PCRECORDING.COM - - Aardvark Q10 ReviewAardvark Q10
OS: 95/98/ME (NT and 2000 beta only)
The DAW marketplace has gotten much more sophisticated in the last three years. Where multiple I/O used to be the most important standard, now, I/O is still important but so too is multi-client capability, low latency and all-in-one functionality. Couple that with digital output, consumer/professional compatibility and 24-bit/96kHz converters and the DAW world can make a reasonable claim that it is approaching "studio" quality. Aardvark was at the burgeoning edge of this phenomena with its Direct Pro 2496. It's latest offering is the Q10.
I received the unit for review and it included the rack-mountable interface box, PCI card, 6-foot, shielded cable, driver CD, software CD (Cakewalk Pro 9.03) and the manual. The Q10 has a trendy appearance with a mauve-colored box and silvery faceplate that surrounds the row of input jacks and switches. It has a hefty, solid feel and mounted easily in my studio rack.One of the best features of the Q10 is that it is powered by the PCI slot. There is no need for external power, which eliminates the risk of any sound from transformers and the like.
One of my initial concerns was that the Q10 system, at present, supports only up to 48kHz sample rates, though the converters are 24/96 capable. Aardvark explained that they are working on the drivers for the 96kHz capability which will be available for download in a couple of weeks. While the cost/benefit debate over 96kHz remains open, I reserved my concerns until I was able to test the system. I, for one, do not use 96kHz sample rates in my recording because I am not convinced that what little difference I can hear is worth the resource drain on my system. Nonetheless, from a marketing standpoint, when other cards have this capability already, it is interesting. However, Aardvark's technicians have always been very thorough and careful about their driver releases and in my experience they work when they are released. I was not willing to wait until there release to finish this review.
For this review my studio system was a P4 1.4gHz, Win98SE, 40 gig Maxtor, and 768 meg of RAM - - all running on an ECS motherboard.
The manual was clearly written providing sufficient information on how to use the system such that even a novice would be able to figure it out. However, it was printed on lightweight stapled-together paper and was not very durable as I used it throughout this review. I examined the PCI card and found, as is Aardvark custom, the circuitry was shielded with a large hefty covering.
I installed the PCI card in an open PCI slot and closed the case. Next, I hooked up the card to the interface box and booted up. I then watched as the setup procedure progressed. The system found the card and I installed the drivers as instructed. Interestingly, the manual says to not reboot after the driver installation, even though the prompt say to do so. I followed the manual and then installed the control panel program as instructed. Then, I rebooted and found that everything was operational. There was one hitch though - - I have had a Direct Pro 2496 for over a year now and have loved it. Its control panel was still in the system and did not get along very well with the new one. The solution was to uninstall all references to Aardvark cards and install the new system again. This worked well. I emailed Aardvark about this and was assured that the two should live together easily. I reinstalled the 2496 successfully and was able to confirm that they can share the same computer.
The front of the Q10 features a series of eight combination jacks (line and XLR) filling the middle of the front face. On the left is a button which turns on phantom power for inputs 1-4. Inputs 5-6 will take line level and XLR inputs without phantom power. Inputs 7-8 will take line level and XLR inputs but also feature guitar preamplifiers into which you can plug in any electric guitar - - featuring Aardvark's Enhanced Frequency Response (E.F.R.) technology. What this really is simply a change to the impedance and a boost of the high mid range frequency range to add a bit of color to the input signal. Inputs 1-8 can all be used with standard microphone XLR or 1/4" line-level signal inputs. Note: the manual says to not use line-level XLR inputs. On the far right are two knobs which control the volume of the monitor outputs and the headphone output.
The Q10 features 1/4" outputs for each input 1-8 on the back of he interface box. In addition, there is a pair of 1/4" monitor outputs and a pair of S/PDIF I/O (RCA) jacks. The Q10 also provides four effects inserts that correspond to inputs 1-4 for accessing external effects units. MIDI In and Out connectors and BNC Word Clock connectors round out the back of the unit.
Aardvark's Control Panel is one of the most attractive and useful interfaces I have used. It provides great flexibility and power options for the user. Analog inputs are lined up across the upper left of the panel, below each is a LED input level meter, and then across the left bottom are the input level sliders associated with each input. Each slider controls one input and can be ganged with its counterpart of the pair.
