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For Audio that Awes, Get a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)

Mark Fritz

February 2000 | If you've been napping as the Digital Age has marched on, you may have missed the quiet revolution in digital audio that has been heating up during the past few years. Just as the video industry has promised and delivered complete PC-based video editing and processing solutions (Avid, FAST, Media 100, Matrox, PLAY, et al.), the audio recording industry has begun to deliver on the promise of complete audio recording, editing, mixing, and processing within the PC.

For years now, PC audio aficianados have wandered the earth in search of the "virtual recording studio" of age-old myth and legend: a one-card add-in that delivers all the features and power of a full-fledged recording studio. Well, we're still not quite there yet--no one card seems to do it all. But by piecing together several hardware components, you can get some serious digital recording power.

And even more importantly, as more and more digital audio solutions have emerged, once-high prices have dropped. This is essential for the market--after all, what good are digital systems if they're more expensive than the old analog ones?


Actually, the computer industry has been supplying a complete digital audio solution for some time--the immensely successful Digidesign Pro Tools. The trouble with this system is that for small- and even medium-sized multimedia production companies, it is just too darn expensive. "It's going to cost you $30-40,000 for a complete Pro Tools system," says Yamaha's John Calder, noting that Digidesign's ProControl hardware control surface alone costs $11,500. "Don't get me wrong--Pro Tools is wonderful stuff, and Digidesign is the granddaddy of them all," says Calder. "But not all of us have the budget of Garth Brooks."

Digidesign pioneered the now-fashionable idea of open software systems by opening up its Pro Tools code to third-party software developers so they could make compatible plug-ins. This radical new idea proved to be a gold mine for Digidesign. Consequently, today just about any possible audio software tool you can think of is available as a Pro Tools plug-in. Abundant plug-ins have given Pro Tools a market advantage and helped Digidesign capture over 70 percent of the DAW market. Unfortunately, the product's near-monopoly position has also discouraged the company from lowering its prices.

Getting purchased by digital video market leader Avid Technology, Inc. in 1994 has helped Digidesign expand its market and grow even stronger. Most people now think of Pro Tools as the ideal digital audio product for film and video soundtracks, even though the pundits have long criticized Avid for not more tightly integrating its video (Media Composer) and audio (Pro Tools) products.


It's not unusual for a professional recording studio to spend half-a-million dollars on analog and digital equipment, but not everyone with audio production chores needs top-shelf equipment to get the job done. There are many small- to medium-sized multimedia developers out there who may be interested in doing just a portion of their audio work in-house--just the simpler stuff. Luckily for them, a whole new class of DAW equipment has recently sprung up. In the biz, this segment of the market is known as "project studios." Project studios are small shops that don't churn out hundreds of CDs, radio spots, and TV commercials per week, the way professional recording studios do. They work on little projects one at a time--hence, the term.


Project studio equipment is a step or two up from the "hobbyist/home studio" packages, which are aimed at amateur musicians. At the bottom of this scale are the consumer/gamer audio cards that come pre-installed on retail computer systems. The top end of this scale is represented by Pro Tools systems which start at $10K and by sync-video-oriented DAWs like the $12,995 SADiE system from Studio Audio Digital Equipment, Inc. (Nashville, Tennessee).

Theoretically, even the consumer/ gamer PC audio cards could serve as the basis for a DAW--all you really need is one input jack, analog-to-digital (A/D) conversion circuitry, and some good software. Audio pros and semi-pros turn up their noses at both consumer and hobbyist cards, even though some of the hobbyist cards (like those for Voyetra Turtle Beach, for example) come very close to offering functionality that could benefit any project studio.

The perceived problems with consumer and hobbyist audio cards begin with the fact that they are only 16-bit. Higher-level cards are 18-bit, 20-bit, or, ideally, 24-bit. Hobbyist cards also tend to emphasize MIDI at the expense of digital audio. Hobbyist cards don't have enough analog inputs and few, if any, digital I/Os. Also, they offer few if any digital effects like EQ, compression, or reverb. These then are the things that are conspicuously absent in the consumer/gamer/hobbyist cards, but conspicuously present in the project studio-level cards. Project studio audio cards start at about $2000 and go up to about $5000. These are the cards that are bringing production-quality digital audio recording to a vastly wider range of PC users, and as such are the primary focus of this article.


