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PCRECORDING.COM - Tango24 & WaveCenter/PCI combo Review

Manufacturer: Frontier Design Group
System Requirements:
Windows 95/98 (Pentium-class processor, one PCI slot, one IRQ)
Macintosh: MacOS 8.6 or later, one PCI slot, ASIO/OMS-compatible software.
Street Prices - $389 (WaveCenter/PCI), $699.00 (Tango24)
Frontier Design Group Direct - $329.00 (WaveCenter/PCI), $849.00 (WaveCenter/PCI + Tango24 + two 6' optical cables)

One of the coolest things about DAW technology is there are many ways of doing the same thing. With respect to soundcards, the basic goal is to get analog and digital signals into a computer, on to its harddrive and then back out again. One of the primary tasks all manufacturers face is dealing with the inherent noise present inside a PC. It is here that major differences in approach arise. Enter the Tango24 and the WaveCenter/PCI from Frontier Design.

I have been intrigued by the Frontier Design Groups products for quite some time. It was with great excitement that I received a WaveCenter/PCI and a Tango24 combination for review. Frontier Design uses lightpipe technology to interconnect the WaveCenter/PCI card and the Tango24. The AD and DA converters are inside the Tango24 - - away from the noisy interior of the PC and all data is transferred digitally via ADAT-compatible lightpipe connection cables to the WaveCenter interface. This design solves several problems related to DAW recording. Most particularly, the potential for noise arising from inside the computer entering the signal path is greatly limited. Secondly, the system is compatible with ADAT equipment and analog equipment. This is high-level stuff that is directly marketed at the serious audio recording consumer/professional.

Tango24 Specifications

  • 8 analog I/O, 24-bit, 48kHz (Crystal CS4390 Inputs/CS5360 Outputs)
  • 1/4" TRS jacks, jumper selectable +4dBu or -10dBV levels
  • Switchable input/output level meters
  • ADAT optical in/out/thru
  • Internal (44.1 or 48 kHz) and external clock modes
  • Frequency response: +/- 0.05 dB, 20Hz-20kHz
  • Dynamic range: 105 dB A-weighted
  • THD+N: 0.002%
  • 115 dB signal-to-noise-ratio
  • 1U Rack-mountable external converter box



 
WaveCenter/PCI Specifications

  • ADAT optical input (8 channels)
  • ADAT optical output (8 channels)
  • S/PDIF stereo input from coax, CD-ROM, or optical input
  • S/PDIF stereo output to coax and/or optical output
  • All channels support 16-bit, 20-bit, 24-bit audio
  • Includes standard Windows 95/98 Wave driver, and ASIO drivers for both Windows and MacOS
  • 2 input ports and 2 output ports (32 channels in and out) on standard MIDI jacks (breakout cable is supplied with card
Setup

I first carefully read each manual and then began the setup. I installed the WaveCenter/PCI in a free PCI slot and booted up. Windows recognized the presence of the card and I installed the drivers from the provided floppy disk. After loading the drivers, I verified that there were no conflicts and that the device worked properly. I installed the Cool Edit Pro SE that came bundled with the unit. I then plugged in the lightpipe cables to the Tango24 and then to the WaveCenter/PCI and I was ready to go. I followed the manuals suggestions for setting the clock master to the Tango24 and began to record. This took approximately ten minutes. Though I was already quite familiar with Cool Edit Pro SE, the manual contained a helpful tutorial on getting started with the software.

Frontier Design includes well-written, organized manuals with the Tango24 and the WaveCenter/PCI. They cover basic recording, suggested equipment setups, clock settings and more. The WaveCenter/PCI setup installs a software applet for settings changes. In the "Clock/Device Status" view, the user can set master clock source settings, sample rates, and monitor system status. In the "Patchbay" view, signal paths can be set by clicking between inputs and output buttons. Please see the screenshots below.


  

Compatibility

My system is a Celeron 366, 128 meg of RAM, Win98SE and a 20 gig Maxtor harddrive. I use a Folio Notepad four-channel mixer, a set of Vergence Audio M-00/S-00 monitors and Marshall 2003 microphones for recording and monitoring. I tested the system with Cakewalk 9.03, n-Track Studio, Power Tracks, Samplitude 2496, SAW32, and Cool Edit Pro SE. The card was recognized accurately in each of these programs. Typically, the Tango24 was recognized as four stereo pairs and a digital pair. Highlighting whatever pair I wished to use was all that was necessary to get going in the software.


 

The Tango24 can be used with either "commercial" level +4dBu or "consumer" level -10dBu equipment. The settings are jumper selectable but the user must remove the cover of the Tango24 to access the jumpers. This proved to be a bit time-consuming as there are many screws on the top of the Tango24. Clearly, the Tango24 is designed for commercial settings more than consumer setups. If one had to change these settings often, it would quickly become tiresome. Nevertheless there is a reassuring sense of certainty about using jumpers. However, it might be helpful to use dip switches accessible from the outside of the Tango24.

Useability

The front of the Tango24 is very simple with three toggle switches. (Please see the images above). The leftmost one sets either 44.1kHz or 48kHz sample rates, the next one sets the master clock to either Work Clock, Optical or Internal settings and the third one toggles the input and output meters.

Analog signal sources plug into one of the eight 1/4" TRS jacks in the back of the Tango24. The external converter box was easy to use with everything on the back clearly marked. The onboard converters send the digital signal via the lightpipe cables to the WaveCenter/PCI. The output signal from the WCPCI is sent via the lightpipe cables to the Tango24 and the signal is internally routed to the analog outputs the user sets in the patchbay above. Word clock connections are made in the back as well. Connections were all basically intuitive, clearly marked and easy to access.

