AudioScience ASI5111 Audio Interface

Funny thing about recording and editing audio with a PC - the tendency is to go through about three soundcards on one system before you get what you want.
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Funny thing about recording and editing audio with a PC - the tendency is to go through about three soundcards on one system before you get what you want.
Product PointsApplications: Broadcast automation systems, in-store music and announcement playout; project studio

Key Features: PCI card; Texas Instruments DSP chip; breakout cable; XLR mic input; 48V phantom power

Price: $545

Contact: AudioScience at 302-324-5333, Web Site.

Plus

+ Superb specs and low self-noise

+ Plug and Play installation

+ Linux support

+ Internal DSP on mic input

Minus:

- Single combined output

- Music and multitrack product calls for a bigger card

The Score: Clean, quiet card ideal for the broadcast environment
Start out with the generic $19 special that came with the computer, or its equivalent manufactured directly onto the motherboard. When that starts sounding lifeless, you switch to one of those musician-style interfaces, which sound great but leave you wanting more.

Finally, you step up to the big money cards, like the AudioScience ASI5111 ($545), a PCI audio adapter intended for high performance, up to 96 kHz sample rate and extremely low noise. The clarity and resolution offered by an audio interface such as the ASI5111 is considerable when compared to recordings made on the previous two cards.

You should know that the ASI5111 feature set is quite austere; that is to say it excels at recording and playing back 8, 16 and 32-bit PCM audio at numerous sample rates. But it does not do MPEG or Dolby AC2 files and has only one physical set each of balanced analog inputs and outputs and switchable S/PDIF or AES/EBU digital ins and outs.

If your work demands handling these file types through multiple I/Os, you may consider the higher-priced AudioScience ASI6118 interface instead. For the purposes of this review, I will confine my comments to the ASI5111 model.

Features

The AudioScience ASI5111 is a fairly compact PCI card with a pair of D-sub connectors and a 1/4-inch phone jack on the backplane. Its signature appearance comes from an orange metal shield covering critical circuitry.

Many other manufacturers should take a cue from AudioScience and provide similar shielding on their products. Better S/N figures are all but certain, especially if the audio card is parked next to an unusually noisy video interface.

The 9-pin D-sub connectors are separated by format: the female connector carries analog audio, the male handles the digital stream. The 1/4-inch phone jack takes a mic level input, amplifies it and routes it through some fairly respectable DSP.

On the card a Texas Instruments DSP chip directs the mic signal through a software compressor/limiter, followed up by a five-band EQ. There is 48V phantom power available at the mic plug.

Unlike the cheap cards with their noisy and inefficient Mic In mini jacks, the ASI5111 is one audio interface you can confidently plug a mic into and expect it to sound good. The compressor has a hard knee, and extreme amounts will squash things pretty well.

The DSP combination is a potent one. If yours is the sole voice being recorded (such as in voiceover work), it is possible to use the mic input as the permanent mic connection, taking advantage of the onboard processing to shape the dynamics and keep things bright.

Also unlike budget cards, the ASI5111 is supplied with breakout cables with D-sub connectors at one end and balanced XLRs at the other. You may solidly connect the ASI5111 directly into your existing rig without experiencing that cheap feeling associated with 1/8-inch analog audio mini plugs or those RCA S/PDIF jacks.

Do not go looking for an internal audio connection for your CD-ROM drive. Unlike Blaster-compatible soundcards, the ASI5111 is solely dedicated to moving audio in and out of the backplane ports.

Spec-wise, the ASI5111 boasts published figures of -100 dB S/N and an ear-pleasing 0.0025 percent THD+Noise, with its 24-bit A/D and D/A converters.

In Use

My ASI5111 was installed in a Compaq PIII-500 PC running Windows 98SE (AudioScience supports Win 98 through XP and Linux too).

Although a CD-ROM came with the interface, I still pulled down the newest drivers at the AudioScience web site, along with ASIMIXER, the software mixer that sets all parameters and DSP settings for the card.

Here, you may vary line level input and output level from -10 to +20 dBu in 1 dB steps. The mic preamp can be set for 20, 40 or 60 dB gain.

Installation went relatively smoothly except for a brief conflict with a SoundBlaster driver slowed me down for a little while.

Once up, I launched Cool Edit 2.0 (AKA Adobe Audition) to observe how the interface behaved without any audio applied to it. My evaluation of any soundcard typically begins with a look at its own noise. Cheap cards generate lots of it.

The ASI5111 stayed quieter than any other audio interface I had used. The waveform line stayed flat at zero, while the Cool Edit VU bar danced slightly at -87 dB - much quieter than I would have expected.

Analog audio coming in through the XLRs had to be zeroed first in the AudioScience mixer window to avoid clipping. The capture was clean with wide highs and no distortion at 44.1 kHz sample rate - just the way a high-end card should behave.

Cool Edit's multitrack view allows each track to be routed to different outputs of a multibus audio interface, much in the manner of reel tape decks of yesteryear. In the case of the ASI5111, this is of no advantage; all audio streams are combined and mixed down to one physical output on the card, so assigning outputs in Cool Edit - or any other software - accomplishes essentially nothing.

The audio specs are impeccable and the balanced XLR cables means the interface can jack directly into your console with no intermediate IHF-to-Pro matching device.

The only concern you should have is that the ASI5111 has been designed pretty much specifically as a broadcast playout card, mixing and matching audio streams onboard for output to a common plug. The intent is to combine automated music, announcements and commercials played from a hard drive and mix it down in software to a single output.

It is not possible to split the streams into multiple outputs to route to faders on a physical mixer or feed a surround system. To do that, you would need to step up to the AudioScience ASI6118 card, with its eight stereo outputs.

Also, it must be repeated that although the ASI5111 handles PCM WAV files superbly, onboard MPEG and Dolby encoding/decoding is not a feature of this card.

The big seller for me on the ASI5111 is the individual microphone input on the backplane. I can bypass the console and plug directly into the PC with the mic, and still take advantage of low noise and processing similar to what I might dial up on a dbx 286 or Symetrix 528 mic processor.

Summary

In business use, I can recommend the ASI5111 as the heart of a PC-based in-store music and messaging system. The ability to mix and duck four audio streams on the card while recording new audio on the mic input makes it simple to run high-fidelity music and prerecorded announcements on PA systems.

Naturally, the ASI5111 is a natural in PC-based radio broadcast automation systems, its primary design consideration. In all, the ASI5111 is a high-caliber performer, but unless you are automating a station, one of its beefier brothers may turn out to be a better choice for pro applications and music recording.