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Soundscape

Hard Disk Recording System For The PC

Article from Sound On Sound, September 1993

Why is there such a fuss about this British-made multitrack hard disk recorder? Read our review to find out...


The Soundscape system has been on the cards for quite some time — was it worth the wait, and can it hold its own in an increasingly well-populated hard disk recording market? Brian Heywood finds out.


Soundscape is the third 'mid-range' hard disk recorder based around the IBM PC that I've had a chance to review and represents another aspect of the hard disk market. Unlike Digidesign's Session 8 — which is a complete system in itself — the Soundscape system can be considered more as a 'plug in' replacement for your multitrack tape machine. Also, since the Soundscape is expandable in units of four tracks, it is more attractive for a small or medium sized studio looking for a 'future proof' hard disk system.

The system is essentially a modular 4-track recorder which is controlled from the PC using a Windows application. The PC only acts as a user interface/control panel and plays no part in the audio chain, which means that you can either use a 'low powered' PC, or use the PC for other tasks whilst using the Soundscape (running a sequencer, for example). Unlike the SADiE (reviewed in the June issue of SOS) and Session 8 (reviewed July) systems, the Soundscape's hard disks are based on IDE (or AT bus) disk technology rather than SCSI.

As IDE hard disks are the de facto standard for PC mass storage they tend to be sold in truck loads, so the prices are very competitive, meaning that you get more hard disk for your money when compared to the equivalent SCSI hard disk. This price differential is not as significant as it used to be, since SCSI is becoming more popular on the PC — to the point that prices of SCSI disks are falling — but you will still tend to pay around £50-100 less for an IDE disk of similar capacity.

OPEN THE BOX



The most basic Soundscape configuration consists of a 2U rack unit containing the Digital Signal Processor (DSP), the conversion electronics and at least one hard disk. The PC end of the system is handled by a half length expansion card — called the Host Interface Card — which can control up to two units and connects to the Soundscape module via 40-way ribbon cable. You can have multiple controller cards in the PC, with a theoretical maximum of 64 tracks, although you are unlikely to find a PC with eight spare expansion slots. The configuration reviewed had two units (eight tracks) connected to a single host card, in a 386/40 PC with 8MB RAM.

All connectors are on the back panel of the module, with only the power switch, the power LED and a disk activity LED on the front panel. Each unit has two inputs and four outputs which are available in both line level analogue and S/PDIF formats (with AES/EBU digital as an option). The audio connectors are RCA/phono cinch connectors and the analogue line inputs can be switched between -10dBv and +4dBv. Apart from the audio connectors, there are MIDI In/Out/Thru connectors, a 40-pin Centronics connector for the ribbon cable to the PC, a voltage selector, a mains fuse and an IEC power input socket.

THE HARD FACTS



The cost of the basic unit doesn't include a hard disk, although Soundscape can supply one if required. The hard drive needs an access time of 18 milliseconds or better to be fast enough to record and play back the digital audio — most modern IDE drives should be suitable. Each of the review units came with 170MB Maxtor drives, giving around 32 track minutes at the 44.1 kHz sample rate. Available time reduces to 29 minutes if you use the higher 48kHz sample rate, or you can squeeze more out of your hard disk by using one of the lower sampling rates, albeit with a reduction in sound quality.

If you're buying your own drive, the best prices are usually in the adverts for mail order companies found in PC magazines. Some adverts will show the access time but otherwise you'll need to ask the sales person, as some of the cheaper drives may be too slow to use for digital audio. According to Chris Wright at Soundscape Technology, the system has been deliberately designed to have fairly modest disk requirements, so you shouldn't have a problem finding a suitable disk.

One point that may not occur to you when buying a hard disk, but which might be important to you in a small studio, is how much acoustic noise the disk makes. A noisy disk can appreciably increase the ambient noise near the Soundscape units, which may be important if you are recording quiet acoustic instruments. Soundscape recommends Micropolis drives and I have all my studio PCs fitted with Quantum hard disks due to their low noise characteristics.

