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Author Topic: Guillemot Maxi Sound 64 ISA Audio Interface (Feb 1997)  (Read 2225 times)

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Online chrisNova777

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Guillemot Maxi Sound 64 ISA Audio Interface (Feb 1997)
« on: September 21, 2014, 04:18:09 AM »

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/1997_articles/feb97/maxisound64.html

Quote
The Maxi Sound 64 is a new Plug and Play full-duplex soundcard with some pretty tasty features, cooked up by French company Guillemot International. MARTIN WALKER tucks in.


 
It must be hard for any new manufacturer of soundcards to get a look in when the mainstream market is already dominated by the likes of Creative Labs' Soundblaster range, which firmly occupies the middle ground, with low-cost, anonymous clones beneath and expensive high-spec cards with high-quality D/A converters and digital I/O at the dizzy heights. In the middle and low-cost areas, compatibility with games is still one of the most important features, and this normally means SoundBlaster. This area of compatibility does tend to prevent mainstream acceptance of more revolutionary products. Gravis found it extremely hard with their Ultrasound card, which, despite having excellent features, initially had a poor, software-only Soundblaster emulation. Despite sterling efforts to encourage the computer games industry to support the unique features of their card, it seemed to be the single factor that slowed initial sales.

Guillemot International have taken a different approach. Rather than trying to market a revolutionary product, they've made a card which falls firmly into the 'evolutionary' camp. There's nothing startlingly new on offer, but nearly every feature has had its specification carried one stage further than the territory mapped out by the SoundBlaster AWE32 card, which seems to be the yardstick until the new AWE64 range appears. Particular emphasis has been placed on sound quality, and for the musician, one of the most interesting features will be the ability for playback of up to eight simultaneous WAV files whilst recording (with full duplex operation). Even the forthcoming AWE64 cards from Creative Labs don't have hardware duplex capability (see Paul White's interview with Creative Labs in the December 1996 issue of SOS).

Guillemot International are a French company that I have not come across before, but they've already done extremely well across the rest of Europe with their Maxi Sound range of PC soundcards, which includes a daughterboard featuring Korg-based wavetable synthesis. The UK operation is handled by Ubi Soft, who are well known from their many published titles in the computer game world, as well as more recently for various music software and hardware releases. Et Cetera also look set to include Guillemot products in their range. The Maxi Sound 64 card is quoted as being the first sound card available with 64-voice polyphony, true 4-channel surround sound, 4-band equaliser, superior-quality wavetable sounds in 4Mb ROM, and "real-time special effects never before achievable on a PC". The Home Studio version also offers a genuine four to eight audio tracks of direct-to-disk record and playback, with real-time effects.
CRYSTAL CLEAR

The core of the Maxi 64 card is a CS4236 single-chip Multimedia Audio Subsystem from Crystal Semiconductor, which has been available for about a year. This offers complete Plug and Play compatibility, full-duplex operation, 16-bit, CD-quality sound and FM music synthesis for PC motherboard and adaptor card applications. For a soundcard manufacturer, the beauty of using a single-chip solution like this is that their overall design gets onto the market faster, costs are lower, so savings can be passed on to the customer. Another advantage is that Crystal supply a complete suite of drivers supporting all Windows operating systems, so any driver updates are also taken care of at source.

This very chip can now be found incorporated into the motherboards of Toshiba's latest range of notebook computers, as well as a new range of Dell desktop PCs. More recent chips from Crystal Semiconductor include versions with licensed QSound 3D audio enhancement and Dolby Digital surround technology, so let's hope that these other devices find their way into more soundcards soon.
WAVE AFTER WAVE OF SOUNDS

Guillemot have provided a full complement of extras on the Maxi. The wavetable synth fills a generous 4Mb of ROM, and provides a highly-satisfactory 64-voice polyphony with a total of 425 sounds, comprising a GM/GS set, variations, and 200 percussion sounds, divided up into 16 drum kits. For comparison, both the AWE32 and 64 cards have 1Mb ROM. The Maxi sounds are pretty good, although the current yardstick which most musicians will use to judge them by is the Yamaha DB50XG, and they're not quite up to this standard --though they're certainly not far behind. The individual sounds are clean and crisp, although some of the multisamples are too short to allow much character to develop in certain voices. Many parameters can be edited via NRPN (Non-Registered Parameter Numbers), for sound customisation. A bit of chorus fattens up the sounds nicely, and for general multimedia use the overall effect is impressive. The synth is 16-part multitimbral, which is standard these days, but the 64-voice polyphony should make note-stealing a thing of the past for most people. A single socket is provided for a SIMM module -- either a 4Mb or 16Mb 32-bit type, which should cost you about £20 or £70 respectively. This memory allows you to download your own sounds to the card. Although the fact that the Maxi doesn't provide any memory as standard may seem limiting, it does help to keep the initial cost of the card down, and this feature is basically in line with the Soundfonts feature of the SoundBlaster range.

