It seems that every new computer-based audio-product release offers more channels, fancier features, higher audio quality, and, on occasion, a lower price. Aardvark is a strong participant in the battle for your computer audio dollars, and with the Direct Pro Q10, your money buys more than ever before. The Aardvark Q10 provides ten channels of 24-bit audio I/O, eight mic preamps, a software-controlled mixer, and a host of other goodies.
Q IT UP

The Aardvark Q10 consists of a PCI-based host adapter, a rackmountable interface box, and a cable that connects the two. The 6-foot cable was long enough to reach from my computer to the ideal mounting spot in my equipment rack (right beneath my patch bay). If your studio is more spacious, you might wish that the Q10's cable were a bit longer.

The PCI card is heavily shielded and contains only the connector for the audio interface cable. All A/D and D/A conversion takes place in the external interface box, and all of the audio, MIDI, and synchronization connections are located there. I definitely prefer the Aardvark Q10's scheme to products that put audio, MIDI, or sync connections on the host card itself, an arrangement that requires me to crawl behind my computer and curse the rat's nest of cables back there.

Silver with bright purple rack ears, the Aardvark Q10's interface box certainly stands out. I realize that manufacturers need to capture the attention of an increasingly fickle public, but I'm spotting a disturbing trend in my equipment rack. I thought my studio looked good when everything was composed of austere black rack units; now I have Joemeek green, PreSonus blue, JLCooper gray, and (sigh) Aardvark purple.

The Aardvark Q10's front panel contains eight combo jacks that accept XLR and -inch connectors (see Fig. 1). The line-level inputs can accommodate +4 dBu and -10 dBV signals on balanced or unbalanced connectors. Mic inputs 1 through 4 come with 48V phantom power, but a single switch puts power on all four jacks. The phantom power doesn't affect the line-level inputs. When I had only one or two condenser mics in use, I hooked line-level sources to the other powered connectors, and no inputs were wasted.

Inputs 7 and 8 can accommodate high-impedance, low-level sources such as electric guitars. By activating one of the two guitar switches on the front panel, you can plug a guitar directly in to the Q10 without using a direct box or a separate preamp.

Also on the front panel is a level control for the monitor outputs and a headphone jack with its own level control. A bright red LED glows when power is applied, and believe it or not, you have software control over the brightness of this power indicator. The interface box has no separate power connector and is powered entirely from the cable to your computer.
BEHIND THE BOX

The Q10's rear panel, in addition to the connector for the host adapter cable, sports in and out connectors for MIDI, word clock, and S/PDIF. It has eight balanced -inch analog channel outputs and four channel inserts hardwired to input channels 1 through 4.

Two additional outputs, Monitor L and Monitor R, are intended to feed your control-room monitors. Typically, you run your master mix signal through those outputs. However, you can route quite a variety of signals through them. The only technical difference between the monitor outputs and the other analog outputs is that you can control their volume with the front panel's Monitor Level knob.

Aardvark offers driver support for Windows MME, ASIO2, DirectSound, and Tascam GigaStudio (GSIF), but, unfortunately, only for the Windows 95, 98, and ME platforms. MME and ASIO drivers for Windows 2000 and XP are in the beta stage; I tried them, but they weren't quite ready for prime time. Hopefully, official 2000 and XP drivers will be available by the time you read this. According to Aardvark, WDM and Macintosh drivers are in development, as well.

Installing the Q10 software is straightforward. Windows recognizes a new Plug-and-Play device as it boots up, and you simply point to the Q10 driver on the installation CD. Once the driver is in place, you install the Control Panel software from the CD.
IN COMPLETE CONTROL

The Direct Pro Q10 Control Panel gives you total control of the Q10 hardware, allowing you to set and check levels, route audio, and configure every aspect of your Q10 system (see Fig. 2). The Control Panel consists of one main screen and some ancillary dialog boxes. The window isn't resizable, but an Always on Top option lets you keep it visible when other audio software is active. You can even decide if the onscreen mixer will be blue, silver, red, or gold. As many as four Direct Pro Q10s (or any member of Aardvark's Direct Pro series) can be installed in your system at the same time. The Control Panel provides a menu command to switch between any installed host adapters.

The Control Panel's left side presents eight fader groups, one for each analog input, and a stereo fader for the S/PDIF input. In addition to a fader, each analog fader group has a mic/line switch, a trim control, and a level meter. The meters have peak indicators (which can be switched off); they light when an overload condition exists.

Each fader group also has numerical indicators for trim, fader position, and level (or peak, if you prefer). For stereo operation, Link buttons ensure that settings for adjacent fader groups remain identical. Each fader group provides Mute and Solo buttons and a Pan control. The sole purpose of the Pan control is to place the channel's signal in the Direct Pro Q10 monitor bus. You'll use your audio-recording software to establish pan settings in your recordings for the input channels.

Channels 7 and 8 lose their mic/line switches when you activate the guitar switches that are on the interface box. The S/PDIF fader group is identical to the others, except the mic/line switch and trim control are replaced with an indicator for digital signal lock. Because it represents a stereo signal, the S/PDIF fader group has no Pan control.

To the right of the input-fader groups are five stereo faders that represent the playback channels from your audio software. Accompanying each fader are peak/level meters with overload indicators for the left and right channels, a numerical indicator of the fader position, and buttons for mute and solo.

The remaining fader group controls the monitor mix bus. Separate faders and meters for the left and right channels are provided, in addition to numerical indicators for fader position and peak/level.

The Control Panel's main screen has analog-style meters for the left and right monitor signals, a phantom-power indicator, the brightness control for the interface box's power LED, and buttons to access the remaining Control Panel features. A Source-Select control lets you choose between 32, 44.1, and 48 kHz operation. (The Q10 does not support 96 kHz audio, but such support is supposed to be available in a future software release.) If you want to sync to an external source, use the Source-Select control to select S/PDIF or word clock.
TAKE THE BEST ROUTE

The Routing screen lets you choose an audio signal for each audio output that appears on the back of the Q10 interface box (see Fig. 3). The sources include any input channel, any playback channel, the left or right channel of the monitor mix, a 1 kHz test tone, and digital silence. The S/PDIF always outputs the signal that appears on analog outputs 7 and 8, but I can live with that restriction.

