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PCRECORDING.COM - Terratec EWS88MT Review

Retail price = $599.00
System = Win9x/NT

Introduction:

Terratec's EWS88MT is their latest offering for the multi-track digital audio interface market. It is composed of a breakout box that houses eight in/eight out analog to digital, digital to analog 24-bit/96kHz converters with RCA connections and MIDI In/Out. The PCI interface card includes a stereo S/PDIF I/O connection and an 1/8" stereo 16-bit output. The breakout box is designed to fit in a CD-ROM bay of the PC case from which the cabling can be routed internally to a connector on the soundcard or can be used externally with a 6-foot interface cable connecting it to the back of the PCI card. A full list of the features appears below.

Features:

  • 8 channel (RCA) analog I/O with 24-bit, 96 kHz selectable between +4dBu and –10dBV
  • Analog converters in a shielded 5.25" breakout box for internal or external use
  • Stereo (RCA Coaxial), S/PDIF I/O with 24-bit 96kHz operation; separate stereo monitor output (16-bit, 48kHz)
  • 2 internal connectors for CD-Audio input (16-bit 48 kHz)
  • Driver support for Windows™ 95/98, Windows™ NT4 and ASIO
  • Separate drivers for inputs and outputs
  • All settings can be saved and loaded from the bundled Control Panel application
  • 2 meter long cable for connecting the breakout box

Technical Specifications

  • Busmaster transfer supporting ‚ 24-bit 4-byte mode‘ (32-bit)
  • Full-duplex (simultaneous record and playback) performance of 16 channels at up to 24-bit 96 kHz
  • 24-bit/96kHz AKM A/D converters with 100dB dynamic range and 64x oversampling*
  • 24-bit/96kHz AKM D/A converters with 110dB dynamic range and 128x oversampling*
  • Input level adjustable with +18dB gain in 0.5dB steps
  • 20 channel mixer with 36-bit internal headroom
  • Hardware VU-meter for each channel
  • 2 internal analog stereo inputs, 16-bit/48kHz (Molex)**
  • MPU-401™ compatible MIDI port

* This data relates to the technical specifications of the converters
** These inputs can only be routed to the monitor output

Installation:

Manual: I first read the manual which I found to be quite thorough and helpful. The manual contains detailed instructions on how to install the system and to setup for recording. The manual is a little less clear when it came to use of the Control Panel. I believe this is in part because of an effort on the author's part to be a bit too humorous and perhaps a translation problem. However, the manual is understandable and useful overall.

Card installation/Setup: After inserting the interface card in a free PCI slot, connecting up the cable to the breakout box and powering up my system, installation was a snap. I use Windows 98 in a Pentium II 300, 64 meg RAM, 20 gig harddrive system. The setup program automatically installed the card's drivers and the Control Panel - a digital routing/mixer interface.

Software:

The EWS88MT comes with mixer/routing software (Control Panel) that allows the user to set input and output default levels (-4 or +10), adjust input and output gain settings via a virtual mixer, and route signals via a control panel. The flexibility of the Control Panel is quite robust and its appearance is certainly appealing. If you need to show a client a "gee whiz" item in your studio setup, this would be a good one.

The Control Panel consists of three page views. The first view is titled Routing/Analog Input Levels. Here, the user can set sensitivity levels of either +4dBu or -10dBv for each of the 8 analog inputs. The inputs are set in stereo pairs with vertical sliders that allow up to 18dB of gain. The user can move each slider independently or "stereogang" them so they move together. There is no input VU meter so the user must rely on the clipping light when setting the levels. The clipping sensitivity can be set to activate at -3dB up to 0dB. This view also provides for card source/port selection - - these are laid out in stereo pairs for the analog input. An interesting feature is the "Auto" function which sets an optimum level for the input gain by analyzing an incoming signal. The user can set the scan period for 3, 5, or 10 seconds. The function then chooses the best level and sets it for the user. This is similar to the function one finds in the Echo product line. Finally, on the right side of the panel, the user can select multiple cards if the user has them installed in the computer. Please see the screenshot below.

The second view page contains the Digital Mixer. This feature is very powerful, allowing the user to mix together all output signals and all input signals at the same time and send them through either the 1/2 analog outputs or the S/PDIF outputs. Each channel has fader/pan controls and its own VU meter. The digital mixer uses a multi-client driver, thus can be used with multiple applications. What does this mean? It means the user could use one stereo pair for all stereo .wav file outputs, one pair for a sampler, another pair for MIDI hardware, and yet another for a software synthesizer. Ultimately, the Digital Mixer can mix together 20 channels (10 WavePlay drivers, [8 analog, 2 S/PDIF], and 10 input signals) and route them to the 1/2 digital or analog outputs. This provides very robust routing options to the user. I find it hard to imagine that the typical user would ever run short of digital mixing resources with this system. Lastly, to the far right is a stereo Master volume control consisting of two vertical sliders. These can be operated independently or stereoganged to operate together.

The third view page is the Control Panel where the user can set master settings. Here the Master Clock can be set to internal or external and sample rates between 8kHz and 96kHz can be selected. In addition, the user can set buffer sizes for the interface, set sensitivity levels between +4dBu and -10dBv for the output, and change the systems colors. (Terratec recommends that the user first set buffers in their multi-track software program and then use the settings between 8mS and 28 mS (default is 20mS) until a setting just above audio dropout can be selected).

