PCRECORDING.COM - SeaSound SoloEX Review
Note: In my original review, I reported a noise problem between the Solo and the Vergence monitors I was using. After exhaustive testing, I have concluded that my old system was partially, if not mostly responsible. I now believe that I had a MB that was going bad on me and was emitting excess RFI interference. I now have a new system MB, among other things and I have retested the Solo with it. It is very quiet and sounds terrific, even with the Vergence monitors. I wish to express my appreciation to both SeaSound and Vergence in working on this problem with me. Now back to the review.
I am a solo musician who happens to love to multi-track on my computer. As a DAW user, I have tracked (no pun intended), the changes in the DAW soundcard industry as it and its cards have grown. For one, I have always wondered why a solo musician would need multiple analog/digital I/Os on a soundcard for most projects. It seems to me that a solid card that has minimum stereo I/O and other capabilities would be satisfactory for most projects. Any multi-tracking could/should be handled by the recording software.
It was with great interest that I began following the development of the SoloEX (formerly the Solo) from when its pictures first appeared on the SeaSound site. SeaSound was founded by the legendary Tom Oberheim of synthesizer fame. The SoloEX is designed to do it all, combining analog/digital I/O, mixing, preamplification, MIDI connectivity, and monitoring, all in one rack-mountable unit. The SoloEX features:
Turning to the back of the SoloEX box there are numerous 1/4" jack options. They are as follows:
The SoloEX comes bundled with Cubasis VST and Sonic Foundry's Acid Rock, as well as Steinberg's Cubasis VC for Macs. (Steinberg's Cubasis VST for Macs will replace the VC package as soon as it ships from Steinberg). In addition, the SoloEX features their Solo-0-Meter, a software interface where the user can set bit rates, route signals, set slave settings for S/PDIF (word clock is not available) and meter settings. This can be quite a handy tool in simplifying the selection of bit rates and basic routing options when coupled with the on-board mixing capability of the breakout box itself.
Installation of the PCI card and software was a snap. The package comes with a helpful video for new users. I installed the PCI card in a free slot on my system - a Pentium II 300, 128meg RAM, 20 gig HD, and Win98 PC. Windows readily recognized the new hardware and walked me through the familiar Windows installation process without a hitch. I then installed the Solo-o-meter and the bundled software. All went smoothly and I was ready to go.
I tested the SoloEX in Cakewalk 9.02, Cubase VST, n-Track Studio, Powertracks, Samplitude 2496 and DDClips Pro. It worked flawlessly in each program, was readily recognized and recorded easily. In Cakewalk recording mode, the card appeared as indicated in the image below. Selection was done by merely highlighting the desired input and clicking OK.
The SoloEX uses AK4524 Codec chips from AKM Semiconductors for the A/D conversion. The published specifications and my tests were essentially the same. (I got about 100 dB of dynamic range for the Solo). This is very good and easily capable of professional quality recording. I found that the preamplifiers worked very well too. According to SeaSound, these preamplifiers were specifically designed by Tom Oberheim and Lee Ferguson for this product. The user can plug in either an XLR cable or a line cable and the preamplifier automatically adjusts to the input. They are easy to use.
One of the beauties of the SoloEX resides in its ease of use. It brings analog sensibility to the digital world. The user simply plugs in to the front of the box, sets levels with the knobs and gets to recording. Setting appropriate preamplifier input levels is a two-step process that is made easy by the SoloEX design. Most of us know that for preamplification, you must set trim and level settings to get it right. With the SoloEX, you first set trim levels. There is a helpful light that turns red when you have reached saturation, after which you back off the signal a bit. Then, you set the level settings and monitor how hot it is with the VU meters on the face of the breakout box. This ensures that an adequate but not overdriven signal is achieved. It is very intuitive, gives great informational feedback and is easy to use. Output levels for the card are controlled by the level knobs on the front of the box.
