Guillemot's Maxi Studio ISIS (Interactive Sound Integration System) sound card covers a lot of bases, and covers them all pretty well. It offers a RAM-based wavetable synthesizer that comes standard with 4 MB (expandable to 36 MB) and complete sample-editing software. It also has a half-rackspace audio interface with eight inputs and four outputs on unbalanced 11/44-inch connectors, 20-bit converters, optical and coaxial S/PDIF I/O, and MIDI In/Out/Thru. The final touch is onboard DSP to provide surround sound and other effects on two or four speakers.
The Maxi Studio ISIS is strictly a 16-bit system-even the digital I/O passes only 16 bits-and this will rule it out for some users. Still, its sound is just fine. The recordings I made came out sounding natural, reasonably uncolored, and very quiet. Its synthesis and sampling capabilities are also good, especially if you load it with RAM. The Maxi Studio ISIS is a good value, no matter how you look at it.
Some clarification is in order, however, regarding ISIS's "RISC-based Digital Signal Processor (DSP)." Guillemot's Web site and print ads say this DSP "will provide audio enthusiasts with a powerful effects-processing engine." This statement led me to expect that I could use it for EQ, reverb, chorus, or similar effects to take some of the load off my CPU. This is not the case. Powerful DSP-based effects such as reverb, pitch shifting, and surround processing are indeed available, but only in "multimedia" mode, which is used for games only. In its music-production mode, the processor is reconfigured to handle synthesis and audio I/O, not effects.
SETTING IT ALL UPInstallation was simple and relatively trouble free. ISIS requires an open PCI slot for its primary card and an open bracket space for its daughterboard, which does not plug into a slot. The daughterboard provides the connector for the interface and connects to the primary board via a ribbon cable. A 2-meter cable is provided for connecting the interface to the daughterboard. No additional power is required for the interface.
Windows recognized the new hardware and initiated the appropriate wizard, but I had to point it to the installation CD. The rest of the driver and software installation went pretty well, with only the usual minor bumps along the way. The package includes a floppy disk that updates the CD version. In addition, for best performance (see the sidebar "Track by Track by Track"), you should install two more update files, which total about 3.5 MB and are available from the Guillemot Web site.
After you have installed the drivers and applications, you are prompted to install the bundled software, which includes Emagic's Logic Audio Pro ISIS, Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro SE, and Sonic Foundry's Acid DJ. All are scaled-down versions of well-respected products. Together they provide ISIS users with plenty of horsepower for most music-making situations, although some users will undoubtedly want to upgrade to the full versions. Demo CDs from Steinberg and Cakewalk complete the package. I tested ISIS with the stock bundle and also with Cakewalk Pro Audio 8.04.
SOUNDBANKS AND SUCHThe ISIS offers two onboard synthesizers for 64-note polyphony. The synths are accessed via two internal MIDI ports, for a total of 32 channels. The two ports show up as ISIS Synthesizer and ISIS Synthesizer Extended, but they share the same RAM and therefore the same sound banks. This means, for example, that you could assign 32 patches from the same bank without having to load them into RAM twice (one time for each "separate synth").
ISIS's default 4 MB GM/GS sound set is licensed from Roland, and it sounds quite good, as you'd expect, with a nice acoustic grand piano, a decent Clavinet, and much more. The drum sets are solid and convincing, if not extremely contemporary. I found the solo and ensemble strings very usable, not just as background pads, but in some classical situations as well. The wind instruments and guitars are more of a hit-and-miss proposition: weak trumpet but fair bassoon, good nylon-string acoustic guitar but thin steel-string. But even the instruments that sound sorry in solo have that Sound Canvas flair for working well in context. Of course, the great thing about a card like this is that you can tweak or replace what you don't like.
