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Control Room

Byte the wax

D-to-D software triple-test

Article from The Mix, October 1994

Software for Mac, PC and Falcon


Producing direct-to-disk recording programs is fast becoming the software developers' favourite pastime, with packages available for a variety of platforms, at a variety of prices. In this three-way test, Ian Waugh takes a hard look at Software Audio Workshop (SAW) for Windows, SoundEdit 16 for Mac, and MUSiCOM 2 for the Falcon.

The Cutter window is where the hard editing takes place.


Once upon a time it was sequencers that the software developers were pre-occupied with, but now direct-to-disk recording is very much flavour of the month. It's hardly surprising. As hardware gets bigger, better and faster, programmers write to take advantage of it. You've only to look at the vast number of programs being released on CD ROM, to see how programmers have grasped all that extra storage capacity to their bosom. But you know what they say - give a programmer an inch of disk space and he'll take a mile!

Direct-to-disk recording has that sort of effect on programmers. In spite of the enormous increases in computer performance, hard disk speed and capacity, there is still a limit to what d-to-d recording can achieve. This is determined by the computer, the software and the digitising hardware which converts audio data to digital data and back again.

For example, most d-to-d systems have a range of digital effects, but not all can apply them during playback in realtime. To process audio data in this way requires a very powerful computer, or dedicated hardware. So now we're starting to see a wide range of d-to-d programs for various computers, aimed at different sectors at the market. In this feature we'll be looking at three systems for three different platforms - Mac, PC and Falcon - the varying retail prices show what you can expect to get for your money.

There are three things to remember when considering d-to-d systems. The first is that there is always a trade-off between quality and disk space. The higher the quality, the larger the sample data will be, and the more disk space it will require. The rule of thumb to use is that a CD quality recording (that is, stereo, 44.1kHz and 16 bits) uses around 10Mb of disk space per minute. You can half this if you're recording in mono, and half it again if you're only using 8 bits (suitable for multimedia, but not for music).

The second is that your computer is never fast enough, and the third is that your hard drive is never large enough. So bearing all this in mind, let's jump straight in.

MUSiCOM 2 for the Falcon



The Tools windows gives you quick access to MUSiCOM's major functions.

The Falcon, with its built-in DSP (Digital Signal Processor) chip is a natural for d-to-d recording, as the chip can perform analogue-to-digital conversions without the need for any additional hardware. We looked at several Falcon d-to-d systems over the past few months in one of our forerunners, MT magazine, and I strongly recommend you check out the feature in the August issue of The Mix, for more info about using the Falcon for d-to-d.

MUSiCOM was one of the first d-to-d programs for the Falcon and, being rather basic, was more of a way to dabble with d-to-d than make serious music. Version 2 is, however, altogether more substantial, and the uprated facilities turn it into a serious musical tool. The most obvious improvement is the windows-based interface, and the inclusion of a Tools window for quick access to the most commonly-used functions.

MUSiCOM works in mono or stereo, with a resolution of 8 or 16 bits, and supports eight sampling rates from 8.2 to 49.2kHz. To use the CD sampling rate of 44.1kHz, or the DAT rate of 48kHz, you'll need a digital interface, since the Falcon's internal clock cannot generate these rates directly. Compo is about to release a digital interface, but the program should also work with digital interfaces from other manufacturers. In the absence of a digital interface, you can still, of course, record using the Falcon's analogue input.

Select the sample rate and resolution, and the DSP input in the Parameter window.


Use the Peak Level window to set the volume - this is vital if you want to avoid distortion. An overload which can cause a tape to sound warm will only produce distortion with digital audio, so if you're used to pushing your analogue tape, you'll need to hold back with d-to-d. There's also a Spectrum Analyser, which shows the frequencies of the incoming signal. It's of limited practical value, although the manual suggests using it with a test signal and graphic equaliser to make adjustments.

Use the Disk Tools window to select the drive you want to record on. This tells you how much free space there is, and the length of recording time you have based on the current resolution and sampling rate.

The work is done in the aptly-named Cutter window - recording, playback, editing and so on. It has the usual tape recorder-type transport controls, and several icons which afford easy access to functions such as Zoom, Markers and the Clipboard.

A section of the screen tells you the exact size and position of a selected part of the waveform. Although the system can work with stereo samples, you can't edit the left and right channels independently.

Blocks can be marked by clicking and dragging across the waveform, up to 64 of them if required. You can enter them on the fly, too, which is particularly useful for marking long recordings. Markers are saved as part of the sample file, and this enables you to play a marked section and save it to disk. The program uses its own MSF file format but it also, thankfully, supports AVR files.

