MIDI Futures at the BBC
The unique demands on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop have placed it in the forefront of developments in high technology music. Their latest development- a new style of MIDI suite - is an innovation not only in terms of the technology that's employed, but also in the geography’ of the working environment. Richard Elen takes an exclusive first look at the new studio.
Sound On Sound has covered developments at the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop before - and hardly surprising, because the unique requirements placed on the facility, coupled with Brian Hodgson's keen knowledge of both technology and management and a world-class group of composer/producers, has placed the Radiophonic Workshop in the forefront of developments in high technology music. Their latest development - a new style of MIDI suite - is an innovation not only in terms of the technology that's employed, but also in the 'geography' of the working environment. Richard Elen takes an exclusive first look at the room.
Given the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's 30-year history of innovation, it is perhaps somewhat less than surprising that the facility is in the forefront of technology when it comes to making music and effects. Although the facility, created by Desmond Briscoe and colleagues in a room at the BBC's converted skating rink in Maida Vale, London, began with a collection of discarded machinery, we have more recently come to think of the Workshop as the place to find the latest equipment, as under the guiding hands of first Desmond and later Brian Hodgson the BBC as a whole has perhaps just begun to realise what a unique and outstanding facility the organisation has under its roof.
The Workshop, as most readers will be aware, produces music and other material for every part of the BBC, whether domestic or World Service, local or national, radio or TV. The output is prodigious, and quite enough to keep half a dozen composers (or 'producers' as they are referred to in BBC terminology) busy, each in their own personalised studios.
It was a few years ago now that the Workshop ended its brief flirtation with what we might call 'total systems' like the Fairlight. Instead of buying one or more Series III machines to replace ageing earlier models, Brian took the facility in a new direction; one which was at once bang up-to-date while at the same time being very much in keeping with the way the Workshop has developed into individual studios.
The trouble with total systems is that they are expensive, and they centralise the music production process so much that the combination of the two factors, for the Radiophonic Workshop at least, would have meant a small number of machines that had to be wheeled from room to room when they were needed - which would have been most of the time. Relying on vast centralised facilities would have concentrated the Workshop's limited budget in too few production systems - too few for both the number of composers and the amount of work they are required to do. And whilst the very top-end total systems claim to offer true multi-user, multitasking capability, such machines were quite out of range - and would still be today, as far as money is concerned.
Brian's new direction focused attention on the fact that here were six composers, each with certain common requirements but also certain individual preferences. The solution was to install self-contained MIDI suites in each room, bringing together keyboards, sound generating modules and multitrack recording under the central control of a computer - the Apple Macintosh. The Workshop's move - a move towards individual systems, built up from standard building blocks under computer control - was repeated in other studio facilities all over the world. Peter Howell was the composer given the task of ironing out the problems, and we reported on the results in an earlier article [see SOS October '87], Having worked hard on the successful introduction of the Apple Macintosh to the Workshop, Peter Howell went away for three months leave. When he returned, he returned with an exciting idea, about creating a studio in an entirely new way.
The idea arrived at just the right time - indeed, Peter's revolutionary concept relied on the recent introduction of several new pieces of equipment; notably the Yamaha DMP7 digital mixer and the Akai DP3200 digital routing system. And it was also time for the Workshop to put together a new studio facility. Brian placed Peter Howell in charge of the project, and it has been Peter who has led the entire design team, first in the construction of the prototype studio, and now in the creation of what might be called the 'production version'.
While on the face of it the latest studio at Maida Vale includes little that is truly new on the hardware front, the software side - as well as the unique and innovative way in which the components have been brought together - make this latest development at least as significant as the original introduction of MIDI and the Macintosh to the Workshop. And it is an idea that's likely to be repeated by other facilities.
Central to the new studio are a series of innovative concepts. The first is that, in essence, a MIDI-controlled sound generating module or group of modules plus a MIDI-controlled mixing console like the DMP7 can be considered as a single unit. Take these 'sound blocks' and feed their stereo outputs into a master mixer - in this case another pair of DMP7s - and you have a totally MIDI-controlled audio system. Next, consider the ergonomics.
Modern MIDI composers work by and large on their own, and all the gear is in the room with them. There's no need to have a single vast console in front of you, facing the non-existent window into a non-existent recording area, with the instruments inconveniently out of reach behind you or in tall, awkward, acoustically problematical vertical racks. Instead, the 'sound blocks' can be placed in a circle around the composer, leaving a segment open for access. All around are the sound generators, on low racks that don't obscure the audio. They rest on a raised circular shelf, and on a lower level in front of them are their DMP7 digital mixers. In front of you, as you sit in the centre of the circle facing the monitor speakers, is a Yamaha KX88 master keyboard.
