Wot... No Tape?
The Tapeless Recording Market Survey
The tapeless recording revolution is in full swing, as technology that once was available only to the few develops in products that suit a wider range of applications and pockets. Yasmin Hashmi looks at the development of the technology, the current state of the market and how it is likely to progress.
The first tapeless systems to become available seven years ago were the AudioFile from AMS and the NED Direct-to-Disk. Both were 8-channel systems, both used a hard disk as the recording medium, and both were based on custom hardware. The AudioFile also had a custom user interface and provided operational control which related to conventional linear methods. The system was also stand alone and relatively portable, and found success mainly in audio post production studios.
The Direct-to-Disk (now called the PostPro) used a monitor, keyboard, and mouse which, for those more used to tactile control (and who held the purse strings), could often be intimidating. In addition, at first it could only operate as a slave to the Synclavier music sampling and sequencing system with its music-based keyboard and operational methods. It therefore did well as a natural extension to existing Synclavier systems but had less appeal for the audio post market.
At the time, hard disk was, relative to analogue media, very expensive, and its recording capacity was relatively short, but both systems were capable of non-destructive cut and paste editing, events (or sequence) listing, and slaving to timecode.
Between 1985 and 1988, growth in the number of systems was slow and world sales were few in number — the AudioFile accounted for the majority of sales in Europe, and the Direct-to-Disk the majority of sales in the USA. However, the launch of these systems encouraged a number of manufacturers to develop their own products, the typical development time being two to three years, so that by late 1988/early 1989, a range of systems had appeared on the market. These included several more multi-channel systems which were mainly aimed at the audio for video post market.
One or two systems were also targeted at the music market, but the general feeling was — due to a particular marketing campaign of the period — that the tapeless system (with only eight channels) was in competition with multitrack tape. In most cases the tapeless system lost the argument because discussion focussed on the number of tracks, a typical remark being that multitrack tape machines offered more tracks than a comparably priced 8-channel tapeless system, and that more than eight channels would be needed in any case. This caused a drive to increase the number of channels above eight, and at least two new systems were announced which claimed to provide up to 64-channel operation. However, these ran into difficulties and were not officially launched at the time.
As well as multi-channel systems, a number of stereo systems appeared which were generally aimed at bringing stereo recording and editing to areas which did not require multichannel or synchronisation capabilities (CD premastering, pop music editing, and editing for radio). Some of these systems used custom hardware and user interfaces, but others were based around the personal computer (PC — I'll use the phrase 'IBM-compatible' to refer to that other sort of PC). This provided a convenient hardware platform and user interface on which to develop a basic system, and helped to bring costs down. The most well known of these systems was Sound Tools from Digidesign, which went a long way towards bringing tapeless recording to the masses and to date, has outsold every other make of tapeless system.
A couple of systems aimed at replacing broadcast cart machines were also launched, and these used customised hardware and user interfaces, but neither had much success, probably due to operational methods being too unfamiliar for the time.
By 1990 there were 28 different tapeless recording systems available, some of which were aimed at specific applications, such as noise reduction and automatic dialogue replacement for film and TV. A couple of existing multi-channel systems were also now capable of reliably providing 16 channels of audio. The increased performance and reduction in hardware costs saw the PC growing in popularity, the most popular platforms being IBM/AT-compatibles and the Apple Macintosh, with a handful of systems based on the Atari. In addition, the cost of hard disks had fallen considerably since 1985 and more PC-based stereo systems, especially low cost ones, came onto the market. In fact more systems in general, even if they used custom hardware for processing, were using a PC as the user interface.
As more powerful data processing technology became available and affordable, tapeless systems began to feature more DSP functions, such as time compression/expansion and sample rate conversion (mainly between 32kHz used for radio, 44.1kHz for CD and 48kHz for TV broadcast). Furthermore, some systems were by now offering internal digital mixing and EQ functions. High-end systems were also generally capable of-controlling the transports of external devices (such as VTRs), and some could also accept EDLs (edit decision lists) from video editing machines.
Although product-specific digital interfaces had been in use for some time, the AES/EBU digital interface had by now been adopted as the industry standard for direct digital transfer between systems. This opened the way for tapeless systems to integrate with DAT, which had become popular as a mastering medium and was now being recommended, especially for low-end systems, as a suitable archiving medium. High-end manufacturers, on the other hand, had developed backup systems using high-speed tape streamers, and many manufacturers and users alike were looking to optical disks as a potential solution to the backup problem. 1990 also saw a significant product launch with the Akai DD1000, one of the first optical-based systems.
