with the WaMi is that it pops quite nastily on power-up and power-down. To its credit, Ego Sys warns of this in the manual, but I expect better from such an otherwise fine piece of gear.
With its analog and digital I/O and 24-bit, 96 kHz support, it's easy to think of the WaMi Rack 24 as primarily an audio interface and to forget its other personality. For many people, however, the WaMi's 64 channels of MIDI and ample synchronization capabilities will end the search for a MIDI interface. With so much good stuff at a fair price, the WaMi really packs a wallop.
I'm a notebook nut, so I was eager to get my hands on Ego Systems' WaMi Box ($600), a PC Card audio and MIDI interface for notebook computers. Notebook musicians have long cried out for quality audio and MIDI for their portable studios, and the WaMi Box delivers the goods. For starters, it's the first notebook device to offer more than two channels of output, with four analog outputs and two inputs. It also provides both coaxial and optical S/PDIF I/O.
On the MIDI side, the WaMi Box has 16 MB of sample RAM compatible with the Soundbank format, and it also includes a 4 MB GS wavetable sound set. The accompanying CD-ROM includes a shareware application called Virtual Sampler, and Ego Sys says that it intends to bundle the full version in the near future. Virtual Sampler adds real sampler functionality to the WaMi Box, and it also lets you import Creative SoundFonts and files from Akai CD-ROMs.
The PC Card connects to a breakout box about the size of a sandwich and only slightly heavier. The breakout box houses sample RAM, the A/D/A converters, a DSP chip, and all the physical connectors. Analog I/O is on gold-plated RCA jacks with a 1/4-inch unbalanced mic input and a 1/4-inch stereo headphone output. The only side of the breakout box not filled with connectors sports a row of status lights.
Drivers for ASIO 2.0, EASI, and NemeSys GigaSampler are in the works, and there's talk of eventual Macintosh compatibility. Windows 2000 support is also planned for the entire Ego Sys product line starting with the WaMi Box. In addition to DirectX-compatible Windows drivers, the bundled software includes a Mixer applet (see Fig. A) and a Soundbank manager. The Mixer provides faders for MIDI output and audio input and output levels, with solo and mute buttons for each. It also supplies controls for the WaMi Box's DSP-based effects, which include seven reverb types and nine chorus types. The effects are not controllable from your digital audio sequencer, however.
Despite the fact that it's billed as 20 bit, the Box can only handle 16-bit audio-the 20-bit designation refers to its converters. It's also hardwired at 44.1 kHz, so if you import 48 kHz audio through the S/PDIF input, it will be converted to 44.1 kHz on the fly. The conversion algorithm sounds pretty good, though, so that's a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent product.
I had a lot of fun with the WaMi Box; it's a great asset for anyone trying to get a lot of musical mileage out of a laptop computer.