Hands-On Review:Aardvark DirectMix USB3, DirectPro LX6, and DirectPro 2496


Aardvark

 

By Dexter Weir

 

In the years I've been working around recording studios, I've come to appreciate gear that doesn't just sound good but also solid, reliable, and - perhaps most importantly - has value. To stay informed I read most of the gear magazines as well as spend a lot of time on Internet newsgroups, and one name makes a regular appearance among those who appreciate quality - Aardvark. From project studio aficionados to world-class ProTools HD studios, people in the know agree-Aardvark is a company that does digital right.

 

I looked at three of their best-selling computer recording products recently - the DirectMix USB3, the DirectPro LX6, and the DirectPro 2496. All three share a commitment to great sound, great quality, and great value. Plus, they're all easy to plug into your home computer for recordings that sound like they were done in a pro studio setting.

USB for you and me

First to bat is a great companion to any laptop, the DirectMix USB3. As the name implies, this compact device plugs into your Mac or PC's USB port and provides two channels of 24-bit audio at a sampling rate of either 44.1kHz or 48kHz. If you're a guitarist looking to replace your laptop's cheesy sound card with a great-sounding recording and monitoring interface, this is the way to go.

 

 

 

 

AardvarkI enjoyed the logical layout and was able to connect the USB3 to my laptop without opening the manual (always the best test of a good design). On the front of the unit are two metal (not plastic!) 1/4" jacks: on the left is a mic/guitar jack and on the right is a stereo headphone jack.

 

Between the two jacks are three switches for configuring the USB3 to your needs. The input select switch optimizes the input electronics for either lo-Z mics or hi-Z guitars by adjusting the impedance, and in the case of the guitar setting, kicks in Aardvark's EFR™ (Enhanced Frequency Response) technology for high-quality direct guitar recording. The Record Select switch gives you your choice of recording the signal from either the mic/guitar input on the front, the left and right line inputs on the back, or a mix of both inputs simultaneously. The Sample Rate switch lets you chose between 44.1kHz and 48kHz sampling rates.

 

 

 

 

AardvarkOn top, you'll find the main controls and meters of the USB3. The mic/guitar and line L/R input volume knobs let you optimize the incoming signal for best recording. The tri-color record level LEDs are intuitively easy to monitor, as are the four-stage output level LEDs. A 44mm fader controls the output level. The USB is completed on the back by a pair of 1/4" line input jacks, a pair of 1/4" line output jacks, and a USB connector.

 

The USB3 comes complete with Cakewalk software for both the Mac and PC. For Windows users, Guitar Tracks 2 delivers a straightforward and attractive 8-track recording interface that is wonderfully easy to use. After installing, I had it up and running in virtually no time. For the Mac, Cakewalk Metro SE fulfills the same functions.

 

Given its pro-quality sound, ease-of-use, portability, steel-case construction, and built-in monitoring, the USB3 is an ideal solution not just for home-studio tracking but also for field recording of music, voice, or sound effects.

The deluxe LX

Next to bat is the DirectPro LX6, which delivers multichannel 24-bit, 96kHz capability, as well as a host of other features you won't find on your typical sound card. The LX6 uses a custom, shielded PCI card with onboard DSP, and offers audio, MIDI, and S/PDIF I/O connections to your computer.

 

 

AardvarkThe interface is housed in a sleek black box with four metal 1/4" balanced line inputs and a headphone jack in front, plus four balanced 1/4" plus two unbalanced RCA line outputs in the rear. Also on the back are two DIN connectors for MIDI I/O, and a DB25 jack for connecting the interface to the PCI card. This abundance of I/O guarantees that the LX6 will integrate seamlessly with your studio.

 

The LX6 also includes powerful DSP mixing software so you can track and monitor your recordings in realtime without slowing down the computer. This comes with 3 DSP-based effects (same as the 2496 below) to take the pressure off the native processor so you can run more plug-ins and get lower latency!

