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Notator HD

*Almost* the first DAW...

by Ben | 16th October 2019

One of the nice things about doing this project is that occasionally I get to answer some of my long standing mysteries. Some items in recently re-published issues of Sound On Sound have helped answer a curiosity I had for nearly 30 years.

Back in the early 90s I was using C-Lab Notator. This was my first truly professional music product in my home studio, and the first time I'd spent "hardware money" on a piece of software. I loved it, and I loved the Atari ST.

Being an inquisitive chap (and also learning to code on the ST), I often used to dig around through the resource files of applications (the files used to generate the user interface), and sometimes modify or personalise them (as a silly example, I added the reminder "Time to go make a cup of tea..." in Replay 16's sample processing dialog, as you were bound to wait several minutes while it completed, well, pretty much anything!)

Looking through Notator's resource files one day I found a mysterious unused screen dedicated to hard disk recording - something the Atari ST certainly wasn't capable of at the time.

In 1990 the only things capable of hard disk recording were super-high-end and expensive machines like the Synclavier. It would be another two years until the Alesis ADAT would bring relatively affordable digital multitracking to the small studio, albeit using clunky video cassettes, and even DAT hadn't been around that long. Tape was still very much an integral part of the music-making process.

So... Hard disk recording? In Notator? On an Atari ST?

"Impossible!" I thought... so what was going on there?

Notator HD & Sound Tools

It seems that "Notator HD", as the prototype was known, was a collaboration between C-Lab and Digidesign, the developers of Sound Tools (the predecessor of Pro Tools, and already running on the Mac platform) - for the Atari ST.

The Sound Tools system had three components - the actual Sound Tools audio hardware interfaces, an "Accelerator" card, containing a Motorola 56001 DSP, which connected the hardware to the computer, and the Sound Tools software front end - Sound Designer II.

Image from

The Atari ST version of Sound Tools required a Mega ST, which had a proprietary internal expansion slot (called the "MegaBUS") that the ST version of the Sound Accelerator card connected to.

(The Mac version of the Accelerator card used a Mac-specific expansion port, called "Nubus".)

Much like the first version of Opcode's Studio Vision, Notator HD would have worked with the Sound Tools hardware to record and replay one or two audio tracks in sync with the sequencer - and perhaps even with some basic editing functions.

We can get some clues as to how it would have worked from the hard disk recording setup window above - there's a list of recorded audio files that would be triggered from the sequencer, with a "prepare time" to pre-fetch the files from disk in time for playback - hard disks were still quite slow then. The size of the "Info" panel suggests it might have shown the waveform display for the selected audio file.

From SOS Aug 90, NAMM Show report:

"Digidesign touted a co-development program with C-Lab that allows Sound Tools for the Atari to be integrated with Creator/Notator, offering hard disk audio recording along with MIDI sequencing."

State of the Atari

(Click image for higher resolution version)

Sound Technology (the UK distributor) even had ads running for Notator and Sound Tools Atari, mentioning Notator HD, starting with Sound On Sound, Dec 1990 (mu:zines advert link):

"Combine the worlds of MIDI sequencing and digital audio recording with Notator HD and Sound Tools. Create a killer sequence, then add a stunning vocal track or a sizzling guitar solo! A totally new concept in music production for the Atari Mega ST!"

Had Notator HD shipped, it might have just about qualified for the very first "DAW" as we know it today, just ahead of Studio Vision, and at least five years before computers would be powerful enough to start to handle audio natively.

However, it never made it past the development stage. It seems it's demise was a result of several factors of bad timing. Atari discontinued the Mega ST, which had the necessary internal expansion slot for the Sound Accelerator card. The replacement Mega STE machines used a different expansion slot format, a more widely used standard called "VMEbus", rendering it incompatible with Sound Tools, and requiring Digidesign to create a new version of the Accelerator card to work with them.

Digidesign stopped the development of the Sound Tools Atari from that point, favouring the more advanced, and more lucrative Mac platform.

