Ensoniq Paris II

PCI Hard Disk Recording System

Published in SOS January 1998
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Reviews : Computer Recording System

When it comes to computer audio editing, the user interface is extremely important. Having physical controls to grab hold of has already given Ensoniq a lot of advance publicity for their PARIS hard disk recording system. MARTIN WALKER plugs in, turns on and, for once, slides up and down as well.

There seem to be as many different approaches to designing hard disk recording hardware as there are variations in the computers destined to run them. The Ensoniq PARIS hard disk recording system was formally unveiled at the recent AES show in New York, and has already generated a huge amount of interest, for reasons that will soon become clear. PARIS stands for Professional Audio Recording Integrated System, and provides playback of between 16 and 128 virtual channels at 16-bit resolution and 44.1 or 48kHz sample rate, using 20-bit A/D and D/A converters, and a 24-bit internal audio path. It consists of one or more PCI cards (along with software that allows them to work with both PC and Mac), a selection of external interfaces (depending on the bundle), and a control surface. This latter item is the source of a lot of the interest, since it provides a tactile interface (knobs and faders to you and me) and removes the biggest bugbear of most computer-based editors -- that although operating a virtual mixer with a mouse may be flexible and fast, being able to grab a handful of physical controls and give them a tweak always wins hands down (literally).

pros & cons

ENSONIQ PARIS
pros
Excellent sound quality.
Hardware real-time EQ and effects.
Runs on modest computer systems.
Lots of knobs!
Both PC and Mac software included in price.

cons

Card may not fit into many Baby AT PC motherboards.
No built-in support for AES/EBU hardware.
Cannot be accessed by other MIDI + Audio sequencers.

summary

A very flexible and expandable system, with excellent audio quality, built-in effects and EQ in hardware, and the huge advantage of real knobs.

The system's second important distinction is that, rather than grinding to a halt when called on to run a host of DSP effects using software alone, the PARIS card incorporates six of Ensoniq's ESP2 proprietary 24-bit digital signal processors, as used in their DP/Pro effects unit. If there's one thing I've learnt from all the hard disk recording systems I've looked at to date, it's that if you want to keep all of your audio in the digital domain you always need a quality digital reverb, and these always take a huge chunk of processor power. If you have an extremely powerful computer, you may be able to use a program like Cubase VST and get all the effects you want from software alone. However, realistically, if you want to replace a typical multi-effects analogue mixing system, hardware assistance is almost essential. Ensoniq have a head start in this area, since their expertise in DSP effects is already extremely well established (the Ensoniq DP/4, released way back in 1992, already provided four completely separate effects processors in a single box). Only Lexicon, with their forthcoming Studio system (which incorporates the equivalent of a PCM90), are likely to steal any of PARIS's thunder. Of course, Ensoniq are hoping for third-party plug-in support, but to launch any system with quality effects already built in is a major plus.

BUNDLES OF JOY

For once, PARIS allows you to start in a fairly modest way, without tying you down too much. There are currently three bundles on offer: they all include the core system (EDI-1000 PCI card, Control 16 control surface, and cross-platform software), but provide different input/output options. Bundle I has the Interface 2, which is a basic 2-channel external interface with two independent inputs and outputs (balanced quarter-inch TRS jack connectors), and an audio level-matching switch. Bundle II (the subject of this review) provides the interface 442 -- a 1U rackmounting case with four independent inputs and outputs, a stereo digital input and output, and external clock input and output, for sync'ing to other equipment. However, even if you started with the Interface 2, you could still plug this into an expansion connector on the 442.

Bundle III, for those with larger bank balances, introduces us to the MEC (Modular Expansion Chassis). This is a 5U rackmounting 'cage', which includes a unit based on the 442, but with an added front-panel headphone jack and level control. There's also additional space to plug in up to nine more expansion modules, if you need more inputs and outputs.

The control surface features 16 100mm faders, a large weighted shuttle wheel (for scrubbing, editing and data entry), a numeric keypad (for markers, screen views and data entry), and the piece de resistance for most people -- a complete dedicated set of transport buttons.

It seems odd to talk about the soundcard last of all, but I think this partly explains the level of interest in PARIS -- most musicians are far more concerned about the ins, outs, and user interface than they are about what's under the bonnet. However, without sufficient power the system would grind to a halt, so the spec of the EDI-1000 card is reassuring. Being PCI, it will plug into either a Pentium PC or PowerPC Mac computer, and allow up to 24 simultaneous streams of digital data using Buss Master DMA, which leaves the computer's main processor (CPU) to carry on its normal activities without being slowed down at all. The card provides 20 inputs and 20 outputs with 24-bit resolution, and any combination of 16 simultaneous tracks split between recording and playback. The final carrot is due to the special on-board Ensoniq VLSI chips mentioned earlier: straight from the box, PARIS has a library of real-time reverbs, compressors and EQs based on the well-respected DP/Pro. However, both the main computer processor and the on-board DSPs are used for audio processing, so the publicity claims that you get the best of both worlds.

