Roland ATW-10 Audio Producer
for the PC
Roland's first foray into the PC direct-to-disk recording field and it looks pretty impressive.
With a critically acclaimed new sampler to their credit, Roland have now turned their attention to PC-based sound recording and editing. Can they repeat their success?
One expects major electronic musical instrument companies such as Roland and Yamaha to know a thing or two about current 'growth areas' in technology. So when both companies start to gear themselves up to address the computer-based music market, it's safe to assume expansion in this area is likely to be considerable in the near future. Judging by the plethora of sound cards on the market, this is strongly linked to massive customer interest in music files and audio recording at the moment.
We're not talking commercial studios here, but your average games-playing computer user who wants to hear the cannons roar and the soundtrack playing The Valkeries as he or she mows down another tribe of peons from his or her gunship.
They may have once brought us antiquated 2-operator FM sound and rather iffy 8-bit audio, but sound cards have moved swiftly into the major league with high quality 16-bit stereo sound and wavetable and PCM synthesis. (A feature on sound cards coming up in MT very soon.)
Roland's latest offering for the PC, the Audio Producer comprises the RAP-10 sound card and Audio Toolworks software - hence the ATW-10 moniker - but I think Audio Producer sounds nicer and is certainly far more informative. To run it you need a 386 machine (although the manual recommends a 486 and so would I) with a free 16-bit card slot, 4Mb of RAM (8Mb recommended), Windows 3.1, 4.3Mb of free hard disk space (another 5Mb is required for the demo songs) and enough free hard disk space to record your own material. A built-in CD-ROM drive is useful, too.
The RAP-10 card is surprisingly straightforward to install but, as with all PC cards, you need to check that the I/O, IRQ and DMA settings don't conflict with anything else you have in your PC. They did in my PC, but the manual is very clear about which jumper settings you need to alter and the Setup in the Drivers Control panel lets you do the rest. Forgive my smugness, but I have three digital audio devices currently installed in my PC. I know, it sounds like an accident waiting to happen but I've had no irreconcilable conflicts. So far...
The card has Mic and Aux audio inputs, and an output socket - all on stereo mini jacks - and there's a joystick/MIDI connector which supports the standard IBM analogue joystick. To use it for MIDI you need the optional MCB-10 MIDI connector box. There's no CD-ROM interface, but then many of those on other sound cards are specialised and won't work with all CD-ROM drives, so you could argue it's better off without one. Being able to output the audio from an internal CD-ROM, however, certainly would have been useful. As it is, you have to plug it into the card's Aux socket. It works fine but if you want to record another external audio source you'll have to swap plugs.
Installing the software is fairly painless: you end up with no less than seven integrated programs which are among the most 'graphic' software I've ever seen. Even the Help file - which is very extensive - is icon-driven!
The hub around which the Producer revolves is the Rack. It's laid out like a hi-fi system and comprises Mixing Panel, Wave File Recorder/Player, a MIDI File Player and a CD Player. These function exactly as you would expect by clicking on play, record, forward and skip buttons. You can adjust the volumes of each (and of course, play all three together), check file info about the wave and MIDI files, set up track lists for the CD and MIDI players (you can play up to 48 MIDI files in sequence), loop playback and so on. A version of the Mixing Panel called the Level Mixer can be opened separately for use with the other programs, too.
It all integrates superbly, but I did have a problem with the CD player which wouldn't play some of the tracks on certain CDs - despite the fact these played fine with Media Player (my default test tool for all media playback files and devices). Nothing is 100% guaranteed with PCs, of course, and this was the only problem I encountered with the software, but it was rather weird nevertheless.