Input gain for each analog input channel is set by using one of three buttons at the top of the channel. The M2 setting provides the highest amount of gain (52dB - 75dB) and should be rarely needed unless you are recording with a non-responsive microphone or a very quiet original signal. The M1 setting provides gain of 32dB to 55dB and would typically be used for microphone inputs and possibly for very quiet line level inputs. The L setting provides -8 to 15dB reduction/gain and is typically used for line level input. A trim knob sits alongside a LED meter that displays the gain level adjustments. Importantly, all gain adjustments are done in the analog phase before A/D conversion.
The LED meters work in two ways - pre-fader and post-fader. In the pre-fader setting the meters respond to the exact dB level of the input signal, whereas, the post-fader measures the incoming signal combined with gain/attenuation applied by the faders. Obviously, the pre-fader will give a more accurate measure of the actual recording volume of your device.
On the upper right are a set of monitor output meters. Directly below them are three buttons, routing, presets and advanced. The routing button opens the panel for setting input/output routing. The user can save each routing setup as a file and save it for later use. This file goes into the presets which are opened by clicking on the presets button.
For instance, if the user has a particular setup for using analog recording alongside a software synthesizer, he could optimize the routing for that particular use and save it as a file. Later, when a similar project is needed, the user simply clicks on the presets button, selects the file and he is ready to go.
Clicking on the routing button opens a window that displays the eight balanced outputs on the back of the Q10. This allows the user to send a signal to a particular output by using a dropdown menu beneath each output picture. There are three choices of how to monitor, Analog input (the output will only monitor the incoming signal of its assigned input), Playback (the output will monitor only the playback tracks assigned to it by the software, Monitor L or R (all playback tracks and all inputs are monitored).
Clicking the Advanced button opens access to additional features. Here the user can set sample rate warnings and whether S/PFID is being properly used. In addition, channels 9 and 10 are available as input resources here - - they can record either the S/PDIF inputs from the back of the Q10 or the full monitor mix consisting of all inputs and playback. In addition, Consumer/Professional S/PDIF outputs, +4dBu (balanced)/-10dBV (consumer) output settings, and software application use can be set here. Lastly, ASIO and DirectX buffers to set latency parameters are done in this window.
There is a physical logic to the Q10 system that sits well with me. The layout of the combination jacks makes sense. Phantom powered microphones will have XLR plugs and are placed on the left side away from the guitar inputs which would have 1/4" plugs. Since 1/4" plugs are smaller, they will not affect access to the monitor volume knobs. As a result, the monitor volume knobs are easily accessible for adjustment by hand and feel solid. The back of the box is clearly labeled and very clean in appearance. The effects inserts are a nice feature too which I will describe below. While the front of the box is full, it is not too crowded.
I set up a several sessions to test the Q10. I have owned a 2496 for nearly two years now and had used it as my default device because of its ease of use, sound quality and compact size. The Control Panel in the Q10 is very similar to that in the 2496. All input level adjustments are software controlled as described above. The LED meters are accurate and fast for each input and the monitor outputs. The Control Panel looks like a mixer and should be very familiar to anyone with any recording experience. One difference is the routing window. I do kind of miss the little connect the virtual cables approach that was used in the 2496. The drop-down menu, while effective, does not allow the user to visualize the connections as easily.
I typically record using acoustic instruments and then add other types of sampled instruments and synthesizers. I recorded my acoustic guitar, vocals and another track of guitar with inputs 1-4. Setting the inputs levels is easy in the control panel. You simply click on the selected input sensitivity button and adjust until you get a good hot signal. For micro adjustments you can click on the knob and then use the cursor keys for even finer adjustments.
I then switched to some synthesizer tracks. I used Reaktor and set the ASIO settings at 6ms and recorded a Laizley Organ track with the previous tracks. Next, I set up BitHeadz Black and Whites and recorded a piano track too. Lastly, I loaded GigaStudio up and recorded a fretless bass track. All in all, it was quite straightforward and easy to do.
