Studio or stage? As technology advances, the traditional distinction between "recording technology" and "keyboard technology" becomes more and more confused - as this years recording show displayed. Report by Simon Trask.
Traditionally, the annual APRS show caters exclusively for the recording side of the music industry. But the crossover of ideas from hi-tech musical instrument technology is bringing the two closer each year.
IF THIS YEAR'S APRS show is anything to go by, developments in the professional recording world are moving rapidly. Of course it is, and they are. And the 20th Association of Professional Recording Studios show demonstrated just how dramatically the range of options open to today's pro studio is expanding.
The key developments seem to fall into the areas of digital recording and digital automation. In the area of digital audio recording, a number of companies have developed systems based around hard disk - while, no doubt, keeping an eye on developments ready to break in the next year or two. Meanwhile, MIDI sequencing is developing applications far beyond its simple instrument recording roots - significantly into desk automation.
Mixing console manufacturers are increasingly having to tackle automation too. Their efforts can generally be regarded as falling into the "snapshot" or "dynamic" categories, or a mixture of both. Examples on display were DDA's new DCM232 console (at around £50,000) and Soundtracs' latest: ERIC (32-channel version at around £45,000). Soundtracs also have the PC MIDI Series consoles, which will work in conjunction with any MIDI sequencer.
At the same time, there are general-purpose console automation software packages emerging. These are intended to bring fader and mute automation to almost any mixing console, thereby saving the users the cost of another set of knobs and switches. Typically this is achieved by computer-controlled VCAs at the insert points of each mixer channel. The Synthesiser Company had the Twister eight-channel automation system on show. This stores dynamic fader and mute information as well as 100 snapshot memories. It may be expanded up to 64 channels, and an Atari ST can be used to provide a display of fader positions.
Another add-on automation system that makes use of the ST is Jellinghaus' C Mix (imported by State of the Art distribution). C Mix is a hardware/software package which records fader and mute settings from up to 64 channels of any mixing console. Timing may be referenced to SMPTE, MTC or MIDI sync sources. You can also store snapshots of fader positions in up to ten presets, which may be selected at any song position. Fader subgroups can be arranged to allow you to switch C Mix control in and out for certain channels, and on-screen editing allows you to create, delete or move events to a resolution of one SMPTE frame or one MIDI clock. All automation data can, of course, be saved to the Atari's disk drive for later use. C Mix is available in 16, 32, 48 and 64-channel versions, ranging in price from £1800-4800.
Hi-tech musical instrument technology was most impressively demonstrated by Fairlight and New England Digital (Synclavier), as both companies are making a serious play for the audio and video postproduction market.
Fairlight, long associated in this country with Syco, have now appointed HHB as second UK distributors for the CMI and CVI (Computer Video Instrument) on the basis of their experience in the field of postproduction. At the same time, the company are broadening their marketing strategy by making the Series III CMI available in versions which range in price from £30,000 (eight-voice, 4Mb RAM, dual 20Mb floppy storage) to well upwards of £100,000 (80-voice, 140Mb RAM, gigabyte of hard disk storage, optical WORM disk storage). It also seems that DAT technology is to figure prominently in the CMI's future.
Hard-disk recording systems were present in a variety of guises. Lexicon's Opus (to be distributed in this country by FWO Bauch towards the end of the year) is an integrated mixing console/hard disk recording system of distinctly futuristic appearance. Opus has 12 input channels and the ability to record onto eight channels of hard disk concurrently.
Alternatively you can record multiple samples which may then be positioned and triggered to SMPTE resolution (Opus can be a SMPTE master or slave). Up to eight hard disks can be chained together, with one able to hold two hours of single-channel recording. Don't hold your breath for the price, though: a snip at £100,000 for the basic system.
AMS were exhibiting their AudioFile digital audio recorder. The AudioFile is now a well-established hard disk-based system in upmarket studios. It offers one hour of single-channel recording on a single hard disk, with longer times available by adding further disks to the system. It may be configured for stereo or multi-channel recording, and can also be used for storing a complete library of sound effects, music and speech which can be triggered from timecode cues or an event recorder. AudioFile also incorporates a SMPTE/EBU reader/generator for locking to video or to an analogue or digital tape recorder. AMS were demonstrating the latest software updates for the system, including cut-and-paste editing and punch in/out recording.
Meanwhile, Audio Design Ltd were busy taking orders for their Atari ST-based SoundStreamer hard-disk recording and editing system. This allows transfer of digital audio data between a Sony PCM recorder and hard disk via an Atari, with the ability to edit the data en route within the Atari's memory.
And more "traditional" companies are getting in on the act, too. As mixing console manufacturers Soundcraft proved with their desktop audio storage and editing unit, the Digitor. This stores up to six minutes of stereo audio on hard disk at 44.1kHz or 48kHz sample rates. Ferrograph, who have been manufacturing quality analogue tape machines for a good many years now, have developed their own digital recorder in the form of the Series Model 9000. If you're looking for a machine to record up to 72 minutes of sound on a single 5.25" optical disk, the Series Model 9000 could be for you.
