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Trade iT's DigiTape

Direct-to-disk recording for the Atari Falcon

Article from Music Technology, January 1994

Can this latest software package help the Falcon spread its wings?

Atari may have produced a Falcon but is the software good enough to prevent it becoming a turkey? Ian Waugh carves it up...

The Multitrack Recorder window has nine module slots into which you load record, playback and effects modules.

Throughout its 'lengthy' gestation period. Atari's Falcon promised to be the new computer as far as the musician was concerned. Based on the ST - so existing Atari users would feel reasonably at home - it had all the requisite go-faster stripes and that all-important DSP (Digital Signal Processor) chip with its ability to handle direct-to-disk recording without any additional hardware - other than a large hard disk, of course.

The delay in its arrival in the shops, however, gave the PC and Mac the opportunity to make their own inroads into the music market. Many people, I suspect, will have already traded in their ST for one of these computers, spurred on by the fact that most sequencers are available on all three platforms so a change of machine doesn't necessarily mean a change of sequencer.

And software takes time to develop so it's only recently that the major sequencers have been made Falcon-compatible and the long-awaited direct-to-disk recording systems have appeared.

DigiTape is the most recent of these systems. It is copy-protected by a dongle which plugs into the Falcon's DSP socket, leaving the cartridge port free for music program dongles. It requires a screen resolution of at least 640 x 400 and will work quite happily in mono or colour - although if you use more than 16 colours the manual says the performance may slow down and, conversely, running in mono may speed up an otherwise sluggish system.

The program uses a series of windows which are selected from GEM menus. None of the windows have their own menus: all functions are selected by clicking on icons within the windows and in many cases sub-menus pop up. A little unconventional but it works.

Before recording, it is necessary to create a 'Tape' by telling the program how many tracks you want to record, the sampling rate and the length of the recording. This minimises the work the hard disk has to do, especially if the recording is all in one area of the disk. It's a good idea to run a defragmenter over the disk before you start if it's sharing space with other files.

It must be pointed out that there was actually a problem with the Tape creation process with certain versions of the Falcon's AHDI which controls the hard disk. DigiTape won't work with v6.06 - the most recent release (as of writing) - due, according to the programmers, to a bug in the Atari driver. DigiTape was designed to work with v6.03, but this can also cause problems: namely the overwriting of a neighbouring disk partition if the partition you are writing to is filled! The programmers are currently working on a custom driver which should be available by the time you read this - but do check!

DigiTape supports eight sample rates - 8.195, 9.834, 12.292, 16.390, 19.668, 24.585, 32.780 and 49.170 kHz. These are determined by the Falcon's hardware which is why they may seem a little 'inbetween'. Other sample rates will be available with the S/PDIF (see Sound and the Falcon) including 44.1 and 48kHz.

As well as the program, you need to budget for a hard disk large enough for your music. A 4-minute song using all four tracks, for example, will require about 200Mb of disk space.

DigiTape uses a system of virtual tracks which simply means that it can access more tracks than it can playback at once - in this case 32 tracks with 8-track playback ability. Tracks may be linked in stereo pairs and edited together or singly. You can, however, only record on one or two tracks at the same time due to limitations in the Falcon's hardware. Recording takes place in the Multitrack Recorder window. It has the usual transport controls, a tape position counter, master volume control and nine module slots or channels. Playback, record and effect functions are assigned to these channels as required. If you need more than nine, you can hide modules and load new ones over the top - although some sort of scrolling window, perhaps, would have been a more elegant solution (or simply a window design which made better use of the screen).

The system supports eight playback lines (the signal processor supports eight time slots), two record lines (the left and right signals from the Mic input) and four effect lines. An information line above the slots tells you which modules are in use; the left and right outputs of every module are connected to the master fader.

The effects are used during playback - you can't add them during recording. At this stage, the manual points out that the performance of the system in terms of the number of playback and effects modules you can use may be limited due to (relatively) slow disk access speed and limited processor memory. Using a high sampling rate won't help, either. If this does prove a problem, the solution is to remove modules or reduce the sampling rate (although then you'll have to re-record your music).

