Hands-On Review:A Breakthrough Breakout Box for the Project Studio
By Shep Chaney
Who's your Daddy?
Being a high-end project studio owner, I'm always on the lookout for new tools that will improve my sound and help make the production process more efficient. One of the first places I look to when I want to improve audio quality is the input stage. Why, you ask? Whether you use inexpensive recording software or a full-blown ProTools rig that costs as much as your house, even the best mics, keyboards, or guitars will only sound as good as the pre-amps and A/D converters that bring their sounds into your computer.
Enter the Aardvark
When you take a look at the world of digital recording studios, from basic project studios right on up through the biggest of the mega-buck wonderlands, there are a few names that stand out. One of those names is Aardvark, who for over ten years has been a producer of high-quality digital audio solutions. Knowing this, I was excited when Musician's Friend asked me to take a look at the Direct Pro Q10, what Aardvark calls the pinnacle of the Direct Pro series. After putting it through its paces, I'd have to agree with them!
Outside the fuchsia box
The day the Q10 arrived I was between sessions, and that gave me some time to really dig into this unit. The first thing that struck me about the Q10 was the bold look of its breakout box. The bright, fuchsia chassis and sculpted, silver faceplate, plus eight black dual XLR and 1/4" inputs definitely catch the eye. The PCI card is equally well designed, with its compact size and protected components.
Following the well-written manual, it was a breeze to install both the hardware and software drivers included on the CD-ROM. Within minutes, I was up and running.
One of the things I discovered about the Q10 is that it's remarkably flexible, designed more like a mixer than any other digital audio interface on the market. To bring the sound in, eight dual XLR mic and 1/4" line jacks are provided. These inputs use a hand-crafted, discrete transistor design for their pre-amps, and are software controllable to maximize gain (up to 75dB)!
The Q10 has eight high-quality XLR mic inputs so you can record an entire band or drum kit. The first four XLR mic inputs include a switchable, regulated 48-volt phantom power supply for professional condenser microphones. One of the things that makes the Q10 stand out from the crowd is the fact that this supply is exactly 48 volts, which means your microphones get precisely the voltage they were designed to handle. Inputs 5 and 6 are straight-ahead mic/line inputs. The final two inputs, 7 and 8, are equipped with Aardvark's proprietary EFT Hi-Z guitar pre-amps. These are designed to warm up the guitar signal before analog-to-digital conversion. On the back, stereo S/PDIF I/O brings the input count up to ten. Keep in mind that you can use any combination of the eight XLR mic inputs, the eight 1/4" line inputs and the two 1/4" hi-Z inputs to perfectly match your studio needs.
Insert your sound here
I was really impressed with the fact that Aardvark has taken the mixer paradigm a step further, offering inserts on channels 1-4. This allows you to use the Q10's high-quality mic pre-amps with outboard effects and dynamics processors. For example, you can run your vocalist through an external compressor before it goes through the A/D conversion. This works exactly like analog mixers. Very cool!
As if this weren't enough, eight assignable analog output jacks on the back really put the Q10 in another league. By default, they copy the Monitor L/R outputs but can be individually assigned through the included software to be direct outs from channels 1-8, S/PDIF L/R, playback channels 1-10, a test tone, or silence. This is a feature even my $10,000 digital mixer doesn't include!
Word clock I/O is also provided, and if you're integrating the Q10 into an existing digital audio environment, you're in for a treat! Aardvark is renowned for their low-jitter clocking technology, and the Q10 takes full advantage of that. Whether the Q10 is used as a standalone unit or as the master word clock, your audio will have more detail, improved stereo imaging, and greater resolution on high- and low-frequency audio tracks.
Of course, you'll want to monitor your audio while you record, and the Q10 delivers with a stereo headphone jack on the front and individual L/R Monitor jacks on the back. Both outputs have individual level controls on the front panel.
What makes the Q10 even better is that it's totally expandable. One Q10 will get you ten inputs and ten outputs with eight XLR mic preamps. If you want more, just connect the word clock I/O ports, and stack up to four complete units in one computer!
Inputs, outputs, inserts, and more are all controllable via the included DSP-powered Aark Manager Control Panel software. This hardware/software combination has all the functionality of a standard analog mixer, with the added benefit of tons of flexibility, presets, and routing possibilities that could only happen with software. Even better, the software uses the DSP processor on the Q10 PCI card. So as powerful as it is, it won't affect your computer performance one bit!
The Control Panel is logically laid out, with the ten input channels to the left and the ten playback channels to the right. LED-style meters on each track, with associated numerical display, make level setting easy. Stereo faders on the far right control the relative output of the headphone and monitor outputs, and their large VU-style meters are a real treat for the eyes. Speaking of which, the control panel comes in four cool colors that you can change to suit your mood, and the Aardvark logo itself on the front panel of the Q10 is backlit, with a software-controlled dimmer to perfectly match the lighting in your studio!
The Q10 features low-latency drivers for the PC and Mac, including an ASIO Turbo Mode to use with Propellerhead's Reason and Native Instruments' various soft synths and samplers. It ships with Cubase LE, and its true multi-client, multi-driver operation makes it the perfect solution for Cubase VST, SONAR, Nuendo, Logic Audio, Digital Performer, Sonic Foundry products, Samplitude, and GigaStudio.
Specs are nice, but it's great sound that we're really looking for. And once again, I found the Q10 to be a top-notch performer. The first test on my list was plugging in an electric guitar. Normally I avoid doing this, because it tends to sound too thin and sterile. But for testing, it's an excellent way to hear if I can get the gain and tone I like without adding noise or artificial coloration. Using the EFT? guitar inputs, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my Custom Shop Tele sounded great! It was as quite as any single-coil guitar can be, with a warmth to the sound that I usually don't hear without first going through a bunch of outboard gear!
Next, I listened to a vocalist going direct through a Neumann TLM-103, and was greeted by the mic's open and detailed sound - uncolored by any of the extra aural "enhancements" that plague A/D devices of lesser quality.
For the last audition, I plugged in a Korg Triton, and was really pleased with the line inputs. Normally, I have to crank the trim on my mixer to get useable level from the Triton, but the Q10 had headroom to burn. Even set to the lowest of three gain stages available on each input, I still left 73dB on the table!
Who wants one?
I do! This is a powerful, great sounding solution that at the very least adds up to a high-quality digital audio card for your computer. If you're a solo musician, this is an all-in-one package that will give you everything you need to create great sounding recordings.
If you're a project studio owner, the Q10 is powerful enough to form the core of your digital audio system. With eight channels of top-quality mic pres; ten in, ten out full duplex I/O; zero-latency monitoring; and Aardvark-quality conversion, you get a fully-professional workstation that can take your recordings to new dimensions, at a cost that makes sense!
For the pro studio owner, the mic pre-amps alone will be worth the price. You could, for example, mic, add effects, mix your drum kit through the Q10, and send a stereo digital feed via S/PDIF to your main mixer or recorder! And thanks to the low-jitter clocking technology, it'll easily integrate into your existing setup and sound phenomenal.
Summing it all up
To be blunt, I was totally blown away by the Q10. I expected quality - I own one of Aardvark's clocking products, the SyncDA, and their reputation for excellence is well-known in the industry. What I found was so much more than I had anticipated, though. Great sound, intuitive UI, outstanding flexibility, and the fact that it's a complete integrated solution make it a winner on all counts. I had to return this one to Musician's Friend, but the Q10 has made it onto the short list of Gear I Must Buy!