M-Audio Delta 1010

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in October 1999, contributed by then Contributing Editor Bruce Richardson. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

This may be the fastest I’ve ever been asked to review a piece of gear, and normally that would be a big drag. But I’m very excited to pass on the news about the new Delta 1010, from M Audio. It’s also a pretty easy review, because the thing is good sounding, rock solid, and incredibly simple to install and use. I’ve had two days with the unit, and I’m comfortable with all its features.

M Audio is the most recent alter-ego of our old friend Midiman, Inc. Their early line of “DMAN” cards and a variety of useful music techno-paraphenalia have won them many friends over the years. Although one of their early products, the second-generation DMAN 2044, was problematic for some users, overall the Midiman line has represented tremendous value for the dollar and has enjoyed a great reputation among the user community.

At first glance, the Delta 1010 looks a lot like the Echo Layla. It has word clock i/o, S/PDIF, MIDI, and an eight-in, eight-out analog section (Layla is eight-in, ten-out). It breaks down into similar components: a PCI card, connecting cable, and outboard converter box.

There are some layout differences. Where Layla has an aux analog i/o for channels 7 and 8 accessible from the front panel, the Delta 1010 features MIDI i/o in that spot. S/PDIF is located on the PCI card on the Delta. Layla puts S/PDIF on the converter box. Layla’s analog section is software-switchable between +4 and -10 levels. Delta puts hardwired push-push switches next to each rear panel jack. Delta has an external power supply unit. The Layla has an internal supply.

A little different angle, different guts, but the same basic box with the same basic capabilities. Basically.

Great Tone-to-Ick Ratio

They’re actually a little more different than they look. One area where Delta 1010 makes an obvious departure is 24/96 bandwidth throughout.

Now, I’m one of those guys that doesn’t give a hoot about 96 kHz sample rates. If you’ve ever spent more than five minutes in front of a drummer, you don’t hear those frequencies anyway. But the nice thing about the 24/96 hype is the accompanying design overkill it’s driven in today’s hardware choices. Converters designed to handle 24/96 are smooth as silk at 24/44.1, and Delta is no exception.

It sounds good. Very good. Despite the fact that there are no GigaSampler drivers yet (“They’re coming in a matter of weeks,” says Midiman Chief Engineer Bret Costin), I managed to patch up a 24 bit S/PDIF connection to my Layla, so I could monitor the GigaPiano through the Delta 1010’s converters and do some comparisons.

Note to GigaSampler owners: The GigaPiano is one of the best soundcard testing tools you’ll find.

Here’s why: As those pristine two minute notes die away, you will hear every molecule of ick in your system. The note begins descent into the ick, eventually disappearing beneath the surface of the ick, where it’s finally heard no more, having lost its struggle. There’s only ick. And you. Ick.

Delta 1010 has no perceivable ick layer. As I listened to those notes die away, cranked to eleven in my headphones, I heard the pure tone ring into absolutely dead silence. Or so I thought. When the note was over I lifted the piano key, and discovered that there was more silence below what I had perceived as silent. The note had not died. I cranked the headphones to thirteen, and let the note ring out again, holding it for a full three minutes. This time, at some point, the note DID die into full silence, but I was not able to determine the time of its disappearance.

I did several A/B tests, listening to every set of converters in the house, and the Delta was at the top of the heap. Compared to my faithful Layla, the sound from the Delta was a touch more transparent and a bit more focused. Compared to my ADATs and my Tascam DA30, well…there was no comparison. Delta had the highest tone-to-ick ratio of the bunch.

Specifications

Product specs bore me, but here they are, in case some of you might want some hard evidence:

Analog Audio

Peak Analog Input Signal: +20.2dBu (+4dBu setting),
+2.1dBV (-10dBV setting)
Peak Analog Output Signal: +20.0dBu (+4dBu setting),
+2.0dBV (-10dBV setting)
Dynamic Range:
Outputs: 108dB (a-weighted),
Inputs: 109dB (a-weighted)
THD (at 0dBFS):
Outputs: less than 0.0015%,
Inputs: less than 0.001%
Frequency Response: 22Hz – 22kHz, -0.3,-0.2dB
Input Impedance: 10k ohms minimum
Input Connectors: 1/4″ female TRS-type, balanced or unbalanced
Output Connectors: 1/4″ female TRS-type, balanced or unbalanced

Digital Audio

Digital Input Format: S/PDIF coaxial, 0.5V to 5V peak-to-peak.
Digital Input Sample Rate: 8kHz to 96kHz.
Digital Output Format: S/PDIF coaxial, 0.5V peak-to-peak;
AES/EBU data stream over S/PDIF coaxial.
Digital Output Sample Rate: 8kHz to 96kHz.
Word Clock Input Rate: 8kHz to 50kHz.
Word Clock Output Rate: 8kHz to 96kHz.