When recording, it's necessary to use the Input Monitor and the volume control of the Record channel to set the correct record level. This is crucial because overloading a digital input produces a distinctively horrible grunging noise.

To play back a track you need to assign a playback module to a slot. You can then run the signal through some effects modules, if you wish: the playback modules have a volume send control to determine the amount of signal passed to the effects. They also have a pre-fade button which stops the module's main volume fader affecting the output level to the effect. A Set-up file is created for each Tape which remembers the modules selected and fader positions.

As well as recording from the Mic input, you can record the left or right master output channel in order to mix down several tracks into one. Digital bouncing, of course, obviates the noise problems associated with audio tape mixdowns.

DigiTape has a cute - OK, hideous - karaoke playback option which attempts to remove the vocals from a record. It does this by assuming that the vocals will be in the middle of the stereo position and it subtracts the right channel from the left leaving the music on a single monophonic left channel.

Of course, this will take with it anything else panned to the centre and if the vocals are not close to the centre or if they use stereo reverb it won't work very well. Still, it's another bullet in the armoury for crass entertainment and lazy club singers who can't be bothered to create or buy their own backing tracks.

The Edit window lets you zoom in and edit up to two tracks at a time. You can link tracks to preserve stereo pairs.

A direct-to-disk system wouldn't be complete without some form of editing. In the Edit Tape window you can see up to two tracks at once, shuffle markers around and create blocks to perform copy, paste, delete and insert operations. You can export and import AVR files, allowing data exchange with other Atari sampling software. It's also a convenient method of saving blocks for use elsewhere in the music.

A time scale ruler above the edit windows can show time, MIDI beats or video time scales to help sync the music to whatever other format you may want to use it with. There's a snap-to-MIDI-beat function and DigiTape can output MIDI clock and Song Pointers so you can sync it to an external sequencer.

One strange omission is cuesheets. These are used in direct-to-disk software to playback sections of music. The cues only point to the area of the recording which is to be played so you can create loops and overlaps very easily without actually altering the original data - a process known as non-destructive editing.

DigiTape edits are performed on the original data which means you don't have the same flexibility as non-destructive editing and, of course, you have to be careful with your edits, backing up data before changes are made. The Effects Online Rack has separate left and right In and Out controls plus four signal processor slots into which you can load software FX modules. It processes incoming signals in real time and you can also use it to try out different effect combinations prior to recording - although, as previously mentioned, you can't add effects during recording.

The Frequency Analyser displays the frequencies of the signal at the audio input and doubles as a guitar tuner.

Other features include a Tape Label window where you can enter track names and comments about the song. There's a neat option to 'burn' this into the file, a useful adjunct should someone rip off your masterpiece and you need to prove authorship. There's also a Frequency Analyser which, as well as creating spikes in response to the frequencies of incoming signals, can be used as a guitar tuner. Not being the owner of a guitar, I was unable to put this to the test and I'm not sure how much use it would be to the average user. But it's there if you need it - and it does look pretty.

The Tape Label window lets you make notes about the tracks and burn author information into the file.

Even though the program is already up to v2.0, the manual is still in preliminary form, which would seem to indicate that there is still a fair bit of development to be done. In part it's an obvious translation from the German, but the rest of it seems to have been written by a native Brit. In the way of most preliminary manuals, instructions are very brief and there are no illustrations. In fact, it's only just up to the job of explaining how the program works. Registered users are promised a final draft manual but by that time they will probably have sussed out how it all works anyway.

That said, although the program is relatively easy to use, once you get into it, it's not quite as straightforward as it might be. Having to assign modules to the nine channels is a novel way of integrating the various record, playback and effect functions but it's not the most obvious. The user is entitled to better documentation, especially at this price.

When creating a new Tape you specify the sample rate, the number of tracks and the length of the recording.

It takes time to produce a complex piece of software such as DigiTape. While it's easy to understand why the developers wanted to get it on the market as quickly as possible, I suspect it will need a few more tweaks before it is seen as being complete.

