Digital Days & Digital Nights
The AES Report
America's premier recording exhibition provides Bob O'Donnell with food for thought; the password is "digital", just like the gear.
The recent Audio Engineering Society convention in New York offered a dazzling array of new music and recording products - nearly all of which claimed to be "digital".
"THE FUTURE OF music and recording is most assuredly a digital one."
Sound familiar? Well, it doesn't take a prophet to make a prediction like that, but who's to say when the future becomes the present? I say it's already here.
The proof lay in a casual stroll around this year's AES convention. It went a long way towards proving that just about everything related to music and audio production will soon be conducted entirely in the digital domain. You've got your digital sampler, your digital synth, your digital signal processor, your digital tape recorder, your digital disk-based recorder, your digital mixing console and now your digital audio workstation - the latest idea of combining many related functions in one integrated unit. Admittedly, some of the products on display at the AES are out of financial reach for most of us, but not all of them. And more importantly, certain developments won't remain too expensive for too long.
One move towards digital recording is the use of samplers with large amounts of sampling time as digital recorders. Conversely, some digital recording systems are starting to include features which allow them to function as samplers. The differences between the two have definitely become blurred (though, most digital recorders don't have the filters and envelopes that samplers have) and have started to become simply a function of available memory. Does six minutes of sampling time make something a digital recorder or just a well-equipped sampler?
Probably the most practical development towards complete digital control was shared by many of the new products - digital inputs and outputs. Unfortunately, not everyone uses the same type of connectors or the same data transmission standards. And you thought incompatibility ended with MIDI...
Another interesting trend was actually just a continuation of the encroachment of MIDI into the recording studio. MIDI-controlled signal processors and MIDI-controlled automation systems made their presence strongly felt at this year's show, as did MIDI software programs for studio gear and post-production applications. There weren't actually that many new products in this area but the general feel of the show led you to believe that this is becoming a subject of increasing importance.
ONE OF THE most eagerly awaited introductions was Waveframe Corporation's AudioFrame, a digital audio workstation. The modular system consists of a 10U-high Digital Audio Rack which holds slide-in cards for various functions, and Microsoft Window-operated software for the new IBM Personal System/2 or any AT-compatible computer - the system's control station. Rumours had been flying about what Waveframe had been up to and they laid most of them to rest with this powerful modular system. (Most, that is, because not all of the system's proclaimed capabilities were on display in New York and some of the ones that were, didn't appear to be completely finished - but they were said to be imminent.)
The AudioFrame is intended to provide complete control over every stage of music or post-production from a single workstation. The complete system will include synthesis and sampling, direct-to-hard disk storage of multitrack audio, editing control over the stored data, signal processing, and mixing and mastering capabilities - all entirely digital. Because Audioframe is modular, the user will be able to configure a personalised system. The system on display in New York consisted of a MIDI-controllable 16-bit stereo sampler with sophisticated voice editing software called VoicEdit, and sequencing software called EventProcessor which could be locked to SMPTE timecode (both LTC and VITC). The music and effects I heard from the AudioFrame sounded very good, but what I'm anxious to see is how they incorporate the rest of the capabilities into the system. That's going to be interesting.
Another Canadian company couldn't exhibit because of a last minute VLSI chip problem. Technos did bring the innovative interface section of their new Acxel Resynthesizer however, and I managed to arrange a private appointment with them to see what $13,000 would buy you. I didn't hear the instrument and only saw a prototype of the interface section, but the initial specs seem impressive. The Acxel (the name means acoustic element and comes from the word "pixel"), is an additive/resynthesis machine that consists of a Grapher interface unit and a stand-alone Solitary Unit which holds the instrument's "guts" in the form of slide-in modules. The basic system offers 128 oscillators which can be grouped together in eight voices with 16 harmonics each, four with 32 or two with 64. Additional modules can be added to increase the instrument's polyphony.
