The foundation of any PC-based project studio is a quality audio system. It can be as simple as a single audio card with stereo in and out or a more sophisticated card with multitrack capabilities or, perhaps, include a breakout box for easy access to inputs and outputs. MIDI is also important. Some folks use the MPU401 feature built into a game card or buy a standalone card, such as the ones made popular by Roland years ago.
Product PointsApplications: Project studio
Key Features: 8-channel analog I/O; MIDI; 24-bit/96kHz; stereo S/PDIF; separate stereo monitor output; 2 internal connectors for CD input; for Windows 95/98/NT
Contact: TerraTec at 407-331-4002;www.terratec-us.com
+ Good sound
+ Easy setup
+ Reasonable price
– Occasional noise from minijack output
– Confusing control panel
The Score: The EWS88MT packs a lot of features and solid performance into an affordable package.
Everything needed to create a powerful PC-based audio system is readily available now. In the early days of MIDI and hard disk recording it was nice if everything simply worked. Configuration headaches and hardware conflicts were the norm. There weren’t many options, so you made do.
Nowadays, installation is pretty simple and there are lots of suppliers. The choice in audio systems today is about packaging — the combination of hardware and software bundled together to benefit the end user.
Quality specs are only half the battle. Does the audio card include minijacks for input and output? Does it require hunting around the back of the computer to find them? Or does it include hearty XLR connectors attached to a generous length of wiring that plugs easily into your mixer? What about MIDI connectors or a breakout box? Are the components designed to be rackmounted or can they be fixed inside the computer case? These are important considerations when seeking an audio solution for your PC.
The EWS88MT, from TerraTec of Germany, is an audio solution that has a lot of the right answers to the above questions — especially for project studio owners. It’s a multitrack audio system complete with breakout box, stereo S/PDIF I/O and standard MIDI 5-pin DIN ports. The breakout box comes with a generous 6′ cable that makes it easy to place it comfortably away from the PC. For a less-cluttered setup, it can be easily mounted in a 5.25″ slot, the standard size opening of a CD-ROM drive.
The EWS88MT includes eight channels of analog I/O with 24-bit resolution and sampling rates of up to 96 kHz. The 16 RCA style I/O connectors on the front are confusing at first. Instead of having a traditional color code of red for right and black for left, all the RCA inputs are red and all the RCA outputs are black. Naturally, your typical RCA stereo pair is red and white or red and black. My initial attempt to match inputs and outputs between mixer and breakout box created a bit of confusion.
Aside from that, the TerraTec team appears to understand its customers — the EWS88MT is loaded with lots of useful features. Besides the breakout box I/O, the card includes a mini jack output that can be used for monitoring system sounds and audio from software titles that exploit DirectSound. It came in handy for monitoring my Reality software synth. TerraTec claims a latency of under 10 ms for software synthesizers played this way.
The mini jack output uses an 18-bit converter, but might benefit from better shielding — it seemed to pick up occasional noise from the PC. These were sonic anomalies not detected with other audio cards plugged into the same PCI slot. The card also included two CD audio connectors, which make it easy to monitor audio from a standard CD-ROM and/or a CD-R (or CD-RW) drive simultaneously. During installation, a volume control for each CD connector is added to the standard Windows mixer.
The drivers and control panel of the EWS88MT are geared for performance. TerraTec claims the support of 32-bit unpacked data transport results in less CPU overhead for recording 24-bit data. The ASIO driver keeps latency rates between 7 and 20 ms on average when used with programs like Steinberg’s Cubase VST. (New drivers now support ASIO 2.0, DirectSound, MME, and GigaSampler GSIF –Ed.)
The control panel is both attractive and powerful. It includes all the standard controls and switchable inputs for -10 dBV consumer and +4 dBu pro level gear. There are plenty of routing options and the EWS88MT includes a digital mixer that routes all 20 possible channels to a stereo analog pair or the digital output. The control panel can be tweaked in countless ways, and all settings can be saved as scenes for recall later.
The EWS88MT also comes with a generous software bundle that includes Winjey for various audio formats, Micrologic AV for audio/MIDI sequencing, Samplitude Basic audio editor and various other programs.
It’s nice when you can use a product right out of the box without looking at the manual. That’s pretty much the case with the EWS88MT. It’s also nice, however, to have a well-written and somewhat entertaining manual for questions and troubleshooting. TerraTec did an excellent job putting together a friendly manual packed with good information.
The company clearly understands its users and how they use their audio tools. It was a lot like referring to a Mackie mixer manual. More useful examples should have been included, however, to further explain the uses of the system — especially the versatile control panel.
I tested the EWS88MT with a variety of software, including ACID, Cool Edit Pro, Sound Forge and the Reality synthesizer from Seer Systems. I also used the card for I/O with Avid Cinema, an entry-level video editor.
I experienced some strange behavior when I first launched some programs. ACID defaulted to using the monitor (mini jack) output despite my attempts to change the program preferences and the multimedia properties in Windows to Channels 1 and 2 on the breakout box. I had the same problem with AVID cinema. After a couple of reboots I was able to set preferences that worked.
Other than some quirky setup behavior, this card behaved nicely. Like any quality audio solution, once it’s set up and working, you should be able to forget about it and focus on the music. The sound quality of the EWS88MT is good and rivals other products in its price range.
The MIDI jacks on the breakout box are a must-have. They don’t add much to the cost and they really make the package more versatile for the project studio. I would like to see all breakout box solutions include standard MIDI ports.
With the EWS88MT, I used my old Kawai K3 to trigger the Reality synth. I sent the monitor output of the system to my Mackie, added some Lexicon effects and sent the final signal back through the EWS88MT to Sound Forge or Cool Edit. The same can be done using a performance program like Mixman Studio.
I usually lay down one stereo track at a time, so a card like the Gina, from Echo Digital Audio, with two channels in and eight channels out usually does the trick. It’s nice to be able to record drums live with each drum going to a separate channel. Using direct outs on the Mackie, I recorded live drums to separate tracks in Cool Edit Pro. From there I tweaked each drum sound and did a final two-track mix. Although I may only need to do this 20 percent of the time, having this capability is a big plus.
For anyone recording live mixes in the field, the multitrack capability is a must. The EWS88MT provides this without charging a premium for it. With a selling price of under $600, why not have all these features?
The EWS88MT from TerraTec is an ideal multitrack audio and MIDI solution for the project studio. It packs a lot of features and solid performance into an affordable package.