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Nuclear Vision

Opcode Studio Vision

Article from The Mix, December 1994

Integrated sequencing/d-t-d recording

Over the last few months we've looked at the main players in the integrated sequencer/d-t-d recording software package stakes. This month Nigel Lord checks out the audio version of Opcode's Vision, suitably named Studio Vision...

Audio events displayed as waveforms in Track Overview window.

Just lately, my unshakeable faith in Cubase has taken a few knocks. Having come up through the ranks of Pro-24 and Cubase for the ST, and then graduated to Cubase and Cubase Audio for the Mac, I was just about as committed a user as it's possible to be. This, despite the debacles of version 3.0 Cubase ST and version 1.0 Cubase Audio releases.

The doubts began to set in while mulling over the purchase of a Quadra 840AV Macintosh with its built-in 'CD-quality' sound. For someone about to move over to direct to disk recording it sounded ideal - until I discovered Cubase Audio wouldn't address the digital sound board in the computer. Never mind, said a friend over in the States, the sound quality isn't that good. Buy an 840 by all means, but use one of the Nubus slots for a Digidesign Audiomedia II card. This I did, and as part of the bundle received a copy of Deck 2.0 recording software, which does support the built-in card as well as the Digidesign hardware.

You can guess what happened next. I used Deck 2.0 to record with both the internal sound board and the Audiomedia card, and yes - there was no difference. Well that's not quite true, the internal audio does have a slightly higher noise level and it is rather choosy about what input it's connected to. But with a little care and attention, neither problem was much to lose sleep over. For what is described as 'consumer-level audio', the sound quality of the AV is excellent. The sleep loss only came when mulling over the cost of the Audio Media II card and the fact that it only supported four audio channels, whilst the internal card (with Deck 2.0) offered, count 'em... eight.

Never mind, I thought, I have to have the Digidesign card to carry on using Cubase. Deck 2.0 isn't a MIDI sequencer, and 'though there is companion software available, it wouldn't be as good as Cubase.

This reasoning sufficed until word surfaced that the highly-regarded Vision sequencing software from Opcode was now available with direct to disk recording, which also supports Digidesign cards and the 840AV and 660AV internal sound boards. With the former, Studio Vision offered four audio channels, with the latter, more channels could be assigned if the necessary tradeoff against sampling rate was made. All I now needed to discover was that the sequencer offered improvements over Cubase, and my misery would have been complete.

Having spent the past couple of months working with a review copy of Vision, I think it fair to say it isn't as good a sequencer as Cubase, but that's largely because Cubase is so much more besides a sequencer. Take away the extra features like the MIDI Mixer, the MIDI Processor and the Interactive Phrase Synthesiser, and you'd have a much closer battle on your hands.

Working conditions

But what of Studio Vision? Well the reason I've engaged in such a lengthy preamble is not that I enjoy using the mag as a confessional for past mistakes. It's simply to highlight the extent to which technology at this level becomes so interdependent. To evaluate Studio Vision, one has to consider the performance of its parent software, Vision, of the digital sound hardware installed in the computer, and of the computer itself. Thus, Studio Vision would perhaps be a more enticing proposition for the owner of a Quadra 840AV or 660AV (two of Apple's most popular machines during their short production runs) than it would for the owner of a slower, non-AV Mac who has yet to buy the audio card necessary for digital recording. But that isn't to say both wouldn't be well advised to give Studio Vision serious consideration. Why? Well, read on...

Like Vision, Studio Vision requires the installation of OMS, Opcode's proprietary software for routing MIDI data between various applications and MIDI devices. Before beginning any Studio Vision operations, an OMS setup needs to be configured to match your MIDI system so that all MIDI equipment and connections are accounted for. This 'Studio Setup', as it is known, takes a little time to complete, but once done can be forgotten about, until changes are made to the system.

I have to say, OMS seemed like a damned nuisance when first installing Studio Vision, but I came to see the sense of it as I got deeper into the program. Steinberg have certainly seen the sense in it; they've recently teamed up with Opcode to develop OMS 2.0 - a hybrid of the Opcode MIDI System and their own M.ROS system. Interestingly, the 'O' in OMS is now said to stand for 'Open' rather than 'Opcode' - but whatever the initials, let's hope it leads to a greater degree of standardisation among Mac/MIDI systems.

