Hard Disk Recorder
Digital recording takes another step into your living room with this PC-compatible modular package, with four tracks in a 19" rackmounted unit. Bob Walder finds out if Soundscape have got this direct-to-disk business taped...
Affordable multitrack digital recording with a bog standard computer. Easy PC...
Not too long ago, in these very pages, I reviewed a product called SADiE, a PC-based hard disk recording system from Studio Audio & Video Ltd. I was suitably impressed. Especially since for just under £6000 you got a 2-in, 4-out system complete with a 486/33 PC.
Well, things move pretty quickly in this industry, and nothing more so than prices - generally in a downwards direction. Take the Soundscape system from Soundscape Digital Technology (who else?), formed only a few months after the demise of Cheetah by former employees Chris Wright and Nick Owen. Here you have a 2-in, 4-out system for a staggering £2500. OK, so that doesn't include the cost of disks (for the audio data) or a PC - but you could shop around for these and still have change out of £4000! If you already have a PC, the system positively shouts "Bargain - buy me!"
In terms of hardware, Soundscape consists of a 2U rackmount unit finished in a fetching shade of - you guessed it - black. Controls on the front are limited to a power switch (the power supply is internal) and a hard disk activity light. On the back panel are situated the two inputs and four outputs implemented in both analogue and S/PDIF formats; MIDI In/Out/Thru sockets; a -10dBv/+4dBv switch and a socket for the 40-way ribbon cable which connects the unit to the PC interface card. All the audio connectors are RCA/phono sockets, and there is a Pro-Audio option available which offers XLR balanced analogue inputs and outputs, and AES/EBU digital inputs and outputs (XLR).
The inside of the unit is kept almost as simple as the outside, with only the power supply, disk drive(s) and a very neat circuit board with 16-bit sigma-delta 64x oversampled ADCs, and 18-bit sigma-delta 64x oversampled DACs. The recording format is 16-bit linear encoding and the internal signal processing is performed at 24-bit resolution. The signal-to-noise ratio of the ADCs is measured at 93dB unweighted (96dB A-weighted), whilst the DACs are measured at 113dB unweighted (116dB A-weighted) - an impressive specification no matter how you look at it.
The Soundscape is supplied without data drives but there is room for two inside the unit - these appearing as a single drive to the system software. Any standard IDE drive can be installed, providing it has an access time of 18 milliseconds or less; each 10Mb of disk space gives you approximately 1 minute of stereo recording time at 44.1KHz sampling rate. This means that if you were to install two 1Gb drives, you would have a total recording time of just over 200 minutes in stereo, or 400 minutes (nearly seven hours) in mono!
The drives offer true random access to the music data, and do not require 'partitioning' into separate tracks. This is a big advantage over some of the competition, since on a 4-track system, for instance, if one track was empty you would lose 25% of your recording time. Soundscape, however, allows you to use the entire disk for as many or as few tracks as you like.
The interface card for the PC is a standard 16-bit ISA bus card, which can drive up to two Soundscape units for an 8-track system. For machines with eight free slots (possible now that we are seeing video and disk controllers integrated onto the PC motherboard), this gives you a maximum of 64 tracks from a single PC. Synchronisation between the Soundscape units requires a daisy chain of the S/PDIF digital connection from unit to unit. This provides sample accuracy synchronisation, which means that a stereo pair can be split across two machines without any fear of audio phasing problems. All machines can be controlled from a single transport window under the Soundscape software. Note that to expand to an 8-track system, you need only buy a second Soundscape unit - you do not need to buy another card or copy of the software.
It is also worth pointing out that, unlike systems such as SADiE, Soundscape uses the PC as a 'front end processor' to run the software only. All the real processing is carried out within the 2U rack unit - which only leaves the PC the task of running Windows and the Soundscape software. Therefore, any PC capable of running Windows can host Soundscape, and this can help to reduce costs even further.
As an illustration of this, once Soundscape was in play mode I unplugged the interface cable from the back of the PC. The arrangement continued to play since the arrange file had been downloaded to the DSP in the rack unit - proving that the PC had no part in playing the audio tracks from disk. Another nice touch is the large internal RAM buffer in the rack unit which reduces the amount of disk activity required to play audio data - this is what allows the relatively slow (and lower cost) 18ms IDE drives to be used when many other systems require 12ms SCSI drives.
Installation was simplicity itself, since for the first unit there are no changes to be made to the dip switch settings on the card. Software installation is also straightforward - though an automated Windows installation routine would improve things no end. I was not able to judge the quality of the documentation as it was still being written at the time of review, but it is testimony to the ease of use of Soundscape that I was able to explore all the features of the system with only a couple of A4 pages of notes provided by the suppliers.
Since a lot of the icons and on-screen features are similar to Cubase, anyone who has used the program should feel quite at home. That said, I have personally never set eyes on Cubase, and was feeling comfortable with the system in less than an hour - even without the manual.
As I have already intimated, use of the Soundscape software is nothing if not logical and straightforward. Songs are created in an arrange window (similar to Cubase), which takes up most of the screen. Each song consists of a series of musical 'parts' which play the actual recorded audio 'takes' on disk. For instance, you might record the chorus of a song, and this would be saved on disk as a take. This might then be used four times within an arrangement, and each occurrence would be called a part.
