Strange Brouhaha

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

What a difference a few MHz makes...

I have an Aardvark DirectPro 24/96 audio card in my older Windows machine.* It's really great--very clean input, easy to use, and it has those great Neutrik combo jacks. It's also got a couple of MIDI ports on the back.

People can write (and have written) whole essays on the subject of MIDI latency. In a nutshell, latency is the time between the keypress on your keyboard (or other MIDI controller) and the sound actually playing. Lower is better: if you hit a key and it takes a half a second for the sound to play, that's BAD. Latency is affected by a lot of things--for example, I read somewhere that because of the architecture of Windows versions before Windows 2000, you can NEVER get acceptable response times with those systems. Now, I don't know if "never" is accurate, but I ran WinME with the Aardvark and a MIDI application and there was always a perceptible lag between keypress and sound, even after I disabled everything else that I could without jeopardizing the integrity of the system.

The conventional wisdom about audio interfaces, at least back when I was shopping for the DirectPro, was that you DON'T want to use USB if you can possibly avoid it. USB can cause interference and dropouts, or so they said--something to do with the fact that the computer would contantly poll the USB to see if a new device had been added. This was back in the era when a 500 MHz Pentium III was top dog, by the way.

Fast forward to today. I'm using a Digidesign Mbox USB interface with ProTools LE on my iBook, and it sounds great. No dropouts, no interference, just a good clean signal path, especially from this new MXL 990 microphone. How good is it? I swear it was picking up stuff through the walls when I tested it out. It's a very sensitive microphone, and what it picked up was exactly what I gave it, warts and all.

What really impressed me, though, was the MIDI performance of this MIDIsport UNO with my MIDI keyboard: no latency, at least no perceivable latency. Maybe 1-2ms, but that's pretty much instantaneous anyway. I fired up Reason (the incredible software audio tool), which had brought my 500MHz Pentium III to its knees, and just played with it for a while with no problems.

So what a difference a modern OS and processor can make, huh? I guess the next thing to do is to put the Aardvark into a newer machine, chain up a few MIDI apps with the keyboard and iBook and...gosh, who knows?

* I linked to here because it was one of the few places that still seemed to have product information for my card. It seems that Aardvark may not be in business anymore; their website certainly looks like they don't own it anymore. But I actually bought my 24/96 from


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