On RME’s new web site there’s no sign of a feature I used to enjoy on their older much less swish version. There was a menu item labled “competitors” which when selected spun a little bar for ever or until you pressed OK at which point it replied “none found”. Cheeky monkeys.
A few months ago I accepted a lift from man convinced that the Germans were terrified of Britain’s industrial genius and that the EU was designed to protect German industry from ferocious UK competition. How prophetic those words appear now. We have totally out competed our continental cousins in groundless house price speculation, credit card debt and bank executive bonuses. Ha, they must be gutted stuck in the old fashioned world of making things. Certainly in the sound card market RME (and Marian) are doing very nicely indeed.
I must confess that I didn’t pay too much attention to the editor (sorry Paul) when he asked me to look at the new HDSPEe systems. RME stuff has always been a pleasure to deal with and no hassle. Easy money I thought. However I was taken aback a bit by the arrival of these new cards which are the first sound cards I have come across designed for the PCIe bus. And that little e makes all the difference.
There are three things certain in this life – death, taxes and new interfaces to the personal computer. It seems like only yesterday our ISA cards were discarded for the new fangled PCI versions and now a new motherboard will barely have a PS2 port to call it’s own. PCI tried to grow up by offering a 64 bit version called PCIX which was backward compatible – you could fit it into a 32bit PCI slot if your machine didn’t have the longer 64 bit version. It never really caught on and the next stage was a total redesign and a serial rather than a parallel interface designated PCIe. Which is bad I think (the designation and not the serial bit) because it lulls you into a false sense of security. Just one little letter different – it’ll probably fit if I press hard enough.
It was only on opening the box of the RayDAT card and gazing on the severly truncated interface connector that I realised that PCI was so passe. You guys out there probably cottoned on to this years ago – especially the gamers. But when I tell you my work horse internet PC died just the other day and it had dual PIII processors and an AGP slot – well you’ll get the idea.
Fortunately my audio machine is a bit newer and nestling between the PCI slots I found a PCIe slot into which to plug my RME technology.
I kind of suspected trouble at mill. New interface, new cards bound to be be trouble – I even secretly hoped there would be, “A fie on your new fangled serial based interface.” But in truth the install went rediculously smoothly and the card fired up without a squeek.
RME don’t include a paper manual just a sheet of start up instructions and they’re keen for you to download the latest firmware for your card and the latest driver. I’m still a little bit nervous of flashing firmware but again the process went very sweetly and within a few minutes I had the very latest of everything.
The HDSPe RayDAT has been eagerly awaited for some time and that’s not surprising when you look at the spec. Four ADAT connectors in and out, sample rates up to 192kHz and separate SPDIF and AES connectivity. With the card installed the first thing you need to think about is drivers, but don’t think too much ASIO is the one for you. The RME manual lays out all the info you need but I found ASIO gave half the latency on record of WDM and a third on playback. Buffer and latency lore could fill a book. The RayDAT offers a range of settings that are fuss free in selection, I found satisfactory results at 6ms but smaller figures are available if you have a beefier system.
To be honest I struggled to assemble 32 inputs on ADAT – I had planned to sync a couple of Fostex multitracks but in the end I could only get my hands on one. A word about words clocks. RME don’t provide word clock I/O on the RayDAT on the basis that their Steadyclock technology means that all digital I/O exhibits very low jitter. So you need to be aware that your kit will need to clock from an ADAT input if you’re relying on the RayDAT as a master. I found that the solidist sync was achieved with everything clocked to the RayDAT in master clock mode. Having waded through the 2424 manual I clocked the Fostex and my Merging Dua off ADAT outputs from the RayDAT and everything stayed locked down. With the clock sorted I was able to stream a couple of hours of Lesley Garrett on to the hard disk without a murmur. Playback was equally secure and the card was a pleasure to use. I particularly appreciated having separate SPDIF (phono) and AES (XLR) connectivity. It meant plugging up your monitoring was a piece of cake and really flexible.
RME supply comprehensive mixing and routing software that enable the card to perform the function of a sophisticated router and although the mixer graphics won’t win any prizes the power is all under the hood. The matrix allows any input (mono) to be routed to any (and all) output(s). The mixer is laid out in the fashion of an inline console with all inputs and software outputs available to be mixed through to the outputs. I struggled to get everything onto my 24” monitor so maybe a two screen setup would do real justice to the Totalmix concept. The card will also support a plethora of submixes and the software allows complex views across the mixer layers to present all the information in understandable terms. That’s code for pay careful attention otherwise you’ll never work out what is going where and why.
RME offer Asio Dynamic Monitoring in which if you’re running the right software then their mixer will mimic the fader setting of the DAW mixer. Both Sequoia and Samplitude offer this functionality – I’m running Sequoia but I couldn’t get it to work. Assume it’s my fault, it usually is. Running the RayDAT in double speed mode you get 16 channels of 92Khz digital and at 192 – 8 channels.
Having spent so much time with the RayDAT I have virtually no room left to say anything about the AES version. It’s also a remarkable card offering 8 stereo AES ins and 8 stereo AES outs and maintains that channel count all the way up to 192Khz. You need TASCAM format leads to connect it up and unlike the RayDAT all you get is the AES. It installed, updated and performed faultlessly in my system it’s just that there’s so much to RayDAT that I didn’t get round to having much AES fun.
A final word about sound quality, in theory of course digital cards have no effect on sound quality – merely transporting digits from over there to over here, and back again. However life is not that simple and the question of jitter at the very least has an impact on the “sound” of a digital system. RME make much of their Steadyclock system and include some interesting graphics of the system in operation. I wouldn’t worry about the pictures; I found the sound pretty tidy.
To be honest I felt I didn’t have enough time to explore all the features and functions of these cards – the power and depth of what they have to offer means this is really just an introduction to what can be achieved. The RayDAT in particular delivers a recording, routing and mixing system that is quite staggering in it’s power and scope. Somewhere in cyberspace that little bar is still spinning.