Useability:

I was intrigued by the option of installing the breakout box inside my 5 1/4" bay. I played around with various configurations without actually installing the box in the PC. I concluded that it was best for me to leave it on top of my equipment rack off to the side. I, like many others, keep my PC on the floor as far away as possible from my microphones and other equipment. The prospect of having the RCA cables hanging in front of the PC, under the table near my feet did not appeal to me, for my particular setup. The option of installing the breakout box in a bay will likely work very well for a musician who has a dedicated audio-only PC where plugging and unplugging the cables is not as difficult and where the PC is not underfoot. Nevertheless, the breakout box was sufficiently hefty to sit comfortably on my rack box.

The Control Panel described above was easy to use for setting input/output levels and routing signals. In addition, the Control Panel is very attractive and well-designed. While it does not replace an external mixer entirely, it does provide for a great deal of options. This is particularly true if you use internal samplers or synthesizers that might be difficult to port out to an external mixer. I especially liked having an additional resource for setting input and output levels other than the software mixer.

I used the card with Cakewalk Pro 9, n-Track Studio, Samplitude 2496, and DDClips Pro. It worked flawlessly in each and was recognized without hesitation. Each multi-track software program recognizes the card input/outputs as stereo pairs and depending on the software can either be selected individually as left/right inputs or as a stereo pair. It was very easy to recognize and select whatever input or output I wanted while recording via the recording software interface.

The 16-bit stereo monitor output (EWS88 MT Monitor WavePlay) appears as a separate option. I thought this was very handy because it can be used for standard Windows duty or to play a software synthesizer. I used it for my CD music playback and for Windows sounds duty. This eliminates the need of having a separate "basic" card in the system and frees up the high-quality 24-bit connections for recording/playback use. The addition of this output is very thoughtful.

Performance:

I found that using the default setting of 20ms for the buffers worked well in my system. My style of recording does not require a great deal of tracks nor do I employ a high number of effects. I prefer to concentrate on a very clean, strong signal to start with and then minimally apply effects. Other users may wish to set their settings differently. This card allows for significant flexibility in buffer settings and should be able to accomodate demanding needs.

Sound quality:

Terratec used four AK4524 Codec chips from AKM Semiconductors for the A/D conversion and included a variable-gain input stage as well. Capable of up to 24-bit resolution and sample rates up to 96kHz, I expected and got very good sonic quality. I recorded a variety of different instruments, my voice and different sounds to test the recording capability of the card. I was impressed overall with the quality of the sound I was able to record and playback. My measurements of the dynamic range were very close to the published specs (I got about -97dB on the A/D conversion). However, I did notice an anomaly that I initially had difficulty understanding. So I decided to do some tests.

All things being equal, the EWS88MT seemed to record and play back at lower volume levels than another card I am reviewing, the Digital Audio CardDeluxe. I did A/B testing with the Audio CardDeluxe and the EWS88Mt. The EWS and CardD are both 24/96 capable cards. I set the microphone/mixer/input levels equally and merely replaced cable inputs to correspond to the different needs of the cards (RCA vs. 1/4"). Uniformly, the EWS88MT was slightly quieter, less dynamic than the CardDeluxe. It still sounded very good but was less sensitive to input and had a slightly quieter output. I found that I had to turn up my monitor volume a bit more to get the same level of playback from the EWS88MT as compared to the CardDeluxe.

A review of the published specifications for each card reveals that the dynamic ranges for analog to digital conversion differ substantially with the CardD claiming a range of 110dB and the EWS claiming 100dB. Terratec points out that their claimed specifications are tech specs for the converters on their website. CardDeluxe claims their specs are based on actual tests of their card in a computer. As to the quieter playback I experienced, I suspect that part of this may be in part due to using RCA cables. I have a very good set but they may not be as transparent as my 1/4" cables. This may be a consideration for any user who buys this card. Make sure that you get very high-quality RCA cables - - your typical stereo connections will not do.

Nonetheless, the dynamic range performance is still very good and the sonic quality was very accurate. I recorded acoustic guitar, Native American flute, vocals, my daughter's voice, my voice and a variety of other sounds with the card. All of them were accurately recorded by the card. The card sounded clear with a strong sense of presence for the instruments I used.

Conclusions:

Overall, the EWS88MT is a very robust, solidly designed and friendly to use digital audio interface. It provides for ample connectivity options for the user with its 8 analog I/Os, S/PDIF connections and MIDI I/O capability. The Control Panel is a dream to work with and to look at - - providing tremendous flexibility for mixing and routing signals from a variety of sources. The EWS88MT is a complete system at an affordable price that performs very well.

I would suggest that the manual be rewritten to be more clear and less cute. While I noticed some differences in the dynamic range as compared to another card, ultimately I found that the card performed very close to its claimed specifications. Is this bad? No, the EWS88MT does what it claims to do and does it well. If you are looking for the ultimate dynamic range interface this may not be the card nor does it claim to be so. If you are looking for robust and complete connectivity options that includes MIDI and S/PDIF support, this card would be a very good option.

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