Yamaha CBX-D5 Digital Recorder
While other hard-disk recording systems waxed and waned, Yamaha quietly and industriously developed their own 4-track system. Now the CBX-D5 is almost upon us, have Yamaha taken heed of the lessons of the marketplace? Mike Barnes finds out in this exclusive preview.
The multitrack recording machine, that final resting place for the remains of the creative spark, has traditionally been something of an oversized, basically unattractive specimen. This particular workhorse was therefore often lined up and banished to permanent residence in a machine cupboard, to rub shoulders with miscellaneous noisy and mechanically infirm others. Not surprisingly, after all this time in the dark, the multitrack has recently been suffering something of an identity crisis, discovering that the rest of the machine world has been coming out of the (machine) closet for some time. Unfortunately, the identity crisis has been deepened by the fact that on entering this new world outside the closet, the multitrack has been quickly seduced by all manner of hot-under-the-collar computers and intriguing new media, all eager for an intimate (but meaningful!) relationship.
In the ensuing hysteria of technological match-making, manufacturers large and small have given the recording machine a radically new identity; so much so that it is now on the verge of total personality disorder. Faced with the plethora of stand-alone and host-dependent recording systems based on the new media of videotape (Alesis/Yamaha/Tascam), hard disk (Roland/Digidesign/Steinberg/AMS/NED et al...), and magneto-optical disk (Akai), all of which offer wildly different facilities, prices, expansion possibilities, and failure rates, it is no wonder that everyone is becoming more than a little wary of the next mutation.
Ironically, some of these rapid technological marriages are already at least partly on the rocks, and no doubt there are more messy failures to come. However there are signs that the dust is settling on this technological dynasty and that a more carefully considered and complete range of products is emerging. Even the well-financed major manufacturers have become more than a little hesitant before marketing a new digital recording system (witness the long but worthwhile wait for the Roland DM80). Manufacturers are also now well aware that a bad reputation for reliability spreads like wildfire and can mean yet another addition to the growing funeral pyre of half-finished products. After cautiously watching the plight of the pioneers and rush-releasers, Yamaha quietly unveiled their prototype CBX-D5 4-track digital recorder at this year's Frankfurt Musik Messe.
Against all this background, there has been an eerie silence from the Yamaha camp since the Messe announcement. However, the following preview shows that far from nervously shelving it, Yamaha have been busy enhancing their baby with some considerable re-specification and additional hardware/software development, such that the D5 is well and truly alive, and just starting to kick in pre-production form.
The D5 is Yamaha's late but stylish entry into the overcrowded world of hard disk recording. It's difficult to say how many such systems are currently on offer around the globe, due to the ephemeral nature of the smaller manufacturers, but you could probably muster 50 quite easily. So why have Yamaha followed suit, when they already have a digital tape based system in the DMR8 and DRU8?
Whilst the 20-bit DMR and DRU systems have cut out something of a niche in high-end recording, this technology is currently way out of reach for the average musician (£10-20,000 for a complete system). Yamaha wanted to provide a mid-priced, high-quality alternative between these high-end digital products and low-end analogue recorders (for example the MT3X). Since the idea of multitrack DAT was shelved, hard disk recording provided a cost-effective entry into digital multitrack recording whilst also offering potential for random access digital editing which tape-based digital systems cannot cater for. However, in addition to this, the D5 also represents something of a crucial landmark product, since it will be the first big test for a new strategic product group within Yamaha which has recently been set up to deal exclusively with computer-related music peripherals — the CBX group. This group is headed by the ex-director of Yamaha R&D London, Hitoshi ('Eric') Atsumi, who has assembled a group of young, talented engineers and designers to investigate new computer-related product areas for the '90s.
The D5 chassis is yet another design shift in form and styling for the multitrack recording machine. It is almost exactly the same dimensions (and Mac-platinum colour!) as a Macintosh IIci, and in fact they sit snugly together as if destined to be constant companions.
Along with its Apple-ish design leanings, the D5 represents a marked departure from conventional musical instrument manufacturer strategy, especially for Yamaha, who have designed what is essentially an open-ended system: a box of high quality, highly functional hardware resources which are open to software configuration by a variety of different host computers (Atari/Mac/PC). The onboard resources include digital audio recording/playback, digital effects processing, digital equalisation, digital mixdown, and real-time sample rate conversion.
For the first time, Yamaha have dispensed completely with in-house software development (which had not met with much success on Yamaha's C1 computer) and opted to concentrate on its hardware/firmware skills, whilst bringing in high-profile third-party software vendors to implement D5 support via existing successful products. Currently, the line of development is aimed firmly at the hi-tech musician, and therefore Mark Of The Unicorn (Digital Performer) and Steinberg (Cubase Audio) are under contract to provide D5 support for Macintosh and Atari respectively. Support for the PC is also under negotiation. At present, Steinberg and MOTU have one-year exclusivity over D5 dual audio-MIDI music recording applications on their respective platforms, but after that period the D5 will be open to support by all software manufacturers; this should ensure support by at least Opcode StudioVision, Cubase Audio for the Mac, and whatever C-Lab have up their sleeve.
