Digidesign Session 8 Digital Studio
The Personal Studio Of The Future?
Your PC becomes your best friend in the studio with this eagerly awaited digital system.
Now that digital tape recording is becoming more affordable, the next wave of progress is in the hard disk recording arena. Brian Heywood gets his hands on the eagerly-awaited Session 8 to find out if it really is the future of personal recording.
Things are definitely getting interesting in the personal recording field — we seem to be witnessing the next step in the development of affordable recording technology. If you think of the narrow format multitrack tape machine (either open-reel or cassette based) as being the first step, and the videotape-based digital recorders from Alesis and Tascam being the second, the next logical step is to hard disk recording. This year has seen a number of multitrack disk-based recorders — all designed to be used in conjunction with a personal computer.
One of the most interesting of the new systems to hit the shelves this year is the Digidesign Session 8, the latest in a series of hard disk recorders designed for the humble PC. The Session 8 has been designed to replace — and improve upon — the home or 'project' studio's narrow format multitrack tape recorder. Put simply, hard disk systems like the Session 8, give the 'home' recordist the opportunity to use the sort of technology that has revolutionised the 'professional' studio world.
The Session 8 works by recording your material to the hard disk, placing each take into a 'soundfile' on the SCSI disk. You can then manipulate this data in the same way as you would MIDI data in a sequencer or text in a word processor, changing the order, removing parts that you don't want to keep, and so on. Like the SADiE system reviewed last month, Session 8 uses a non-destructive editing scheme, meaning that you never actually alter the original data; by creating an edit — called a 'region' in Digidesign parlance — you tell the software to play back the bits of the soundfile that you want to hear. This is a very powerful technique for two reasons: firstly, the edits take up little extra disk space and secondly, since you still have the original track, you can always go back to the original source material if you change your mind about an edit.
The Session 8 is an 8-track hard disk recorder designed to be used with an IBM compatible PC running Microsoft's Windows operating environment and an external SCSI hard disk. The standard system consists of two 'expansion' cards that are installed inside the PC and the Session 8 audio interface — a 3U, rackmounted box that has all the audio connectors and the circuitry for converting your analogue sound into a digital form that the computer can handle. The audio interface is connected to one of the PC cards via a three-metre cable and the SCSI hard disk is connected to the other.
There is also a professional configuration called the Session 8 XL, which replaces the audio interface with higher quality converters, dispensing with most of the audio connectors and the additional analogue electronics. This review is solely based on the standard configuration.
The Session 8 comes in a huge cardboard box containing the two PC expansion cards and the audio interface module. The 350-page manual contains concise instructions for installing the hardware and software as well as connecting your studio equipment to the audio interface. I was also supplied with a Digidesign Pro Store external hard disk which came in an even larger cardboard box. If you are like me and keep the boxes that your equipment comes in — just in case it has to go back — then you may have to get a bigger house, just for the packaging!
The Session 8 hardware consists of a 3U rack unit, a full length SCSI/DSP card (16-bit) and a half length audio interface card (8-bit). The two cards must be installed into adjacent slots in the PC since they are interconnected by a short ribbon cable. The internal cards connect to the external SCSI hard disk drive and the Session 8 audio interface by a standard SCSI cable and a 50-pin audio interface cable respectively. The Digidesign hard disk takes up another 3U of rack space, so you need six units of rack space in total.
Of course, you don't have to buy the Digidesign hard disk — any SCSI hard disk with a data throughput of 800 kilobytes per second and an average access time of at least 18ms will do the job. Since prices of large capacity SCSI disks are coming down, you may be able to get a bargain by shopping around. Unfortunately the hard disk can't be mounted inside the PC as the SCSI/DSP card only has an external connector, so you need to factor in the cost of an external case or a rackmount if you buy a bare drive. Digidesign will supply you on request with a list of SCSI disks that are known to work with the Session 8.
You may need to check that the Session 8 works in your PC, before you part with your hard-earned cash. I totally failed to get it to work with a 30MHz 386 PC I have in the studio here; however, it installed in my 33MHz 486 PC with no problems. This seemed odd, since both the computers' mother boards were from the same manufacturer and I had previously used my SADiE system' in the 386 without any problem. Subsequently, I found from Digidesign's US technical support that reducing the buss speed to 8MHz cures the problem. Many of Digidesign's UK dealers can provide an installation service if there are any doubts. If you don't already have a PC, it might be worth checking out package offers from UK dealers.
The Session 8 software takes up just under 2MB of hard disk space and automatically adds the driver for the Session 8's hard disk. One interesting feature is that the hard disk becomes available to the rest of Windows, allowing you to use a standard backup scheme to archive the digital audio files. You can even let other Windows applications use the drive if you want. Those of you who are into Windows multimedia will be interested to note that the Session 8 stores it's soundfiles as .WAV files.
There are no less than 42 different input and output connectors sprinkled across the front and back panels of the audio interface, without the digital I/O and twin headphone connectors. The idea is that you connect up most of your equipment once and then use the software to control how the various bits of gear are connected together.