The WAV file portion of the card will probably interest musicians particularly. The A/D and D/A converters were chosen for their sound quality, and the card caters for replay rates of between 4kHz and 44.1kHz, with full-duplex capability. This is vital for modern hard disk recording. (Half-duplex cards can be used, but only if you run one for recording and a second for playback.) Hardware full-duplex operation should result in less processor overhead than by using a special software driver, and this may well provide more audio tracks for the same speed of computer. The technical spec of the card (frequency response, signal-to-noise ratio, and so on) is described as "exceptional", but since no figures are quoted anywhere in the manual, I can only say that everything sounded very good to my ears. I can understand some manufacturers' reluctance to quote figures when the interference from every PC will influence the results to some extent, and some people's figures can be extremely optimistic because of this, but it would have been nice to see something for reference.

There's a socket for a daughterboard, such as the well-loved Yamaha DB50XG, and my DB50XG sounds emerged from the other side of the soundcard remarkably unscathed compared with my hot-rodded direct outputs (see my article elsewhere in this issue on making the most of daughterboards), so circuit quality is certainly high, and noise lower than some other soundcards at similar prices.

There are mic and line inputs for the WAV section, as well as three different internal sockets for CD audio connection, and a standard IDE CD-ROM interface. A 4W stereo amplifier feeds the speaker outputs, which also double as line outputs once a couple of jumpers are changed -- using this option and feeding the outputs at line level into an external mixer will give much better audio quality. A second pair of outputs is provided for quadraphonic surround use, and this will no doubt sound wonderful with games. To complete the array of inputs and outputs, there is a fully-implemented MPU401-compatible MIDI interface with one input and one output, but, unlike many cards, the MIDI output used to drive the daughterboard socket is entirely separate from this, allowing 16 channels of MIDI to be used independently on each. A joystick socket is also attached to the MIDI flying lead with its two DIN plugs, and it's nice to see this lead included in the package, rather than being an optional extra.

 
"Even the forthcoming AWE64 cards from Creative Labs don't have hardware duplex capability."

 

Using part of the on-board DSP (Digital Signal Processor) capacity, up to four WAV files (each in stereo) can be replayed simultaneously (eight after a minimum of 4Mb has been added to the sample RAM). This is an excellent idea, especially as this feature can be used by any standard MIDI + Audio sequencer, since each track features as a separate WAV output as far as Windows is concerned. Playing back multiple files in this way can already be done in software using any of the MIDI + Audio sequencers and a Pentium machine, but Guillemot's hardware method should give a much lower processor overhead, and this saving could be used with something like Wavelab 1.5 to give more real-time effects, or enable more tracks.
DSP EFFECTS

An intriguing set of effect features are also provided by the onboard DSP, including surround sound, reverb, chorus, and 4-band EQ. The DSP allows a selection of effects to be applied to both WAV and MIDI sounds, including those from any attached daughterboard. All operate in real time, and parameter changes are heard immediately the mouse button is released. Reverb and Chorus types are set up globally, and then their levels can be set individually for each MIDI channel. What's more, each WAV output can also have its reverb and chorus levels set independently, and can have a top-cut filter applied to it (obviously using the dynamic noise filter that helps to achieve the low-noise output). The chorus works quite well, and offers control over five parameters. The reverb comprises three room settings, two halls, one plate, and two delays. These algorithms are extremely basic, and despite adding some ambience to the sounds, have a lot of metallic ring, giving a most unnatural sound. Musicians may be happier switching them off and using an external multi-effects unit. The 4-band EQ is described as "graphical and parametric", but is in fact a 4-band sweep equaliser with fixed Q setting. This works well.

Many people will be intrigued by the Surround window. The surround effect can be applied to a stereo signal, or, if you activate the '4 outputs' button, you can attach the second amplified stereo output socket on the back of the card to a pair of rear speakers, giving the classic quadraphonic effect. All of these DSP settings can be adjusted via MIDI NRPN, so that it should be possible to, for instance, set up a mixer in Cubase to control everything in real time. The surround settings are very effective, and I can see this facility being used a lot.
CONCLUSIONS

The Guillemot Maxi 64 falls neatly between two stools, and so should easily find its own niche. Games players and general users will consider this a luxury card, and with its reverb, chorus and surround effects it will have no problems in making a dent in this part of the market, as the price seems to be pitched at the right level. For the musician, sound quality is paramount if a card is to be used for hard disk recording, and its MIDI synth used alongside external synths. WAV recording and playback on the Maxi 64 is of good quality for a card of this price, and the facility to play back up to eight simultaneous channels of WAV files is excellent. Running a daughterboard through it will also add very little noise to the proceedings. The MIDI synth has a good range of usable sounds, although you probably wouldn't want to master an album with it. The DSP effects are many and varied, and the only slight downside is that the reverb sounds are nowhere near the quality of even the cheapest multi-effects units now available (or the DB50XG's onboard effects). With the possibility of adding up to 16Mb of sample RAM -- so you could use the Maxi as a multi-voice PC sampler -- in addition to all its other facilities, the total package does look and sound impressive. Ultimately, this is a high-quality and well-priced soundcard, with a huge array of features. I wish Guillemot every success with it.
 
