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DSP Accelerators for Digital Audio Workstations
An easy way to add processing oomph to your digital audio rig
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The big day is finally here. You've done all your magazine research, scoured the internet, and questioned your audio savvy friends to no end. Armed with enough information to fill the Library of Congress, you dive headfirst into the world of computer audio recording only to find that some things are not what they seem. Why, after purchasing the mightiest machine that you could get your hands on, are you hitting the bottom of what was supposed to be an endless well of CPU power? Although there are some recording applications that are more efficient than others, many task intensive plug-ins, reverb in particular, will always pull heavier on a native system. This strain can bog down your computer and limit your plug-in count. If you are new to the game - welcome. If you are an old hand - we've all been there. So, unless you are ready to plunk down a big chunk of change on a hardware based system, what can you do?

DSP accelerators like these boost your audio processing power

Computers today are fast - very fast by standards set only a few years ago. Their processing capability allows for the recording and editing of vast amounts of audio and video without so much as a hiccup. When we pile on the tasks however, even the finest of the bunch can be made to reach their limit. A few companies have heard the pleas for more plug-in processing power and have decided to tackle this problem head-on. DSP accelerators come in a variety of flavors with manufacturers filling every niche with a matching system. From portable Firewire to desktop PCI based options, there is something to be had for every power-hungry computer audio user. By carrying the processing load themselves, these accelerators allow you to open more instances of your favorite software instruments and signal processors while relieving the strain on your computer. There are also several resource-intensive plug-ins available for these units that will only run with the aid of the extra power that they provide.

The Hardware
T.C. Electronic was one of the first companies to address this issue with their well received Powercore PCI cards. The new versions, updated to take advantage of the latest PCI bus specifications, are available as the PCI mkII, Unplugged and Express. The Powercore PCI mkII fits into a standard PCI/PCI-X slot and the Powercore Express fits into a PCI Express slot - that's the only difference between the two cards. The Unplugged version is identical to the PCI mkII but comes without plug-ins. If you prefer an external solution, or if you are using a laptop, then the Powercore Firewire and the Powercore Compact are ready to deliver. The Powercore Firewire contains the same 4 DSP count as the PCI models and comes in a 19" rack-mountable housing. The Compact packs 2 DSP chips into a slim package that is perfect for mobile studio applications. If you're worried about running out of horsepower, have no fear; multiple Powercores of all types can be used simultaneously.

Universal Audio is another early contributor to the cause; their UAD-1 PCI card is now available in a PCI Express version - the UAD-1e Express. Up to 4 PCI cards can be used in one system and their cost effective Project PAK, or Express PAK for PCI Express users, represents an outstanding value for anyone looking to add horsepower to their existing setups. Their new laptop friendly UAD-Xpander is a forward thinking piece that connects via the ExpressCard slot now found on the latest Mac and Windows machines. U.A. has decided to take advantage of the higher transfer rates available with the new ExpressCard standard, and have produced a portable solution that packs all the punch and compatibility of their PCI line.

Waves has put out an overwhelming assortment of plug-in processors over the years. The release of their APA (Audio Processing Accelerator) should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with their extreme range of choice and high quality. The APA32 is a 19" rack mountable box with a built-in cooling fan. The fan does create a bit of noise so Waves clearly has intended this model for machine room use, kept cool and far away from your recording area. The APA44-M is a silent half rack sized unit that, though smaller, boasts more processing power than its physically larger sibling. The 44 is dead quiet and is perfect for portable laptop or in-room applications. Both connect to your computer with standard Ethernet cables allowing up to 8 units to be used simultaneously or networked across several workstations.

Waves' powerful APA32 rack unit provides a great external solution

The Focusrite Liquid Mix is probably the most interesting looking of the bunch as it also serves as a control surface for the plugins that it hosts. With technology borrowed from their high-end Liquid Channel, the team at Focusrite has found a way to deliver an impressive number of top-quality EQ's and compressors in a more cost effective package. The rotary controllers offer welcome hands-on access to common adjustments, and the unit's visual display provides feedback for both EQ and compression settings. Because the Liquid Mix is FireWire connected, it will be equally at home in desktop or laptop environments.

Focusrite's Liquid Mix also serves as a control surface for the plugins that it hosts

Each company mentioned has developed a simple way of incorporating their plugin set with your DAW. After deciding on a desktop or mobile system, have a look at the plugins that each system offers and see which collection suits you best. If you crave more variety, make sure that you invest in a system that offers a good selection of add-on plugins for expanding your system.

Manufacturer Model Connectivity Included Plugins Upgradeability
TC Electronic Powercore Unplugged PCI/PCIx No included plugins/ hand-pick your favorites. Wide variety of TC and 3rd party plugins available like DVR2 professional reverb from System 6000, Harmony4 and Intonator HS, Sony Oxford, VoiceModeler, Virus and V-Station synths.
Powercore Express PCI Express Very respectable collection including reverb, mastering, vocal processing, filtering, and even a monophonic synthesizer.
Powercore Firewire FireWire
Powercore Compact FireWire
Universal Audio UAD-1 PCI/PCIx The U.A. basic set gives you flavorful compression, EQ, reverb, guitar processing and a full out channel strip. Most packages come with vouchers that can be applied towards your next plugin purchase. U.A. offers several different package sets and plugins are available separately from a long list. Some favorites are the LA-2A, Neve 1073 EQ, DreamVerb, Roland Dimension D and RE-201 tape delay.
UAD-1e PCI Express
UAD-Xpander Express Card
Waves APA32 Ethernet The APA ships empty but for a limited time Waves IR-L Convolution Reverb and Q-Clone EQ are available free with purchase. Waves produces on of the most complete lines of plugins out there. The APA draws on this experience and makes several tremendous reverb, EQ and sonic manipulation plugins available for this platform.
APA44-M Ethernet
Focusrite Liquid Mix FireWire Focusrite provides their own list of 20 EQs and 40 compressors modeled from the books of audio history. There is a free expanding library online. An optional DSP expansion card will increase your maximum channel count at higher sample rates.

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