OVERVIEW

PARIS is supplied as a complete hard disk audio recording system, running with its own proprietary audio software. The on-board DSP power is sufficient to provide a fully-fledged mixer with 16 channels, each with up to four parametric EQ sections -- a total of 64 bands of EQ is possible, chosen from low-pass, low-shelf, band-pass, high-pass and high-shelf. However, they do not steal any DSP power from the effects -- up to 16 mono or eight stereo real-time effects (or any combination) can be run simultaneously, and these can be configured either with aux send/returns (up to eight), or given an individual channel insert. Automation of all faders, pan controls and mutes is also provided. Support for multiple cards allows the user to further expand the system beyond the basic 16 channels or so achievable by a single card. The maximum configuration will depend on the number of PCI expansion slots available in your computer, as well as its processing power.

Being PCI, either a PC or Mac can be used, as I mentioned earlier: Ensoniq recommend minimum specs of a 120MHz PowerPC 604/604e, a 150MHz PowerPC 603/603e, or a 133MHz Pentium, all with 32Mb of RAM (although 48Mb is preferred for the Macs). The 601 processor of the Apple 7200 is not recommended. There are no MIDI recording facilities -- although you can use PARIS to provide sync for external MIDI sequencers such as Cubase VST, Cubase cannot directly access the on-board PARIS DSP power. Sound Designer II and WAV file formats are supported, although PARIS also uses its own optimised 16- and 24-bit file formats. On the PC side, PARIS is compatible with MMX processors, but does not yet use their extra facilities directly, although this is mooted for a future update. Also, the soundcard has no MME drivers for general-purpose use, although there should be no conflicts if you run an additional soundcard, for use with other applications such as WaveLab or Sound Forge for mastering. Let's get Bundle II plugged in, before I need to have a lie down from over-excitement.

INSTALLATION

Unusually, the PARIS system provides software support for both PC and Mac right from the outset, but my first job was to get the EDI-1000 plugged into a PCI expansion card slot in my PC. At 11.25 inches long it's not the longest card to date (that dubious honour is still held by DAL's V8), but it is long enough to cause problems in many PCs with the Baby AT motherboard format. These place the main processor (CPU) directly in line with the PCI slots, and although Ensoniq have sensibly provided a cutaway where the card is likely to foul the processor, it is still insufficient to clear the heatsink/cooling fan combination strapped onto most high-speed MMX chips. I managed to scrape through (quite literally) by removing the cooling fan and relying on the heatsink alone. For the short-term purposes of this review I was prepared to risk my processor temperature rising significantly, but I would not recommend it for a proper installation. ATX motherboard owners will have no such problems, but do check the situation inside your own machine before making a purchase [see 'Chips with Everything' feature starting on page 100 of this issue for more information].

Once the card is in place, there are two supplied cables to connect it to the outside world -- a 50-way SCSI II cable to the 442 interface, and an RJ45 network-type cable to the Control 16. These are both also available as standard items from many computer suppliers, which makes it easy to replace the cables, or to extend them, although Ensoniq do point out that you can damage the PARIS system if you plug its components by mistake into a SCSI II buss or Ethernet socket on your computer. The maximum cable lengths recommended are 10 feet for the interface, and 50 feet for the Control 16, which allows you to place it exactly where you need it.

Every PCI card I have ever installed seems to sail through the software installation, and this one was no exception -- Plug and Play set up the single interrupt required, and Windows 95 requested the driver disk at the appropriate point in the proceedings and installed the driver with no problems. The supplied software also installed without a hitch, and despite my heatsink manipulations, I was up and running within an hour of unpacking the hardware from the boxes.

