I get a lot of people asking for my advice about what sound card they should buy, but many of them donít want to spend a lot of money. They arenít looking to record music professionally. They just want to do it as a hobby or just for fun. They also want to use the card not only for music, but for games and movies, etc. The question of whether or not they should get a Creative Labs sound card like the Sound Blaster or Audigy usually comes up. But I donít like to recommend those cards because of their limitations especially in the area of drivers. Too many problems. Unfortunately, there really hasnít been an all-around, low-cost card to take the place of the Creative Labs cards, until nowÖ Make way for the Revolution 7.1 from M-Audio.
In M-Audioís words, "the Revolution 7.1 allows PC and Mac owners to play DVDs and music in surround sound, experience more realistic gaming, and record or mix their own music. With direct analog output for up to seven speakers and a subwoofer, the Revolution 7.1 supports both 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound formats. The product also supports stereo, 4.1 and 6.1 formats, and features Dolby Digital and DTS pass-through. Users lacking a surround speaker system can still enjoy pseudo-surround via two speakers with the built-in SRS TruSurround XT and Circle Surround II technologies. For gamers, the Revolution 7.1 supports todayís popular game technologies such as Sensaura, EAX, DirectSound, A3D, as well as Windows Media Audio 9. Specs such as 24-bit, 192 kHz audio, a high 107dB signal-to-noise ratio, and low distortion rating of 0.0031% ensure that sound is clear and clean." My main concern was how well this card would work in a basic home studio environment.
The true test of any consumer sound card is the quality of its drivers. Unfortunately, most provide poor drivers. Sure, they work fine for most basic computer operations like playing games, listening to music, etc. But when it comes to home recording, you need great drivers that provide efficient performance as well as flexibility in order to use the card with most music software. First and foremost, the card should provide both WDM and ASIO drivers. These are the two most important driver formats when it comes to recording audio on a PC. Iím happy to report that the Revolution provides both. And the quality of these drivers is excellent. You should be aware of the fact that Iím talking about the latest version of the drivers, which are available for download from the M-Audio site. The drivers that actually shipped with the card were very buggy. I should also mention that I tested the Revolution under Windows XP, although it should perform well under other versions of Windows.
I tried using the Revolution with a number of different music software applications including Cakewalk Sonar, Project5, Cubase SX and more. The latency of the drivers was very good and they performed without any trouble. In addition, one of the best things about the Revolution when it comes to recording is that its drivers give you access to all of the cardís individual outputs. Most other consumer cards do not do this. Instead, they sum the outputs and only give you access to a single stereo pair. With the Revolution, you get four individual stereo outputs, which means that you can send 8 audio tracks of your music each to a separate output (using 1/8-inch to RCA cables) for outboard mixing or processing. Very nice! Of course, when it comes to inputs, you are limited to only one stereo input. The card provides two input jacks (a line input and a mic input) but these are summed so you canít use them individually. Another plus though is you also get a SPDIF digital output.
The Revolution ships with a number of software applications including Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 (full version), VJ Lite (full version), WinDVD 4 (Dolby Digital EX version), Propellerhead Reason (trial version), Ableton Live (trial version), over 100 sounds and loops, and a free M-Powered Artists CD sampler. Not bad considering it costs money to license these products for inclusion, but something better for music-making would be nice. Even a lite version of Ableton Live. More importantly though is the mixing control panel included with the Revolution. Itís very flexible and provides a wide array of features. You can set up all kinds of different listening scenarios when it comes to surround sound. You can also control all the individual output levels. And you can even set ASIO buffer size to control the amount of latency you get in your music applications. Now this is what I was talking about earlier. Itís this type of quality and flexibility provided by the Revolution via its drivers that make for a superior consumer sound card.
What about the quality of sound though? Well, Iím glad to say that it is superb. M-Audio has used some high-performance chips in this card to make the sound even comparable to some professional cards. If I were to make a comparison, there would really be only a few things missing from the Revolution to make it a pro card. They would be more inputs (at least one more, as well as a digital input), 1/4-inch or XLR balanced connections, possibly a breakout box, and MIDI support. The Revolution doesnít provide a joystick port, which many other consumer cards use for MIDI connections (with the purchase of a converter cable). Nor does the Revolution provide regular MIDI ports, so in this case you would need to invest in a separate MIDI interface. Personally, I think itís better to have a dedicated MIDI interface anyway, and M-Audio makes some very nice ones including the Midisport 2x2 for small needs and the Midisport 8x8 for larger studios.
But comparing the Revolution to a professional sound card really isnít fair because itís targeted for the consumer market. In that regard, the Revolution provides the best quality and best performance from any other consumer card on the market. The Revolution provides a great value. From now on, Iíll be recommending this card to any of my readers who ask about a high-quality, low-cost sound card to be used to record music as a hobby or just for fun.