Like many DAW manufacturers, Merging Technologies offer a low–cost native version of their product. Despite its affordability, though, Pyramix Native 6 packs some serious editing and mixing power...
The last time a Merging Technologies Pyramix system was reviewed in this magazine was in June 2005 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun05/articles/pyramix.htm). The then–current software was version 4.3, the User Manual ran to 350 pages, a hardware–based setup suitable for CD mastering cost around £5500, and the most basic, software–only Native version cost just under £500. Three years on, the latest Pyramix is at software version 6, the user manual is now a shelf–threatening 580–plus pages, the cost of the example hardware–based mastering set up has risen to £6500, and the most basic Native 6 setup now comes in at just less than £600 including VAT.
These are relatively minimal price increases, especially for the Native version, and yet the new Native 6 has changed quite dramatically compared to earlier incarnations — not so much in terms of additional features, but in terms of additional power. Even Native version 5 was quite the poor relation of its hardware cousin, in terms of sample–rate support, track count and performance, with just eight inputs and outputs and 24 editing tracks available. Now, however, Pyramix Native 6 is — on paper, at least — comparable in many audio–related respects to the last generation of hardware systems, and to other DAWs on the market. Compatible with any ASIO–compliant audio hardware, Native 6 supports sample rates up to 192kHz with up to 24 inputs and outputs for even the Broadcast Pack, and up to 96kHz for the Music and Mastering Packs. This is a major move forward, bringing the power and even more of the sophistication that SOS' Hugh Robjohns raved about in the hardware version within the financial reach of many smaller studios. The new hardware systems, meanwhile, which incorporate Pyramix's recently developed MassCore technology, promise to deliver extraordinary amounts of power and flexibility, with up to 256 channels through the mix bus.
The most basic level of software, and the only version available for the Broadcast Pack, is Pyramix LE. However, 'basic' here is a decidedly relative term, as this software already includes the advanced editing capabilities of its bigger brothers, as well as a decent suite of plug–ins. The next level up in terms of basic software, which includes facilities for undertaking more complete mixing and mastering tasks, is the Pyramix Virtual Studio Core. This includes all of the features of Pyramix LE and adds the Strip Tools & Bus Tools compressor, limiter and expander, along with mastering peak and VU meters, phase correlator and audio vectorscope, and the Angudion I & II mastering compressors.
Pyramix LE or Virtual Studio Core are then bundled with other standard options to provide various 'Packs'. For PCM audio only (there is also a DSD pack and a Post pack) these range from the aforementioned Broadcast Pack, which consists of LE plus a CD mastering and import facility, with certain types of machine control, through the Music Pack, which is based on the Virtual Studio Core and adds surround capability and a 'virtual transport server' (enabling control of external MIDI sequencers and other programs), to the Mastering Pack, which also includes features like DDP support. Very sensibly, within the Virtual Studio Core software range (and unlike some other multi–level DAW families such as Cubase/Nuendo, or Samplitude/Sequoia) there is no sudden ceiling or cutoff point, so the various options can be added incrementally to the base system when circumstances dictate and finances allow.
The final move from Native to hardware–based systems is also entirely possible — any Native 'keys' that unlock the options already paid for are applied automatically to the new system — and throughout the range, work files can be freely interchanged. Because of this, a second Native licence could usefully be employed as a supplement to a hardware–based system in a facility such as my own, which does a lot of location recording. Currently, we use a SADiE LRX2 on the road, capturing the data onto external hard drives, and then simply plugging those drives into our main SADiE PCM8 setup back at the studio for subsequent editing and mastering. A Native Broadcast Pack on a laptop or a Shuttle PC, capturing the audio for subsequent transfer to a studio Pyramix 6, could be a very cost–effective way of doing the same kind of thing.
