Topic: "Why I Sold My Symphony and Replaced it with an RME MADI System"

"Why I Sold My Symphony and Replaced it with an RME MADI System"
From Andy Hong - Tape Op Gear Reviews Editor

Symphony works only with Apogee converters, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but as a gear reviewer, I need to be able to test a wide variety of audio gear.

To use Symphony with digital I/O, you MUST purchase Apogee converters. Apogee does not make any digital I/O breakout boxes that are NOT also convertors.  If you want to connect many channels of digital audio between your host computer and another decice, this is an extremely expensive proposition.  I have 56 channels of digital I/O between my computer and my digital mixer (Sony DMX-R100).  To get this much I/O out of Symphony, I would have had to purchase four each of AD-16X and DA-16X convertors.  Yikes!!!!

Symphony is Mac only.  When my main music computer was a quad-core Mac Pro, I regularly dual-booted it into Win XP Pro. Symphony of course was unavailable in Win XP.  I now have a custom-built, rackmount, quad-core PC that is so dang quiet, I sold the IsoBox that used to house my Mac Pro.

Symphony's high performance driver is really only useful from an end-user perspective when used in conjunction with Apple Logic. (And Logic is no longer cross-platform.)  Therefore, for low-latency host-based monitoring, you MUST use Apple Logic. Otherwise, you're back to relying on monitoring via an external application, in this case, Apogee's Maestro, which does not have host-controlled monitor-levels such as systems that implement ASIO Direct Monitoring, like RME.

TotalMix is much more flexible and easier to use with many-channel configurations than Maestro. Plus, there are published tech notes/specs of TotalMix's design and workings--not so for Maestro.

With MADI, I have plenty of breakout options from RME and SSL.  Both are top-shelf companies with best-in-breed products, but when you add it up, both provide very affordable solutions when you take into account the extreme expandibility of MADI-based I/O.  You can start out small, and as your needs grow, you can add more channels, more formats, and more routing capability.

MADI doesn't require proprietary cabling.  I've got both fiber and coax runs throughout my studio and home (in adjacent buildings).  So MADI is a no-brainer for me.  For facilities without cabling already in place, it's much easier (and MUCH cheaper) to lay down fiber or coax than it is to use the multi-core, limited-length cables from Apogee (or Digidesign).

Oh, and one more point worth mentioning.

With an RME MADI-based system, you can put your expensive mic preamps and converters in the same room (or very close to) your mics.  This offers two advantages:

1.  Shorter runs of mic-level cabling = less sound degradation.

2.  If you have a "live room" shared by two or more control rooms, you only need one set of preamps and ADCs.  This is facilitated by RME's innovative MIDI over MADI solution for remote control of preamps and converters.  And as I mentioned in the previous email, you don't need proprietary cabling to implement this.

Review from Tape Op issue #63

RME Audio

ADI-648 MADI-ADAT converter
HDSPe PCI card w/ Multiface II & Digiface interfaces

A few issues back, I announced that I had sold my Pro Tools HD rig and replaced it with an Apogee Symphony (Tape Op #59) system running Apple Logic on a Mac Pro. The audio performance of Logic/Symphony is simply stunning: it can handle more tracks than I can throw at it; its latency is on par with hardware-based DAWs; and with Apogee AD/DA?16X converters, it sounds fantastic. Unfortunately, I outgrew Logic 7's limited audio-editing capabilities very quickly, and the recently released Logic 8, although greatly improved, still suffers from a few deal breakers for me. Moreover, the Symphony system being Mac-only limited my DAW choices. Also, I needed more digital connectivity than was available through Symphony; there are no digital-only I/O options for Symphony, although as I mentioned in my review, you can boot up the AD/DA?16X converters in an advanced mode that allows you to disassociate the 16 digital I/Os from the 16 analog I/Os and use all 32 channels concurrently. But I didn't want to purchase another Symphony card and additional Apogee converters for more than 16 channels of stupidly expensive digital I/O. Anyway, long story short, I'm now running Cubase 4.1 and Sonar 7 with an RME HDSPe MADI card along with my trusty RME ADI?648 MADI-ADAT converter.

