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Article from Sound On Sound, March 1993

Last month seems to have been a good one for PC musicians interested in hard disk recording; both Digidesign in the USA and Cheetah over here announced multi-track systems for the PC. Digidesign are probably best known for their various sound editing tools for the Apple Macintosh, so it's significant that they have released this ground-breaking new product on the PC before the Mac. Unlike the SADiE system (see October '92) which is more suited to mastering and broadcast applications, these systems are designed to replace the multitrack tape recorder of your studio.


As you may have guessed from the name, the Session 8 is an 8-track system. It consists of a Windows 3.1 program, an audio interface unit, and two expansion cards (one full length 16-bit card and one half-length 8-bit card). There are actually two flavours of interface, the standard and the XL version. The 'standard' configuration is designed to replace all the major components of the home studio apart from your outboard effects units (such as reverbs etc.) while the XL interface is meant to integrate the Session 8 into a conventional 'pro' studio. Digidesign have also announced a dedicated remote unit called the R1, which adds hardware faders, knobs and transport controls to the system.

The standard interface aims to give you all the facilities you need in an 8-track personal studio, and includes an analogue 10:2 submixer in addition to the eight digital ins and outs. The unit takes up a 3U rack space; main inputs are on the front panel, with outputs and submix inputs on the back. The Session 8's front panel has four balanced inputs, four unbalanced line inputs and two headphone outputs, while the back panel has the rest of the ins and outs, the analogue sub-mixer inputs and the synchronisation and digital interfaces. The balanced inputs on the front panel can be switched between microphone and guitar pre-amps under software control. Using the standard interface means that you can simply plug in all your gear once and then control the signal routing from the software, dispensing with the need for a patch bay.

The XL variant is essentially two Pro Tools interfaces, and is designed for studios that already have a decent mixing desk and so don't need the sub-mixer. The XL interface simply brings out the Session 8's track inputs and outputs on +4d8 balanced XLR's. The XL also has an AES/EBU digital interface in addition to the S/PDIF digital I/O and 'Superclock' connectors.

The software, which is the same for both variants of the Session 8, has three main screens: a Mix window, a Patch-bay window and an Edit window. The operation of the recorder is controlled by a standard tape transport bar which is visible at all times. There are eight locator buttons that allow you to move quickly to different parts of the track as well as a time location 'slider'. One point to be aware of is that the synchronisation only triggers the replay of each section of audio; if you want continuous synchronisation then you need to buy Digidesign's SMPTE Slave Driver module.

The Mixer page gives you a fader for each channel, plus controls for effects sends and returns and two master faders, all of which can be controlled via MIDI or the R-1 remote. There are six single-band parametric EQ buttons that you can pick up and drop onto any of the channels — using more than one on a single channel lets you set up multi-band equalisation. These EQ controls give a graphic display of their operation, which makes them incredibly simple to use, but it doesn't take an Einstein to work out that six into eight don't go, so you can't EQ all the tracks in real time. You can also bounce tracks (which means that you can EQ a track and bounce the EQ'd version to another track, freeing up your EQ module[s] again), set up a cue mix, and mute or solo tracks on this screen.

The Patch-bay (or Routing) window lets you connect any of the 12 inputs to any of the eight tracks; you can even connect multiple inputs to a single track if you like. You also have four 'drag and drop' inserts which let you patch an external sound processor (eg. an effects unit) into any input signal path. This is also where you switch the balanced inputs between the microphone and guitar preamps.

The Edit window gives you full edit control over the track waveform data, including time slip, cross-fades and 'looping'. You also perform drop-ins on this screen, using the locator buttons to set up the drop-in and out points as well as pre and post roll. Obviously there's a lot more that could be said about all these screens if I had the space, however the underlying principle behind the software is to keep it simple so that you don't get overwhelmed by arcane features that you never use.

The Session 8 is interesting from a number of angles: it's the first PC product from a company who made their name with digital audio goodies for the Mac; it's an attempt to create a highly integrated digital recording studio; it can multi-task with a Windows sequencer; and so on. Digidesign have obviously put a lot of effort into 'getting it right' — for example, the R-1 remote was styled by the chap who did the Apple PowerBook. Most importantly, perhaps, the system sounds pretty good too! The Session 8 should cost around £3,500 (inc VAT) excluding the SCSI hard disk and PC; contact Mark Lawrence at TSC (Contact Details) for more details.


A little closer to home, the UK instrument maker Cheetah has announced a PC-based hard disk recorder called the Soundscape, for which I have only seen the preliminary information. The minimum system has four tracks which can be upgraded in blocks of four tracks up to a theoretical maximum of 64. The hardware consists of a 2U rack unit containing the hard disk and digital I/O electronics. This is controlled by a 16-bit expansion card in the PC, each card being able to control two units. The system can record at 32, 44.1 or 48kHz sample rates, and keeps the cost down by using IDE hard drives instead of the more expensive SCSI drives commonly found in hard disk audio systems.

The software to drive the Soundscape system looks much more like a sequencer than the Session 8. There seem to be two main edit screens, an arrange window that looks a lot like a sequencer's song arrange window and a waveform edit window. The Soundscape can edit the digital audio down to the sample resolution and includes glitch-free cut and paste, non-destructive cross-fades and track equalisation. According to Chris Wright at Cheetah, the basic Soundscape unit will cost less than £3,000 (inc VAT). Contact Cheetah on (Contact Details) for more information.


Both the Session 8 and the Soundscape illustrate what you can do when you harness the multimedia features of Windows. As the software components of these two systems are Windows 3.1 applications, there is nothing to stop you running your Windows sequencer alongside them. Of course you need to have a powerful enough PC to handle the extra load, but since hard disk recorders don't normally use the PC's disk, this shouldn't be too much of a problem, and the prices of PCs are still coming down.

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Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
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Sound On Sound - Mar 1993



Feature by Brian Heywood

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