Mu PCI Interface Family

Mu PCI Interface Family

I’ve been doing a Pro Review on E Mu’s Emulator X2 sampler, and in the process, have received several queries about E Mu’s line of PCI interfaces. Rather than get distracted in the X2 thread, I thought it was time to do a review of E Mu’s card based interface family (they also make USB interfaces, which are less expensive and more basic; we won’t cover them here). In keeping with the way we do newsletter reviews, we won’t re invent the wheel and list all the specs for the various interface types those are available on E Mu’s web site. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the user experience, and practical applications.

Front panel of the E Mu 1616m dock/breakout box.

However, there are some specs worth noting from the gitgo: These are for Windows only (XP SP2 or 2000 SP4), and accommodate ASIO 2, x64, WDM, MME, and DirectSound drivers. There’s digital and analog I/O (listen up, DJs: There’s an RIAA phono input!), as well as two MIDI I/O connectors (32 channels total), dual front panel mic/instrument pres, and a headphone jack. There’s also ADAT I/O and SPDIF. And while I’m not proud to be swayed by packaging, the breakout box looks very pro and modern. It’s a nice piece of industrial design, but backs that up with features like gold plated connectors, and combi XLR+1/4″ jacks.

The E Mu card based interfaces include a PCI card with various connectors, an optional sync daughterboard, and a breakout box that has the majority of the connectors, volume controls, etc. The breakout box connects to the card via an Ethernet cable, but it is not designed to be plugged into an Ethernet port the breakout box and card work only with the each other. Having a separate breakout box has two major advantages. One is that it keeps the sensitive audio electronics out of the computer case. The second is that you can place it where convenient in your setup.

It’s also noting that one model, the 1616, is available in two flavors: PCI, or with a cardbus card for use with laptops. If you already have great mic pres, you can save a few bucks by going into the line ins; otherwise, the «designer mic pres» are indeed very good and worth the extra expense.

THE EXTRA FACTOR: DSP AND EFFECTS

The other part of the E Mu interface concept is onboard hardware DSP and the PatchMix DSP application. What this means is that the interface is not just a bunch of ins and outs (although of course, there’s plenty of each), but includes a sophisticated mixer application for routing all the virtual ins and outs within your computer. These effects are all done in DSP, so they present virtually no loading on your host CPU. This is very much like the concept behind the TC Electronic PowerCore, Universal Audio UAD 1, and Creamware systems, which also provide «host friendly» DSP functions. Of these, the Creamware system is the closest to E Mu’s in that it also provides interfacing, although the controls and interface options are considerably more limited, and it uses a breakout cable instead of a breakout box. However, the Creamware system also includes several world class virtual instruments, which are not a part of E Mu’s included DSP repertoire.

But there’s an even cooler feature: All the DSP effects are VST compatible, which means you can use them within any VST compatible host. For example, I use these effects all the time in Cakewalk Sonar and Sony Vegas. Although many of the effects duplicate the effects bundled with host programs, the important point is that they don’t load down the host CPU. (It’s also worth noting that a Windows machine’s WAV output can be routed through the mixer, so you can apply limiting or compression to, say, a DVD movie with a lot of quiet passages.)

The PatchMix DSP application. The mixer is in the background, a list of some of the available effects to the right, and an audio configuration menu toward the center. Parameters for the compressor, which is selected in a mixer strip, are available in the upper right editing window.

Of course, the DSP on the E Mu card isn’t unlimited; as you implement more effects, the more DSP intensive effects get grayed out. However, a major difference compared to using host based processing is that the load doesn’t vary. You can pretty much «red line» the DSP and not worry that some other process will kick in that that will bring everything tumbling down, as sometimes happens with computers.

As to effects, the 28 effects include the expected (EQ, delay, reverb, chorus, distortion) but also a frequency shifter, leveling amp (loudness maximizer), vocal morpher that imparts «speech synthesis» vibes to musical material, and a speaker simulator. Good stuff, and eminently editable thanks to a nice graphic interface. I do wish some of the parameters had log instead of linear scales, though; this makes it very hard to tweak the «sweet spots» of parameters like EQ frequency. Also, the software is tied to bit mapped graphics, so you can’t resize windows, and some of the labeling is difficult to read at high screen resolutions. And a final issue, which may be a deal breaker to some, is that while the mixer and interfacing environment can work up to 192kHz, the effects themselves don’t work with sampling rates over 48kHz. This is also true if you’re running your host software at, say, 88.2 or 96kHz.

Back to the good stuff. Inserts within the PatchMix mixer channels are not limited to holding effects; they can also contain sends, send/returns for patching to outboard hardware, an ASIO direct monitor feed, peak meter, trim control, and test tone generator. You can save chains of effects, and several preset chains are included. The mixer is an over achiever too, with two aux sends per channel, mute, solo, left and right pan controls for stereo channels, master inserts, separate monitor out (bonus points for that), graphical input and output routing, and sync options.

As a practical example of how you’d use the mixer, I often run Ableton Live on my laptop using the 1616m interface. I patch the PowerFX effects into the PatchMix mixer to add EQ and compression at the master output, and also use some of the VST effects for individual Live tracks. One caution is that you shouldn’t use more latency than needed; when I started out, I set the latency to 40ms just to be conservative but that was a mistake, because adding PowerFX plugs to some of the tracks created distortion. Below 20ms, the distortion disappeared completely. I kept lowering the latency to see how low I could go, and found that with Live running flat out (16 simultaneous tracks and multiple effects) and several PowerFX in the mix, the 1616m could achieve 4ms of latency without a hiccup. I was suitably impressed.

Finally, overall these interface’s sound quality is excellent clean and defined (the converters are 24 bit/192kHz, but I suspect some of the quality is due to good circuit board layout and other attention to detail). You also don’t have any of the noise issues that plague some systems with Firewire and USB interfaces. The price is reasonable, given the build quality and especially, the built in DSP and effects. Part of the problem may be that earlier iterations of the drivers had stability and bugginess issues with particular programs. However, the latest drivers work extremely well in my system, and the card plays nice with others (I have a Creamware PCI SCOPE card installed as well, and there are no conflicts).

So is this a better move than a FireWire or USB interface? That depends on your application. A PCI card does require opening up your computer, and isn’t as «transportable» as just unplugging a USB or FireWire cable and plugging it into a different machine. But there’s no question that the performance with PCI is higher: You don’t have the additional ms or two of latency added on by going through FireWire, and of course, there are no issues of possible noise traveling down the FireWire or USB connection.

The bottom line is that these are serious interfaces, with fine build quality, whose included effects and mixing application are top shelf. I got turned on to E Mu interfaces a while ago because I had to use them if I wanted to run the Emulator X software; but these days, I use them more and more because I want to. «Nuff said.