DiGiGrid is the UK based manufacturer of the well known IOS and DLS servers for running SoundGrid plug-ins in a DSP type workflow. This technology is strongly associated with Waves, who was instrumental in the development of the software side of the SoundGrid system and since they announced their intention not to support AAX DSP back in 2012 the SoundGrid system and its associated server hardware has been the only way to access a DSP type experience using Waves products.
This association between SoundGrid and Waves has been both helpful and arguably a hindrance to the development of the SoundGrid ecosystem as it tends to skew the perception of SoundGrid as a way of running plug-ins on external hardware, a kind of modern TC Powercore perhaps, and this overlooks the underlying technology of SoundGrid - A very capable AoIP technology similar in function to Dante and RAVENNA.
I ran a story on the blog some time ago highlighting a trend in AoIP hardware towards smaller endpoints. The first generation of AoIP hardware aimed towards studio use, were I/O boxes with channel counts upwards of eight in each direction but one of the principal advantages of networked audio is the possibility of a network of many, smaller network nodes with the possibility of expanding the network as demand grows in the same way as you would add extra computers to a computer network. That is exactly what the Desktop range of DiGiGrid interfaces is about and in reviewing this range I’ve started with the biggest of the range which most closely matches a traditional desktop USB or Thunderbolt interface - the D.
The D is a compact, 4 in, 6 out 96KHz desktop interface with two mic preamps and basic monitor controls. At 22 x 16 x 8cm it’s larger in the flesh than I had anticipated and any assumption that it would be in any way flimsy were quickly corrected by its reassuring weight of 1.7 Kg. I’ve always thought that desktop interfaces should be heavy so they can pass the headphone test - Any interface with a headphone socket on the front should be able to have its headphone jack inserted and removed without needing a second hand to hold it still. The D really needs to put on a little more weight before it gets there but it’s certainly no mBox!
The slightly purple blue paint with the stylised graphic legending and rubberised knobs give an attractive look. I was unsure about the form factor as, although it continues the aesthetic theme of the other members of the desktop range, because of its different shape I wondered whether a slanted top panel might have made it more useable. In practice I found it very comfortable and although initially, I preferred it propped up to tip it towards me, after a few days I forgot all about it and stopped feeling like I needed to peer over the top panel to operate it. This was probably because the interface is very simple and extremely clearly laid out, there really isn’t much to get confused about. The 3 colour meters are clearly calibrated on the inputs and the double ladder arrangement of LEDs surrounding the pleasingly large and extremely smooth headphone and monitor level controls are a nice touch. The monitor meters are pre- fade and the headphone meters are post-fade so the headphone meters give a clue to the apparent level whereas the monitor control does not.
One thing to be aware of is that all this sleek, uncluttered black design does mean that there is no marking on the Headphone and Monitor level pots - they are analogue pots too, none of the knobs on the D are encoders. Unfortunately this does mean that it isn’t possible to tell visually whether the pot is down or fully cranked! If I was using these is a teaching space, something which because of the network functionality they would be particularly well suited, I’d definitely be putting little stickers on the knobs.
Inputs And Outputs
The complement of I/O on the D makes it perfect for typical desktop interface use. It would make an excellent replacement for a typical USB interface, in terms of quality it would match the very best of that category, and of course, it offers the option of expansion and integration into a bigger, networked system. On the input side, there are two mic inputs and two line/Hi Z inputs. The mic preamps are the standout feature of this interface for me. They offer a generous 70dB of very clean gain and handle passive ribbons and dynamics with ease. So many interface preamps are too noisy and lack enough gain to allow recording of quiet or distant sources with anything other than condenser mics and it is really welcome to see such serious preamps on a desktop interface. I tracked a singer songwriter using this interface with a BAE 1073 on the line inputs and at no point did I worry about the relative quality of the preamps, it was just a question of tone which is as it should be. The usual trio of polarity, phantom power and HPF are available and the HPF is interesting in that it is an 18dB/Oct filter at 100Hz rather than a more typical 12dB/Oct at 80 ish. As such it provides a little more protection against bumps and plosives than many other preamp filters.
