PCRECORDING.COM - - Soundscape Mixtreme Review
The Soundscape makes Digital Audio Workstations, soundcards and a host of external converter boxes for DAW applications. The primary interface is the Mixtreme, a 24-bit, 16 channel PCI soundcard which hooks up with a variety of converter boxes via a TDIF cable. Soundscape contacted me and inquired if I was interested in a review. Of course, I said yes. I received a package that included the Mixtreme Powerpak 2000 - - an entry-level complete set which included an iBox-2, a Mixtreme PCI interface card and a bevy of bundled software packages and manuals. I also received a SS8IO-3 (pictured below).
Mixtreme PCI Card
As I do with every new product, I first read the manuals. In particular, the Mixtreme manual was quite helpful in learning about the system, containing relevant information on routing, DSP functions and information on use of the various drivers this system supports, such as Windows, Cubase VST, GSIF and ASIO drivers. The other manuals contained general information regarding the converter boxes.
I installed the PCI interface card in an open slot and began. I noted that there were significant differences in the setup directory configuration that actually occurred as compared to what the manual said would happen. For instance, the manual stated that the install program would first open folder 1 then ask for folder 2, but the install program did not do that. The files all loaded at once and automatically found the necessary directories. This was great but a bit confusing. I was not certain everything needed had installed. I confirmed this with a phone call to Soundscape and learned that the development/update pace usually exceeds the hard copy capacity to keep up. Older text was included/remained in the manual that no longer applied to installing via CD. Thus my resulting confusion was explained. I eventually got the system installed and functioning correctly.
The Mixtreme features on-board DSP processing (Motorola 56301 chip) for its mixer and effects. As a result, low latency times can be achieved because the effects/mixer processing is occurring in the DSP engine not in the host CPU. One important feature of the Mixtreme architecture is its multi-client ability. This means that you can run several different programs, under different formats all within one session. These can be routed, at will, through your choice of channels and outputs. The ability to engage in multi-client processing opens up tremendous possibilities for combining software synthesizer/loops applications in real-time with audio/MIDI applications. For instance, the user could incorporate/play a software synthesizer that is playing at the same time as prerecorded audio, mixed in with a MIDI sequence. The Mixtreme system is not the only one capable of this (the Terratec EWS88 comes to mind) but those systems put the load on the host CPU. The DSP processing on the Mixtreme enables real-time processing of all of these different elements, providing a very flexible environment for creating music while putting minimal load on the host CPU.
I clicked on the Mixer icon, entered the password provided with the Mixtreme. The Mixtreme mixer appeared.
The mixer window is simple and in comparison to some other multi-track packages has a rather pedestrian appearance. Nevertheless, there is significant functionality built into the mixer, a matter of function over form. In full display mode the mixer has the stereo tracks listed in pairs (1/2 uI, 3/4 uI, etc.) across the top of the window. Below that it shows a window for the native 2-band EQ settings, featuring individual mini-windows for frequency range, Q point and -dB change settings (default is 0). At the bottom of the mixer window, the track numbers are identified again, immediately above these are bus settings for the tracks, next to which is a mute button. Above the bus settings, the mixer has vertical stereo sliders with a mini-window to show numerical levels of amplitude change from slider movements. Adjacent to each slider is a LED meter to show input levels, the range of variability goes from -50dB to +3dB or so. Above the input sliders is a horizontal pan slider with a mini-window next to it that displays the degree of pan left or right. To the far right is the master stereo slider, output settings, master pan and master output meters.
The mixer features user-definable channel routing and real-time effects plug-ins that act independently of the software application used for recording. The mixer has 16 internal busses per unit for internal effects processing. Any of the 16 I/Os on the Mixtreme can act as sends and/or returns to external hardware units such as eq boxes or compression devices. These channels can be mixed in with tracks played off of the harddisk via the software application employed. The mixer settings are very flexible and are limited only by the amount of DSP horsepower you have left.
As an example of the mixer's flexibility you can use the input, outputs or busses in just about any configuration you desire. You can have 8 channels go to in 1-2 u1 as inputs, and route that to bus 1/2 for output. Additional effects could be applied as you see fit then recombined at bus 3/4. Confused? Well, the manual has a very helpful set of graphics that lay it all out for consideration, which I found to be quite helpful. All mixer files can be saved to the computer and later employed as presets.
Double-clicking on the caption bar for the EQ opens up a dialog window for the 2-band EQ Each window features three vertical sliders for filters 1 and filter 2, respectively.
The left-most slider on each filter sets the frequency affected, the middle slider sets the Q setting and the right-most sets the gain levels of the filter setting. The eq allows for very precise or very broad frequency settings, as you see fit.
Once I got past the initial learning curve, the flexibility of the mixtreme system became more apparent and easy to use. I was able to route signal paths at will. The multi-client ability of this system is very handy if your recording session needs to incorporate audio, MIDI, internal synthesizers and the like. The system routing can handle it all as directed by the user. This system would be particularly effective in a live setting where a user is incorporating audio clips, MIDI sequences and synthesizer samples simultaneously - - a great DJ setup.
The Mixtreme PowerPak comes with a suite of software that is intended to give the buyer all the necessary tools to record. The suite includes, Wave Mechanics' realtime reverb and Audio Toolbox - Soundscape's real-time DSP based studio Multi-Effects plug-in which includes compressors, limiters, expanders, gates, chorus, flanger, dithering and digital delays. Lastly, the package included GigasamplerLE and GigaPiano. For multi-track recording, the suite finishes off the package with the a copy of MicroLogic - - a limited version of the Logic Audio program. With the exception of burning to a CD, a user could get virtually everything done with this package.
