Make your own free website on Tripod.com
THE SCOTMAN REVIEW
Sound Cards
scotsman.jpg
Creative Audigy. M-Audio Transit (coming soon)
Home | How to | Sound Cards | DAWs | Other reviews | Room 101 | Mics | Video

CREATIVE LABS AUDIGY

Creative continues to produce the red-headed step child of soundcards. First their SoundBlaster, then the SoundBlaster Live! and finally the Audigy line of soundcards get no more respect than Rodney Dangerfield. After all, they are for gamers or listening to low-fi ripped mpg files. At the most, they are tweeners - somewhere between the top of end of game cards and the bottom of real audio cards. All the above is true, but it doesn't mean you cant get decent sound out of them - or into your computer.

The Audigy line is the latest incarnation of Creative's line of soundcards and came out at the same time as Windows XP. At that time there was no update available to make the earlier SoundBlaster (SB) cards work with XP, so if you updated your OS you had to buy a new card. It is not for nothing that Creative is one of (if not the) largest of soundcard companies. So large, as a matter of fact, that they bought out both Emu and Ensoniq, the last large American synth manufacturers. Ensoniq was folded into Emu and has since disappeared. But Emu is still going strong, in large part because they supply the chipset heart of the Audigy (and their earlier cards). The Emu sound chip is a good little ROMpler (Read Only Memory sampler) that supplies 64 hardware voices at 16 bits/48 Kilohertz. It can also use an adjustable amount of your computers memory to store samples in the SoundFont format.

The Emu chip and SoundFonts are the main musical strengths of the Audigy line. Combined, they turn your computer into a hardware sampler with low CPU overhead and overcome the basic GM instruments that come loaded with the Audigy card. Back when samplers were expensive hardware items, the ability of a $100 SB to do the same job was just short of a miracle. So much so that SoundFonts have, if not replaced, then supplemented the venerable Akai format for samples. And it didn't hurt that Creative included Vienna SoundFont editor, in which one could import, twiddle with and assign samples - all on a computer screen. That might not sound like such a big deal these days, but it wasn't so long ago that most sample editing was done as much by ear as on the tiny screens of hardware samplers. Today, Vienna remains a viable sample editor.

Other than making a sampler out of your computer, Audigy includes stereo recording (along with a basic wave editing program) and stereo output (2 sets thereof, so you can hookup your computer speakers as well as having an out for recording/monitoring). Those are on 1/8 inch mini-jack connectors. It will use low-latency ASIO or regular Microsoft drivers. There is also a midi I/O via a game port connector if you have an empty PCI slot (actually, just the back cover plate bracket, not the slot - the midi connects via ribbon to the Audigy card itself). Finally, in not just keeping up with the Joneses but passing them, the Audigy also includes a FireWire port. As far as software goes, besides the SoundFont editor, Creative WaveStudio (the stereo recorder), diagnostics and any games etc. that came bundled with your card, Creative includes their PlayCenter, a jukebox/ripper/CD recorder. PC is a run of the mill program, but works just fine. In fact, when I got a new Sony PC at the dawn of Windows XP and installed the Audigy, PlayCenter was burning disks before I could get the included Sony Sonic Stage (also a ripper, juke box and burner) to burn disks. That is one of Creative's great strengths - love or distain them, they are the standard for consumer soundcards. So most companies go to the trouble to have their programs work with it, and Creative makes sure that their hardware/drivers work on most systems. Sometimes, bigger is better.

Installation, if not a breeze, was doable with the Audigy card. Remember, this was when XP was brand new, and everybody was still working out the kinks. I had to download some patches (and not just from Creative, but Sony and Microsoft, too) to get everything to work. Since then, Audigy has worked fine. They have a download available that bundles all the updates together, so you don't have to keep track of what has and hasn't been added to your system. Creative e-mail help is, if not as quick as some professional program help, comprehensive. The hardware installation was easy, although the unsupported midi cover plate flexes dangerously when plugging in the game-port connector. Lastly, the Creative line of cards fills up your PC's registry with all kinds of code lines, so, if you get down to that level, the code bloat is confusing. However, other than being unsightly it doesn't seem to have any adverse affects on PC performance.

To cut to the chase - how does the Audigy rank as a recording soundcard? Well, it won't replace the Apogees you were looking at. And though I've never had the chance to conduct side by side testing with the host of bottom line professional cards, the general consensus of the experts and wanna-be-experts is they are not quite as good. But a lot depends on what you are going to use them for. If you want to record delicate folk songs or a string quartet - it would be best to save your money for a more upscale card. If you are doing some form of rock or of roll - amplified as opposed to acoustic music - the difference might not be a deal killer. Especially if you need a sampler. The whole debate about sound quality takes me back to the early nineties when the singer of a band recording in a top-shelf studio was wishing for a reverb tail that disappeared into complete silence - 0 dB. Meanwhile, the guitarist was engaging in early loop creation using his guitar and a 16 bit sampler. He would record some riffs at home and bring the sampler in and dump the bits straight on to 2 inches of analog tape. The sampler's sound (both by specs and ear) was not even up to Audigy's standards, yet that didn't keep said band from selling a lot of CDs. The Audigy will capture a reasonable facsimile of the sound you give it and get close to how the more expensive cards sound.