 

 


 

 

AardvarkThe LX6 comes bundled with a well-respected recording application that offers up to 128 tracks of audio, plus MIDI, powerful effects, and support for 24-bit/96kHz recording, making it the perfect companion to the LX6. With ultra-low-latency performance, you'll be able to take advantage of the latest virtual synths from Steinberg, Cakewalk, Native Instruments, and many others!

 

The abundance of features and quality of components that Aardvark puts into the LX6 is amazing. What other sound card gives a fully shielded PCI card to keep out computer noise and integrates multichannel I/O with S/PDIF, MIDI, and a convenient headphone output with a level knob? If you're looking for an audio card for your computer, forget SoundBlaster - go Aardvark!

The one with all the goods

For pro-quality computer recording under $500, the DirectPro 2496 hits a home run. Based on the same PCI card as the LX6 and featuring same number of inputs, outputs, realtime DSP effects, and Control Panel software, the 2496 adds four Class A discrete mic pre-amps and switchable 48-volt phantom power. Four Class A mic pre-amps that sound this good on a unit as affordable as the 2496 is incredible. And the fact that it has six surround sound outputs, SPDIF, MIDI, and comes with all the software is just gravy.

 

 

AardvarkThis system gives you the flexibility to record direct to your computer without a mixer and all the messy cables. Just plug in your mic and line level inputs, plug in your keyboards and headphones and start recording. It's just that easy.

 

To tap the power of the 2496 (and the LX6), Aardvark provides the DSP-powered Control Panel. This is a beautiful piece of work - it not only handles the basics like signal routing and buffer settings, it's also a ten-channel mixer that's every bit as powerful as a hardware mixer - and then some! And because it's DSP-powered, it gives you zero-latency monitoring without slowing down your computer!

 

Each of the four input channels is fitted with an input pad/trim control, 3-band EQ (high and low shelving, parametric mid) and a 4-function compressor (threshold, ratio, attack, and release), freeing you from the need for outboard EQ or compressors. LED-style digital peak meters give you instant feedback on your recording levels so you won't have to worry about distortion. The four input channels are complemented with six mix channels that let you monitor channel or bus outputs directly from your recording software, giving you access to ten channels simultaneously! With six outputs, you have the option of creating full 5.1 surround mixes!

 

 

 

 

AardvarkAll ten channels can take advantage of the Control Panel's master reverb. This lush effect features a variety of customizable settings, letting you dial in spaces that range from the intimate ambience of a small room to the wash of sound from a massive cathedral. The beauty of this is that you can play back synths, samples, or other tracks while you add in vocals, guitar, or other instruments, and sound like you're all playing in the same concert hall!

 

You can determine in the Control Panel software whether you're using a mic or an instrument on each channel. In addition, the mic pre-amp features two levels, allowing you to optimize each channel to your particular configuration. This offers unprecedented flexibility for a recording interface and, to my mind, puts the 24/96 in a whole new league.

 

In fact, when you combine the great sound of the pre-amps with patching and DSP power of the Control Panel interface, you may find yourself wanting to trade your compact hardware mixer for a new microphone!

All in all

For beautiful-sounding recording interfaces, these three products are top picks. When you consider that they all are under $500, you can see it's a winning project studio team!

 

But wait, there's more! If your needs are somewhat more expansive, you can always go for Aardvark's top-of-the-line DirectPro Q10. It offers ten inputs and outputs, with eight Class A mic pre-amps, 4 with phantom power, two EFR hi-Z guitar inputs, S/PDIF I/O, MIDI, and even four inserts for outboard analog processors! This lets you record your entire band with pro-quality sound right from your mics to a CD. It's all included.

