To provide the power of the TC PowerCore PCI card to the laptop computer (both Mac & Win), TC released the PowerCore FireWire. Like the PCI card, the PowerCore FireWire runs plug-ins written especially for the PowerCore platform without draining the host computer’s resources. However, instead of residing inside the computer the PowerCore FireWire is a 1RU box that can reside in a rack or on the desktop next to the computer.
Product PointsApplications: Studio, project studio, broadcast, post production
Key Features: FireWire; Windows, Mac drivers; four Motorola DSP chips; VST, Audio Units; ships with plug-ins
Contact: TC Electronic at 818-665-4900, Web Site.
The PowerCore FireWire itself looks stunning. The simple front panel has a power switch on one side and two LEDs on the other. The green Power LED illuminates to signify that the unit is powered on and the red Error LED illuminates to signify a problem. In the center of the front panel is the PowerCore logo which glows bright blue when everything is operating properly. The logo flashes when a plug-in is loaded and it goes out if the box ever crashes (it never did for me). On the back panel are three FireWire ports, one (it doesn’t matter which) connects the box to the computer and the additional two allow the connection of additional PowerCore boxes or other FireWire devices.
The $1,795 PowerCore FireWire makes use of four 150 MHz Motorola 56367 DSP processors. Each processor is equipped with 512k Word SRAM. The box is powered by a 266 MHz Motorola 8245 floating-point PowerPC chip and is equipped with 8 MB of onboard SDRAM. This delivers twice as much signal-processing power as the PCI version. The PowerCore FireWire was jointly developed over a period of nearly two years by a Denmark-based hardware team and a Germany based software team.
For operation on a Mac the box requires a G3, G4 or G5 processor with 256 MB RAM running OS X (10.2.4 or higher) and a FireWire (IEEE1394) port. PowerCore FireWire supports both the VST and Audio Units Plug-In formats (unfortunately MAS is not supported). Audio Units are supported by an “adapter” that transparently “adapts” the VST plug-in to the Audio Units format. In an Audio Units Host Application like Logic, the plug-in will appear and behave as a standard Audio Units Plug-In. The TC Audio Units Wrapper automatically works with Sony, Waldorf, TC Helicon, and other third party PowerCore plug-ins. Both the VST and the Audio Units plug-in formats have to be on the system in order to function in an Audio Units only application such as Logic Audio, Digital Performer or Final Cut Pro (TC Electronic points out: ‘Final Cut Pro does not work with all Audio Units plug-ins.’).
For Windows operation the box requires a Pentium III/500 MHz or better with 256 MB RAM running Windows XP and a FireWire port. Some Windows based applications (e.g. Cakewalk Sonar and Sony ACID) use the DirectX Plug-In format instead of the VST Plug-In format. PowerCore does not directly support DirectX but it can be used in a DirectX application via a wrapper, such as the “VST-DX Adapter” from Cakewalk.
For both Mac and PC operation, TC Electronics recommends a 17-inch color monitor (resolution 1024 x 768) or higher. The PowerCore FireWire is compatible with any Audio Units (Mac only) or VST-compatible recording software (Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo, Apple/Emagic Logic, TC Spark XL, Live, etc.). Forty megabytes of available hard disk space are also required as well as an Internet connection for product activation.
Included with the PowerCore FireWire is the nifty PowerCore Control Panel. This control panel gathers and monitors information relating to all of the PowerCore boards in the system. It allows the real-time monitoring of PowerCore resources. Each DSP has an indicator for DSP load, the percentage of each DSP used and how much memory is in use on each DSP. If the system is equipped with more than one PowerCore, you can scroll down and view the Board Usage on PowerCore Board 2, PowerCore Board 3, and so on. The drop down Board Selector Menu allows you to choose which PowerCore you are gathering information on and monitoring in the case that there is more than one PowerCore in the system. The PowerCore Hardware portion of the panel tells about the system’s hardware including information about the Power PC, the RAM, etc. The Authentication ID contains the Serial Number and Board ID. Clicking on the Advanced tab in the control panel allows the buffer settings of all of the PowerCore plug-ins to be changed. The PowerCore’s manual gives good direction in how to optimize the various buffer and resource allocation settings to achieve the preeminent performance from a specific system.
I think the idea of putting the power of a PowerCore PCI card in a portable FireWire-based box is brilliant and in using it over the past several months I’ve been extremely pleased with my results. Not only does the PowerCore FireWire make it quick and easy to transport the PowerCore but it also makes it extremely easy to move the PowerCore features from one computer to another. Moving the PowerCore FireWire from a Mac to a Windows-based DAW or from a desktop system to a laptop is as simple as moving a cable.
PowerCore installation on my PC was a breeze. I used the supplied CD installer which automatically checked on line to make sure I had the latest driver (I didn’t). In a matter of minutes I was up and running using the PowerCore plug-in in my Nuendo 2.2 session.
One disappointment with the PowerCore is its lack of OS9 compatibility. My primary studio computer is still living in OS9 world as are a lot of my colleagues’ Macs. I’m starting to realize that we are all going to have to retire OS9 at some point but for a lot of us that day still hasn’t come. To put the box to the test in OSX I teamed up with composer, programmer and all around synth guru Chris Mosher who has also come to love the box. We found installation on an OSX based machine to be a snap and in minutes we were ready to make music.
The only snag we encountered with the PowerCore FireWire on Chris’ 1.5GHz G4 laptop while running Logic was the latency issue and although this was resolved by the No Latency Mode, we were only able to use two plug-ins in the No Latency Mode before maxing out the CPU. The same situation arose when trying to sequence with the PC01 running through a compressor and delay. We concluded that in many situations it is better to think of the PowerCore as more of a mixing tool than a tracking tool (and as a mixing tool it shines).