I used an Audigy recently to record Frump, The All Mom Garage Band. They had no budget but brought me a cassette recording of a rehearsal. As they are basically a three-piece band with a singer, I suggested recording the rhythm section of the band live, and then overdubbing the vocals and keys. We did a stereo recording of the band in one of the girl's rehearsal /living room and tracked 6 songs in a one day session. They set up at one end of the long room and I set up at the other. Monitoring was through headphones and their live sound system. It only took about an hour to get the mics set up (recording bits of songs), then they blew through their numbers. Then it took a couple of leisurely afternoons and evenings to do the vocals and keys.

The Audigy performed fine. Granted, this is not high-definition music - or full of subtlety expressions. Of course we all would have preferred to use higher end equipment, but I don't really know how much better the sound would have been. In punk rock garage band music, you can only hear into guitar distortion so far - and the Audigy was up to the task. The same for the vocals. On mixdown I put virtual old-fashioned plates, springy reverb verging on the edge of echo and distortion on the singer. More clarity during tracking would just have made my work that much harder. Better hardware might have helped on the obligatory ballad (with amplified guitar and bass, of course), but it just might have made the song stick out as different. Recording separate tracks also might have made a cleaner sound, too - but if it was good enough for Phil Spector ... . I could have at least given the drums the big-reverb Led Zeppelin treatment without effecting the guitar and bass, but that would have made a lot more work for me, too (remember, this was a mercy recording). As it was, I spent more time mixing (and mastering) their music than we spent actually recording it. But most importantly, they were happy with the recording and it captured the energy and sound of their music.

Basically, for this kind of music, the Audigy was more than capable as an input device. And for many other styles of music it works fine, too. It is just shy of the inexpensive professional soundcards, and for many applications the difference is negligible. That being said, better is better, and if you can afford one of the other soundcards get one. They manage to squeeze a few extra dBs in the specs department and do sound just that much better. However, the Audigy 1 retails for about $80, while the pro cards go for around $150. You will still need a SoundFont player and perhaps a midi I/O to match the capabilities of the Audigy, however, and that brings the cost to over $200 if you are not already equiped in those areas. Only you can decide whether that is a deal breaker or not. Ive used the Audigy for home recording - and it hasn't killed any songs yet.

As always, one should watch out for the hype. While Creative claims the Audigy is 24 bit (and the ADA converters are), the Emu engine runs at a fixed 16 bit/48 Khz. Using any other format for the on-board sounds results in real-time conversion to the EMU standard on playback. It is best just to stick with the Emu standard and then convert the program to the CD format (or any other) using a dedicated program. I use SoundForge, but the included WaveStudio will do it, too. You can, of course, keep a 24 bit file as a take and use a 16/48 file for playback to avoid the real-time conversion if you want to squeeze the last bit (8 bits? - Ed.) of sound for your song. Or you could get Creatives optional S/PDIF I/O and a separate ADA, but that is rather the long way around and pushes up the Audigy's price (the $60 addition putting it right up there with the pro cards).

Finally, the Audigy (both 1 & 2) comes in several different forms. There is the basic card, the EX Platinum, which adds a front panel face with extra I/Os, and a USB model. Ive seen the Audigy 1 USB model for about the same price as the card - other models are priced higher. Creative has just released an upgrade to the Audigy 2 - the Z model. It lists for $250. It has a few extra dBs over the vanilla 2, which has a few dBs over the Audigy 1. You can record 6 inputs onto a stereo track and it has a better remote controller than its older siblings. And all of the Audigy line can output a 5.1 signal via the digital out for surround sound, while the 2Z does 7.1 (Lordy, where do I put all these speakers?). The Audigy 2 line sounds closer to the pro cards, and costs like them too, but otherwise it shares the same pluses (Emu engine and SoundFonts) and minuses (16/48 Emu engine).

For the price, the Audigy I is hard to beat as an all-in-oner. You get respectable audio I/O, midi I/O and a very good synth engine/sampler. Not to mention a Firewire port to bring your computer into the 21st century. Add a keyboard, some sort of mixer and mic for your un-virtual sounds, stir in a bit of software, and you are good to go.

OTHER OPTIONS

It is hard to find under-a-hundred-dollar options in the sound card world for recording. Most of the bottom-tier "pro" audio cards you might find starting at $125 - or not. The USB I/Os run a little more. However, the new M-Audio Transit lists for $125 but retails for $80. For the budget minded user, it represents a whole new category of bang-to-buck ratios if you are looking for 24/96 recording. Look for a review here soon.

M-AUDIO TRANSIT

Midiman and M-Audio were a couple of small manufacturers of sound cards, midi interfaces and such. They had so much respect for each other's products they got married. Then Midiman/M-Audio became just plain ole M-Audio and began distributing the Groove Tube line. That worked out so well they went and bought the English company Evolution, whom also made controllers and interfaces and a similiar product line. Finally, M-Audio also started doing speakers, distributing Ableton's Live and loop libraries and soon will be moving in next door. Well, maybe not the latter, but they are definitely a company on the move.