You can create any number of routing presets, representing your favorite configurations for the audio-signal outputs. That's the good news; the bad news is that it takes a whopping six mouse-clicks to recall a routing preset from the main Control Panel screen (including clicks required to close the dialogs you open in the process).

Another set of presets can be yours in only four mouse-clicks, but that's still too many clicks. Those presets let you capture all of the settings in the Control Panel, including output routings, fader positions, trim levels, and configuration parameters. The presets are handy, but what I really wanted was MIDI-based control over mixing and routing. Such capabilities would let me fully automate my mixes with a sequencer and use an external hardware control surface.

A click of the Control Panel's Advanced button brings up a multitabbed dialog box containing all sorts of settings and information. There you can fine-tune the ASIO and DirectSound performance, switch the analog outputs between -10 dBV and +4 dBu operation (each output is individually switchable), and view the in-use status for each of the Q10's five stereo channels.

The advanced-settings dialog also lets you switch the meters between prefader and postfader operation and switch the S/PDIF output between consumer and professional formats. One setting switches the recording source of channels 9 and 10; by default, those channels carry the signal from the S/PDIF input. When you switch them to the Monitor mix instead, you gain instant, all-digital mixdown capability from channels 1 through 8 to channels 9 and 10.
THINKING ABOUT Q

My experience with the Q10 was entirely positive. In my personal studio, I want to simply sit down and play an instrument without having to configure a bunch of software settings. With the Q10's built-in monitor mix and front-panel level control, I could do that easily (though I still had to boot up the computer). I could plug in a microphone, guitar, and keyboard and then record them with ease. I could put the instrument I was playing in a headphone mix with the playback tracks and record only the instrument. I could even mix down my tracks without ever leaving the digital realm. With a modest studio setup such as mine, it's possible to completely replace a mixer with the Q10 and a patch bay.

The Q10's audio quality is excellent. Self-noise was inaudible except at extreme settings. When I connected my Les Paul Studio, the guitar inputs sounded warm and clean. I did a very unscientific comparison between the Q10's mic preamps and a PreSonus MP20 (a 2000 EM Editors' Choice winner). The Q10 held up quite well. The MP20 exhibited a subtle fullness that I couldn't hear in the Q10, but I would have no qualms about using the Q10 for serious recording.

The documentation for the Q10 is adequate but not outstanding. A 44-page manual takes you through the system, and that's really all you need. There's no online help, but frankly, I didn't miss it.

The Q10 is an excellent system for the small studio, provided you run Windows 95, 98, or ME on your computer. My primary environment is Windows 2000 and Cakewalk Sonar, so I'm anxious to see solid Windows 2000 support and WDM drivers for the Q10. If you're looking for a capable system to record and mix down ten channels of audio, the Q10 is hard to beat.

Allan Metts is an Atlanta-based musician, a software and systems designer, and a consultant.
Minimum System Requirements

Direct Pro Q10

Pentium/233; 64 MB RAM; Windows 95/98/ME; PCI slot

Direct Pro Q10 Specifications Resolution 24-bit
Sampling Rates 32, 44.1, 48 kHz
Frequency Response 7 Hz-44 kHz, 0.5 dB
Dynamic Range 110 dB (D/A); 100 dB (A/D)
Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise 0.002% @ 1 kHz
Analog Audio Inputs (8) combo connectors: XLR mic inputs with input trim (phantom power on 1-4) and balanced " line inputs (+4 dBu/-10 dBV) with input trim; (2) unbalanced " hi-Z (replace line in 1 and 2) with input trim
Analog Audio Inserts (4) " TRS
Analog Audio Outputs (8) balanced " channel outputs (+4 dBu/-10 dBV); (2) balanced monitor outputs (+4 dBu/-10 dBV); (1) " stereo headphone
Digital-Audio I/O 24-bit S/PDIF RCA
Sync I/O (1) BNC word-clock in; (1) BNC word-clock out; S/PDIF clock; MTC
MIDI In, Out
Expansion Card Type PCI, 5" length
Onboard DSP 24-bit, 80 MIPS
Expansion Card Connector (1) 6' shielded 25-pin connector
Dimensions (interface box) 1U 6.5" (D)
Weight 6.5 lb.
PRODUCT SUMMARY

Aardvark
Direct Pro Q10 (Win)
audio interface
$999

FEATURES 4.5
EASE OF USE 4.5
AUDIO QUALITY 4.5
VALUE 4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Extensive routing capabilities. Intuitive Control Panel. Good-quality preamps. Clean sound.

CONS: Drivers only for Windows 95, 98, and ME. No MIDI-based controller automation.



The 'Direct Pro Q10' from U.S. company, Aardvark, is the latest in their continuing 'Direct Pro' series of audio cards for the PC. The company already has over a decade's experience in creating digital audio master clocks and has applied this expertise, along with thoughtful ergonomic designs, to the 'Direct Pro' series. With its release, the 'Q10' becomes the new flagship of this series.

And rightly so!

The current package contains a PCI card, breakout box, a shielded 25-pin cable to connect these, an owners' manual and two CD-ROMs: one with all the necessary drivers and proprietary software mixer; the other contains a full-working version of Cakewalk Pro Audio 9.

The Hardware

The first thing I noticed when I unpacked everything was that the PCI card was heavy for its size! I was immediately impressed by the extra layers of shielding Aardvark had added to help eliminate any PC 'noise'. The card just looked serious. Industrial-strength. Like you could walk up and shoot it point blank with a .451 slug...and the damned thing would probably still work!