Chris pointed out to me that if you are a composer or programmer or anyone spending most of their time tracking rather than mixing, than this is not going to be your solve-all box. The individual looking to use the box to run, for example, PowerCore 01, Virus and TC-30 simultaneously without taxing their CPU, may come away a little frustrated. On the other hand, if you, like me, are more of an engineer/producer, the box seems to be tailor made just for us. The box pushes my mixing power light years ahead without taxing my computer’s CPU.
The PowerCore FireWire comes bundled with 10 plug-ins that provide dynamic control and effect processing. These plug-ins act and behave exactly like “traditional” VST or Audio Units plug-ins. The only difference is that they are using the processing power of the PowerCore and not the host computer. All of the included plug-ins support sample rates up to 96 kHz, and can be used in any application that supports VST or Audio Units plug-ins. The PowerCore plug-ins can be used in multitrack audio applications, stereo mastering applications, and even audio capable video-editing applications that have the ability to host one or more of the supported PowerCore plug-in formats. In regards to DSP performance you can generally figure that a plug-in that requires 50 percent of a DSP at 48 kHz will require 100 percent of a DSP at 96 kHz, as a doubling of sample rate also doubles the resulting DSP performance required.
The PowerCore plug-ins offer a No Latency Mode. This mode is an alternative way of communicating with the PowerCore. When enabled, the PowerCore logo will have a red glow to indicate operation. In most cases, No Latency Mode is not required as this much power comes at a price; No Latency Mode will place a significant load on your host CPU! However, No Latency Mode is ideal for record monitoring with a PowerCore reverb effect or playing a software synth. With my now ancient 695MHz Pentium III laptop I was only able to have one plug-in at a time running in No Latency Mode but the rest of the systems I tested the box on allowed two or three.
The 24/7C Limiting Amplifier is built to look and operate like the classic UREI 1176. The plug-in sounds great but not too much like an 1176. The user interface is simple and straight-forward. To drive the limiter harder you simply increase the input. The auto-gain sensing option for the output parameter adjusts the output depending on the program material. I found this to be an excellent feature. In my use, this plug-in worked well on vocals, drums, electric and acoustic guitars and stereo bus compression.
The Master X3 plug-in is the perfect stereo bus compressor and it works well for both mixing and mastering. This plug-in is the virtual manifestation of the TC Electronic Finalizer which integrates several phases of mastering into a single, easy to use interface. The plug features multiband processing with expansion, compression and limiting separately for each band. The plug also features high quality, uncorrelated dithering. For being such a comprehensive plug-in, the user interface is highly intuitive. The “Soft Clipping” feature provides analoguesque sound whenever desired. This plug-in works wonders on the stereo bus while mixing.
The Voicestrip plug-in is an all-in-one voice processor that provides compression, de-essing, equalization, low-cut filter and gate. The plug-in is very vocal friendly, it’s quick to set up, it’s flexible and it sounds great.
The PowerCore CL Compressor plug-in is based on a different compression algorithm than those found in the Voicestrip or the 24/7áC and it is a wonderful compression option. I had the best results using this plug-in on keyboards and acoustic guitars.
The EQSat Custom plug-in provides a high-quality, almost transparent equalization. The plug-in’s algorithm is taken directly from the TC Electronics Finalizer and it features high and low-shelving and three stereo bands of parametric EQ. I found this plug-in to work extremely well on the stereo bus and it works wonders on “equalizer challenged” vocals (i.e. poorly recorded vocals).
The Chorus-Delay plug-in is modeled after the TC Electronic 1210 Spatial Expander. This plug-in provides simultaneous modulation effects such as chorus and flange as well as slap delay. This plug-in works wonders on acoustic and electric guitars and vocals.
The Classic Verb plug-in adds a distinctly warm and lush reverb effect often associated with big expensive hardware processors. It is a whole different way to create the effect compared to the traditional reverb philosophy or accurate room reproduction, as you will find with the reverbs provided by MegaReverb.
The MegaReverb plug-in provides studio-quality reverb using technology taken directly from the Core 1 and 2 algorithms of the TC Electronic M5000. I’ve been a regular user of this plug-in on my ProTools rig for years.
The PowerCore 01 plug-in essentially emulates the classic Roland SH-01. This single oscillator synth can produce vicious leads and fat basses, without draining the CPU of your computer. The PC 01, on the other hand, is a real beast. While it’s a simple mono synth, the coolness completely lies in the sound. It’s not going to make every sound in the book… no pianos or swirling pads, but what it does do, it does incredibly well. The basses are huge and fat and the leads are aggressive and biting.
The Tubifex plug-in is an amp simulator that provides three stages of tube distortion and amp simulation and like most amp simulators, it just doesn’t stand up to the real thing. While recording guitar through the Tubifex, Chris and I found that this plug-in adds a definite digital harshness to the sound and the distortion itself is not very convincing, sounding more digital edge than tube warmth.
In addition to the 10 plug-ins, the Compensator, which is a native “DSP Free” plug-in provides a way to control delay compensation if the application in use doesn’t provide for automatic plug-in delay compensation.
The TC PowerCore FireWire offers the perfect solution to increased DAW processing power without the loss of portability or any strenuous addition to the host computer’s resources. The nine plug-ins that come bundled with the PowerCore FireWire are easily worth the $1,795 price tag. The fact that the power to process the plugs is included in the bundle is icing on the cake.