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PCRECORDING.COM - - Echo Darla24 Review

Manufacturer: Echo
MSRP: $379.00
System Requirements: Windows 95/98, Genuine Intel CPU (Pentium class or better), Intel chipset
16 meg of RAM (more highly recommended)


I, for one, love the way Echo names their cards. It is very easy to keep track of which model is which and is fun too. I have had the good fortune to have recorded with the original Darla, Gina and Layla. Now, the Darla24 is Echo's first effort in the 24-bit/96kHz market. This is a simple card but it performs very well.

The Darla24 package includes PCI interface card, a thick cable to connect to the 2 in/8 out breakout box, a CD with drivers and a bundled version of Cool Edit Pro SE. The AD/DA converters are on the PCI card not in the breakout box. The Darla24 features one AKM AK 5393 Analog to Digital converter and four AKM 4393 Digital to Analog converters. These are high-performance converters and work well in this system as you will see. Up to four Darla24s can be synchronized together in one system via the Esync clock.

Performance Specifications

  • Frequency Response: 20Hz-22kHz, +0.5dB; 10Hz-44kHz, +1.5dB
  • Dynamic Range: 108dB (A/D: 113dB, D/A: 116dB)
  • THD+n: 0.003%, 20Hz-22kHz, A-weighted
  • Multiple sample rates from 8kHz to 96kHz

Hardware Specifications

  • PCI bus master interface
  • Audio breakout box with balanced 1/4" TRS connectors, 2 inputs and 8 outputs
  • Precision 24-bit 128x oversampling analog-to-digital and digital to analog converters.
  • On-board 24-bit Motorola 56301 DSP (80MIPS)
Software

  • Full duplex operation (simultaneously record two channels while playing back eight channels)
  • Includes mixer application for audio outputs, monitor assignments, volume, and metering
  • Syntrillium Software’s Cool Edit Pro - Special Edition multitrack recording/editing software (Win 95/98)

Setup:

The package also comes with the Echo Reporter - - a handy utility that analyzes your system capabilities before you install. This could be useful if you have doubts about your system. My system is a Celeron 366, 128 meg of RAM, a 20-gig Maxtor harddrive running Windows 98SE, so I passed on running this. Echo updates their drivers quite regularly so I went to their website and downloaded the latest driver, version 5.02, onto a floppy. I installed the Darla24 in an empty PCI slot, connected its cable to the breakout box, and booted. The card was easily recognized and I installed the drivers from the floppy disk without incident. A check of the system files showed everything was working correctly. This took all of three minutes. A capital letter "D" appeared in my systray at the bottom of my screen, indicating the Echo Console "virtual control surface" device was installed. I then installed Cool Edit Pro SE from the CD. I was ready to go.

Echo Settings Controls

The Echo Console allows the user to control the audio in and out settings and clock functions. In addition, input monitoring adjustments can be made here. The console functions come in a group of three. The inputs are placed in the upper left corner, the outputs on the right and the input monitors are directly below the inputs. The levels are controlled with a up/down slider. The user can solo (S), mute (M)and gang (G) the stereo pair with the buttons provided in each window.

The input monitor controls allow the user to set the recording input signal monitor level in any of the available outputs on the card. Each output pair continuously monitors the input levels, the degree to which it is or is not attenuated is set by the monitor level controls. The input monitoring window has a buttons that correspond to the output pair. Clicking on one of these buttons allows the user to set the level at which the input signal is sent for monitoring to that particular output,independent of the main output level. The user can set different input monitoring levels for each output pair, the Console will remember each independent setting.
 

 
 

 

The Darla24 supports both "consumer" and "commercial" equipment output/input levels. Most consumer gear output/input levels are set at -10dBv and most commercial gear is set at +4dBu. Many studios, like mine, may include both types of equipment. In the Echo Console by clicking on the Edit button, then Nominal Levels, the user can select input and output levels of either -10dBV or +4dBu.
 

Sound Quality

With a published dynamic range of 108dB, I figured I should be able to pack a lot of signal into each recorded track. I was not disappointed. I measured the noise floor to be around 103dB (24-bit/44.1kHz). This is a quiet card. Considering the specifications of the AKM converters, the noise floor is not surprising.

I plugged in my microphones into my mixer and got set to record. I recorded a basic drum track with the Drop and Drag Drummer and then began to add instruments to it. I used my acoustic guitar, running it through my mixer and into the Darla24 inputs. I then added some handdrum percussion, a simple electric guitar fill, and lastly a lead guitar track.

As expected, the Darla24 was very quiet and surprisingly transparent. In testing a soundcard, one of the most important things to consider is what it does not bring to the recording. I did not discern any significant "coloration" of the audio caused by the Darla24. Echo has chosen its converters well. The AKMs have a clean, non-distorted sound to them. Overall, the audio spectrum was evenly represented, with beefy lows and crisp highs. Separation of tones was easy to discern. There is just a touch of digital overcrispness at the highest frequencies (drum cymbals/high hat). All in all, the card is transparent and accurate. The best thing that can be said for any soundcard is that you do not know it is there when you record. With this card, clean, robust instrument sounds were all I heard. Very nice.

Useability

Clearly, this card is marketed at a price point aimed at the entry level "prosumer." This is a straight analog recording card - - S/PDIF and MIDI connectivity having been left out. As such, it does a very fine job and has high quality converters which sound terrific. However, I do not quite understand the logic behind two inputs and eight outputs on the Darla24. There are obvious recording limits with only two inputs. For instance, recording more than two instruments at once into separate tracks is impossible - - though, a good multi-input stereo mixer usually suffices. I can see using the eight outputs in a mix setting routing to an outboard mixer to ADAT for instance. To me, four inputs and six outputs makes more sense. Fortunately, the card happily coexists with other cards, such as the Soundblaster Live, which can provide MIDI connectivity.

While having the breakout box is very handy, I was frustrated by how short the provided cable was. Like most studios, I suspect, my PC sits on a base on my studio floor under the table. I find that I am more able to isolate its noise this way. Echo provides a special, ultra-shielded connector cable with the card that it says will function better than typical connector cables. This is all well and good but this one is too short. Initially, the only place I could put the breakout box was on top of my PC. I was then able to plug in the 1/4" connections easily but this impeded access to the front of the PC because I now had cables hanging in front of it. The option I finally chose was to put a little pedestal next to my PC for the breakout box. This was a mixed-blessing because now my feet were in the way. I would suggest that the cable be lengthened if possible. Despite this minor inconvenience, the breakout box was certainly more handy than having to plug directly into the back of the card.

Conclusion

The Darla24 sounds great. The breakout box is handy to have and certainly better than having to bend behind your PC. The bundled Cool Edit Pro SE, is an adequate starter software and will get you up and recording quickly. Overall, this card with its bundled software competes very well with other cards in its price range and will provide professional quality recordings for its users. If you need two inputs and multiple outputs on a straight analog card and cannot spend a lot of money, the Darla24 would be terrific choice.

webmaster@pcrecording.com

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