AES Convention 1988
Los Angeles' recent AES convention pointed the way ahead for recording technology. Bob O'Donnell takes a trip to the fair and finds the rides to his liking.
Hard disk recording systems and other marvels took most of the limelight at this year's convention, but not to the exclusion of lower-priced gear and those five-pin DIN ports we call MIDI.
UNLIKE THE NOISY and flashy NAMM conventions, the annual Audio Engineering Society's (AES) convention is a relatively quiet, somewhat austere and very professional affair. Companies who manufacture equipment aimed at studios, broadcast, and live sound applications generally unveil their new gear in a subdued manner, with the emphasis on substance as opposed to sizzle. Of course, with introductions like Sony's new £150,000 PCM 3348 48-track digital recorder, which allows you to add 24 more tracks to existing tapes recorded with Sony's 24-track digital machine, there was a certain amount of splash at the LA Convention Center, but it almost had more to do with price tags than anything else.
In fact, to continue the analogy, if there's one thing (besides the pleasant quiet of the convention floor) that separates AES from NAMM, it's the price of the equipment being displayed. While the price of new gear at NAMM shows often drops, it seems the price of high-quality studio gear keeps rising. Admittedly, your cash often buys you access to technology that was barely imaginable a few years ago, but still, you have to wonder how long people in studios are going to keep paying the kinds of prices expected to put together a sophisticated recording facility. We shall see.
THE MOST OBVIOUS trends on display in LA were the abundance of hard disk-based digital recording and editing systems, and the proliferation of computers (particularly Macintosh IIs) controlling various devices in the audio chain, including many of these hard-disk recorders. The digital recording systems based on hard disks were so prevalent, in fact, that it became easy to get confused over which system had which features. Though they all basically allow analogue signals to be digitised (or digital signals to enter directly into the system), and then recorded, manipulated and played back, the manner in which the manipulation and editing, in particular, is performed varies widely among the systems. One point common to most, however, is that the storage medium currently in use - namely hard disk - is seen by many as a potential problem in years to come. As optical disk (CD) recording systems, 8mm video tapes and other types of data storage become prevalent, 300 megabyte hard disks may soon become the dinosaurs of the computer era. To their credit, many of the manufacturers involved with digital recording pointed out that with the benefit of SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) connectors, they are ready to simply plug in the latest developments in data storage - including optical disks. How realistic these kinds of predictions are will be determined in time, but the companies who adapt most quickly will probably be the ones who survive the inevitable digital brawls.
Another point worth bearing in mind is that digital audio is indeed growing in strength and acceptance, but that acceptance is being hampered by a lack of standards on how to move the data around. Processors are starting to grow all sorts of digital I/O (input/output) connectors, such as AES/EBU, RDAT/CD (a slight variation on AES/EBU), and various digital tape recorder format connectors, to keep the signal in the cleaner digital domain (switching back and forth between digital and analogue degrades it). An accepted standard would go a long way towards development in this industry. But on to the equipment...
Before jumping head-first into the intricacies of hard-disk recorders, let's look at the latest developments in MIDI keyboards, drum machines and sequencers. Big news here came from New England Digital, Roland, Korg, Akai and Simmons. At the high end of the list, NED had two newly-packaged and upgraded Synclavier systems, the Synclavier 3200 ($52,000 to $116,000; Sterling prices will depend on exchange rate) and the Synclavier 9600 ($127,000 to $426,000). Though the 3200 was touted as a lower-priced system, don't start breaking your piggy banks just yet - you'll probably still need around $67,000 to get eight Megs of RAM and eight voices as well as a Macintosh II and software with which the system is now controlled. The 9600 offers up to 96Meg of RAM, 96 stereo voices, FM, additive synthesis and resynthesis as well as 100kHz sampling. It also includes the Synclavier keyboard and a Mac II front end. Both the 3200 and the 9600 are packaged in attractive new stand-alone cases and both include extensive MIDI control.
