The latest developments in the recording world brought the industry, press and public flocking to Olympia 2 recently. Simon Trask records the event.
At last year's APRS show the buzzword was "digital"; this year there were almost as many buzzwords as there were visitors - and this year's was the biggest show to date. Report by Simon Trask.
ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER show. It's a couple of years now since the APRS show moved to Olympia Two, a venue it fits into very comfortably. There was plenty to see at this year's show, and as usual not enough time in which to see it. Take it from me, showtime is no joke for us beleaguered hacks, who have to socialise (spend hours in the exhibitors bar) and find out what's really going on.
The late '80s is proving to be a testing time for the recording industry. While keeping up with the rapid developments in state-of-the-art digital recording entails an ever-increasing level of financial investment, developments at the lower end of the recording market are allowing more and more musicians to do much of their recording work away from the professional studio.
The march of the mega disk-based digital recording and editing systems continues apace. Two of many are Digital Audio Research's Soundstation II (£50,000 - £75,000) and WaveFrame's AudioFrame (£29,000-58,000).
The Soundstation II is a four-track (soon to be eight-track) digital recording system which can record on up to four 380Mb Winchester hard disks and up to three 740Mb removable optical disks. Each Winchester provides 60 track minutes of recording time at 16-bit 44.1kHz, so that the Soundstation is quite capable of coping with anything from television programs to Compact Disc masters to feature-length films to your auntie's triple boxed-set concept album.
The Soundstation uses a touch-sensitive plasma display for quick operation, adopting a scrolling-tape display format into which you can splice labelled segments of any length. Crossfading, reel-rocking, time-slipping and splice adjustment provide a fine degree of edit control. In fact, the ease with which you can move segments around using DAR's touch screen makes tape splicing look positively primitive.
The idea behind WaveFrame's Audio-Frame is to implement all aspects of music production digitally within a single "black box" - the archetypal digital audio workstation. Thus you'll find mixing, MIDI sequencing, sampling, synthesis, sound effects and dialogue editing, all implemented in the digital domain. The Audioframe works under Microsoft Windows and interfaces with the outside world via MIDI Time Code, SMPTE, AES digital transfer and IBM's Token Ring Network. With the maximum memory of 30Mb the AudioFrame can record at 44.1kHz for over six minutes.
An interesting feature of the AudioFrame is its use of fixed-rate as opposed to variable-rate sampling. The latter is the traditional approach to sample playback, whereby samples are played back at quicker or slower rates to produce different pitches from a single sample. This approach requires tracking filters (to prevent aliasing) and variable-rate D/A converters, with each output voice requiring a dedicated set of output components. Fixed-rate sampling does away with aliasing and digital noise and the multiple components. Essentially, the AudioFrame uses curve-fitting algorithms to interpolate 512 samples between each pair of sampled points - providing an effective playback rate of 23MHz for a 44.1kHz sample rate. Expect to see fixed-rate sampling take over from variable-rate in the scheme of things (Roland are apparently already using their own version of it).
Another feature which we can expect to see increasingly on digital recording systems is time compression and expansion - altering the length of a sample without changing its pitch.
At the APRS, Soundstation II convincingly demonstrated the practicality of time variation with a +/-50% time alteration on a dialogue sample which managed to retain the character of the voice. In fact, Soundstation's ability grew out of DAR's Wordfit automatic dialogue replacement and synchronisation system, but there are powerful implications for music-making in there.
Time-stretching will also be a feature of Akai's new professional 16-voice, 16-bit stereo sampler, the S1000 (though apparently not until after the first release software). The S1000 comes with 2Mb of memory (giving 11.85 seconds of stereo sampling at 44.1kHz) upgradeable to 8Mb, and will have an SRP of £2899 including VAT. As well as phono and XLR stereo audio inputs the S1000 has stereo phono outs and eight dynamically-assignable individual phono outs, together with a mono effect send and stereo return. Akai have wisely included S900 sample disk compatibility, while using a major London studio to develop the S1000's own sample library. Definitely a sampler to watch out for at the professional end of the market.
