PCRECORDING.COM - Aardvark Direct Pro 24/96 Review:
One of the biggest developments in the Digital Audio Workstation marketplace is all-in-one studio setups. Equipment that eliminates the necessity for separate mixers and preamplifiers are becoming more available. While some of the DAW market has gone towards more I/Os for larger studio applications, another element is recognizing that there is significant demand for smaller I/O counts but more capability - - such as preamps in the system and no-latency monitoring.
I recently reviewed the SeaSound Solo and will hopefully receive the Echo Mona promised me some time ago from Echo Audio.
The one the started it all though is the Aardvark Direct Pro 24/96. I was very excited to get one for review for this site. The DirectPro is an all-in-one studio application that features high-quality preamps and robust on-board DSP-based digital mixer and effects. The package contains the external breakout box, PCI interface card, 25-pin cable, CD installation disk and a manual.
The front of the external breakout box has 4 analog combination jacks, phantom power switches and a headphone jack. The combination jacks accept 1/4" (balanced or unbalanced), 1/4" instrument, or XLR inputs. The XLR jacks have built-in preamplifiers with 40dB level trim and has 48V phantom power. The back of the external box has 4 1/4" jacks (balanced or unbalanced-+4dBu or -10dBV), 2 RCA outputs (-10dBV) and MIDI Out and In connections. All of this connects to the PCI interface card that goes in a slot on the motherboard. The PCI card features a heavy shield over the AKM 4524 converters - a design to protect the converters from the inherent noise present in DAW applications. In addition, 2 stereo I/O SPDIF RCA jacks are housed on the PCI card itself. The specifications for this system are impressive and are listed below
I discussed the Direct Pro 24/96 with Erik Lovell of Aardvark. The Direct Pro 24/96 was designed to directly replace external hardware usually associated with multi-track recording with digital versions of the same equipment and to be compatible with all major multi-track software programs like Cakewalk, Logic, Cubase and Samplitude. According to Lovell, emphasis on a clean signal path, beginning with Aardvark-designed preamplifiers, shielded converters and DSP engine, and ending with a strong clean digital signal to the multi-track software, was the paramount design consideration in the development of the Direct Pro 24/96. Every effort was made to ensure that the digital signal that got into the computer was the best that could be achieved. Once the signal was into the digital arena, the DAW system, software and plugins necessary for editing and mixdown then take over.
Aardvark Control Panel
The heart of the DirectPro system is the digital mixer. This is one of the most attractive and functional mixers I have encountered to date. The entire panel is powered by the on-board DSP engine. The mixer panel features 10 inputs and 2 outputs. Four of the inputs represent the 4 physical inputs on the breakout box, the other six are for playback of previously recorded tracks.
At the upper left of the control panel is the Main control panel settings. Each analog input is represented by a set of three buttons labeled MC2, MC1, and LN. MC2 is for low level microphones that may need extra boost, adding more gain as needed. MC1 adds gain in a way similar to fine tuning gains on mixers. LN sets line input levels and accommodates either "professional" +4dBu or "consumer" -10dBV - - there is a 23dB range in input settings (-14dB to +9dB). Analog 1 and analog 2 always represent the first two physical inputs, while 3 and 4 can represent either physical inputs 3 and 4 or the S/PDIF input on the PCI card. On a design engineering note, the gain settings for MC2, MC1 and LN all occur in analog before it goes to digital conversion. Therefore, digital fidelity is preserved - - you use up all the bits possible with the input signal.
One nice feature of the mixer is the presets button. The user can start up a session, set input levels, eq and compressor levels and routing options and save the settings. This is done by clicking on the presets button, naming the preset and saving it. Then, when the session is restarted, all one has to do is select the preset and everything is back to where it was when saved.
Each channel has a dedicated compressor and EQ, all channels share a master reverb. These are to be used for input channels only and do not function for mixdown purposes.
Note: If you choose to record at 96kHz all the effects will be disabled.
At the bottom left of the mixer there are four input sliders to adjust input volume levels. 0.0dB is the default and it can extend all the way from nothing to +6dB. Next to each slider is a digital LED meter with a text box above each meter that displays the dB value in numbers. Next to the input sliders is a set of three stereo output sliders, 1/2, 3/4, and 5/6 with stereo LED meters in between each. Each playback channel has an independent reverb send that sets the level of reverb the channel receives from the master reverb. At the far right is a set of stereo monitor sliders with a stereo LED meter in between. One feature that is important but does not obviously stand out is that the playback channels in the mixer and the soundcard's physical outputs are different things - - the playback channels refer to the channels recognized in the multi-track software.
By clicking on the patchbay button in the Control Panel you access a routing center for all signals in the system.
