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Digidesign Session 8

Direct-to-disk PC recording system

It's getting closer... the home 8-track, gone digital.

With eight tracks of digital recording this new d-t-d system for the PC offers unparalleled flexibility and performance. And your hard disk will hate it.

Session 8's Routing/Setup page where you 'virtually' connect the equipment you have plugged into the Audio Interface.

OK, you're convinced, direct-to-disk recording is the way to go. As we've been saying in MT for the past twelve months or more, the flexibility it offers makes it the logical choice for every computer/MIDI musician. And the quality is unsurpassed. The only obstacle, as ever, is money. But in real terms, the cost of d-t-d has fallen dramatically in recent months. In fact, a 4-track d-t-d system now costs much less in real terms than a 4-track reel-to-reel recorder did ten years ago. For small studios and dedicated home users it is now an affordable option.

But enough of the gee, wow! stuff. If you want the lowdown on d-t-d, check out the feature in our August issue. Let's look now at one of the latest systems to emerge from one of the founding fathers of d-t-d, Digidesign...

Session 8, as the name implies, is an 8-track direct-to-disk recording system. The system supplied for review is for the PC but a Mac version should be available by the time you read this. Two cards are supplied - a Session 8 DSP/SCSI card and an Audio Interface I/O card. The former does all the digital processing and connects to an external hard disk via SCSI, while the latter handles the audio signals. The two are connected to each other via an extremely short ribbon cable and this means that the 16-bit card must be inserted in the slot below the other card.

The Session 8 Mixer page where you can balance and mix all the sounds in the system.

The audio side of things is handled by the Session 8 Audio Interface - a 3U high rackmount unit. It has more Ins and Outs than a Swiss cheese and can be used in two modes - Internal Mix mode and External Mix mode.

In External Mix mode you simply hook the unit into an existing recording setup as you would an 8-track tape machine - in fact, it works very like a conventional multitrack recorder - and perform the mixdown, externally, on your own mixer. If this is your normal modus operandi you'll probably want to opt for the alternative Session 8XL unit (see Optional extras).

However, Internal Mix is by far the most flexible and powerful mode and not to use it is to vastly under use the facilities offered by Session 8. You simply connect all your outboard gear to the Audio Interface and patch it together through the software. This arrangement means that the signals remain in the digital domain and can stay there until the final mixdown to DAT or whatever.

If you use the system's digital outs to create the master, the original signal is converted back to analogue only once - when the listener plays it.

The MIDI Setup menu lets you configure Session 8 to work with a MIDI sequencer running concurrently inside Windows.

The software has three main pages - Routing/Setup, Editor and Mixer. There are transport controls, ten locators and a time indicator which you can set to a variety of displays - time, sample numbers, SMPTE or bars and beats.

Your setup is connected via software in the Routing page. A grid shows the eight recording tracks along the bottom plus the stereo master. Down the left are the four Mic/Line Ins, the left and right submixes and the six FX Returns. To record the input from Line two onto track four, for example, you simply click on the square where the row and column meet. Click on it again and the connection disappears.

There are four Insert icons below the inputs. Dragging one to the box on the right of the inputs 'plugs it in'. Both the inputs and the Insert points may be named in order that you see at a glance what equipment is connected to what. The sampling rate can also be selected here - 44.1kHz or 48kHz - and the input switched between digital (S/PDIF) and analogue for channels one and two.

You can use the Fade In and Fade Out functions to create cross-fades to help smooth the joins where two Regions meet.

The Mixer window contains sliders for the main mix (the tracks on disk), the stereo master, the input/return channels and the cue mix. (In External Mix mode you only get the main mix sliders.) As well as volume and pan controls, each main mix channel has a solo and mute button, four aux sends plus an area at the top of each channel into which you can drag up to four EQ buttons. The input/return channels have volume, pan, four aux sends and the EQ box.

The EQ controls are excellent. There are six of them and they can be configured as narrow/wide band parametric or high/low shelving types. Frequency and cut & boost settings are fully adjustable - a graph gives you a visible indication of the effect the settings have on the frequencies - and you can stack up to four EQs on one channel, although at the 48kHz rate you can only use two EQs.

There are six EQs and four can be stacked on one channel. When you vary the parameters you can see how the frequencies will be affected.

To record, you make the required connections in the Routing page, select the tracks you want to record on - they turn red - and click on Record. The disk whirs for a second while it sets itself up, and then you click on Play to start the recording proper. You must save each recording with the Save Takes option as each new recording erases the old take. Once on disk, the recording may be edited in ways undreamed of with analogue tape, and this is where the fun really begins.

In the Edit page, after a recording you'll see a box in the track area. To view the recording as a waveform, you have to create an overview of the track. This is optional as it takes a short while to calculate. You can select different colours for the waveforms to help with their identification.

Like all good d-t-d systems, Session 8 benefits from non-destructive editing; any edits you make are not performed on the data itself. Instead, the program creates a list of the changes so it can play back sections of the data in different orders. This is what makes d-t-d recording so powerful. You can paste over a bum note in a sax solo (surrounding sounds and ambience permitting). You can create a mega mix arrangement from a 3-minute song. You can record the vocal for a chorus once and paste it several times throughout the song. In other words you have almost as much control over analogue sounds as a MIDI sequencer gives you over MIDI data.

In the Edit page, the Audio Regions list is on the left. You can drag Regions from the list into any of the tracks.

