I know many readers of the blog have been hoping for a review of the Waves DiGiGrid units for some time. A little back story, when we first looked at this range we were sent a DiGiGrid DLS, the unit is aimed at those with Avid/Digidesign hardware as part of a Pro Tools HD system. To be honest we found the whole user experience not as elegant as we would have hoped for, partly because it involves using the Avid hardware. We've fed this information back to Waves and we know they are working hard to continue to develop the product from user feedback.
On reflection we think the real strength of the DiGiGrid platform is to offer those wanting a DSP solution but who do not either wish to invest in the Avid Pro Tools HD ecosystem or who do not use Pro Tools, or as is more likely these days who use more than one DAW and want to be able to use their hardware with all of them. Therefore we decided to review the DiGiGrid IOS which offers a HD solution for owners of all DAWs.
The DigiGrid IOS At A Glance
The hardware interface consists of an 8-channel Ethernet Audio Interface with Built-in SoundGrid DSP Server, with 8 Mic/Line Inputs, 8 Line Outputs, 2 Headphone Outputs, S/PDIF, AES/EBU, and MIDI
The DigiGrid IOS consists of two parts, the DigiGrid IOS hardware and the Waves SoundGrid Studio software. The hardware is 8 x 8 audio interface and SoundGrid DSP server in a single 2U rack unit. Reconnection to the computer is via a Cat 5e/Cat 6 Ethernet cable. The hardware spec in detail is as follow.
- Computer Connectivity - Ethernet/USB
- Form Factor - Rackmount
- Simultaneous I/O - 8 x 8
- A/D Resolution - 24-bit/192kHz
- Built In DSP/FX
- Analog Input Types - 8 x Neutrik
- Analog Output Types- 8 x TRS or 1 x DB25
- Digital Input Types - 1 x AES/EBU
- Digital Output Types - 1 x AES/EBU, 1 x S/PDIF
- MIDI I/O In/Out
- Clock I/O 1 x Word Clock
- 8 High quality preamps
- Phantom Power Yes
- Rack Spaces 2U
Whilst there's been a lot of talk about the technology behind the Waves DigiGrid IOS platform this may have overshadowed an equally important discussion which is the sound. The sound is very good, in fact so good it left me a little shocked, I plugged in a Shure SM7 and then my headphones on one of the two headphone sockets and was simply blown away by the sound. On talking to the team at DigiGrid it transpires that both the input stages and the headphone stages come from the Digico SD7 console, I'm not sure how much is being made of this right now, but if you are choosing some new I/O then find a dealer that has the units in stock and then simply listen to the units. To make sure I wasn't imagining things I checked some of the customer reviews online, one owner and reviewer Ivan Lee left a review on the Sweetwater web site had gone into some detail about his tests and said this;
"To me the IOS preamps are very good but the boutique ones have a particular sound that some may find compelling enough to invest in. Regardless, I am confident that any of these will make a great recording. For comparison, the NPNG Dual Mic Preamp costs $2600 and the John Hardy M1 dual is ~$1900 with dual output transformers. The IOS sells on Sweetwater for $3196.
In all of these tests I have no doubt that others will find differences that I did not. Whether these are significant to the user is the key thing. For me and what I believe to be the overwhelming majority of users out there, the preamps and converters of the IOX (and IOS) are excellent sounding and will make great recordings."
Moving on to the second part of the puzzle, to use this system one must have the Waves SoundGrid Studio software. This software consists of the drivers, as well as a very comprehensive set of pages where set up your inputs and outputs, headphone and monitor mixes as well as complex routing between your hardware and your computer.
In true Pro Tools Expert tradition I made sure I tried to get up and running without reading the user manual and to be fair I was able to use the system as intended without having to do that. However I also wanted to see if I could track with the plug-ins I was monitoring through and after a quick Skype call with their Product Specialist Dan Page that was also achieved too.
So the software allows you to both monitor and track with Waves plug-ins using the onboard DSP of the DigiGrid hardware, this of course mean near-zero latency tracking with plug-ins. With the right settings you can print the plug-ins to the track as you record, this can be done on a track by track basis. So if you want to record a set of drums and print the plug-ins whilst recording a vocalist who wants some reverb in their cans, but you don't want to print it, then you can. What you can also do is use the DSP in the hardware to push the processing of Waves plug-ins back to the DSP server when mixing. This is elegant and simply requires you to use their free StudioRack hardware and then press a button to tell it to use either DSP or native processing.
As a side note, user of Studio One can also use the StudioRack software on their input inserts to track with the plug-ins, a feature not possible with all DAWs. There's a great video made by Mitch Gallagher at Sweetwater showing the Waves DigiGrid IOS in action below.
As I said at the start of this review when I first tried to use a DSL with a HDX rig I found the experience to be less elegant than I would have hoped for, having to use inserts to send the audio to and from the HD hardware. However Im glad I tried the DigiGrid IOS in a native environment as it gives a HD experience irrespective of the DAW/s you use, in fact the sheer simplicity of the connectivity, set-up combined with the quality of the audio, as well as the ease of expandability make this a very attractive proposition for those wanting a DSP solution for a native DAW such as Pro Tools native, Logic Pro or Studio One. I measured a latency of 1.5ms with a 32 sample buffer at 96Khz. which keeps the IOS in the same ballpark of other similar solutions.
This is definitely something those working in small post houses, working as post professionals from home or those working in music production should seriously consider. Expandability is a cinch using a simple Cat 5e/Cat 6 Ethernet cable and hooking another box to the system. In terms of price it is comparable to the UA Apollo 8P and significantly cheaper than an Avid HDX card and interface solution. I've made it no secret that I jump between Pro Tools and Studio One so for me this is a HD solution I can use in both.
One other things that Waves/DigiGrid should consider and that is a small version of an interface for use in VO booths, the ability to have a simple mic with headphone cue via a network connection could make them a lot of friends.
Obvious comparisons are going to be made with Universal Audio's Apollo and in reality the choice may come down to what plug-ins you use most. Of course one option is that if you don't want to put you eggs all in one basket then have a mixed economy of both systems, but if push came to shove and you were starting from scratch then I can't underestimate the value of a listening test coupled with an assessment of which plug-ins you use a lot.
In much the same way that a UAD solution locks you into buying UAD powered plug-ins, a Waves solution is going to lock you into using Waves plug-ins on the DSP platform, although Waves will be announcing which third party developers are joining the DiGiGrid platform soon. That said, the AAX DSP plug-in list is hardly comprehensive and this was part of the reason I decided to move away from using HDX. So when buying any DSP solution you have to decide which plug-ins you want to use on the DSP platform, or in fact which ones you use a lot and which ones you would use for both the low-latency tracking when recording and for the heavy lifting when mixing.
One small niggle is the fan noise, as regular readers of this blog know I am OCD when it comes to fan noise and it wouldn't be fair to criticise other interfaces like the Avid Omni on this and then ignore the issue with the IOS. It isn't terrible but for those working in the same room as the microphones then you may want to move it somewhere else. Which brings me to my next point, because connection is via a network cable you can easily move this elsewhere in your studio or home set-up, perfect for those who may have a post house in Soho, those buildings rarely make running cables easy!
So in closing I have to say that my second outing with the Waves DigiGrid IOS has completely changed my mind, this interface is easy to set-up, great sounding and the software is flexible enough to give you all the options you need for tracking and mixing. As a DSP solution to use with a native DAW then the Waves DigiGrid IOS is a great interface and anyone considering taking the DSP route should check this out.