SOCKET SURVEY

The 442 interface provided with Bundle II has four analogue inputs and four analogue outputs. These are all on electronically balanced TRS quarter-inch jack sockets, and there's a global ground-lift switch for all

 
SPEC CHECK
 
  Surprisingly, unless I went blind through twiddling so many knobs during the course of this review, Ensoniq don't seem to provide a technical specification in the otherwise well-written reference manual (143 A4 pages, paperback, in English). However, I managed to cobble the following together from various pages on the web site, and from my own measurements:
A/D conversion: 20-bit, 128x oversampling
D/A conversion: 20-bit, 128x oversampling
Sampling Rates: 44.1, 48kHz
Internal processing: 24-bit
Input s/n ratio: Not stated, but measured at -
90dB (unweighted)
 
inputs and another for all the outputs. There's a software setting to switch between -10dBV and +4dBu levels in the Patchbay window of the software. Also on the 442's back panel are clock input and output (both on lockable BNCs), S/PDIF in and out (on co-axial phonos), and the Interface 2 socket (as mentioned earlier). Although AES/EBU sockets are not provided, Ensoniq state in the manual that these signals will be compatible, as long as electrical conversion (using some sort of adaptor box) is carried out first. On the front panel there's a line of LED indicators, with each of the four inputs having a pair of level indicators (green for 'signal present' at -30dB, and red at 6dB below clipping point). Another pair of LEDs monitors the sample rate, and a combination of steady or blinking output from each one indicates 44.1kHz, 40kHz-46079Hz, 48kHz, 46080Hz-50kHz, or 32kHz (playback only -- recording at this rate is not supported), which covers most bases. The final four LEDs indicate sync source, and are labelled Internal, S/PDIF, External Word, and External 256Fs (Super Clock).

The first thing that strikes you about the system, once everything is plugged in and working, is just how much control is available. The Control 16 looks more like a small mixer than a remote control, with 16 100mm faders plus a main stereo mix fader, and about 60 buttons and rotary controls, plus a weighted shuttle/jog wheel. In fact, there are so many controls that rather than listing them it will be easier to explain their function whilst examining the software.

MIXING IT UP

The software is supplied on four floppy disks, two each for Mac OS version 7.5 (and above) and Windows 95 operating systems. With so much 'bloatware' being supplied nowadays, it's refreshing to find a complete system, complete with beautifully styled graphic interface, that occupies less than 4Mb on your hard drive.

After the loading screen, which initialises all the hardware, the first Window to appear is a small text Project window showing the current settings. From here, once you supply a Record path, so that the software knows where to store your audio files, you can create a new Project, open an existing one, or explore some of the many other graphic windows available. The easiest way to start is to open up the

 
UNDER DEVELOPMENT
 
  You should always decide to buy on the basis of what is available now, rather than relying on promised future releases. However, the PARIS system web site already has photographs of three expansion modules for the MEC which appear to be close to completion, so it's worth taking a quick look. First, A8oT-20 provides a further eight analogue outputs on quarter-inch TRS connectors, and the A8iT-20 gives you the same input expansion. The ADI is an 8-channel optical ADAT interface.

Also planned (but maybe just a twinkle in the designer's eye at the moment) is a pair of modules providing four analogue inputs and four analogue outputs, both with combination XLR/jack sockets, a SMPTE timecode card, 8-channel Tascam TDIF digital interface, and a 2-channel AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital I/O, which will please those using the more professional standard. Unlike many promises given by manufacturers, which rely on DSP power being used in ever-more clever ways by software upgrades, these projected Ensoniq developments are hardware add-ons. Of the two approaches, it is always far more likely that hardware will appear as promised, since, however clever the software designers, there's always a limit to how much can be achieved using software alone.

 
demo provided (on a separate CD-ROM, and occupying 250Mb of hard disk if you decide to copy it across to try it out). This is a three-minute song containing 16 tracks (including guitars, multitrack vocals, drums and percussion), and it shows off the features of PARIS very well. There's full fader automation, with moving graphic faders on the computer screen (but at this price it's not surprising that the physical faders are not motorised), and sound quality is excellent. Most of the time I suspect that you'll be using the Mixer and Editor windows, so let's look at these first.

The Mixer Window consists of three parts: the Channel section (showing all the inputs), the Aux Master section, and the Master section (the main stereo output). The mixer graphics are lovely, sporting a modern, gold-anodised, sculpted look, and the only area for possible improvement is the markings on the rotary knobs, which could be made a bit more obvious. There's a huge amount on offer, but each horizontal section of the mixer can be separately collapsed to a thinner version showing only the current values (see above), or expanded to show every rotary knob, button and fader available, for easier tweaking. This is an excellent idea, as even with the typical 1024 x 768 screen of a 17-inch monitor it's impossible to see every control of a 16-channel mixer at once and still be able to have it large enough to see clearly. Menu options allow you to selectively Hide or Show EQ, inserts and aux sends, as well as any combination of the 16 tracks, and you can adjust the width of the Channel section in increments of a channel width. If you can use a 1280 x 1024 screen it's possible to view all 16 channels simultaneously, but you'd still run out of space in the vertical direction if all EQ and aux sections were expanded.