From SOS Mar 91, NAMM Show report:

Sadly, due to the fact that C-Lab and Digidesign are no longer working together, and that Digidesign are no longer actively developing the Atari version of Sound Tools (now the Mega STs have been discontinued), Notator HD is no longer being developed, and you will not be able to perform the same tricks with Sound Tools on an Atari.

The German Atari mag, "ST Magazin" April 1991, published a review of C-Lab's education software, and included this note about Notator HD (Google Translated and paraphrased):

While C-Lab stormed the classrooms with full throttle, hard-disc recording fans had long faces: The development of the Notator HD, which together with Digidesign's Sound Tools was supposed to meld the MIDI world with digital audio recordings, was given up and abandoned. While Digidesign is already working on unlimited tracking on the Macintosh - after all, the system is supposed to realize 24 or even more tracks through its own bus system - C-Lab now gave up this project in an exasperated way. For a year, the competition has been able to play four digital audio tracks simultaneously with MIDI data.

Experts at the Frankfurt Musikmesse also asked the question, "Why did C-Lab throw in the towel?" Some rumor that the relationship with the American partner has cooled noticeably and, on the other hand, there are serious technical problems. Means of dealing with the timing fluctuations that occur during data congestion, the audio output often fails and a SMPTE synchronisation was impossible. If the sad result of this failure [could have been fixed], the prototype would have been available free of charge upon request.

Note: You can get a feel for the timing problems they were referring to above when being synced to external sources like tape machines in the Studio Vision review, which also uses the Sound Tools hardware in the same way as Notator HD - see the "Moans and Groans" section.

Further Complications

The Digidesign/C-Lab relationship was also complicated by some internal upheaval. The developers (and rights owners) of the software had gotten into a dispute with C-Lab over unpaid royalties. They had decided to stop distributing their software through C-Lab, and were to leave to set up a new company - "emagic" - going forwards.

Notator was reasonably mature by this point (the "HD" page started turning up in version 3.1, which was the last C-Lab-distributed version) and the development focus had shifted away from Notator, as the developers felt they had gone as far as they could go with it. They wanted to develop a completely new sequencer from the ground-up, "Notator Logic". This would take many concepts and features from Notator, but have a much more flexible and open architecture and interface, and work started on it in late 1991.

Notator Logic was initially built on, and for, the Mac, but was also written with the intention of creating an Atari ST version, which followed a year or so after the first Mac version was released.

To encourage users from C-Lab's Creator/Notator to move across, emagic released one final emagic-branded Creator/Notator update, version 3.21, that worked with Notator Logic's copy-protection dongle/MIDI expander (the LOG3), with an attractively priced upgrade offer to Notator Logic - and this is where I jumped across from Notator to Notator Logic, excited by the new possibilities of the Environment window.

Audio features first debuted in the Mac version 1.7 of Notator Logic Audio, and the "Notator" part of the name was dropped for Logic 2.0.

I remember visiting the Sound Technology stand at the London music fair, and watching Mark Gordon's demo of the new Audio Factory functions in Logic - ably demonstrated with him turning a very straight 8ths Status Quo song into a swing version by quantising the mix. Quite impressive, as up to then, audio was very much regarded as a static, non-malleable thing you could only cut up to edit, but not do much more with. Our ability to use and manipulate audio was moving forward, for sure.

The Atari platform finally got it's own audio features in Logic Audio 2.5 for the Atari Falcon, but poor Falcon and Logic Audio Falcon sales, and a complicated development process due to dealing with the Falcon's DSP-based architecture led to the end of the Notator story for the Atari, and the sad demise of the Atari platform followed not much later, after having been fundamental to the changes in music technology over the preceding years.

So, Notator HD - *almost* the first DAW. Mystery solved!

Further information

mu:zines: Notator/Creator
mu:zines: Notator/Creator adverts
mu:zines: Notator Logic, Logic
mu:zines: C-Lab software, emagic software
mu:zines: Sound Tools, Digidesign
external: ST Magazin, April 91 (p42)
external: Sound Tools, Atari WIKI

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