Roland chose AES as the site to publicly unveil their impressive new R8 Human Rhythm Composer which has 68 onboard 16-bit samples, room for more sounds via ROM cards, eight individual audio outputs, touch-sensitive pads and their unique "humanising" functions. (See full review elsewhere in this issue.) Roland also had a new CD-ROM player for the S550 sampler. The CD5 (at £1299) comes with a disk loaded with the equivalent of 104 sound disks, has an SCSI connector for connection to the HD80 hard disk if so desired, can also function as a CD audio player and can be controlled via the monitor output of the S550.
Down the hall Korg were demonstrating the first of several planned ROM cards with new samples for their M1 synth (£49.95), as well as new ROM cards for the P3 Piano and Symphony Modules. Also present were now-familiar pre-production versions of the Q1 and S1 - more news soon, Korg?
Simmons continued to announce additions to their massive SDX sampling system with the introduction of their SDX Real Time Recorder. Planned as a £150 update for existing owners, the sequencing software features 64 tracks, non-destructive quantisation of individual tracks or regions within a track, graphic block or event listing edit capabilities, programmable tempo changes, individual track offsets, a resolution of 384 ppqn, SMPTE sync abilities and a host of other functions. Sequences can be stored along with samples on floppy or onto the SDX's internal hard disk for quick retrieval.
One of the better received hard-disk recording systems at the show was the Mac-based Dyaxis from Integrated Media Systems (IMS). First introduced over a year ago, this system's ability to work with multiple tracks in the editing stage and to convert one digital format into another in real time seemed to set it apart from the crowd (like many of the other systems unveiled, it only permits two tracks to be recorded or played back at one time). The US price for a system that includes the A/D and D/A converters, the MacMix software, a 320Meg hard disk for half an hour of stereo audio, the digital conversion and digital output hardware, and the Time Code Interface for synchronising to SMPTE via MIDI Time Code is $15,645, not including the Macintosh.
If, on the other hand, you want to get a bit more risky and perform digital equalisation, time compression/expansion (which allows you to shorten or lengthen a piece of audio data without affecting the pitch) or other digital signal processing (DSP) functions, you may want to use Digidesign's new Sound Designer II (just under £1000) sound editing software, which is compatible with Dyaxis (Blank Software's Alchemy is as well). Speaking of Digidesign, with the introduction of the AD In 16-bit stereo A/D converter (also just under £1000), and in conjunction with their existing Sound Accelerator card (£995 plus VAT) for the Mac SE and II, the company have their own hardware system for digital recording. Though they originally touted the Sound Accelerator as a real-time sample and synth editing tool (thanks to its powerful Motorola 56001 DSP chip, the newest wonder and buzzword to hit the world of computer music), the addition of the AD In box and a large hard disk turns Digidesign's package into one of the least expensive desktop audio production systems available.
A slightly different approach to the digital audio equation was taken by Symetrix, who unveiled a prototype of their DPR100 Digital Processing Recorder, which is also based around the ubiquitous Macintosh. In addition to hard disk-based recording, the DPR100 will be able to perform real-time signal processing, such as reverb, compression and so on, thanks to the system's four 56001 chips. Another company emphasising real-time control was Steinberg Digital Audio, who unveiled the Topaz Computer-Controlled Recorder (prices start at £12,000). Topaz' roots are in the PPG Hard Disk Unit (HDU) - when PPG founder Wolfgang Palm started working at software powerhouse Steinberg, the HDU project was resurrected, redesigned and renamed. The large, multiple-space rack unit around which the Macintosh-controlled system is based contains AES/EBU spec digital inputs and outputs (analogue I/O with A/D and D/A converters is optional), a 360Meg hard drive, and a built-in tape streaming backup. The accompanying software permits all editing functions (which are all non-destructive) to be performed in real time - including adjustments to time compression and expansion of the audio material. Up to eight different rack units may be combined for multitrack digital recording and an optional remote will provide the system with two 100mm faders, an alpha dial, function keys and several LCDs. Steinberg only had sketches of the remote, but I think it'll prove to be an important part of the system - moving faders and knobs with a mouse just doesn't quite have the same impact as using the real things.