INSTALLATION



The installation of the hardware is quite straightforward; you need to take the top off your PC to install the host interface card into any spare 8- or 16-bit slot. The card is factory preset to use the I/O address 250H and — unlike most cards used for sound or music applications — doesn't require either an IRQ or a DMA channel, simplifying installation considerably. You would only need to change the card address if it clashed with some other device installed in your PC (say an image scanner) or if you were installing more than two Soundscape modules. Adding a second hard disk at a later stage is simply a matter of installing the second disk in the rack; the two drives will be treated as one big drive by the Soundscape module.

The software takes up less than 400KB of hard disk space — which makes sense when you consider that the PC is just being used as an intelligent terminal — as all the hard work is being done by the DSPs in the Soundscape modules. The software is installed using a simple DOS batch file which means that you may have problems if you want to install the software on any drive other than C:. Once the software has been copied onto your PC's hard drive you have to manually add the group to the Program Manager. Whilst this lack of a Windows installation scheme is not a major failing, it seems a bit silly to ignore one of the advantages of a 'user friendly' operating system.

STRIKE UP THE BAND



Once you've installed the hardware and software, you'll need to plumb the Soundscape into your existing studio setup. Like most narrow-format tape machines, the Soundscape's audio connections are made using standard hi-fi style phono connectors. I found this quite convenient since it meant that I could simply unplug my Tascam 8-track and replace it with the two Soundscape modules. The connectors appear to be gold plated so there is nothing 'cheap' about the use of this type of socket, though you should consider fitting a 'strain relief' to the loom to prevent undue stress being placed on the phono sockets. The back panel of the unit has blanked-out holes for XLR connectors so I presume that there will be a 'professional' version available at some future date.

SOFT OPTIONS



The Soundscape's control software is designed to look and feel like a MIDI sequencer, even to the point of being able to define the tempo of the piece. Launching the software causes the main window to open; this has a number of floating sub-windows which show the current arrangement, the 'takes' on the hard disk, a level display window and the transport controls. Along the top of the main window is a button bar that provides most of the tools for manipulating the digital audio. A rather neat feature of the tool bar is that clicking on a button with either of the mouse buttons assigns the button's function to that mouse button.

Soundscape software looks and feels like a sequencer.


THE LONE ARRANGER



The Arrange Window shows the digital audio in the piece of music you're currently working on, with the recorded material appearing as horizontal bars across the screen. This window is where most of the action happens: this is where you record and edit the digital audio data, combine tracks and assign the parts to the individual outputs. In Soundscape parlance, each physical digital audio track is called a 'take', which you can then sub-divide into 'parts'. Along the top of this window is the time axis bar which can be set to display either SMPTE/EBU time or bar and beats. You can set up left and right locators by clicking on the time axis bar with the left and right mouse buttons respectively.

RECORDING



Recording a take is a simple affair: decide where your start and end points are going to be by setting up the left and right locators, click on the record enable for the output you want to use and then click on a blank section of the arrange window. The parts are colour coded to indicate the output to which they're assigned, with takes that you are about to record shaded to indicate their status. Only one take or part can be assigned to an output, so selection will automatically deselect any parts currently using that output. Parts which are not assigned to an output are shown as blank boxes to indicate that they won't be heard during playback.

The Peak Level meters can be aligned horizontally or vertically.

You start recording by clicking on the 'record' button on the tape transport. Recording stops when the play pointer reaches the right locator — unless you are in loop mode — or if you hit the stop button. Soundscape then asks you if you want to keep the take. Answering 'yes' here puts the take into the Take Directory window. The parts can be named to help you keep the arrangement under control. You can set the tempo of the piece by double clicking on the tempo value on the tape transport. Unfortunately the only way you can get to hear it is if you are using Soundscape with a sequencer, using the sequencer's metronome feature. Surely it would have been easy enough to add a metronome to Soundscape, thus allowing non-sequencer users to access this feature?

