Shape of Things to Come - AES
AES Show Report
Forthcoming new products from the hi-tech music recording field.
At every Audio Engineering Society show, it becomes increasingly clear that the once entirely separate fields of musical instrument design and recording technology are moving so close that over the next few years they will fuse together inseparably. More and more musical instrument manufacturers and music software houses are turning their attention to recording and broadcasting applications. Two major examples at this AES show were Digidesign and Steinberg.
DIGIDESIGN were showing their Sound Accelerator card for the Macintosh (which exists in two versions: one for the Mac II, the other for the SE). The slot-in internally resident card turns the Mac into a 16-bit digital workstation (how many times did I hear that word in the four days the AES show lasted) capable of both high fidelity stereo audio and realtime digital synthesis with polyphonic playback.
With their latest hardware product, the AD In analogue-to-digital convertor, you can record two channels of phase-synchronous audio (industry jargon for true stereo) direct to (any Mac-compatible hard) disk. In conjunction with the new stereo-compatible Sound Designer II, this gives you the capability to record and edit whole audio programmes, be it music, soundtrack and effects, or dialogue.
The Sound Accelerator card is also a major boon for Digidesign's two synthesis programs, the additive/FM-based Softsynth and the modular Turbosynth (reviewed this issue). Not only can the Sound Accelerator card deal with all the edits as you make them (removing the irritable delays caused by the computer having to 'crunch' the numbers), but using the free MIDI Preview software that comes with the card, you can play your sounds polyphonically on the Mac itself via any MIDI controller. For instant gratification (as Digidesign put it), they are also giving away a copy of Softsynth with the Sound Accelerator card. The upgraded realtime version of Turbosynth should be available simultaneously with the card.
Whilst on the subject of Turbosynth, there is good news on that front for the more impoverished. The Atari ST version of Turbosynth should be in the shops by the time you read this, making the same facilities available on Europe's favourite music computer.
STEINBERG'S latest venture into digital audio (hence their new name, Steinberg Digital Audio, I guess) is the Topaz, a 360 megabyte hard disk-based recorder which works in conjunction with the Mac II to provide a complete stereo editing system offering over 35 minutes of stereo recording at the industry standard 44.1kHz (over 30 minutes at 48kHz).
The big plus of the Topaz system is that all of its functions - Volume, Pan, 3-band Parametric EQ, High and Low Pass Filtering, Pitch and Time Correction and Playback Speed - are all performed in real-time during playback. The advantages of this are two-fold: first, the originally recorded data on the hard disk is never altered, so you can always return to the original material; secondly, you can manipulate the data during playback. The application of this for changing the speed of playback without pitch shift, or transposition without tempo change, are obvious. Topaz can also access additional hard disks for extra record time and units can be used in multiple configuration for multitrack recording (up to 16 tracks). A tape streamer is provided for instant backup of both recordings and edit programs.
Britain was also represented in the field of digital audio editing by the Audio Tablet from REAL WORLD RESEARCH (a company with Syco and Peter Gabriel behind it). Like most of the many other systems on show at AES, the Audio Tablet is a 16-bit stereo recorder with 32kHz, 44.1kHz and 48kHz sample rates. The big advantage of the Tablet is the user interface, which is not only intuitive and familiar, but also completely redefinable for different applications (dialogue editing, post-production, film, CD mastering, etc). The interface which allows this is an 18"x12" touch screen, an incrementer wheel (used to 'shuttle' back and forth to hear the audio) and a confirm button.
The beauty of the Tablet's interface is that the touch screen acts as both the display surface and the control surface. 'Buttons' appear on the screen for the various functions and the user presses directly on the area representing the function he wants to use. Important decisions use the confirm button to the side of the 'shuttle' wheel. All this makes for the best user interface I have seen in years. Unfortunately, like the majority of such systems, the device is well out of my price range at around £30,000. Still, it's good to see a British company doing so well in the field.