Unfortunately for the prospective buyer, the audio recording market is a mish-mash of computer manufacturers, pro audio hardware (both digital and analog) manufacturers, and software developers. These three camps are often at odds and rarely communicate with each other. Consequently, if you want to set up a project studio, you're going to have to cobble together a system using components from all three of these sources. This is not an easy task--the key reason why Digidesign's integrated Pro Tools systems have been so popular in spite of the high price.

The card-based alternatives break into two categories, differentiated by price. Mid-range products examined here include Yamaha's DSP Factory, Ensoniq's PARIS, MTU's Microsound, and Lexicon's Studio. Less expensive products in this vein (but generally less powerful than higher-priced offerings) include E-mu's APS and Gadget Labs' Wave cards.


Sporting five DSP chips and a $999 price tag, Yamaha's DSP Factory is a clear contender for biggest-bang-for-the-buck honors. It is an animal very different from the rest of the pack, says John Calder, digital audio product specialist for Yamaha.

"There are a bazillion sound cards out there, but they are almost all one type," says Calder. "They are in/out cards that merely provide a way of getting audio from the outside world into the computer. The DSP Factory, on the other hand, is much more; it is a complete mixer on a card." In fact, it employs the same five DSP chips found in Yamaha's popular O2R digital mixer, which sells for $10,000. By comparison, the DSP Factory card sells for only $999. Calder notes that James Taylor's latest CD was recorded using two Yamaha O2R consoles, and it won a Grammy. "All the same DSP capabilities that James Taylor used are available on the DSP Factory," says Calder.

The key difference between competing PC audio cards and the DSP Factory is the latter's abundance of DSP chips (most other cards contain only one or two DSP chips--if any). Onboard DSP power like this removes the processing burden from the host CPU. "Most of the other cards use the CPU of the computer, and even the fastest Pentiums can't handle the number crunching-intensive chores of multitrack digital recording," says Calder.

According to Calder, relying on the CPU limits the number of tracks you can use with effects (like EQ, compression, and reverb) and also the number of effects you can use simultaneously per track. And it limits the bit-depth of your reverb. It also means you are often limited to working on a track or two at a time as opposed to being able to work on several or all tracks at once. Worst of all, overburdening the CPU results in MIDI timing errors, according to Calder. The bottom line is sound quality, he says. "Sure, you can do mixing on your CPU, but how will it sound?" Drainage of CPU power becomes even more problematic if you are trying to sync audio to video and need to multitask with video editing software, Calder adds. "Musicians come to me complaining that the limitations of their CPUs have them up against a wall," says Calder. "They don't own Cray super computers--what can they do? I tell them all the power they need is here on one $999 card."

Despite its impressive functionality, the DSP Factory has been slow to catch on in the marketplace. That's at least partially due to the fact that compatible software has been slow to arrive. "Yamaha is not a software company," says Wayne Hrabak, Yamaha's pro audio marketing manager. Yamaha has had to wait for third-party software companies to recognize the DSP Factory's potential and commit themselves to writing code to work with it, Hrabak explains.

So far, there are only four audio software tools that work with the DSP Factory and three of them are merely MIDI sequencers. These include Steinberg's Cubase VST/24, Emagic's Logic Audio, and Cakewalk's Pro Audio. The DSP Factory's only compatible digital audio recording, mixing, and editing product comes from Minnetonka Audio Software (Minnetonka, Minnesota). Minnetonka had to jump through some hoops to develop this software; in fact, they had to "completely rewrite their software for the DSP Factory," according to Calder.

Minnetonka's tools for the DSP Factory actually comes in several flavors. The standard one (the stereo version) is called MxTrax. Another version called Mx51 will be of particular interest to DVD producers. Mx51 is a 5.1 Surround Sound tool that when combined with the DSP Factory makes one of the few complete Surround Sound production solutions available in this price range (under $10K). Minnetonka also makes a software-based encoder (in both Dolby AC-3 and DTS varieties) called SurCode. The Dolby AC-3 version of SurCode sells for $999, a fraction of the cost of hardware-based AC-3 encoding solutions.