The effects packages are worthy of a full review themselves and are beyond the scope of this review. However, I used the Wave Mechanics Reverb and the Soundscape Compressor in a project I am working on. It rapidly became clear that having DSP power to process the effects was faster. As is commonly known, plugin reverbs are notorious CPU hogs, so I opened up the Wave Mechanics Reverb and began adding reverb to independent tracks. Even with the reverb running realtime, I was able to keep making adjustments in realtime while keeping my track count up to around twelve tracks, each with an independent reverb and a reverb on the master channel. I did not push beyond this because in reality, I would be using auxiliary channels to route reverb in order to keep a consistent tone to the song. The point is that the DSP chip aided significantly in allowing application of CPU cycle hungry effects without losing real-time ability. By the way, the Wave Mechanics reverb sound quality was terrific, very smooth and rich. In addition, I used the TC Dynamizer and several of the Soundscape plugins - - the Compressor, EQ and the flanger. I found that all worked well and fast with virtually no latency.
I installed the GigaSamplerLE and GigaPiano with great anticipation. After an initial level of frustration, I was able to get my system configured to play these sampler programs. The GigaSampler install program tries to put the actual sample files on a separate drive if available. I have an older 2.1 gig harddrive as my D: drive. This drive is not as fast nor is it DMA capable. The samples were loaded there, it just took some time for me to get everything working amiably together. Boy, it was worth the effort. I was impressed with the sound quality of the samples. I particularly liked the lush Sacred Orchestral samples included with the GigaSampleLE program. Using my synthesizer as a controller, I could just press a key and hear beautiful sounding samples of orchestras and operas - - not that I particularly have a use for them with my style of music. Nonetheless, it was very impressive. The GigaPiano, a huge sample file, sounded great too. Imagine using your synthesizer keyboard as a controller but hearing a sampled Yamaha Concert Grand. The sound was very rich and realistic sounding. Bear in mind that this is a huge file and not all systems will be able to accommodate it. It was fun though.
I recorded a set of songs I have been working on for awhile. I chose Samplitude 2496 as my multi-track program. I selected Mixtreme tracks 1-2 from the Device window, checked my settings on the SS8IO-3 and began to record. I am primarily an acoustic musician/composer and began with my acoustic guitar. I was using a pair of Marshall's 2003 microphones and monitoring through a set of Vergence M-00/S-00 monitors. I recorded the basic, finger-picked acoustic guitar track, overlay an accompanying guitar track, and a vocal track very easily. The results were very pleasing. The recordings were clear, detailed and full-sounding. I was able to detect the details of the acoustic guitar strings harmonics as I finger-picked away - - you know, that plucked string sound. The bottom end was nicely rounded and full. My vocal tracks, sounded clear and accurate. The card sounded very good. I added a bass track with the GigaSampler Classic Rickenbacker bass. This was beginning to get fun!
I was able to adjust the EQ of each track by double-clicking in the Mixtreme mixer eq bar. The two-band eq was quite flexible and I was able to narrowly define the range ("Q") and amplitude of the frequency I was manipulating. Nevertheless, a three band/four-band EQ would be nicer. I used Waves reverb to add some body to the guitar and then some minor compression to even things out. Overall, having all this capability in one package was great - - compatibility was never an issue and the DSP power made it all fast.
DSP based Processing:
Soundscape rightfully touts the benefits of DSP processing heavily. The advantage of DSP based processing is significant, particularly if you have an older computer. However, as CPUs have become more powerful, I believe the need for DSP based processing has decreased for the home/enthusiast user. In an age where 700+mHz CPUs are common, there is a great deal of raw processing power available at a very reasonable cost. Simply put,the need for DSP has diminished in inverse proportion to the increase in power. Nevertheless, having the processing on the soundcard itself provides low-latency response to input commands, thus avoiding any software related delays that can occur even on a very fast machine. Imagine, if you will, a DPS powered card on a 700mHz machine - - the possibilities are vast.
The SS8IO-3 and Mixtreme interface card make for a powerful, great-sounding system. The multi-client ability of the Mixtreme architecture provides tremendous flexibility for recording sessions. DSP processing results in low-latency response times across the board.
Now days however, I believe that Soundscape will face an uphill marketing battle trying to sell a 20-bit system in a 24-bit world. The reality is other manufacturers have jumped ahead in the converter arena. However good this card sounds, and it does sound very good, its converters are dated. Eventually, Soundscape will have to upgrade to 24-bit converters and to 96kHz.
An additional concern for me is the cabling. RCA cables are generally fine but they are unbalanced. I recognize that for most applications, particularly ones with short cable runs, unbalanced cables are fine. However, most pro studios will use balanced 1/4" cabling, for a reason. It is my experience that I get more satisfactory, consistent and quieter results from a balanced cables. I recognize that this would significantly change the dimensions of the external converter boxes but I would prefer balanced connections. (Soundscape does offer a high-end system, the iBox 8-XLR/24 with balances XLR based units. It is significantly more expensive that features programmable routing, LED metering, etc.)
This system is well thought out, efficient and very capable. The SS8IO-3 combined with the Mixtreme provides for ample power to handle demanding recording projects. With support for a variety of interface options and a wide range of driver support, particularly GSIF, Soundscape has provided a system that is both powerful but robustly compatible with most applications. Of course, the litmus test is how it sounds. The results are very good-sounding. The added bonus of DSP processing will put less of a load on your system than PC-based processing intensive systems. The combination of the sound quality, DSP processing power and the flexibility of the system makes for a very valuable product.
The PowerPak bundle provides real, useful, multitrack solutions for the beginning musician. Combined with the iBox2, a user can be up and running and able to achieve professional sound results, all in one package.