While they make several soundcards - including the respected Delta and Audiophile series and have introduced their first Firewire products - they jumped into USB market in a big way. And their new Transit interface is one the smallest pieces of hardware I have ever used. A pack of cigarettes dwarfs it. However, such insubstantial-ness (it is even all plastic) belies a rugged enough construction. I had mine perched on top of my computer, trailing the audio wires to my board. Before I repositioned the Transit to a more stable spot it took several 4 foot (that's a meter + for those who are into metrics) nosedives into a hardwood floor. Didn't phase it. I wouldn't abuse it, but I wouldn't be scarred off by its construction either.

As to the stats, it is a 24/96 stereo audio interface. No midi, no preamp, nothing more fancy than a analog and digital I/O. Alright, so the digital I/O is kinda fancy, in that the optical in uses the same jack as the analog in, via an included cute little light bulb adaptor. The Transit automatically detects the nature of the input signal. The digital out is more mundane, in that is has its very own jack. It will also output a mulitchannel ac-3 encoded signal for your surround sound pleasure. That, the USB input (cable included) and an eerie blue power light round out the physical description of the Transit USB interface.

Installation of the necessary software was a breeze it took almost as long to open the boxes the Transit came in as to put in the software. Once the software is installed, you connect the hardware with the single USB cable. Wham, bam, thank you maam, your Transit is detected and ready to use. An icon appears on your taskbar. Clicking on it brings up the only thing you have to manually set sample rate and bit depth, and latency. As with all old USB 1 devices, the throughput limits available audio channels. You can have stereo 16 or 24 bit in/out from 8000 - 48,000 Hz, either 24 bit 96,000 in or out, or the surround out. Once that and the latency (in 5 steps from very low to very high) is set, you are good to go start recording/playback.

As to the sound - well, I have to admit initially I was disappointed. On a typical home studio set up in my bedroom I couldn't hear that much difference between it and an on-board Creative Audigy board. This was, of course, a non-scientific measurement, heard over a couple of Bose bookshelf speakers and a nice, but old, Yamaha monitor amp. The more I cranked up the volume, the more I thought I heard some extra clarity, but not enough to do a blind listening test if money was involved. However, when I looked at the meters on Vegas, I did see the difference. The noise level was way down - about 10 dB. On a single track that might not sound too bad (not good, but acceptable for certain types of music). Compound that residual noise by 10 or more tracks, however, and the difference becomes apparent. So, even if less than golden ears on a typical home studio can't distinguish the sound on a single track, they hopefully will hear the difference on a complete song. Editing, noise gates, EQ, etc. can get rid of some background noise, but it can't eliminate it totally either, and the really good software noise reduction programs cost more than the Transit itself. And stepping down from 24 bits to CDs 16 bits or MP3 and ac-3 should make the transition with less noise intact and more of your precious sound.

There are places on the web where the M-Audio USB drivers in general are trashed. I haven't compared the Transit with any other USB interfaces as I dont have any. But I did find that the drivers for the Transit have a higher latency than my on-board Creative soundcard. When using the fast or very fast settings on dense material the Transit sound tended to break up. Choosing a higher setting solved the problem. Many programs automatically compensate for such a delay, but even if your software doesn't, it is no big deal to slide a track to sync up. However, high setting do cause problems when recording new audio in sync with already recorded tracks if the delay interferes with playing in rhythm. This happens to me sometimes playing VSTi parts in Plasma (I run the FruityLoops VSTi adaptor in Plasma - a cheap and mostly effective means of adding VSTi capabilities rather than buying a separate VSTi adaptor). I simply play the midi part using the Creative on-board sounds (with little latency) and then switch sounds. I should admit here that my home studio computer is a 1200 MHZ Celeron, which is hardly state of the art. USB (and Firewire) drivers take up more processing cycles than most on-board cards, but they are getting better all the time (not to mention the raw computer speed). However, on older machines this may require some work arounds like the above process if you need to multitrack.

While there are a lot of choices out there in the USB interface world, the M-Audio Transit is hard to beat for just getting your sound out of the analog domain and into the digital wonderama of your computer. All for less than a $100. If you need more - such as midi and SoundFont playback, you can add a Creative card (even a very cheap SoundBlaster Live!) to round out your internal capabilities. If you need mic preamps and mixing, it might make sense to spend more on your USB interface and skip the internal card. M-Audio makes more upscale interfaces, along with just about every other major music company, and more are coming out everyday, it seems. If you need an all-in-oner, you need to check them out for yourselves to keep track of capabilities and pricing of an ever expanding lineup. Or go whole-hog and get a USB 2 or Firewire device. They cost a little more, but allow you to record more than 2 tracks at a time. Look for a review of the now discontinued PreSonus Firestation coming soon. With the next generation of Firewire/USB 2 interfaces hitting the market, the price is coming down to about $500 for basic units. But if you only want to add stereo analog to your setup, it is hard to find a better deal than the M-Audio Transit.