I wanted to test the guitar inputs as well. I plugged my Gibson SG directly into jack 7, pressed the guitar button and laid down a track of electric guitar. The track was clean and full-sounding - - Aardvark's E.F.R. technology made the guitar sound very good and warm as advertised. However, I believe that preamplifiers should first and foremost be flat in response and transparent. I understand that everything in the signal chain has an " effect" on the sound. For instance, some preamplifiers, tube for example, will sound warmer than others and fit in particular recording situations better than others. At its default level, to my subjective ears, I could tell the E.F.R. boost was there. It sounded good on my SG because it is a solid body guitar. However, a hollow body electric jazz guitar may end up sounding different with the boost inserted into the signal chain. Unfortunately, I do not have such an instrument to test this. I do believe that the guitar inputs would work well with acoustic guitars that have pickups on them, particularly, if the guitar is recorded with microphones and line level signals.
Aardvark includes DSP powered input effects on their cards. The are useful if you wish to record with the effect on board though they do not record the effects you are monitoring nor are they available for use during mixdown. My preference is to record clean anyway, so I did not explore this feature very deeply. I did use the effects inserts however to record some tracks using my outboard effects. This is a useful feature, moreso than the the input effects in my opinion.
In a direct comparison of the useability of the PCI-based Mona and Q10, the Q10 wins hands down. This is for several reasons. One, it has more I/O and the ones on the back are 1/4" based. Two, it has MIDI I/O on board. Three, it does not require its own power supply, running as it is off of the PCI card. Four, it has a separate knob for monitor output - - I like to have quick, easy and physical access to volume controls for monitoring - - it keeps the neighbors and my wife happy. The Q10 is a more fully developed all-in-one concept.
Aardvark uses AKM converters in the Q10, mounted in the breakout box and has a heavy shield over the circuitry on the PCI card. As a result, this card runs quiet with no noticeable noise. Aardvark did not tell me which specific AKM converters are in the box. However, the specifications do not match with other current cards like the Echo Mona. Whereas, the Q10 runs at a reported 110dB input and 100dB output. The Mona boasts 110dB dynamic range on input and 115dB on output. The question is does it sound good?
It does. This card sound very good with a full frequency response, full bass response and no digital harshness on the high end. I have used the Aardvark 2496 as my default card for about two years and this one sounds better. As usual, I recorded a standard set of tests, including my kids, the computer, environmental sounds around my house, and the sound of my fingers tapping on the studio table. I also recorded each of my bamboo flutes, a large G flute, a small D flute and a cherry Native American flute. Each has a unique signature, the way the air flows over the aperture that is recognizable after playing them for so many years. The card captured each signature very well.
I especially liked the preamplifiers for the microphones, they are clean. Nuances of the instruments I was using were picked up nicely.
In a direct comparison of the Mona and Q10 sound quality, I would have to give the edge to the Mona - - there is a bit more depth and complexity to the audio results in using the Mona. I would attribute this to the converters used in each system. The difference is very small and is found in a bit more sizzle on the high end, the faintest tails of sounds are just a touch more apparent in the Mona.
GigaStudio and Multi-client
Inclusion of a MIDI I/O was very thoughtful and a necessary part of an "all-in-one" system given the excellent MIDI based sample programs available today. Using GigaStudio, Reaktor, BitHeadz was as easy as plugging in my synthesizer to the back of the Q10, setting up the software and getting going. I could adjust latency settings in the software as well as in the Control Panel to optimize latency. The ease that I was able to do this is a real plus.
I tested the Q10 in Samplitude 2496, n-Track Studio, SawPro, Cool Edit Pro SE, and Cakewalk Pro Audio. Each program recognized the card and displayed each pair of tracks as stereo pairs.
About the only real suggestion I would have for this unit is to finalize the drivers to make 96kHz an option - - though I do not feel it is "necessary" it certainly may effect the perception of the capability of this system. Secondly, perhaps using different converters to raise the specifications to compete with other systems that can boast better specifications.
While noting the suggestions above, the Q10 is a terrific unit and fits the needs of a small studio admirably. I will figure out a way for me to get one - - it will be replacing my 2496 that I have used for years. It sounds very good, is easy to use and it has 8 I/Os! Aardvark was one of the pioneers in using the combination jack inputs and they arrange and employ them very well in this unit. The preamplifiers are clean and transparent - - eliminating the need for a preamplifier/mixer. The multi-client drivers work and they work well.
The Q10 provides to its users 10 in/10 out (including S/PDIF), MIDI I/O, 8 preamplifiers, 4 with phantom power, 2 with Hi-Z inputs. It is an all-in-one solution to the home/project/pro studio owner. For the money, it provides more than most any other similar card and provides high quality sound too.