Digital Audio Workstations

October 1, 2003

What was once considered a luxury has become a necessity. Digital audio workstations have proven to be a valuable part of any station's production equipment list. While the power and flexibility of these silent workhorses has increased, the relative costs have declined; a plus for the end user. In addition, the systems have become more specialized. Some are designed for large-scale work; others are designed for fast editing of two tracks. Some started in the professional arena and now offer reduced-feature versions, while some started as high-end consumer applications and have become enhanced along the way. Regardless of the paths they took to become the systems they are today, the variety of features and price points are sure to offer something for everyone.

Decisions, decisions

Chances are good that your facility already has some kind of digital editing in use. There are some shareware programs available that offer basic functions. It may be that these suit the immediate need. Frequently, once the convenience of a digital system is understood, the demand for more functions, better effects and faster speed quickly follow.

Most DAWs can fit into one of two categories: computer-based and dedicated hardware. The dedicated hardware designs have a computer at their nerve centers, but they are not usually built around a typical computer operating system, such as Windows or Macintosh. Each method has its own unique set of operational characteristics and advantages.

Dedicated hardware systems tend to be self-contained devices, with the transport, editing and storage components built in. These systems may use an external monitor or have a built-in display. Some may look like computer-based systems, but they do not rely on a host computer for the user interface.

These specialized systems have the advantage of serving a singular purpose. Because they are optimized for a specific function, they tend to be fast and efficient. The proprietary operating system has one major advantage: users will not load games, extra programs and screen savers onto them, saving an extra maintenance call.

The biggest advantage to computer-based systems is that they provide a familiar user interface. Users already familiar with the computer's operating system will feel at home with the same mouse clicks and keyboard shortcuts that they already know.

Let's talk

Equipment networking is an important consideration for any equipment purchase today, but this is no longer a problem with DAWs, because most are able to connect to other devices in some way. Most now offer a standard communications port, typically Ethernet or USB. The systems that offer some other format can probably be interfaced without excessive trouble.

The networking capability is important to facilities with multiple editing stations. Files and projects can be shared between systems and libraries of sound effects, music beds and often-used material can be accessed as needed. In addition, completed productions can be saved to the on-air playback system in a single step. The system's networking may even support ancillary data relating to the audio file, such as a file name and other pertinent information.

Resource Guide

A sample of availabledigital audio workstations.

The Orban Audicy2 has a dedicated analog-feel hardware controller that provides a familiar user interface and transport controls. Units are loaded with Optimod compression, Lexicon reverb and time-fit time compression effects. Multiple units can be networked to central servers or on-air systems via Windows XP. A production import and export feature allows users to condense a complete production into a single file, making it easier for users to bundle all the elements of a multitrack production. It features linear PCM recording with 10 channels and 24-track editing and mixing. Frequently used sound files can be saved to a library for quick retrieval.

Steinberg's Nuendo 2.0 is a media production system. All program menus are user-configurable, enabling users to hide features not regularly used. The controls for each track can also be configured to each users way of working. The mixer is user-configurable and can show a variety of display options. The system supports VST and DirectX plug-ins. The software handles MIDI commands and can control and manipulate MIDI devices. It offers unlimited undo/redo as a standard asset. The Edit History window lists all actions made on a project. Track and event actions from other editors over a TCP/IP network are listed as well.

The Audion Labs Voxpro PC is a two-track recorder/editor that can be networked for file sharing. One-button record facilitates operation in any mode. The system can import all popular file formats including MP3, AIFF, WMA and WAV, and it can export in multiple file formats. The control surface provides a jog wheel and transport controls. Unlimited undo and redo levels ease editing. The Voxpro supports an external GPI for machine controls. On the control panel's LCD screen, there are 130 Hot Keys per user available. The system will store as much as 15 hours of stereo or 30 hours of mono recording per 10GB of drive space.

Digigram Xtrack Audio Suite (currently on version 4.4) is a full-featured, flexible editor. It features an unlimited number of virtual audio tracks that can be dynamically assigned to inputs and outputs, with unassigned tracks serving as work tracks. Nondestructive editing and processing functions include cut, copy, insert, replace, drag and drop, fill with pattern, adjust to marker, time-stretching, pitch-shifting and track merging. Auto-locate functions allow rapid marking and recall of edit points. A key feature of Xtrack is its ability to create a single sound file in PCM or MPEG format from a multitrack mix, including edits, level automation and track levels.

Sony Digital Pictures Sound Forge 7.0 includes new features such as automated time-based recording, audio threshold record triggering, VU meters for recording and playback, enhanced spectrum analysis tools, DirectX plug-in effects automation, white, pink and brown noise generators, Media Explorer previewing and project file creation. The product will import 15 audio formats and export 17 audio formats. A batch converter facilitates multiple file format conversions. It supports sample rates from 2kHz to 192kHz and 8-bit, 16-bit, 24-bit and 32-bit resolutions. Sony recently purchased the audio editor line from Sonic Foundry.