Like its competitors, however, the DSP Factory provides merely the heart of a digital audio studio; you'll need to purchase some add-ons (hardware control surface, I/O expansion unit, digital I/O unit, etc.) to get a complete solution.

Here's what you can buy and how much it will cost: The DSP Factory itself costs $999 and comes with either the AX44 expansion unit (which provides four analog inputs and outputs) or the AX16, which provides two ADAT digital inputs and outputs. You'll probably want both, so you'll have to ante up $299 to buy whichever one wasn't included in your base package.

Still, this doesn't give you very many total inputs. A possible solution to this I/O shortage problem is to buy a digital mixing console. Not only does this give you more input options, but it eliminates the need to buy a hardware control surface, according to Yamaha's Calder. You could buy a Mackie or a Peavey digital mixer, or you could buy Yamaha's O1V for $1995.

So let's add that all up: $999 for the DSP Factory, plus $299 for an AX16 or AX44, plus $1995 for an O1V digital mixer, plus $499 for Minnetonka MxTrax equals $3,782. Or let's say you're a DVD producer who wants the full Surround solution. In that case, subtract the MxTrax and add $895 for Minnetonka Mx51, plus $995 for Minnetonka SurCode, and you're in for $5173. Or for an additional $999, you could buy another DSP Factory card and gang your two cards together to double your multitrack capability to 16-tracks.


Another high-powered product in this mid-range price category comes from audio industry veteran Ensoniq. The corporate acquisitions that have tied Ensoniq to E-mu Systems and both of them to Creative Labs have apparently not dampened Ensoniq's innovative engineering. The company's latest entry in the DAW market is a powerful 24-bit, pro-oriented system called the Professional Audio Recording Integrated System (PARIS).

According to Ensoniq marcom manager Derk Hagedorn, PARIS is "dedicated hardware for specific software." In other words, you can't use the PARIS card with your old Cakewalk or SAWPro software. It only works with the software that was written especially for it. Like the DSP Factory, PARIS required specially designed new software and/or new code added to existing software. PARIS does, however, support the ASIO software plug-in standard from Steinberg, so it's not completely an island unto itself.

PARIS is also similar to the DSP Factory in that it is a hardware powerhouse. It contains six of Ensoniq's proprietary ESP2 chips, which while not DSP chips per se, are "multipurpose digital audio chips with DSP capabilities," according to Hagedorn. This signal processing power allows impressive features like 64 parametric EQ sections and the ability to run up to 16 effects simultaneously.

The PARIS package consists of a PCI card, a control surface, and the Modular Expansion Chassis (MEC), a rack-mountable steel box with enough space to slide in nine PC-card-like expansion modules. The base MEC comes with a module that provides four analog inputs and outputs, two-channel digital input and output, and an external clock connector that can be used to synchronize PARIS with other systems. "This same type of setup from Digidesign could cost $20,000," says Hagedorn. In contrast, the Ensoniq PARIS sells for $3895. Unfortunately, with PARIS, as with the DSP Factory, extra capabilities cost extra money. The serious buyer, for example, might want to purchase a module that would add four more inputs, an ADAT digital interface module, and/or a SMPTE time code interface. While these all fit easily into the MEC, they may not fit easily into your budget.

One area in which the DSP Factory has PARIS clearly outmatched is in Surround Sound. Hagedorn says Surround Sound is something Ensoniq is working on for the future, but doesn't see customer demand for at the present. Another PARIS weakness is that it does not offer built-in MIDI synth chips or even a MIDI hardware interface. "This is a pro solution for people who already have lots of rack-mounted MIDI gear in their studios," says Hagedorn.


Having been around since 1977, Micro Technology Unlimited (MTU) has to be considered one of the pioneers of PC digital audio. In fact, according to company president Dave Cox, MTU was "first in the world to show a digital audio workstation with hard disk recording and digital audio editing software."

MTU's latest version of its Microsound DAW consists of the Krystal DSP audio card, an 18-bit PCI card with two analog stereo inputs and outputs and AES/EBU and SPDIF digital I/Os, and software called the Microeditor. This base package sells for $2395.

