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GADGET LABS WAVE/824 (MAC/WIN)

April 1, 2000
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As a rule, musicians love products with lots of features. Sometimes, though, we end up paying for bells and whistles we don't need, even when they're standard. For instance, different multichannel digital audio cards often have similar features, such as 8-channel analog I/O, S/PDIF I/O, and MIDI capabilities. Moreover, they often carry a list price ranging from $700 to $900.

But what if all you want is a good, inexpensive way to get eight channels of 24-bit digital audio into and out of your Macintosh or Windows PC without having to pay for some of those "standard features" that you simply don't need? If this describes your situation, then Gadget Labs just might have the product for you: the Wave/824. It not only gives you what you need at a reasonable price ($499), but it also allows you to expand its features-affordably.

INSERT CARD HEREThe Wave/824 is a full-length PCI card with a 25-pin D-sub connector on its faceplate for attaching the outboard analog I/O BREAKout box (more on this in a moment). It also has a pair of RCA jacks for the optional S/PDIF I/O. This option ($129) comes on a small, square daughtercard that mounts on the end of the Wave/824. Installing the S/PDIF option is a two-step process. First, you attach a signal cable to the underside of the daughtercard, then you attach the daughtercard itself to the multipin header on the main card. The signal cable attaches to a connector at the other end of the main card.

Initially I wondered why this option was designed in such a manner; there seemed to be no reason to use the extra signal cable. As it turns out, Gadget Labs will be offering an ADAT I/O option that uses the same multipin header on the Wave/824. (It should be available by the time you read this.) The optical ports will be on a separate faceplate, however, making it necessary to use a signal cable to connect the faceplate and the daughtercard. Unfortunately, you must choose between the S/PDIF and ADAT options-you can't have both.

My only concern regarding the S/PDIF option is that the daughtercard adds some extra weight to the Wave/824. This is no problem if the card sits in an upright position, as it will in most desktop systems. However, when mounted sideways as in tower-type computers, the extra weight of the daughtercard bends the end of the Wave/824. If you have another long card installed below it, the two cards could easily touch each other. Just make sure the card below is not a full-length card, or simply seat the Wave/824 in the bottom slot.

The Wave/824 has sync in and out jacks on the card itself. These let the user combine up to three Wave/824 cards in one system for 24-channel analog I/O. It also has an audio connection for a CD-ROM drive. When connected, the audio from the CD-ROM drive outputs to channels 7 and 8 on the BREAKout box. (Of course, you can defeat this monitoring feature when you need to use channels 7 and 8 in a multitrack recording environment.) I like this option because it means you don't need a separate multimedia card taking up space in the system if you use it only to monitor audio from your CD-ROM drive.

ATTACH CABLES HEREThe outboard analog I/O box is a 1U rack-mount device that connects to the card with a 2-meter, 25-pin cable. If this isn't long enough for you, a 7-meter cable is also available. A wall-wart adapter supplies power for the unit; there is no on/off switch.

Also residing on the back panel is a pair of MIDI In/Out jacks. It would be preferably if there were at least 32 channels available, but 16 seems to be standard for this type of device. Still, you do get extra sets of MIDI channels as you add more Wave/824 cards to your system.

The BREAKout box's front panel contains eight 1 1/4 4-inch TSR jacks for analog input and eight more for analog output. You can use balanced or unbalanced plugs, provided that you set the proper level for each input and output in the software control panel. In addition, channels 1 and 2 have XLR connectors on their inputs and outputs. These connections are line level; if you want to use microphones, you will need mic preamps. Correspondingly, you should use the XLR outputs with a device designed to handle balanced signals.

It's possible to use both the XLR connectors and the 1 1/4 4-inch jacks simultaneously. Even so, be careful when combining inputs into a single digital audio channel. If you don't watch your combined input levels, digital distortion can easily occur.

LOAD DRIVERS NOWThe Wave/824 can be used with both PCs and Macs. I tested it using a Pentium II/450 machine running Windows 98, second edition. The Mac software includes OMS and ASIO-2 drivers in addition to a control panel, while the Windows package includes drivers for Windows 95/98, Windows NT 4.0, and ASIO, as well as Syntrillium Software's CoolEdit SE digital audio program and demo versions of Gadget Labs' own WaveZip audio-file compression program and WaveWarm plug-in software.

