Gravis Ultrasound Studio 8
Sound Card for the PC
16-bit wavetable synthesis? 32-note polyphony? GM file support? Sounds like a job for Ian Waugh, and sounds like the product for any PC owner entering the wonderful world of digital sound.
One card, many uses - wavetable synthesis, digital audio, MIDI file play to name a few. But is it a production with too many extras?
The saga of the Gravis Ultrasound card reads like The Birth of a Nation. It was originally advertised about a year ago but at the time it was 'unavailable' to potential purchasers. When it did finally arrive the software still hadn't been completed to the developers' satisfaction and was soon updated. Since receiving the card in January of this year I've had several more software updates, a set of RAM chips and a MIDI cable adaptor. And apparently there's still another update to come! But you've got to jump in with a review at some point, so here goes...
What caused all the stir when the card was first announced was the fact that it uses 16-bit wavetable synthesis to produce its sounds rather than the elderly Yamaha FM chip used by most sounds cards. Somewhat akin to comparing a Peugeot to a Lada. The sounds themselves have to be loaded into the card's RAM before use (there are programs to help you do this) and there is a GM setup which effectively turns the card into a GM expander. What's more it's 32-note polyphonic.
All things considered, the sounds are pretty good, although not, perhaps, on a par with Roland and Yamaha stand-alone GM units. The string sounds in particular are rather thin - but then the Ultrasound is cheaper than an expander, you get lots of software with it and there are several hardware options.
It's a 16-bit (buss) card - though it can be fitted to an 8-bit slot - the driver having been designed to work with Windows 3.1 in 386 enhanced mode only. It's also a multimedia card in as much as it can play digital audio, MIDI files, mix internal and external audio sources and generally help turn your PC into a MPC (...if you have to ask what the 'M' stands for, buy a Nintendo). You'll need a massive 9Mb of hard disk space to install all the options, but you should find you can get by with 3.5Mb.
The program talks to you during the setup procedure (though it doesn't say much), and like most PC software, it modifies certain files (backing them up first) and writes other files all over your hard disk. (I hate this about PC software. How many packages have an uninstall routine!?)
The basic connector terminates in two MIDI plugs on the end of 4' of cable. This is fine if your keyboard/MIDI setup is within 4' of the back of your PC, otherwise it's useless. Surely a couple of MIDI sockets would have been more sensible? Then at least we could use MIDI cables long enough to suit our setups instead of having to buy a couple of female-to-female MIDI connectors.
As I've said, the card can do lots of things and there's certainly plenty of software to do it with. It's also compatible, to a degree, with Sound Blaster and Ad Lib cards. The results aren't identical - Ultrasound uses a different method of synthesis for a start, but in many cases it proves to be superior. A 'Readme' file on disk includes settings for several popular programs, although there are one or two which overwrite SBOS (the Ultrasound operating system), and so will not work with it. Selecting 'Play MIDI' allows you to play MIDI files through Ultrasound which reads them and maps its program changes to GM. Use of the Patch Manager also makes it possible to audition and load wavetable samples into the card, whilst audio data is recorded and played back (via the Line/Mic input sockets) using the USS 8 program. This doesn't run under Windows (though it does have its own GUI) and though facilities are fairly basic they do include Cut, Insert and Mix functions.
There are also VU meters to monitor the sample levels and the sample rate can be varied from 2-44.1kHz.
In spite of the card boasting 16-bit audio capability, sample recording and playback is only 8-bit. However, an optional 16-bit daughter board will soon be available and will provide 16-bit 48KHz simultaneous stereo recording and playback, onboard DSP and filtering, and will support data compression and multiple audio formats.
Power Chords is one of several new programs in the latest software update. It's a cute yet quite sophisticated Windows-based program which lets you construct a song from various music elements such as chords, drum parts, melodies - and so on. These appear as icons which you can drag around the screen. The demo runs through several styles such as rock, electronic, jazz, bluegrass and reggae. It's great fun - until the time comes for you to start creating new stuff of your own. Still, that's showbiz.
MIDIsoft's Recording Session is another amazing freebie. It's a MIDI sequencer with notation facilities, an event list and mixer windows (but no print out function). It works well; I particularly liked being able to click on an event and see it change in the notation window, though it would be nice to be able to click and drag the notes themselves.
It has clef, key and time signature options, scale velocity, transpose and quantise functions and also pan, solo, mute and record buttons for the mixer. It lacks some of the bells and whistles you might expect on a sequencer - even a budget one - but it's easy to use and will I'm sure prove popular, particularly in educational circles.
For the musician and PC user, a sound card can serve several purposes, and there's no doubt the Ultrasound will fulfil most, if not all, of these - even if the options will cost you extra. It's compatible with most games (if you use them) and it has a joystick port which will save you the expense of a separate adaptor. It also has that all-important MIDI interface, saving you the cost of a separate card (although the adaptor cable is, frankly, overpriced). The CD ROM interface connector will also save the cost of a separate card, but it too is an extra and will cost you more.
In terms of digital recording you'll find that 8-bit is fine for computer use but a little below today's level of acceptability for music recording. And 16-bit stereo recording, when available, will again be extra. Finally, there's the use of Ultrasound as a source of sounds (much better than those produced by the Yamaha FM chip). This, as I've pointed out, will require more than the standard 256K on-board RAM and that too will cost you extra.
In all, the card is a goodie but the cost of the extras, as you might imagine, soon mounts up. That said, you may still find the total price cheaper than buying separate cards, and combining everything dramatically reduces the risk of interrupt clashes - installing PC cards is still one of the cruellest tricks IBM played on man!
So do your sums. If you're in the market for a sound card and want to use it as a sound source, too, the Ultrasound has got to be near the top of your list.
Price: Ultrasound Studio 8, £199.99 inc VAT.
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Review by Ian Waugh
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