When I examined the breakout box, I became even more impressed. Again, like the card, the box had a good solid heft to it. What really impressed me, however, was the layout. Like other recordists, I have my 'wish list' of products and features I'd like to see become available. The layout of the box seemed like the result of Aardvark actually getting input from those of us who work with digital recording everyday. Its user-friendly design certainly caused me to check off a bunch of desired features from my 'wish list', for sure!

As with most of the better breakout boxes, this one is rack-mountable. Even better: rather than having to run another power cord from the box to an AC outlet, the Q10 breakout box is powered via the 25-pin cable connected to the PCI card. A nice touch! One that follows the teachings of my favorite mantra: "Less wires good; more wires very bad...and noisy!"

The breakout box's face-plate has a distinctive and futuristic look: basically brushed aluminum with black inputs and rotary knobs...and rose-colored rack-ears! The 8 analog inputs are of the combined XLR/ 1/4-inch variety and any combination of these can be used together at the same time. Each input has its own discrete mic pre-amp that is set via the included software. Inputs 1 - 4 are equipped with switchable 48 v. phantom power which is activated by an on/ off button on the face-plate. To the right of the analog inputs are 2 on/off buttons that activate a special feature on Inputs 7 & 8 when recording guitars: Aardvark's trademarked 'Enhanced Frequency Response' technology that, according to the owners' manual, "...optomizes for direct guitar recording by altering the impedance and frequency response of the input. The manual promises that "...the end result is a warm, rich tone...". More on this, later. Finally, to the right are 2 trim knobs: one for the over all monitor output; the second for headphone volume via the standard 1/4-inch stereo input right next to it.

The back of the breakout box is the same 'lovely' rose as the rack-ears. From left-to-right we find: the 25-pin connector socket, MIDI I/O, Wordclock I/O (allowing you to sync up to four Q10's together with sample-accurate timing!) and a S/PDIF I/O. To the right of this are ten 1/4-inch, balanced/unbalanced TRS outputs, labeled 'Monitor 1/2' and 'Outputs 1 thru 8'. All routing, volume and pan controls for these are software-controllable via the included virtual mixer. Finally, to the right of the outputs, four 1/4-inch 'Inserts' assigned to inputs 1 - 4. These will allow you to route your pre-amped input through external hardware FX and processors before going through the A/D converter and being recorded.

With all these features, you might be tempted to think of the Q10 as the 'Swiss Army Knife' of audio cards!

Installation and Software

The owners' manual is clearly written and illustrated and I rather doubt that most of you will have trouble understanding it. There are a couple of amusing 'typo's but the 'meat-and-potatoes' will tell you everything you need to know to install the included drivers and programs. Not only does it cover every aspect of the breakout box, PCI card and software in a quick 27 pages but it also includes installation info for the included Cakewalk software as well as suggestions for settings under different popular audio/ MIDI and software-synth programs. Even if this is your first time installing an audio card, if you follow the clear directions, you'll do fine.

The 'Plug-and-Pray' installation went flawlessly under Windows 98 OEM...and it happened so quickly that I didn't even have time to refill my coffee cup before I was ready to set up my ASIO and Direct Sound configurations in the included software Control Panel.

Once again, Aardvark has created something that could have been dreamed up by a recordist! The layout of the Control Panel is elegant and intuitive. Those of you who have a recording background will figure most of it out very quickly because it all looks very familiar...right down to the included virtual VU output meters! The left half of the Control Panel Graphical Users' Interface is taken up with 8 mono 'Analog Inputs' (1 - 8) plus a S/PDIF stereo input. At the top of each strip are the mic pre-amp controls. Click on 'Line', 'Mic 1' or 'Mic 2' and you apply anywhere from -8 to +75 dB of gain to the incoming signal. Right below these 3 buttons is a rotary trim control that allows you to, further, fine-tune the gain. Below the mic pre- controls is an LED input meter for each of the 8 analog ins. Each of these can be independently set to show the 'Pre' or 'Post' levels. 'Pre' will show the input level before it passes through the channel strip. 'Post' will show the resulting input level after it has passed through the channel's mic pre-amp and over all channel gain fader. Beside each of the odd-numbered 'Analog Input' faders is a "Link" button. Click on it so that it activates and turns red and input channels 1 & 2, 3 & 4, 5 & 6, 7 & 8 become stereo pairs and any changes made to one will be mirrored onto the other. Deactivate the "Link" button for any pair and they become discrete mono input channels again. At the bottom left of each input fader are "Mute" and "Solo" buttons that work in the traditional manner.

At the very bottom of each channel strip is a feature that I really, really like. If you've used any of the full-duplex audio cards on the market, you have probably noticed a somewhat irritating...and disconcerting...fact about these: because these inputs...from 2-thru-8, or more...do double-duty as separate mono channels and as halves of stereo channels, if you record direct to the card, rather than going through an external mixer first, you hear your track panned hard L/ R as you record it. Record your guitar directly to the card's 'Input 1' and you hear it panned hard-left in the mix you're trying to record against. Use 'Input 2' and, your track is panned hard-right. That's it: no other choices! Since I embraced HDD-based audio/ MIDI recording, I have come to prefer recording all tracks directly through the audio card's inputs to keep everything as noise-free as possible. (Reread my mantra, above!) However, I must admit that I'm not thrilled about having to listen to whatever mono tracks I'm cutting hard L/ R while I record them. I have always found this distracting. Well, Aardvark includes a lovely panning slider at the bottom of each channel strip. Want to record a mono track but want to hear it placed somewhere pleasing in the mix, while you record? Drag that little slider to wherever you please and be 'inspired' by what you hear! What's really cool, though, is that you're only hearing the panned signal via the Q10's software. The panning of the actual recorded signal will not be affected, though. To me, this one feature is practically worth the price of the system alone! To the right of the 8 analog ins is a S/PDIF stereo strip. Of course, it doesn't contain a mic pre-amp but it does have a "Lock" indicator that lights up whenever S/PDIF input is detected. Otherwise, it has most of the same features as the analog ins: stereo input meter and faders, "Link", "Mute" and "Solo" buttons. No "Pan" control, though.

