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PCRECORDING.COM - - Echo Mona (CardBus/PCI) Review

Echo Mona Laptop
Manuf: Echo
Price: $995.00
OS: 95/98/ME (NT and 2000 beta only) 


Overview

As little as five years ago, minimum equipment necessary for the enthusiast/home studio owner included the soundcard, the DAW, and various other hardware components like a mixer, effects units, and preamplifiers. There were many cards capable of cleanly recording music so long as you had high-quality preamplifiers and mixers. However, the total cost of putting all these elements together in a home studio was prohibitive. The issue, as always, was that the system is only as good as its weakest link. If the user had a low-quality mixer/preamplifier or soundcard, the final quality of the recording would be limited by the weakest component.

As has become commonplace these days, hardware development in the DAW world has been breathtaking. The combination of improvements in A/D conversion and multi-client operability has resulted in systems capable of reaching professional level quality recording, in the right hands. With the development of combination jacks wired to on-board preamplifiers, input flexibility has improved tremendously. Multi-client capability has allowed for the simultaneously combining live recording with software based synthesizers. While others started the trend towards all-in-one usability, (DirectPro 2496 and SeaSound SoloEX), these were limited in either analog I/O or in compatability with ADAT or S/PDIF systems.

In addition, laptop development has resulted in many laptops replacing the desktops in offices and studios. However, development of recording devices that work with a laptop are only now beginning to reach the marketplace.

Enter the Echo Mona, providing preamplified combination jacks supporting XLR (48v phantom power), line level, and high-impedance inputs and S/PDIF and ADAT connectivity as well. The Mona has four analog inputs and six analog outputs - - if more I/O is needed, the Mona can synchronize with other Mona's or Echo products via their proprietary Esync technology.

The Mona comes in two forms, a typical PCI card interface design and/or with a laptop adapter using a CardBus Laptop adapter. (The laptop interface is a CardBus device that plugs into a PCMIA slot on a laptop). I first received the Mona package which included the CardBus interface, an external rack-mount box, a long coiled interface cable, a manual, a CD containing the drivers, Cool Edit Pro SE, and some help files, and a bag of rack-mount screws. Later, I received the PCI card and a cable for it. I tested both throughout this review.

My system is a Dell Inspiron Laptop (PIII 800, 256 RAM, 10 gig HD, WinME). My studio system is a Celeron 366 (OC'd to 500), Win98SE, 20 gig Maxtor, 768 RAM. The Mona (PCI) and Laptop both have the feature set below:

Features

  • PCI bus master interface or CardBus
  • Dynamic Range of 110dB (A-weighted) on inputs, 115dB on outputs
  • Four mic preamps with phantom power(+48v)
  • Four universal analog inputs with precision 24-bit 128x oversampling analog-to-digital converters
  • Six analog outputs (both XLR & RCA) with high-performance 24-bit 128x oversampling digital-to-analog converters
  • S/PDIF digital I/O with up to 24-bit resolution
  • ADAT 8/8 optical digital I/O
  • Trim control and level meter for each analog input
  • Headphone output with volume control
  • On-board 24-bit Motorola 56301 DSP 24-bit data resolution maintained throughout entire signal path
  • Multiple sample rates from 8kHz to 96kHz
  • Word clock I/O
  • Full duplex operation (simultaneously record 4 analog channels while playing back eight analog channels)
  • Will record analog and digital inputs simultaneously
  • 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)
  • Drivers for Windows 95/98/ME, Mac, GSIF, and ASIO. Beta drivers are available for Windows 2000/NT and WDM

Installation

The CardBus interface plugged directly into one of my open PCMIA slots on the laptop, into which I plugged the cable. On boot-up, the system recognized the presence of the Mona and I loaded the drivers from the provided CD without incident. Next, I checked System files and found no conflicts existed and that the Mona was working properly. The external box requires a power hook-up to be operable.

The PCI system did not go as well. The first PCI card I received from Echo froze my system on boot-up. I tried it in another PCI slot and got the same result. I then tried the card in another system and it did the same. I returned it and Echo promptly sent me a new one. I installed the new PCI and it worked fine on installation. I have not heard back what was wrong with the first PCI card.