By 1991, the number of systems on the market had increased considerably, and developments in data compression techniques helped prompt a boom in cart replacement systems. Data compression effectively increases the amount of storage available by reducing the amount of data stored and 'reconstituting' the original data when it's needed. Audio compression is another way of squeezing more digital audio into a limited amount of storage capacity; audio compression techniques generally rely on ignoring parts of a sound which would normally not be heard because they are masked by louder components of the sound. It is claimed that data compression can be used to produce CD-quality audio, but many experts disagree. Nonetheless, most manufacturers of systems aimed at radio broadcast eagerly adopted the technique because it increases storage space and allows real time recording to and playback from low-cost, low-density media such as floppy disk. This meant that such media could now be used to directly replace tape-based carts, whilst maintaining familiar control.
The low cost 8-channel system was also introduced in 1991, and this generated even greater interest in tapeless technology because it promised to deliver low cost multi-channel capabilities to a much wider market.
There are now over 90 different tapeless recording systems on the market; systems aimed at cart replacement and automation of radio stations account for almost half of these. Our table lists all the available systems aimed at recording and editing, but omits those aimed at cart replacement and station automation. Systems are categorised according to number of channels and general price range. It should be noted that some systems are modular, and can be expanded with extra hardware to add more channels.
The advantage of the PC-based user interface is that it provides a ready made hardware platform for software development — the operational software can be easily updated or even changed completely without any change in hardware. In addition, the cost of a tapeless system can be reduced if the customer is using as a platform a PC that they already own. For those who prefer a dedicated controller for manual operations such as transport control and/or mixing, some systems will operate with optional tactile controllers. These may consist of custom designed units, or third party products such as MIDI mixers or transport/shuttle/jog controllers from manufacturers such as JL Cooper.
The custom-designed user interface can often be desirable for both the user and the manufacturer. From the user's point of view it offers tactile control, which in some cases is faster than using a mouse. From the manufacturer's point of view it makes the system appear more friendly and also helps to make a system stand out from the competition. It used to be the case that only high cost systems would provide a custom-designed user interface, but lower priced systems are now beginning to do the same.
Custom-designed user interfaces mainly fall into one of two types. The first generally consists of a remote, which will have transport controls, editing keys, various other function keys, a jog wheel (which may also be used for shuttling and/or audio scrub) and a small display. In many cases it will be supplemented by a monitor and alphanumeric keyboard. The other type is more grandly termed a workstation. It is larger than the remote, has more functions, a larger display, an integrated alphanumeric and in some cases a mixer section with faders.
The vast majority of tapeless recording systems still use hard disk as their recording medium. A couple of systems have been designed to use RAM, and a handful have emerged which use RAM in conjunction with hard disk. In addition, optical disk is now sufficiently developed as to form the primary storage medium of at least five new systems. However, for the time being, optical disks are generally used to provide an archiving medium, because hard disks are still faster (ie. can read and write data faster).
The cost of a system will generally depend on the power of its internal processing, the number of channels supported and the amount of customisation in terms of hardware. Other factors which will affect system cost include the size of the disk(s) used, whether interfaces for timecode slaving and/or digital interfacing are included, and whether an integrated backup system is provided. The power of the system's processing will generally determine whether or not certain DSP functions are offered, and whether or not these can be performed in real time.
For example, a stereo crossfade requires audio from four different pieces of audio (ie. left and right of both recordings). A 4-channel system may be aimed at the stereo recording/editing market and may therefore only provide stereo inputs and outputs, but the fact that the system can sustain four internal channels simultaneously means that the system can perform stereo crossfades in real time. A system which can only support two channels internally, on the other hand, can set some time aside for a one-off calculation of the crossfade. The crossfade will be stored as a separate mono or stereo file on disk, and the system will jump to it when it is required to play. This may also be the case for other DSP functions such as digital level changes, digital EQ, time compression/expansion, harmonising etc. Non-real-time operation may help to keep the cost of a system down, but it has disadvantages such as requiring time to perform the process (which can be frustrating) and using extra disk space (which can become a problem if the process involves a relatively long piece of audio).
Although many systems perform real time crossfades, the process can effectively reduce the number of simultaneous channels that can be replayed. For example, an 8-channel real-time system can replay a maximum of four mono crossfades at the same time, whereas an 8-channel non-real-time system, although it will initially take some time to calculate the process, can play up to eight mono crossfades at the same time. However, a number of real-time systems can support twice the number of channels internally than the number of tracks which can be simultaneously replayed. For example, an 8-track, 8-output system may actually support 16 internal channels, such that eight mono crossfades can be replayed simultaneously in real time.