Microsound recording is unique in that it is not track-based. "We have no tracks," says Cox. "All the other DAWs try to emulate a tape recorder. Why copy an outdated method? Microsound frees you from the mental turmoil of track limitations." It is a more file-based system that allows the user to cut and paste chunks of audio (called segments) the way you cut and paste words and sentences with a word processor, says Cox. He calls the Microeditor tool a "freeform audio palette that allows users to assemble unlimited segments, free of all track restrictions." According to Cox, this method allows users to work much faster than they could with other digital audio editing tools. In fact, according to Les Mizzell of Catwalk Studios (Charlotte, North Carolina), Microsound allows him to complete a project "40 to 50 percent faster," than if he were working in Pro Tools.

Microsound/Microeditor users--many of whom are experienced recordists who have tried many other DAWs--seem to enjoy taking pot shots at market leader Digidesign. Charlottesville, Virginia-based Microsound user Kevin McNoldy calls Pro Tools "Pro Toys." "It is all flash and no substance," he says, complaining that his Pro Tools system "crashes four to five times daily," erasing all his hard work. "I've never produced a perfect mix with Pro Tools," he says, angrily recalling many frustrating eight-hour sessions that failed to produce a satisfying result. Thankfully, buying Microsound has apparently had a sedative effect on him. McNoldy now reports that thanks to Microsound, he is "calm and satisfied, mastering perfect mixes every time."

Microsound's biggest shortcoming is probably its limited I/O. Cox says he may alleviate that in the future by making the Krystal card capable of linking to any ordinary Windows sound card, but even that would get you only one or two more I/Os.

One of Microsound's strong suits is its capabilities in the video post arena. For $995, you can even buy an optional add-in card called the Microsync SMPTE/ Video card. This product too has gotten rave reviews from users like Glenn Selby of Derek Prince Ministries International (Charlotte, North Carolina). "It's like having a third video player for audio. No matter what the video workstation does to complete the edits, Microsound cues up and locks right along with it. What a time saver! Once I've set everything, I put Microsound in SMPTE synchronization Chase-Lock, start the video workstation and go get coffee."

Interestingly, Cox is not actively marketing the Microsync card because he thinks most people don't need SMPTE. "You'd better have an audio engineer on the payroll if you want to use SMPTE," says Cox. "SMPTE is a beast." He says Microsound has built-in "lock to clock" capabilities that often make SMPTE unnecessary. "SMPTE is overkill for most uses today," he says. Cox vows he'll help his customers devise simpler and cheaper video sync solutions and not try to sell them the Microsync card unless they really need it.


The Lexicon name is famous for DSP quality, especially in its reverb units. Consequently, Lexicon's 24-bit DAW package, Lexicon Studio, would be sure to lure away some of the competition from Pro Tools were it not for one thing--the $2999 price tag. Of course, hardcore reverb enthusiasts will not blink at that price. Heck, a Lexicon rackmount reverb unit alone costs that much. With the Studio package, purchasers get the PC-90 reverb daughterboard, which uses the exact same DSP architecture as Lexicon's award-winning PCM 90 rackmount reverb unit.

At the heart of Studio is a 24-bit PCI card called the Core-32, with 32 representing the number of channels it is capable of supporting. The package also includes the LDI-12T, a rackmount analog/digital I/O patchbox. Currently, this DAW only works with Steinberg's Cubase VST as its software front end.

Lexicon seems to have thought of just about everything here, giving this system almost-infinite expandability. Not only can you gang together multiple Core cards, but you can also gang together rackmount I/O units. Lexicon has promised, but not yet released, an optional sync-to-video unit that will provide both longitudinal time code (LTC) I/O and vertical interval time code (VITC) I/O.


In many ways, the Audio Production Studio (APS) from E-mu/Ensoniq is even more impressive than the company's PARIS--not because it does more than PARIS (it doesn't), but because at $699, it does so much for so little. APS offers standard built-in features unheard of in a card this cheap. For example, while the APS card's number of analog inputs is very modest (only 4), two of them have built-in microphone preamps. This alone will save the buyer about $150--the cost of buying a separate preamp. The card also has a digital input--most companies force you to buy an extra expansion module to get digital I/O.

Also, according to Ensonic marcom manager Derk Hagedorn, few if any of the other cards in this price range use an onboard DSP chip to provide hardware effects. And to top it all off, APS comes bundled with Cakewalk Express Gold (a lite version of the industry's most popular MIDI sequencer), Creative Labs Vienna SoundFont Studio, and Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge XP, a lite version of the industry's leading digital audio editing software. About the only thing you need to get started using APS to create sounds for your multimedia projects is a microphone.