First Impressions

The Mona is a solid-feeling, hefty device with an eye-pleasing layout and brushed metal finish. The front of the Mona features a phantom power switch and an LED input level meter on the left side, a series of four combination input jacks, each with its own manual input control and guitar switch across the middle of the Mona. On the far right, Mona's front panel also has a ¼" headphone output jack with a corresponding volume knob which monitors analog outputs 1 and 2.

The back of the box has six balanced +4dBu XLR analog outputs alongside which are -10dB RCA jacks. In addition, there is a set of 24-bit S/PDIF I/O (RCA), ADAT optical I/O, word-clock I/O on BNC connectors, and a DB9 port for the cable that connects to the PCI/Cardbus card. NOTE: Mona is only capable of transmitting or receiving one type of digital signal at a time. You must choose either ADAT optical or S/PDIF (optical or RCA) with the Digital Mode Switch in the Mona Echo Console.

The combination jacks are cool (See schematic). When an XLR cable is hooked into the jack, the microphone preamplifier kicks in, the gain range is automatically set to +20 to +60 with an input impedance of 1.5K. There is one switch for 48v phantom power, which either turns on/off all of the inputs. The application of phantom power to a dynamic microphone should be harmless (you may want to double-check if you use a ribbon microphone).

When a 1/4" connector is plugged into the input, the microphone preamplifier is automatically disconnected (along with phantom power), replaced by a line input amplifier. With the guitar switch out, a balanced connection with input impedance of 10K is applied. When the guitar button is in, the input impedance is increased to 107K and the trim knob has a range of 10dB to 50 dB. If a TRS 1/4" plug is inserted the balanced connection remains.

If you want to make input level adjustments, turn the knob for the input and watch the corresponding level meter on the front panel. A series of yellow bars will light up as you reach the highest input level and a red bar will light up when you get within -3dB of 0. While it is a good idea to get as hot a signal as possible, (lighting some yellow bars), if the signal level ever exceeds 0dB your track will be "clipped" causing very loud pops and ticks. There is no way to fix this, if it happens you will have to start over.

Echo Console

 

The heart of the Echo line of cards is the Echo Console - - a virtual control surface - - from which audio I/O and clocking functions are controlled such as output levels, synchronization, analog/digital mode selection, and routing of input monitoring. Echo advises that new drivers that display an updated console are very near completion, perhaps the first week of December. Nonetheless, I used the non-beta console which is grouped into three parts:

Input meters are in the upper left area. Input levels cannot be adjusted from the Console - - analog inputs are adjusted via the input knob on the external box, S/PDIF inputs are not user-adjustable at all. Output level meter/sliders are on the right side of the Console with 1/2 and 3/4 are on the upper right, and 5/6 and S/PDIF on the lower right. As is typical, each track of an analog stereo pair can either be muted, soloed or ganged with the other track - - the S/PDIF outputs are not user-adjustable in the Console.

Monitor routing and level controls occupy the lower left part of the Console. The Mona has multi-client capability, a feature I covered extensively in my review of the Mia. By setting the input monitor controls you can monitor the input signal through any of the available outputs on your Mona. Each input channel pair has a corresponding monitor control pair directly below it on the console. Radio buttons at the top of each monitor pair can be used to mute (M) or solo (S) each channel. A pair of faders set the levels of the monitor signals. There is a radio button that allows you to "gang" (G) the faders - - tying them together so that they will move together. Below the faders is a pan control for each track.

 

Instead of level meters, each monitor control has a series of numbered buttons. These buttons allow you to select which output channel pair controls are displayed, so you can adjust them. The monitor control allows you to set the volume level of each input signal at each of the outputs - - independent of the main output level control. After monitoring setup, a user can route various instruments/synthesizers and audio files through the Mona simultaneously with real-time inputs. Each instrument or track can be routed at will through monitor channels, with independently set volume and panning settings.

 

Useability

I originally set up the Mona (Laptop) on the countertop in my kitchen, hooked up to my laptop, with my kids playing in the background. I brought in a set of microphones and plugged into the channels 1 and 2, turned on the phantom power, made adjustments with the input knobs until I got a hot signal from my Gibson Gospel guitar. I then recorded a message from my kids to their grandmother as only kids can do. Next, I recorded my guitar and some test vocals. Of course, the setting (in the house) was not acoustically the best nor the quietest (Cartoon Network in the background) but it did demonstrate unequivocally the portability of this product. Even so, the sound quality of the instruments and my vocals was very clear and accurate even though it was mixed in with my kids in the background and the accompanying noises they create.