The line/Hi Z inputs are on 1/4” TRS jacks and can be switched between Inst and line settings from the top panel. An 8 LED meter is used in place of the 12 LED meter on the mic inputs.
On the output side there are six available. A variable pair of monitor outputs controlled by the monitor knob, a single headphone out on the front controlled by the headphone knob and a fixed pair of outputs on the rear labelled 3&4. I wondered whether these were the best use of the available connectivity as I’d have welcomed an extra pair of line inputs in their place. Potentially they could drive an extra set of monitors but if so they would be more useful with level control and monitor switching from the top panel. They could feed a master recorder but that is rather unlikely in 2017. Another potential use would be to use them as the outputs along with the line level inputs to use with hardware inserts. If so that would suit Pro Tools users as they share the same numbers - 3&4 and so could potentially be set up as hardware inserts in the IO setup in Pro Tools. Signal routing is handled in the free SoundGrid Studio software and all the outputs can be independent of each other, carrying whatever combination of signals you care to assign.
Latency Free Mix
The Mix buttons on each input route the input directly to the output for latency free monitoring. I would have preferred a variable knob in this role rather than a switch as balancing the input against the track for overdubs involved either changing the preamp gain, not something I wanted to do, or varying the level of the track out of Pro Tools - again not ideal. Having control of the Mix level on the box would have been much more elegant and is a common feature on other interfaces.
One of the most appreciated features was a hardware mono button - something every interface really should have. A latching Dim button attenuates the output of the speakers and headphones and a dedicated mute for the speaker output is also available.
Power is provided by an external 12v PSU or if being used with a network switch which provides Power Over Ethernet (POE) it can run with the Ethernet cable providing data and power connections - Much tidier.
Network Port and Software
I’ve made it nearly to the end of this review and only just mentioned the Ethernet port. This is of course extremely significant. The fundamental difference between this and a conventional USB of Thunderbolt interface is the AoIP aspect of it and I’ve written an overview of SoundGrid in my Spotlight article. In this review, I’m concentrating on the functionality of the hardware and will be posting on the functionality of the D as part of a SoundGrid system in another post but suffice it to say that the Soundgrid Studio software which is used to manage system setup and signal routing is clearly laid out and easy to use. Installation of software and drivers is achieved through Waves Central. Anyone with a Waves account will be at home with the process.
What And Who Is The D For?
I see this as a very significant product in DiGiGrid’s current product lineup because it fulfils at least two very important roles. To a new SoundGrid User it is the most sensible point of entry. Core Audio and ASIO interfaces can be used with SoundGrid Connect but that isn’t the best way to experience the low latency of SoundGrid. There are smaller, cheaper DiGiGrid interfaces but If I could only have one it would be this one. it offers an adequate complement of IO to be useful along with headphone and monitor control. You might think it’s expensive compared to a conventional USB/Thunderbolt interface (it currently lists at a bit more than £650) but that would be misunderstanding this product. It is the first part of an expandable system which will grow with your needs and it is of high enough quality to remain useful irrespective of how your system and your expectations grow.
The other user I have in mind is someone who is heavily invested in Waves/SoundGrid plug-ins and wants a control room interface to offer some local IO and monitor control to go with their IOS/DLS servers and any IOX, IOC and MADI hardware they may have, for this the D neatly fills a gap in the lineup.
This interface and the whole Desktop range exceeded my expectations. The audio quality, the preamp performance and the construction and finish were all consistently high but I think the slightly cute appearance had led me to underestimate its performance. I was wrong, however unthreatening the appearance, these are grown up tools.
Clean Preamps with plenty of gain
Provides the missing link in Digigrid system
Ability to set up separate monitor and headphone mixes
Sturdy construction and clean design
No markings on big knobs
I’d prefer 6 inputs and lose the line outs
I’d prefer an mix knob to a switch