The HDSPe MADI card gives me a full MADI stream of 24?bit audio for both input and output. That's 64 input and 64 output channels at up to 48 kHz; 32 I/O channels at up to 96 kHz; or 16 at up to 192 kHz. It supports both coax and fiber optic flavors of MADI; choose one for input, and the output stream goes to both. The main card takes up one single-lane PCIe slot, while an included daughter card takes up an open expansion plate without actually plugging into a PCIe slot. The daughter card is optional; it adds MIDI ports (two I/O pairs via a breakout cable) and word clock I/O to the system, but if you need neither, you can leave it out. I installed the daughter card into the expansion plate next to the video card slot of my Mac Pro (there's no PCIe connector behind this plate as it's reserved for double-width video cards), so I still had two more PCIe slots available for other cards. By the way, if you have enough slots, you can use up to three HDSPe MADI cards together for a total of 192 channels.

It's clear that RME put a lot of thought into the design of the HDSPe MADI; there are many subtle features that quickly become appreciated in use. For example, there are LEDs on the back plate for alerting you of word clock status and termination state as well as MADI errors?very useful during installation and wiring. And all settings are stored in persistent memory, so the card powers on immediately in the last-used state?no waiting for clock sync while the computer finishes booting. Speaking of clock sync, the HDSPe MADI incorporates RME's SteadyClock technology, which can regenerate any digital reference signal into a clean clock, reducing jitter to less than 2 ns?including the MADI stream, which has about 80 ns of jitter by design. The internal clock uses a Direct Digital Synthesizer rather than a quartz crystal, so it's possible to vary the sample rate in 1 Hz increments, and presets are included for common video pull?up/down rate changes of 0.1% and 0.4%. Furthermore, with a super-quick AutoSync feature, the HDSPe MADI can handle any sample rate between 28 and 200 kHz, even while "varispeeding"!

Drivers for the card are well implemented for Windows 2K/XP/Vista/64 (multi-client ASIO 2.0, GSIF 2.0, WDM?all available simultaneously) and Mac OS X (Core Audio and Core MIDI). Because the HDSPe-series isn't based on a PCIe-to-PCI bridge, the HDSPe cards have significantly higher performance than the original HDSP PCI cards, and the minimum buffer size has been reduced to 32 sample words for very low latency. If your host software can handle the small buffer (like Logic can), you can monitor from your host while recording. If not (Cubase on Mac OS X can't), the HDSPe MADI's onboard DSP can provide hardware-based near-zero-latency monitoring controlled by the included TotalMix software.

It would be unfair to characterize TotalMix as software for monitoring as its capabilities are far beyond what other manufacturers provide with their interfaces. For starters, TotalMix has unlimited routing, allowing you to patch any input to any set of outputs. You can create as many mixes as you have outputs?32 independent stereo submixes on the HDSPe MADI?and with the multi-client ASIO driver, you can even mix playback from different host applications. Flipping to Matrix view, it's easy to assign inputs to outputs, while gain, mute, and polarity settings are all clearly displayed. There's also a loopback feature that allows you to send a submix back to a host application?great for recording subgroups (even from multiple applications) or doing bounces, even if the host application lacks this capability natively. The well-written manual also describes step-by-step how to configure TotalMix for external effects as inserts or with pre/post?fader sends and returns. One of my favorite features is a mid-side processing macro for converting L/R to M/S and vice-versa. And everything in TotalMix is calculated in hardware, including the high-resolution meters, taking up no CPU resources. Pretty cool, huh? But there's one more thing, and it's the reason why I prefer Win XP over Mac OS X?ASIO Direct Monitoring, which is Windows only. With Cubase, Nuendo, Sequoia, or Samplitude, if you enable ADM, any track that is in input or record mode is monitored via hardware on the HDSPe card at near-zero latency regardless of the driver's buffer size. And when you move an ADM-enabled fader or change its pan in the host application, the corresponding fader/pan in TotalMix moves too.

TotalMix isn't unique to the HDSPe MADI card. It also works with all of RME's HDSP, HDSPe, and Fireface devices, including the HDSPe PCI, which I had on loan for a few months while waiting for the HDSPe MADI release in the US. Like its MADI sibling, the HDSPe PCI is also a single-lane PCIe card. It requires one of three external boxes: Multiface II multi-format interface, Digiface digital interface, or RPM phono/line/mic interface. I demoed both the Multiface II and the Digiface.