In front of the composer on the upper level are the control systems: the 'master' DMP7s to the right; the BBC Micro-based SyncWriter - an in-house design which facilitates the synchronisation of MIDI events to VITC timecode - to the left. And in the centre, in pride of place, controlling it all, is an Apple Macintosh II with colour monitor. Figure 1 shows the basic layout.
The Macintosh II controls the system via some unique custom-written software, which we'll discuss later.
I was shown around the new system by the Workshop's Development Coordinator, Mark Wilson. The first impression you get on entering the room is how compact the system is. And the second is how neat and well constructed.
No unsightly metal panels and struts here: it's all beautifully finished wood. "It was made by a cabinet-maker called Jeremy Quinn", says Wilson, "who was very responsive to our needs. He came up with some very good ideas on how it should all fit together." The wiring goes around the circumference of the circle, with slots cut at the rear of the surface for cable entry to the equipment, and a wealth of cupboards with doors on both the inside and the outside of the circle, and access panels which unclip, to allow easy cable installation and maintenance as well as plenty of storage space.
The central monitoring system was designed by Workshop engineer Ray White, and allows monitoring of all the main sources in the room, including multitrack and stereo recorders, the ring main, and so on. It's controlled from a remote panel by a serial link.
Audio signals are patched via simple quarter-inch mono jacks - and not via balanced lines. "The studio is comparatively small," Wilson points out, "so there's unlikely to be a problem with hum loops." Audio signal routing is also under computer control - via three racks of Akai DP3200 routers hidden in a cupboard under the main mixers. They form a 72x72 crosspoint matrix, handling many of the individual instrument signals as well as the mixer outputs and inputs, and have been modified by the Workshop's engineers to include a patchbay - although this is merely a simple way of getting signals into the routers, and is not a 'jack field' in the normal sense of a physical interconnection system that's modified on a session-to-session basis: physical replugging is virtually never required. Figure 2 shows the basic audio distribution.
An interesting feature of the studio is that virtually nothing is installed in the room itself - it's all in the circular table. Of course, there are facilities for bringing in external inputs - from microphones (via tie-lines from the acoustic area of the room into MLA7 mic/line amps which feed the routers) as well as additional electronic instruments, as in keeping with many other composers the Workshop's staff increasingly use acoustic and 'conventional' instrumentation as much as electronic sound sources. In fact, it's always been that way. Additional instruments can be added to the system in a few moments, as both MIDI and audio patch bays allow rapid access.
The room has a respectable complement of sound generating and processing equipment. Apart from gear already mentioned, the 'upper level' around the ring includes (clockwise from the right of the KX88 master keyboard): an indispensable TX816 rack, permanently connected to a rack of Valley Audio Gatex expander/gates; an RX5 drum machine; Aphex Studio Dominator and Compellor units; a Roland SRV2000 reverb unit; Drawmer DL231 compressor; Yamaha DEQ7 digital equaliser; Eventide H949 Harmonizer; two Yamaha MEP4 units and a TX802; Roland D550; and an S550 sampler with video monitor. On the lower level there's the KX88, and no less than five DMP7 digital mixers (plus two rackmounting ones for the master mix on the upper level). In addition, there are external 8-track and stereo recorders, a Sony 2500 series DAT machine, and a VHS recorder for video playback.
The Macintosh II is fitted with a 40 Megabyte internal hard disk and 4MB of memory, and has a standard Apple colour monitor and extended keyboard. Only these last two and the mouse are visible, as the Mac CPU itself is in a cupboard, with its Opcode MIDI interface attached.
Mark Wilson is largely responsible for the unique Macintosh software that controls the system. The programs used for the majority of musical work are Mark Of The Unicorn's Performer and Professional Composer - despite the fact that the absurd copy protection on both programs is a massive inconvenience first thing in the morning (the copy protection does not even allow proper hard disk installation: the key disk must be inserted the first time each program is used) - and Opcode Editor/Librarian programs. All these are standard products. What isn't standard is the remarkable series of applications executed under Apple's unique HyperCard program. Mark Wilson takes up the story.
"There are three main HyperCard 'stacks' associated with running the studio. One is the router control stack, designed for the Akai routing matrix system. The central one is called 'CueCard', and could be used in any studio. It may even be released to the world at some point. There is also a completely new 'Home' stack (the central stack of the HyperCard system) which you do actually need, as there are several modifications we've made to it."
When you launch the system, you're first presented with a 'Cue Control Title Page', with spaces for the composer's name, studio, current show, and cue. The stack can also log the number of hours worked on a particular project automatically. To work on a new show, you just click a button with the mouse and a new stack of cue cards is created with the desired show title.
From an 'Applications' window you can name an application (ie. a program) and a default document. You could use this, for example, to load a setup file which might zero all the controllers, set MIDI Volume to maximum, and so on, simply by clicking on a button. You can also select a 'home cue', which will launch a file with the name of the current cue, enabling you (with a single mouse-click) to go straight to the piece of music you are currently working on.
