Digital Audio Workstations

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Digital Audio Workstations

Aug 1, 2001 12:00 PM, By Conrad Trautmann, CPBE

One would think that by now all radio stations and audio production studios have replaced their analog reel-to-reel tape recorders with some type of digital editing system. Many have, but surprisingly, my visits to different facilities have revealed that there are still many that haven't upgraded to the latest technology. For those that haven't, or for those looking to expand or build new studios, the information that follows should help determine what is needed.

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Like most pieces of equipment purchased today, digital audio workstations (DAWs) will vary in price depending on complexity, quality and features. If cut-and-paste editing on just a few tracks is all that is needed, it is possible to get free software that can be loaded on an off-the-shelf PC with a sound card. If high quality is required, or a wide range of effects is needed, prices will climb. The most expensive systems usually come as a complete package, with all of the software and hardware being sold by the manufacturer.

Returning to the free software mentioned in the previous paragraph, Digidesign offers a scaled-down version of software that can be downloaded right from its website called ProTools Free. It's a 10MB download and offers eight tracks of audio and 48 tracks of MIDI editing capability. Digidesign recommends at least a Pentium III series machine with a large hard drive, 128MB of RAM and a 1024�768 monitor. It runs on Windows ME or 98, or a Macintosh. ProTools Free is capable of performing any basic radio commercial production. Another free route is using bundled software that some manufacturers include with other programs and hardware.

If the basic editing functions aren't enough, then plug-ins are necessary. In an analog studio, it used to be necessary to buy an external compressor, equalizer or maybe even a pitch-shifting processor. Now these effects come on a floppy disc or a CD-ROM. Many third-party companies create software effects that are capable of running with popular systems. They can be purchased al-la-carte, so users only buy what is needed. Effects such as echo chamber, noise reduction, limiter, compressor, equalizer, delay, reverb, time shift (stretch or compress), pitch shift, flanger, vocoder and more are available. Fairlight, another DAW manufacturer, has a Plug-In Manager, which allows third-party plug-ins to work with its software.

A common find

Another powerful software package showing up in many radio production studios is Cool Edit, or Cool Edit Pro, by Syntrillium. For $399, users pay for and download Cool Edit Pro right from the Syntrillium website. It runs on Windows 9x/ME/NT and 2000. Cool Edit Pro offers more tracks and additional features over the basic Cool Edit software. It supports multiple file formats, from WAV to MP3. Plug-ins are available for a multitude of effects processing.

Similar to Cool Edit, there is SAW by Innovative Quality Software. SAW can be loaded on a PC, providing a DAW at a reasonable cost.

Digigram, a manufacturer of audio cards, manufactures its own version of DAW software. The X-Track Audio Suite is multitrack audio editing software. Some may already use the X-Track under a different name, since Digigram offers an OEM version to other manufacturers.

It has an unlimited number of virtual tracks that can be assigned to inputs or outputs or serve as work tracks. When used on a laptop with a Digigram PCXpocket (PCMCIA) audio card, it makes the laptop a mobile DAW. It supports many synchronization modes that will drive external equipment, and frame access is available when coupled with a digital video system.

X-Track comes with DirectX effects, which comes with two plug-ins: equalization and noise reduction. It will support all DirectX-compatible plug-ins.

As an option, X-Track supports audio CD burning, VocAlign, and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. The CD burning software complies with the Red Book standard, ensuring that the CD can be played in all players. VocAlign will automatically synchronize two audio signals. This could be helpful with lip-synching, foreign dialog replacement or even modifying the timing of one track to match another.

The software-based systems are primarily mouse and keyboard driven, but many allow for the connection of external control surfaces such as a JL Cooper panel, which brings out fader control and transport functions.

One of the first professional DAWs developed specifically for the radio industry was the AKG DSE7000, which has evolved into the Orban Audicy. Sold as a complete package, it includes the software, computer, audio cards, monitor and a custom control surface. It assembles on to a roll-around stand and will fit nicely into the space vacated by a reel-to-reel tape recorder. One feature that stands out on this system is the built-in scrub wheel. It takes the place of rocking those reels back and forth on a reel-to-reel machine to find the edit point. The design of this system makes it easy for anyone used to editing tape to make the transition to digital. Also worth noting, the Audicy stores the audio for a production in RAM. All edits are done in real time, rather than reading and writing them to the hard drive; a big time savings for someone who does extensive editing. It also prevents the occasional glitching during playback that can be caused by a slow or fragmented hard drive. Many expected effects are built in to the Audicy, such as compression, time-shifting, and equalization, and they are easy to apply to an individual track or entire production.