Adapter Resource Requirements

IRQ: One required
I/O Addresses: Four blocks: 32, 16, 16, and 64 bytes
DMA Channels: None required

There you have it. As you can see the specs look good. It sounds good. What do you want, Memorex?

Sorry. I told you that specs bore me. These days everything you see has amazing specs. I get interested when things sound good and work right and actually live up to the numbers. I’m interested in the Delta 1010.

Control Panel

Here’s special thing #2 that sets the Delta 1010 apart from the pack: the excellent control panel.

Look for it in the Windows Control Panel. Once you double-click the “M Audio Delta H/W” shortcut, you get a compact, tabbed control panel. First up is the MONITOR MIXER tab. Have a look at this, and make sure to scroll the Mixer Input section, so you see all the meters. Here’s where the Delta begins to show a hint of its muscle. Remember what you saw there, then move forward to the PATCHBAY / ROUTER tab. Now notice that just about anything can be patched to anything. This is standard stuff: any of the inputs can be patched to any of the outputs.

But also notice that Hardware Out 1 and 2, and S/PDIF Out can be patched to a device called MONITOR MIXER.

Now, let’s backtrack to the MONITOR MIXER tab. Check out the layout and routing here once again. Get it? By combining the front end routing and mixing capabilities with the right hardware output combinations, you’ve got the ability to patch all sorts of noisemakers into the Delta – all at once. By setting levels and pans, and routing all this right back into the system, either via analog or digital streams, a number of different setup possibilities emerge.

For folks that don’t have full blown consoles, this routing flexibility is a Godsend. Armed with a Delta 1010 and a nice set of mic preamps, one could do some pretty serious damage. That makes Delta a natural for various location tasks. It’s not lost on us that the MIDI i/o found its way to the front panel, either. With the software synthesis market about to explode, Delta definitely wants to be your gig box of choice. The hardwired line level switches begin to make sense in this context. Mr. Monitor Mixer Man at Club DooDoo is probably not interested in exploring your Device Manager to match your gear to his board. He just wants to plug in and get on with it. I can definitely visualize a Delta living comfortably in a hardcore road rig.

Moving on to the HARDWARE SETTINGS tab reveals Master Clock designation, preferred sample rate, Word Clock-S/PDIF sample rate, driver synchronization, and DMA Buffer Sizes. Most settings are standard fare, but the DMA Buffer Sizes is a nice touch. Users with fast machines will be able to tweak these settings lower than default values to achieve lower latency. On my particular rig, tweaking the Wave buffer down to 16 milliseconds from the default 20 made Reaktor’s latency improve dramatically. I had previously been forced to raise its latency a bit to avoid clicks, and was subsequently able to reduce it to BELOW the setting I started with. This is good news for DAW software users, too. A little experimentation with the Delta 1010’s Buffer Sizes, and with the appropriate buffer sizes within audio applications can yield significantly lower latency than the out-of-box settings.

But before tinkering with these settings, check out another feature of the Delta Control Panel: you can save your current setup as a preset. Now might be a great time to do that, then tinker to your hearts content, knowing you can be back at ground zero in one click.

I have tested every feature of the Hardware Settings tab, and have yet to see anything fail to work. Word clock lock was on target, even when doing odd things like running a S/PDIF cable transfer but locking the converters to word clock synchronization. Everything just worked, no matter what I did. OK, I unplugged some cables and it quit working, but you’d expect that, right?

The S/PDIF page is standard fare. You get to choose settings for copy protection bits and an input selection for devices that feature both optical and coax S/PDIF interfaces. The Delta has only coax.

The ABOUT page splashes a gigantic M Audio logo, and links to the Midiman site if you’re web-connected.

