The Next Generation
Atari Falcon030 Computer
Atari's new computer looks set to do for 16-bit digital audio what the ST did for MIDI — bring it to a whole new generation of computer owners. But can it really manage direct-to-disk recording with no additional hardware? Paul Wiffen discovers the answer is yes.
The Falcon was first announced to developers back at the January NAMM show, since when rumours have been rife in the industry about a computer which could be used for digital audio applications with no extra hardware. But why is this so important? After all, an increasing number of products are available which allow standard computers to be used for such purposes with the addition of only a plug-in card and/or an external box which contains the necessary additional hardware (A-to-D and D-to-A convertors and a DSP chip of some sort). Digidesign have led the field for several years now in the Macintosh market, and in the last 18 months there has been an explosion of cards which give a PC-compatible this ability. On the Atari, Digidesign produced a version of Sound Tools for the Mega ST, and Plasmec's ADAS has brought direct-to-disk recording even to the humble 520ST.
However, as anyone who has experience of any of these products will tell you, rarely do any of them represent an instant 'plug in and play' solution to hard disk recording. If you didn't void the warranty when inserting the card into your computer, then the software was incompatible with the operating system of your computer; if your external hard drive or DMA/SCSI convertor wasn't incompatible with your hard disk recorder, then the new upgraded (or cheaper) model that that the computer manufacturer had just released no longer had the necessary slot or connector to take the necessary card or box... I have seen many areas where incompatibility rears its ugly head, but never so high or so horrifically as in the field of hard disk recording.
A computer which has the necessary hardware on board provides a single hardware standard to which all software can be tailored. Instead of spending the first week of ownership of a system trying to get the hardware correctly installed, you can simply run a program and go.
But there is another major advantage to a home computer with 16-bit audio-ready hardware. All the above mentioned hard disk recorders, however popular they become, have potential sales in the thousands, and (with the sole exception of Digidesign at the time of writing) actual sales in the hundreds. This means that the design and manufacturing work is done and the components bought in numbers which do not allow the products to be priced at the sort of level which is possible in the home computer industry (where it is common to talk in the hundreds of thousands or millions of potential sales).
Consequently, the add-on boards or boxes for digital audio tend to start at around $1,000 and go up from there depending on the number of tracks and other facilities which they offer. This can represent a sizeable proportion of the price of the host computer, or indeed in the case of Atari owners several times the price of the computer.
If the necessary hardware is integrated into the base model computer however, you will find that to all intents and purposes you are getting the necessary digital audio hardware for free. The base model Falcon030 (with 1 MB of RAM and the 1.44MB floppy drive as standard) for example has been announced at £499, cheaper than any hard disk recording hardware add-on on the market, and if you go for the 4MB version with the 64 meg hard drive at £899, then you already have something to record your audio to! The Falcon actually represents the cheapest way to get into full bandwidth direct-to-disk recording on any platform. So, built-in 16-bit audio hardware makes good economic sense as well as being more practical.
Having established that you can buy a Falcon030 for less than the additional hardware needed for direct-to-disk on any other machine, let's have a look at what precisely you get for your money. Those of you who have done your homework on processor chips will recognize the 030 in the name as referring to the 68030 processor. This is a more powerful version of the 68000 used in all STs (and the more basic Macintoshes). The 68030 in the Falcon is running at 16MHz, as opposed to the 8MHz of most of the STs (except the Mega STE of course). Already the Falcon030 has two basic speed and power advantages which will show themselves in snappier performance when running normal ST software (more on this later). For those of you looking for rough comparisons, anyone who has used a Macintosh SE30 or an LC after getting used to a Mac Plus will appreciate the difference in the speed of screen redraws and other operations which take perceptible amounts of time. Atari have moved up a generation of computer without the usual price hike (we might have expected a Falcon030 to come in at well over a thousand pounds).