Syndromic were showing the range of Hybrid Arts software and hardware, which is developing into a comprehensive music production system, with Hybri-switch software allowing rapid switching between Hybrid programs.
Hybrid have now bought out Nilford Labs, the company responsible for producing the hardware for Hybrid's ADAP1 ST-based stereo digital recording system, giving them complete control over the development of their system.
ADAP1 is limited by the largest amount of internal memory available on the ST (4Mb), with mono sampling at 44.1kHz on a 4Mb ST providing approximately 41 seconds of sample time. ADAP2, which is scheduled for September release (£2699.95 including VAT), will turn the system into a direct-to-hard-disk recorder with built-in AES/EBU and SMPTE read/write interfaces. Stereo sampling at 44.1kHz on a 720Mb hard disk will provide approximately 48 minutes of sample time. Digital I/O makes ADAP2 a candidate for, among many other things, CD mastering and DAT editing.
Forthcoming from Hybrid Arts is the company's own range of 19" rack-mounting hard disk drives for the ST, the HDX77 64Mb drive (£1499.95 including VAT), the HDX99 88Mb drive (£1799.95 including VAT) and the HDX154 129Mb drive (£TBA). Not exactly cheap, but then they've apparently been designed to a very high specification suitable for professional use.
Star turn on The Synthesizer Company stand, to judge by the crowds surrounding it whenever I visited the stand, was the Lynex ST-based 16-bit stereo sampling system, which was debuted at last year's BMF. The Lynex is now functioning in conjunction with System Exclusive's Iconix sequencer to give a powerful sequencing/sampling package.
Together with software from Passport, Intelligent Music and Dr Ts, The Synthesizer Company were also debuting the Friendchip SRC AT SMPTE/MIDI device and the Axxess MIDI Mapper.
Put a computer-based digital recording system like ADAP and Lynex together with today's increasingly sophisticated MIDI instruments and sequencers, a Yamaha DMP7D all-digital mixer and a DAT machine for mastering and you've virtually turned the all-digital, professional quality "budget" recording setup into a reality.
While DAT was a word that you scarcely dared whisper at last year's show, this year DAT recorders were out in the open, with recorders from several companies (notably Sony Broadcast) on demo. Perhaps not surprisingly, the industry is emphasising the professional applications of DAT as opposed to the troublesome "home" end of the market.
Sony were showing their pro models, the studio PCM2500 (£3250 excluding VAT) and portable PCM2000 (£3650 excluding VAT), both of which feature switchable 44.1kHz/48kHz sampling rate and AES/EBU digital I/O. In contrast, the Walkman-styled TCD-D10, which retails for around £1600, records at 48K and has no digital I/O. Both the portable machines have a modest battery life of two hours, while the PCM 2000 uses one of the DAT format's auxiliary longitudinal tracks for recording and playback of SMPTE/EBU timecode. Interestingly, the DAT format includes the possibility of four-track recording (albeit at 32K with 12-bit non-linear resolution). But would a DAT portastudio be commercially viable at this stage in the game?
Sony were also showing their range of 60-, 90- and 120-minute DAT tapes, while tape distribution company Playback had tapes of 15, 30, 46, 60, 75, 90 and 120 minutes length.
Tascam debuted their own DA50 pro DAT recorder, while Casio's pocket-sized DAT recorder was on display on the London Synthesizer Company's stand (it is they, not Casio UK, who are importing it).
There can be no doubt that DAT tape will become an integral part of studio life at both the pro and semi-pro levels, and will filter through to the home studio in due course. Who's going to be the first MT reader to submit their demotape on DAT?
Audio Design have clearly divined which direction the market is going in as far as digital mastering is concerned. The company have upgraded Sony's "domestic" DTC1000 DAT recorder for use in conjunction with their ever-expanding Sound Maestro Digital Recording and Editing system, which was originally designed to work in conjunction with Sony PCMF1 and 1630/1610 recorders. The DTC, renamed the ProDAT, can now sample at both 44.1kHz and 48kHz to enable the system to be used directly for CD mastering. Copy-defeat and EBU digital I/O enable authorised digital transfers of DAT data to be made.