The Sadie Series 5 family offers several configurations, including the PCM4 and PCM8. The PCM4 offers four inputs and four outputs and up to 96kHz/24-bit audio recording. It supports AIFF, WAV and BWF files and DirectX plug-ins. An optional hardware control interface with moving fader mixing is available. Projects can be saved to AIT, DDS, DLT and DVD-RAM. The system fully supports the AES-31 interchange. There are 50 levels of undo, and editing can be done down to the individual sample. Sadie Radia users can upgrade to the Series 5.

The SX-1LE from Tascam is based on the SX-1, offering similar features in a scaled-down package. The self-contained system houses the recorder, editor and control surface. It features 100mm touch-sensitive moving faders, automation and simultaneous 16-track hard disk recording at 24-bit resolution. It has 16 mic/line inputs, a 40-channel mix engine, a six-channel stem recorder, a 128-channel MIDI sequencer and an external XVGA output. As many as 999 virtual tracks can be used. The jog/shuttle wheel can scrub audio and MIDI data simultaneously. It includes a 100baseT Ethernet port and expansion slots for 24 more channels of additional analog I/O or digital I/O.

Adobe recently acquired Cool Edit from Syntrillium and has renamed it Audition. It allows users to record, edit and mix 32-bit files using any sample rate up to 10MHz. All edits are sample-accurate and can be automatically snapped to zero crossings. Short crossfades can be added for pop-free cuts. More than 45 digital signal processing (DSP) tools and effects, mastering and analysis tools and audio restoration features are included. The software also supports third-party DirectX plug-ins. Original, royalty-free, performance-based music loops are available in a wide range of musical styles. Files can be manipulated in an integrated multitrack mixing view or a mono and stereo waveform editing view.

Digidesign Pro Tools HD offers audio professionals quality and efficiency through an integrated production environment. It is available in three basic configurations: HD 1, HD 2 Accel and HD 3 Accel. Designed for use with a Digidesign-approved PC or Mac, Pro Tools HD system components include the following: Pro Tools TDM software; a Pro Tools HD Core Card; one or two Pro Tools HD Accel cards (with HD 2 Accel or HD 3 Accel, respectively). Each Core system requires at least one Pro Tools HD audio interface, such as a 192 I/O, 192 Digital I/O, 96 I/O or 96i, to handle the input and output (I/O) of audio signals to and from the system. Core systems can be expanded as needs increase.

The Dream Satellite from Fairlight is a 16-, 32- or 48-track digital audio workstation. It is compatible with Fairlight's MFX3plus and QDC-based project formats and provides 96kHz/24-bit audio performance. System sample rates are adjustable in five steps from 32kHz to 96kHz. Four-band parametric equalization can be applied to each clip in a project and set using an interactive screen. Crossfades and fades may be applied to any clips at any time, with a variety of user-defined laws, and all clips have independent real-time level adjustment. All DSP functions are performed in real time, with no rendering required. The Fairlight Medialink audio network provides additional connectivity.

The Mackie HDR24/96 is non-destructive editor the can lay down eight takes on the same track and then compile them together into a final take. The user can jump to any point in a production in milliseconds and slip, slide and nudge tracks back and forth. The system integrates with Mackie's d8b for extra functionality. It supports 24 tracks and as many as 192 virtual tracks at 48kHz sampling rate. The mouse, keyboard, monitor and 100base-T Ethernet ports are built-in; no external computer is needed. Optional remotes are available from Mackie.

The 360 Systems Shortcut is a two-track, hard-disk recorder and editor designed for fast editing and playback. The operating controls combine familiar tape machine functions and word processor labeling. The weighted jog wheel provides a simulated tape reel scrub editing, while a waveform display assists with critical editing decisions. One-handed editing is possible because of the grouping of the edit-function keys. Audio clips can be saved and recalled. Hot-Keys can immediately play up to 10 stored audio segments. A file conversion utility allows the unit to share files with other DAWs, and it can read and write WAV, BWF, SD-2 and AIFF file formats.

The Roland VS series of recorders/editors includes the VS-1824CD, an 18-track digital recording studio with built-in effects and CD-RW drive. It supports as many as 288 virtual tracks, has a 28-channel automated digital mixing and onboard effects that include dynamics, EQ, guitar amp modeling and microphone modeling. The internal CD-RW allows for easy data backup, creation of audio CDs and direct import of loops into tracks. Additional features include an internal 10GB hard drive, an optional effects expansion board, CD audio capture (file ripping) and an onboard auto-mix function for creating perfect mixes.

TC Electronic is now shipping Spark 2.8.1. This latest version features support for burning multiple CDs from a single playlist, Audio Units plug-in support for the batch converter and automatic plug-in delay compensation for the playback cursor. In addition, new user settings for the Preferences dialog have been added, as well as preloading-support for Waves' plug-in shell. The edit view features the waveform display with two views for details and overview. Spark runs on Macintosh OS X, requires a G3 300MHz or better with 256MB RAM. A CD burner, Core Audio compatible I/O device and Quick Time 6 are suggested options.

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