RME Audio | Hammerfall DIGI9652 | RME DIGI 96 and DIGI 9652 Issue 7

and DIGI 9652
RME have used new ASIO2 drivers to take their soundcards one step further. Guy
Harrison goes hammer and tongs.
he dream of a recording studio in a PC with all its
‘obvious advantages’ has been with us for the best
part of a decade. While the concept has obvious
appeal, many of the pioneers in pursuit of this electronic
Nirvana gave up in frustration. Problems with system
overheads, poor HD access time, and newly developing
software all contributed to their woes. In 1999, with
PC technologies moving at
(S/PDIF and ADAT I/O), the DIGI96 Pro (which adds
20-bit analogue outputs), the DIGI96 Pad (includes 20-bit
analogue inputs and outputs) and, the daddy of them all,
the DIGI9652. The DIGI9652 is code named ‘Project
Hammerfall’ and is devoid of any analogue I/O but
supports up to 48 channels of ADAT I/O with wordclock
as standard, and includes nine-pin ADAT sync. All
impressive stuff on paper – let’s see if RME can really
make my software feel like a tape machine.
DIGI96 Pad
exponential rate,
we still have the seemingly insurmountable problem of latency – the
time a PC soundcard takes to process
a sound from input to output. In this
regard the PC still falls short of the
mark, expecting users to put up with figures in the range
of 50ms or more (ASIO), to hundreds of milliseconds
(MME). Long latency makes transport controls feel
sloppy, and it makes internal monitoring for the purpose
of overdubbing impossible.
It’s nice to know that RME Audio in Germany are
equally fed up with monitoring their recordings out of
time, and are the first company to include the new
ASIO2 spec in the drivers for their new range of soundcards. ASIO2 is a Steinberg development first implemented in Cubase 3.7 for PC (just released), and promises ‘no
latency monitoring’ of input signals. As an added bonus,
RME has had the forethought to future proof their latest
products by giving them all 24-bit/96k compatibility.
The new range from RME includes the DIGI96
(equipped with S/PDIF I/O only), the DIGI96/8
First up is the DIGI96 Pad, which is based on a standard
sized PCI card and should pose no problem for those
tight on space. The card features the popular ADAT
optical interface plus S/PDIF and AES/EBU (on a ninepin D-sub break-out cable). There’s also provision to
connect your CD-ROM drive digitally to the card, given
your CD-ROM has a digital output. Analogue I/O is
provided on two TRS jack connectors, one for stereo
(unbalanced) input and one for stereo (unbalanced)
output, these are -10dBv by default, switchable to +4dBu
by way of a jumper on the card. An LED is provided
which lights red when no valid digital input is found,
extinguishing when one is. While not terribly exciting,
this is a handy troubleshooting tool which could save a
lot of head scratching. RME also supply an optional
wordclock module for the DIGI96 range, which adds
wordclock on BNC connectors and also provides an easy
means of synchronising multiple cards. This is a small
companion board that doesn’t take a slot on the PC’s
motherboard, but connects to the DIGI96 card with a
pair of three wire cables.
Installing the DIGI96 Pad was a dream. After physically
installing the card and turning the computer on,
Windows happily found the card and went into driver
wizard mode. After a little prompting to let Windows
know where the driver was residing (on CD), we were
away. RME claim to have done their homework when it
comes to simplifying card installation through the use of
complete IRQ sharing and, to their credit, it seems to
work. The card was installed in no time – a small card
icon in the system tray being the only sign anything had
changed. Clicking on this icon launches the DIGI96 Pad’s
ASIO and Settings control panel. The ASIO controls
allow for the choice of four settings: 16-bit/46ms, 32bit/23ms, 16-bit/12ms and 32-bit/6ms. While RME
recommend the 16-bit/46ms setting for most stable
operation, at 48k the DIGI96 Pad had no problem
managing 32-bit/23ms on a (relatively) humble 200MMX
PC, and happily ran eight tracks at the 32-bit/6ms setting
on a P3 400MHz machine.
The Settings controls make light work of synchronisation
issues through some clever options. Standard sync features
are all here. A list allows you to nominate which input to use
for synchronisation purposes, while an Auto Select option
will continually scan the DIGI96 Pad’s inputs looking for a
valid signal, locking on when one is found. Auto Select used
in conjunction with the Autosync feature means that after
the card finds a valid input signal matching the playback
frequency it will automatically switch from internal reference
(master) to the clock arriving at its input (slave). All this
allows for fail-safe on-the-fly recording from any input
without having to be concerned with clock mode. This is the
only card I know of that handles synchronisation in this way
and it simplifies matters considerably, particularly for those
unfamiliar with sync issues.
Padding Up
First up I tested the DIGI96 Pad in a 200MMX PC (64MB
RAM) teamed with a Yamaha O1V digital desk with
optional ADAT I/O fitted, and then repeated the tests on a
P3 400MHz (128MB RAM) machine. In both machines
the card performed admirably. Recording eight tracks
through Cubase VST proved a simple affair and I must say
that with ASIO2 direct monitoring enabled, it was quite
easy to forget which computer system I was working on.
That said, the 400MHz P3 machine had no problem
achieving 3ms latency (and that’s with VST compression
and reverb running), while the 200MMX system really
needed the 16-bit/46ms mode for serious multitracking.