The key thing to note here is that each part consists only of pointers to the physical take on disk, so it wouldn't matter how many times a 15-second chorus was used throughout an arrangement, it would still only use up 15 seconds-worth of recording time on disk. Used properly, this can considerably extend the amount of 'virtual' recording time actually available on a disk. The other point to note is that because parts only point to the take on disk, they can be edited in a non-destructive way. A part can be copied to another location in the arrange window, cut up, rearranged and glued back together to produce a completely new piece of music, leaving the original take untouched on disk.
A number of parts can be put together in the arrange window to form a virtual 'track', of which 64 can exist at any one time. To hear any of these tracks you would assign them to one of the four outputs, following which you can listen to them in the context of the song, or solo them at the click of a mouse button. Obviously a number of these virtual tracks can be recorded individually to separate tracks of an analogue tape for final mix down, but for those who would like to keep everything in the digital domain it is possible to assign individual volume levels and fades to up to four of the virtual tracks and then mix them down to a single track within Soundscape.
You could then mix four of these 'composite' tracks down to another single track, and so on, until you have four final tracks which can be mixed to stereo. You could even mix to stereo internally within Soundscape and record two tracks direct to DAT. Of course, this could result in a fairly 'sterile' - gets to look more of a bargain every minute, doesn't it?
Recording your masterpiece is simply a matter of clicking on the microphone icons on the toolbar and creating one or two new takes in the arrange window - sampling rates will be continuously variable between 11KHz and 50KHz on the release version. The tape transport window at the bottom of the screen offers all the usual controls, and there are peak level meters next to them to monitor the recording levels. Once the recording is finished, the takes will be saved to disk, and will appear in the take directory.
When recording a tricky piece, it is possible to set up multiple takes, complete with pre-roll times, and record the same section over and over again - as with loop recording on some sequencers. The takes can then be auditioned one at a time and the best one chosen, deleting the rest.
Editing a take can be accomplished by listening to the audio and cutting at the appropriate point, or it can be performed on a visual representation of the waveform - you can zoom in and out on each part in the arrange window at the click of a mouse button.
There are 'cut' and 'glue pot' tools for rejoining takes. There are also 'move' and 'copy' tools which allow you to reposition your edited sections - 'snapping' automatically to bars, beats, 16ths, etc. Cutting a take does not have to be a precise affair, since a real-time cross-fade is performed between samples as a part is played. It didn't matter how many cuts I made or on what type of material, all the crossfades were performed without a single click or glitch - which is more than you can say for many other systems on the market. And don't forget that all editing is performed non-destructively - so if you don't like the final result you can simply scrap it and start again from the virgin take.
The system does not have a SMPTE interface, but uses MTC through the MIDI connections on the rear of each rack unit. To use SMPTE, therefore, you will need a SMPTE to MTC converter such as the JL Cooper PPS2 or the Fostex MTC-1 (on the R8). The release version of the software will offer chase lock as standard, however. This allows full synchronisation to analogue tape machines or video, enabling the tape speed to be adjusted in real time with Soundscape remaining completely locked.
Synchronising Soundscape to a standard MIDI sequencer is possible via MTC in master or slave modes, or via MIDI Song Position Pointers with MIDI clocks as a master. Physically, all that is required is a MIDI lead from the Soundscape rack unit to the standard PC MIDI interface used by the sequencer. SoundScape's MIDI input provides full merging of all messages - including System Exclusive - so that when using Soundscape as the master, recording of MIDI into the sequencer is performed via the Soundscape MIDI input. Any Windows-based sequencer such as Cubase, Cadenza or Cakewalk can run on-screen alongside Soundscape, and the displays and time readouts will remain locked as you move around your song.
Obviously with a system such as this, backup takes on a vital importance. This can be performed to a standard DAT recorder or to a PC device, such as a hard disk or rewritable CD. The DAT backup takes the form of a coded 'header' plus the audio takes used in an arrangement. A complete arrangement can be saved which includes all the audio takes from the rack unit hard disk plus the arrange file from the PC hard disk. The backup is performed at 48KHz in stereo, so a 120Mb hard disk, which gives about 24 track minutes at 44.1KHz, takes around 10 minutes to back up. Backup via the host interface to the PC takes around half the time of DAT, but will obviously depend on the speed of the PC device being written to.
Whereas the SADiE system was ideally suited to mastering and post production work, Soundscape could well find itself replacing the analogue tape recorder in many a studio up and down the country. This is because it works in exactly the same way as an analogue tape machine, but a heck of a lot quicker. I could see myself ditching my Fostex 8-track in favour of Soundscape, mainly because it would fit into my way of working so much better. When you get used to working with computer-based sequencers - cutting and pasting song sections and editing at the click of a mouse - it's hard to switch your brain back into 'analogue mode'. Everything seems to take so much longer.
Soundscape offers you this sequencer-like way of working, but using audio rather than MIDI data, and the two systems complement each other perfectly. Even if you could not bring yourself to trade in your multitrack, Soundscape would be a welcome addition to any studio setup for the sheer freedom it offers when it comes to laying down tracks quickly and easily, in order to make the most of that creative muse. Highly recommended.
Product: Soundscape Digital Hard Disk Recorder
Supplier: Soundscape Digital Technology Ltd (Contact Details)
Price: £2500 inc. VAT for the first Soundscape rack unit, PC interface card and software. £2250 inc. VAT for an additional rack unit to expand to 8-track
Review by Bob Walder
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