Mass Storage Devices
Kendall Wrightson examines a new range of SCSI storage devices from Diki Devices, designed for use with the latest generation of high quality samplers and the new direct to disk and random access recorder/editors.
The three major requirements for storage technology in the 1990s are speed, interchangeability, and high capacity. The humble floppy disk is infinitely interchangeable, but its speed and capacity offer an unpleasant reminder of its distant origins way back in the decade of the platform boot.
Even the latest 1.4 megabyte 2HD floppy provides insufficient storage for a 2Mb device like Akai's S1000 sampler, resulting in the necessity of loading two disks per bank. (The Emu Emulator III and Emax II require three disks for two megabytes of RAM, as they use the old 800K DSDD variety.) Furthermore, the several minutes it takes to load two floppies can no longer be classified under the "somewhat irritating" category, as might apply to the 30-second load time of an old 500K 8-bit sampler. No, we're talking "seriously annoying" here.
With ongoing floppy disk development it's highly likely the future might allow 3Mb or even 4Mb to be squeezed onto a single disk, but by that time the goal posts will again have been moved so far that the phrase "utterly useless" will be the only meaningful description for a floppy drive in use with a sampler. An early indication of this trend is the news that the S1000 can be internally upgraded to 32 megabytes of RAM, thanks to the latest high density RAM chips. (A 32Mb, 32-voice upgrade for the Emulator III has also just been announced.)
With a requirement of approximately 10 megabytes per stereo minute (recorded at 44.1 kHz), 32 megabytes is of course a paltry amount of storage to offer a 'tapeless recorder'. Also, since such high capacity is required, direct to media recording/playback is necessary, with the result that speed becomes of paramount importance. Clearly the humble floppy disk is on the way out, as anyone involved in memory-intensive applications like desktop publishing, digital audio and, more recently, desktop video, has been painfully aware of for several years now. For such users, the fixed hard disk has been the only option, but as it does not fulfill our second requirement - interchangeability - it cannot really be described as a true alternative.
The solution is clearly a storage media that is interchangeable like the floppy disk, but with the speed and capacity of the fixed hard disk. The answer seems to lie in a removable hard disk media, and indeed about three years ago the first removable hard drives appeared.
As we discovered in the PLI Infinity Drive review in January's Sound On Sound, the SyQuest drive was the eventual winner due to its combination of speed, low cost, and (relatively) diminutive size. SyQuest drives fit into a standard half-height PC slot, and the cartridges are about six inches square, half-inch thick, and weigh about 500g. Each cartridge offers 45 megabytes unformatted storage space, about 41.5 megabytes formatted.
Though a SyQuest cartridge can cope with slight bumps and knocks, it is a fragile hard disk mechanism and is therefore unlikely to survive a drop from desk to floor. The SyQuest cartridge should therefore be treated with kid gloves.
SyQuest drives have been popular in the micro world for about two years now, and significantly, Atari announced last year that their new range of PC compatibles would be fitted with the SyQuest drive as standard. From this it can be construed that the SyQuest drive has 'arrived'.
Noting SyQuest's many advantages for the sampler user, Emu and Akai have both produced software updates to support the SyQuest format over SCSI, and of the many re-badged SyQuest drives available, the Macintosh-styled PLI Infinity Drive - the subject of the review back in January - became popular due to the fact that it is distributed by a major music equipment retailer (MCMXCIX), who had the sense to offer the PLI built into a 19" rack.
The continuing acceptance of the SyQuest drive can be judged from the fact that since our review, the PLI Infinity has dropped in price from £1350 to £750 - some £600! With 45Mb cartridges selling for about £125, the initial cost of the drive mechanism is soon recovered when compared to the equivalent fixed hard disk.
For direct to disk digital recording, the 'rule of thumb' of 10 megabytes per minute of stored audio means that a formatted PLI cartridge can store over four minutes of continuous stereo digital audio, and speed is no problem as SyQuest drives operate faster than many fixed hard drives.