And that’s that.

The Inevitable Comparison

Somehow, I feel like I’m shorting the unit, because I can just think of very matter of fact things to say. I also don’t have much time – our dear Editor-in-Chief is calling me on the phone and demanding that I quit writing and hit send. But I don’t want to. Not just yet.

I like Midiman, and I always have. They deliver a sensible product at a good price, always. They are sensitive to the needs of the market. They make some wonder-widgets that solve problems simply and effectively. They make some routing hardware that’s as good as any on the market.

With they designed the Delta 1010, I think they must have taken a good hard look at what was working for people in the field, and then molded the common elements of those devices into a good solid tool. You see that workmanlike attitude reflected in the rugged, retro-industrial rack unit. The yellow LEDs indicating power status and MIDI activity emit a restrained glow that’s very industrial looking, as is the stark graphic style beneath a thick layer of clear coat. There’s a good variety of features, without ever crossing the line into minutia. The best interfaces, after all, don’t require a lot of attention or adjustment. They just sit there and do there job.

As much as I didn’t want to go here, you’ve got to at least address the question: what happens when you start comparing the Delta to the Layla? With the Delta 1010, you’ve got a solid 24/96 box that for all practical purposes is what we’d expect a “Layla 24” to look like–almost $100 cheaper than the price of the current 20-bit Layla.

What’s the catch?

For some users, there may indeed be a catch. Layla’s drivers are more mature by several generations – although the Delta drivers are quite stable on my machine. Layla offers more esoteric word clock options, and is able to utilize an oversampled “super” word clock mode to respond quickly to clock speed shifts. Of course, the other hardware must also supply or at least understand this protocol. Layla also chases SMPTE time code via MTC. Delta has no SMPTE or MTC chasing abilities. It’s either internal, some flavor of sample lock, or nothing. That may be a huge consideration for users that need to lock to their existing hardware devices that depend on those protocols.

But more and more, we’re seeing folks digitizing video and running it within their DAW as opposed to locking to an external deck or synchronizer. And when it comes to locking up digital gear, S/PDIF and Word Clock sync covers a lot of ground these days. It all really depends on your personal situation as to when it’s “safe” to let go of SMPTE completely. I can still lock up just about anything to my BRC in one way or another, so I can do without the feature on an audio interface as long as it has word clock sync. Some users will still need it incorporated into the interface, though. The Delta may not be right for them.

Common Complaint

I do have a bone to pick with the Delta, but I have the same issue with almost every audio interface.

Let’s finish ALL the drivers BEFORE we release the box, OK?

The Delta works fabulously with its MME and ASIO drivers as shipped. Perfect. But I can’t play the GigaSampler through it without routing through another card, and that is disappointing. The lack of DirectSound drivers in the first release is also a bit of a bummer, and NT users are also out of luck as are those running the Mac platform.

This situation is becoming alarmingly common in the industry, and is certainly not exclusively the fault of Midiman or even of hardware manufacturers in general. It cuts deep. Every time a software company dreams up yet another revolutionary new standard and shoves it into the mainstream, the hardware guys are sent scrambling to support it. If they don’t, they’re bombarded with tech support and requests. Add Microsoft to the equation. Add Macintosh to the equation. You can see why drivers trickle out: we’re a small market, and that’s a lot of work. Those programmers don’t come for free, and if you’re not selling product, you’re not going to be paying any OT for driver development. And driving it all, you have users screaming for every bell and whistle imaginable, right now. RIGHT NOW.

For once, wouldn’t it be great to see an audio interface like the Delta 1010 hit the market with a complete set of drivers?

OK. I’m off the soap box. One can’t discuss any audio technology without being very grateful for the tools we work with. Aside from the lack of Giga and DirectSound components in its initial driver, the Delta sounds great and does everything it promises to do, right out of the box. Given the few qualifications I’ve mentioned, I can think of no reason the Delta 1010 does not deserve our highest recommendation. If you’re a GigaSampler user, keep your eye on the driver development. Once this baby is Giga-enabled, get ready to hear some gorgeous output. And finally, the feature set, layout, and internal routing flexibility seem to me particularly well suited for use in live and location work, possibly making the Delta 1010 the interface of choice for a monster road-rig.

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