The Aardvark user's manual is packed with helpful information on how to use the system. It also contains QuickStart guides for Cubase VST 3.5, Cakewalk Pro 8 (somewhat dated), Samplitude Basic 5,5 (bundled with card) and Sound Forge and Wavelab. The manual finishes with a Troubleshooting guide with some basic how-to solutions for common problems.
The Control Panel mixer is intuitive to use - - essentially emulating a real mixer. If you have used a mixer before this one will seem familiar. For instance, setting microphone levels was a two step process - - a combination of setting input levels and gain levels to reach an optimum signal level for the microphone. Otherwise, the virtual sliders and knobs worked just like the real thing. The mixer is powered by the DSP chip on the PCI board. Latency was not a problem at all - - I could move a slider or knob and it would change the signal without noticeable delay. It is important to keep in mind that this mixer emulates a real mixer. The user still needs to use multi-track software to actually record to the computer - - the software may have its own mixer as well which should coordinate well with the Control Panel.
The Patchbay allows for routing signals to different outputs. If you select a source input from the left side of the patchbay and drag it to a physical input on the right, the audio signal from the input goes to the output you selected. The top left-side sources are the physical inputs from the breakout box. Then below that are three playback channels to choose from - - these are tracks previously recorded and are playing back in the multi-track software program. Lastly, at the bottom is the Monitor source as set by the Control Panel - - a two channel mix of all input and output signals plus effects. You can route one stereo signal to outputs 3/4 and 5/6 at a time but can send all signals can be monitored via the monitor outputs.
The Direct Pro comes bundled with Samplitude Basic 5.5 Multi-track software. This is a rather robust package that will definitely suit the needs of a beginning project. I already have Samplitude 2496, and a number of other software packages to choose from. I tested the card with Cakewalk 9.3, n-Track Studio, and Samplitude 2496 and found it function correctly in each. I did not test it with any other products but see no reason why it should not work equally well in other DAW based multi-track programs.
I chose Samplitude 2496 to start recording. I plugged a pair of Marshall 2003 large diaphragm microphones into my Spirit Folio mixer and then plugged its outputs into the line inputs 1/2 on the Aardvark. I plugged some balanced 1/4" cables into the outputs on the back of the Direct Pro breakout box and into a set of Vergence M-00/S-00 monitors.
In the Control Panel, I choose the Line settings, adjusted the input slider by monitoring the input levels on the LED and got a good signal level. I was ready to go. I did some recording with my acoustic guitar and sang along with it just to get a feel for how it all worked. I encountered no difficulties in getting some tracks laid down. I monitored the signal via the headphone jack on the breakout box. I played back the result and found them to be very pleasing.
I then unhooked the mixer outputs and plugged the microphones directly into the combination jacks, then turned on the phantom power. I chose the Mic1 setting control in the Control Panel because this was a normal application and the microphones are very sensitive. Since the Control Panel mixer emulates a real mixer and though it was a bit odd to be setting my input/gain levels in the Control Panel, I found the same principles that applied to my physical mixer applied here. Experimentation eventually resulted in finding a good balance between the input levels and the gain levels. I then recorded the same tracks as I did above and did an A/B test of the recordings through the Folio mixer and the Control Panel mixer.
The Control Panel offers a Mic2 setting for low-level microphones that need more boost than a standard microphone. Simply, the setting allows for more gain to compensate for the lower signal levels of that type of microphone will transmit. This could be handy to have if you need it for recording at long distances for instance.
I then plugged in my venerable old Akai AX-80 analog synthesizer into the line inputs. I love the rich analog sounds this synthesizer puts out. I set the input levels using the line setting on the controls for input 1. I then recorded it as well. It was terrific to use the combination jacks, to be able to intermix different instruments at will. The only thing I missed was having a Hi-Z instrument input - - I could have then plugged my electric guitar straight in to the system. I asked the guys at Aardvark why this was not included. The explanation was that in an effort to keep a clean signal path to the converters, the Hi-Z was not included. Sounds reasonable to me, particularly when all one would need is a simple direct box to go into the line ins on the breakout box.
Before I installed the PCI card in my computer, I closely examined the design and workmanship built into it. Most obvious and critical, Aardvark's design team has placed a heavy shield around the converters and critical soundcard electronics. The card itself weighs more and feels more substantial than other cards. After installation it become clear that the shield is effective, the Direct Pro sounds very clean with no discernible system noise coming from the card itself or from the interior of the computer system. As a result, I confidently placed the card right next to my video card with no worries about any interference. In a word, the card is quiet.