Yet another Mac II-based system was unveiled by Sonic Solutions (headed up by Andy Moorer, ex-Droidworks). The company's Sonic System (US price $44,100 including the Mac II), is specifically intended for CD mastering applications and includes the ability to process two channels of audio, while at the same time download another stereo pair to digital tape. Over on the ST, Hybrid Arts showed a promising turnkey (all in one package) system for their ADAP II direct-to-hard disk recording system (prices start at £2999.95 without the computer and hard disks), but unfortunately the software was not running.
IN THE REALM of hardware-controlled systems, the most interesting newcomer was the Audio Tablet (US price in the mid-$50,000 range) from (British company) Real World Research.
Designed primarily for post-production applications such as dialogue and music editing, the system avoids the waveform displays of other systems and concentrates on a tape recorder analogy. To further reinforce a hardware approach, its touch-sensitive plasma display actually makes a clicking sound when you access a function. (That may sound strange, but it's very reassuring once you've experienced it.) The rack-mountable main units can each handle up to four channels of analogue or digital I/O and multiple racks can be combined for more channels.
Solid State Logic (SSL) formally unveiled their 01 Digital Production Centre (£99,000 plus VAT) at AES. The 01 consists of an eight-channel digital console with digital EQ and dynamics processing and multiple hard disks for storage of the data. Analogue and digital inputs are supported (including the new MADI - multiple channel audio digital interface - standard, which is simply a multi-channel version of the AES/EBU standard) and a tape backup system is standard.
From the quiet hills of Vermont came the enhanced and slightly redesigned Direct-to-Disk Post Pro systems ($97,000 to $282,000; Sterling prices subject to exchange rate) from New England Digital (NED). In addition to a new dedicated Remote Controller/Editor/Locator, updates to the eight-channel digital recording systems include a Macintosh II-based graphics workstation as a front end, built-in time compression, VITC (vertical interval timecode - the type of SMPTE that exists in the video blanking interval on video tape) synchronisation, CMX edit list (a de facto industry standard format for video edit and hit lists) conversion, and additional digital I/O for use with the various digital formats.
Along similar lines, WaveFrame announced a new digital I/O card that supports all major digital formats for their AudioFrame Digital Audio Workstation. Over at the Fairlight booth, the redesigned MFX control console (£3417 plus VAT), which is specifically designed for post production applications, was on display. Fairlight also played up their new Waveform Supervisor co-processor, with which they're promising six tracks of mono or four stereo pairs of digital recording.
For those of you into the nitty-gritty of digital recording and playback, two different companies showed developments in 20-bit technology. Meanwhile, dbx announced a 20-bit analogue-to-digital converter (ADC) and on the other end of the equation, Ultra Analog introduced the world's first 20-bit digital-to-analogue converter (DAC). Neither one is directly available to end users, but both chip sets offer promise of even higher quality digital audio products in the future.
ONE OF THE most intriguing applications of computer control at AES had nothing whatsoever to do with hard-disk recording. Crown's IQ control system for their Macrotech line of amplifiers allows up to 2000 (no, that's not a typo) amplifiers to be monitored and adjusted via a Macintosh and appropriate software. It's not quite MIDI-controlled power amps, but it's pretty damned close. The system basically consists of the single rack space IQ Interface ($895), which connects to the Mac via an RS422 cable, and individual modules ($350) for each amplifier. Each IQ Interface can control up to eight amps via Serial In and Out jacks. The Mac software included in the package lets you visually monitor and adjust the level of the amplified signal, mute it, adjust its phase, check the temperature status of each amp and numerous other options that are vaguely related to MIDI automation software. Admittedly, it probably won't have a big impact on how you and I make our music, but it's an interesting application of technology, nonetheless.