Audicy also supports Cart Chunk technology, which places a header with information into the final audio file created. It contains information that most on-air digital audio delivery systems require such as cart numbers, titles, end-dates and more. The Audicy can be networked to a digital audio delivery system, and the files can be saved in a directory that the on-air system will typically be set up to poll, looking for new material. Other companies are also beginning to jump on the Cart Chunk bandwagon. Sadie has added Cart Chunk support to the RADiA digital workstation.

TC Works is a German-based company that produces Spark and Spark XL 2.0. Like most other DAWs discussed here, it supports most file formats, records in and plays back 32-bit, 192kHz files. It has VST plug-in capability. It also supports Digidesign file formats. This Macintosh-based product runs on a G3 or higher and requires OS 8.6 or higher.

Sonic Foundry's DAW is called Sound Forge 5.0. It's a two track digital editor that has a multitude of effects available, and it supports DirectX audio plug-ins. Version 5.0 supports 24-bit, 192kHz sampling and has a built in CD-burning program. It can also rip a CD. Also new for version 5.0 is support for Windows Media Audio (WMA), OggVorbis (OGG) and Perfect Clarity Audio (PCA). Sound Forge can export in QuickTime (MOV) and RealVideo 8 (RM) formats. Sound Forge also offers a software package called Vegas, which offers multitrack editing and DirectX plug-in support.

If mastering an audio production is the desire, then a higher-end system is probably what should be purchased. Run on a Power Macintosh G3 or G4, Sonic Solution's hardware includes an HDSP processor and audio interface. The audio recording into the system is linear PCM audio, 16-bit to 24-bit with sample rates from 44.1kHz to 192kHz. Each processor card that uses a PCI slot, can record eight simultaneous 24-bit, 96kHz recordings. Processing and equalization occur using Sonic's 48-bit processing. CD burning is built into the software, making the mastering process an integrated part of the session.

If there are multiple DAWs in different studios, it may be necessary to network more than one DAW in order to share files. This can be handled a few different ways.

If using a Microsoft Windows based-system for the DAW operating system, it's fairly easy to set up file sharing on the hard drives for those systems by using a basic Ethernet LAN. This allows all of the systems to see the other's hard drives. If a production begins in one room and needs to be finished in another, either copy or move the file from one drive to the other. In most cases, users would want the file on the local hard drive while editing. Depending on the size of the file, this could take some time. This is probably not the best way to manage files in a larger facility with many people doing production, but it would work in a station with just a few DAWs.

Another option is to set up a central file server, where all productions are stored. This offers the advantage of data backup capabilities. Fault tolerance can be added with a redundant file server. Using a central server helps keep things organized, making all files easily available to all DAWs. Most DAWs come with network support.

A popular theme at the NAB show this year is portability. Interfaces, audio cards, hardware and software are all available now to allow digital editing on the road. Digigram has offered this for some time already.

Digidesign recently announced the Magma 2-Slot Cardbus PCI Expansion System. It allows the addition of two PCI slots to an Apple PowerBook G4 allowing Digi 001 or ProTools|24 MIX hardware to be used with a laptop computer.

Some DAWs are designed for specific uses. The VoxPro and VoxPro PC from Audion Labs is a two-track editor, primarily designed for telephone call recording and editing.

Outside the PC

The 360 Systems ShortCut is designed to be a reel-to-reel replacement for radio stations. The ShortCut comes in a tabletop package and provides basic audio editing functions. An LCD screen allows the user to see the audio waveform, and the ShortCut also has a scrub wheel, allowing for quick and easy editing.

For portability, Sound Devices manufactures an interface, the USBPre1.5, (a BE Radio 2001 Pick Hit) that converts an analog audio input and to USB for connection to a laptop. It also has S/PDIF outputs. It has multiple inputs, with two balanced mic inputs, two balanced line inputs and two unbalanced tape inputs.

While not truly a DAW, the Sonifex Courier portable recorder uses an internal hard disk from 260MB to 1.04GB. It has recording times up to one and a half hours of linear stereo at a 48kHz sample rate or over two days of recording using MPEG Layer II at 48kb/s. Sample rates are available from 8kHz to 48kHz in linear mode, or 8kb/s to 384kb/s in MPEG mode. The recorder includes some basic editing functions as well, which makes it and recorders like it suitable for limited field recording and editing.

DAWs range in scale and features, from free, downloadable software that can be easily installed, to high-end systems that can synchronize to video. Individuals must decide which is right for a particular application.

Conrad Trautmann is vice president of engineering for Westwood One, New York City.