After getting all connected I started recording some samples of music. I used my Gibson Gospel and recorded some stereo acoustic guitar tracks. The resultant recording was rich and full with no discernible noise. This is a great sounding setup, with smooth even response across the sonic spectrum. I then ran into some unexpected difficulty.

For the home recording studio with really simple gear, the Tango24 and WaveCenter/PCI can present a bit of a challenge. Getting a contemporaneous playback monitor signal while monitoring the recording input signal was problematic for me. The software applet does not have any routing capability that allows the user to patch the input and output signals together on one set of tracks. In other words, the user has to find another way to get the two signals mixed together. Most mixers have an auxiliary send/receive that can be used for monitoring in this situation. Unfortunately for me, the Folio Notepad does not have Aux send/receives. I had to get creative.

Using my Rolls Personal Monitor and the routing capability of the WaveCenter controls, I patched together enough cables to get a contemporaneous monitoring signal of both my input and output levels. Ugly? Yes. Effective? Definitely. I had to be careful though because the monitor signal coming out of the Tango24 was very hot and loud. I had to turn it down in the software to a tolerable level. I wish to make clear that this is a limitation of my equipment, not an oversight on Frontier Design's part. As I stated, most mixers have an aux input. Alas, I did not.

I did inquire with Frontier Design about this to see if I had missed something. After some healthy discussion we concluded that it was my Notepad and that there was no "clean" solution. I would recommend that Frontier Design explore a software based routing option for situations like this.

Sound Quality

As it pertains to noise isolation, the design concept of the Tango is one of the smartest setups I have seen. As stated on the Frontier Design Group website: "The ADAT lightpipe format provides complete electrical isolation from your workstation, so PC-generated noises that pervade other systems can't get near your sensitive audio signals. The result: incredibly low noise, smooth sound, and complete freedom from pops and clicks."

I found this to be true during my test. The use of the external converter box coupled with lightpipe connections, makes the system all but immune to interference. Moreover, the lightpipe cable is very thin and is not cumbersome to deal with. This was helpful behind my typically crowded PC. I did not hear any discernible noise emanating from the Tango24 or the WaveCenter/PCI thoughout my tests. This a very quiet setup.

As you might imagine, recording sound quality is governed by more than great specifications and deep noise floors. The quality of a recording depends on a number of factors, including the microphones, the cabling, and the soundcard. Of course, the soundcard is the portal to the digital domain and is critically important. With that in mind, I next recorded some drums using the Drag and Drop Drummer program, some bass tracks with my keyboard synthesizer, acoustic guitar, and some bamboo flute. To top it off, I added some electric lead guitar with my Gibson SG, miked from my guitar amplifier.

All in all, I found the sound quality to be very good with a smooth almost linear quality. I paid particular attention to how defined each note/frequency was. There was a refreshing sense of space between the tones. The highs of the cymbals were clearly defined and separate from the highs of the lead guitar. I could hear the breathiness of the flute while still discerning it notes. The rumble of the bass drum was meaty but defined. The bass tracks were present without being overly represented. My acoustic guitar tones were right in the middle where I wanted them to be. The utter absence of system noise lended itself to clear separation of tones. Simply put, not only is this card quiet, it delivers high quality accurate recordings.

Now days, everyone seems to be building soundcards capable of 24-bit resolution and 96kHz sample rates. Though it can record at up to 24-bit resolution, some might knock the Tango24 because it only goes to 48kHz sample rates. These concerns should be quieted by simply listening to the Tango24. Moreover, to me, the jury is still out on whether there is a sufficiently significant difference between 44.1kHz and 96kHz sample rates to warrant the increased storage and CPU resource useage that comes with the higher sample rates. I believe there is more significant sound quality difference between 16-bit and 24-bit recordings that justify using 24-bit all the way up to mixdown to CD - - the Tango24 does 24-bit. 48kHz is the ADAT standard, with which the Tango24 is instantly and easily compatible. Coupled with the quietness this card is capable of, it is easy for me to imagine that every possible part of the frequency response that exists at 44.1kHz will be captured by this card. It sounds that good. Period.

Suggestions

First, I would urge Frontier Design to build in an easier monitoring solution to avoid what I had to go through above. Perhaps, a software routing application such as that in the Delta 66 or the Terratec EWS88 or simply put a headphone jack on the Tango24 with a little volume knob. This would go a long ways towards easier functionality for people who do not have a professional studio setup. Secondly, as I am sure they already know, to stay competitive, they will likely have to go up to 96kHz.

Conclusions

This system is designed to be very quiet and it is. The design is very smart using lightpipe cables to send the signals to and from the PCI interface. The cables take up little room in what is typically a crowded area behind the PC and since they were optical, they were immune to the various sources of interference that occurs there. Having an external converter box makes connections very easy for analog connections. The use of the MIDI breakout cable aided in making MIDI connections. The system is compatible with a wide variety of recording formats, providing significant flexibility in a studio setting. The user can mix down to ADAT or to analog tape, use a digital or analog mixer, record/play in S/PDIF format and it is MIDI capable. Smart is the operative word here. Lastly, I received excellent technical support from Charlie Hitchcock and Barry Braksick, both smart, friendly and knowledgeable guys.

The most important thing is how it sounds. The Tango24 provides very accurate, robust, well-defined and clean recording. It captures the body and the essence of the instruments it is recording. I would rank its recording quality very near the DAL CardDeluxe. The WaveCenter/PCI is compatible with any S/PDIF or ADAT source and provides a clean direct interface with the PC. This is a very fine sounding and well-designed recording system.

webmaster@pcrecording.com

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