Because APS features two awesome sampling synth engines, the card often gets lumped in with other hobbyist products. But make no mistake, it is much more than a mere MIDI product. While it may be too simple to serve as the heart of a serious upscale project studio for Surround Sound or video post production, it would be a great general tool for multimedia first-timers and small-timers. Heck, everyone ought have something simple like this for quick little jobs and just for fun.

Gadget Labs: Mixin' with MMX

Another powerful and versatile audio card package that is pushing pro-product prices down to the hobbyist level is the Wave/8*24, one of a family of audio card products from Gadget Labs (Portland, Oregon). Through the combination of a 24-bit PCI card and rackmount patchbox, Wave/8*24 offers eight channels, eight analog I/O, and built-in MIDI I/O. Also included is the popular Cool Edit Pro SE software.

Gadget Labs has been blowing people's minds by offering this sophisticated 24-bit package at $499, a price the company says is "40 percent less than current 20-bit digital audio solutions with comparable configurations."

How does Gadget do it? Well, interestingly, while other companies tout their products' built-in DSP power, Gadget touts Wave's lack of built-in DSP. They make no bones about relying on the power of the host CPU. It is this reliance, in fact, that allows them to offer their product at such a low price. In place of DSP chips, Gadget Wave cards use a proprietary SoundCache architecture that the company describes as an "audio processing accelerator" that takes advantage of Intel's MMX technology.

"These days, even an entry-level PC has an amazing amount of processing power; it makes sense to leverage that power when designing PC add-in products," says Gadget Labs president Rob Ranck.

However, that $499 price tag does not include an important option--digital I/O. To get that you'll need to buy an optional daughterboard, either the S/PDIF daughter card for $129 or the ADAT daughter card for $249. Picking the cheaper of the two will raise the price of a Wave/8*24 package to $628. As with some other systems, you can link two or more Wave/8*24 cards together to get more channels. Gadget Labs also makes a card called the Wave/4*96, which supplies four channels at 96kHz (the Wave/8*24 tops out at 48kHz).


All the action that has been going on at the lower end of the digital audio market has not gone unnoticed by Digidesign. This fall Digidesign convulsed the competition by releasing not just one, but two, scaled-down products based on Pro Tools. At $995, Digidesign's 24-bit Digi 001 DAW will go after all those cards in the project studio segment of the market, while the 18-bit Digi Toolbox XP ($545) will make a frontal assault on the hobbyist/ home studio market.

The Digi Toolbox XP package is built around Digidesign's Audiomedia III PCI card. It offers two channels of analog I/O and two channels of S/PDIF digital I/O.

The Digi 001 package includes a PCI card and a multichannel I/O breakout box (rackmount or desktop), which together provide 8 analog I/Os (2 with preamps), 2 channels of S/PDIF digital I/O, 8 channels of ADAT optical I/O, for a total of 18 simultaneous inputs and outputs. Digi 001 also includes MIDI in/out.

Both these new DAW packages include a lite "host-based" version of the Pro Tools software. Like Gadget Labs and some of the other competitors, Digidesign has saved on-board costs by eliminating DSP chips. That leaves mixing and effects processing chores to the software, thus making system performance dependent on the power of the host CPU. Pro Tools LE supports up to 24-tracks of 16-bit or 24-bit audio and includes a full-featured MIDI sequencer. Pro Tools LE represents a departure for Digidesign in that the software runs under Windows 98--its heavier parent product only runs under Windows NT and Mac OS. Both Digi 001 and Digi Toolbox XP packages come with the following software effects plug-ins: EQ II, Dynamics II, Dither, Mod Delay, and D-Verb.

The best thing about both of these packages is that they give the user an upgrade path to the full-blown Pro Tools TDM systems. Once you've learned how to use Pro Tools LE, you can move up to using the full tool with little relearning. And even better, Pro Tools LE files are compatible with the TDM systems, so you can use the Digi 001 as a "scratch pad," roughing out your projects at home (or in a small project studio) and then transferring your files to a professional studio that uses Pro Tools TDM, where your work can be further refined.

