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Getting Serious on Budget Audio - Project Hammerfall
by Frank Born
2/1/2001


Back in the old days, multitrack recording was expensive. A new budget 8-track reel-recorder, the "A80" by Fostex, made it possible for me to take my first steps into the semi-professional range.

Nearly 10 years and many recording sessions later, the wish of making backups of the old tapes made me have a look at budget multitrack audio cards. After quite a period of research, I finally bought a RME DIGI9636 (dubbed "Hammerfall Light") and a matching AD/DA converter by Fostex, the VC-8. This set me back about 420$* for the card and 380$* for the box. (*based on retail prices in Germany)

A first look
The rather short PCI card sports 4 optical and a 9-pin D-type interface (for coaxial SPDIF and ADAT Sync in, breakout cable included). The optical interfaces are 2 x 8 channel ADAT TDIF I/O - with one pair switchable to stereo SPDIF I/O, if you prefer an optical connection to your DAT recorder (one pair of light cables included). Software Installation was flawless and easy.

I plugged the pair of optical cables in the back of the small (9,5") Fostex Box (next to the 16 cinch-type sockets for 8 channels of analog audio in and out) and a pair of sockets on the card. My setup was ready.

Take one
It worked. Well... I mean, I didn't expect it not to - but for me, this is still unusual with Mac audio hardware. I didn't have to get rid of any extensions or control panels of my G4 Sawtooth with Mac OS 9.1 that is doing a lot of DTP work around daytime. Logic Audio Platinum and Cubase VST/32 had no problems with the ASIO driver from RME. I could grab the 8 track audio from the tapes within minutes.

Getting closer
The hammerfall is explained the easiest way by having a look on the configuration program "RME DIDI Settings" that resides (together with a Soundmanager and ASIO 2.0 driver) in the Hammerfall folder. The "light" version of the hammerfall (9636) has 2 optical ADAT and a cinch SPDIF I/O, thats routable to the first ADAT I/O pair. The buffer size settings can be tuned to obtain the best latency/performance ratio of your Mac. This way, latency can be pushed down to a stunning 1.5ms; for normal use, even 12ms are fast enough for software synths and drum machines to be playable. RME has done a great job in reducing load on the CPU: All work other cards have to deal with in the driver software is done by the XILINX chip on the card. No extra horsepower is needed for switching on more I/Os in CuBase, for example.

The card can sync to any of the inputs or the ADAT sync in, can even be "wordclocked" (by upgrading to the 9652 version with a small daughterboard, to be installed in the next PCI slot, about 140$) On the SPDIF output, the emphasis and non-audio bit can be set; it can also be switched to the professional AES/EBU electrical level.

For in-depth information, please have a look for yourself:
http://www.rme-audio.com/english/hammer/index.htm

Well, after some days of use it still works, quietly and as reliable as the G4 it's plugged in... One happy camper.
--
-Frank Born
Art Direction G DATA Software AG



Note: Thad Brown's been busy with other things and I'm glad this column has gotten him some much deserved recognition in the audio world. (See below for links to Thad's 60 issues of the Audio column here). I welcome any reader submissions on the subject of Mac audio. If you have an article or commentary to submit, please contact me. Thanks!-Mike

Have an Audio question? Check the Audio FAQ first, then the General FAQ Audio topic area.


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