There are two ways of using the Session 8, depending on whether you're simply using the system to replace your existing 8-track tape machine or are starting from scratch:
EXTERNAL MIX MODE. If you already have a comprehensive 8-track studio setup, with a decent mixing desk, outboard effects, patchbays, and so on, you will probably want to connect the Session 8 as you would a multitrack tape machine. This is called 'external' mix mode, since you're using your existing desk to perform the final mixdown of your material. If you're sure that you'll always want to use the Session 8 in this way, you'll probably want to consider getting the 'professional' XL interface, as you won't be using a lot of the features found on the standard audio interface.
INTERNAL MIX MODE. This entails using the Session 8 software to mix down the recorded material entirely within the system. With this mode, you connect most of your equipment to the Session 8's multifarious inputs and then leave them there, using the built-in patchbay to route the signals. In all, there are 24 inputs on the audio interface (not counting the stereo tape return), which may seem a lot since there are only eight destination tracks, but this does mean that you don't have keep swapping cables when you decide to swap instruments. There are eight inputs on the front panel — four line and four microphone — that are easily accessible whilst recording, and another 16 line inputs tucked out of harm's way at the back. Ten of these inputs are configured as a five input, stereo submixer with level and pan/balance controls brought out on to the front panel. The mixer lets you have your MIDI keyboards and sound modules connected permanently. The remaining six inputs are designated as effects returns.
The Session 8's 10 outputs are also on the back panel, of which four are designated as effects sends, and the remaining six are configured as three stereo pairs for the main, monitor and cue mixes respectively. There are also four insert points on the back panel which allow you to put a signal processor — such as a compressor or an equaliser — into the signal path. The insert points use a stereo 6.5mm (quarter-inch) jack connector with the 'tip' connector being the signal output and the ring being the return — fairly standard configuration for smaller mixing desks. The remainder of the back panel is taken up with the RCA phono connectors for a stereo analogue tape machine, the S/PDIF digital I/O and two BNC connectors for connecting the unit to a Digidesign Slave Driver.
The heart of the Session 8 is the software that drives the machinery, especially when it's being used in 'Internal' mix mode. The software is divided into three main areas (or windows) that represent the three main areas of activity in the studio. These windows are; the 'Route' window for connecting the input signals to the appropriate destinations, the 'Mix' window for setting levels and the 'Edit' window for manipulating the sound after it has been recorded. The main window has the familiar menu bar and tape transport controls. The transport bar also contains the time display, the 10 locators and the buttons for activating the other three screens.
The menu bar controls the overall configuration and various 'housekeeping' functions that aren't related to any particular window. So you can save your current 'session', add soundfiles (i.e. recorded material) from other sessions, change the mix mode and set MIDI and synchronisation options. A 'session' is the grouping of all the data — soundfiles, mixer settings and fade information — for a particular track. One thing you can't do from these menus is delete or backup the sound files; you need to use something like the Windows File Manager for this essential piece of housekeeping.
The first thing you need to do when starting a new session is to connect (or route) your instruments to appropriate channels for recording. How you do this will depend on your instrumentation and methods of working. There is nothing to stop you recording all eight tracks at once to get a tight little live performance, or you can build the track one take at a time. There are also some 'global' switches for setting sample rate, monitor source, headphone mix, digital word clock source, and so on, which you need to set up at the start of a new session.
The Route window is essentially a grid, with the rows representing the 12 analogue input channels and the columns the eight recordable tracks and the main stereo mix bus. To connect an input to a track, you simply click on the intersection of the appropriate row and column. You can connect multiple instruments to a single track if you want, mixing them by altering the input levels, the trim controls on the front panel or the submixer's master output control. Although there are eight inputs on the front panel, only four of them are accessible at any one time; like a standard mixing desk, you can switch between the line or microphone input preamplifier, the current state being shown next to the input channel's label by a microphone icon or a guitar icon (i.e. for the line input). The microphone inputs are balanced but don't have phantom power, so you will need an external power supply if you use a professional condenser microphone.
The Route window is also where you allocate the four insert points to individual input channels. You simply pick up one of the insert icons — which live in the bottom left hand corner of the Route window — and drop it next to the input you want routed through the insert point. You would normally have a compressor, equaliser or limiter connected to the insert points, but there's nothing to stop you putting any device in-line here, such as your favourite guitar effects pedal.
Once you've sorted out the connections, you can then move onto to the Mix window to set up your monitor mix and 'record enable' the tracks. In internal mix mode you get three sets of faders: one for the tracks on disk (Main Mix); one for the input channels (Input/Return Mix); and an extra 'Cue Mix' so that you can have another monitor mix. You would probably use the cue output to give the performer a separate foldback mix, which is only really appropriate if you are using the Session 8 in a conventional studio.