Select an area of a track (the program calls this a Region) by clicking and dragging, name it, and it is logged into the Audio Regions list along with others you have defined. You can drag a Region to another track to create a playlist, and, if you're working in beats and bars, switch on a grid which will make Regions snap into place when you move them.

Editing is quite flexible. Regions can overlap - in which case the uppermost Region will play - and there are several kinds of crossfade to help join Regions. Although you can only playback on eight tracks at once, when a track has been recorded it's possible to use that data in any number of tracks by inserting it - or a Region of it - into a playlist.

Tracks may also be bounced, and, unlike an analogue recorder, this doesn't require the use of a free track as each one can simply be un-cued (that is, not assigned any soundfiles) during the bounce. Soundfiles on the hard disk are unaffected, and, as the bouncing takes place in the digital domain, you don't get the degradation in quality apparent with analogue tape.

Interestingly, Session 8 stores its files in .WAV format. Multimedia presentations anyone?

You can home in on the smallest section of a sam| although you can't directly edit it.

One of the most powerful things you can do with Session 8 is to sync it to a MIDI sequencer running concurrently within Windows. To this end, it uses a clever Windows driver which it refers to as its Internal Port. This appears in the sequencer's MIDI Device list as 'Session 8'. The program sync'ed quite happily with a budget-priced program (Procyon, about £50 - soon to be available from Sound Technology) using MIDI Timecode as well as programs such as Cakewalk.

You can also automate the mixdown process via MIDI - the fader movements can be recorded and stored in the sequencer.

The manual is exemplary; very well written and replete with pics. In spite of its 336 pages it's also an easy read, full of hints and tips and written in a relaxed, friendly style. It's basically one large tutorial with a reference section in the back. Well done, Digidesign. I had no problems installing, setting up and using the gear - which is unusual on a PC!

As regards the system itself, there are a few minor areas which could be improved to make operation and editing just a touch easier. And there are a couple of extra facilities that I would like to have seen included such as a tempo control and a metronome (although you can, of course, sync to a sequencer to get this). The program is short of a few more advanced edit functions such as pitch change, timestretch, a de-clicker, compression, a varispeed control and digital FX - though it shouldn't be too difficult to include these in software updates.

If you're considering a d-t-d system for a studio, it's worth pointing out that Session 8 is inherently limited to eight tracks, whereas some 4-track systems can be expanded beyond that. And at £3600 no one can pretend it isn't a lot of spondulicks. But if you tot up the cost of upgrading other 4-track d-t-d systems to eight tracks you'll find Session 8 can work out around £1000 cheaper. Certainly, the integration of digital recording with outboard gear gives it a definite edge and makes it rather more than just a d-t-d system.

I can only say it worked brilliantly and other than the observations made earlier, I could find little to complain about. It was just a pity that Digidesign wanted the thing back long before I wanted to return it...


Ease of use Like a hot knife through butter
Originality In some aspects very original
Value for money Good, but expensive nonetheless
Star Quality Shine on...
Price Session 8 £3600; Session 8XL £5405; R1 Remote £893 (All prices include VAT)
More from Digidesign UK, (Contact Details)

Optional extras

The optional R1 Remote Controller is a hardware alternative to controlling the system with a mouse. It has faders, transport controls, autolocates and assignable functions keys.

The Session 8XL Audio Interface is a 1u high rackmount unit which dispenses with many of the audio connections and offers eight professional quality ins and outs. It is designed to be connected into your recording setup just as you would a multitrack tape recorder. This still lets you use the software's digital mixing features, although, obviously, it doesn't give you access to the routing facilities.

Digidesign claim most users are opting for the standard Audio Interface but the XL version is finding favour in broadcasting.

Demands of the system

To run Session 8, you need a 25MHz 386SX PC - or better - running Windows with two free slots (one full-size 16-bit), at least 4Mb of RAM, a VGA monitor and an external hard disk with an access time of 19 milliseconds or less.

The choice of hard drive is very important. It must conform to the required specs and Digidesign will supply you with a list of those drives known to work. It must also be large enough to record your material; 8-track recording eats up a hard disk at the rate of 40Mb per minute!

Audio interface

The Audio Interface is replete with sockets: a total of 8 Outs and 20 Ins - although some of the Ins can be used for two purposes, which could be slightly confusing when you're setting up. The Ins on the back are labelled Inputs 3-8/Effects and Returns 1-6. On the front there are four XLR Mic inputs and four Line inputs (both with trim controls) though only one or the other can be active at the same time.

The Interface has a 5-input stereo sub mixer which you might use for connecting MIDI equipment or, alternatively, for effects returns.

There are eight pairs of green and red input LEDs - the green light at -30dB and the red light if the input overloads.

Output level can be adjusted from the software as can the individual levels for the four effects sends on each track. Compressors, equalisers and the like may be connected to four insert points and again, patched into a track from the software.

A stereo out provides connection for your control room monitors and there are tape in and out sockets for an analogue tape deck, plus two sets of headphone sockets with independent level controls. Finally, there's an S/PDIF digital interface for connection to digital devices such as a DAT recorder.

Also featuring gear in this article

Previous Article in this issue

Power, Corruption & Spikes

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Optikinetics Solar 250

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


Music Technology - Nov 1993

Quality Control

Review by Ian Waugh

Previous article in this issue:

> Power, Corruption & Spikes

Next article in this issue:

> Optikinetics Solar 250

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