Good housekeeping


Oddly, there are no direct cut, copy or paste functions, although you can duplicate these by saving and loading blocks. And to cut a section, you must select the part you want to keep, save it as a block, load it again and then delete the original file. It's not exactly conducive to creative editing.

Timing information can be inserted in two ways. Use the clock to tell the program how many beats there are in a marked block, or use the Metronome to specify the number of beats per minute. With the tempo set, you can use the 'snap to' function to adjust the positions of blocks, so they sit squarely on the beat.

Sampling rates are convertible with the Oversampling function. If you only need 8-bit samples, for example, it's a good idea to record your stuff at 16 bits and then reduce it to 8 bits. This will help maintain the quality.

But MUSiCOM can do more than simply record and play back files. It actually uses a playlist, in which you can enter a list of blocks to be played in order. In the past, this type of advanced feature has been the preserve of pro d-to-d systems. MUSiCOM calls it Pattern mode, and you can add and remove sections by dragging them in and out of the list. It's an easy way to build up long songs from smaller recordings. You can also inserts pauses between sections, and copy them to clipboard. There's also a Jingles window, which lets you play samples consecutively or individually without having to put them in a pattern.

No d-to-d system would be complete without some digital effects, and MUSiCOM has five - Delay, Equaliser, Harmoniser, Flanger and Karaoke. Each one has its own set of parameters, 'though you can't twiddle these on the fly. Applying an effect permanently alters the wave file.

The effects are good and the EQ is particularly well endowed - a 10-band graphic with separate controls for the left and right channels. Only the display lets it down, by not showing the frequencies the sliders control. And as for the manual, as the old saying goes, a picture or two might have saved a thousand words.

The Equaliser is a 10-band jobbie with individual left and right channel controls.


Digital domiciliary


An obvious application for MUSiCOM is the re-editing of a master tape. Ideally, you would use the program with a digital interface, record the master from DAT, edit it and save it back to DAT again, all without leaving the digital domain.

The program is a little basic and it does have limitations. I couldn't get a couple of functions to work (playing back through the Falcon's speaker and saving the windows layout), and others aren't controllable with the mouse. Nothing on the screen tells you to expect this.

But considering the price, I don't want to be too hard on MUSiCOM 2. It's a great introduction to d-to-d recording on the Falcon, and it can show some of the more upmarket d-to-d programs a thing or two about value for money.

Synchronising sounds to QuickTime movies is so easy with SoundEdit 16.


Macromedia SoundEdit 16 for the Apple Macintosh



The trouble with d-to-d recording on the Mac is that the only machines with the necessary built-in hardware are the AV range. Okay, so all the recent Macs with built-in microphones have an 8-bit recording facility, but it's pretty low level for quality music production. If you don't have an AV you'll need something like Digidesign's AudioMedia card, which will set you back close to a grand.

It's a real shame there are no Mac equivalents of the £150 16-bit PC sound card. Surprising, too. You'd think some enterprising company somewhere would have produced one by now. If they have, it's not on sale here in the UK.

SoundEdit 16 is essentially an updated version of SoundEdit, which had become the industry standard for recording and editing audio data. You don't need a 16-bit card to use SoundEdit 16, as it lets you edit 16-bit, 44.1 kHz samples without an AV Mac or additional hardware.

But to record and playback this quality, you do require suitable hardware. There are lots of third-party audio clips available, so being able to edit 16 bits without being able to record them is not as daft as it sounds. In fact the package includes a CD ROM containing over 300Mb of royalty-free music and sound effects.

SoundEdit 16 lets you layer an unlimited number of tracks.


You oughta be in pictures


It's probably true to say that multimedia and digital video producers are SoundEdit's main target. The program has excellent support for QuickTime, although it can be used for pure music production, too. If you need to sync to external equipment you'll be pleased to know that SoundEdit 16 supports SMPTE. It can handle 11 different sound file formats, including Windows' WAV files and, if the hardware allows, a sampling rate of up to 64kHz.

Each sound you record has its own track, and the program supports an unlimited number of tracks. However, it doesn't function quite like a multitrack tape recorder - well, computers have limits, you know, as we've already mentioned. For example, you can't play back one track while recording another. You can, however, play back several tracks simultaneously, something you can't do on all d-to-d systems.