Working mixing and mastering engineers tend to be fairly conservative in terms of their equipment choices. Ask such engineers how we work and we will more than likely give you an immediate list of our 'go–to' equipment, and probably our favourites and deep dependencies as well. As professionals more often than not called upon to work under pretty strict time limits, we have naturally evolved in such a way as to know what we like. Unfortunately, this can sometimes also lead to us only liking what we know. Nowhere is this more true than in the choice of basic DAW, where some engineers form deep and loving attachments to their program of choice, and defend it as though it were a member of the family, rather than a tool of the trade. I speak from personal experience: a decade or so ago, as a user of BIAS Peak, I remember challenging my SADiE salesperson with various and tedious 'Ah, but can it do that?' examples, until it dawned on me that all the other things it could do vastly outweighed the few tricks it couldn't. From then on — obviously having learned nothing from that experience — I judged every other DAW by how well it did what SADiE could. For some aspects of the trade, such as stereo editing, this makes perfect sense, but for others — like multitrack mixing — it doesn't.
Even though my own facility now works on a 'horses for courses' basis, running different DAWs for different kinds of project, and with all interns and assistants under strict instructions not to form unnatural relationships with any of the hardware, I was still operating slightly prejudicially in this way when I installed the review copy of Pyramix Native 6. With my hands on my hips, a slight sneer, and my lower lip just jutting out, I was already mentally prepared to see if it could do what SADiE, or Sequoia, or Sonic Solutions could do — and in pretty much the same way, of course. Even though I had recently spent a very interesting day in Twickenham with Pyramix's UK distributors eMerging, being introduced to the basics of the software, and being offered a glimpse of its complexity and flexibility, my first instinct back in my mastering room was to ignore the manual, open up the software, and ask it to be something it wasn't, or at least, to behave in a way I already knew how to control.
Luckily, Merging Technologies are one step ahead of such silliness: at one point in the extremely detailed manual we are informed, quite kindly, that "if you are already familiar with another style of audio editing, you may wish to create your own Keyboard Shortcuts of various Pyramix transport and editing functions" but this is preceded by much more robust advice: "We strongly encourage you to learn the Pyramix shortcuts. These are powerful, quick and efficient..."
And that sets the tone for the rest of this review: it is a simple fact that at a basic level of description, what Pyramix does can be done in most other higher–level DAWs. After all, even the most sophisticated DAW is only called upon to do the same pretty small set of basic functions: capture audio, manipulate track gains relative to each other, chop up audio and move it along the timeline, keep track of where all the various bits are, and then act as host for internal and external processing. However, what Pyramix aims to achieve by doing things a little differently is to allow the engineer to work more quickly and much more efficiently. And simple efficiency really is no mean consideration. For example, in professional classical music production, an average CD has about 800 edits. If each edit took a minute, that would take 13 hours, or two days' work, so if each edit took a mere 30 seconds longer, it would mean an extra day of labour for someone to pay for. Function is not the same as functionality.
As is my usual review practice, I slotted Pyramix into my general workflow, as and when I could, to see how it operated under realistic working conditions. With a central piece of equipment like a DAW this is, of course, rather more disruptive than a review of a plug–in or an outboard processor, but working like this enabled me to see how the software handled some of the main concerns of my business — mixing, editing and mastering — and then to see how it handled their integration in terms of overall project management. This, it turns out, is a particular strong point of Pyramix.
The Pyramix software comes on a DVD that also includes PDFs of that gargantuan User Manual, a rather more modest 90–page Quickstart Guide, and specific guides for various procedures such as SACD production and optional processors like the Flux dynamics suite and Algorithmix restoration tools. Installation was relatively swift and entirely painless, with immediate recognition of and communication with our Lynx AES16 card, and after the numerical keys were entered (to activate the various licences — our demo version had just about everything) I began exploring. As ever, as always, you have to be dongled to proceed.
Pyramix recommend working with dual screens and a three–button mouse, and in fact some of the unique features of the program make little sense without them, so that is how we ran it. For the most part the main monitor was taken up by the Project Window, with the secondary monitor populated by whichever windows were appropriate to the task in hand: for mixing, this meant the mixer, the Strip Tools and the Meter Bridge; for editing, it meant the main Fade Editor. As often as possible, I kept the Project Management Panel open in the second screen too: not only did this give me maximum room for the Project window, it also made more sense when using Libraries (of which more in a minute).