Now for a look at the additional hardware which supports digital audio. For some time now most computers have included a fairly primitive D-to-A convertor (usually 8-bit, running at very low sample rates) to allow samples in RAM to be played back through the horrid little speaker in the computer's monitor. This is how Macs are able to put out these disturbing samples of Hal or Arnie which spook those who see this as representing some form of malevolant intelligence within the machine. Third party products like MacRecorder provide the necessary analogue-to-digital conversion which allows the user to make his or her own recordings, and more recent Macs like the LC have on-board A-to-D convertors to allow recordings with no additional hardware (which is how a program like Passport's AudioTrax works).
However, on the Falcon, Atari have upped the standard of A-to-D and D-to-A convertors to allow 16-bit audio to be recorded and played. This is the highest quality available on a personal computer, bar none; indeed it bears more comparison with products like the Akai S1000 and Emax II than with any other computer. Just imagine what this is going to do to the games market. Prepare yourself for a wave of 16-bit stereo explosions, and background music to rival FM radio.
This on its own, however, would not be enough to make a computer function as a direct-to-disk recorder (although it could turn it into a great sampler!). Direct-to-disk requires an additional capability, which the Falcon has inherited from the humble STs, to read from and write to the hard disk bus without using the main processor. This facility is known as DMA (Direct Memory Access) — you may have noticed that the hard disk port on all STs was labelled 'DMA' — and is vital for minimising the time the processor spends dealing with disk-related operations in a computer whose main processor is underpowered.
In a machine like the Falcon030, however, it means that stereo audio can be fed in, sampled at rates of up to 50kHz, and written directly to an attached hard drive. On replay the data can be read back from the hard drive and sent directly to the stereo output for full bandwidth audio playback. For the first time, a home computer can produce stereo audio at the same sort of fidelity as CD, and for extended periods of time (10MB of hard disk are required for every minute of 16-bit linear stereo). This will clearly give the Falcon a major advantage over all other computers as far as the musician is concerned.
One of the major drawbacks with the DMA system on the ST family was that there were not many DMA drives suitable for 16-bit audio applications. After all, the sort of 20 or 30MB drives which are fine for storing programs and word processing or sequencing files go nowhere when you're filling them up at the rate of 10MB per minute. One solution which numerous third parties opted for was the DMA/SCSI convertor, which allowed the numerous large capacity drives (in the hundred of megabytes, or even gigabytes) which were available for the SCSI-based Macintosh market to be used on the ST. However, many of these convertors exhibited timing problems, which meant that although they would work fine with ordinary save and load operations, they would cause all sorts of problems with the time-critical operations involved in direct-to-disk recording.
To eliminate this problem for Falcon owners, Atari have retained the DMA process for the internal sound engine, but the physical hard disk interface on the back of the computer is SCSI — in fact the updated version of SCSI known as SCSI 2 — which allows for even faster disk access. The increased speed of access is important when moving into the multi-track applications we will discuss later on.
But the Falcon still has another surprise up its sleeve in the audio department. Many of the hard disk recorders on the market also feature the ability to process the digitized audio (usually in non-real time) using a DSP chip like the Motorola 56000 or the Texas TMS 320. The reason that they can only do this in non real-time (or only in real time on a buffer while audio is not being read from or written to the hard drive) is that in order to keep costs down these cards use the very specialized DSP chip to handle the more mundane process of sending the audio to and from the hard disk rather than adding a second processor chip to deal with this.
The Falcon also takes the unprecedented step of adding a Motorola DSP chip (a 56001, the next step up from the 56000 mentioned earlier) to the audio capabilities of the machine. But what is most exciting about this development is that because the Falcon can read and write audio to SCSI without using the CPU or the DSP chip, the 56001 can manage in real time the sort of digital signal processing which many of today's hard disk recorders can only offer by permanently altering the sound data in non-real time — and the length of time this can take often seems completely unreal. There won't being any messages reading "3,871,629 samples left to process" on this baby!