The right half of the 'Control Panel' GUI starts with the aforementioned stereo VU output meters at the top. Below these are a series of buttons and indicators. From left to right: click on the "Routing" button and another GUI opens up and allows you to assign the 10 analog outputs on the back of the breakout box to an extremely flexible list of choices: 'Analog Ins' 1 thru 8, 'Playback' 1 thru 10, S/PDIF L or R, 'Monitor' L or R and even 'Silence'. There is also 'Tone' which emits an obnoxiously loud continuous tone that can be helpful in tracking down any routing problems you might encounter . Any of these choices is available for any of the analog outs. Next, a "Presets" button that allows you to store and load custom settings for the 'Control Panel'. Click on the "Advanced" button to set the faders 'pre' or 'post, to set output levels for each channel to -10/ +4 dB and to configure all ASIO and DirectX settings. To the right of these is the 'Phantom' indicator which lets you know if you've engaged phantom power via the breakout box. Next is a 'Brightness' rotary control that allows you to dim or brighten the very cool-looking, bright-red illuminated Aardvark logo on the breakout box's face-plate. Finally, click on the 'Source Select' button and select the sample rate you want the Q10 to use (32, 44.1 and 48 kHz are supported!) or to slave it to S/PDIF input. This automatically sets the Q10's source clock as well as the word clock output.

Below, are stereo channel strips for 'Playback 1 & 2, 3 & 4, 5 & 6, 7 & 8, 9 & 10 and 'Monitor' out. Each of the stereo playback pairs has dual LED meters, a single gain fader and "Mute" and "Solo" buttons. The 'Monitor pair contains dual LED meters and dual linked gain faders. Below these are two more buttons: click on "Peak" and the meters for all input, output, S/PDIF and monitor channels will show and hold the highest gains per channel. The "Reset" button next to it resets the peak meters.

In the "Options" drop-down menu, you can even change the color scheme of the 'Control Panel' if you wish!

The Tests

The first thing I wanted to do was to listen to the audio quality while my ears were still 'fresh' from the card I usually use. So, I rounded up a variety of things I have recently been working on: 24-bit multi-track mixes and pre-masters and 16-bit finished masters. Many styles of material were involved from personal projects and ones I'm producing to outside projects from a number of clients. Unfortunately, I had removed my usual card for this review so I was unable to A-B them in real-time. However, even though I didn't expect to hear much difference, the Q10 just seemed the tiniest bit crisper and more transparent than what I was used to hearing. The impression was immediate and sustained, no matter what I was listening to playback through: headphones, various sets of Near Field Monitors and even a cheesy set of cheap self-powered Radio Shack speakers. The Q10 just seemed slightly cleaner. Normally, I would probably dismiss this as my imagination working overtime...but I really hadn't anticipated the difference I heard and don't think that I was subconsciously looking for it. Whether my imagination or not, the Q10 does sound very clean, indeed!

Next, I wanted to listen to those mic pre-amps because this is one of those subjects that can arouse extreme passions in many recordists. Some swear that only such-and-such make of mic pre is acceptable...and usually, these are extremely expensive vacuum-tube hardware antiques that most of us are only ever going to hear legends about. Others are absolutely sure that software-controlled mic pre-amps will never sound as good as the old hardware versions. While I think that some of these effete purists get a little silly with it, I will say that a decent mic pre can add definition and a silky punch to a track. Past this, the whole subject becomes extremely subjective and simply a matter of one's personal aesthetics. All I can say is that I grabbed a few of my favorite mics, a venerable Shure 'SM-57', an audio-technica '4051' and the one that works best on my poor excuse for a singing voice, an Audix 'CX-101'. If you don't know these mics, let me assure you that they render a very different sound from one another and are usually used for different purposes. Using the Q10's Control Panel to set and fine-tune the mic pre's, I was immediately able to improve the punch, clarity and perceived warmth of each mic dramatically. I was, frankly, impressed with the smooth, creamy sound these mic pre-amps rendered. Be warned, however, that the three basic settings, 'L', 'M1' and 'M2' might surprise you because, even at nominal settings, these mic pre-amps really add a lot of punch to the input. With the dynamic 'M57' mic, the difference in gain wasn't as dramatic in the 'L1' position with the trim set to 0 dB. But with the '4051' and 'CX-101'...both phantom powered condenser mics...even the 'L1' setting added substantial gain to each, although the pre-amp's trim, channel gain and output monitors were all set to 0 dB. And all three mics rendered 'overkill' volumes when set to 'M1' (between 32 and 55 dB added gain). Since the 'M2' setting adds the most gain (between 52 and 75 dB!) and is intended for unresponsive mics or "...a very quiet signal...", I didn't even dare to try it! In fact, I got my best results when I used the 'L1' position (between -8 and +15 dB) and started with the trim control set at 0 dB. With the condenser mics, I ended up setting the trim to -1 or -2 dB. With the dynamic mic, adding just a few dB of gain did the trick. Because all software controls are 'right there', finding a pleasing-sounding range for each mic was very quick and easy to do.

These mic pre-amps sure don't sound like 'cheese', folks! I don't know how they'd compare to some of those 'legendary' high-priced tube pre-amps. I can only tell you that, to my ear, the Q10's were a pleasure to use and added a very pleasing punch, warmth and presence to everything I tested through them.