With the management panel on the second screen, the main screen elements were then (from top to bottom) just the toolbars, the time indicators and the main timeline itself, the Overview panel, the transport strip, and the status bar, which provides general project information such as nudge settings, a playback buffer meter, input to output latency, and current sample rate and sync source. Much of this is familiar from other DAWs, as is what Merging introduce as 'the anatomy of a clip': the various trim handles and control points that appear when an audio clip is selected and are used to adjust beginnings and ends of clips and the position and lengths of fades. Holding Ctrl and clicking the top fader handle will create a symmetrical crossfade with any adjacent clips, and simple crossfades can be made using the same modifier key and dragging the beginning of one clip over the end of another. If the default crossfade is not suitable, right–clicking on it will bring up a menu offering a wealth of choices for adjusting the fade properties.
One nice feature of clip creation and manipulation is the automatic de–glitch function that prevents clicks. In most DAWs, this is done by setting a very short fade as a default, which is then created each time a clip is split or trimmed. But the problem with this standard approach is that default fades for actual editing need to be longer and often non–linear, so the same defaults are inappropriate for simple de–glitching. By separating the two tasks, Pyramix recovers an important feature for its proper use. Another small but nice feature (which works for all operations) is that the Undo function provides a 'history' of edits and operations and so can tell you exactly what you are undoing: very useful for those with fading memory capacity who can forget what their last sequence of moves might have been and end up undoing a complex fade as well as whatever few keystrokes came after it. If you want to undo a whole sequence of operations, clicking on the oldest undoes everything since that time. There is an exactly corresponding Redo function, again with the possibility of redoing a whole sequence of operations by clicking on the oldest.
Our recording needs are pretty simple: we are usually on location, often live, recording between eight and 12 tracks of acoustic music. So all our requirements on this front are met by software that runs on our relatively quiet and portable Shuttle PC, which interfaces nicely with our Lynx AES16 interface and is rock–solid in capture. In this respect, Pyramix is overall no better or worse than any other higher–end program. It does have the advantage of being able to record to the proprietary '.PMF' format, which somehow bucks the file size limitations that apply to standard Broadcast WAV recordings (though BWAV itself is evolving, and can in theory overcome that limitation) and so in principle could be safer for live high–resolution, large track–count recordings.However, it has the odd down-side of not actually showing a real waveform during the recording itself. It's comforting for the engineer to look at his screens and see variations of waveforms within and between tracks, so this is not good. I'm not sure how it has survived five generations of software development, but I am pleased to note that Merging have now realised how essential such waveforms are, and will be including them in their next six–point–something release.
In most DAWs the mixer is modelled on an analogue hardware counterpart, with faders for track gain at the bottom topped by channel EQ, plug–ins and other processors, and aux sends. As decent fader lengths and all of the above can start to make heavy demands on screen real estate, most DAWs also have the option of collapsing or hiding various elements that are not required or temporarily in the way. Pyramix takes this to the next level by entirely separating the mixer from its own 'Strip Tools': the mixer itself comprises channel faders, plug–in area and bus sends, whereas the Strip Tools button opens an entirely new window to work in. There are also separate Bus Tools, which differ from the Strip Tools in just one respect, offering a sophisticated look–ahead limiter in place of the Strip Tools compressor. Despite the names, the two sets of tools are not restricted to being used only on the corresponding types of mixer tracks.
The Strip Tools comprise a compressor, an expander (both of which can be switched to act in an 'upwards' mode) and a five–band, fully parametric EQ. The way Strip Tools works illustrates in a specific way the more general Pyramix approach to ergonomic efficiency. Most DAWs, of course, provide ways of making EQ and compression available to each channel strip, but many fewer do so in the direct way that Pyramix does: in Strip Tools, the process parameters are manipulated directly on the screen, with no further small windows to be opened and closed before and after the adjustments. The net effect, of course, is a great saving in time. The EQ goes even further: in normal operation, the EQ settings are the standard Gain, Frequency and Bandwidth parameters adjusted by means of rotary control. Above these controls are two sets of buttons that allow for the selection of one of the five bands available and selection of the EQ type for each band (each band can also be turned on or off with a 'master' switch adjacent to these buttons). Above these buttons is a small window showing a graphical representation of the EQ settings, which allows for direct manipulation of the settings by clicking and dragging the appropriate square in a way familiar from other software EQs, and adds a nice touch by displaying not only a graph of the individual band curves, but one also of the curve that is generated by their interaction.