Of course, by now most of you will be salivating wildly and asking just how many tracks will the Falcon be able to record and play back, and how many effects can you use at once? Answers to these questions are a little more difficult to produce, particularly given that the internal hard drive of the £899 model uses the IDE standard rather than SCSI which is used to communicate with external drives. Certainly stereo 16-bit audio recording and playback at 50kHz is possible, as was demonstrated at the launch of the Falcon at the Dusseldorf Atari Messe. The demo software, written by D2D Systems of Cambridge, did so without using the DSP chip at all. The program already featured standard non-destructive editing, a timecode-driven cue sheet and audio scrubbing. This still left enough bandwidth on the IDE bus free that D2D are confident of being able to increase the spec to four independent tracks, and still add a couple of effects to the signals in real-time. Indeed that is precisely the spec of the 4T/FX package which D2D have announced will be shipping at around the same time as Falcons hit these shores (Atari UK reckon to have them in stores by the time you read this).
The external SCSI bus, however, may allow considerably more tracks — perhaps as many as eight — because the DMA system can bypass the computer's 68030 and 56001 chips. However, it may not be possible to monitor all of these tracks whilst recording (data needs to flow in both directions, both reading and writing to the disk). The simple answer is that we will have to wait to see what the software boys will come up with.
One important aspect of the Falcon's spec in relation to multitrack work is that it is a stereo-in, stereo-out machine, so multiple tracks would have to be digitally mixed before being sent as a stereo signal to the internal D-to-A convertors for final output. The 56001 could certainly handle this, but it would reduce or maybe even remove its ability to add effects in real-time.
But those who need real-time effects, or separate outputs for each track, need not despair. Envisaging just this possibility, those clever chaps at Atari have added a completely separate port which they have called the DSP port. This will allow third part companies to produce hardware expander boxes for additional analogue outputs, and also digital I/O ports for connection to CD and DAT players etc., in much the same way as companies like Steinberg and C-Lab have done for MIDI on the ST with products like Midex and Unitor/Export. This would allow not only the separate analogue audio outputs which musicians have come to regard as de rigeur, but also the use of the Falcon for editing within the digital domain, so important for CD preparation and DAT compilation. Again D2D have already announced just such an expander for use in conjunction with their 4T/FX software.
So far this review has concentrated entirely on the audio possibilities of the Falcon (no bad thing in a magazine called Sound On Sound, especially when they are so revolutionary). But those of you who have been keeping an eye on my articles in the last year or so will have noticed my thoughts wandering increasingly in the direction of video (mainly because I can't afford the £100,000 plus that a record company seems to deem it necessary to spend to put pictures to three-and-a-half minutes of music). Those of you also interested in video will probably know that in the same way that the ST has carved itself the lion's share of the MIDI market, largely because of its on-board MIDI sockets, the Commodore Amiga has dominated the video market for a similar reason; the necessary interfacing was made as simple and inexpensive as possible. However, the Falcon may just change all that.
The first step to video compatibility lies in the way the computer outputs its visual information. The Falcon allows for a wider range of video output than any other computer. In addition to the modulated TV output which has been available ever since the STFM was introduced, many other types of monitors can be used. There is a general monitor output to which various adaptors can be plugged. ST owners will be pleased to hear that there is an adaptor to the circular 13-pin connector featured on the trusty SM124 and 144 black and white monitors which most musicians use to see just what's going on in ST-land.
For those who prefer something a little more colourful without spending the earth, the VGA adaptor will come as a great boon, enabling you to take advantage of the tumbling prices of this standard colour monitor type in the PC-compatible market. The one I used came straight off a typical 386 PC. It was the first time I had seen ST-type screens in colour at full resolution (I used to plug my ST into the telly for the few games I played), and my everyday ST software felt so much classier for the resulting visual effect.
These were the only two adaptors supplied with the machine, but I believe that a whole host of other standards will be available (including RGB and direct video signals).
Apparently, the Falcon is also the first computer to take account of the differing international video-standards such as PAL, SECAM and NTSC. As I wasn't able to squeeze in any international trips during the course of my review time I was not able to verify this myself, but as the machine I was looking at came straight from the States and worked fine over here, it certainly bodes well. Imagine that — a computer you can stick in your suitcase and use with pretty much any old monitor or TV wherever you happen to be in the world.
This is also facilitated by the fact that the machine is also able to work on the complete 110-240V power range, thanks to the same sort of switching power supplies you find in most Macintoshes and instruments like Proteus. Cue 'California, Here I Come' (Sophie B. Hawkins, not Al Jolson please!).