With advantages like these at prices like these, the competition must be quaking in their shoes. Pressure like this is bound to result in further price reductions in this market in the coming months. It is indeed, a great time to be shopping for a DAW.

Note: The author wishes to thank Evanston, Illinois-based sound designer Michael Fritz for his help with this article.

A Shopper's Guide to DAWS

There are several issues users need to consider before investing in digital audio workstation products. Considering these issues will help identify key factors in the purchasing process and help users differentiate among the vast range of products available at various levels of the market.

Sampling Rate/Bit Depth

There is a popular, but controversial, notion in the industry that ideal digital audio equipment will be capable of a sampling rate of 96kHz with a sample size of 24 bits. Both sample size and rate are dependent on the power and design of the Analog-to-Digital circuitry of a particular audio card.

Making audio cards beyond the ordinary 16-bit level (18-, 20-, or 24-bit) has become a way for manufacturers of the more serious, project studio-oriented cards to set their products apart from the hobbyist cards, which are almost all 16-bit.

But not everyone agrees that moving up to 24-bit is necessary. "There's a lot of hype around 24-bits," says Ensoniq's marcom manager Derk Hagedorn. "It's more important for music with a lot of dynamics, say for example, a classical piece with a soft passage like a flute solo. But in rock, most people peg the meters all the time anyway, so the difference is unnoticeable."

Dave Cox, president of MTU (manufacturer of the Microsound DAW), goes even further. "I think Sony came up with 24-bits to sell more expensive equipment to the large studios." Cox says. "The smaller project studios were stealing business away from the pro studios, and they needed something to give them an advantage."

The actual number of bits you get out of an A/D converter depends on the quality of the circuitry, according to Cox. He says the industry-leading Digidesign Pro Tools system "loses 5 bits to noise." He claims that the audio output by his Microsound DAW's 16-bit PC card sounds better than Pro Tools' 24-bit audio.

Cox concedes that 24-bit would be good when recording serious classical works, but he insists that 96kHz is "way overkill" for anything else. Not only is 96kHz beyond the human ear's ability to differentiate from, say, CD-quality 44.1kHz--our aural acumen maxes out at about 21kHz, he says--but it is also way beyond the recording ability of any microphone on the market in his estimation. Most mics--even the most expensive ones--top out at about 22kHz, according to Cox. People who say their ears can distinguish between 48kHz and 96kHz are "talking through their noses," he says--in other words, their mouths are writing checks their ears can't cash.

"When it comes to DVD-Audio, the spec is set at 96kHz, so we have to follow that spec," says Cox, "but the whole thing is ludicrous."

Higher sampling rates and bit sizes put more stress on a computer's CPU and require more hard disk space. "Twenty-four-bit, 96kHz recording is a total waste of hard disk space," says Cox.

Number of Tracks

The number of tracks a DAW uses depends on the capability of the software, though the number of tracks with effects (EQ, compression, reverb, etc.) often depends on the power of the DSP hardware. It's possible to get certain effects through software, but hardware-based effects are generally better than software effects, cause fewer complications, and consume fewer CPU resources. Some audio cards natively provide eight tracks with effects, so if you want 16 tracks with effects, you can buy two cards and gang them together. Either way, increasing the number of recording tracks usually increases your overall costs. Most people agree the eight tracks is optimal for a serious project studio. Hey, the Beatles cut Sgt. Pepper on an analog 8-track system, so if eight was enough for George, Paul, John, and Ringo, it ought to be good enough for you.

The downside of using multiple tracks is that the more you use, the more hard disk space you need. Dave Cox also points out that a mixing console with faders for more than eight tracks is difficult to use since you only have 10 fingers.

Number of Analog I/Os

Since DAWs allow you to do your mixing in the computer, theoretically, all you need is one input and one output. But practicality deems otherwise. The number of inputs you need will depend on the style of recording you prefer. Let's say you're recording a rock band. You don't need a lot of inputs if you record one instrument at a time, but let's say you want to get that "live performance" sound. Typical micing on a drum set alone requires about 8 mics (one for the hi-hat, one for the bass drum, snare, cymbals, etc.). Most recordists, however, will use a mixer to group tracks together, a practice Cox calls "group busing." Then the whole group goes into the computer through a single input connector. Nevertheless, when it comes to inputs, more is almost always better because this gives you greater recording flexibility. Unfortunately, extra I/Os costs extra. Many project studio-level audio cards come with two or four analog inputs and give you an option to buy a rackmount patchbay expansion unit with typically six or eight inputs.