The other really fundamental conceptual breakthrough is that, for once, the D5 is a product which is actually fully integrated. By this I mean a product which doesn't require another 6U of interface boxes, at extra cost, to make it talk to either the host computer or to other key audio devices. There is built-in connectivity and synchronisation for all main digital formats, (see Audio Connections below), and the system wiring is fast and simple — no cards to install, no cabling looms to mix up. In the case of a Macintosh system, you simply connect two cables between Mac and D5 — a SCSI cable, and a mini 8-pin DIN host communication cable to either of the serial ports. Further good news is that since the D5 bears the brunt of much of the number-crunching work, it doesn't require a powerful, expensive computer to act as host. It will work happily with an Atari 1040ST or Mac Classic 2, rather than the more heavyweight machines from these respective manufacturers (cue sighs of relief from impoverished musicians).
Although the the D5 will apparently be marketed primarily as a musicians' 4-track digital recording tool, Yamaha have intimated that there is no reason that the D5 should not be used for audio processing, sound design, post-production, video or mastering functions, given the appropriate front-end software. In fact, since these functions are not covered by the MIDI-audio exclusivity agreement mentioned above, we may see software supporting these applications released within one year of release, and tentative negotiations are already under way for support in these areas.
For this preview, only beta copies of the control software were available/and these were some way from completion. In examining the pre-production D5 system at Yamaha's R&D centre in London, only the Digital Performer v1.1 beta was available, hence the overall Macintosh bias in the discussion. Nevertheless, despite being busy coding for D5, Steinberg were able to provide some screen shots to illustrate how the D5 will integrate into Cubase Audio.
Fundamentally, the software support for the D5 will have similar modules, though the emphasis on each module will obviously differ, depending on the development time each of the companies can allocate:
Here the recording channel allocation, sampling frequencies, input source, and system ID of each D5 will be set.
ii) Audio Record/Edit
Audio tracks will be positioned alongside the MIDI data stream, and allow cut, copy, paste, and quantize data movement.
iii) Waveform Editor
Some limited waveform editing will be expected for normalising and possibly de-clicking.
iv) Audio Import/Export
Standardised File formats will allow data exchange between audio processing programs in the same way as MIDI Files. The D5-generated audio data will support both SDII and AIFF formats, which will allow import/export via sophisticated sample editing software such as Alchemy, Avalon or Sound Designer II.
A mixer control surface with EQ and effects sends will be required to manage the D5 internal mixer sections.
vi) Effects Editor/Manager
Although the D5 will arrive with around 80 factory effects, these can potentially be edited and stored in libraries for recall.
In simple terms, both programs will allow the-simultaneous manipulation of audio and MIDI data relative to time. So, in the same way that MIDI data can be duplicated and moved, and pasted into different sections of the same piece of music, you will now be able to perform these actions with multiple audio tracks. It's a sort of fusion of extended sampling and sequencing, all in one environment where the user can choose to record, edit, and control the MIDI and audio data either independently or simultaneously.
Also, the concept of 'virtual tracks' can be applied to audio, with some limitations, just as it can to MIDI. If you think of the audio tracks as being 4-note polyphonic, then as long as the tracks do not play more than four simultaneously, the user can have multiple tracks of audio, each allocated to one of four channels. The intricacies and details of how the software actually operates belong in another article when the software is fully completed.
At the heart of the D5 is a cluster of brand new custom Yamaha LSIs, alongside some current favourites from existing product lines. The M3B chip — as used in the SY85 — handles audio data reading and playback. There are also two new DEQ chips (digital equalisation modules as used by the new DEQ5); a new real-time sample rate conversion LSI (the SFC); the DSP2 chip (from the SPX1000/SY99); new A-to-D (16-bit) and D-to-A (18-bit 8x oversampling) convertors from the professional audio-video division; and three MIXP chips which handle data exchange between these modules and mixdown.
Since the first showing at Frankfurt, the DSP engine has been substantially upgraded from the enigmatic lower-spec DSPN processor (at home in the SY85) to the DSP2 (SPX1000, SY99). This has yielded a much improved sound quality, and now enables the D5 to compete on an equal basis with other professional studio effects processors. The DSP is now functionally much the same as that implemented in the SY99 professional keyboard, with the addition of some improved parameter control, and will feature around 80 presets which can be reconfigured via computer. Emphasis has been placed on high-quality reverbs, and early reflection programs, in addition to the standard multi-programs (chorus and reverb, EQ and reverb, and so on).
