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GEAR REVIEW: DiGiGrid IOX

By Bill Evans / December 17, 2015

BY DARTH FADER

If you look at it from the surface, the DiGiGrid IOX from Waves and DiGiCo is a 12-input, 6-output audio interface designed for use with your DAW. When you look closer you’ll learn that the IOX is a gateway into Waves’ SoundGrid audio network, which is capable of some awesome audio file sharing and processing functions. It’d be difficult to speak accurately about the IOX without also discussing the SoundGrid network so if it seems that we are skipping around like an Ewok on a Speeder Bike that’s because, well… we are.

 

SoundGrid Background 

SoundGrid is a collaboration between Waves and DiGiCo; Waves does the software and DiGiCo does the hardware. SoundGrid Studio is a networking platform that enables compatible audio interfaces to communicate with multiple computers. The network also allows your DAW to offload plugin processing to a SoundGrid DSP server, providing low-latency monitoring, realtime processing, and integration with a variety of DAW software.

The most basic SoundGrid network requires a SoundGrid-compatible I/O, which connects to your computer using a standard Ethernet cable. Other components of a SoundGrid network include the SoundGrid Studio Application, SoundGrid ASIO/Core Audio Driver, StudioRack software and the eMotion ST Mixer (we’ll discuss those in a moment). If you’d like to have two computers connected to a SoundGrid network simultaneously, you’ll need a network switch. All of the features of SoundGrid (including sync and word clock) can be used by any of the computers connected to the network. Waves sent SPL/L2P the DiGiGrid IOX audio interface so that we could set up a basic SoundGrid network in the Death Star studio.

 

IOX

The DiGIGrid IOX is built into a hefty single space rack chassis. At the center of its front panel are an illuminated power switch and a multicolor network status indicator. To the left of these are four ¼-inch TRS headphone jacks each with its own volume control. The right side of the panel has LED meters for the 12 inputs: orange indicates that phantom power is on; green indicates signal present; red indicates clipping. Waves thoughtfully provides the ability to calibrate the clip indicator to turn on at 0, -1, -2 or -3 dB, leaving you the option to have a bit of headroom when you see red. The IOX is rather heavy so make sure your rack is up to the task. It also runs a bit on the hot side so we’d recommend you leave an open space above and below the unit when rack mounting.

The IOX’s rear panel has 12 balanced mic/line inputs, each featuring a locking Combo jack input. The preamps provide up to 59.5 dB of gain and 48VDC phantom power, and are controlled using SoundGrid Studio. Six analog outputs are fed via balanced TRS jacks. Also on the rear panel are two SoundGrid ports, word clock I/O, a power connector and a reset switch (which we never needed). As of right now the IOX can run at sample rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96 kHz. According to Waves, sample rates of 176.4 and 192 kHz will be supported in the future.

 

On The ‘Net

Using the DiGiGrid IOX requires the SoundGrid installer for Mac or PC, downloaded from the Waves website free of charge with registration of the IOX. The IOX installer includes the ASIO/Core Audio driver, the SoundGrid Studio application, StudioRack, and eMotionST. Let’s look at these one at a time:

•The ASIO/Core Audio Driver enables your DAW software to connect to the IOX.

There are no MME or WDM drivers for SoundGrid so you can’t use it for non-ASIO programs running under Windows. We had no issues running the IOX with various versions of Pro Tools, Digital Performer and Reason on our MacPro.

SoundGrid Studio manages SoundGrid components including interfaces, DSP servers, and computers. This is where the network is configured — even if it’s a modest network consisting of a single interface and computer. You need this application to patch audio streams between your computer and DAW software, and to control the interface’s inputs and outputs.

StudioRack is a plug-in “chainer” that acts like a manager for plug-ins. StudioRack is inserted in a DAW channel and hosts as many as eight plug-ins. These plug-in ‘chains’ can be archived so if you like a particular combination of compressor, EQ and limiter plug-in for processing (for example) a vocal, you can store and recall the chain as well as the parameters of each individual plug-in for the chain.

eMotion ST is a software mixer with extremely low-latency monitoring (0.8 mS) and plug-in processing. Taking advantage of eMotion ST requires either a DiGiGrid interface with a built-in DSP server, or the addition of a SoundGrid DSP server to the network, which moves the processing grunt work from your computer into the server. The IOX functions as an interface only, and does not provide the ability to perform DSP but a DSP server could be added to the network at any time.

After downloading the installer, getting the IOX up and running in the Death Star Studio was fairly simple. You’ll need to visit the Patch page in the SoundGrid Studio application to make sure that the interface is recognized and to enable communication between the computer and the IOX.

