To paraphrase Michael Douglas in the 1980s film Wall Street, “Competition is good.” And healthy competition is exactly what TC Works’ Powercore DSP card ($1,299) adds to the digital audio workstation landscape.
Product PointsApplications: Computer-based recording
Features: Mac or Windows; full-length PCI card with four Motorola DSP chips and a Power PC processor; VST and MAS compatible; comes with nine TC Works plug-ins including Master X3 and Mega Reverb
Contact: TC Works at 805-373-1828, Web Site.
Previously, brute-strength DSP cards were reserved for closed-system workstations such as Pro Tools, Sonic Solutions, Soundscape and the like. These proprietary systems provide the audio professional with the reliable and predictable operation required of high-pressure, high-dollar facilities. The spurious nature of desktop computer operating systems and user configurations is minimized by using software specifically designed to address the developer’s proprietary DSP hardware instead of the computer’s CPU.
The downside to closed-systems is both cost and isolation: the owner is in effect held captive to a cycle of costly upgrades and wide plug in pricing disparities (often two to three times higher) between native and proprietary versions of the same plug in; in addition, the user is limited to very few, if any, recording applications and plug ins beyond that which is designed specifically for the proprietary platform.
Several factors have come together to dramatically increase potential of native platforms in the pro audio world: the substantial increase in desktop computer processing power; the development of excellent native multitrack recording platforms such as Steinberg’s Nuendo and MOTU’s Digital Performer; and the introduction of add-in DSP cards, such as the TC Works Powercore, designed to work in tandem with native systems.
Each Powercore card is populated with four Motorola DSP chips and a Power PC CPU, yielding the equivalent processing power of a 2.8 GHz Mac G4. Up to four of the full-length PCI Powercore cards can reside in the host PC or Mac computer. PCI expansion chassis are not currently supported, and some of the PCI bus bandwidth must be available for Powercore use (certain audio and video production PCI cards eat up a lot of this bandwidth).
The Powercore card can be used in any VST or MAS-compatible software application (Spark, Nuendo, Cubase, Digital Performer, Logic etc.) and works with any audio I/O hardware supported by the respective applications. The card can support 24-bit files at 96 kHz and higher sampling rates (if the audio application can handle it).
Powercore 1.6 comes with a range of card-optimized plug-ins and several optional TC and third party plug-ins are also available.
Plug-ins included with version 1.6 are: TC’s flagship Master X3 (a.k.a. Virtual Finalizer) multiband compressor, expander and limiter; Vintage CL compressor/limiter (akin to a vintage dbx transistor-based compression); Voice Strip compressor, de-esser, EQ, low-cut filter and gate; Eqsat five-band EQ (three parametric, two shelves) with tube saturation emulation; Chorus-Delay modulation multieffects processor; Mega Reverb featuring algorithms from the venerable TC M5000; Classic Verb reverb processor; and the new 24/7-C virtual limiting amplifier modeled closely after the 1176LN (they can’t say it…but I can!).
The Powercore can also support VST virtual instruments designed to run on the card. Version 1.6 includes the Powercore 01 mono synthesizer modeled after the Roland SH-101 analog synth. Waldorf offers its D-Coder vocoder/polyphonic synthesizer as an optional plug in for the Powercore.
Other optional plug ins for the Powercore include TC Works’ Master X5 (five-band version) and Assimilator EQ-curve assimilation and morphing plug in, Sony’s Oxford EQ suite and Oxford Inflator tube-emulated dynamics processing.
For Mac users, TC Works includes a copy of its highly regarded Spark LE.
I installed a single Powercore card into a Pentium 4 1.0 GHz, 512 MB RAM PC (with a RME DIGI9652 card) running Windows 2000 and Steinberg’s Nuendo VST multitrack production system as the test platform.
Installation process was standard and straightforward: install the card into a full-length PCI slot and run the supplied installation software. The only thing to look out for is to be sure that the included TC Tools plug-ins are installed into the VST plug ins folder of the target application (Nuendo, in this case). The Powercore installer makes this easy work, automatically scanning the hard drive and presenting a list of existing VST folders from which to choose.
I booted up a 32-track, 48 kHz 24-bit mix session in Nuendo and went to town adding Powercore plug-ins to the already plug-in-laden mix, while monitoring the nearly maxed-out CPU performance.
I was pleased (understatement) to see adding Powercore plug-ins had no effect on the CPU load. I started out adding the same plug in across the tracks (24/7-C limiting amplifier); I got to 24 instances before reaching the card’s limit.
I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to get eight of either of the excellent reverbs (Classic Verb and Mega Reverb) or eight Master X3s on one card (two plug-ins per DSP chip x four chips). On my Pro Tools Mix Plus TDM system (two MIX Core DSP cards at 48 kHz) I could only get five Mega Reverbs or five Master X3 plug ins going per card, though this is somewhat misleading in that there was still reserved processing room for other “types” of plug-ins. On the other hand, the Pro Tools card costs over three times as much as the Powercore…
The bottom line, however was that the reverbs sounded great – the Mega Reverb sounded better on the Powercore/Nuendo system than on the Pro Tools system. Those people who previously used only native plug-in reverbs will really be impressed by the quality realized by moving your reverbs over to the Powercore – not to mention the huge savings in host CPU processing power.
I was similarly impressed by the performance of the other Powercore plug-ins. I found that they all had intuitive interfaces and yielded a sound quality often recognizably better than comparable native-based plug-ins. The 1176-like 24/7-C quickly became a favorite, as did the Chorus-Delay processor – I have always been a fan of TC’s chorus, dating back 20 years to TC Electronic’s original Chorus + Flanger pedal, which I still use as an insert in some mixes.
The TC Works Powercore is a particularly excellent audio tool because of the possibilities it provides: you can add DSP power to any VST/MAS-compatible workstation; you can still use your choice of native plug-ins; your host computer resources are freed up and available for other tasks; and it will follow along as you upgrade your system and VST/MAS applications.
I must say having the opportunity to use the Powercore with Nuendo had me rethinking the ever-imminent upgrade and substantial expense I face ($8,000+ to trade in my Pro Tools MIX Plus for a similarly equipped Pro Tools HD system in order to stay current) – especially when I had the opportunity to try two Powercore cards in my system!