My next test was to grab a few of my guitars...each with very different tonal characteristics...and to give those 'Enhanced Frequency Response' input channels a serious workout. First, I plugged my latest acquisition, my 'Cheap Mexican Telecaster', into Channel 7 with only the normal mic pre-amp activated and tried various gain settings. As with the mics I tested previously, the Q10's pre-amps immediately added a boost and presence to the 'CMT' that retained the percussiveness of the Telecaster while adding a creamy-smooth warmth to the input signal. Frankly, this would have been enough for me because the improvement was that dramatic. Then, I clicked on the 'EFR' button. When I did so, the pre-amp controls at the top of the Channel 7 strip in the Q10's software Control Panel vanished and were replaced by a simple rotary trim pot with a range of 18 to 41 dB. The type of gain and punch the 'EFR' adds to the signal is quite different from the mic pre-amp's. 'Aggressive' is the first word that comes to mind! I would compare the sound to an active-electronic pick-up run through an overdrive. Unfortunately, the Telecaster, with its single-coil pick-ups, tends to be a noisy guitar on a good day...and being within close proximity of a computer monitor and unshielded speakers only exacerbates the problem. The 'EFR' is very sensitive so, of course, it boosted the inherent noise along with the signal. However, by moving away from my PC and turning my back to it while I played...plus adjusting the Q10's trim as I did so, I was able to remove most of the noise without any real problem. The 'EFR' needs a bit of taming to bring out its best but once tamed, it can really enhance a track. Lead tracks would benefit most, I think, although rhythm guitars punching out expansive 'power chords' in a Rock band would probably sound better in 'EFR' mode. However, the possibilities extend beyond the guitar.

At this point, I got a little crazy and began experimenting in ways that Aardvark's Igor Levin (CEO and the man responsible for most of the Q10's electronic design) would probably have been mildly horrified by: I was enjoying the Q10 so much that I was inspired to throw together a little instrumental that would focus on the Q10's features. After creating a quick, down-and-dirty MIDI drum track to play against, I recorded 2 'Cheap Mexican Tellie' tracks. I kept the volume and tone settings on the guitar exactly the same for both tracks. First, using the Q10's pre-amp, I recorded a rhythm track. Then, using the 'EFR', I recorded a lead track. Even though I used the same guitar with the same onboard settings, the difference between the 2 tracks was quite dramatic. Then, I added a finger-picked counter-rythm track via my L'Arrivee 'J-10-E' jumbo-bodied acoustic guitar with a basic no-frills Fishman 'Matrix' pick-up installed. This time, I cut 2 versions of the same track: one with mic pre-amp; the other with the 'EFR'. The results were the same: the 'EFR' version was noticeably more aggressive-sounding than the other. Both sounded good...and frankly, I don't know which one I'd, likely, use in the final version. Since I was 'on a roll', I asked bassist, Caryn Beth Spring, to give me a bass track on her stock-wired (passive), 5-string Fender 'J'. Again: I recorded her with, both, the pre-amp and the 'EFR'. Again: both versions sounded truly excellent, with the 'EFR' version just sounding more aggressive.

Finally, I even ran a few of my ancient hardware synths through the Q10's pre-amp and 'EFR'. The results were the same: both sounded excellent. Both were clean and powerful. The 'EFR' was just more aggressive-sounding than the pre-amp.

Last, I checked out the MIDI I/Os and timing on the Q10. I recorded a number of tracks in VST/32 and Reason, using the same tempo. Then I imported and exported these tracks back-and-forth between the two programs to see if there was any discernible MIDI timing problems. I am happy to report that the Q10 passed this final test with flying colors.

Conclusions

Final impressions? Again: I find myself wanting to compare the Q10 to a fine Swiss Army Knife. The hardware and software designs are very logical and user-friendly. The PCI card is heavily shielded. The 24-bit converters are in the equally-shielded breakout box away from the PC. There are 8 discrete mic pre-amps, rather than the chip-based kind that other manufacturers use...and those mic pre-amps sound unbelievably good! The 'Enhanced Frequency Response' will give pretty much whatever you run through it some serious...ahem...'stones', for sure! It even includes switchable onboard phantom power on 4 of the 8 inputs!. The over all specs on the card are comparable to the best audio systems available. Some of you, however, may be 'put off' by the fact that the Q10 is a 24/ 48 card instead of the current rage, 24/ 96. Let me put it this way: 96 sounds great in some paper written by an audio scholar. In The Real World, however, very few systems are set up to handle 96...and it doesn't look like it's going to become the 'standard' anytime soon! CDs are still being released at a sample rate of 44.1 with only a 16-bit depth. Obviously, even at 'only' 48, the Q10 samples at a higher rate than 44.1...with room to spare! Anyway, my crystal ball tells me that Aardvark has some plans to add that all-important 96 kHz sampling rate for those 'purists' among you who absolutely can't live without it...even if there isn't much practical use for it, at present! My crystal ball also tells me that this is going to probably happen before the end of the year...maybe as a software download. So, don't let the present...and temporary...lack of a 96 kHz sampling rate keep you from checking the Q10 out. I think you'll be kicking yourself around the block if you do!



The Q10 is allows for a great deal of flexibility: a great deal more than the 'state-of-the-art' card I am currently using, in fact! I should also mention that it has zero latency monitoring within the software which means that you can disable 'ASIO Direct Monitoring' (if your software supports it!) and save CPU power without sacrificing latency.

The Q10 is a really fine, high-quality audio card. Even at full list price, it's an incredible 'bang-for-the-buck'. I would be very surprised if you didn't find that the recorded quality of your musical projects improves noticeably when you start using one in your work.

Would I recommend one? Would I want one for my work? Let me put it this way: I'm supposed to be sending back the demo that audioMIDI.com sent me to 'test-drive' for this review. Fat chance of that happening...and only if they pry it from my cold, lifeless hands!

ardvark have an enviable reputation in professional circles for the quality of their AardSync studio word clock generators, and the design of their Direct Pro soundcard range also places great emphasis on sound quality, going so far as to encase critical components such as the audio converters in an electrically screened box to keep external interference at bay. This perfectionist approach has been retained in the latest addition to the range, but the Q10's specification is more ambitious than those of its stablemates.