You'll also want to look for cards like the E-mu APS that offer preamped mic inputs, though they are rare. If you're using microphones, their signals have to be brought up to line level before they can go into an audio card, so you either need to buy a mixer (which has built-in preamps) to sit between your mics and your audio card, or you need to buy a rackmount preamp unit for your mics.

Digital I/O

For many music recordists, the finished product will be mastered on some sort of digital tape, so digital I/O is important. Digital I/O will be less important for multimedia project recordists since the final product will usually be burned to CD. In this case, analog comes in, is converted to digital, and then goes straight onto the CD-ROM that's integrated into your computer, so there's no need to take the digital signal out of the computer system. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to have digital I/O because digital tapes are great transportation vehicles for moving your project from workstation to workstation or studio to studio. Let's say you've farmed out part of a film soundtrack (the music part) to a professional studio that routinely masters on ADAT tapes. If they send you music on a digital tape, you won't be able to get that music into your system unless you've got a digital input.

You'll see some audio cards with digital I/O but no analog I/O at all. This particular setup suits a particular way of working. Some people like to record a live audio event unmixed, straight to some sort of digital tape (usually DAT). Later, the audio is transferred from the digital tape through the audio card and into the computer where the mixing is then done.

Again, you'll usually have to pay extra for a digital I/O expansion unit or daughter card. There is a confusing array of digital I/O standards, usually based on a particular format of digital tape. ADAT digital I/O, for example, is a proprietary standard that Alesis developed for its ADAT tape systems. (Essentially, ADAT is a glorified DAT that uses VHS tape for multitrack recording.) Then there is the TDIF from Tascam, and the AES/EBU digital I/O standard. You'll probably want to buy a card that offers S/PDIF at the very least, since it provides I/O for the ubiquitous and inexpensive DAT machines. As MTU's Dave Cox says, "If you have only analog, you have an antique system for today's world."

MIDI Capability

MIDI is hugely popular for good reason, so you'd be crazy to buy a card that didn't offer MIDI capability. Hobbyist cards often feature MIDI synthesizer chips, essentially putting the power of a MIDI keyboard into your computer. Sadly, higher-level project studio cards usually offer only MIDI I/O. Apparently, the manufacturers assume that serious users will already own a rack-mounted MIDI sequencer or a hobbyist card.

Onboard DSP Chips for Effects

You can get your effects on DSP hardware or you can get your effects on software, which then taxes your CPU. So the card you choose will determine the kind of computer you need and vice versa. For example, if you know your chosen card has no DSPs for effects, you had better make sure you buy the fastest Pentium you can get. Conversely, if you know you want to stick with your Celeron 166, you'd better buy a card with some serious DSP power.

Hardware Control Surfaces

Most DAWs provide users with virtual mixers--you see on your monitor a graphical representation of a mixer console with its nobs and faders and so forth. You control a fade, for example, by dragging the graphical fader with your mouse. Audio engineers almost universally hate this situation. They feel they need the tactile control that you can only get by actually touching something real and solid.

"You're not going to be happy using a mouse," says Ensoniq's Derk Hagedorn. "What if you want to slide one fader up while you bring the other down? You need two hands for that, can't do it with a mouse. Using a mouse is like typing with one finger."

This demand for the real-feel has led to the development of so-called "hardware control surfaces." Think of them as mixers gutted of their electronics or as board with a lot of little fader-shaped joysticks on it. Some audio card companies offer these as optional purchases; many don't. Sometimes you can retrofit your system with a controller from a third party. These hardware control surfaces are so popular that Peavey and Cakewalk recently got together to create StudioMix, a package with Peavey's hardware control surface at its heart. The package also features Cakewalk's popular Professional 8 software, but no PC audio card at all. The consumer is left to supply his own.

Some people who can't afford a hardware control surface swear a trackball makes a good compromise, in that it beats a mouse when it comes to virtual mixing.