The Control 16 allows you to edit every channel control from the hardware. Initially the physical fader position will probably be different from the current virtual one, and the hardware employs the 'up a bit, down a bit' approach, using an up and down arrow LED for each channel. You push the physical fader in the direction indicated, and when you get close the indicators start to flash, first quickly, and then more slowly as you approach the correct position. Finally both extinguish when the fader has arrived at exactly the right position. Once 'in sync', any physical fader can be moved at any time, and the on-screen one will follow it. Other channel adjustments, such as EQ and aux sends, are controlled by pressing a Select button (there's one above each physical fader). Once a channel is selected, a separate hardware panel section allows full adjustment of any equivalent on-screen control.

 
COMPATIBILITY
 
  PARIS has already been tested with various MIDI sequencers, and MTC is output during playback so that you can slave up a sequencer. A Windows 95 MIDI driver is provided that allows you to sync internally on a PC. Since most people will require MIDI support, here is the up-to-date compatibility list as reported by the Ensoniq web site:

MAC OS:
Emagic Logic 2.5 or higher
Emagic Logic Audio
2.5 or higher
Opcode Studio Vision
3.0 or higher
Steinberg Cubase VST

WINDOWS 95:
Cakewalk Pro 3.0
Cakewalk Pro Audio 6.0
Emagic Logic (not fully compatible at
this time)
Opcode Vision 2.5 or higher
Steinberg Cubase 2.5 or higher
Steinberg Cubase XT v3.0 or higher
Steinberg Cubase VST

 
The mixer Aux section provides full access to the effects, and very nice these are too. Since the chips are identical to those in the Ensoniq DP Pro, quality is not an issue -- the screenshot on the first page of this article shows the amount of control on offer, and the sounds are great; just what you'd expect using the 24-bit internal audio path.

GIVING IT A PASTING

The Editor window contains an Object Bin (showing all the data files associated with your Project), the Playing Field (graphic waveform overview, similar to the Cubase Arrange page), Command and Menu bars, Rulers and Markers. From the Editor window you can move chunks of audio about, set markers, define crossfades, and edit individual audio objects, with standard cut, copy and paste commands, as well as using DSP functions such as normalise, time-compression and expansion, and pitch-shift. Two modes of editing operation are provided:

* Constrained mode provides the familiar virtual multitrack tape machine approach, with each editor track corresponding to a single channel fader.

* The more advanced Free Form mode uses what Ensoniq term 'Flex Tracks', which allow multiple performances or overdubs on different recorded tracks to make up a composite 'Instrument', which is then assigned to a fader. This is where the 'up to 128 virtual tracks' part of the spec comes in, although there are still only up to 16 playback channels per soundcard.

Full integration is again provided for the Control 16, and many of the editing jobs that can be carried out using a mouse can also directly use dedicated hardware buttons. Navigating through a Project can be done using either keyboard shortcuts; the mouse with the Transport Bar (in yet another window); the equivalent controls on the Control 16; or the Jog/Shuttle wheel (there is currently no audio scrubbing, but this is expected in a future update). All the normal controls, such as Play, Stop, Record, Fast Forward and Rewind, are provided. Comprehensive Markers can also be set (up to 999) to start playback from specific points in a song, Punch In and Out, or loop round a certain section.

  PARIS AND THE MAC  
  Installing the software onto a Power PC 603e/160 took only a couple of minutes, and once the hardware was connected and switched on the screen came to life with exactly the same graphics as the PC version. As shipped, this system came with a very early software release, though I'm told that a revised version is already available on the Internet, and by the time you actually get around to reading this there may well be a further revision.

Ensoniq have always had a slightly annoying habit of trying to reinvent the wheel when there was nothing much wrong with the wheel in the first place. Their synth interfaces were 'improved and simplified' to the point where I couldn't make any sense of them whatsoever without the manual, and they seem to have done the same thing with parts of this software. Specifically, the usual window scrollbars and fixed menu bars have been replaced by Ensoniq's own scroll arrows and expand buttons that let you move along the mixer channels, or expand various sections of the mixer. In theory this is OK if it works, but on my 15-inch monitor I couldn't access the first few mixer channels -- they were always off the left-hand end of the screen, but as there were no scrollbars, I couldn't get to them. It's almost as though the program was set up for a larger monitor, but as the Preferences menu was permanently greyed out on this version, there was no way I could get in to see if I could change anything. You can resize mixer windows, but only to make them narrower from the right-hand side. Try as I might, I never got access to those first few channels. What's more, it's necessary to use key commands to get to a new window, as the familiar window-close button has also been removed in a bid to simplify our lives! Assuming the new software revision sorts out the monitor size problem, the interface is smart, clear and manageable -- but dumping the standard Mac window-handling protocol still irritates the hell out of me!