Studio Vision actually comes in two versions: Studio Vision AV which works with Audiomedia cards, Mac AV sound cards and any other cards that use Apple's own Sound Manager - and Studio Vision Pro which, in addition to the above, also works with Digidesign's Sound Tools (I and II) and Protools hardware. The joint internal/external sound card compatibility comes about through the optional use of Sound Manager and Digidesign's Digital Audio Engine software, both of which may be present in the computer at the same time - though not used simultaneously. Switching between the two (provided the correct settings have been made in the Mac's Sound Control panel) may be carried out from within Studio Vision.

This wide-ranging compatibility with various hardware systems provides a similarly broad range of audio channel options, which are listed in the accompanying box out. As you can see, anything from 2 to 16 channels are possible, depending on the system. I think I'm right in saying that in terms of digital sound hardware, Studio Vision is currently the most versatile direct-to-disk recording and sequencing package available for the Mac - and that has to count for something.

One of the anomalies of buying an Audiomedia card as part of a direct to disk system is that it is packaged with Digidesign's own, highly-regarded Sound Designer II software which is itself a direct to disk recording and editing package. This means that setting yourself up with Studio Vision plus the required hardware for any non-AV Mac automatically puts two recording systems at your disposal. The same is true of Cubase, incidentally. But Steinberg, presumably in recognition of the fact that Sound Designer offers more sophisticated editing and waveform manipulation facilities, have made it possible to enter Sound Designer from within Cubase. Most of the time this isn't really necessary, but when any of the trickier editing functions are called for - including pitch shifting and time compression/expansion - Sound Designer is a must.

Although Studio Vision works happily with Sound Designer-format audio files, it is not possible to enter the Digidesign program from within Studio Vision itself. You can of course work on files in Sound Designer II, then import these into Studio Vision, but I can't help thinking it would have been better for Opcode to face the fact that most of us have invested in Sound Designer II, and allowed a 'way in' for those who needed the extra facilities. It might also have been compensation for owners of AV Macs, who shelled out for an Audiomedia card in preference to the onboard digital audio.

Audio event displayed in Graphic window

Pulling rank

So what, in the absence of Sound Designer, is it possible to achieve working with audio in Studio Vision? Well first, we really need to understand something of the program's architecture, and the hierarchy which determines how recordings are manipulated once inside the computer.

All audio editing which takes place in Studio Vision is non-destructive; that is, the audio recorded to disk remains unaffected by anything you do when working inside the program. The importance of this may not be appreciated unless you've previously used a digital recording system. For not only does it mean that valuable sound files cannot be permanently lost or altered (unless you issue specific commands for this to happen), it is also central to the whole idea of direct to disk editing. It uses a series of 'pointers' to tell the computer which part of the sound you wish to be played, or repeated, or silenced - or anything else.

Thus, what it is you're controlling when editing audio in Studio Vision is not the audio itself, but this 'pointer' data, which determines how files are read by the computer. There's a close analogy with conventional sequencing, where it's not the sound of your keyboards and synth modules you're recording, but the MIDI data which controls them.

The primary data blocks in Studio Vision are referred to as Audio Events, and these are displayed graphically in either Fast mode (which provides an overall view of the waveform, allowing you to edit more quickly) or High Resolution mode, which displays audio down to individual sample level and is therefore suitable for more precise editing (provided screen resolution is high enough).

Assigned to Audio Events (or groups of them) are what Opcode refer to as Audio Instruments. These are broadly equivalent to MIDI Instruments in Vision, and are used for identification and also to carry the volume and pan settings of Audio Events.

Audio Instruments are placed in individual rows between the piano roll and the strip chart in Vision's graphic window. In the main Track window, Audio Events appear in the Track Overview area, overlapping in the case of multiple Audio Instruments to form a single waveform for viewing. A track may contain individual or multiple Audio Instruments, and of course this will affect the on-screen display of the recorded audio.

Being laid in parallel with Vision's normal tracks, it is supremely easy to link sound and MIDI data both audibly and visually. This, above all, is the best reason for opting for a sequencer-based digital recording system. There's no sync to worry about, and no difficulty cutting and pasting sections of a track.

Audio Events may be freely moved to other Audio Instruments and cut, copied, pasted, deleted and merged in whole or in part. A special function, Separate, makes it possible to automatically split up a passage of audio into individual segments - the lines of a song verse, for example - which could then be replayed in a different order.

Also helping to simplify things is the Retain function, which clears all data not highlighted in specific regions, and the Strip Silence facility, which effectively gates out audio falling below a predetermined threshold.

Real time volume control using the Faders window.