A truly delightful feature is the monitoring feature designed in to the SoloEX. I found it very easy to monitor the instrument I was recording while listening in latency-free, real-time to the previously recorded instrument. No latency, this could get addicting. Adjusting the relative levels of the signal was no more involved than turning some knobs on the Monitor Mix section until I got what I wanted. It can all be done on the face of the box. This is a very nice feature that enhances the useability of the system.
A minor annoyance is the location of the S/PDIF inputs and outputs on the PCI card itself. Connecting to them necessitated having to get down on my floor under my table and hook up. It seems there should be a way to get those connectors up on the box too.
With the specifications published for this system, the evident care that went into its design and the quality of its components, I expected very good sound quality. I was not disappointed. I recorded my electric guitar, (plugged right into the face of the box, too cool), my acoustic guitar, my flutes and my voice. I used a variety of microphones, the Audix SCX-one, Marshall 2001P, Marshall 2003, and some AKG C1000s for the tests. Throughout, the card sounded very good with a full-representation of all frequencies, a low noise floor and sonic clarity. I particularly liked the way the system recorded my acoustic guitar. There was a touch of high-end boost that highlighted the harmonic overtones of the steel strings. This gave it greater depth to my ears.
I next used the Drop and Drag Drummer, a software package that employs real drum samples. The card played back these real wave file samples very well. I was able to hear the variety of drum sounds very clearly, including the fade of the bass drum. Very nice.
Keeping in mind that the "quality" of sound is subjective, I found the sound quite similar to the Terratec EWS88MT I previously reviewed. Both cards use the same AKM A/D converters, so this is not surprising. However, the preamplifiers in this system are better than the preamplifiers on my mixer. As a result, the overall recording quality was cleaner and fuller. The preamplifiers I thought worked very well.
During playback, I did note that there was a touch of high-end over-crispness though the low-end was very robust and full. Overall, the card accurately recorded what I played and played it back at high fidelity. One nice bonus was the quality of the headphone monitoring signal. I could clearly hear the signal I was monitoring. Having a second headphone jack for a musical partner only enhances this function.
I found that some of the knobs wiggled a bit too much when I adjusted them. In addition, some were harder to turn than others, making fine level adjustments somewhat difficult. SeaSound informed me that the knobs have been improved since this review unit was shipped. In addition, I would suggest changing the "recording" toggle switches to the same type of switch used by the input/output buttons. The toggle switches are a bit too close to the level knob for my taste. I found that I sometimes unintentionally moved the level knob when I flipped the record switch, particularly when I had a 1/4" plug in the input. Mind you, these are minor issues to be sure but would make it easier to use.
In addition, the SoloEX does not have word-clock capability. Time locking to an external source can only be done with S/PDIF which must be hooked up to the connectors on the PCI card, on the back of the computer. Lastly, +4dB I/O on this unit would be a nice touch. Many users have devices that employ this standard.
Ease of Use: The SoloEX is easy to use and gave me great feedback on what I was doing. As we know, the better your incoming signal the better your recording will be. I found the physical interface with its VU meters and lights right in front of me gave me greater confidence that my input signal was just right. I especially liked being able to make adjustments physically, with knobs.
Monitoring: This system makes it very easy to monitor signals. I no longer had to route special cables to an output device or mixer to hear in full-duplex what I was doing. I just plugged in.
Sound Quality: These days, getting a good-sounding interface card is no big deal. However, combining sound quality with its ease of use makes this a killer package. The SoloEX does what it says it will do and does it well.
The SeaSound SoloEX is an excellent product that provides the solo musician with a high-quality, user-friendly, and well-designed product. With its physical interface it brings analog ease of use and sensibility to the digital recording world. In short, the SeaSound Solo is a complete digital audio recording system which eliminates the need for external mixing consoles or preamplifiers. It is a true all-in-one package for the solo musician. With this unit, it is easy to make high-quality recordings, thus allowing the user to concentrate on making great music. If you can only buy one piece of equipment, this would be a very good solution.