We’re pleased to welcome James Grahame to CDM; James is the editor of the fantastic Retro Thing blog as well as the owner of the music electronics company Reflex Audio. James is a master of finding value in vintage gear, even recently pre-owned equipment. Here, he tells us how to get some DSP muscle in our music systems for a lot less money. -Ed.

There comes a point in every electronic musician’s life when they run out of computing power. It usually happens while adding the last track to an earth-shattering magnum opus. Most of us respond by dreaming of shiny new multi-core machines, but there is a clever alternative: Add an affordable second-hand Digital Signal Processing (DSP) card to share the workload.

There are several top-notch DSP audio cards on the market including the TC Electronic Powercore series, the Universal Audio UAD-1e and the Creamware Scope series. Each card offers from one to 14 dedicated DSP chips to generate real-time effects and virtual instruments without taxing your computer’s processor. The only problem is the price – expect to pay at least $1000 for a reasonable combination of hardware and software plug-ins.

Luckily, there are some great second-hand bargains out there.

Used Creamware Scope cards currently offer the best bang for the buck (or euro, if that’s your persuasion). They were first introduced as the Pulsar series in the late 1990s. The hardware has remained stable for a few years, which means there is a good supply of used cards available for as little as $100. The current line-up consists of Scope Home (3 SHARC DSP chips and audio I/O), Scope Project (6 SHARC DSP chips with audio I/O) and Scope Professional (14 SHARC DSP chips, audio I/O and a really large plug-in library).

Up to three Scope cards can be installed in a single computer. They can be linked using a proprietary Z-Link cable [update: it's actually an STDM cable] to create a single seamless DSP system that doesn’t tax your machine’s PCI bus. This makes it possible to purchase any combination of up to three Scope cards to expand your system from an affordable 3 DSP starter package into something frighteningly powerful.

Used Scope cards are inexpensive if you know where to look. You’ll find the occasional bargain on eBay, but by far the best spot seems to be the impressive Planet Z forums. This is the Creamware user community. The ‘Scope Purchasing’ sub-forum is home to some great deals. If you’re patient, you should be able to pick up a used Scope Project (previously known as the Pulsar 2) for as little as $300, and I recently picked up a Scope Home (formerly sold as the Luna II, Elektra Modular and Powersampler) for a mere $100.

My Creamware system consists of three Scope Home cards with a total of nine SHARC DSP chips (yes, that’s it in the gloriously amateurish photo). It’s easily capable of running a handful of softsynths and effects. I paid less than $400 for the hardware and upgraded to the latest software – Scope 4.5 – for an additional 98 euros (the upgrade is now 198 euros, with your choice of a free extra plug-in). This software gives me 57 different effects that range from reverbs to vocoders along with 12 synthesizers, a sampler and six different mixers. Each card comes with a minimum of 2 analog I/Os plus MIDI. Add-on breakout boxes are available that support up to 36 analog or digital I/Os per card.

Now for the bad news: The current version is Windows-only. The system supports Windows Multimedia drivers (Audio + MIDI) as well as ASIO drivers with fast ‘in hardware’ support. Scope devices don’t operate like traditional VST or DXi plug-ins: they can only run on Scope hardware and are patched into your sequencing package through a sometimes-confusing ASIO / MIDI patchbay. That said, some Scope effects and instruments can be used in a special XTC ‘host’ mode that makes them appear as VST devices within your favourite VST-compatible sequencing package.

Creamware went through a rough patch in 2005 and reorganized to focus on a new line-up of virtual analog synthesizers based on their popular Scope algorithms. It will be interesting to see whether the Scope cards will be updated to work with Microsoft Windows Vista when it is released in early 2007.

In any case, a Scope card or two can add significant possibilities to a maxed-out music production system. Just be sure to purchase a software upgrade to thank the Creamware team for helping you to complete your magnum opus.