The Falcon supports a variety of colour modes, from 16 and 256 colours all the way up to true colour. These choices are set and saved together with your resolution preferences, so that they are selected on boot-up. Which one you use will of course depend on the monitor you have available. The demos in Dusseldorf of the artwork and animation on the Falcon looked pretty spectacular, although I have to admit I am no expert on what one ought to expect with particular hardware configurations.
Of course, DSP is not just used in audio applications (although that is where most musicians will come across it). Any digitized signal can be processed, so once a video signal has been digitized, the 560001 can be used for colour processing, and producing all those whizzy effects which make watching TV such hard work these days. Of course the bandwidth required for digitizing video is greater than that for audio, as are the processing power demands, so these applications might be more limited on the Falcon030, but apparently the 040 machine due in the New Year should really be able to do the business as a video processor. Of course neither model has the ability to digitize video by itself, so additional hardware will be required to get pictures into the system; but once this is there, the Falcon should really turn Amiga owners green (or maybe an oscillating mauve and puce colour, with gold polka dots).
Those of you looking at a picture of a Falcon could be forgiven for mistaking it for a humble 1040ST. Apart from a much lighter shade of grey (going on creme) for the case, and a darker shade of grey for the keys, the only difference from the front is the inset nameplate which says (not surprisingly) Falcon030. It is amazing that they have managed to fit all the additional power in the same chassis (not to mention a 64MB hard drive). Some unkind souls (probably in the marketing departments of other companies, where performance ranks ninth after shape, colour and texture) have remarked on the fact that Atari have not taken the opportunity to redesign the look of the machine, but for myself I am pleased to see a return to the economical lines of the 520/1040 (with the advantage of a less depressing shade of grey) rather than the big square lump of the Mega STs and the inconvenience of the separate keyboards on both the MegaSTs and Mega STEs. I simply slipped the Falcon into the exact same space in my work set-up that the 1040STE (and the 520 before it) occupied. Let those who are impressed by size, colour and number of components buy Macs or PCs. I think it looks just fine!
The view from the left hand end of the Falcon will be familiar to ST owners; you'll find the same MIDI and cartridge ports.. This is important, as it would be little use to acquire the perfect computer for digital audio only to discover that none of your ST MIDI software would run on it because the dongle wouldn't fit, or the MIDI ports were no longer there! See below for a report on software compatibility.
On boot-up, my 64MB hard drive equipped Falcon went through the standard AHDI boot procedure, identifying the internal IDE drive but telling me I had no SCSI drives connected (unfortunately I had nothing available to reformat for use on the Falcon — I needed all the data on my Syquest and magneto-optical drives).
Once the standard desktop appeared with the usual Atari habit of splitting the hard disk into four partitions (something which drives me up the wall, as you can only record one-and-a-half minutes of stereo on each partition), everything looked very familiar. There are of course various differences and additions once you get down to work — the floppy format software now offers the option of High Density formatting to support the new 1.44MB drive. For me, one of the major advantages of the Macintosh over the ST is the ability to move files of this size around on floppy, so I'm really looking forward to doing the same on the Falcon.
The biggest new area is in Control Panels under the Atari menu. Selecting this entry now gives you more options than we have time to cover here, including the setting of the 256 colours (I wasted hours here making the desktop a series of revolting and conflicting hues on the VGA monitor), but the one we should really focus on for obvious reasons is the Sound Control Panel. This is where you set the input and output levels for audio, including separate left and right for the inputs. Using the D2D demo software, I was able to establish that the input level range was enough to encompass the most generous professional line level right down to the most pathetic mic input, although precise levels are difficult to judge, given only a scale from 1 to 15. Still if you regard this as the dB gain boost steps to be found on most samplers and hard disk recorders then it is most generous and you can make fine adjustments externally.
At first I had major problems with earth hums and background noise, but I was able to get rid of these completely by swapping cables and lifting earths. Of course, we should bear in mind that the Falcon is a home computer and not designed with the rigours of professional recording equipment in mind, but with care you should be able to plumb it in without introducing unwanted hums and buzzes into your set-up.