 
PLUGGING AWAY: INSTALLING THE MAXI SOUND 64

Although I know the theory of Plug and Play well, this was my first hands-on experience of a Plug and Play peripheral, so I was interested to see how my Windows 95-equipped, but non-PnP motherboard, computer would cope. The only initial problem was of my own making -- I decided to remove an existing soundcard to make way for the Maxi, but neglected to also remove the associated drivers using the Control Panel. When I re-booted the computer, the screen stayed black, and I had to remove the card, re-boot again to enter Windows, then remove the drivers and start again. This time I was pleasantly surprised. Despite being basically a halfway measure, the PnP component of Windows 95 correctly recognised that a piece of PnP hardware had been added, and automatically put up a message that it was "Building driver information database." It then prompted me to insert the supplied floppy disk containing the Maxi Sound 64 Windows 95 drivers, and then even noticed that I'd already attached my Yamaha DB50XG daughterboard and so installed a driver for that as well. The only small point that would have made the installation perfect would have been a reminder to remove the floppy before prompting me to restart the machine. I left the floppy in as a test and sure enough, on restarting, the computer tried to boot from this, and a French error message appeared, advising me to remove it and press any key. Apart from that, it was plain sailing, and all seemed uncomfortably too easy.

After installing the soundcard and restarting Windows 95, I found that installation had indeed been too easy to be true. Although nothing to do with the Maxi, my still-installed Gravis Ultrasound card was obviously trying to use one of the same resources, so its driver was summarily disabled, leaving only the Maxi to carry on. Also the MIDI port of the Maxi conflicted with my Roland MPU401 interface, again pre-PnP. This is the sort of problem that can arise when PnP and any legacy (pre-PnP) hardware is mixed within the same machine.

To remedy the situation, I first of all got out my printed list of currently-used resources (every home should have one!) to see where the conflicts lay. The tricky part was that the Maxi has such a comprehensive set of functions that it requires three IRQs, two DMAs, and a staggering seven I/O addresses. However, since there are 12 possible choices for most of these addresses, and they are automatically allocated by the Windows 95 PnP, this is hardly a problem in itself. The conflict lay with the 16-bit Windows 3.1 drivers of the Ultrasound card, which are not automatically recognised by Windows 95. One of the three IRQs selected for the Maxi for its own use was IRQ11, and this was in my list as already being used by the Ultrasound card. By checking in the Advanced section of the Multimedia part of the Control Panel, where the selections for the Ultrasound driver lay, I found that IRQ15 (still available on my machine) could be used for the Ultrasound, so I selected this and then restarted Windows, to let this new setting take effect. This resolved the problem with the Ultrasound. Similarly, the Roland MPU401 interface was moved out of the way of the Maxi, and then everything seemed to work happily together.

Once you've tried PnP, having a peripheral that can self-adjust seems wonderful. Unfortunately, it's nearly always the legacy devices that gum up the works, and in some cases it's easier to disable the 'Automatic Settings' box for a particular PnP driver, so that you can force it to use the only IRQ you know you have left -- even though it would prefer to use one already occupied by legacy hardware which Windows 95 refuses to acknowledge.
 
 
BUNDLED SOFTWARE

Like most soundcard packages, this one comes with a selection of software.

• Sound Impression is one of the standard 'rackmount hi-fi' simulations, which lets you control each part of the package. It works well, and has an integral Wave editor which is basic but quite usable.

• Quartz Audio Master SE is a 32-track 'direct to disk studio' (only supplied with the Home Studio version of the Maxi Sound), which allows combined MIDI and audio tracks to be recorded. Up to eight stereo audio playback tracks can be used, along with one stereo or two mono recording tracks, and 32 tracks of MIDI data. Both Grid and Score editors are provided, and extensive control of all the DSP effects is available. The whole package is comprehensive, even including options such as SMPTE sync.

• Cakewalk Express now seems to be included with every musical package, but it is a good basic sequencer at the bottom of an impressive range of packages -- start here and work your way upwards to the dizzy heights of Cakewalk Pro Audio!

•Internet Phone uses the card's full-duplex capability to offer two-way on-line conversations. This theoretically allows you to have international telephone conversations for the cost of a local call, but both parties will need a full-duplex card, and unless you have a high-capacity ISDN line rather than a BT one you're unlikely to find it much more than a novelty. Still it's free, so who's complaining!
 
pros & cons
MAXI SOUND 64 £150/190

pros
• Full-duplex operation.
• Up to eight simultaneous WAV playback channels.
• Low noise and good audio quality.
• Useful real-time surround sound feature.

cons
• No onboard RAM as standard.
• Poor-quality reverb.

summary
An impressive and versatile soundcard that should
find plenty of mainstream customers.