PCRECORDING.COM - Echo Mia Review:
Less than five years ago, software based effects and synthesizers were in early development with few systems and cards able to take advantage of them - - and if so only with expensive on-board DSP chips. In those days, for musicians wanting to run and mix numerous tracks to outboard mixers/effects, an eight output card was a minimal requirement. Now, since many songwriters record, edit and mix all their material in the computer and use software synthesizers and effects extensively, the need to simultaneously run several applications at once is critically important. The solution is multi-client operation - - meaning the card can be used to route output tracks from different programs, simultaneously. As a result, multi-client capability has lessened the need for multiple physical outputs - - allowing for more effective and efficient editing and mixing inside the computer. Enter the Echo Mia and cards like it.
I placed the MIA in an empty PCI slot and started my computer. The usual Windows PnP process detected the card and prompted me for the drivers. I directed Windows to the included CD disc and loaded the drivers. The includes the Echo Console, Cool Edit Pro LE, and a variety of demo software. Installation was a snap, the card was recognized by Windows and in my audio software packages.
The heart of the Echo line of cards is the Echo Console. From here, the user can direct how internal tracks are routed for recording, monitoring and mixing purposes.
The MIA is a multi-client card that offers eight virtual tracks that can be simultaneously utilized by software synthesizers, audio tracks in audio software and the like, while recording new audio tracks. The Console allows the user to control audio I/O and clocking in one window. The user can independently mix together a combination of virtual outputs, adjust input monitoring, and make changes to output levels.
The Console is arranged in three important areas: On the upper left, inputs and monitoring; in the middle, virtual output mixing sliders; and on the right side output controls. I will explain each of these in turn.
Input controls are limited to selecting the input levels of the analog inputs from either +4dBu (professional) and 10dBV (consumer) levels. However, each input monitor does employ a meter display that shows the input levels of the signal.
Just below the input controls are monitor controls that allow the user to monitor the input through any output on the MIA card. Each of the four channels have mute and solo radio buttons, a level slider, a "gang" button to lock the sliders, and pan control. At the very bottom is a window that tells the user where the signal is being sent by the control. The important thing about this feature is that the user determines the level at which the input signal is monitored at each of the outputs, completely independent of the main output levels. For analog input monitoring, the user must click on the analog button at the bottom right of the Console and then set the monitor level for the input pair that is just above the control. The manual is very helpful in learning how to use the Console controls.
Virtual Output Controls include the fader controls and an adjacent meters that display each virtual outputs. There are separate windows for analog and digital outputs. The user must keep in mind that each output level is cumulative with other output levels. Therefore, careful attention must be paid to the total volume of the collective outputs to avoid clipping.
The Output controls determine the actual, i.e., "physical" output of the analog and digital outputs. Only the analog outputs can be user-adjusted. The user determines if the output is professional or consumer level.
The most appealing feature of the MIA is its multi-client capability - - different applications or tracks can be simultaneously assigned to separate output channels. The virtual outputs, as shown below in SawPro32, allow the user to independently assign audio tracks, software synthesizers, and the like all at the same time. The Console controls provide level monitoring for each channel. Ultimately, each virtual output is routed to the real outputs, their respective track is mixed in at the user determined level. I was able to run SAWPro 32, GigaStudio 160 (via MIDI on another card) and record tracks all at the same time. For the project studio or solo player this is ideal - - the need for multiple I/Os becomes less important in the face of this flexibility.
The Mia is not the first low-cost, multi-client soundcard on the market. However, it is the only one to offer balanced 1/4" inputs. As a rule, balanced inputs will provide a quieter signal and are less susceptible to RFI than unbalanced inputs. In addition, the Mia uses late-generation AKM AK4528 chips for the A/D. As one might expect, the combination of the balanced jacks and these converters results in a very quiet card. I played previously recorded tracks and MIA recorded tracks and compared them. The Mia sounds natural with discrete stereo separation. Highs are detailed without artifact and the bass is robust. This is a good sounding card - - a testament to the converters and the design of the card itself.
I recorded acoustic guitar and vocals using my set of Marshall 2003s. The results were very pleasing, accurate and full-sounding. I often use DropD tunings on my acoustic and employ a strong plucking thumb to create rhythm while snapping high tones with the treble strings. The Mia captured and played back these distinct tones clearly and accurately. The highs were slightly crisp rather than dull - - a characteristic much easier to adjust to than the latter. My vocal style runs from very quiet passages to very loud, near shouting, parts. Again, the Mia captured the distinctions very well. The card has a deep noise floor which can accomodate rather extreme dynamic changes in volume with no loss of fidelity.
For the small project, this card is very useable. So long as the user has high-quality balanced cables and good preamplifiers,professional quality recordings can be accomplished - - within reason. The only thing of concern is that the Mia jacks are on the back of the PC - - a necessary design to keep it at its price point. Given that the PC is likely the noisiest component in any studio, this may present some problems if the user has short cables and cannot effectively isolate the PC. For me, I have a hole in my studio wall through which I run cables to the PC on the other side of the wall. Cable changeouts are inconvenient to say the least. However, since the Mia has only two analog inputs/outputs and two S/PDIF inputs/outputs, changing components/routing can occur at the component level - - i.e., synthesizers, preamplifiers, mixers and the like outputs from inside the studio.
Secondly,the multi-client capability of the Mia makes using software based instruments alongside traditional analog recording a breeze. I was able to record bass tracks using GigaStudio 160 simultaneously with previously recorded tracks in SAWPro32, while monitoring it all in my headphones. Though I play and record solo, I could easily have had another musician in the studio recording audio tracks at the same time while listening to the same thing. The exciting aspect of this is that in so doing a "live" feel can be captured by the card. For instance, one could use a software based loop routed to one pair of virtual outputs, route a pair of previously recorded audio tracks to another pair of virtual outputs, record a track of GigaStudio instruments and a pair of audio tracks at the same time. The GigaStudio and audio tracks would be recorded simultaneously and be able to feed off the other to create the "live" feel. This is pretty cool and a nice to know possibility.
For the entry-level market, Echo has got this one just right. It is not the cheapest available and has yet to have workable Win2000 drivers. Nonetheless, the feature set of this card anticipates most, if not all, the project studio/home studio enthusiast needs and adds to it professional level inputs and converters. Flexibility is now king here not I/O numbers. The card sounds great, works as expected, and is tremendously flexible. The bundled Cool Edit SE, though limited, does allow for simple recording out of the box. At this price, the Mia is a great buy and a worthy addition to the home enthusiast/hobbyist studio.