Compared with the Direct Pro 24/96, which I reviewed in SOS April 2000, the Q10 provides far more inputs and outputs, as well as dispensing with the chunky desktop interface in favour of a rather smarter 1U rackmount case with an eye-catching purple paint job and moulded silver front panel. This compact case is stuffed with features, including eight mic/line analogue inputs, four of which also have TRS inserts and globally switched phantom power, and two of which can be used to DI guitars by switching in Aardvark's proprietary EFR (Enhanced Frequency Response) high-impedance preamps. There are 10 analogue outputs, as well as a separate monitor output to eliminate soundcard latency, and a headphone output. On the digital side, both A-D and D-A converters are 24-bit/96kHz capable, and the Q10 also provides co-axial S/PDIF in/out, word clock in/out, and a single MIDI in/out.

It's an impressive combination of features, and at first glance would seem to cater for just about any recording duties you could imagine. Aardvark's aim is to eliminate the need for an outboard mixer, and to this end the supplied PC software provides complete control over recording, monitoring and mixing, as well as including a digital patchbay.

Overview

The purple rackmount case is certainly colourful, although once bolted into a rack the effect is considerably toned down, since the top and bottom are then invisible. The remainder of the front panel sports a 'sculpted' look that initially looks liked milled aluminium, but is in fact moulded plastic. However, it still seems extremely sturdy. Neutrik Combi sockets are provided for each of the eight analogue inputs, allowing you to plug in a balanced XLR mic cable or a balanced/unbalanced quarter-inch jack cable for line-level sources. On the right-hand end of the front panel are rotary level controls for the rear-panel monitor outputs and stereo headphone output, both of which receive the same signal, along with a standard quarter-inch headphone socket. Above the latter is a very fetching red illuminated Aardvark logo, although if you find this too distracting you can adjust its brightness using the supplied utility software, or turn it off altogether.

Aardvark Q10 789
pros
Eight high-quality mic preamps.
Excellent subjective sound quality.
Low-jitter internal clock tightens up detail.
Versatile DSP mixing and monitoring options.
cons
24-bit RMS background noise is slightly higher than usual.
96kHz sample rate not officially supported.
EFR guitar inputs may prove too forward for some applications.
summary
Aardvark's Q10 provides a unique combination of eight mic preamps and two guitar preamps, added to a more traditional eight-in/eight-out soundcard format, which should prove perfect for any musician who wants to record a small live band without investing in loads of other gear.

The four TRS-wired inserts for inputs 1 to 4, eight line outputs, and the L and R monitor outputs just mentioned are all on rear-panel quarter-inch jacks: the digital, sync and MIDI I/O are also located on the rear panel, as is a 25-way D-type connector which connects via the supplied six-foot long shielded cable to the 5.5-inch PCI interface card. This houses one of the trademark Aardvark black boxes, shielding the majority of the circuitry from view, although the converters themselves are all in the rackmount case, in yet another black box. Surprisingly, given that 48 Volt phantom power is available, no external power supply is required for the rack case: all its power is derived from the computer.

To complete the bundle there's a 39-page printed owner's manual, a CD-ROM containing Windows 95/98 drivers and a Control Panel utility, and a second CD-ROM with a full version of Cakewalk's Pro Audio 9. Until Sonar superseded this popular MIDI + Audio sequencer earlier this year it was used by a huge number of musicians, particularly in the US, and even though it now commands a much lower price, it's still a worthwhile inclusion.

Driver Installation

I like the fact that the Aardvark drivers support every model in their range, including the older Aark 20/20 and 20/20+, 24, TDIF, Direct Pro 24/96, Direct Pro LX6 and Q10. This makes for far less confusion when updating, and also ensures that if improvements or bug-fixes are added, all Aardvark soundcard users immediately benefit. The latest drivers support MME, DirectSound, ASIO 2, and GSIF formats, although currently only for Windows 95, 98, and ME, and can apparently support up to four cards simultaneously, although I wasn't able to test this aspect. Beta drivers are available for downloading from the Aardvark web site for Windows NT and 2000, but don't support WDM or multiple cards. Both WDM and Mac drivers are apparently also in development, but no release dates had been announced by the time I finished this review.

I had no problems physically installing the Q10 PCI card, and my Windows 98SE PC detected it correctly and was happy to run it alongside my other two soundcards. Once the latest version 5.20 drivers have been installed by Windows, you also need to install the Q10 Control Panel utility (confusingly given a desktop shortcut named Aark Manager) by running the Setup.exe file on the CD-ROM, and then rebooting your PC. Both the driver inputs and outputs appear in Windows as stereo pairs labelled '1,2 Direct Pro Q10' through to '9,10 Direct Pro Q10'.

So far, so good, but having arrived back at the desktop, when I first launched the Control Panel I experienced a weird display problem, with several of the graphic images appearing in completely the wrong positions. However, the card itself seemed to be working perfectly, so I emailed a screenshot showing the problem to Aardvark and carried on reviewing. I was most impressed to receive a workaround solution within 24 hours resetting 'Icon Spacing (horizontal)' in Windows Display Appearance to its default value of 50 and a promise that this will be fixed in the next driver update.

DSP Control Panel

The Q10 Control Panel graphics are in Aardvark's familiar house style, complete with 'analogue' VU meters and faux rack handles. Controls for the eight analogue inputs and the S/PDIF input are ranged across the left-hand side, while those for the 10 playback channels and monitor output are on the right, just as you might find them on an analogue mixer. Each of the analogue inputs has a three-way gain setting, chosen in software by clicking one of the three buttons labelled M2, M1, and L, along with a rotary gain Trim knob. M2 provides gain settings from 75dB to 52dB for low-output mics or distant signals, while M1 ranges from 55dB to 32dB for close-miking or low line-level signals, and L can provide up to 15dB of gain or up to 8dB of attenuation for really hot signals. To maintain high audio quality, the software controls actually change gain settings in the analogue preamp circuitry in the rack, before signals reach the A-D converter.