One of the key elements of the D5, but one which is easily overlooked, is the all-new SFC (realtime Sampling Frequency Convertor) chip. Anyone familiar with digital recording or mixdown will appreciate that this type of real-time conversion is normally fairly costly. A stand-alone box to perform high-quality SFC alone would normally cost upwards of £3,000, but here this is just one small component of the D5 architecture. The onboard digital equalisation is a subset of that implemented in the well-received DEQ5, and will offer professional multi-band EQ. The previously mentioned three MIXP chips are each basically mini 8:4 mixers, used respectively for control of the dry signal, send levels, and dry plus effect mix.
Despite a fairly innocuous looking front panel (status indicators, analogue input trim pots, and headphone socket/level control), the back panel tells the full story. It's a model of professionalism — no half-hearted implementation here. There are two XLR-type analogue inputs, and four XLR outputs. There is a single AES-EBU input and two AES-EBU outputs, a single CD-DAT input and output, and also Yamaha's own Y2 (Mel 2/Digital Cascade) format In and Out, so that DMP-series mixer owners or SPX1000 owners can take advantage of digital data transfer. To complete the picture, there are also two BNC wordclock sockets (in and out) for synchronising additional D5s or other professional digital equipment.
Other connections include two 50-pin SCSI terminals for host and hard-drive connection, built-in MIDI In/Out/Thru, and an 8-pin mini-DIN connector with selector switch to define host type and communication (Mac, PC-1, PC-2, or MIDI for Atari). One point of interest is that there is no dedicated SMPTE I/O here for direct video or analogue multi-track synchronisation, so you're forced to use an external box in this instance. This is OK if you have a MIDI Time Piece and have a spare serial port, but otherwise you will have to convert to MTC and sync via the MIDI port, which uses up your single MIDI In. The only other minor gripe is the lack of an international power supply which would allow the D5 to be daisy-chained off any Macintosh anywhere in the world and save yet another cable!
Yamaha are currently a little cagey about a release schedule and price for the D5, but a reasonable estimate for UK product availability is March 1993, after next year's Frankfurt MusikMesse. The final price will, no doubt, be dependent on Yamaha's further development efforts — and of course on Stormin' Norman Lamont's control (or otherwise) of the UK economy and exchange rate. However, with Yamaha's price definition of 'very competitive', it seems likely that the cost will be somewhere between £2,000 and £3,000, although these boundaries are speculative.
This sort of price tag will no doubt excite some and confuse others. Against other comparable professional disk recording products, the price looks very attractive. However, against the new Atari Falcon computer (reviewed in this issue), which will have a built-in 2-track recording facility and cost well under £1,000, it looks expensive, and the Alesis ADAT tape-based system distorts the picture still further. This is where perspective is important, since the real differences here boil down to the quality and extent of facilities, and features such as professional interfacing and expansion possibilities, which inevitably all come at a price. If all you need is a way of recording a couple of tracks of guitar or vocals, then maybe the D5 isn't the ideal way to spend your money. If, however, you have bigger multitrack ambitions, want to work exclusively in the digital domain, and make use of sophisticated onboard EQ and processing, then this will be the only package of its kind.
Unlike many other recording systems, the D5 appears to be pitched where it has an opportunity to develop at two levels. Firstly, as a professional-quality musicians' home audio sketchpad, and secondly as a serious multitrack, possibly 16-track, setup for use in audio/video studios. Despite the fact that multitrack hard disk recording has yet to be comfortably accepted as totally dependable (excepting devices such as the the Audiofile or Synclavier), it may be that if the software acts seamlessly enough and gives the D5 the functionality it deserves, Yamaha could provide the first realistic possibility of a low-cost, high-performance, disk-based system.
Given that what the CBX-D5 presents is fundamentally an SPX1000 effects processor, a large chunk of a DEQ5 digital equaliser, a real-time sample rate convertor, a basic mixer, a MIDI interface, with Y2/AES-EBU/SP-DIF digital interfacing and all A-to-D and D-to-A conversion built in, on top of your 4-track digital recorder, this seems like a genuinely cost-effective and powerful hardware package. However, you must add the additional price of a large SCSI hard disk (and backup medium), recording software, and a host computer to get a realistic idea of a complete price, and this is obviously a more substantial investment.
Ultimately, though, if we assume a marketable price tag, then it will be the functionality, reliability and availability of the front-end software that decides whether the D5 is destined to be a quantum success or another technological experiment that goes up in flames. Yamaha have obviously worked hard to put the right components in place for a really powerful musical tool. By early '93 we should know if the software that arrives to control the D5 actually allows it to become something more than a hot-box of LSIs, and give us a genuinely usable variation on the theme of the multitrack recorder.
Thanks to Terry Holton and Keith Taniguchi at Yamaha R&D London, and Eric Atsumi at CBX Group, Yamaha Corporation, for the additional technical information supplied for this article.
Yamaha-Kemble, (Contact Details).
Review by Mike Barnes
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