Video Sync Capabilities

If syncing audio to video is your primary mission, you can forget nearly all the under-$2000 packages on the market. However, all of the DAWs mentioned here as being in the "mid-range project studio" category (PARIS, Microsound, Lexicon Studio, DSP Factory) can provide video sync capabilities. Really serious video users may need to move up to the $5000 to $10,000 product category which includes Digidesign Pro Tools and a few others like the $12,995 SADiE system (Studio Audio Digital Equipment, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee, http:www.sadieus.com).

DAW Also-Rans

In the vast territory between underpowered consumer-level PC audio cards that are a joke and $20,000 Digidesign Pro Tools systems, there are scores of other audio cards. One of them may perfectly match your individual needs and budget. Unfortunately, there is neither space nor time enough to deal with them all here and now. Thus, we direct you to the Web, guided by these handy leads. Happy surfing.
  • Aark 20/20 from Aardvark; (http://www.aardvark-pro.com); $899. Includes: 20-bit A/D; 8 channels; MIDI I/O; 10 analog I/O; S/PDIF digital I/O. TDIF digital I/O unit optional ($599). Analog & S/PDIF I/O expansion unit optional ($599); ADAT optional.

  • Event Electronics Layla; (http://www.event1.com); Includes: 20-bit A/D; S/PDIF digital I/O; software; MIDI; rackmount patchbay with 8 analog I/Os.

  • Soundscape Mixtreme; (http://www.soundscape-digital.com); $549. Includes: 20-bit A/D; software; 16-channels; MIDI I/O; TDIF digital I/O. Analog and S/PDIF I/O optional. Video Sync daughter-board optional ($149). Effects software optional. Company claims to be working on adding Surround Sound capability through a software plug-in.

  • Montego II HOME STUDIO from Voyetra/Turtle Beach; (http://www.voyetra-turtle-beach.com); $349. Includes: 18-bit D/A; MIDI synth; S/PDIF digital I/O; software.

  • MOTU 2408 from Mark Of The Unicorn; $995. Includes: 20-bit A/D; MIDI; rack mount I/O interface with 8 analog I/O, 3 ADAT, 3 TDIF, S/PDIF; software.

  • Pinnacle Project Studio from Voyetra/Turtle Beach; (http://www.voyetra-turtle-beach.com); $399. Includes: 20-bit D/A; MIDI synth; 2 effects processors; digital I/O; software.

  • Sonorus STUDI/O; $849. Includes: 24-bit A/D; 16 channels; ADAT & S/PDIF digital I/O. No analog I/O. No software.

Companies Mentioned in This Article

Cakewalk Music Software
5 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142; 617/441-7870; Fax 617/441-7887; http://www.cakewalk.com

3401-A Hillview Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94304-1348; 650/842-7671; Fax 650/842-7999; http://www.digidesign.com

E-mu Systems
1600 Green Hills Road, P.O. Box 660015, Scotts Valley, CA 95067-0015; 831/438-1921; http://www.emu.com

Gadget Labs
333 SW 5th Avenue, Suite 202, Portland, OR 97204; 503/827-7371; Fax 404/685-0922; http://www.gadgetlabs.com

3 Oak Park, Bedford, MA 01730-1444; 781/280-0300; Fax 781/280-0490; http://www.lexicon.com

Micro Technology Unlimited
6900 Six Forks Road, Raleigh, NC 27615; 919/870-0344; Fax 919/870-7163; http://www.mtu.com

Minnetonka Audio Software, Inc.
17113 Minnetonka Blvd., Suite 300, Minnetonka, MN 55345; 612/449-6481; Fax 612/449-0318; http://www.minnetonkaaudio.com

Sonorus, Inc.
111 E. 12th Street, New York, NY 10003; 212/253-7700; Fax 212/253-7701; http://www.sonorus.com

Studio Audio Digital Equipment, Inc. (SADiE)
2218 Metrocenter Boulevard, Nashville, TN 37228; 615/327-1140; Fax 615/327-1699; http://www.sadieus.com

Yamaha Corporation of America
Pro Audio & Combo Division, P.O. Box 6600, Buena Park, CA 90622; 714/522-9011; http://www.yamaha.com

Mark Fritz (makfritz@aol.com), an EMedia contributing editor, is a consultant and freelance writer based in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.

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