This is a lot of information for a little screen, but double–clicking anywhere within it opens a much bigger version, imaginatively called the Big Graph Window. This also features two separate gain scales on the left and right of the screen: the left shows the scale for the individual EQ band, and the right shows the scale for the overall curve. As the cumulative gain may be many magnitudes higher than the individual gain, these scales automatically adjust their range to suit the magnitude of the curve to which they apply. To keep things speedy, there are a number of useful short cuts: Tab to switch between EQ bands, click and drag with the right mouse button to change bandwidth, Ctrl–drag to lock the gain and allow only frequency change, and Shift–drag to do the opposite. It all makes channel EQ adjustment very easy. But a final feature makes EQ adjustment across all channels easier too: once the Big Graph Window is open for one channel, you can address the EQ needs of all the other channels simply by clicking anywhere on the associated strip, whereupon the Big Graph Window will switch to that channel. Again, an incremental advantage, but one which, over a whole multi–channel mix, sums to a useful amount of saved time.
Of course, all of this would mean doodly–squat if the processors themselves weren't worth using, but I found them to be extremely useful tools. I ran entire mixes using only Strip Tools processing and the results were of a very high quality: the bar–graph showing gain reduction, which can be switched between a 10 or a 20 dB range, seemed to be accurate, and added a useful visual element to the information used for compression decisions. On some of the mixes I was compressing double bass, cello, acoustic guitar and vocal, and it worked well on all four types of signal. The EQ was exremely useful too; it didn't work as well for subtractive surgical tasks such as high–pass filtering the cello to take out some mud, where it affected the overall tone rather too much, but used additively — the more common operation — it was quite sweet and unobtrusive.
Because of the sheer volume of edits we are called upon to make in the course of an average day, I am probably hyper–critical of editing paradigms and the possible practices they either facilitate or inhibit. But even engineers whose work involves much less daily editing appreciate the value of a flexible editing procedure, and when 'filigree' editing becomes more easily possible, it becomes more widely used — not only in classical music but in vocal comping — and, not wishing to coin a phrase, 'make–do' may quickly become 'can–do'.
Like the other few true high–end editors — Sonic, SADiE, Sequoia — Pyramix offers two levels of fade creation and adjustment: in the main Project window, and in a dedicated Fade Editor window. Some engineers prefer to stay in the main window, and hence their main requirement is for flexibility at that level; others regard the main window as the place only for rough cutting, and are happy to leave the main window for a dedicated Fade Editor screen where they can concentrate on the details on a greater scale. The way I worked with Pyramix was to combine the two: during heavy editing sessions I had the Fade Editor permanently open on my second screen, and with the main project giving me the context of the edit I found I was able to work very quickly through even complex material.
I'll stick my neck out here and say that Pyramix' nearest competitor in this regard is the hardware–only SADiE 5; Pyramix is not so flexible in the main project window, where is not possible to draw curves directly on the waveform, but more on a par — as I work — in the separate, hugely informative editing screen. And it's worth stating again that this level of sophisticated and powerful editing is available even in the very cheapest Broadcast Pack.
I have been very impressed by Pyramix — much more, in fact, than I had expected to be. I do still very much believe in the 'horses for courses' philosophy, and I do still think that DAW–love is an aberration to be discouraged, if not made punishable by law, but it does seem that for some studio circumstances, Pyramix might now come closest to being the main steed and that you could actually become ratherfond of it. For our purposes, its mixing, editing, and mastering capabilities all seem to be at least on a par (though maybe in a different way) with the performance of the individual DAWs we have so far chosen to take care of those tasks.
However, for some other studio circumstances it might not immediately sweep the board. Consider this: for roughly the same price of the Pyramix Native 6 Music Pack you can buy Samplitude Pro, which includes, for example, MIDI editing, both DDP and POW–R dithering, and a decent reverb — although these features will then be bought at the cost of having only rudimentary editing facilities and nothing like the power and flexibility of Pyramix's project management. And then for roughly the same price of the Mastering Pack (which does include DDP and POW–R dithering) you can buy Sequoia, wchih also features MIDI, DDP, POW–R, reverb and so on, and has an independent crossfaade editor. The last, although not a patch on that in Pyramix, is nonetheless quite able to cope with most fine editing tasks.