You can create your own wish list; certain features will be more important to some users than others - automated mixdown, punch in, time stretching, varispeed and fades. Personally, I'd like to see non-destructive editing. But the program as it stands does work and the updates are free.

Interestingly, the developers have also released a cut down version of the program called DigiTape Lite (£149). It has fewer tracks, generally fewer facilities and no editing functions at all.

DigiTape is the second major direct-to-disk system for the Falcon. As of writing, we await the arrival of Cubase Audio which promises MIDI sequencer and audio integration on the same computer - something the other two systems are unable to offer (although they can both sync to an external sequencer). In this respect PC direct-to-disk systems such as Session 8 (see review in our November '93 issue) offer far greater flexibility through their ability to sync with any compatible sequencer running concurrently within Windows.

However, if you don't need MIDI or if you already have a favourite sequencer running on your old ST, say, then DigiTape has real potential.


Ease of use Simple enough, once you get the hang of it
Originality Novel way of organising the module
Value for money Currently a touch too much for a touch too little
Star Quality There's a prima donna in here trying to get out
Price SPECIAL OFFER £399.00 inc. VAT
More from CGS ComputerBild, (Contact Details)

Sound and the Falcon

In the review of the 4T/FX direct-to-disk software in the August issue I questioned the quality of the output from the Falcon. My experiments with DigiTape produced similar results - namely loss of the highs and a degree of muddiness to the sound - although DigiTape's EQ module can brighten the highs and soften the lows which helps compensate a little.

To put this into perspective, I'm sure that if you heard the playback only you'd think it sounded fine. It's when you do an AB comparison with the original signal that the difference becomes apparent - and even then it's more obvious with bright and dry sounds than with full bandwidth material.

Conversations with dozens of people involved with the Falcon and direct-to-disk (bearing in mind that some have declared interests in the subject) have so far proved inconclusive. Even Atari admit that there are customers who are unhappy with the sound output despite reports of the Falcon and direct-to-disk software being used in studios.

All of which leads me to the conclusion that either I have a suspect Falcon (it was one of the very early models fitted with TOS 4.01), or some people's idea of 'CD quality' is different to others.

However, the reduced quality theory seems to be reinforced by direct-to-disk software developers themselves. Both d2d and Trade iT are producing S/PDIF digital interfaces which will connect directly to the Falcon's DSP, so bypassing the computer's internal A/D converters. While these devices do offer more than simply an alternative A/D unit, it suggests that these companies have realised that the Falcon's circuitry could be better and that there will be a demand for higher quality recording.

The Trade iT S/PDIF interface has its own A-to-D and D-to-A converters and will enable DigiTape to access frequencies of 44.1kHz for CD and 48.0kHz for DAT. It also offers direct connection to CD and DAT via optical or coaxial connectors and it will allow you to master songs directly to DAT or Mini Disk machines (heaven help us) at 16-bit stereo. It will cost around £300.

In view of the controversy surrounding this issue, we'd be very interested in hearing from anyone out there who is using a Falcon for direct-to-disk recording while we try to unearth some definitive answers on the subject. Let us know which Falcon you have, the version of TOS and what sort of results you are getting - good or bad. Ta!

The effects rack

The Effects Online window lets you run an incoming audio signal through various software effects modules.

DigiTape has seven built-in software effects - Short Delay, Long Delay, Reverb (containing 12 preset types), 10-band Graphic Equaliser, Vibrato, Flanger, and a Noise Gate with Distortion. You can use them in the Effects Online page in real time or in the Recorder window during playback.

The effects are all usable although not quite on a par with dedicated units - which is to be expected. The EQ in particular is very useful.

You can also load in new effect modules from disk. One, a hall-type reverb, is supplied along with detailed documentation about its construction. You'll need to be a nifty programmer to write your own modules, but this could lead to third-party module production - either as commercial entities or PD. Interesting...

Previous Article in this issue

Roland S760

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E-mu Morpheus

Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Jan 1994

Donated by: Ian Sanderson

Quality Control

Review by Ian Waugh

Previous article in this issue:

> Roland S760

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> E-mu Morpheus

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