Sometimes a mistake can result in the purchase of a really neat product. Such is the case when Victory FM (home of the Liberty University Flames Sports Network) bought a laptop to use for field recording and audio playback. I hadn't thought much about specifics as far as the laptop was concerned, so when the GM asked for ordering specifications I only mentioned hard drive space and processor speed.
The laptop came out of the box with the expected 1/8" mini plug jacks on the integrated sound card. However, there were only two jacks: microphone in and line out.
Performance at a glance
Analog and digital I/O
Up to 24bit/96kHz audio
Two operating modes
Plug and play
"How am I supposed to connect this thing to a mixing board?" I asked myself. Sure, some creative in-line pads and matching devices would have allowed me to use the microphone input, but the idea didn't sit well. The key to solving this problem lay in the handy USB jacks on the side of the laptop. I had heard of several USB audio interfaces that were on the market. Luckily, I found a really great solution for a really great price.
I chose the Edirol UA-1EX from Roland for getting clean audio in and out of the laptop. Connecting to a PC or Mac through a USB port, the UA-1EX is about the size of a dollar bill, and about 1/2" thick, so it fits nicely in a laptop carrying case. It comes equipped with a built-in USB (also the power source) cable and RCA jacks for stereo analog line-level in and out connections. A ⅛" microphone jack provides a 3.3V for using a miniature condenser microphone. The system also accepts digital optical input and output connections, with the ⅛" mini output jack doubling as a stereo headphone output.
Buttons and knobs
From a buttons and knobs perspective, the interface is simple to use. An input volume control adjusts levels from the microphone and RCA line-level jacks, and a headphone volume control adjusts the headphone levels. A mode select switch allows it to operate in advanced mode, which uses drivers specific to the UA-1EX, or standard mode, which uses audio drivers specific to PC or Mac operating systems. On the backside of the device are a set of five dipswitches for making various changes to settings, such as recording and playback sampling rates (from 32kHz to 96kHz), changing the headphone and line output monitoring setup, and selecting between the digital or analog input sources. A solid green indicator shows USB connection to the PC or Mac and flashing green lights show input and output audio levels.
As mentioned earlier, the unit can be operated in advanced mode or standard mode. In the advanced mode, audio between the UA-1EX and the computer can be transferred at 16 or 24 bits and sampled between 32kHz and 96kHz. When using sequencer software that supports ASIO drivers (such as Cubase VST or Logic) the UA-1EX is best used in advanced mode. In fact, Edirol suggests that the advanced mode setting be the default for normal use. Standard mode uses the audio driver provided by the specific computer operating system and makes only 16-bit resolution available at frequencies between 32kHz and 48kHz.
The unit is shipped with a driver's CD and user's manual (which also fits nicely into the laptop carrying case). The equipment can be used with Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP and Macintosh operating systems. The interface is truly a plug-and-play item because no batteries or power supplies are needed (it's powered by USB).
When the UA-1EX is plugged into a USB port the computer automatically recognizes it and it becomes the default audio device, essentially canceling the on-board soundcard. On one rare occasion, I had to manually tell the laptop to make the UA-1EX the default device. By and large, it plugs in and runs like a champion. The unbalanced analog inputs (via RCA jacks) handle transients and overshoots well and preserve original program material perfectly. The output (also unbalanced) is clean with no bizarre noises or hums and buzzes. Latency has never been an issue thus far in my experience, but latency adjustments can be made as necessary when using the interface in advanced mode.
The user's manual graciously offers meticulous settings instructions, feature highlights and how-to's for different situations. Installing drivers and connecting hardware (especially for audio and video applications) on any machine inherently comes with its own possible setup issues, and Edirol addresses many popular snags that users may encounter.
A troubleshooting section in the manual is helpful and the appendices offer many useful tips to Window and Mac users alike. The manual is full of flow charts and diagrams to assist in everyday setup techniques or even more complex setups involving optical connections to DAT players, for example.
When looking for a cost-effective solution to interfacing audio with a laptop or even desktop computer, the Edirol UA-1EX does the trick. It is easy to install, travels well in the laptop bag and takes the stress out of capturing audio for non-linear editing on the fly.
Wygal is the programmer, engineer and Web designer for WRVL in Lynchburg, VA.
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