You can manipulate the data on each track with cut, copy and paste functions. There are also several powerful effects including amplify, backwards fade in and out, delay, echo, reverb, pitch-shift and equalisation. There's a bender, which lets you change pitch gradually over a predetermined time, an envelope generator and a flanger. And the tempo function can alter the duration of a recording without changing the pitch, something not even all the big-boy (ooerr - Ed) d-to-d systems can do.

Simple FM Synthesis is also possible, plus noise and tone generators with sine, square and triangular waveforms. Tracks are moved simply by dragging, so it's relatively easy to sync one with another. This feature comes into its own when you're working with QuickTime movies.

SoundEdit 16 was made for QuickTime movies.


Syncing a cinch


The program shows the movie frames along the top of the edit window, making it a doddle to line up sound effects with a particular frame. You can create and name cue points, to remind yourself where you need a hit. It's also easy to sync speech to musical cues and background music.

It's useful being able to work with several tracks at the same time. You can process each track separately, adjust their volumes and apply effects. When you're happy with the result, you can save everything as one file. The blurb says it's the only program to let you work with multiple tracks in QuickTime movies. I'm not aware of another which can, so I've no reason to doubt it. The BUILD program can also create sound-only QuickTime movies, which you can embed in any document which supports QuickTime.

As with MUSiCOM, even if you don't want 16-bit quality for the final recording, you'll achieve better quality if you work with 16 bits and then convert it to 8 bits. The influence of multimedia on SoundEdit 16 is easily seen, and it will undoubtedly find a very warm welcome with people involved in multimedia production.

The Controls window gives you quick access to commonly-used effects.


Now that QuickTime 2 has been released - and included in Apple's new System 7.5 - we can no doubt expect to see more QT movies. The latest version of QuickTime enables much larger pictures to be displayed without requiring any additional video hardware. There's also a QuickTime player for Windows, so QT movies can be used on both computer platforms.

SoundEdit 16 is easy to use for both simple recordings, and for adding sound to movies. The range of effects is impressive and the whole system is very flexible.


On the RE:MIX CD

Check out what SoundEdit 16 looks like, with our demo version on the RE:MIX CD-ROM


SAW's Record window makes it easy to check volume levels and set sample rates.


Software Audio Workshop for the PC



There is a feeling among musicians contemplating a computer purchase that the PC will give them the best performance for their money. And this is largely true. The world and his wife (or possibly concubine, given their oriental origin) are churning out 16-bit sound cards, and there are a growing number of music and d-to-d programs for the PC.

However, if we're talking quality recording, it's worth bearing in mind that so far, the only PC sound card with digital connections is the CardD which is around £800-900. But that doesn't prevent you recording and backing up via audio sockets.

SAW is a d-to-d recording software-only package. It's about a year old and has undergone several updates. The current version can play up to four stereo tracks - that's eight tracks in all - simultaneously, although you can only work with them as stereo pairs. It reads the files from disk and mixes them in realtime - a not inconsiderable feat.

But you do need a fairly fast PC to take advantage of SAW - the manual suggests a fast 386 as a minimum but, as I've opined before, the 386 is already following the dodo and you really ought to be looking at a fast 486 system. You also need 8Mb of RAM and a reasonably fast hard disk.

A typical SAW screen with the FullView window at the top, the SoundFile View window below and the EditList View window at the bottom.


Disc diagnosis


SAW includes a hard disk speed utility, which checks the data transfer rate of your hard disk. My 250Mb internal IDE drive managed to read at around 890Kb/sec. A Micropolis AV SCSI drive achieved rates over 1900Kb/sec, and that was prior to setting it up for maximum speed. This is an opportune moment to say that Micropolis' AV range of drives are very neat pieces of engineering. They're specially designed for digital audio and video work, and we'll have a more in-depth look at them next month.

It's also worth mentioning that there are things you can do to improve your PC's performance. For example, depending on your settings, adjusting or even disabling Smart Drive may improve a drive's performance. Removing Drive Rocket (reviewed in April's MT) reduced the IDE drive's transfer rate by half! But I digress. Optimising your PC's performance is a topic for another day. The program advises that for three solid 44.1kHz stereo tracks you need a transfer rate of 1100Kb/sec and a rate of 2000Kb/sec for four stereo tracks.

SAW achieves much of its speed and ability by using machine code and writing directly to certain sound cards. It supports the CardD and CardD Plus, and the Turtle Beach range of sound cards, all of which permit simultaneous recording and playback. It also supports the Sound Blaster 16 and 16 ASP (which was reviewed in our July issue and was used to review SAW), and the MediaVision Pro Audio 16.