Like most additive synths, each harmonic can have its own amplitude and pitch envelopes (up to 4096 points per envelope) and can be detuned, but in addition, each oscillator can play a completely independent complex waveform. The resynthesis portion of the machine is presented in an easy-to-understand format: IDO, IDA and IDF, or Intelligent Digital Oscillator, Amplifier and Filter. The "intelligent" part has to do with the fact that the unit's Intelligent Signal Analyser (ISA) samples the signal at a rate of 50kHz, analyses it and intelligently converts it into a series of independently-controllable harmonics (which is how resynthesis works). The actual resynthesis process is said to take about two seconds for a two-second sample.
All editing functions are controlled by the Grapher and are accomplished in real time. In addition to its back-lit 40X2 character LCD, the most unique feature of the unit is its huge touch-sensitive 32X64 matrix of LEDs with which you draw waveshapes, envelope shapes, amplitude levels and so on. All you do is move your fingers across the LEDs and you'll see the shapes you're drawing. It's an incredibly fast intuitive system and may change the way you think about instrument interfaces.
Not to be outdone, NED celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Synclavier with a bash that featured a concert by Synclavier user and endorsee Sting. The company also released a stand-alone version of their direct-to-disk multitrack recording option, appropriately called the Direct-to-Disk Digital Multitrack Recorder Series. The accompanying Audio Event Editor software allows users to record and edit the 16-bit, 100kHz sampled data with just a mouse.
Over in the Fairlight room, direct recording to hard disk was also being announced (though not demonstrated). The initial free software update provides mono recording at a fixed 48kHz. You'll have to pay for the multitrack capabilities that will be added via a new hardware card in early '88, but Fairlight are to be commended for supporting their existing owners. Other hardware soon to be made available includes a 4Megabyte Waveform RAM card, a new card with a 68020 processor and a sampling card sporting AES/EBU standard digital inputs and outputs.
The most important hardware introduction however, was actually there with them at the show: the MFX (music and effects) controller. Intended specifically for CMI users for sound effects and post-production work, the MFX provides a user interface better suited to this type of work than a music keyboard. The unit offers a QWERTY keyboard, a "jogger wheel", 24 velocity-sensitive buttons for triggering sampled sounds, and a numeric keypad for quick entry of SMPTE hit points. The MFX works in conjunction with Fairlight's new Cue List software program.
A number of other companies were also showing direct disk recording systems including Lexicon who, a year after its formal introduction, were still only demonstrating a prototype of their Opus. Probably the sleekest new entry to the field, however, was SoundStation II from Digital Audio Research. This $79,000 system offers up to eight independent tracks of 18-bit audio and a standard dual hard disk configuration includes two track-hours at a sampling rate of 44.1kHz. Any editing operations are performed on the console's touch-sensitive screen. Impressive.
You're not willing to mortgage your house for a digital recorder? Where's your commitment? Fear not, this convention also had hard-disk recording for the rest of us. In fact, if you own either a Mac, an ST or a PC, you're in luck because hard-disk recording systems based around each of these computers was on display. Integrated Media Systems showed their Dyaxis system, which uses the Macintosh as its control centre. They also announced that, with the help of Apple's new Multi-Finder program, you'll be able to use a single computer to operate the Dyaxis and run a special version of Digidesign's Q-Sheet program.
Hot on the heels of their long awaited ADAP, Hybrid Arts announced ADAP II, which adds direct-to-hard disk recording capabilities to the original system. Priced at a reasonable $3000 (excluding computer and hard disks), the Atari ST-based ADAP II also adds a built-in SMPTE interface for sample triggering from SMPTE timecode, and digital inputs and outputs for direct digital transfers from R-DAT, CD-ROM, CDs and PCM recorders. ADAP owners will be able to upgrade to ADAP II for the difference in retail price between the two systems.
