Computer Controlled Recorder
One of the prime forces for the 90s is sure to be digital recording and editing - as found in TOPAZ. Simon Trask previews a powerful new system from Steinberg Digital Audio.
DURING THE PAST decade we have seen sampling begin as expensive dedicated computer music systems like the Fairlight CMI and NED Synclavier, and end up as mass-market technology which has exerted a powerful influence on popular music.
The '90s equivalent is set to be computer-based digital audio recording. While dedicated systems such as the AMS Audiofile have been on the market for several years now, systems based around a general-purpose computer, which have only begun to emerge in the past year, look set to become increasingly significant. And none more so than Steinberg Digital Audio's Mac II-based stereo/two-track Topaz, which is due to be launched in February. At around the same time (and this is one reason why computer-based systems will be so attractive), Steinberg will also be launching the Mac version of Cubase, which will be able to run concurrently with Topaz under M.ROS, the company's multitasking operating system. This integrating of digital audio recording and MIDI sequencing is ultimately where the future of recording lies, and by combining the two in a single integrated environment Steinberg have placed themselves at the forefront of recording technology.
The extent of this integration is unclear at present, but obviously the two programs will be synchronised automatically by M.ROS. They have very similar Transport windows, suggesting that you'll be able to fast forward and rewind both from whichever program you're in. Conceptually it would make sense if Topaz were treated as tracks within Cubase, with global cut and paste editing affecting both alike, but we'll have to wait and see. One very significant feature of Topaz is its ability to perform time compression and expansion of recorded material in real time, so that, theoretically, tempo-change edits should present as little problem in the audio as they do in the MIDI domain.
What will set Topaz apart from other computer-based systems like Hybrid Arts' ADAPII (for the ST) and Digidesign's Sound Tools (for the Mac II and Mac SE) is its ability to be expanded to a 16-track system with the addition of up to seven further Topaz units. Steinberg are planning to make the multitrack version available in the summer (of 1990, dear reader). Although the additional Topaz units will cost less than the initial unit, a 16-track system still ain't gonna be cheap (see below for preliminary pricing details).
The Topaz electronics, mass storage units and backup medium are housed in a 6U-high 19" casing, but by itself this "black box' is pretty useless. Topaz requires a Mac II, IIex or IIx with at least 2Mb of RAM to act as the user interface and controller. Communications between computer and Topaz unit are carried out via RS422 interfacing. For multitrack applications, a fast networking system known as Arcnet will be employed.
Timecode synchronisation for both Topaz and Cubase will be handled by Steinberg's MLTC synchroniser, a 1U-high 19" unit which can read and write all timecode formats and provides two MIDI Ins and two MIDI Outs (in addition each Topaz unit has MIDI In, Out and Thru - you just can't get away from the demon five-pin DIN). AES/EBU interfacing will be available for digital transfer of audio data (necessary for such applications as DAT editing and CD mastering).
The hardware for the Topaz unit consists of a processor module with a 68000 processor as well as 2Mb RAM and a network controller, a Direct Memory Access module with SCSI interface and 2Mb RAM, a DSP module with up to eight Texas Instruments TMS320-C25 processors, an I/O module and an analogue converter module. The modules are connected together using a fast parallel bus. Topaz will be delivered with 16-bit linear A/D and D/A converters as standard, although for purely digital applications it will be possible to buy the system minus converters. The A/D converter utilises high-quality analogue anti-aliasing filters and the D/A converter uses four times oversampling and digital filtering. All analogue inputs and outputs are electronically balanced, and automatic de-emphasis is available in the D/A section.
Each Topaz unit comes with a 320Mb hard disk built in, allowing 84 minutes recording time at a sample rate of 32kHz, 60 minutes at 44.1kHz and 55 minutes at 48kHz. You'll be able to double the memory using a second hard disk, giving you around two hours of stereo recording at 44.1kHz. For backing up data, a built-in cassette streamer with a storage capacity of 150Mb per cassette will be provided, though at additional cost a faster streamer will be able to back up as much as 2Gbytes three times faster than real-time to 8mm cassette.
As you might expect, the Mac II software front-end is window-oriented, and you'll be able to create your own configuration of the Master, Transport, SMPTE, and Directory windows. As well as offering on-screen master volume faders for each channel, the Master window also provides a graphic layout of a triple parametric digital EQ with high- and low-pass filtering. The overall design of this window is reminiscent of a channel on a mixing desk, while the Transport window is modelled on the transport controls you typically find on a tape machine - all of which helps to give an impression of familiarity. However, while the basic operational principles of analogue recording and computer-based digital recording may be the same, the latter allows you to do things that would either be impossible or extremely difficult with tape. Being able to change the duration of a recording but not its pitch, and the pitch but not the duration, are obvious examples, as is the fact that you can jump to any location in a track virtually instantaneously.