I was certainly able to make some very quiet recordings from a classical CD, with no audible degradation even when played back at the loudest replay level (enough to make your ears bleed with anything more contemporary). The sound quality is easily as good as the first generation of 16-bit samplers (Akai S1000, Emax II, etc.) although perhaps not quite as crystal clear and clean as, say, the Roland S770 or Digidesign's Pro I/O. For the most demanding applications it will be possible to connect top-quality A-to-D convertors or Digital In via the DSP ports. For most applications though the internal A-to-Ds will be perfectly satisfactory.
Having made several recordings with the D2D software, I messed about for a while cutting and pasting them non-destructively into a Cue Sheet and was unable to trick the replay into misbehaving by any of the standard techniques of cutting too often or repeating the same section over. These will usually show if there is a problem with access time of the drive. So the internal drive is clearly up to stereo editing even if its IDE format is not as fast as SCSI or SCSI 2. This means that virtually any other SCSI device (Syquest, Magneto-optical as well as CD-ROM and standard hard drives) should be fast enough for stereo and many of them may well be able to cope with four tracks or more. But hooking a SCSI 2 drive onto the Falcon means that it should be capable of handing anything you might be able to throw at it.
I had no DSP algorithms for D2D's demo software, so I was unable to personally check out the quality of the effects possible on the 56001, though I did hear a few effects at the Dusseldorf show, albeit in the very noisy environment of a trade show. The flanging, echo, and chorus that I heard there sounded very respectable indeed, although somewhat lacking in variability. However, the Falcon features exactly the same convertors and DSP hardware as some very successful stand-alone FX units, so I have no doubt that before long there will be some extremely high quality effects programs on the market. If these are integrated into multi-track direct to disk editors, then we may well see the Falcon develop into a stand-alone recorder/mixer with effects. I can't wait.
The ST became the industry standard for musical applications in Europe because of its built-in MIDI ports. Although you might need some additional hardware later on as your sequencing needs increased (additional MIDI ports, SMPTE in/out, etc.), the fact of the matter was that the ST would allow you to just buy a piece of MIDI software and get up and running.
The same is true of the Falcon for digital audio. As time goes by you will probably want more separate outs, digital I/O, a humungous hard disk and so on, but you can get started with just software. But for most musicians considering moving from the ST to the Falcon, the most important initial question will be "Does it run the software I already have, and what sort of improvement in performance can I expect?" Mac, PC or Amiga-based musicians tempted by the Falcon's digital audio facilities should be just as interested in the answer to that question — if the Falcon runs ST software, it is guaranteed massive software support. If it doesn't, you are at the mercy of developers.
One of the factors which took a lot of wind out of the sales of the TT was the issue of ST software compatibility, particularly at the top end of the music market. When people discovered that you couldn't run Cubase, for example, their initial enthusiasm waned. Of course, version 3.0 of Cubase does run with the TT, but in the all-important early days it didn't.
Atari's position on Falcon compatibility with ST software is that if it "adheres strictly to the rules" (of ST programming), then it should run. This will of course mean that the standard ST word processors, spreadsheets and databases and Desktop Publishing packages are pretty sure to run fine, as they tend to be written with a slavish regard for the standard way of doing things (I did briefly try 1st Word Plus on the Falcon, the only non-musical program I use on the ST, just to check — it worked fine).
Unfortunately with music programs you tend fo find that the programmer, in order to speed up performance and increase timing accuracy, takes short-cuts in the standard ST way of doing things, or even re-writes the operating system altogether. It was therefore with some trepidation that I approached the Falcon with my collection of dongles and disks.
Seeing as Cubase version 3.0 is the program I use most often, I decided to start with the big one. Having inserted its dongle and re-booted the machine, I double-clicked on the program icon (on the floppy disk) and held my breath. Apart from the fact that the program took a lifetime to boot — I tried running it from floppy disk at first — everything seemed fine. It even loaded a song I had saved as DEF. Time to hook the MIDI up (well it didn't seem worth bothering with all that palava if the program wasn't going to run). I connected my Proteus MPS and loaded one of my pieces that used only that. It worked perfectly — program changes, real-time effects control, SysEx dumps, the lot. And I began to notice other things too: faster screen redraws, especially in score display; less 'busy-bee' time when moving or copying large chunks of data. I could really get to like this. I have seen Cubase running faster on a TT, but then someone else was at the controls. There's nothing like experiencing increased speed firsthand. Recording MIDI data also went smoothly.