Hybrid Arts also announced a number of free upgrades to ADAP including a SMPTE Cue List Page, MIDI triggering in stereo, velocity crossfading and switching, auto-looping, mapping overlapped multi-samples across a MIDI keyboard and a number of MIDI enhancements such as the ability to respond to pitch-bend and to operate in Mode 4 (Mono Mode). A new interface box which sits underneath the ST and connects to it via a ribbon cable is a big improvement over the fragile circuit board which jutted out of the previous unit.
Good news for IBM-types from Ariel Corporation: the SDI Signal-to-Disk Interface System for PCs, XTs, ATs and compatibles. Ariel have primarily worked for the scientific community but don't let that fool you. This system offers 16-bit stereo sampling at 50kHz and sophisticated graphic editing software. The components include the DSP16 plug-in card, a SCSI interface and DSPDISK and DSPDOS software. Prices start at $3495.
Though they aren't supposed to hit the streets for a while, the new Max Audio plugin cards for the Macintosh II from Southworth Music Systems look very interesting. Touting specs of 20-bit stereo PCM recording at a rate of 192kHz, these new cards use a proprietary variable word-length encoding system which allows them to provide four to 16 times the amount of recording time of traditional 16-bit, 48kHz sampling systems. In other words, up to 27 track-minutes of music can be stored on a standard Mac II 40Meg hard disk. The Southworth system consists of an Analogue Card and a companion Digital Signal Processing (DSP) Card and can be used either as a 32-voice, 20-bit sampler, or as a two-track digital recorder. Two sets of cards fit in a Mac II, however, so these figures can be doubled. The Max Audio cards are scheduled for general availability in the second half of '88.
In the realm of signal processing, a number of companies offered some new goods. Yamaha's major announcement at the show was the DEQ7, a single rack space digital equaliser that uses EQ chips developed for their digital reverbs. The $1295 unit features analogue and digital inputs and outputs and can be configured as a stereo 1-octave, 2/3-octave, ½-octave or mono 1/3-octave graphic; a stereo four-band fully parametric; a notch filter or band-pass filter. The DEQ7 stores 90 programs and operates at a full 20-20,000Hz bandwidth.
Roland also had a digital parametric equalizer, the E660, which has a tentative retail price of $1795. The unit sports a large LCD for showing the equalisation curves and operates either as a stereo four-band parametric or a mono eight-band unit. The company also displayed the R880, a high-end digital reverb with four inputs, which is tentatively priced at $3995. Both units featured optical ports for direct connection to other digital devices.
New from Eventide is the H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer almost all of whose parameters can be adjusted in real time via MIDI. At $2400 this unit offers two pitch-change channels which can be used separately or in tandem, either layered or for stereo processing. In addition, it introduces the concept of Diatonic Pitch Shift which generates musically correct harmonies based on the key you tell the harmoniser you're playing in. The H3000 also incorporates reverb, flanging and other effects.
On the instrument front, many of the products on display were simply more complete versions of things introduced at NAMM. E-mu were demonstrating the Emulator III (the price of which has risen to around $13,000) and its rack-mount version; Akai showed their MPC60 MIDI Production Centre - the Roger Linn-designed drum machine/sequencer combination; Roland displayed the RC100, a remote control for the S550 sampler; and Canadian company Lyre continued to demo its FDSS Studio Additive Synthesiser, though they added control software for the Mac in addition to that for the IBM PC and compatibles.
Finally we come to MIDI-controlled mixing. Musically Intelligent Devices showed a number of additions to their MegaMix automation series, including new software for the Macintosh and ST. The IFI8 Intelligent Fader Interface is a set of eight faders intended for use as the control centre for any MegaMix system. In addition to the obvious fader control, it provides independent Read/Write/Update, Mute, Solo and Group functions for each channel, memory to store up to 128 preset fader and group combinations, an LCD display and other functions. The IFI8's retail price is $1695. The single space MR8 is an eight-channel version of the MegaMix system (the original offered 16 channels) for smaller studios. It retails for $1095 including software.
All in all, I'd call '87's AES convention a digital eye-opener.
Show Report by Bob O'Donnell
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