Keep in mind that the default sound set takes up all of the standard memory. You'll definitely want to pick up a 32 MB SIMM at the same time you purchase your ISIS so you can experiment with additional banks without having to unload the default set. Installing the SIMM is simple, but it does require setting a jumper. The online documentation provides complete instructions for this, but no printed instructions are included. So neophytes will have to install the card, software, and online manuals in order to learn how to install the additional RAM, then take it all apart again to perform the installation.
Guillemot has also included on the installation CD almost 200 MB of sounds from a company called Groove Style (www.groovestyle.com). These cover a wide range of instruments and styles, from pop/rock drum kits to blues harmonica to shake-yer-booty loops to squeaky-saxophone riffs. The quality of the sounds is generally very good, giving you plenty of material to work with and plenty of ideas for programming your own sounds.
The sound-bank format is proprietary, and there isn't any simple way to convert banks from other popular sample formats. But Groove Style has lots of other sounds available on its Web site, and Guillemot promises to make more sound banks available for download from its Maxi Sound Web site (www.maxisound.com).
An applet called Soundbank Manager is included for loading and combining sound banks. You can launch it from the Start menu or by right-clicking on the ISIS Manager icon in the system tray. Soundbank Manager's interface is divided into three tabs: Bank Downloader, Memory Explorer, and Bank Compiler.
Bank Downloader is for loading and unloading banks via the available RAM. Just right-click on the first available bank number, then select Load. An Explorer window opens, from which you select any available sound-bank file. Bank Downloader also includes a "gas gauge" display to let you know how much memory you have left to work with. (Tip for Windows 98 users: It's annoying when you try to load a bank of unknown size and find you don't have room for it. Before loading, use the Details button on the Load window's toolbar to see the bank's file size.)
Memory Explorer shows the sound banks you've loaded and the MIDI banks and patches of which they're composed. You can use the onscreen keyboard or an external MIDI device to audition the sounds. Bank Compiler, the third tab, is used when you create your own sound banks. I'll describe that process next.
Instrument Manager is where the creation process begins (see Fig. 1). With it you can modify existing sound banks or create your own from scratch. It's not a simple process, but the documentation leads you step-by-step in decent fashion. Instrument Manager packs some serious power for molding your samples, allowing for everything from intricate keymappings to multilayered samples and Velocity crossfades. With two LFOs, three envelope generators, and a resonant filter, you can tweak to your heart's content.
My big beef about the way ISIS manages its synth resources is that neither Soundbank Manager nor Instrument Manager will share ISIS with another application; they won't even share with each other. If you're working on a piece in your sequencer and decide to experiment with some other sounds, you need to save your work, exit your sequencer, open Soundbank Manager, find and load the sounds you want, exit Soundbank Manager, then open your sequencer again. At this point you can finally see if the sound works in context the way you'd hoped. This is a far too cumbersome procedure in an otherwise sensible package.
ISIS INS AND OUTSThe 2-meter cable that connects the interface to the computer is long enough for a typical desktop studio. If it's not long enough for your setup, you'll have to rearrange things, because Guillemot says 2 meters is the maximum operating length.
You can run your audio sources through a mixer first, or you can connect them directly to ISIS. Either way, you'll be making unbalanced line-level connections. If a particular source has insufficient gain, ISIS can provide a 6 dB boost, which you enable through the Console 8/4 mixer applet. It's a global adjustment, not per-input, so you'll need to trim back your other sources accordingly.
MIDI In, Out, and Thru connections are made at the back of the interface. S/PDIF digital audio inputs and outputs are conveniently located on the front panel in both optical and coaxial formats. If you use powered monitors without a mixer, you'll long for a front-panel headphone jack. In a pinch you could use the 11/48-inch line-out jack in the back of the card; it has enough power to drive headphones. But the sound coming through the "game card" circuitry isn't as good, and you'll have to control the volume through Windows' volume control.