Apart from the level fader, each of the Main Mix channels has a 'playlist' sector, a solo and a mute button, a record enable button, a pan control, four auxiliary send controls and a socket for plugging in the equaliser boxes. Each Input/Return channel also has the equaliser socket, the pan control and the auxiliary sends, while the cue mix only has the level controls. Both the Main Mix and the Input/Return Mix have LED-style signal level displays which are colour coded to show how 'hot' the signal level is, turning red if the signal starts to distort. It is important to realise here that the on-screen faders only affect the output levels of the signals — you must ensure that you don't overload the inputs, using the front panel trim controls or the output levels of the devices you have connected to the Session 8. There are LEDs on the front panel of the audio interface that light up at a -30dB signal level and when the analogue to digital converters start clipping, to help you keep the input levels in check.
To start recording, simply click on the appropriate channel's 'record enable' button, click on the record button and then press 'play'. After each take you must explicitly name and save the newly recorded soundfile using 'Save Takes' on the Files menu. Unsaved takes are discarded when you put the Session 8 into record mode, so you need to be careful if you record from this screen. I actually found it easier to use the Edit screen, since this allowed me to name and save the soundfiles as I recorded them.
Once you have the audio on the hard disk you can start editing the material in one of two ways. The most obvious way is to use the edit screen to cut the track into sections and then rearrange it to suit your needs; the other is to generate new tracks using the Mix window. The editing facilities are limited to cutting out sections of the track and performing fades and crossfades, but it is surprising how much you can do with these. Regions are created by highlighting a portion of the track (or tracks) and then selecting 'Capture (or Select) Region' from the Edit menu. Regions can be picked up and moved or copied to other parts of the window using the mouse and they can be easily resized using the 'handle' at each end of the selected region.
I found it a breeze to chop out unwanted sections of track and even correct wrong notes by copying a note of the correct pitch from somewhere else in the track and placing it over the misplayed notes. And — because all the edits are non-destructive — there is no reason why you can't have multiple versions of the same track saved as different sessions, a simple way to get different mixes. I also found the creation of fades and crossfades very intuitive although a tad time consuming for long fades, since they are stored as new files on the hard disk.
Track bouncing also becomes a very powerful technique with Session 8, as there is no loss of quality involved and, more importantly, you don't lose your original recordings as you would on a multitrack. This means you could use six tracks to record a drum kit, mix them down to stereo and then record another six tracks. If at some later stage you want redo the drum mix, it's just a matter of freeing up some tracks and redoing the mix. You can also use this to add equalisation to a region, freeing up EQ modules for other tasks.
Once all the tracks have been edited to your satisfaction, you can use the Main Mix window to perform the final mix down to stereo. Each channel has four auxiliary sends, though if you are using stereo effects units you will need to use the submixer for one of the returns. In this mode the Main faders control the outputs of the tracks and the Inputs/Return mix is used for the effects returns and the output of the submixer. As the signals stay in the digital domain — apart from the effects sends — and you can connect to your DAT via the S/PDIF digital interface, you can keep most of the audio in the digital domain throughout the recording process.
All the faders can be controlled via MIDI and their movements can be recorded using a Windows sequencer running on the same machine. You can also use an external MIDI fader box like the JL Cooper FaderMaster to control the mix externally, or wait for Digidesign to release their rather natty looking dedicated remote control unit. The Session 8 software 'talks' to the sequencer via a pseudo-Windows MIDI device, which is a brilliant idea. Apart from carrying automation data, this port can also be used to synchronise the sequencer to the Session 8 so that you can get extra, MIDI-based tracks.
The Digidesign Session 8 is an extremely useful piece of kit and is a worthwhile replacement for your analogue 8-track tape recorder. The only problem is that it is inherently limited to eight tracks since there is no expansion path, unlike the forthcoming Soundscape system. There are plans for a combined ADAT/Session 8 system that will give you a hybrid digital 16-track but this looks like it's a little way down the road.
In use, the only real problems I came across were acoustic noise from the SCSI hard disk drive and electrical noise from the PC's monitor. The former added about 10dB ('A' weighting) to the ambient noise level in the studio, though I should mention that the drive I was using was one which Digidesign are no longer making, which was rather noisy. If you're thinking of buying a hard disk, it's always a good idea to check how much noise it makes before you buy. The latter played havoc with the signal from my Squier Stratocaster. Though electrical noise from a monitor could be a problem in any small studio with a computer, in a small personal studio based around a hard disk recorder with a host computer this is going to be an important factor, since you will probably be recording next to the computer.
If you already have a PC, the cost of the Session 8 with an appropriate SCSI disk is about equivalent to that of the narrow format multitrack tape machines when they first came out (allowing for inflation). This is about half as much again as the current price of an ADAT, so if you just want a digital recorder then this might be a better bet. However, the Session 8's editing facilities are well worth the extra money. The Session 8 is definitely the future of personal recording; if you can't afford one now. I'd suggest you start saving.
Session 8 £3599; Session 8XL £5400. Both prices inc VAT.
Digidesign UK, (Contact Details).
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Review by Brian Heywood
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