Using the Record Setup dialogue you can define a pre-roll in either SMPTE time or beats, which is useful when you're dropping a section into an existing arrangement. You can also loop in record, creating multiple takes and selecting the one you like most. As is common with disk recorders, you must tell the Soundscape the length of the material that you want to record, so that the software can allocate the disk space to hold the take. This is a bit of a shock to the system after using a linear recorder — where you can just put the machine in record and go — but really just means that you have to think a bit more about the track before you start recording, which is no bad thing.

The screen can get rather cluttered when using multiple units and a sequencer!


BE CAREFUL WITH THAT AXE EUGENE



Having recorded the take, you can then use the scissors tool to chop up the take into parts that contain the useful sections of the recording. Using this method, you can compile a single solo from the good bits of a number of takes, allowing you to 'cheat' in a convincing manner. The DSP actually performs a very quick crossfade at the start and end of each part, which virtually eliminates clicks at the edit points. The edit points can be made to 'snap' to bar related values, time values or SMPTE frames to help you make accurate edits. The bar related snap values make it incredibly easy to edit the audio to the music.

Multiple parts can be merged (or bounced) into a single new part, with control of the overall level for each part. If you have the disk space, you can keep the original material, giving you the opportunity to 'remix' the parts at a later stage. Otherwise, you can back up the material to DAT or a DOS backup device (say a tape streamer) and free up some disk space. The bouncing doesn't allow you to alter the levels of the parts, although you can perform a 'mix' by chopping each part into sections and altering the level of each of the resulting sections, crossfading as appropriate. Crossfades and level changes are performed at playback so you don't need to wait while new data is written to disk. You can view the waveforms associated with each take, but as Soundscape has to scan the audio data on the hard disk, this can introduce significant delays to the screen update.

USING SOUNDSCAPE WITH A SEQUENCER



Unlike the Session 8, the Soundscape is essentially an independent external system and so doesn't integrate as neatly into the Windows environment as the Digidesign product. Although the software appears to run on the PC alongside your sequencer, all the actual work is done in the rack unit, so you have to synchronise the two systems by means of the external MIDI connection using either MTC or MIDI Song Position Pointers. The up side of this equation is that the Soundscape places comparatively little extra load onto your PC, so you can realistically add Soundscape to your sequencing PC without adversely affecting the performance of the sequencer.

Soundscape would normally be used as the timing master with the sequencer slaved to it, so you need to have at least one MIDI input port on your PC. You can plug your master keyboard (or whatever) into the rack unit, as it echoes the input MIDI data stream, along with the synchronisation data, to the MIDI Out port. Unfortunately, Soundscape doesn't have a tempo map, so you will be limited to a single tempo if you use it in this way. You can also use the sequencer to control the levels of the individual outputs, giving you a basic automated mixdown facility. The levels are controlled using MIDI controller messages, which are assigned by the user from the MIDI Setup screen. Although they are limited to 127 steps, I couldn't detect any 'zipper' noise on the outputs, even during fast fades.

I SYNC THEREFORE I AM!



Soundscape can act as either a sync slave or master.

Soundscape can synchronise to an external SMPTE timecode source, but you need to convert the timecode into MIDI first, as the system doesn't have a direct SMPTE input — you'll need an external SMPTE to MIDI box like those produced by JL Cooper or a 'timecode-aware' interface such as Voyetra's V24s. Soundscape will follow speed variations of the incoming timecode by smoothly altering the replay sample rate, something the basic Session 8 system won't do. The choice of frame rates is rather limited, with only 24, 25 and 30 (non drop) frames per second being available. These rates are quite adequate for music applications but those interested in video post-production work (especially for the US market) will probably find the system too limited for their use.

MULTIPLE UNITS



Using more than one Soundscape is fairly painless: just daisy-chain the MIDI and digital audio cables and then start up the software twice — with different initialisation files. Both sets of software will respond to button clicks in either window so you only need one set of transport controls and button bar visible to control both units. It is quite easy to set up the two Soundscape windows to share the screen and then save the settings as a default. To run two units and a sequencer does require a lot of screen space, so if you plan to use multiple units, go for the largest monitor you can afford.