Good housekeeping

After a lot of heavy editing, where Audio Events have been chopped up and extensively moved around, the screen display can often appear rather confusing - if not downright messy. This is just one situation in which mixing down audio can prove useful. In Studio Vision there are no real restrictions. Any amount of data from Audio Events, Audio Instruments and even Audio Tracks may be (non-destructively) mixed either in mono or stereo, retaining any volume or panning settings. The process actually creates new sound files on the hard disk, so it's necessary to ensure that enough space exists before getting to work. The benefit is that once you've got everything you need, you can delete all the original sound files from your disk, at a stroke.

Of course, it means you have to have a large enough hard disk to accommodate both the original and the mixed down audio files - for a time, anyway. But it is a very safe way of working, and great for ensuring you've used the very minimum disk space at the end of a session.

Studio Vision's flexibility in terms of digital audio cards means that the sampling rate for the session you're working on has to be set independently of the hardware sampling rate - and it's important to be aware of the distinction.

As far as hardware is concerned, the choice is usually limited to two or three preset sampling rates (accessed from the Mac's Sound Control panel) which take precedence over the session sampling rate set within Studio Vision. If the rates differ, the session sampling rate is converted to the hardware sampling rate, possibly affecting audio quality in the process. Best quality results are obtained where the hardware sampling rate and the session sampling rate are matched to begin with.

Opening the audio files of an existing sequence will automatically lead to both the session and hardware sampling rates being set to match the original sampling rate of the files, provided they're the same, and match one of the preset rates. For this reason, it is better to stick to standard rates when setting the sampling rates from the pop-up menu.

Recording using either Apple's Sound Manager or Digidesign's Digital Audio Engine is essentially the same, with a Record Monitor window displaying bar-graph level meters with peak hold indicators, which stay lit to indicate clipping. An option whilst recording is the Auto Compact function, which automatically deletes files not referenced by the current sequence, to clear space on your hard disk. Obviously a very powerful function, this needs to be used with care if you are not to lose valuable material. Audio may be deleted from Studio Vision documents which aren't currently open; the Auto Compact function has no way of knowing that data in an audio file shared with another document is still needed. Frankly, I'd prefer to leave Auto Compact switched off and do the job manually, before a new recording is made.

Besides recording new audio files into Studio Vision, it's also possible to import them into the program from previous sessions or from external sources.

Files are imported using the standard Digidesign Import Audio dialog box, and can be loaded directly into the Tracks window by inserting an input edit point. The dialog box makes it possible to audition files before loading, using scrolling lists to select the file required. It's also possible to control volume and panning (let's call it mixing, shall we?) in real time, and record the results as part of the track data. The process uses faders assigned to Audio Instruments, and can be carried out either on screen (using graphic faders) or via a keyboard or remote MIDI controller. If desired, the control data may be recorded onto a separate track, making it easier to delete if you're not happy. Indeed, several mixes may be recorded, each on their own track, until you decide which you prefer.

DAE users enjoy an audio scrubbing facility, which allows you audibly to pinpoint your position in an event by holding down the command key on the computer's keyboard, and dragging the mouse across the waveform. This can be carried out either in the Graphic Window or the Track Window and is possible in both directions (forward and reverse) and at whatever speed you drag the mouse.

Personally, I've always found audio scrubbing a rather overrated facility - I know of people who have actually refused to buy a digital audio system solely because it didn't include it. If you regularly find yourself dealing with very long audio events of many seconds, or even minutes (as would be the case with those creating movie soundtracks), I could imagine it proving indispensible. But I prefer to keep audio broken down to manageable chunks, each with its own name, so you don't get lost.

Stereo signal in the Record Monitor window.

With any review of such a complex program, there's a vast range of features and facilities which there simply isn't room to mention. Even having covered Vision in a separate review, Studio Vision still offers more than could possibly be listed. Take my word, there's little you could want to do with a direct-to-disk system that's not available to you here. What gaps do exist in terms of waveform editing, are most ably covered by Sound Designer II, which is available to anyone with the requisite Digidesign sound card. It's a pity, as I've said, that it isn't accessible from within Studio Vision, but it can at least reside in the same computer.

As for Mac AV users who don't opt for an external card, obviously, the available facilities are fewer, but considering the price, one could hardly complain. I had no difficulty at all working with six channels, and even eight proved possible where the predominantly vocal material allowed me to reduce bandwidth/sample rate sufficiently ('though this was on an 840AV, the fastest non-Power PC Mac, with plenty of buffer RAM available).