Along the top of the HyperCard window is a line of icons - these also appear as an 'icon bar' at the bottom of the screen when you're working in a music program. Each icon allows direct access to a primary application, eg. the Macintosh Finder (the basic desktop on the Macintosh); D50 and DX/TX Editor/Librarians; enter Performer and record from keyboard; enter Performer and record from the DMP7s; Current Cue; Music Scoring; Routing; and Diary. Buttons can be added, deleted and customised by the user as required for his or her personal studio mode of work. There are also facilities to check that instruments and devices are responding correctly to control signals and MIDI data. The system is also able to set up a particular routing patch on its way into a program. This is done automatically, for example, by the Performer keyboard and Performer mixer buttons.
Having created a CueCard stack for a new show, going to the stack reveals a card with plenty of room for a description of the project, much of which is filled in by the program itself. Two buttons are available: 'Cues' and 'Cue List'. The latter is a list of cues associated with a particular show. Each cue has a name, start time, end time, and duration. Times may be entered in a number of forms, including SMPTE. A useful 'Stopwatch' feature enables you to run video, press the 'Start' button, and then 'Stop' at the appropriate time to get an idea of the length of a cue. New cues can be inserted between existing ones. You can enter six cues per page, creating a new page when needed. Cues can be offset individually or collectively.
You can go at any point directly to a particular cue. "What you have is basically a list of the instruments available in the studio. You can select an instrument, or double-click on it to open its window, which shows all the simultaneously-available sound slots for that instrument," says Mark. So the TX816 shows up as eight modules, for example, each of which can have a different sound, of course. There are similar windows for the mixer and other equipment. "The basic idea of this card," Wilson continues, "is to enable you to store all the data, including sounds, associated with a particular piece of music. We have developed a standard form which enables us to do this, bearing in mind, for example, that we can't store all the samples we have on a centralised disk at the moment - they have to be handled slightly differently.
"We have a set of menu options not unlike those on an editor/librarian program: Send To Device, Load From Device; Send All To Device, Load All From Device; Show Device Info; Edit Device; Play Device; Play On Select. It's all based on the idea of object-oriented programming. When you select one of these commands, it sends a command to one of these entities. If one of these 'buttons', if you like, contains a command to do something, like 'Load the data into the device', it will execute it."
The way the system is set up, if you send a sound to a device, or edit a sound with an editor, you can at once get the data from the instrument into the card, where it is stored (except in the case of samples, where the location of the sound is supplied, eg. what disk in the sample library it is). This means that you never have to worry about saving sounds explicitly, or where they are in a given bank; instead, the card for the cue contains all the data, and when you ask the system to set up a cue, it sends that data to the correct MIDI instrument automatically.
"The only difference between the mixers and the other instruments," Mark goes on, "is that most of the time the current sound is stored in the edit buffer of the instrument, rather than in its bank memory. In the case of a mixer, however, it is useful to keep the mixes stored in the mixer." Each cue has its own patch, which is sent to the mixers on command.
An interesting feature is that the entire studio can be considered as a 'device'. So that when you select 'Send All To Device' and the device is the studio itself, it will set up the entire studio for you!
The Router stack again allows the selection of devices, and each has an associated window. But this time, you are presented with a list of inputs and outputs. You can connect either individual links or stereo pairs. You just click on the output of a device - in which case you'll be shown what it is connected to - and then on the destination you want to send the signal to. You can list the current connections and change them, and save or load complete sets of routing information. "You can reconfigure devices as you like", says Wilson. The system also allows multiple routing options - the equivalent of parallel strips and splitters. The routing system also handles the tape machine ins and outs - so if you want to set up a path for tape copying while you're working on a show, you can.
It's also possible to add an entirely new device. You can establish the number of inputs and outputs; which matrix it is connected to; and even select an icon for it.
The system as a whole is not yet finished, although it's working fine. There are still a few modifications to do to the obviously sophisticated HyperCard software involved; and there are some improvements to the signal handling to be done. One hope is that the main mixers will be able to become DMP7Ds, with digital in/out, plus Yamaha D/A convertors on the main output. That way the digital signals from the outlying DMP7s could be taken directly into the master mixers without digital-to-analogue (D/A) and subsequent analogue-to-digital (A/D) conversion. It's a great idea, although it would also need some kind of routing system which could handle the digital signals with the same flexibility as the mixer outputs are handled now. But the real problem is the synchronisation of the digital word-clocks through the system, which appears not as straightforward as it should be.
The new studio design for the Radiophonic Workshop has been devised completely in-house, but it has been - with a few exceptions - constructed entirely of available units. It's a fascinating development, and one which adds a great deal to studio ergonomic design, as well as to MIDI programming knowledge. It's good to see the BBC Radiophonic Workshop staying in the lead - and ideas like this make such good sense that I am sure many others will follow that lead.
Feature by Richard Elen
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