There are some restrictions with using two units, such as not being able to bounce down multiple tracks from one unit to a single track on the other. You just have to remember that the modules are independent devices and thus don't have access to each other's disks. You can transfer takes between the units by copying the digital audio across the S/PDIF digital links, but this has to be done in real time. Some of these restrictions may be removed with future software releases.


THE BOTTOM LINE



The Soundscape software's similarity to a sequencer actually gives a hint to the main strength of the system — in short, it's a very 'musical' hard disk recorder, easy to use as an extension to a sequencer. The SADiE and Session 8 systems are both very powerful, but they both have a more traditional 'recording world' view in terms of the way that the user interacts with the hard disk recording system. Soundscape's strength lies in how it builds on the way a musician works, rather than the way a recording engineer works.

If you are looking to replace your 8-track or 16-track recorder with a hard disk recorder, Soundscape has some definite advantages over Session 8, mainly expandability and lower running costs. However, I really don't think that Session 8 and Soundscape are really competing for the same market, since the strength of Session 8 is in its 'do it all' nature, whereas Soundscape is better suited to integrating into an existing studio environment.

I think if I was looking for a hard disk system for multitrack recording I would choose Soundscape, since I like its expandability and the ease with which it integrates into a sequencing setup. Certainly it's well worth looking at if you want to add digital audio to your PC.

Further Information

4-track Soundscape without hard drive £2499 inc VAT.

Soundscape Technology, (Contact Details).

THE NOISE OF ART

Putting any system with disks and fans into your studio control room is bound to increase the ambient noise level. There are some measures you can take to reduce this, such as searching out quiet disk drives or putting a temperature controlled fan in the PC and the Soundscape (since it uses a standard PC 12V fan). The PC's monitor can also interfere with instruments such as electric guitars; this is a problem common to all computer systems when used in the studio.


SOUNDSCAPE £2499

PROS
Good price to performance ratio.
Cheaper hard disk storage.
Expandable to 64 tracks.
Works very well with sequencers.

CONS
Computer screen can get cluttered if more than two units are in use.

SUMMARY
A system that integrates very well into a working studio and represents excellent value for money.


BACKING UP THE SESSION

Soundscape's backup facilities are the best I've seen on a hard disk system in this price range. You can either back up to DAT, which takes around half the total track time, or to any mass storage device which appears as a DOS disk drive, such as an optical drive or a tape streamer. Once you've safely archived your material it is very easy to remove all the digital audio associated with a particular session, thus freeing up the space for the next song. One additional feature that could be useful would be a way to verify that the DAT has been written properly.


SAMPLE RATES

The Soundscape supports 22.05kHz/32kHz, 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz as default values, so you may have a problem if you want to mix for video post-production applications using the 44.056 kHz and 47.952kHz sample rates. The recording format is 16-bit linear encoding, the ADCs are 16-bit sigma-delta (64x oversampled), the DACs are 18 bit sigma-delta (64x oversampled) and the internal signal processing is performed at a 24-bit resolution. The signal to noise ratios are quoted at better than 90dB (unweighted) for the inputs and better than 100dB (unweighted) for the outputs. One of the advantages of having all the digital audio electronics in a unit that is external to the PC is that the noise figure won't be compromised by the PC's power supply or by electrically 'noisy' cards such as VGA or IDE cards.

You might be wondering about the 22.05kHz sample rate. Soundscape can save and load individual takes to and from the PC's hard disk as multimedia Windows wave files. This means that you can use the system to develop MPC Windows soundtracks, though the facility to reduce the word size to eight bits would have been useful.



Previous Article in this issue

Bank Managing

Next article in this issue

SPX Appeal


Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
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Sound On Sound - Sep 1993

Gear in this article:

Software: Hard Disk Recorder > SDT > Soundscape

Review by Brian Heywood

Previous article in this issue:

> Bank Managing

Next article in this issue:

> SPX Appeal


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