The Multiface II has eight analog I/Os, one ADAT I/O, one S/PDIF I/O, one front-panel analog line/headphone output with a volume knob, and one MIDI I/O. It's capable of 96 kHz operation. I tested its conversion quality by patching analog output to analog input seven times in succession, so that I could hear eight times the effect of converting analog to digital back to analog. This brutal test highlighted some low-end smearing and a slightly pronounced upper-mid/lower-high brittleness, but the sound quality was still very good, better so than some converters in the same price range; you'd have to listen with extreme care to hear anything meaningful with single conversions. Using the Multiface II and HDSPe PCI combination, with ADM enabled in Cubase 4.1 on Win XP, I measured 1.76 ms of latency for roundtrip analog-digital-analog at 44.1 kHz. Considering sound travels at about 1 ft/ms, that's equivalent to placing your ear less than 2 ft from the sound source; for many instruments, you'd hear the close-mic'ed sound in your headphones before you'd hear the natural soundwaves. Using software monitoring (through the host application) instead of ADM, I measured 5.4 ms roundtrip latency at 44.1 kHz with a 64-word buffer size, the smallest I could go without dropouts (for a 24-track project) in Cubase. Cubase reported latency for an inserted external effect as 0.36 ms. In Cubase 4.1 on Mac OS X, roundtrip latency was 6.84 ms at 44.1 kHz with a 64-word buffer, and insert delay was 1.09 ms. At 96 kHz, latency dropped to 3.52 ms. In Logic 8 with the I/O Safety Buffer disabled, a 32-word buffer at 44.1 kHz yielded 3.9 ms; contrast this to 3.36 ms for Apogee Symphony at the same settings.

The Digiface has three ADAT I/Os, one S/PDIF I/O, a front-panel analog line/headphone out, and two MIDI I/Os. It too is capable of 96 kHz operation (with S/MUX limiting the number of ADAT I/O channels to 12 at that sample rate). You connect one of these interfaces to the HDSPe PCI card with a standard Firewire cable (although the transmission protocol is not Firewire). Ultimately, when I received my HDSPe MADI card, I returned the HDSPe PCI, Multiface II, and Digiface.

I now have the HDSPe MADI card connected via MADI to the ADI?648 64-channel format converter, which in turn is connected via MADI to my Sony DMX?R100 console (Tape Op #25). The MADI output of the console then loops back to the HDSPe MADI. Additionally, I have my TASCAM MX?2424 hard disc recorder (#22), M?Audio ProFire Lightbridge (#57), and Apogee AD/DA?16X converters (#59) connected via ADAT lightpipe to the ADI?648, which can route any 8-channel block to any other 8-channel block?MADI or ADAT. The ADI?648's front panel is well-designed, with buttons and indicators intelligently placed, so routing and configuration changes are easy to make. An abundance of LEDs shows sync status and audio activity within the various blocks. Remote control software (Win 2K/XP/Vista; Mac OS X pre-release) can store and restore settings (including changes to the routing matrix); the software connects via MIDI, utilizing either the ADI?648's MIDI ports or the user-bits in the MADI stream if an HDSP or HDSPe MADI card is in use. I've owned the ADI?648 for a number of years, and it's provided extremely flexible I/O for my Sony console, without any hiccups. And now in conjunction with the HDSPe MADI card, I can freely route audio from any device to any other interconnected device. A typical arrangement for me is 40 channels of I/O between computer and console along with 16 additional channels to/from the AD/DA-16X converters, which I use as analog inputs, outputs, or inserts. Or I can route the console to the MX-2424 if I'd rather track to that, and then later route the MX-2424 to the Lightbridge to fly the tracks into Pro Tools. Anyway, you get the picture.

As a matter of comparison, I measured roundtrip analog-digital-analog latency with ADM enabled, AD?16X to ADI?648 to HDSPe MADI back to ADI?648 to DA?16X: 1.68 ms at 44.1 kHz. Adding the DMX?R100 console to the loop before the HDSPe MADI, the total delay increased to 2.24 ms.

I'm extremely happy with the performance and incredible flexibility of my HDSPe MADI and ADI?648 system. I was also impressed with the HDSPe PCI system using Multiface II and Digiface interfaces. If you're looking to build a rock-solid stable and processor-efficient DAW, especially if you need hardware that is cross-platform, my highest recommendation goes to RME.

(HDSPe PCI $449 MSRP, Digiface $849, Multiface II $899, HDSPe MADI $1899, ADI?648 $2599;

? AH