Unlike tape editing, which requires you to physically cut up lengths of tape, editing computer-based digital audio is 'non-destructive'. What this means is that the recorded data isn't disturbed in any way. Instead, the points where you 'cut up' your digital audio track are held as a list of memory locations, and Topaz' control software merely has to refer to this list and jump to the relevant memory locations at the appropriate time.
The basic audio element of Topaz is a mono or phase-locked stereo digital Recording; you can create up to 4000 of these. A Recording can be assigned to one or more Programs, of which you can have up to 7000. As each Program has Start Point, End Point, Volume, Pan, Speed, Pitch and Time Correction playback parameters, it's clear that the same digital audio data can be used in different contexts through being assigned to more than one Program.
An Event Decision List, which is presented in text and graphic forms, controls the order and start-times of the Programs, with up to 1000 events possible per track. Not unlike the type of organisation employed by MIDI sequencer programs, eh? In fact, Topaz EDLs should fit readily into the type of track display employed by Cubase (surprise surprise).
Topaz users will be able to download software updates from a central computer in Hamburg via modem communication. Topaz is an open-ended system, and Steinberg intend to add digital effects such as compression, limiting, chorusing and flanging at some point in the future.
We've been dealing with a lot of figures in this preview, but there's one figure we haven't touched on yet: the cost. Well, one Topaz unit with built-in 320Mb hard disk will cost around about £16,000, which means that when you add on the cost of a Mac II, IIex or IIx and Cubase (think integrated) you're talking in the region of £20,000, or roughly the cost of a Fairlight CMI Series II ten years ago. But just look at the sophistication of what you're getting (or dreaming about, if you're like me) compared to the Fairlight, both in terms of the digital audio and the sequencing (and at around 2.5% of the total cost, Cubase starts to look like extremely good value for money). What's more, a £20,000 price tag is lower in real terms than it was ten years ago.
While the standard recording medium for computer-based digital audio systems is currently the hard disk, read/write optical disk storage is waiting in the wings, and in the long run should be a cheaper, more compact recording and storage medium. We can also expect to see recording times quadrupled by methods of compressing digital audio which are being worked on at the moment (though whether SDA are working on audio data compression I don't know).
Obviously computer-based digital audio recording is going to be considerably more expensive than analogue tape recording for some while to come. It may also be that we'll see a period of ascendancy for 'budget' digital multitrack tape machines before the computer-based alternative becomes widespread - after all, DAT has fairly quickly become the two-track mastering medium of choice for many musicians on the basis of quality and price. But at the end of the day (end of the decade?) computer-based digital audio recording must win out on sheer flexibility - not only in terms of what you can do with the audio data once it's in computer memory, but also in terms of the range of applications it's well suited to. For one thing, you can't edit DAT tapes as such, but you can transfer your DAT recordings to a computer and edit them there, then transfer them back to tape - all within the digital audio domain (thanks to AES/EBU). CD mastering, remixing, film and video postproduction, editing of recorded material such as interviews and plays for radio broadcast, and recording of announcements, jingles and the like for radio and TV are all possible applications which should ensure that computer-based digital audio has a healthy future. The implications of time compression/expansion are wide-ranging and profound. Used in conjunction with pitch-shifting, the potential exists for surreal musical combinations which haven't been possible before (the real sampling revolution, perhaps?). But there are other, less obvious and perhaps more sinister possibilities. For instance, imagine that you're the producer of a radio show and you've got an interview which lasts three minutes but you want to fit it into two minutes and thirty seconds. The temptation to apply time compression would obviously be strong, but would it be right to use it? I suppose this is akin to 'retouching' a film using the sophisticated computer-based digital video editing techniques available nowadays. What price 'reality'?
But getting back to music and back to Topaz (you'll have to excuse me, it's nearly Christmas as I write this and the drinks are on the Editor). What should really ensure the future of computer-based digital audio recording in musical circles is the fact that it allows audio data to be manipulated with the same degree of flexibility and ease as a sequencer allows MIDI data to be manipulated. Well, that's the theory. When Topaz arrives with Cubase in tow, we'll be able to see how the theory translates into 'reality'.