The hit of the show, at least for me, was an analogue recorder that I think will have a big impact on how MIDI musicians record their music. The Fostex R8 (£1499 including VAT) is a MIDI-controllable eight-track recorder which uses ¼" tape. With the optional MTC1 MIDI control port (as yet unavailable in the UK), which also includes jacks for SMPTE in/out, and an external synchronisation connector, the R8's transport and track status controls can be controlled via MIDI commands. At their booth, Fostex also showed a DA running on the Macintosh called Mac Remote which permits the selection and storage of punch in and out points, locate points and so on, as well as remote operation of the transport. In addition, the R8's meter panel and transport controls detach from the recorder and work as a remote control - a great idea. Finally, if all this wasn't enough, the R8 comes in a compact, attractive package (it even has a little handle) that I have to admit is kinda cute. Look for this baby to be a big hit with the hip MIDI recording crowd.
Fostex also made quite a splash in digital recording with the unveiling of the D20 Professional DAT recorder (£4950 plus VAT) - the first one which can record and be slaved to SMPTE. (Sony originally promised and are now working on a standard with other companies for a SMPTE/RDAT, but Fostex went ahead with their own system.) The unit supports both 44.1 and 48kHz sampling rates, can also be controlled by a synchroniser and will accept digital I/O via the AES/EBU standard.
In the arena of digitally-controlled audio mixing, Musically Intelligent Devices unveiled several upgrades to their Megamix automation systems. First off, the company showed a retrofittable group of faders which include the record, mute, solo and group controls found on the company's existing IFI8 Intelligent Fader Interface. The faders and built-in VCAs were shown fitted into a TAC Scorpion, but the company promised other popular mixers would follow. Control software for the MIDI-equipped system can now be run on an Atari ST, as well as a Mac or IBM. A new controller page in the program allows you to store settings of other controls (such as EQ) which the system cannot automate by letting you create your own board with knobs and faders and setting their appropriate positions.
Another ST-controllable automation package unveiled at the show was Steinberg's mimix. The Desktop Mixing System, as the company refers to it, consists of the mimix software and rack-mountable eight-channel VCA boxes (up to eight can be combined for 64-channel control). It also has options for the FMC64 fader-to-MIDI converter and the MBS8 mimix Bypass Switch box, both of which can be retrofitted to nearly any type of mixer. With the fader-to-MIDI converter, that converts the position of the fader into a MIDI continuous controller which the software can then record, the system becomes practically invisible - instead of having to use the mouse to adjust the levels, you can simply use the mixer's existing faders. The package has a number of other nice features, including a programmable noise gate for each of the VCA channels, a cue list page, user-adjustable fader curves, audio and gate triggering, and a host of synchronisation options including support of MIDI Time Code (MTC).
Over in the JBL/Soundcraft booth, a greatly enhanced Twister automation package that was retrofitted to 600 Series Soundcraft consoles wowed quite a few people. One could operate the board as normal and just have the software (created by Steinberg - Twister created their mimix hardware) record and automatically save the moves, use the computer screen to provide fader levels, timecode display, peaking indicators, and VU meters, add software-controlled noise gates on each channel with Twister, and/or go back later and graphically edit each move and add a hit-list for triggering other MIDI devices. The price of a 24-channel system (including computer; not including mixer) is £4580 plus VAT.
On a slightly different note, Apogee - a company best known for its award-winning filter chips - introduced the MIDI Accelerator ($250), a hardware MIDI data thinner that uses intelligent processing to clear the MIDI data stream of excessive controller messages. Three knobs and one switch on the little unit's front panel allow you to select various amounts of filtering for aftertouch, mod wheel and either breath or foot control data. The intelligence built into this box' processing revolves around not thinning any controllers which immediately follow note-on events to preserve the most important musical inflections.