The Wave/824 currently has no drivers for DirectSound, which is designed for use with Windows 95, or for the newer Windows Direct Media (WDM) DirectSound, which is supposed to be the new standard for Windows 98 and 2000. According to Gadget Labs, WDM DirectSound adds too much latency to be usable with professional software synthesizers. Moreover, WDM is currently incompatible with all existing 24-bit audio applications. Until Microsoft revises the specifications to make WDM more usable with professional digital audio, don't expect DirectSound or WDM drivers any time soon.

There is likewise currently no driver for the NemeSys GigaSampler. Discussions between the two companies are in progress, which might result in the appearance of a GigaSampler driver by the time you read this. I hope so, because GigaSampler would make an ideal companion to a good, inexpensive digital audio system like the Wave/824.

The Wave/824 card is Plug and Play compatible, so Windows 95/98 is supposed to recognize it in the system. Ostensibly, all you have to do is supply the driver disk when it's requested and installation should be automatic. Windows users know better. Initially I had a little trouble installing the drivers, but only because I'd set my BIOS to force the first two PCI slots to accept specific IRQ numbers. Once I returned the BIOS to standard settings, driver installation proceeded without a hitch, and the card worked perfectly.

FLIP THIS SWITCHBefore you begin recording with your favorite digital audio software, click on the WavePro control-panel icon in the system tray. A dialog box opens, displaying some important options (see Fig. 1). You can set each channel's level to balanced (+4 dBu) or unbalanced (-10 dBV). If you have more than one Wave/824 card in your system, you'll see a tab for selecting each one. Likewise, you can choose which ports you want to monitor the analog inputs.

If you plan to use the Wave/824 in a multitrack recording environment, activate the Sync Start box because Windows MME drivers see each pair of input and output channels as separate stereo devices. To work around this, card manufacturers must ensure that all channels record and play in sync. (Some digital audio applications also synchronize digital audio I/O from multiple cards, but if the card manufacturer writes synchronization capability into its drivers, then the software application has that much less work to do.)

Finally, go to the Options menu and select the bit resolution that corresponds to your digital audio software's capabilities. Some programs can record and play back at only 16-bit resolution. For the Wave/824 card to work properly with these programs, it has to dither the 24-bit audio input down to 16-bit resolution. The Wave/ 824 does this for you in hardware, so you don't have to rely on software to handle it. Naturally, if you're planning to work with 24-bit digital audio, you'd simply select the 24-bit setting.

GO GADGET GOThe Wave/824 might be basic, but this is intentional. For instance, the company made S/PDIF I/O an option because it found that a very high percentage of users did not need or want to use S/PDIF in their production environment. If you think about it, this shouldn't be that surprising. Gadget Labs views the Wave/824 as sort of a hard disk version of an MDM. Its users will likely use the analog outputs for monitoring or for sending audio to an external processor. Ultimately, the tracks will likely be mixed down to stereo audio files within the program and burned onto a CD-R. Alternatively, tracks might be mixed from an analog mixer to an analog recorder or a DAT mastering deck's analog inputs. None of these scenarios necessarily requires S/PDIF.

This product needs very little improvement for its target market. Besides my misgiving that the card can bend if the optional daughtercard is attached, I also wish that Gadget Labs would write a DirectSound driver, because I use software synthesizers frequently. However, given the company's previously stated views on the matter, I can see why this might not happen in the near future. (Gadget Labs recommends using Seer Systems' Reality and BitHeadz's Unity DS-1 programs because they don't rely on DirectSound.) And as a GigaSampler user, I'd like a driver for that as well. The computer power required to run GigaSampler is moderately priced, and a low-cost, high-quality multichannel audio card like the Wave/824 would be a perfect fit.

The Wave/824's low price and expandability make it a good choice for those who want to incrementally increase their computer-based digital audio system's capabilities. Best of all, the Wave/824 sounds great and performs well, so you're not sacrificing audio quality or processing performance. In other words, it's an excellent card, even if money isn't an object.

Zack Price is a digital audio editor and Windows digital audio consultant in the Chicago area.

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