RME has also done extensive research on busmaster
technology to ensure very low system overheads, and
this was evident on both systems. While the ASIO2
direct monitoring is a definite plus, it must be appreciated that with the DIGI96 Pad this option is essentially a
hardware bypass – so your mixer in Cubase is no longer
active for pan and level purposes on that channel. While
this is a slight drawback, the fact that you can switch the
hardware from within Cubase is a major step in the right
direction. As RME’s drivers are the first to implement the
ASIO2 spec, I’m sure future refinements will soon see
total control from within Cubase.
The DIGI96 Pad also performed well in the sound
quality department. At 48k it sounded more detailed
than my current 20-bit soundcard (with externally
mounted A/D conversion). Switching to 96k, the sound
was nothing short of stunning, with the top end taking on
a level of clarity and openness that until now I hadn’t
heard in any sound card.
The DIGI96 Pad is a winner on all fronts. I’m sure
other manufacturers will be rushing to update their
drivers to take advantage of the ASIO2 spec. For now
though, RME has a card and driver combination that
seems to point to the next chapter of hard disk
recording. With its advanced busmaster technology
keeping CPU overheads to a minimum, and direct or low
latency options, I’m sure the DIGI96 Pad will please
many. Highly Recommended.
Hammer Time
The DIGI9652 Project Hammerfall comes packaged in the
same compact box as its cousin, and, like the DIGI96 Pad,
the manual arrives on a CD in Adobe Acrobat or Word
format for printing. Unlike the DIGI96 Pad, the DIGI9652
is a two card package – a main PCI card and a daughterboard. The 12.5cm main PCI card houses all the basic
electronics, and offers two ADAT inputs and outputs along
with ADAT sync and S/PDIF on a nine-pin D-sub
breakout cable. A CD-ROM connection point is also
provided. If you need no more than 16-channel operation
this card will operate without the daughterboard.
The daughterboard itself connects to the main board
by a short cable, and space must be made to mount the
cards side by side. The daughterboard adds a third
ADAT I/O and BNC wordclock connectors, as well as an
LED that lights green when a valid digital signal is
received at any input. As I mentioned earlier, the
DIGI9652 has no analogue I/O, making it more
appealing for people with a fair investment in ADAT
lightpipe technology. ADAT owners interested in taking
advantage of the on-screen editing offered by today’s PC
programs, and owners of digital desks keen to bypass the
tape medium or unnecessary D/A and A/D conversion,
will appreciate the ADAT I/O. It’s also worth noting that
with the newly released MME drivers you can be assured
your DIGI9652 will work with any program available.
Much like the DIGI96 Pad, installation of the DIGI9652
was straightforward. When the computer was powered
up the device was recognised, and once the drivers were
installed we were ready for action. This time a pink
hammer was hiding in my system tray and, once again,
the icon provides quick access to Settings, ASIO and
MME options. The ASIO settings can be adjusted from a
latency of 186ms down to 1.5ms, though it must be
pointed out that just because a setting exists doesn’t
mean your computer will be able to cope with it – lower
latency means smaller buffer settings, and if you set the
buffer too small for your computer’s processing power,
audio glitches will occur. I was able to achieve stable
operation with a 186kB buffer, for 3ms latency on a P3
400MHz computer. Latency that low makes ASIO direct
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monitoring somewhat redundant, although people with
lesser machines (that can’t manage buffers this small) will
still be thankful. As expected, RME has carried on the
excellent AutoSync and SyncCheck features of the
DIGI96 range (see above for full details) into the
DIGI9652 and added a timecode display to deal with
sample accurate ADAT sync.
In Use
For testing, I got busy flying some vocals off an ADAT XT
into Cubase through the DIGI9652 – in order to clean up
some of the vocalist’s irritating breath noises – then flew
them back onto the ADAT, all in sample accurate sync.
This took a moment of configuring within Cubase
because transferring audio with sample accuracy requires
two levels of sync: sample frequency (wordclock) and
sample position (timecode). With nine-pin ADAT sync
connected from the output of the XT to the input of the
DIGI9652, and ‘ADAT 1’ selected as the sync reference
within the Settings controls, we were ready to make the
transfer. This all took place with a minimum of fuss, and a
lock up time of no more than one to two seconds was
achieved. After editing, the vocal was returned to the
ADAT with the same ease in which it was removed. The
ADAT and computer performed seamlessly and, used in
this way, made for a very powerful and inspiring setup.
Simply put, a pleasure to use.
A Real Hammering
The DIGI9652 is a powerhouse card that delivers on its
promises. The ‘virtual’ manual is well written and the
supplied CD contains a swag of useful utilities which I
unfortunately don’t have the space to discuss in this
review. The RME web site also contains some useful
information (like how they manage to get 24-bit/96k data
to share two 16-bit ADAT tracks), and if RME’s driver
update policy is to be believed then they seem
committed to keeping things on the cutting edge.
I’ve always believed that if you get the small things
right, the big picture will fall into place. With their
Autosync and SyncCheck technology, RME has
indeed got the small things right. Now maybe we can
get on with the big picture – audio engineering. Hallelujah.
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Phone: +61 (0)3 9696 6999
Fax: +61 (0)3 9696 6669
RME on WWW: ‘www.rme-audio.com’
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