Other software problems soon became evident, not so much in the form of crashes, but more akin to what happens when you top up a petrol car with diesel. On several occasions, contact with the interface was lost and it took several cold boots (thermally depleted stout footwear?) to get things back to normal.

Using the system is relatively straightforward, especially for anyone who's had previous experience with Pro Tools or a similar package, though the fader automation is fairly basic and isn't adequately covered in the manual. Indeed, out of a 140-page manual, I could only find about half a page relating to fader automation, and from what I can extract from it, there's only one mode -- to edit fader data, you simply replace it; there's no update or trim mode that I could find. Some operations rely on the faders being nulled to their previously stored value using the two green arrow LEDs adjacent to the fader, but finding the null point where both LEDs are off can be fiddly, and at lower fader settings it can be virtually impossible. This could be sorted out in software, but as it stands it's rather too sensitive.

I like being able to use the individual channel Select buttons to drop individual channels in and out of automation edit mode, but the preamble you have to go through to get into automation edit mode is a little long-winded, and necessitates the relevant tracks being armed via mouse in the display window. A single hardware switch to put the system into automation edit mode, followed by the use of individual select buttons to drop in and out of fader record mode, would have been more straightforward.

Despite these obvious shortcomings, I can't argue with the sound quality or the flexibility of the system, which I think is excellent. I have little doubt that the more serious software foibles will be fixed in pretty short order, and though you might think the system is a little expensive compared to a basic soundcard, you get a lovely hardware interface and a sensibly designed, very powerful DSP and effects section that doesn't burden your computer too heavily. At the very least, this should enable you to hang onto the computer you have for a while rather than upgrading every six months, and because the effects don't use the same DSP as the EQ, you shouldn't end up in the frustrating situation where you have to give up half a dozen channels of EQ to use another chorus module.

The current software doesn't support audio scrubbing or MTC output, though the revision now on the web site is said to implement MTC, as well as improving a few other sync aspects. Even with this update, though, it seems that Paris will only run alongside a MIDI sequencer -- it won't integrate with it in the same way that something like Soundscape or Pro Tools will. How much of a limitation this is depends very much on how you work, but if you're used to working in an integrated MIDI + Audio environment, you may find it frustrating. That restriction aside, the power, expandability and potential for future growth of this system definitely make it one to watch. Paul White

 

SUMMARY

The Ensoniq PARIS surprised me. When you first see the hardware, and in particular the Control 16, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that it is a professional high-end system for those with lots of money. However, at £2499, Bundle II provides a very competitive package that could still form the basis of a much larger system in the future. Although there are only four analogue ins and outs, the built-in effects ensure that many people will still be happy. Unless you need to record drums or live ensembles, four simultaneous inputs should be sufficient, and if you configure the four outputs as a stereo master and two aux sends, there's still a lot you can do -- again, those built-in effects count for a lot. The bundled software looks gorgeous, and although the multiple-window approach can be a bit convoluted at times it soon becomes second nature when you can jump between the windows with computer keyboard shortcuts or just by relying on the Control 16.

Because PARIS offers so much hardware EQ and effects power right from the basic core system, you don't need a state-of-the-art computer, as you do for a software-only system. However, you still have the option of adding other interfaces in the future, for additional analogue inputs and outputs, ADATs and so on, so you overcome the problem of tying yourself down to a rigid spec right from the start. What most people need is the promise of enough power to exceed their current requirements, with enough flexibility to expand to whatever they might need in the future.

As far as the competition goes, there's not a lot that comes close. DAL's V8 system costs £3200 for the basic package without software or effects, but does provide eight ins and outs, and the forthcoming Lexicon Studio system has built-in effects, and seamlessly integrates with Cubase VST. However, neither of these systems has the Control 16, which will win many people over, and providing stable software support for both PC and Mac from day one is unusual, to say the least. I think that Ensoniq have a winner on their hands with PARIS. Whichever package you opt for, I think you'll go a bundle on it. Formidable!

 

 information
Bundle I £2199;
Bundle II £2499;
Bundle III £2849.
Prices include VAT.
Key Audio Systems, Unit D, 37 Robjohns Road, Chelmsford, Essex CM1 3AG.
01245 344001.
01245 344002.
keyaudio@compuserve.com
www.paris.ensoniq.com

 

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