I imagine it may come down to current needs and future plans, whether your focus is on music–making, mixing or editing/mastering, and, for example, on whether you eventually plan to include sound for video by upgrading to something like the Post Pack. I am now recommending the Native 6 Broadcast Pack to anyone who comes to me for training in classical editing, because its nearest rival for that function costs at least four times as much; and I can foresee much greater interest in Pyramix's higher–spec Packs now that the Native version, with its new muscle, is available at a competitive price point.
- Broadcast Pack £586.
- Music Pack £1173.
- Mastering Pack £2348.
- Post Pack £3523.
All new Native packs also include the additional cost of a USB security key, currently £47. Individual options can be added to any of the packs at any time in the future.
Prices include VAT.
- Broadcast Pack $909.
- Music Pack $1725.
- Mastering Pack $3357.
- Post Pack $4989.
All new Native packs also include a USB security key. Individual options can be added to any of the packs at any time in the future.
Before I started using Pyramix during the review work, the concept of active use of project libraries was unfamiliar to me. Most DAWs have their ways of managing project components, and I found myself quite happy to work within the limitations of whatever that was for whatever DAW I was using. I took their role to be strictly managerial, perhaps really no more than housekeeping. But Pyramix gives libraries a far more important role: yes, they are the place you store your clips and collections of clips, but they are also searchable databases, and the place where you can store pointers to any kind of media object, such as mixer snapshots, plug–in snapshots, fade parameters and so on. My guess is that this is trickle–down technology at its best, and was probably originally developed for video post–production where a multitude of sound effects needed to be organised and available both locally (within a project) and globally (across projects). Once the simplicity of its basic operation is explained, the many and varied uses to which this can be put will start to become apparent.
Here's a real-life example. When Pyramix arrived for review I had just finished recording and mixing, on another DAW, Emily Barker's new CD, Despite The Snow. The music for this was recorded 'live', in the sense that the instruments and vocals were performed at the same time in the same room, and it featured two main groupings: a quartet of guitar, violin, cello and accordion ('Red Clay Halo') and a sextet that added bass and drums. For some of the songs there were backing vocals, for some of the songs the accordion player played flute, and for some others she played percussion. Now, given that there were then four or five basic setups for 15 songs, it made sense in mixing to make an 'archetype' mix for one instance of the setup, which could then be applied and, if necessary, tweaked for other instances. And this is what I did: I took one song that had the sextet, rough mixed it, and saved it as a mixer template. In the DAW I was previously using, that required a right–click to open a menu, a click on a menu option, a click on a name field to give it a name, typing the name, and then a final click on an 'OK' button. To apply this archetype to the next instance of the song I had to do pretty much the same sequence of right and left clicks, except that I also had to browse to the right folder to find that archetype (for complicated reasons each song was in its own folder). Not onerous work by any means, of course, and certainly better than reconstructing the mix for each song anew.
Once I had got used to Pyramix and felt more at home mixing with it, I recreated this manoeuvre. Having made the rough mix, I held Alt+Shift, clicked on the mixer and dragged it into the Project library in the window below. I then changed its default name by clicking and typing 'sextet'. With a different sextet in the timeline to mix, I simply clicked on the mixer icon in the Library and dragged it onto the mixer. That's it. All parameters of all plug–ins and so on went into the new song without a hitch, ready for tweaking.
I used an extension of this feature during the preparation of a string quartet CD. This was a naturally balanced recording, so there was no mixing as such required, but the instrumental tones between the four movements of the piece were quite different — far more mellow in the slow movement and increasingly sharp in the busier parts. As the producer wanted to hear different takes of the same movement with the EQ sweetening already in place, and as there were at least three takes of each movement, this meant having effectively 12 mixers on the same timeline. To accommodate this, I put each of the four movement's mixers in the Library, and when the time came to apply them to the various takes, I simply dragged them back onto the mixer, marked each movement as a separate region and gave it its own mixer using the one–button 'mixer to region' function. Much easier to do than to write about.