From The Rack's Wave Player/Recorder you can access the Waveform Editor in which you can edit standard Windows WAV files. There are actually 16 Editors available; you can have them all open at once on your desktop - memory permitting - the Session Manager offering an easy way to access and manage them all. The Editors actually work much like standard waveform/sample editors, but have lots of features including a noise filter, a gain control (to adjust the volume of a part of the waveform), reverse, and fade in/out effects. You can add and remove silence, apply several echo effects, split a stereo file into two mono sessions, and pan and crossfade across stereo recordings. The Time Scale marker can display time in minutes, samples, music beats or SMPTE and a Music Beat definition option lets you manually tap out the beat and then calculates the average tempo.
Of course, there are the usual cut, copy and paste functions, an excellent zoom facility, the ability to scrub through the waveform and you can merge two mono recordings into one stereo recording. True, the Editor doesn't have the kind of digital effects found in some editors. There is no EQ (other than a simple filter in the Event Mixer - coming up) and no timestretch (although some sort of pitch/time facility is scheduled to be implemented in the next update), but not all the high-end pro systems have these either - and some don't have half the functions Toolwork does have.
The Waveform Composer lets you visually mix up to 16 Wave files into a single composition and works much like the Arrange page in Cubase. The files appear as oblong bars and you simply drag them to the required position in the window. What you can't do, however, is play them as you arrange them - that would be asking a bit too much. You have to arrange them, combine them then play them. But if the arrangement isn't right, you can go back and re-arrange some more.
The WaMI Track Sequencer is where things start to get really interesting. Here you combine Wave and MIDI (WaMI, geddit?) files, again, in much the same way as the Waveform Composer, by dragging patterns around the screen. There are two Wave tracks in which you can place up to 32 consecutive Wave files and a MIDI track which can take 16 MIDI files. A mono Wave may be used on each Wave Track or one stereo Wave used on both tracks.
The WaMI Event Mixer gives you precise control over the playback of the files. It's modelled on a studio mixer with faders, mute and solo buttons, pan, reverb and chorus controls, plus a definable control.
On the Wave channels this can control pitch, a filter or volume. On the MIDI channels you can assign it to pitch bend, modulation, expression, aftertouch or any controller number.
It's also possible to mix 'on the fly' recording changes into the file. The controls move on playback, too - I just love automation! Alternatively, you can take snapshots which move the controls instantly to a predetermined position. Different sounds can be selected for the MIDI channels from pop-up menus which list all the GM sounds in the card, and the Mixer supports MTC (MIDI Time Code) so you can also sync to an external clock source.
WaMI files are saved in one of two formats. The first simply points to the location of the Wave and MIDI files, the second bundles all the files together into a new file. The former is the most economical in terms of space, but the latter is easier to transfer to other machines. It's a little like Windows' OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) which the program also supports.
The button icons can be customised, and it's possible to alter the colours of various parts of the programs. You can even select slider or rotary controls for the Mixing Panel in The Rack. The manual is excellent: coupled with highly graphic nature of the program and the excellent online Help you should have no trouble using the software. But why no index, chaps? Marred for just another day's work.
Audio Producer doesn't give you the 1001 pieces of software bundled with most sound cards - heck, you don't even get a MIDI sequencer or a talking parrot. In some ways that's a shame, but by not dwelling on the peripherals, the system has been left free to concentrate on its major purpose - the integration of MIDI and digital audio files.
This is a tool not just for the hobbyist but for the serious musician, songwriter, demo-maker and multimedia producer, too. It's a tool to create and edit audio recordings; a tool to capture and edit CD samples; a tool to embed sound, MIDI and CD tracks into documents and presentations; and a tool to combine vocals, samples and audio tracks with a MIDI file.
If they presented Oscars for hi-tech design work the ATW-10 would collect three. At least. I'm impressed as hell.
|Ease of use||It's so graphic Michael Winner could have designed it|
|Originality||An existing idea superbly implemented|
|Value for money||More than your average 16-bit sound card - but better than your average software|
|Star Quality||God, I love it!|
|Price||£449 inc. VAT|
|More from||Roland (UK), (Contact Details)|
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Review by Ian Waugh
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