All in all I ran Cubase for over an hour and in that time I didn't experience the slightest glitch in performance, though I did later try v2 of the program, which would not run at all — make the upgrade to version 3.0 if you want to use a Falcon. There was only one slight anomaly. As the review model apparently had the maximum 14MB of RAM in it I decided to open an orchestral score I had created some time ago, which I could never manage to display properly in the Score page. I selected all parts and pressed Control R, and sure enough the window opened with all parts shown (this took some time, I hasten to add). So far so good — at this stage my 4MB STE would have been whinging about "Not enough memory for this operation OK" — and I was even able to run the sequence and have the screens update. However, about half way through the piece, a message appeared saying "Not enough memory to display all events" and the screen updating stopped although playback continued. I can only assume that Cubase did not know that up to 14MB might be available on this machine and had availed itself of considerably less.
I use C-Lab's Unitor for additional MIDI ports and SMPTE, so I tried this next in conjunction with Cubase's UNITOR.DRV and it also seemed to work fine. As it was plugged in, I thought I might as well run my copy of Notator for which it can also act as a dongle. But things had obviously been going too well. The program went all the way through its interminable floppy load with the mouse pointer still active, and then just as I thought all was well, it bombed and returned to the desktop, at just the point where you would expect to see the main Notator screen appear. I also tried it with a friend's copy of Creator, and got exactly the same result.
Unfortunately I was not able to try a more recent C-Lab program like PolyFrame. Notator/Creator do date back to the very early days of MIDI on the ST and therefore are more likely to bend the rules (I'm sure Pro 24 wouldn't run either). However, I passed the message on to C-Lab that there is a problem and as soon as they can get a Falcon I'm sure they'll be looking at it. If nothing can be done then the Falcon would make a great place to start with Notator Logic on the Atari platform.
Although not available on the machine I had, one of the most exciting things about the Falcon is that it will be able to run several programs simultaneously under Atari's new Multi-TOS environment. Again the maxim "as long as they obey the rules" applies. This bodes well for Cubase as it seems to pass the Falcon test, so we may soon see a situation where we are able to run Cubase and a multitrack direct-to-disk recorder package simultaneously under Multi-TOS (although I would guess that the audio would have to be recorded to an external SCSI drive).
It seems to me that the Falcon is perfectly placed to take the ST baton and run with it. Clearly, established software houses like Steinberg and C-Lab have been casting around to find machines with more power to take their products onwards and upwards, hence C-Lab's development of Notator Logic on the Mac platform and Steinberg's inclusion of TT compatibility in Cubase 3.0. However, the broad user base can often not afford to follow these highly desirable routes because the price of the necessary hardware is out of their range (especially for musicians in the current economic climate!). As a very wise music retailer once said to me, "a guy who buys an ST has made a very definite statement about how much he wants to pay for a computer". The Falcon030 is the first 68030-based computer which takes that into account. It is in the right price range for the mass market, and we musicians can take advantage of that fact without sacrificing the power needed for today's musical applications.
But the Falcon030 is not just an attractively priced Equivalent to much more expensive machines in the marketplace. It has actually taken the lead in offering facilities that have not been available on other computers at any price. The DMA sound engine which can record and playback audio to a SCSI drive without tying up the main processor, the DSP chip which is free to add sound effects while this is going on, the multiple options for video output — all these are features unique to the Falcon030. These all give Atari such a head start, not just for musical applications, but also for video and multimedia as well, that other manufacturers may never catch up. Atari hope to deliver 10,000 machines by the end of 1992. Musicians (Cubase owners in particular) might want to make sure their name is on one before they're all gone.
Falcon030 1MB RAM, 1,44MB floppy £499
Falcon030 4MB RAM, 1.44MB floppy, 64MB hard drive £899
Atari Corp UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Wiffen
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