Deep drivers


The review copy of SAW, version 3.1, did not have any direct support for Roland's RAP 10 although an earlier version did. The hardware design of the RAP 10 apparently makes the drivers more complex. There's also a Windows Multimedia driver which should work with most other cards.

SAW has six main windows, which you can resize and reposition to suit your monitor and way of working. Each recording you make is stored in a separate sound file. It has an excellent Recorder window with VU meters where you can adjust the volume, set the sample rate and so on.

The FullView window shows the entire sound file, with the left and right channels summed into one display. You can use the Transfer button to transfer the current cursor position to the SoundFile View window, which is where the heavy editing takes place. Options include adjusting the volume, creating fades and applying vari-pitch.

After tweaking the file, you create Regions, which are simply sections or blocks of the file which you can name. These go into a Regions list in the EditList View window, from where you can insert them into the Play Sequence list. Yes, SAW uses a playlist and non-destructive editing.

There are actually separate playlists for each of the four stereo tracks. After entering Regions into the playlist, you call up the MultiTrack View window and insert Regions onto the tracks. You can see, visually, how the music is laid out and it's quite easy to construct a song from sections of recordings.

The MultiTrack window shows arrangements much as you might imagine them to be on audio tape.


Superfly guy


The four stereo tracks can be played together and the volumes adjusted with a mixer. But you can't do this on the fly in realtime. A shame, but possibly a limitation due to processing overheads. Panning works in a similar, non-realtime way, too. When you're happy with the mix, you can create a stereo master from it or simply save the sound file and edit list.

SAW supports SMPTE and MTC (but not Arsenal - Ed) although if you want to use it to sync to a sequencer running concurrently on the PC, you'll have to use a separate MIDI interface such as the Music Quest MQX. This arrangement offers the best of both worlds, allowing you to create MIDI files and then record acoustic material alongside it.

If you have the CardD you can work with data from a DAT, so all edits stay in the digital domain and there's a feature to back up to DAT in realtime. You can transfer a recording from one system to another by recording to DAT and saving the edit list, which is only a few K onto a floppy.

The Graphic Equaliser in SAW's optional Effects Rack.


Some operations are initially a little non-intuitive. You can't click and drag to mark a block in the SoundFile View window. You must position the cursor at the start of the block, click on the Marker Begin button, then position it at the end of the block and click on Marker End.

Volume adjustments are measured in decibels. Fine for audio engineers, but not as straightforward as simple percentages for most musicians. To move an entry in the MultiTrack View window means holding down the Shift key. The right mouse button is used to start and stop playback. I'd much rather it was used for edit functions such as moving Regions or marking blocks.

Optional extras


SAW's Effects Rack offers quick access to five types of effect.

No mention of effects so far. That's because there are none, although you can buy a separate Effects Rack plug-in module which includes a sound file converter, a compressor/limiter, an equaliser, an echo effects generator and an auto panner. These are excellent additions to the program, although potential buyers may balk at paying almost half as much again for a set of features which are built into more basic d-to-d systems such as Wave for Windows and Audio View.

To be fair, SAW is in a different league, and many of the high-end d-to-d systems also lack built-in effects. But some buyers may look at the combined price, and reason that they could get an Audiomedia card for the Mac, complete with digital ins and outs and some editing software for around the same money. However, we are quoting RRPs. Street prices are often considerably less.

SAW may have a few idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, but it doesn't really have much competition on the PC at the moment and the price reflects this. If they threw in the Effects Rack and included a few more realtime controls, it would be one helluva program. As it is, it's still an excellent piece of software which produces quality results and can be recommended to anyone who takes their d-to-d recording seriously.


On the RE:MIX CD

Try out the demo version of SAW on the RE:MIX CD-ROM


MUSiCOM 2
Price inc VAT: £79 Upgrade from MUSiCOM 1 £29.99

More from: Compo Software, (Contact Details)

SoundEdit 16
Price inc VAT: £299. Upgrade from earlier versions £95. CD ROM upgrade £125

More from: Computers Unlimited, (Contact Details)

Software Audio Workshop
Price inc VAT: £549 Rack Effects: £299

More from: Et Cetera, (Contact Details)



Previous Article in this issue

Bushfire beatbox

Next article in this issue

Strobo cop


Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...

 

The Mix - Oct 1994

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Chris Needham, James Perrett

Control Room

Review by Ian Waugh

Previous article in this issue:

> Bushfire beatbox

Next article in this issue:

> Strobo cop


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