For recordings longer than four minutes, some direct to disk systems allow files to be split between several connected SCSI drives. But as with DAT, Video 8, or non-standard cassette digital multitrack systems, the ideal situation is that all relevant programme material can end up on one carrier. With capacities of 600 megabytes per cartridge, the erasable optical drive seems likely to offer a more effective solution, but there is a small problem...
An American company called Alphatronix was responsible for much of the initial research and development into the erasable optical drive back in the early 1980s. Technologically, the erasable optical drive has more in common with the CD ROM than the hard disk. Like the CD ROM, erasable optical discs (which are made of polycarbonate and metallic film) are 'read' by a laser beam. The laser beam is also used to write data onto the disc, but this takes longer than a read operation since the previous data needs to be erased first.
This 'erase then write' cycle means that the optical drive writing time is slow when compared to the latest generation of hard disks. It is for this reason that optical drives have been regarded as too slow to record digitally in real time, 'direct to disk'.
This means that erasable optical discs have only been used for archiving and playback, but the speed problem can actually be overcome with clever software (probably utilising RAM buffering) - or, as Akai put it in their new DD1000 Optical Disc Recorder brochure, "ingenious proprietary software".
The DD1000 uses one of the two most popular off-the-shelf optical drives, the Sony SMO501 drive (which is also found in the PLI Optical Infinity and Diki Devices DDMO Erasable Optical drives). The other most popular drive is manufactured by Rioch.
The Sony drive is faster than the Rioch - 2400 rotations per minute compared with Rioch's 1800. However, the speed of the software driver is critical, and its efficiency will depend on the skill of the programmer and whether the driver was written in a fast assembly language or a slower high level language.
At present, another disadvantage with the optical drive is its physical size and weight. This is mostly due to the bulky read/write assembly, which is also the reason why both Sony and Rioch systems' discs have to be physically turned around to access each side. The discs themselves are completely sealed in a cartridge, which measures about 8x4x½", with a write-protect tab and a metal access door just like a floppy disk. Fortunately, Sony and Rioch cartridges are interchangeable.
An optical cartridge can store 300 megabytes per side, when 512 bytes per sector formatting is used. The Sony drive can cope with a 1024 bytes per sector format giving 325 megabytes per side. However, Rioch are planning an upgrade so that their drivers can also work at 1024 bytes per sector.
The erasable optical drive offers many advantages to outweigh its (current) speed and size drawbacks. The first of these is data security. Optical discs are very reliable since, unlike hard or floppy disks, stray magnetic fields (such as those near the back of a computer monitor) cannot affect the data on the optical disc. Further, optical drives don't suffer from head crashes, since the optical read/write head is positioned much farther away from the surface of the disc in comparison to hard disks. With the addition of highly sophisticated error-checking, which makes full use of the high capacity available, the optical drive offers a very safe and robust format.
Another advantage of optical discs is their very high storage capacity, which, even at today's seemingly high prices, works out to be the cheapest cost per megabyte yet achieved - about 30 pence per megabyte once, like SyQuest drives, the initial (high) cost of the drive is recovered. By comparison, 600 megabytes of storage would cost £315 in floppies and about £900 in SyQuest cartridges.
The current optical format is protected from redundancy due to the fact that both Sony and Rioch are big players in the storage game and will want to recover their costs in developing the current format. It may even prove possible for second or third generation drives to read both sides of a cartridge without the necessity to physically remove it.
The cartridges themselves are not large in relation to their capacity, and the immediate future development of erasable optical drives will no doubt follow the CD ROM path to physically smaller drive mechanisms, and eventual lower overall cost. Workaround solutions to the speed problem already exist, as Akai's DD1000 already demonstrates, but faster mechanisms are an inevitability.
"The three major requirements for storage technology in the 1990s are speed, interchangeability, and high capacity."
Lower overall cost is the reason for the renaissance of the CD ROM drive. Having halved in price and physical size in the past 18 months, third generation CD ROMs, like the Sony CDU541, are small and rugged and make use of the now standardised CD Disc Caddy, which protects the CD and makes for easier loading.
Sony's CDU541 can read both 8cm and 12cm discs of CD ROM, CD audio, and the new CD Combined format. This means that a CD ROM purchased for a sampler can also play audio CDs when controlled from a computer, or provide interactive audio/graphics for the new generation of audio-visual software.