Conversely, some systems provide more tracks than output channels supported by the system. These are generally termed 'virtual tracks'. For example, a stereo system may provide 16 virtual tracks across which cues can be arranged; although all 16 tracks can be active for replay, the system cannot replay more than two channels of audio simultaneously. In order to increase the number of cues which can be replayed simultaneously, some systems will perform internal mixdowns. This involves creating a stereo cue, for example, from multiple cues, and may or may not occur in real time. Either way, it will result in additional disk space being used.
One of the cheapest ways to get into the technology is by purchasing a card (or cards) which plugs into your existing computer. Plug-in cards come with operational software, and some manufacturers also provide software for those who wish to develop specific functions. Some plug-in cards will slave to timecode and/or MIDI, and can therefore be integrated with sequencers and/or tape machines. Many will also integrate with other software packages (such as those aimed at sampling and sequencing) designed for that particular brand of computer. Alternatively, if you don't have a computer or it's not the right one, the next cheapest way into tapeless technology is the low-cost turnkey stereo or 4-channel system.
The relatively high sales in this low-cost market show that the technology is certainly in demand. It also indicates the spread of tapeless editing from the high-end professional studio to the lower-end semi-pro and home studio, although many high end studios also have low-cost stereo systems, often for pre-production work.
Stereo and 4-channel systems which fall into the higher cost range are generally high performance and/or very application-specific. These are mainly purchased by studios which have a requirement for high quality, high accuracy mastering (such as classical music editing for compact disc) or applications which require specific operational software and control (such as dialogue replacement). Some of these systems can also be used to restore and digitally remaster old recordings by using specialist software for noise removal. In addition, a couple will interface directly with recordable CD systems.
Low-cost multi-channel systems have only recently come onto the market but they are already selling well, particularly to those studios/individuals which need multi-channel capabilities but until now could not afford the tapeless alternative. In addition, many of these studios have had a low-cost stereo system for some time and are therefore already familiar with the technology's benefits. Many of the PC-based low-cost multi-channel systems will also integrate with third party software packages for sampling and sequencing.
High cost multi-channel systems are generally high performance and/or capable of being application-specific. The majority are aimed at audio post production for video or film, and are purchased by large post production facilities and broadcast companies. A number are also aimed at the multitrack music market where they are generally used alongside digital multitrack tape machines. Many studios/facilities have more than one system, but in most cases the systems will all come from the same manufacturer. This is because of both the investment in training an operator to become fluent in a particular system's operation, and also the issue of compatibility — a studio is unlikely to purchase a second system which is not compatible with the first, particularly where large sound libraries/archives have been built up.
There is now no single area in audio production or post production which has not been affected by tapeless technology. From the home recording setup to the high-end recording studio, in television, film, video, radio, theatre and even live pop concerts — all make use of tapeless systems in some way. However for a number of applications, tape still has a long life ahead of it. It is cheap, convenient, transportable and has a relatively high recording capacity. In areas such as location recording, multitrack music recording, and sound to picture (where the number of tracks used for major feature films can run into hundreds), tape is still the primary recording medium. Furthermore, the cost of digital multitrack tape recording is falling, in some cases dramatically (see the review of Alesis' ADAT in this issue), and tape has the advantage over disk in that it does not need to be backed up.
But even these areas that are particularly well-placed to exploit tape's particular advantages are likely to succumb to tapeless technology eventually. Disk technology is ever improving, allowing more and more channels to be supported, and the use of multiple disks in parallel provides yet more channels. The optical disk promises to solve the problem of backup by serving as the recording medium itself. However, it is still some way off from being able to provide the same channel capacity as hard disk, and as a backup medium is still far more expensive than tape. Nonetheless, as the cost versus capacity ratio improves and the backup issue is resolved, multitrack tape machines will increasingly be replaced by tapeless systems.
The market is still growing, systems are becoming cheaper and available to more users, and the demand for digital editing looks set to grow with the increasing global demand for digital audio. The introduction of technologies such as DCC (Digital Compact Cassette), MiniDisc, and digital sound for film will increase the demand for digital editing still further. In addition, the increased use of multimedia is yet another reason why digital audio is being brought onto the desk top — the quality of audio and picture with such systems may not yet be professional, but is bound to improve as storage techniques develop. Thus as different technologies merge and costs come down, at least the creative door will be opened to a much wider range of people.
Yasmin Hashmi is a partner in Sypha, an independent consultancy which specialises in disk-based audio and video editing systems. They have recently published the 2nd Edition of The Tapeless Directory, which gives information on over 90 tapeless systems. The Tapeless Directory is available from the SOS Bookshop, or directly horn Sypha at (Contact Details).
Feature by Yasmin Hashmi
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