The Fairlight CMI Series III, handled in the UK by Stirling Audio, has now reached software revision 5.4. New features include MIDI sync and song pointer with simultaneous SMPTE read/write, improved sequencer timing, mono hard disk recording, cue-list sequencing and sample monitoring at the sample rate. But still no CAPS sequencing software.
New Fairlight accessories include an 800Mb Optical Worm Disk (£4882 excluding VAT) with blank 800Mb optical disks (£180.17 excluding VAT), a weighted music keyboard (£1747.65 excluding VAT) and a CD sound effects library of 25 disks (£1225 excluding VAT). The entire Series III library fits on one side of one optical disk.
Meanwhile, over on the Harman stand that other giant system the Synclavier was being demo'd both as an audio/video post-production tool and a sophisticated music recording and remixing tool. In the former case, it was demonstrated how the soundtracks to the famous village bombing scene of Apocalypse Now and the opening scene of Aliens were built up using the Synclavier, while the music demo saw a Stevie Wonder track being remixed on-the-spot. Also on show was the eight-track Direct-to-Disk recording and 256-track MIDI sequencing system, complete with new WIMP-style graphics front-end.
Yamaha were highlighting their DMP7 digital mixer, which was being demonstrated in a digital multitrack mixdown context in conjunction with Mitsubishi digital multitrack. The company were emphasising the new digital I/O capability of the mixer, with the AD808 eight-way analogue-to-digital converter, DA202 18-bit, eight-times oversampling digital-to-analogue converter, the PLS1 Programmable Line Selector (8X4) and FMC1 Format Converter - the latter allowing direct-to-digital mastering onto AES/EBU DAT machines from the DMP7.
Also in evidence was Steinberg's Mac-and ST-based DMP7 editing software for controlling and automating 32-channel mixdown using four DMP7s, while the budget front was taken care of by the M100 digital multitracker, R100 digital reverb, SPX50D digital multi-effector and DEQ7 digital EQ.
Roland took the opportunity to show their new R880 Digital Reverb, which combines four separate and interactive reverb processors in one unit, and E660 Digital Parametric Equaliser (which can be two-channel/four-band or one-channel/eight-band). Employing a mix of 16- and 28-bit processing, these units also feature coaxial and optical digital I/O connectors. Also on show were the new M160 and M240 line mixers and the full line-up of Boss Micro Studio modules and a healthy range of Roland keyboard and sequencing products.
Korg, meanwhile, had a low-key presence at the show, with the S1 Production Workstation and Q1 MIDI Workstation not yet available. Sound Technology were in evidence with C-Lab's powerful Notator sequencer/scorewriter package for the ST, Oberheim's new Matrix 1000 synth expander and the Alesis range of audio products.
Evenlode Soundworks have high hopes for a new automated mixing package debuted at APRS, JL Cooper Electronics' eight-channel MixMate. It's a compact box capable of storing fader movements and channel mutes in its internal memory, of locking to SMPTE while generating MIDI Time Code, and of synchronising tape deck and sequencer using the "smart FSK" code employed by Cooper's PPS1 budget sync box while controlling the mix. All this for a VAT-inclusive price of £995. MixMate Plus allows an Atari ST or Macintosh to provide a graphic display, expanded memory and disk storage of mix data.
New software distribution company Audio Digital Technology were displaying a healthy range of IBM PC music software and hardware, including software from Voyetra, MIDI Concepts, Magnetic Music and Twelve-tone Systems, and hardware from Voyetra (MIDI interfaces), DHCP, Music Quest (patchbays) and Real Time Logic (the Event synchroniser). ADT are also carrying the MIDI Analyst, a 1U-high, 19" rack-mount box (£395) which provides analysis and filtering of MIDI data. Analysis is at three levels: interpreted, decimal and hexadecimal. The Analyst's stand-alone nature should make it ideal for inserting anywhere in a MIDI system in the studio or on stage. All in all it should be a valuable addition to the MIDI musician's world.