ISIS's A/D and D/A converters are housed in the interface, so induced electrical noise from hard drives and fans isn't a problem. I found them to be very quiet. They're 20-bit converters, but remember that ISIS operates at a maximum 16-bit resolution, even via the digital connections. (The extra bits could, theoretically, improve the recorded sound quality somewhat, but I didn't do any serious A/B comparisons with other cards during this review.) Internal processing is performed at 28-bit resolution. Buttons on the Console 8/4 allow you to select a sample rate of 32, 44.1, or 48 kHz, or slave to the digital input.
MAXI MIXINGPerhaps the most remarkable thing about ISIS is its mixer section (see Fig. 2). I'm sure "Console 8/4" sounds more poetic in Guillemot's native French, but it's a powerful applet in any language. The mixer is divided into three sections: Inputs, Outputs, and Monitors. Each section features mute and solo buttons on all channels, and faders that are plenty long enough to give you precise control over levels.
As you'd expect, the Inputs section controls the levels of the eight audio inputs as they're recorded to disk, and the Outputs section controls the level of playback from disk to the four audio outputs. In both sections, you have the option of ganging adjacent tracks, which is a great convenience when you're recording stereo sources. You'll probably leave your outputs ganged as stereo pairs most of the time, but it's nice to be able to separate them when necessary. The most recent software update adds a pair of faders for MIDI output level, fixing a minor annoyance in the original release.
Each input, output, and monitor channel has an LED-style meter that can be turned off when processing power is at a premium. Like the faders, the meters are long enough, detailed enough, and responsive enough to give you confidence when setting levels. You'll also find meters for the S/PDIF output pair, whose levels are linked to those of analog outputs 1 and 2. By clicking the Backup button, you can remove the output faders from the S/PDIF signal path for a direct digital copy without attenuation.
The best part of Console 8/4 is its Monitors section. These eight faders correspond to the eight inputs, but they don't affect the recording level. They bounce the signal right back to the outputs for monitoring with negligible latency, as do systems costing several times more than ISIS. This is a truly great feature for such an inexpensive system. The Monitors section can be configured to provide up to four completely different mono (or two stereo) mixes of the live inputs.
It would be nice to be able to pan the monitor channels when working in stereo mode, but the equivalent can be accomplished in mono mode with a little effort and imagination. Another complication is that MIDI output is restricted to outputs 1 and 2, so if you're setting up two stereo mixes, one will be incomplete. Of course, depending on the recording scenario, this might not be a problem.
FINAL THOUGHTSIt's unfortunate that ISIS's S/PDIF I/O doesn't support higher-resolution audio, as this would provide an easy and inexpensive upgrade path for many sound card owners. In fairness, though, good 16-bit external converters can provide some sonic benefits that higher-resolution converters housed inside a PC cannot. I also wish that ISIS supported at least a couple of popular sound-bank formats, and that Soundbank Manager and Instrument Manager could share audio resources with each other and a sequencer.
It's silly to think that any $399 sound card is destined to become the tool of choice for major-label music production. But there's no doubt in my mind that ISIS will spawn about a bazillion great-sounding demos. With a sizable palette of sounds, sampling support, ample audio I/O, and a respectable software bundle, it will appeal to anyone looking for an economical home studio solution. It may not be perfect, but it sure packs a lot of bang for the buck.
TRACK BY TRACK BY TRACKIn the interest of science, I simultaneously recorded the same stereo mix on two pairs of ISIS inputs to see if any inconsistencies in timing or quality would result. When I played back the two sets of tracks, which should have been identical and in perfect sync, I heard a significant amount of chorusing. The delay between the two pairs of tracks was small enough that you could easily miss it if you were primarily overdubbing a track or two at a time. But try setting up eight mics on a drum set, and the results would be exasperating.
Fortunately, the latest driver solved the problem. In fact, when I compared the tracks at maximum zoom after the driver update (see Fig. A), they were so close that, still in the interest of science, I inverted the phase of one pair and shifted them three samples to the right. I achieved almost perfect phase cancellation. So much for the question of intertrack consistency! It's also worth noting that ISIS made it very easy to set virtually identical levels for the two pairs of tracks, thanks to those nice Console 8/4 faders.