In all areas of human endeavour there are those who garner praise almost without trying, and those who languish unrecognised despite noble efforts. In the world of sound card production Marian are very much the unsung heroes of the genre. I’ve been using their products for years now and in the days when I built and supplied systems for audio production their Marc2 card was my stock in trade.
I was initially attracted by professional features like decent connectors and drivers and stayed because the cards were so reliable (I’ve never had a failure) and easy to install, I’ve never had one refuse.
The last card I supplied was a balanced version of the Marc 2 to a local radio station who’s engineer was a bit suspicious of a name he’d never heard before. I saw the boss a month or so later who took great delight in telling me the engineer was now a convert to the Marian cause.
For this review I chose two different products from the Marian stable the Ucon CX USB2 interface and the Trace Pro PCI card.
The Ucon CX is a half rack width box featuring eight balanced analogue inputs (four mic/instrument inputs on XLRs with 48 volt phantom), eight balanced outputs on quarter inch jacks, adat in and out (or spdif) and midi.
My experience of USB audio on PCs is a bit of a mixed bag. Most of the USB devices I have tried (even very, very expensive ones) have suffered from induced noise problems, usually related to mouse movements. So you move the mouse and you get low level zippering across the audio output of the USB device. Often the problem is intermittent but it’s always a drag. The other problem that has dogged some USB interfaces is earthing issues resulting in hum on the outputs. The Ucon CX suffered from none of these problems on the laptop and desktop I tried it on. The front panel sports the four xlr inputs, each input has a 20db pad, a signal presence led and an over led. Phantom power is applied globally and there’s a front panel jack socket for headphones. Round the back, four more line inputs, eight outputs and a stereo mix out – all on quarter inch jacks. Digital I/O is on optical and there’s midi connectivity alongside the DC input from the external power supply.
With four mic amps on board the Ucon is a handy device for your tool bag. There’s just under 50dB of gain so you won’t be using your classic ribbon mics but there’s enough oomph for dynamics and full fat phantom power for mics that require it. The mic amps are quiet enough to let you get on with with the business of recording. The Ucon comes with a comprehensive software package that allows you full control of settings including a nice real time display of many mysterious USB parameters including the all important errors on playback/record. The digital side of the box can run ADAT or SPDIF and the Ucon can stand alone without being connected to a computer and used as a converter. Tweaking the latency down to 3ms (@44.1kHz) is possible on my fairly run of the mill Core 2 Duo machine though of course for better stability higher numbers are better. This is the best USB interface I’ve seen and one that can rival the more common Firewire devices for flexibility and performance. Top bits – audio performance, mix out, four mic inputs, works as a stand alone converter, comprehensive software. Quibbles – midi control of the mixer would be nice, no hardware gain controls, very very bright blue led on the front panel and you do have to have to use an external power supply.
And now to Trace Pro, which although much less visible (no blue leds – not much point on a PCI card) might well be just the thing for pro audio.
The Trace Pro aims to provide simple but effective audio interfacing in the professional world. Stereo balanced analogue connectivity on XLRs and AES digital mean that this will drop into studio or broadcast work without external packs or boxes.
The card will run up to 192kHz, though at this sample rate you lose aux bus functionality from the mixer. Talking of the mixerit’s had a recent update to version 2 and now includes a very neat mono/stereo button on each pair of channels which allow mono strips to be ganged to one fader – very handy and hopefully it will be implemented on the Ucon soon. Just like the Ucon the Trace has a clear and direct dialogue for dealing with latency and the ability to do setup with a test tone makes life nice and easy. On my fairly unexceptional machine I could get down to 1.3 milliseconds at 44.1 and at these very low latencies the Trace seemed more stable than the USB route of the Ucon. Having banged on about Marian driver stability the Trace driver refused to load when I returned to the system after a fairly miserable journey to France for the Rugby World Cup. And I took the opportunity to upgrade to the new version 2 driver, and I was interested to see that the Trace looks after it’s own firmware upgrades which was a pleasant surprise. The new driver includes Vista support – lost on me – I’m still excited about upgrading to XP a couple of months ago.The Trace series of cards offer sophisticated interoperability via the TDM bus enabling complete flexibility of routing within a multi card set up. I enjoyed some of the small but really useful features like multiple level presets on the analogue outputs, pre and post options on the aux sends and the separate output mixer.
The audio performance is really good and to be honest it’s a shining example of a card that should be better known. Have a look at all Marian have to offer at www.marian.de and next time you need balanced audio in and out of a PC, check them out.