Screenshot 1 shows the SoundGrid Studio inventory page. In the left column you’ll see the IOX, and it’s identified as the master clock, 44.1 kHz (blue lettering indicates all is well). The middle column lists the computer as a Software I/O device. Our network did not feature a DSP server so that column is empty. For that reason, the Mixer tab at the top (which would appear to the left of where it says “Patch”) is disabled.

IOX_Screen3

Screen 2 shows the Patch page where we have enabled routing between the Core Audio streams and the IOX. Notice how Core Audio Streams 1 and 2 are assigned to the IOX’s analog outputs 1 and 2 and also to Phones 1L and 1R. This allows us to route the main outputs from the DAW simultaneously to a pair of monitors and a pair of headphones for a quick-n-dirty “control room mix to cue” for a lead vocal overdub. The phones can also be patched from other Core Audio streams to create discrete headphone mixes using different streams from the computer. This needs to be done only once. Setups may be saved and recalled so if you wanted to have one patch for routing multiple headphone mixes you can save and recall it when necessary.

IOX_Screen2

Screen 3 shows the I/O control screen, accessed by double-clicking the IOX graphic in screen 1. To control a channel, click on its box. In this case we are controlling Input 1 (highlighted in orange). Coarse input gain is set to 37.5 dB, fine gain to 3.5 dB, and the meter is showing that we had a peak of -29.9. The orange lights in the lower right corners of inputs 5, 6, 7 and 8 indicate that phantom power has been turned on for those channels. Clicking on a line output will show the meter for that channel.

IOX_Screen3

It would be useful if we could see meters for input and output channels simultaneously ‘though you can always see the headphone output meters. Inputs and outputs can be named, and all of this information can be saved. It’s not as intuitive for an old timer like me to use the computer to control input gain, but it does offer a lot of convenience. For example I could store a setup to record drum tracks where all gain and phantom settings have been archived. It’s also in step with the concept of putting the IOX in the studio where it offers several advantages:

•The preamps are closer to the microphones which is always a good thing

•The IOX requires no additional gear to act as a four-mix headphone station — eliminating a piece of gear that you’d otherwise need to purchase. While we are on the topic of headphones, the IOX’s headphone amps flex a fair amount of muscle, easily running a pair of vintage AKG K240s to very loud levels (these were given to me by the Emperor when I built his first broadcast studio) — a notable feat given the difficulty that most headphone amps have driving these low-impedance ‘cans. You should see me try to fit them underneath my helmet… Keep in mind that the IOX does not provide control over output level so you will need a means for controlling monitor volume.

We used the IOX over a period of months on a variety of sessions, placing it both in the control room and in the studio. For tracks where I played a nalargon and also had to engineer, I could place the IOX next to me, connect it to my laptop and run I/O levels quite easily. The preamps don’t provide tons of gain but they certainly had enough to make quiet recordings of the nalargon. When I tried a session recording a Traz and then an old-style acoustic guitar using an RCA 74B ribbon mic, the IOX’s preamps were quiet enough not to add any noise, but even when set for maximum gain I could have used another 8 or 10 dB of gain to make the recording level a bit more healthy. Perhaps more importantly, the character of that microphone came through in all its old-school glory.

On a traditional trap kit for the new Figrin Da’n solo record (you heard it here first) we used a variety of microphones: Sennheiser e602 II for kick, Shure SM57 on snare, Audix D2s for toms, Shure PGA181s for overheads, beyerdynamic CK703/CV720 for hat, and a Bock U195 for the room The drum recordings sounded great. The kick drum was solid with an extended low end, cymbals were clear without being aggressive, and the toms sounded like toms. Though we did not have a SoundGrid server on the network, latency was not an issue even when overdubbing to a click.  The IOX and SoundGrid Studio application both proved to be very stable: we never experienced a crash or hang up when using them.

The DiGiGrid IOX is a very powerful recording interface, not only because it provides good sound and convenience but also because it offers the possibility of expansion. Additional inputs can be added to the network, and a SoundGrid server can be incorporated when you find your CPU needs help handling plug-in DSP. Headphone routing is thoughtfully implemented, offering the ability to send a quick “identical to the control room L/R mix” as well as discrete cue mixes to each of the four ‘phones outputs. If your future includes multiple workstations, you can attach additional computers to the network, and they can share audio files as well as the network DSP resources. Combined with the IOX’s I/O capabilities, those features make the IOX a powerful tool.

Darth Fader is recovering after working on dialogue replacement for Episode VII.

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Bill Evans

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