In remote broadcast or radio news operations, laptop-based portable editing systems are essential tools for collecting and preparing reports. For laptops particularly, the audio interface options have always been a question of tradeoffs: price, size, convenience, compatibility, durability. On-board laptop audio suffers from low separation, noise and inappropriate interfaces (such as ⅛" connectors and mic-level inputs).
Professional PC-card audio adapters correct all these problems but typically are expensive, fragile and have limited capabilities. Several manufacturers released USB-based interfaces aimed at the prosumer market, but these tend to be unwieldy, need extra equipment and often have driver issues with PCs. In my applications, I settled on the fragility trade-off in favor of having driver problems and the disadvantages other portable adapters offered.
Digigram audio interfaces have been used for years in radio automation and editing systems. The company has built a solid reputation for reliable audio/computer interfaces. The company obviously researched the deficiencies in the market, like those mentioned above, and created a professional-grade audio adapter that operates via USB. The Digigram UAX220 is a USB-compliant interface that offers professional-level stereo inputs/outputs and addresses all of the typical portable adapter problems.
Performance at a glance
USB 1.1 audio compliant
Powered through USB connection
Neutrik XLR and locking headphone connectors
Windows XP, Mac OS X and Linux compatible
Two balanced analog inputs and outputs
Zero-latency direct monitoring
Headphone level control
The UAX220 is a USB 1.1 device that is designed to be used with just about any PC with a USB port. Audio input/output is through XLR connectors using professional level standards. It also sports a ¼" standard headphone jack for monitoring. The UAX220 has a long USB cable connected to the breakout box and 24" long XLR cables so the cable snake can be both accessible but out of the way. The device is fully USB-powered, eliminating the need for a wall-wart as with many USB-style interfaces.
One feature makes this interface different and useful: headphone monitoring. The cable breakout box also offers two particularly interesting options for portable editing. A manual headphone volume control and a headphone source selector switch is an extremely valuable feature because the computer screen controls are difficult to manage and can often be the cause of confusion and problems with the audio adapter's main outputs. It's easy to understand and operate.
Probably the best feature of the UAX220 is that it requires no special drivers to operate. Simply plug the device into any Windows 2000/XP, and, after loading Windows-standard drivers, the unit simply works. The adapter also supports Mac OS X and Linux systems.
The UAX220 operates at a native 48kHz sample rate, but firmware is available that can make it operate at lower rates. There are caveats to doing this, which are explained on the Digigram website. The unit is set for a +10dBu level = 0dBfs. The Windows driver doesn't offer input level control so levels will need to be adjusted by an external device. A user will need a preamp to boost mics to line level. The unit is a stereo in/out device so it's not designed to drive the outputs independently, although some audio editing software may be capable of using its own pan functions.
In the field
I used the interface with Adobe Audition and Audion Labs Voxpro and was not disappointed with the results. I found the audio quality to be typical of the Digigram adapters and the convenience unbeatable. The device is simple enough to use that we don't really train operators, but rather point out some highlights. Their work begins on the recording without hassles. The UAX220 comes with its own (nice) zippered case, which protects the unit when it is not in use. The unit is exceptionally light, even considering the five Neutrik XLR or TRS connectors, so it's not a burden in the laptop case. The breakout box is a bit large but considering the convenient cable lengths and the controls, this is not a problem.
I wasn't able to make the interface operate properly with a popular radio automation software but I am told that the automation software may need to be configured to operate with Digigram's SDK. I suggest contacting the software vendor if you have any concerns about using the UAX220 with certain systems.
The +10dB input and lack of software input level control takes a bit of getting used to. With professional equipment it's easy to overdrive the input, but because the noise floor is low it's easy to adjust the overall levels from the mixer to accommodate this. I also recommend some XLR fixed-level pads to add some headroom.
Digigram introduced the UAX220 at NAB2005, where it was awarded a Radio magazine Pick Hit award. As soon as it was available I got one and began working with it on laptop systems where I had been using the VX Pocket. As our editing systems return for repair with missing interface cables, broken adapters or software problems, I am simply replacing the audio interface with the UAX220 to just correct and avoid audio troubles. I've also begun using the interface for editing systems in locations where space is a premium.
Thomas is vice president of engineering for Westwood One Radio Networks, New York.
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