Beneath the gain controls are vertical peak-reading meters, which can be globally switched in the Advanced menus to read either pre- or post-fader levels. They incorporate a text readout of peak level, along with a peak overload 'LED', and have a range of some 40dB, with the colour changing from green to yellow when it reaches -5dB, and to red when it reaches -2dB. Compared with the often vague input meters provided by many other soundcard manufacturers, I found them a pleasure to use, and for once as informative as their hardware counterparts.

The bottom part of each input channel strip has a fader calibrated from +6dB to -66dB and then Off, with a text box readout of its current position, mute and solo buttons, horizontal pan slider, and a Link button shared between each pair of adjacent channels to gang the faders for use when recording stereo signals, as well as the Gain, Mute and Solo settings. The S/PDIF input channel loses the gain controls, but instead has a useful Lock indicator to show that a valid clock signal has been detected, while its meters and faders are grouped together. When recording, the pre-fader signals are always available to your audio application, while the post-fader mix can be used both for monitoring and for recording.

There are several other neat touches relating to input settings if you depress the front-panel Phantom button to supply the first four mic inputs with power, the Phantom indicator lights up in the Control Panel, while if you depress one of the front-panel switches from mic/line to guitar mode for input 7 or 8, the Control Panel switched gain settings disappear, and the rotary gain Trim alters to provide gain settings from 41dB down to 18dB, although strangely this isn't mentioned in the owner's manual.

Monitor Mixing

The bulk of the software playback area of the Control Panel is devoted to monitoring, with five sections labelled 'PB 1,2' through to 'PB 9,10,' each comprising a stereo fader with text box readout of current position, L/R level meters, and Mute and Solo buttons. Like many other designs such as the M Audio and Terratec ranges, these controls are not connected to the physical hardware outputs. Instead they control the relative levels of each stereo playback channel in a separate monitor mix, the overall level of which is controlled by a further pair of faders and monitored by a further pair of peak-reading meters.

Brief Specifications
Analogue inputs: eight Neutrik Combi sockets with outer XLR for mic signals, inner balanced/unbalanced quarter-inch jack socket for line.
Input options: globally switched 48 Volt phantom power on inputs 1 to 4, individually switched EFR high-impedance guitar preamps on inputs 7 and 8.
Inserts: four, on input channels 1-4, using TRS-wired quarter-inch jack sockets.
Analogue outputs: eight, balanced/unbalanced, +4dBu/-10dBV.
Monitor outputs: two, balanced/unbalanced, +4dBu, with level control.
Headphone output: one, with level control.
A-D converters: 24-bit, shielded.
D-A converters: 24-bit, shielded.
Dynamic range: 110dB D-A, 100dB A-D.
Total harmonic distortion + noise: 0.002% at 1kHz.
Frequency response: 7Hz to 22kHz, 0.5dB at 48kHz.
Digital I/O: S/PDIF in and out.
MIDI I/O: one in, one out.
Sync I/O: BNC word clock in and out, MTC (via MIDI), and S/PDIF clock.
Supported bit depths: 16 and 24.
Supported sample rates: 32, 44.1, and 48kHz.

Stated System Requirements
CPU: Pentium 233MHz or better.
OS: Windows 95, 98, or ME.
64Mb RAM (128Mb strongly recommended).

Source Select enables you to choose your sample rate, the options being internal 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, S/PDIF, or external word clock, and the Q10 supports both 16-bit and 24-bit resolutions. Personally, I suspect that the supported settings will cope with the vast majority of real-world situations, but I know that many musicians are keen to try out 96kHz recordings. Aardvark don't officially support a 96kHz option, apparently because it's impossible to guarantee that all PCs will be able to manage recording and playback of all eight input and output channels simultaneously when running at 24-bit/96kHz. However, with a suitable application that lets you force a sample rate you can still attempt this, and I successfully managed to record and play back 24-bit/96kHz files with both Wavelab 3.0 and Sonar 1.02, although I did experience an annoying pause of a second or two each time recording or playback commenced. Unfortunately you can't use this approach with Cubase, since it only supports the sample rates provided by the ASIO driver.

The Routing window lets you allocate a selection of possible signals to each of the 10 hardware output sockets on the rack's rear panel. The possibilities comprise Analogue 1 through to Analogue 8, S/PDIF L and R, Playback 1 through to 10, Monitor L and R, Silence, and Tone. The Analogue and S/PDIF options let you directly monitor the signals at any of the analogue or digital input sockets with true zero latency. Tone is a handy sine-wave signal for calibration or fault-finding, albeit at the nonstandard frequency of 1.4kHz, while Silence simply ensures that the output in question receives only digital silence. Whatever is routed to outputs 7 and 8 also appears at the S/PDIF Output, and as mentioned previously, the headphone output receives the same signal as the rear-panel Monitor L/R sockets. Most users will route the playback channels to outputs 1 to 8 so that they can hear the playback of individual audio tracks or software synths, but if you instead choose Monitor L and R as a source you can hear the combined mix as set up in the Software Playback section of the Control Panel, which is very handy for setting up a control room or headphone mix when recording or overdubbing.

Given the versatility of the Q10, the Presets page is a great time-saver. You can save the current settings of each and every software control for later recall, rather like taking a snapshot. Each one of your selection of personal Presets can also be named and deleted, making them an ideal way to recreate the input selection, gain settings, and monitor mixes that you set up for a particular session. I can see this being of particular use in small commercial studios.

Advanced Driver Options

The Advanced window provides a further four tabbed pages of settings. General is mainly devoted to a display of hardware serial number, driver and DSP versions, but here you can also select pre/post-fader metering, consumer or professional S/PDIF flags and, more significantly, whether your '9,10 Direct Pro Q10' inputs record the signal from the S/PDIF input or the combined Monitor mix. The Software page provides a handy display of the status of all record and playback channels as either In Use or Idle. This could be a great help when fault-finding, especially when attempting to run multiple applications, since the Q10 drivers have multi-client capability. The Output Levels page lets you choose between +4dBu/-10dBV levels individually for each of your eight main outputs, while the contents of the ASIO And DirectX page are also duplicated in the ASIO Configuration utility which can be launched separately. This provides buffer size adjustment for both ASIO and Direct Sound drivers, a 16/24-bit choice for the ASIO driver, and a way to limit the number of both inputs and outputs appearing to ASIO-compatible applications: this will help conserve your PC resources, and may also help you when attempting to run several applications simultaneously.