Shows usually throw up a few surprises if you look carefully enough, and at APRS Marquee Electronics were showing one of them, the Eventide digital H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer, which features Diatonic Pitch Shifting - in other words, it harmonises in key. One input can be harmonically pitch-shifted to up to two musical intervals (thirds and fifths, say). You can even customise your own scales, use just-intoned scales and set the H3000 to pitch-shift one note out of a scale for emphasis. On the evidence of a brief show demo, Eventide's latest harmoniser is impressive, evidencing no glitching and a quick response time.
Now, the clever dicks among you will point out that songs often modulate through different keys. Well, each H3000 patch allows you to specify the key that it will harmonise in, so all you need do is change patches (via MIDI from a sequencer, if you wish). Ah, but could it handle be-bop chord changes?
The H3000 also has digital reverb, chorus, flanger, echo and EQ, together with possibly the most comprehensive MIDI control of a digital effects device yet, with virtually every parameter controllable via MIDI. The price of all this sophistication? £1650 excluding VAT.
I don't know about you, but I always like to seek out the "fringe" items at shows. This year, nestling in a quiet corner of the Second Level, the National Sound Archive's CEDAR project fitted the bill nicely. CEDAR (Computer Enhanced Digital Audio Restoration) is being developed in conjunction with the Engineering Department of Cambridge University as a system which will remove the thumps, scratches, crackles and hiss from old 78rpm records. The system is based around an IBM PC AT system, currently with eight-bit sampling and a processing rate of around 100 times the duration being cleaned up. The before/after transformation as evidenced on a demotape is very impressive. Obvious potential clients are the big record and broadcasting companies, but maybe in the long term this sort of technology will be generally available for cleaning up all our crackly old vinyl records to store the results on DAT, CD-ROM or whatever medium we'll be using by then.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the show came from Yamaha, who took the opportunity to introduce a new computer called the C1. No, this isn't the beginning of MSX MkII. The C1 is an IBM PC AT-compatible computer designed as a briefcase-styled portable, with a built-in 640X400-pixel LCD screen. Running under the Microsoft Windows graphics environment, the C1 has 640K DOS memory and 512K RAM disk memory expandable to 2Mb (possibly 4Mb), two built-in 720K floppy disk drives, and coprocessor capability. Another model with one built-in 720K floppy and a built-in 20Mb hard disk is being planned.
While the C1 has the ability to run the massive range of IBM business software, Yamaha have also tailored their new computer to musical requirements, with two mergeable MIDI Ins and eight MIDI Outs built in, together with SMPTE read/write capacity and two assignable control sliders.
If those MIDI Outs turn out to be individually addressable, that's 128 MIDI channels. No wonder Yamaha are working on a 999-track sequencer (what's more, with a 480 clock-per-quarter-note resolution). The C1 may have the potential to run a complete professional MIDI studio, while its portability could make it the ideal computer for combined road and studio use (Yamaha will be providing a custom-designed flightcase for it, too).
The C1 will come bundled with a Utilities disk containing MIDI monitor and SysEx bulk manager software, while other companies such as Voyetra, Passport, Bacchus and Magnetic Music are porting their software to take full advantage of the computer. Don't all rush out to your nearest music shop, though. The release date is set for October, and the provisional asking price is £1900 (including VAT).
Digital recording, digital editing, digital mixing, digital automation, digital interfacing... It's not difficult to see the way the recording industry's heading, whether we're talking high-end digital audio workstations or low-end (relatively speaking) composite digital systems. All that's needed now is for manufacturers of synths, samplers and the like to start fitting digital outputs to their instruments. Can it be so far off?
But where is the manufacturer's onward rush into digital leading us? And is it being met by a similar onward rush in the working methods of recording studios?
Digital recording has implications in the utilitarian sense of improving sound quality, and therefore of narrowing the quality gap between pro and home studios, but it also has creative implications which arise from the ease with which musical material can be manipulated in the digital domain.
So what stage will we be at by the next APRS? Stay tuned for next year's exciting episode.
Show Report by Simon Trask
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