SCOPE platform overview [Creamware]

  • Valis

    A few things to add:

    Z-link is actually CW's proprietary 'firewire' interconnect that connects a Scope card to their external "a16 ultra" 16 i/o box. It facilitates having all 16 i/o @ 2496 (unlike ADAT which will halve the number of channels via s/mux with each samplerate bump). The cable that connects multiple cards internally is called an STDM cable, larger cards have more than one stdm connector for additional inter-card bandwidth.

    According to the 'rumor' mill, Vista support probably won't be coming for the current line of Scope cards and the Scope software. OSX support is out too. Which means that when you move to Vista (or for those of you on OSX already) the best option for using a Scope system is to install the cards in an older/secondary PC and use midi & ADAT to route your signals. This is how I have mine setup already as I use RME in my main DAW.

    I actually find I prefer this especially since I mix on an analog mixer and don't have to worry about complicated routing schemes back into my DAW app. I used to mix in Scope which is excellent sounding although professional users should familiarize themselves with the phase issues in Scope but now that I've moved my Scope setup into a secondary machine I find I'm unleashing a lot more power for synthesis & effects chains as the mixing duties are mostly external now. Sitting in a studio with a small collection of other hardware, lots of software and several other machines I can honestly say the Scope box is the best hardware investment I've made outside my primary DAW.

    Also no article on Creamware cards is complete without a mention of Adern's Flexor 3rd party modules to Creamware's excellent Mod III (and Mod II) modular system or Zarg Music home of John Bowen's incredible SOLARIS synth. Also make sure you check out the Devices section on Planetz's forums for a wealth of free tools.

  • http://www.retrothing.com/ James Grahame

    Thanks, Valis. You're absolutely right about the STDM/Z-Link mixup; that's what I get for writing posts late at night!

    I'm glad you mentioned John Bowen, too (for those don't know, he worked for Moog before joining Dave Smith's Sequential Circuits. He worked with Creamware to design some of their softsynths, and offers a variety of wonderful Scope-based synths through Zarg Music).

  • Damon

    Very helpful info. Thanks! This never occured to me.

  • http://arcadeboards.exterior-coatings.com/ab dave clark

    by any chance would you be so kind valis and measure the performance of these cards vs a cpu plugin

    run x amount on the dsps and then a similar amount on a cpu

    would be good to sum up their power then

    thanks

    dave

  • Valis

    Dave, the plugins that run on Creamware cards are specific to the Creamware platform and so you can't really make a 1:1 comparison. If you'd like to know more there has been extensive discussion on KVR (biased towards native/vst) and Planetz.com/forums/ (where Creamware users seem confidant in their platform). PlanetZ users will know the exact SHARC chip used, and what it's 'performance' would be in terms of number crunching, as well as being able to provide more in-depth discussion on why this isn't necessarily the best way to rate the power of a given algorithm or platform.

  • http://arcadeboards.exterior-coatings.com/ab dave clark

    so would 3 scope pros do the trick then

    42 dsp`s`

    ;0)

  • Valis

    Actually 45(minus one)

    The Scope Pro (Powerpulsar) cards have 15 dsps, but one dsp is used to handle the Scope OS. Enough people complained about 'only having 14 dsps' available in Scope that Creamware (wisely? confusingly?) changed the specs for the cards. I wonder though if it would really use one dsp PER CARD, or just a single dsp total (yielding 44 usable). I only gave 2 cards/10 dsps so all I can do is sigh & wonder. :-p

  • Valis

    gave=have

    =P

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  • Donald Cowen

    I know where I can get 2 Transtech ASP-P15 quad SHARC DSP PCI boards+a 2 gig memory board, all for $75…8 SHARC's!…2 gigabytes!…$75!

    Sounds good to me, even tho' I can't get any software. Used, of course, but the extra memory alone seems to be a good deal. I suppose I'm not gonna be really technologicly advanced, but I can learn on this.

    What do you think, guys?

    Donald

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