With their new Audio Matrix 16 (£599), a MIDI controlled audio patchbay, 360 Systems offered yet another possibility for MIDI control in the home or professional studio. The 2U-high rack unit has 16 ¼" in and out points, including two groups that are doubled on the front panel for easy access, and 99 presets for storing various configurations of the outputs. The switching is said to be instantaneous and the signal-to-noise ratio of the unit is an impressive 102db at 1kHz unweighted.
Over at the Peavey and Peavey/Audio Media Research (AMR) booths, a similar product was being shown, the MAP 8X4 MIDI-controlled audio patchbay ($429), along with several other repackaged units that the company has displayed at previous conventions (but haven't made freely available as of yet). The MAP 8X4 includes eight sets of ¼" jacks as well as four mono effects/send return loops and offers the ability to store 128 different patches. The company also showed the Sync Controller MIDI/SMPTE synchroniser ($999); the MIDI Manager ($399), a basic MIDI system controller which in conjunction with the optional EAC8 Event Automation Controller ($109) permits you to automate certain non-MIDI gear; the MDB 2X4 MIDI Thru Box ($79); and the LM8 ($249), a rackmount 8X2 keyboard mixer with two mono effect sends.
THE REAL STARS of the Peavey and AMR booths, however, were the Autograph programmable equaliser ($549) - called the AEQ2800 and priced at $449 in the AMR line - and the new Multifex multiple multi-effects processor (approximately $1000) - called the QFX 4X4 in the AMR line. In addition to offering 128 programmed variations on a 28-band graphic equaliser, the Autograph also has built-in RTA (real-time analysis - not included in the more studio-oriented AMR version), which allows you to determine the EQ of the room you're playing in. The Autograph can then automatically adjust the EQ for the room and then add your own favourite EQ settings over the top of the first EQ curve it generates, allowing you to have the same EQ every time you play - regardless of the room. Pretty neat. The Multifex is also a nice development which I'm surprised no one else has come up with yet. What it consists of is four independent multi-effects processors (UltraVerbs to Peavey) each with its own set of stereo inputs and outputs. Depending on how you choose to use it, you can either have four different effects happening to four different tape tracks at once, or you can gang several different processors together (by simply choosing which inputs and outputs you connect to the processors can be serially linked) to produce a nearly ridiculous amount of processing. Each processor can be independently programmed on the large 40X2 LCD and is capable of producing reverb, delay, and chorus effects at once. All in all, a lot of processing power.
Speaking of processing power, Alesis showed a working version of their impressive-sounding Quadraverb (£449 including VAT), which allows you to perform useful tricks like put chorus on the echoes of certain delay programs. In addition, every single parameter can be addressed in real time over MIDI.
Recognising that the magic number is now four, DigiTech unveiled an updated version of their popular DSP128 called the DSP128 Plus (£469 including VAT). In addition to now having the ability to produce four effects at once, the 128 Plus also has a full 20-20kHz bandwidth and an easier to use front panel. Over at the ART booth, the hot news was a series of high definition analogue graphic equalisers, the HD31 and HD15 (both of which should be under $450), that utilise some of the circuitry found in the company's programmable IEQ systems.
From Yamaha came the SPX1000 digital multi-effects processor (£1119 including VAT). The SPX1000 is a true stereo effects processor, meaning that it can produce different effects on the left and right channels. It has both proprietary Yamaha digital I/O as well as standard analogue ¼" connectors. The second generation effects processor can produce up to five effects at once either in series or parallel, including compression, distortion, EQ, chorus, delay, exciter, reverb, pitch shifting and sampling (up to 2.9 seconds in stereo), and its bandwidth is a very pleasant sounding 20-20kHz. On top of all this, up to two parameters per program can be affected in real time via MIDI continuous controller messages. A fitting successor to the SPX90.
The onslaught of hard disk-based recording and editing systems as well as the continued growth of audio products built with MIDI in mind should make the marriage between digital audio, computers and MIDI an interesting one to watch for the next few years. The storage media for these digital systems may change as new advancements in optical disk recording are achieved, but it looks as if the recording systems of the '90s are being defined today.