DAT - Digital Audio Tape - is a subject which continues to generate heated discussion. While the major record companies continue to get their knickers in a twist over what DAT may or may not do to the CD market, the recording industry is intent on venting its anger on CBS' Copycode proposal, aimed at preventing users from making DAT copies of CDs in the digital domain. It seems ironic that, whereas the record companies would presumably applaud the professional application of DAT in the recording studio, they are proposing a protection system which in the eyes (or ears) of most people significantly reduces the sound quality of DAT - and of course, CD. In a sense there is a conflict between the domestic and professional applications of DAT But it is DATs very ability to encompass both these fields which, in the long term, will have the most profound impact on the recording and dissemination of music.
Throwing caution to the wind, Sony chose APRS to introduce their first professional DAT recorder: the PCM2500. This provides digital input and output to a number of recognised standards, 44.1 kHz or 48kHz sample rate, pre-emphasis and copy prohibiting. In the absence of editing facilities, however, its studio uses are limited to digital mixdown and storage of sound samples. But professional R-DAT doesn't come cheap, as the estimated price of the PCM2500 is £3500. Availability is scheduled for November.
Talking of Japanese manufacturers, Akai, Roland and Yamaha were all present at the show. Of the three, it was Roland who had the least to show in terms of recording gear, but their array of musical instruments was enough to pack their stand. Alongside the D50, Roland showed their VP70 voice processor, which they'd got hooked up to an Alpha Juno. Curiously, there didn't seem to be too many people trying it out - something to do with the fact that you have to sing into it to get the most out of it, I suspect.
Akai, on the other hand, are making an increasing commitment to the professional recording field. Their range of tape machines now consists of the MG1212 and MG1214 12-track cassette recorders, the MG614 four-track recorder and the rack-mounting MG14D 12-track cassette recorder. Making its UK debut at APRS was the DP Series digital patchbay system: the DP2000 audio/video digital matrix patchbay (16:16 video and 16:16 audio), DP3200 audio digital matrix patchbay (32:32 audio), PG1000 patchbay programmer (which allows programming and sequencing of 640 patching patterns) and MZ1000 colour monitor (for displaying patch routings). The PG1000 has a built-in SMPTE reader/generator together with MIDI and RS232C ports, providing a range of options for controlling signal distribution. Program data can be saved to 3.5" floppy disk using an optional disk drive, while patching patterns can be printed out on an optional printer. Something tells me this impressive system is going to find its way into a lot of professional audio and audio/video studios. A basic 32 in/32 out system is expected to retail for just over £3000.
The main attraction on the Yamaha stand was the DMP7 8:2 digital mixer, though the new REV5 digital reverb, REX50 multieffector and SPX90MkII also attracted much interest. The company's forthcoming MSS1 SMPTE/MIDI converter looks to have been designed with the DMP7 in mind, as its ability to send out MIDI messages at precise timecode points may well facilitate automated mixdown in conjunction with the DMP7. Add the new QX3 MIDI sequencer (which seems to be a latter-day replacement for the QX1) and you've got a very attractive-looking recording package.
Prize for most unusual product of the show must surely go to French company ABAC Rustin. Their futuristically-styled Multi Media Console is a digital mixing desk capable of handling up to 64 channels of audio. What is unusual about the Console is its modular design (linked by fibre optic cables) and use of "virtual" input channel modules which can be assigned to any of the physical channels. Panel controls are themselves "virtual" (including "caterpillar track" faders) with digital readouts to show their actual values. Internal signal processing is digital, using DCFs and DCAs. The console settings (including input levels, auxiliary send levels, four-band parametric EQ values and input/output configurations) can be stored in memory, either as real-time changes or as snapshots. And the Console can be synchronised to a SMPTE, MIDI or sync-to-tape source for automated mixing. Console programming is facilitated by an LCD screen and computer keyboard.
Is the virtual mixing desk, which can be packed into the boot of a car, a mere novelty or a sign of things to come? As the Console wasn't actually being demo'd, and ABAC have yet to find a UK distributor, we'll just have to wait and see.
From the sort of questions which were being asked on the Steinberg Research stand, it's apparent that the recording industry still has a long way to go before becoming fully MIDI-literate. Mega-channel automated mixing consoles yes, MIDI no. Still, judging by the crowds around Steinberg's stand, it is also apparent that even if there's a shortage of specific knowledge, there's no shortage of interest. Which is hardly surprising, considering that developments such as MIDI Time Code and the spread of MIDI to an increasing range of instruments will see the digital standard becoming an integral part of the studio environment.
Steinberg were showing their full product range, including the Pro24 version 2.1 with three new cycle record modes and group muting. The Pro24's status in the recording world was emphasised by its appearance on many other stands during the show.
Sound Technology were exhibiting another MIDI sequencer for the Atari ST: C-Lab's 64-track Creator. No real news yet, but initial impressions were good. MT will be reviewing it soon.
When Roland's SBX80 SMPTE/MIDI converter first came out, it was regarded as something of a novelty. Now such devices are becoming commonplace, although they vary greatly in the sophistication that surrounds the basic conversion task - with price differences to match. Nomad were exhibiting what is currently the cheapest such unit on the market: the SMC1.0 (reviewed in last month's MT). No prizes for guessing which Atari sequencing package it was hooked up to.
Finally, the aforementioned MTC is starting to find its way onto some SMPTE/MIDI converters. Steinberg's SMP24, Real Time System's Event and Adams-Smith's Zeta Three (all on show at APRS) will include MTC in their latest software updates - though in what form remains to be seen. We'll also have to wait and see what software emerges to take advantage of MTC, as there were no examples at APRS. Ah, but next year...