Finally, there is an ASIO Turbo Mode, which can be activated in nearly all cases, and which further reduces latency, I suspect by reducing the number of ASIO buffers. Overall, the Q10 Control Panel is an extremely comprehensive utility that proves fairly easy to use, although some of the controls are quite small and fiddly.

Audio Quality

As always, the first test I tried was playback using a wide variety of acoustic, electric, and electronic sounds, with music ranging from unaccompanied vocal and percussion to rock band, dance and orchestral music. This not only lets you hear the D-A converters (always most important if you're using them to make mixdown decisions), but also the stability of the internal clock, which largely determines how focused and detailed digitised sounds are.

My new Echo Mia card provided much stronger competition than the 20-bit Echo Gina I've used as a benchmark in the past, but the Q10 still beat it quite easily, with noticeably sharper stereo imaging and focus, letting you hear further into the music. In an effort to isolate this improvement, I tried patching the S/PDIF out of the Q10 into the S/PDIF in of the Mia, and switching it to use this external clock. This tightened up the Mia sound quite a bit and made the two cards sound very similar, which would seem to prove the superiority of the Q10's clock Aardvark have an enviable reputation in this area. It also made me suspect that the Q10 uses similar AKM converters, a fact later confirmed by Aardvark.

RMS background noise as measured in Wavelab was a typical -93dB at 16-bit/44.1kHz, but I got slightly higher-than-usual figures when running at 24-bit resolution. The best I could manage was -97dB at 44.1kHz (measured with the input gain set to L, and with the gain Trim at 0dB), although this didn't deteriorate any further when I forced the Q10 into 24-bit/96kHz mode. However, these slightly disappointing 24-bit figures are still significantly better than the 16-bit ones, and Aardvark later confirmed my impression that their final design was based on listening tests as well as specs. They give higher priority to products that sound good to the ears, and judging by my listening tests I would endorse their decision.

The discrete circuitry of the mic preamps sounded quiet, clean and smooth, with an extended frequency range. They also proved remarkably sensitive, and I doubt that the additional gain of the M2 setting will be required very often. Aardvark won't be drawn on the details of the EFR (Enhanced Frequency Response) process of the guitar inputs, but did confirm that the input impedance is a high 1M(omega) just what guitarists need to maintain top end and punch. To find out more, I set up a test rig using the linear frequency sweep generated by MDA's TestTone plug-in and then measured the frequency response for myself using Nick Whitehurst's excellent FFT plug-in. It proved to give HF boost starting at about 1kHz, rising to about +18dB at 16kHz (see screenshot). I tried it out with a variety of guitar sounds, and while it certainly added a pleasing top-end bite that worked well in most cases, it might prove too aggressive and forward for some applications, as well as accentuating fret and other background noise.

Driver Performance

I experienced no real problems during the review period running the Q10 with a variety of software. With Cubase 5.0 r6 I managed to run a buffer size of 256 bytes with ASIO Turbo Mode activated, giving me a glitch-free latency on my PC of an excellent 5mS at 44.1kHz. The GSIF drivers also worked without a hitch, even used in multi-client mode alongside Cubase, although I did have to raise the ASIO buffer size to 448 samples in ASIO Turbo Mode when running both simultaneously, increasing the latency to 10mS.

Using Sonar proved just as rewarding, and I managed to lower its mixing latency down to 12mS when playing back both audio tracks and real-time DX Instruments simultaneously. The DirectSound drivers didn't fare quite so well, and running Native Instruments' Pro 52 in stand-alone mode I managed only a reasonable 30mS latency, but DirectSound is becoming less and less important nowadays, since so many applications support other driver formats that offer better latency anyway.

I also carried out my normal digital tests of the S/PDIF I/O, by sending playback from the Q10 S/PDIF output to my DAT recorder, and then rerecording it back to the Q10 through its S/PDIF input. This created a perfect bit-for-bit copy, as you would hope.

Overall, I was very impressed with the sound and performance of the Q10, despite its somewhat higher than average 24-bit RMS background noise measurements.

Final Thoughts

I've reviewed various soundcards with high-quality mic/line inputs in the past. Aardvark's own Direct Pro 24/96 (SOS April 2000) offered four mic/line inputs and four line outputs, Echo's Mona (SOS October 2000) offered four mic/guitar/line inputs and six line outputs, while the ill-fated SeaSound Solo Ex (December 2000) offered two mic, two guitar, two line, and two aux inputs, and a single stereo output. All would prove useful for project studios where a variety of instruments need to be recorded, but none provide enough discrete mic channels to record a whole band at a sitting.

I've also reviewed various eight-in/
eight-out line-level soundcard designs such as Echo's Layla, M Audio's Delta 1010, and, at a lower price point, Terratec's EWS88MT. However, the Q10 genuinely moves beyond all these products by providing a full eight high-quality mic preamps plus two guitar preamps, as well as a comprehensive and very well-designed software mixer, all for a very reasonable 789. The Q10 is possibly the first product that will let you record an entire live band using a single 1U rackmount box and soundcard combination, without employing loads of other gear, except perhaps a compressor/limiter or two. For those who want a compact setup without sacrificing their options or compromising on audio quality, the Q10 should prove ideal.

Test Spec
1GHz Pentium III Coppermine PC with 256Mb PC133 RAM, running Windows 98SE.
Motherboard: Asus TUSL2C with Intel 815EP chipset.
Graphics Card: ATI Rage 128.
Installed soundcards: Echo Mia, Yamaha SW1000XG.
Tested with: Cubase 5.0 r6, Wavelab 3.0, Sonar 1.02.