There’s no question that one of the hottest and most competitive markets in the realm of modern recording is that of the digital audio card and interface. The migration to computer-based recording is happening at a blistering pace and these two products are helping it happen.
Product PointsApplications: Studio recording
Key Features: Dakota: 16 channels ADAT lightpipe; S/PDIF; MIDI (x2); ADAT sync input; 24-bit ASIO 2.0 driver. Tango24: Eight channels A/D and D/A; lightpipe I/O/thru; 24-bit converters; input or output metering; word clock I/O; Direct Gigasampler Interface (GSIF) driver
Price: $1,149 (bundle – Dakota, Tango24 and two optical cables)
Contact: Frontier Design Group at 800-928-3236
+ Flexible sync and timecode options (Dakota)
+ Great sound (Tango24)
+ Good value
_ Internal level jumpers (Tango24)
– No 96 kHz support
The Score: One of the most powerful and flexible digital audio card/interface packages available for the PC.
Frontier Design Group aims at being a key player in the PC recording market, and it’s well on the way. The company’s Dakota digital audio card ($649) and Tango24 interface ($699) combine to make a powerful, flexible recording package.
Also available from Frontier Design are the Sierra 8×8 MIDI/SMPTE expansion interface for Dakota, Montana expansion card for Dakota (16 additional lightpipe channels plus ADAT sync out) and Zulu (four analog in, eight analog out).
The Dakota is a PCI card with two lightpipe inputs and two lightpipe outputs, giving a total of 18 channels of digital I/O (16 ADAT lightpipe and two S/PDIF). A small breakout cable fans out to two MIDI inputs and two MIDI outputs, while a second breakout cable carries S/PDIF I/O and ADAT sync. This latter jack is input only, allowing digital recording software (such as Cool Edit Pro 1.2 or Cubase 3.7) to achieve sample-accurate transfers between ADAT and computer. Unlike many of its competitors, Dakota offers TOSlink-compatibility for optical S/PDIF audio.
What the Dakota doesn’t provide is analog inputs or outputs – no converters are on the card itself. Instead, Dakota relies on outboard converters like those found in the Tango24 interface (which is a better place for them, anyway).
Tango24 offers eight analog inputs and eight analog outputs, all on balanced 1/4″ connectors. Digital I/O is on ADAT lightpipe connectors, with an additional thru-connector that allows Tango to slip between two pieces of gear without interrupting the optical chain. Converters in the Tango24 are 24 bits and the interface uses a small toggle switch to choose between 48-kHz and 44.1-kHz sampling rates. Tango24 also offers word clock I/O on BNC connectors for more flexible synchronization.
Other toggle-switch controls on Tango24 include clock selection (internal, optical or word clock) and meters (input or output). Tango24’s metering offers signal present, -3 dB and clip indicators for each of its eight channels. When monitoring its output, the clip indicators hold for a second or so; when monitoring its input, these clip indicators hold until you flip the meter toggle switch.
Other indicators include a Clock Status LED that glows green when the Tango24’s converters have a valid clock source (internal or external) and an Optical Input LED that lights when a valid optical signal is present at the input.
Tango24 offers -10 dBV or +4 dBu operation, although you have to remove the interface’s lid to access the necessary jumpers. Being able to set any mix of levels across the inputs and outputs is a plus, but having to remove the interface from the rack and lift its hood to do so is inconvenient at best. I would happily pay a little more for Tango24 to have rear-mounted switches for setting levels.
Describing the Dakota and Tango24 hardware only tells a portion of the story – what the Frontier Design Group achieves in software is the more important part. Dakota uses a simple software panel to control its numerous options, one accessible from the Windows control panel or a small icon that appears on the Windows 95/98 taskbar.
This software panel unlocks the power of the Dakota card, letting you access an impressive array of features. The panel offers four tabs: clock/device status, timecode, patchbay and system. From the clock/device status tab the Dakota’s clock source can be selected from six different options (plus varispeed), select the sample rate, view the input and output status of all digital ports, determine which PCI channels are in use, select the main stereo input from six different sources, and route inputs to outputs for input monitoring or digital format conversions.
The timecode tab reveals an area in which Dakota sets itself apart from the pack. Here, you can set the timecode source to internal, ADAT sync in, SoDA channel (more on this later), MIDI timecode port or SMPTE in from Frontier’s Sierra MIDI interface. You can also control manual SMPTE striping, select the timecode format, and route timecode to various MIDI, SMPTE and SoDA destinations. SoDA stands for SMPTE on Digital Audio, a neat feature that allows Dakota to create or read SMPTE on any digital audio input or output. When it comes to synchronization, Dakota is the card to beat.
The patchbay tab allows software patching between any digital input or output. You can save and recall patch setups with Dakota’s simple (but effective) patch library feature. The system tab lets you set MIDI mode (disabled, 2×2 or Sierra 8×8), digital audio output status (S/PDIF or AES/EBU), audio buffer size and ASIO resolution (16 or 24 bits).
Installation of the Dakota card and drivers was a snap, and the card and software performed flawlessly for the duration of the test. At every turn, the Dakota package proved well conceived and well implemented. Dakota and Tango24 are two products that do what they claim to do, and do it well. Flexibility is the name of the game with Dakota and I can’t imagine any computer-based recording application this card wouldn’t handle with confidence.
After much critical listening, the Tango24 interface was revealed to be a great-sounding interface. Its sound is smooth and detailed and its converters consistently sounded better than those in the midpriced digital console I compared it to. Because there’s no control cable running between Tango24 and the computer, the interface can be used anywhere.
Dakota doesn’t currently offer DirectX drivers, although this should be remedied soon. Until then, folks can still use Dakota with the powerful NemeSys GigaSampler software, thanks to some dedicated drivers. According to the company, one can use DirectX plug-ins with Dakota and applications such as Cakewalk and Sound Forge because the plug-ins require only that the application – not the card – has DirectX support. Dakota now ships with 24-bit ASIO 2.0 drivers for low-latency recording in Cubase VST. The package also includes a limited-feature version of Cool Edit 1.2. Dakota and Tango24 don’t offer sampling rates above 48 kHz, though I doubt this will be much of a problem for most Frontier users.
Dakota’s software panel is well designed and powerful, but I have a few minor complaints. There is a lack of any on-line help, which would sure come in handy when trying to decipher a few of Dakota’s many features. The software shows four digital audio inputs and four outputs, even if you don’t have a Montana expansion card attached – these should be grayed out or removed entirely to avoid confusion when using Dakota alone. The software interface has no metering of its own, which can be handy when recording or troubleshooting.
The Dakota card would be a strong contender even without several of its most-valuable features. When you add in ADAT sync, flexible SMPTE features, hardware varispeed and MIDI, the Dakota card is hard to top. That Frontier Design Group has a range of hardware to expand Dakota’s capabilities without requiring additional IRQs or resources is all the more impressive. Tango24 exhibits the same impressive quality, and sounds great to boot.
Powerful features, flexible software and great sound-what more can one ask for?