Features and specs

 

USB3

  • Converters: 24-bit A/D, shielded
  • Sample rates: 44.1kHz and 48kHz
  • THD+N: .005%
  • Frequency response: 7Hz-20kHz, +/-0.5dB
  • Analog inputs: 2-1/4" line inputs
  • Input level: 2dBu to 30dBu
  • Microphone input: 1/4" mic input with Low-noise mic pre-amp
  • Input level: -35dBu-0dBu
  • Input impedance: 1k ohm
  • Guitar input: 1/4" Hi-Z enhanced frequency response™ (E.F.R.) guitar input
  • Circuitry input level: -18dBu-6dBu
  • Input impedance: 1M ohm
  • Analog outputs: 2-1/4" balanced line level (-10dBv)
  • Headphone output: 1-1/4" headphone output allows monitoring of all playback, line, and mic/guitar inputs simultaneously
  • Record select switch
  • Full duplex simultaneous record/play
  • Power source: USB computer connection
  • Computer connection: USB cable
  • Power: self-powered from USB
  • Current draw: 400mA from USB connection
  • Software included

LX6

  • Converters: 24-bit, 96kHz A/D/A shielded converters
  • THD+N: .002% @ 1kHz
  • Dynamic range: 110dB D/A, 100dB A/D
  • Frequency response: 7Hz-44kHz, +/-.5dB at 96kHz
  • Sample rates: 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, and 96kHz
  • Frequency response at -3dB: 1.6Hz-200kHz
  • EIN at 20Hz-20kHz, 150 Ohm: -130dBu
  • THD at 20dB gain: 0.0005%
  • Analog inputs: 4-1/4" jacks
  • 1/4" unbalanced line inputs at -10dBv (w/30dB level trim)
  • 1/4" balanced line inputs at +4dBu (w/30dB level trim)
  • Analog outputs 4-1/4" connectors: +4dBu/-10dBv
  • Dual aux outputs on RCA connectors: -10dBv
  • Headphone output: stereo headphone jack on front
  • Digital I/O: 24-bit S/PDIF I/O
  • MIDI I/O: 5-pin DIN connectors
  • Sync I/O: S/PDIF digital clock, MIDI
  • Modes: full duplex simultaneous record/play
  • Expansion: up to four cards can be used simultaneously in one PC
  • Card type: PCI bus architecture, 5" length
  • Connectors on card: 25-pin DSUB to breakout box, S/PDIF I/O
  • Powerful DSP: 24-bit, 80MIPS
  • Minimum PC system: 233MHz w/64MB RAM
  • Software included

24/96

  • Converters: 24-bit, 96kHz A/D/A shielded converters
  • THD+N: .002% @ 1kHz
  • Dynamic range: 110dB D/A, 100dB A/D
  • Frequency response: 7Hz-44kHz, +/-.5dB at 96kHz
  • Sample rates: 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, and 96kHz
  • Mic pre-amp: discrete, 8 transistor/channel design
  • Frequency response at -3dB: 1.6Hz-200kHz
  • EIN at 20-20kHz, 150 Ohm: -130dBu
  • THD at 20dB gain: 0.0005%
  • Phantom power: 48VDC; max current: 40mA
  • Analog inputs: four combo 1/4" and XLR connectors:
  • XLR mic inputs (w/60dB level Trim) and phantom power
  • 1/4" unbalanced line inputs at -10dBv (w/30dB level trim)
  • 1/4" balanced line inputs at +4dBu (w/30dB level trim)
  • Analog outputs: four line outputs on 1/4" connectors: +4dBu/-10dBv
  • Dual aux outputs on RCA connectors: -10dBv
  • Headphone output: stereo headphone jack on front
  • Digital I/O: 24-bit S/PDIF I/O
  • MIDI I/O: 5-pin DIN connectors
  • Sync I/O: S/PDIF digital clock, MIDI
  • Modes: full duplex simultaneous record/play
  • Expansion: up to four cards can be used simultaneously in one PC
  • Card type: PCI bus architecture, 5" length
  • Connectors on card: 25-pin DSUB to breakout box, S/PDIF I/O
  • Powerful DSP: 24-bit, 80MIPS
  • Minimum PC system: 233MHz w/64MB RAM
  • Software included