Aardvark Aark 20/20 DAW I/O Box

When you hear the name Aardvark you probably think of high-end, low-jitter digital converters and synchronizers. Aardvark has now brought its digital expertise to a new, lower price point with the Aark 20/20+, an affordable digital audio interface for PC computers.
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When you hear the name Aardvark you probably think of high-end, low-jitter digital converters and synchronizers. Aardvark has now brought its digital expertise to a new, lower price point with the Aark 20/20+, an affordable digital audio interface for PC computers.
Product PointsApplications: Project and commercial studio recording

Key Features:
Shielded 20-bit converters; 8 analog I/Os; S/PDIF I/O; TOSlink I/O; onboard mixer/patchbay/monitoring system; word clock I/O; optional ADAT lightpipe I/O and sync; optional TDIF I/O

Price:
$899; lightpipe option: $99

Contact:
Aardvark at 734-665-8899

Plus

+ Sound quality

+ DSP-based monitor mixer and patchbay

+ Flexible software controller

+ Very good metering

Minus

- No store/recall of mixer/patchbay setups

- No headphone output

The Score: A great-sounding, flexible audio interface with advanced monitoring and routing.
Features

Unlike some low-cost interfaces out there, the Aark 20/20+ ($899) houses all its converters outside the hostile environment of the computer. A sturdy, half-rackspace external box holds the crucial parts of the 20/20+, attaching to a small PCI card in the host computer. Careful shielding and attention to design let the Aark 20/20+ turn in a solid 100 dB dynamic range spec.

Most of the 20/20+'s jacks are right on its front panel for easy access. These include eight 1/4" balanced inputs, eight 1/4" balanced outputs and S/PDIF I/O on two RCA-style jacks. The back panel houses the DB-25 connector, which attaches the 20/20+ to the PCI card, word clock input and output, MIDI I/O jacks and optional expansion I/O. One can outfit the Aark 20/20+ with ADAT lightpipe I/O and sync ($99), which switches the interface's optical TOSlink I/O to ADAT lightpipe I/O, or TDIF I/O ($425, separate PCI card). AES/EBU digital I/O can also be added to the 20/20+ ($150).

The 20/20+ uses a rather odd method to handle ADAT sync when the optional ADAT daughterboard is installed. A special merger cable attaches to both MIDI in and out jacks, providing one DB-9 jack to connect to the ADAT's sync input. Unless you run the MIDI jacks through a MIDI merge device first, this ADAT sync scheme shuts down the 20/20+'s MIDI capabilities.

The 20/20+ has dedicated signal processing, which turns the interface into more than just a bunch of converters. Thanks to this DSP, the 20/20+ also acts like a digital patchbay, mixer, metering system, tone generator and more.

The interface has a nifty monitoring mixer built right in, letting one listen to any combination of inputs or outputs, digital silence or 1 kHz tone. Level and pan for each input and output to the monitor bus can be controlled. The monitor bus control section offers a master volume knob and mute button. Being able to monitor analog inputs directly makes the sticky issue of throughput latency a thing of the past.

The 20/20+ offers routing options galore. Any output can be switched to carry any input, computer playback track, digital silence or tone. Input pairs can be patched into the computer's stereo input device drivers in any way you wish. One can even record the monitor bus mix back to the computer or route Windows WAV file playback to another stereo input. The possibilities are endless.

All this hardware capability would be worthless if the Aark 20/20+ didn't also include flexible software to control it. Aardvark supplies an excellent software program to configure and control the 20/20+. With Aark Manager, one can whip up virtually any signal routing or monitoring scheme imaginable.

Using Aark Manager, one selects the digital input source from several options - internal at 32 kHz, 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz; S/PDIF or TOSlink; word clock or ADAT. The software even displays the measured sample rate, so you can spot any sync problems before recording. Other thoughtful displays include the status of the wave driver inputs and outputs (in use, idle or pause) and PCI bus efficiency (high, medium, low or error) to help gauge theoretical track performance. Aark Manager can also be set to alert you to various sample rate mismatches if desired.

Another section of the 20/20+'s software permits switching between -10 dBV and +4 dBu levels on each individual input and output. One can also switch all inputs or outputs at once, which is handy.

Metering takes a surprising amount of processing power to do well in software, which may explain why so many digital audio packages offer dismal (or entirely absent) metering. Aark Manager bucks this trend by offering very good metering on every input. Meters offer 25 segments divided into green, yellow and red, with smooth (but rather slow) ballistics. An instantaneous peak hold feature shows headroom with a numerical readout, which I find to be an invaluable tool.

A stereo meter also sits at the bottom of the screen, which can be switched to monitor any input or output. If Aark Manager is kept active in the background when recording (a very good idea), the windows can be set up with the stereo meter just peeking out from beneath your recording application.

In use

With loads of hardware power and software flexibility to be had, the obvious next question is, "How does it sound?" In the case of the Aark 20/20+, this little box has sound quality to match its features. The low-jitter converters and clock circuit in the 20/20+ are closely related to those found in the Aardvark AardSync II. They really deliver the goods, turning out an accurate, open sound. The Aark 20/20+ made theconverters in a moderately priced digital console sound dull and veiled incomparison.

The fact that the Aark 20/20+ doesn't have 24-bit converters isn't much of a drawback. The vast majority of affordable 24-bit interfaces don't deliver 24-bit performance anyway, due to limitations in the circuitry surrounding the converter. Personally, I would take a great-sounding 20-bit interface over a poor-sounding 24-bit unit any day. The Aark 20/20+ is a great-sounding 20-bit interface.

On the software side, Aark Manager is comprehensive and easy-to-use. It's great that Aardvark gives the user lots of control and many ways to check the quality and integrity of their signals. Some manufacturers leave out such functions to try and protect users from potential confusion, but flying blind is no way to make good recordings.

I appreciate the fact that the 20/20+ has its most-important jacks on the front panel. Plugging and unplugging cables is easy, especially compared to units that bury their connectors on the back panel. Though rackmount kits are available, I think the small size of the 20/20+ makes it convenient to place in the average studio. The 20/20+ will sit nicely on top of a tower computer.

When it comes to patching on the software side, Aark Manager is missing one crucial feature - it won't save setups and routing configurations for instant recall. I've seen much simpler virtual patchbays and mixers with the ability to save setups. While the 20/20+ can be easily set to its default settings, this is little consolation if you switch between different configurations frequently.

A few other minor quibbles: with it's cool monitoring functions, I was surprised to learn that the Aark 20/20+ doesn't offer a headphone output. Too bad - it seems like a logical thing to include, and would have been handy indeed. The 20/20+'s monitor control has a mono button, but it only affects inputs coming back into the Aark 20/20+ from outside sources. Stereo playback tracks from the PCI bus ignore this control, which is something the folks at Aardvark plan to fix.

Installation of the Aark 20/20+ PCI interface card and software was laughably easy. The Aark Manager software and device drivers fit on one floppy. After I swapped out a bad interface cable, I had the whole system up and running on my Micron Max test computer in a matter of minutes. The 20/20+ manual is quite good, offering quick-start tutorials for most major digital audio packages.

Summary

The Aark 20/20+ is truly a one-box solution for digital recording. This little box hides more than just a bunch of converters - it's also a flexible monitoring mixer and patchbay. With optional ADAT and TDIF I/O, the Aark 20/20+ is well-equipped to sit at the heart of an affordable, powerful recording system.

The fact that the Aark 20/20+ sounds so good is just icing on the cake.