Talking about making the state-of-the-art market more affordable, NEW ENGLAND DIGITAL announced a major rethink of the Synclavier strategy, including a version aimed at smaller studios. There are now three discrete Synclavier systems: the 3200, the 9600 and the Direct-to-Disk Post Pro. All three products use the Macintosh II as a control interface. The 3200 is the baby of the family and is aimed at the top end of the MIDI market with a price range of 42-96,000 dollars (no UK price as yet). It is designed to be the heart of the MIDI system and can hold its own soundwise with up to 32 voices, 32Mb of RAM and 720Mb of hard disk storage. The Synclavier standard of 16-bit 100kHz sampling is of course maintained.
The 9600 becomes the top of the range Synclavier, and only the 76-note velocity/pressure sensitive keyboard remains, hardware-wise, from the old system. Its name is earned by having up to 96 stereo voices, 96Mb of RAM and 3 gigabytes of storage (via WORM and hard disks). The 9600 systems start at just over 100,000 dollars.
Data can, of course, be shifted between the 3200 and the 9600 machines via floppy disk or other communications, making it easy to start a project on the 3200 (at home or in a smaller studio) which can then be completed on the 9600 in a high-end environment together with the Direct-to-Disk system.
The Direct-to-Disk system can be operated in conjunction with the 9600, or independently via the Mac II. NED are also working on a mixing desk type interface with a greater familiarity to the audio recording industry. For anyone reading who currently owns a Synclavier, NED have promised what they call 'upgrade paths for our existing customer base.' Contact Harman UK for more details.
NED also announced cooperation between themselves, Lucasfilm, and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to allow new applications and new technology to be integrated into the Synclavier system as soon as it becomes available, so it looks like they are going to be forging ahead for years to come.
At the lower end of the MIDI sampling market, ROLAND had good news for those who have admired CD-ROM from afar. Their new CD-ROM/CD audio combination player looks set to retail at around £1300, and already Roland have a CD/ROM which contains their entire S50/S550/S330 library on disk. Further support has been promised by Optical Media (who apparently wrote the operating system for the Roland CD-ROM player) in the shape of Roland format CDs - until now they have concentrated on CDs in the Emu format and one in the general Sound Designer format, which does not allow for instant loading of mapping and analogue settings. There is also talk of them creating CDs in other formats to work via SCSI from their own rack-mount player, which is about to hit these shores (contact MCMXCIX). Akai S1000 and Ensoniq EPS are the two formats most often mentioned.
Roland were also showing a new mother keyboard, the A50, which boasts a large backlit LCD like that on the Akai keyboard launched at the Paris Music Fair. It allows you to name the connected instruments alongside their MIDI channel and output, as well as other obvious uses for a larger display, such as velocity and polyphonic aftertouch curves, multiple zone assignment, and controller allocation. Roland have also finally realised that not everyone gets along with their unfortunately named 'bender' device, so they have incorporated assignable pitch and modulation wheels in addition to their traditional performance control.
The A50 will accept bulk dump and individual patch System Exclusive messages, which can be stored in internal RAM or on a memory card and retransmitted during a patch change so that you don't need to load programs into sound modules beforehand.
YAMAHA'S only new product at this AES show was the SPX1000, a full bandwidth stereo elder brother to the SPX90. It has both analogue and digital stereo inputs and outputs. Stereo signals can be effected in normal or reverse modes and either the left or right input can be treated as a mono source to be turned into stereo. All your old favourite effects from the SPX90 have been given the spruced-up treatment, plus things like Distortion and stereo Freeze have been added. But the real bonus with the SPX1000 is that up to five separate effects can be executed simultaneously in either series or parallel configurations. MIDI control is better than ever, with program change, playback of 'frozen' programs, controller assignment and System Exclusive dump/load. Forty onboard presets can be edited, retitled and stored in 59 user memories. The SPX1000 should retail for about £1200.
That's a round-up of the new products most likely to interest the majority of SOS readers, though of course, we will be seeing the high-end recording developments like TASCAM's new DASH multitrack digital tape machine in the studios we visit.
But perhaps the most interesting news I heard during a chat in the aisle at the show was of SONY'S Magneto rewritable optical disk, launched at a recent Japanese components show. This device could make safe, re-usable storage of gigabytes of data a reality in the very near future. And when this happens, then we will see the high-end technology filter down to the sort of prices humble musicians can afford.
Show Report by Paul Wiffen
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