As I see it, the only real problem for Mac AV users would be the lack of digital in/out sockets to make backing up to DAT a possibility. Without these, you'll be limited to some form of removable disk storage (expensive!) or simply backing up in real-time analogue format. (Though this really wouldn't be sacrificing much if you were using DAT.)

Whatever you choose to do, the plain fact is, Studio Vision gives you the freedom to do it. And that certainly can't be said of all software of this type. If you're already a confirmed Vision user looking to move into direct to disk recording, you won't need much persuading. The digital audio facilities have been integrated seamlessly into the program, adopting many of same editing procedures, and leaving you feeling quite at home, despite the immense power at your fingertips.

If you're new to the program altogether, my advice would be to check out the opposition, compare the features and the price, and then decide exactly what you need from a direct to disk/sequencing package. The chances are you'll find Studio Vision offers everything you could ask for.

The essentials...

Price inc VAT: Studio Vision Pro: £799.95 Studio Visio AV: £599.95

More from: MCMXCIX, (Contact Details)

What you need...

(a) Each Pro Tools system supports four simultaneous channels of audio on playback. Using Studio Vision with multiple Pro Tools systems requires Digidesign's System Accelerator.

(b) Not all Macs work with these systems. Consult Digidesign for the current range of compatible models.

(c) You can increase the number of simultaneous audio channels by decreasing either the sample resolution or the sample rate.

(d) Opcode recommend that all Digidesign audio hardware is used with DAE - not the Sound Manager.

(e) Performas and Powerbook Duos (except the 180 and 180c) cannot record and play back digital audio simultaneously.

(f) Four audio channels are possible using the NuMedia card with a Quadra. Only two are possible on a IIci (or similar 68030 machine).

(g) DAE supports both 44.1kHz (CD standard) and 48kHz sampling rates.

(h) Look for late-breaking information on Power PC models in the Read Me document on your installer disk.

(j) The Audiomedia LC card allows two channels of simultaneous digital audio on LC and LC II models. On LC III models, three channels are possible.

(k) The original Sound Tools was designed as a two-channel system and Studio Vision treats it this way by default. However, it may be possible to squeeze more channels out of it with a corresponding drop in audio quality.

Fig 1: Studio Vision hardware options

Hardware System Studio Vision Type Audio System Sample Res. Hardware Sample Rate (kHz) Audio Channels
Pro Tools Pro DAE 16-bit 44.1/48 (g) 16 (a,b)
Sound Tools Pro DAE 16-bit 44.1/48 (g) 2 (b,d,k)
Sounds ToolsII Pro DAE 16-bit 44.1/48 (g) 4(d)
Audiomedia Pro/AV DAE 16-bit 44.1/48 (g) 4 (b)
Audiomedia II Pro/AV DAE 16-bit 44.1/48 (g) 4
AudiomediaLC Pro/AV DAE 16-bit 44.1/48 (g) 2-4 (j)
Numedia Card Pro/AV SM 16-bit 44.1/48 4 (c,f)
Power PC Mac Pro/AV SM 16-bit 44.1 4 (c,h)
Quadra 840AV Pro/AV SM 16-bit 22.05/24/44.1/48 4 (c)
Quadra 660AV Pro/AV SM 16-bit 22.05/24/44.1/48 3 (c)
Quadras Pro/AV SM 8-bit 22.254 4
MacII Pro/AV SM 8-bit 22.254 3
Performas & Powerbooks Pro/AV SM 8-bit 22.254 3 (e)

Making synching a cinch

One of the best reasons for buying a direct to disk/sequencing system such as Studio Vision is the absence of any synching problems when playing back digital audio side-by-side with MIDI data. But of course, there are still occasions when the whole system may require synching to an external source.

With four sync options and SMPTE compatibility, this poses no problem at all. You have the choice of Internal Clock, where other instruments need to be synced to the Mac's clock - or External Clock, which syncs to external instruments such as drum machines or sequences sending out 24 pulses per quarter note (but suitable only for MIDI data, not digital audio).

MIDI Time Code would be used for synching to an external SMPTE clock and is suitable for both MIDI and audio data, and finally there's MIDI Machine Control which allows Studio Vision to control a tape recorder, provided of course it is equipped with its own MIDI card.

Also featuring gear in this article

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Bad mamma Jamma

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Maximum headroom

Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
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The Mix - Dec 1994

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

Control Room

Gear in this article:

Software: Sequencer/DAW > Opcode > Studio Vision

Gear Tags:

Mac Platform

Review by Nigel Lord

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> Bad mamma Jamma

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