I next set up in my studio. First, I used the Laptop interface plugging in a pair of Marshall 2003s, set up with one microphone at the twelfth fret and the other about 12 inches away from the body of my guitar. I plugged the microphones into the Mona interface, turned on the phantom power, set my levels with the preamp knob and recorded some guitar work. I then plugged in my MIDI keyboard and laid a bass guitar track from GigaStudio. Next, I pulled out my Gibson SG (1971), plugged it into the combination jack, hit the guitar button and laid down a track. All the while I was listening through the headphone output.

I particularly liked the LED meters on the front of the Mona. This provided real-time feedback on the strength/quality of the initial signal. As we all know, the hotter the signal going in the better the recording quality. The Mona has balanced XLR outputs on the rear of the interface - - a home studio user may need to make some cable changes to accommodate for this if their present cables have balanced 1/4" TRS connections. The Mona was very easy to use in my studio.

I do not have any ADAT type devices, so I was unable to test this aspect of the Mona.

Sound Quality

I recorded silence, then listened through my headphones and heard nothing. I then did a standard set of tests, including environmental sounds around my house, the sound of my fingers tapping on the studio table, a comb run over the edge of the table, and the sound of coffee pouring into my ever-present cup. In all cases, the sound was very clear and accurate. Last, I did some headroom tests by using quiet vocals to very loud vocals, quiet guitar followed by slamming crunch chords. Mona has ample headroom, at 24-bit, to accommodate extreme dynamic differences in volume.

The Mona sounds very good, the preamplifiers are transparent and clean. Plucked harmonics on my acoustic guitar had a nice presence, as did the decay on the bass guitar tones. What I heard on the recording matched what my ears told me was going on in while I was recording. The external headphone jack with volume control is a real plus - - you can monitor your signal at a selected volume and not blow out your ears.

GIGA and Multi-client

I was able to test the GigaStudio functionality with my studio system by using the Aardvark Q10 I have for review to provide MIDI input. With both the Mona and the Q10 installed I was able to play GigaStudio 160, input through the Q10 and played through the Mona. Latency was very low, about 8ms during recording of a single track of GigaPiano, along with my guitar tracks. I was also able to play Reaktor 3.0 at the same time as monitoring some previously recorded analog tracks. GigaStudio is a wonderful sounding, flexible application and works well with this system.

Compatibility

I tested the Mona in Samplitude 2496, n-Track Studio, SawPro, Cool Edit Pro SE, and Cakewalk Pro Audio. It worked fine in all of them - - each pair of tracks were displayed in stereo pairs.

Suggestions

One of the cool things about the Mona is that it is GigaSampler compatible. Unfortunately, I do not have a MIDI device that works with my laptop, so I was unable to test this part with the Laptop version. Why not put a a Midi I/O on the back of the Mona? Then, a user could take full advantage of the multi-client capability of the Mona with either a laptop or desktop without having to employ a separate MIDI device. I recognize that most users will have a game card that probably has a MIDI input function that will work but that may raise some compatibility issues.

The portability of the laptop version is a real plus, limited only by the need for power to the external box. Perhaps using a portable battery pack that will convert to AC would be a solution for those that want to use their laptop at locations without available AC power.

Conclusions

With the exception of the lack of a MIDI input, Echo has hit the all-in-one studio device concept right on the head with the Mona. It is easy to use and with the CardBus option, is portable. The combination jack inputs offer great input flexibility. The preamplifiers are clean and transparent - - eliminating the need for a preamplifier/mixer. The converters are top-rate and provide a full-sounding recorded signal. I especially like being able to manually set my input levels with the "hands-on" knobs. The multi-client driver capability is a real plus.

Ultimately, the question is how well a system gets a clean, good-sounding signal onto the harddrive. The next issue is how easily this is done. Lastly, cost is an issue. The Mona works well, is easy to use and sounds very good. When one considers what it costs to separately buy a quality four input mixer/preamplifier plus S/PDIF/ADAT capability, the Mona is affordable as well.

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