Though CD ROMs are 'read-only' devices, their low cost, high capacity - a 12cm disc can store up to 540 megabytes - and wide acceptance make them an ideal format for purchasing vast quantities of data at low cost in a reliable, robust format.
The Diki Devices range consists of various configurations of CD ROM, SyQuest, and erasable optical drives, of which the most immediately arresting is the RMCD: a CD ROM and SyQuest drive combined in one 2U high rack, for £1595.
Like all Diki Devices products, the RMCD is cream coloured with the red Diki logo on the front panel. The rest of the RMCD panel contains the SyQuest and CD ROM drive, plus a SCSI ID selector for each device. With two devices in the one rack, the RMCD front panel is liberally covered with ventilation slots, through which an internal fan pushes filtered air sucked in from the rear panel. The rear panel also sports the two 50-way SCSI connectors, a standard mains Eurosocket, and a removable mains fuse.
The RMCD is offered in two pre-configured variations, the first is a SyQuest/CD ROM daisy chain, such that a sampler can access both drives without unplugging cables. Alternatively, the RMCD can be configured so that each drive is independent of each other - a useful configuration for allowing, say, a Macintosh computer to access the CD ROM while a sampler accesses the SyQuest.
The CD ROM in the RMCD (and the DD541 single CD ROM player) is the Sony CDU541 referred to above, which is fitted with a front panel stereo mini-jack and volume control. The mini-jack could be connected to a hifi system, but phono connectors can be fitted on a custom basis if necessary. The DD541 single CD ROM drive, incidentally, is currently only available in an Apple Mac styled case measuring approximately 12x5x1½".
With the appropriate Apple CD ROM and CD INIT documents in the Mac's system folder, a Macintosh can take control ot the CDU541, offering all the standardised audio CD player features from the comfort of your own Desk Accessory.
The Diki Devices range is completed by the DD44 19" rack-mounted SyQuest drive, and the DDMO - a 4U high erasable optical drive. The latter is a fast Sony SMO501 erasable optical drive fitted into a 19" rack. With an appropriately sized rectangle cut out of the imposed 19" rack, the DDMO is the only Diki device to look remotely 'Heathkit'.
At £699, and with a steadily increasing library, the CD ROM has finally come of age, and is particularly attractive when packaged with a SyQuest drive in the Diki RMCD format. With its ability to play standard CDs, and two options of pre-configuration, the RMCD should further help to establish the CD ROM format.
SyQuest removable drives are now well established; many have already found their way into professional recording studios, and custom sound library services such as The Engine Factory have offered sounds on this format for some time. The drive is perfect for 16-bit samplers and even for small-scale random access recording storage. Blank cartridges currently cost £125 each, but are usually cheaper when bought in bulk.
The Diki Devices DDMO erasable optical drive should appeal to owners of 16-bit samplers who have already managed to fill masses of SyQuest drives, as it offers them a very secure, radically cheaper, solution than the SyQuest, with erasable optical cartridges costing £299 for 600 megabytes. The news that Akai's new DD1000 Optical Disc Recorder uses the same drive mechanism (and therefore the same cartridges) as the Diki Devices DDMO, provides another example of the growing acceptability of this new format.
All of the Diki Devices products are of course SCSI equipped, and this means that they can be used with any new SCSI devices that come along - the new Roland S770 sampler, for example, being a more notable recent addition to the SCSI world.
For Apple Macintosh owners (whose computer has SCSI built in), the Diki range should appeal since both SyQuest and erasable optical drives can be disconnected from a sampler and connected to the Mac for backup purposes. There is also an increasing range of Mac CD ROM discs containing encyclopaedias, dictionaries, typefaces and, as mentioned earlier, multimedia discs are on the way.
For many of us, this new generation of storage technology is still out of reach. However, if recent price movements are anything to go by, this situation may not last long. Meanwhile, if you can afford them, the Diki Devices range is well worth investigation.
See accompanying panel for prices.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
Review by Kendall Wrightson
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