PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in January 2000, contributed by then Senior Editor Gary Simmons. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!
I sold off my pair of Yamaha DSP Factory soundcards earlier this year and was looking for a simple, reliable soundcard with rock solid Win2K drivers – preferrably with WDM drivers for use with SONAR. I wanted decent sounding stereo analog in and out, Lightpipe in and out, S/PDIF in and out, and MIDI in and out.
I couldn’t find anything that exactly fit my needs, so I decided to give the RME Digi 96/8 PST a try. RME soundcards had been getting lots of good reviews from users, so I contacted Tom Sailor (North American distributor for RME products)about getting a Digi 96/8 PST for a test drive. The PST provides everything I was looking for except MIDI and WDM drivers. The RME MME drivers were supposed to be pretty fast, and my Yamaha SW1000XG has MIDI in/out, so on to the test drive.
What It Is
All manner of feature info, specs and manuals can be found on the RME web site (http://www.rme-audio.com), but I’ll summarize the high points of the PST to save you the trip.
· PCI soundcard
· Price: $460 list, about $300 street
· Stereo analog ins and outs on RTS jacks (unbalanced)
· S/PDIF in and out on RCAs
· Lightpipe in and out (optical)
· CD-ROM audio input (digital)
· MME, ASIO, MAC and Linux drivers
I/O, I/O, Where do my cables go?
The digital connections on the PST are simple. Just plug in your S/PDIF or Lightpipe cables and get on with your life. The analog section is what separates the men from the boys though. The specs on the PST analog ins and outs are quite respectable for on-board converters (Dynamic range: 109 dB, A-weighted on the ins, 112 dB A-weighted on the outs).
The analog ins and outs use RTS jacks (one jack for the stereo in, one jack for the stereo out), so you’ll need to use a Y-adapter or make custom cables of some sort. I had several long insert cables that I hoped to use, but the cables have large barrel Switchcraft connectors and there isn’t enough room to put two of them side by side on the PST. So, I ended up with one nice insert cord and one Y-cord.
The analog input is switchable between –10 dBv (default) and +4 dBu nominal input levels using a jumper. The analog output has an attenuator with four settings (in the control applet) of 0, -6, -12, and –18 dB of attenuation as well as master volume fader. When fed a full-scale (0 dBFS) signal, the analog output will produce a +10 dBu output (with no attenuation).
What It Does
Here’s a screenshot of the PST’s control applet. All the options are clearly described in the manual. There’s no mixer panel (aside from a master volume) as it really doesn’t apply to a simple audio interface like the PST.
The Input section is worth talking about. Note that you can choose between Optical (Lightpipe), Coaxial (S/PDIF), Internal (for CD-ROMs) and Analog. The critical thing to notice here is that since these are radio buttons, you can only choose one of them at a time. Yes, that means you can’t have the Lightpipe inputs and the analog inputs (or any other combination) working at the same time. I have a Swissonic AD24 to feed the Lightpipe inputs, and 8 channels of input is usually enough, but it would have been nice to use the other analog and digital inputs at the same time as well.
The rest of the options are explained nicely in the user guide that comes with the card. I don’t feel a need to rewrite the user guide, but if you want to read it, it can be downloaded from the RME web site. I pretty much just left the rest of the options at their default values since my mixer can handle the full-scale output of the analog outs.
Installation was a no-brainer. My studio PC runs Windows 2000 (SP2). It’s a Celeron 566 overclocked to 850 on an Abit BH-1 (BX chipset) motherboard. I downloaded the latest drivers from the RME web site and unpacked them into a folder. Then I shut the PC down and installed the card. When it powered back up, New Hardware was found. I selected the “Have Disk” option and pointed Windows to the driver folder I had just created.
I should note that all testing was done using 24-bits and a 44.1 kHz sampling rate. I can’t (personally) justify the extra processing load of using 88.2 or 96 kHz sampling rates in a multi-track environment, but the PST will support those rates on the analog I/O if you’re so inclined.
My primary multi-track application is SONAR. My primary stereo editing software is WaveLab. I also use Sonic Foundry’s Vegas Audio and ACID Pro, but SONAR and WaveLab are my workhorses. I had no issues at all using the PST with WaveLab, Vegas, ACID or SAW Studio from IQS (RIP). It just works. SONAR, on the other hand, is worth some discussion.
SONAR prefers to use WDM drivers if they are available since they usually have very low latency. My SW1000XG has WDM drivers, so when I ran the SONAR Wave Profiler, it ignored the PST, and only profiled the SW1K. I then went into the Audio settings dialog and told SONAR to use MME drivers, even if WDM ones are available. My next pass through the Wave Profiler picked up the PST and I continued on.
The next issue with SONAR was the 24-bit settings. There are several ways to pass 24-bit data to/from a soundcard and the SONAR Wave Profiler got it wrong with the PST. Wave Profiler kept saying it wanted to use the “32-bit PCM Right-Justified” when in fact, the PST wants to use the “32 bit PCM, Left Justified” setting.
Finally, if you select the analog or digital inputs in the PST control applet, you get a warning message about the unselected Lightpipe inputs when you launch SONAR or muck about with the Audio options. It’s no big deal to click on the “Use Anyway” button, but it’s something of an annoyance.
Part of the reason I was interested in the PST were the reports of WDM-like latency from MME drivers in SONAR. It turns out the Hammerfall series has the really low latencies, but the PST doesn’t do half bad. If you slide the SONAR latency slide to the Fast end and cut the number of buffers down to 2 (from the default of 4), you get an effective latency of 46.4ms. Not exactly sub-10ms response, but sort of playable if you’re not too picky.
Then I happened upon some info from Hans Van Evan regarding the PST and SONAR. I followed his recipe for tweaking the Audio settings and managed to cut my latency in half. The trick is to manually set the buffer sizes for all 44.1K and 48K settings to 256 (on the Driver Profile tab). Exit SONAR and restart and you should now have a latency slider that allows settings between 5.8 and 384ms (with 2 buffers).
Hans reports the lowest usable number on his system is 23.2ms. This matches my experience as well. Perhaps a future driver update will be able to go even lower, but 23.2 isn’t too bad. Be aware that you may need to increase your latency setting as your system load increases.
Regarding sound quality, the analog ins and outs sound fine to me. I use the analog outputs for monitoring and have no complaints. I have the analog inputs hooked up to my mixer’s group sends, although I usually use outboard mic preamps and converters to feed the Lightpipe input on the PST. The analog input has sounded fine when I’ve used it. I don’t expect mega-buck converter performance from a $300 soundcard, but I have no reservations about using the analog input for any of my work. Better converters are certainly available if you’re so inclined.
Aside from providing the I/O I need, all I want from a soundcard is for it to “just work”. It should be transparent in use. No crashes, no driver foolishness, and good clean audio from the analog ins/outs. Aside from some setup tweaks with SONAR, the PST “just works”. That’s about the highest praise I can give. It just works.
Sure, I’d like to see <10ms latency WDM drivers for the PST, and perhaps a little more space between the I/O jacks, but those are about the only things I can bitch about. Highly recommended.