The sound quality of a system is only as good as the sum of its parts. The bottleneck theory applies - - you are only as good as the best your worst component can provide. The Direct Pro has its own preamplifiers in the breakout box. In the A/B tests with my Folio mixer, I liked the preamps in the Aardvark more. The microphone preamps were very clean, a noticeable, though discrete, improvement over the Folio. The difference was not huge but there seemed to be more space between the tones. For example, the treble overtones on a plucked guitar harmonic were more clear and precise. The decay on the low strings was more smooth. There was a bit more presence in the recordings done through the Aardvark preamplifiers. Am I going to throw away my mixer? No, these just sounded better - - I make no claim that the preamps on the Folio were ever designed to compete head to head with high-end preamplifiers anyway. In any event, the preamplifiers easily passed muster.
In an effort to discover the sensitivity and range of the Direct Pro, I recorded several different types of sounds and numerous instruments. I recorded the chatter of my harddrive working by sticking the microphone near the case, the sound of my footsteps as I walked into the studio, and the sound of my children playing in the garage. The card captured details of these sounds in discrete, definable parts. For instance, one of my kids was riding a tricycle around in circles - - the tricycle is old and squeaky. However, I could hear the sound of its wheels separately from the squeak of the axle and on top of that sound, my kids voices. I then went and got some 3 in 1 oil and fixed the squeak. Avoiding harddrive/fan noise in a DAW setup is one of the main goals in the studio. It was interesting though to hear what it sounded like when purposefully recorded. The card separately revealed the fan noise and the whirring/chatter noise of the harddrive as it was spinning away. What do these sounds have to do with music? Well, the card is accurate. The sound it was asked to record was captured by the card.
I am finishing up recording a simple guitar/vocal song. I used a pair of Marshall 2003 microphones plugged directly into the Direct Pro and I used Samplitude 2496 to multi-track. After setting my levels in the Control Panel, I laid down my guitar tracks in stereo and then a stereo vocal track over the top. During a bridge in the piece, I added some GigaStudio tracks with my synthesizer. Monitoring the tracks was a breeze by plugging into the headphone monitor. There was no noticeable latency between input with the synthesizer and recording. I was confident that what I was trying to do was being accurately recorded.
One of the goals in digital recording is to use up as many of the bits available to ensure fidelity. The combination of the Control Panel's input sliders and gain settings allowed me to get very full levels without clipping. Of course, experimentation determined what the optimal balance between the two was.
I played back the results of my recording through my monitors and was very pleased. The Aardvark takes full advantage of the great-sounding AKM converters. As a result of its heavy shielding around the converters, it is very quiet. The recordings were very clean, crisp without harshness and well-rounded bass tones. Of the cards using the AKM 4524, this card was the cleanest sounding. The differences are not huge, there is just more room in the Direct Pro sound as compared to other AKM 4524 based soundcards. In this case, I believe that the preamplifiers in the Direct Pro are superior to those in my mixer and the extra shielding on the PCI card itself diminishes system noise. In my other tests, I used the mixer's preamplifiers and the converters were not so well-shielded. Therefore, it is possible that other cards with similar quality preamplifiers and/or with converters in an external breakout box will get equally good results. However, as an all-in-one package this system is the best I have heard with this chip yet.
I would like to see a small physical headphone volume knob on the external box. Having to go to the Patch bay to adjust playback levels in the headphones was a bit too cumbersome. In the Patchbay itself, I would have liked to have seen a way to assign all tracks to one output - - for instance, assigning a software synthesizer routed live to an output contemporaneously combined with an analog input also played live. However, many of these options can be addressed in the multi-track software application a person is using.
Each channel has a compressor function that can independently be turned on or off. If the user is inexperienced and sets each channel's compressor settings differently, there may be an undesirable cumulative effect on the final signal. A good option would be to have a Master Compressor to use after getting all other non-compressed levels set in the Control Panel.
There will be inevitable questions regarding how it compares to the SeaSound SoloEX, the closest competitor that I have tested. The Direct Pro has some design advantages that distinguish it from the Solo. In particular, it supports +4dBV levels and has GSIF drivers - - things the Solo does not yet have. In addition, the SeaSound Solo has 2/2 analog I/Os, whereas the Direct Pro has 4 in/6 outs. The main differences beyond that are the manner in which each goes about accomplishing its task. The Solo features physical, knob-based controls. The Direct Pro is all virtual, though functionally the same. Though close, if I had to choose between the two, my nod would go to the Direct Pro 24/96 due to its superior I/O capacity and its support of the +4dBu standard.
The Aardvark Direct Pro 24/96 is a true all-in-one package with which professional-level projects can be done start to final tracking. Its feature set is the result of some careful research and thoughtful design. The DSP chip provides ample power to drive the effects and Control Panel mixer without putting any load on the host CPU. The combination of the hardware, the virtual mixer and the bundled Samplitude recording software makes this a complete package to get up and running. Of course, the most important thing is how its sounds. This system, beginning with its fine preamplifiers sounds very good. It is clean, accurate and virtually noise-free. It accurately captures what is being sent it. For the person who needs an all-in-one package and does not have or want a mixer, this is the one.