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Digidesign Past & Present

Interview With The President: Peter Gotcher Of Digidesign By Paul White
Published March 1995

Digidesign hardware now forms the backbone of most Macintosh‑based hard disk recording systems, but where did the company come from, where is it going, and what changes can we expect to see after their recent merger with Avid? Paul White gets the answers directly from Peter Gotcher, President of Digidesign.

Being a Digidesign user myself, both in the form of Sound Designer II/Pro Tools and various 'audio with MIDI' sequencing packages, I'm pretty much up to speed with what the company is doing at the moment, but how did the company start out, back in the days when direct‑to‑disk recording was simply not an option for the semi‑pro?

"The company was started back in 1984 by myself and Evan Brooks, the software guru behind Sound Designer, DINR, and a number of other products. At the time, Evan was a computer systems designer and I was working at Dolby Labs. Our first products were the Digidrum sound replacement chips for the Emu Drumulator [one of the first sample‑based drum machines]. I was doing a lot of recording at the time and didn't really like the sounds I was getting from my drum machine. Evan figured out how the sounds were mapped on the ROMs, Emu helped a little, and we produced about five alternate sets of sounds. We played them to the folks down at Emu and they thought that our sounds were much better than their existing ones. So they got on the phone and called up Sam Ash, Manny's and a few more outlets and we got some orders. Evan and I looked at each other and said, 'We got a business!' We went on to make drum chips for all the popular drum machines and sold something like 60,000 drum chips at between 20 and 40 dollars a piece, which provided the fundingfor Digidesign.

"We did all those sounds with a home‑brewed digital recording/editing system — a Sony PCM F1 we'd hacked so we could get data out of it and into a computer that Evan had designed and built. The audio waveforms were displayed as screens of hex data and we'd spend hours looking at screens of raw data looking for zero crossing points for looping. When the Mac came along, we realised that it was a much better machine for displaying audio waveforms, and that's when we decided we were going to create Sound Designer.

Digidesign will continue to support NuBus machines and I foresee NuBus systems being very viable for at least three to five years, which is the kind of timescale purchasers tend to look at when buying any major new piece of audio equipment.

"At the time we thought we were designing it as an in‑house tool to help us work on our drum chips, but then the drum chip market fell off the face of the Earth because new drum machines were coming out with the sounds all on one big mask ROM, and people were also using samplers to handle their drum sounds. We realised the potential of Sound Designer for sample editing and we hooked it up to an Emulator II, later supporting a number of other keyboards.

"Around 1987 a couple of technology convergence things were happening — hard drives were getting larger, faster and cheaper, and it actually started to become practical to think about recording continuously to hard disk. Chips like the Motorola 56000, programmable DSPs, and affordable 16‑bit converters became available, and the Macintosh II came out with its expansion slots. We thought that we could pull all these technologies together to build a direct‑to‑disk recording system to which we could apply our Sound Designer editing tools."

Venture Into Hardware

Presumably this meant that you, as a software company, now had to consider the implications of designing and building hardware?

"That was our first foray into hardware; we went out and raised a little money from venture capitalists and went into hardware manufacture, something I swore I'd never do when I left Dolby! The result was Sound Tools, which was — and still is — a very successful product.

"1991 saw the first release of Pro Tools, and that was a system that had a bit of a problematic start — it was our first venture into multitrack recording and we made the key mistake of contracting out a major part of the software. It didn't run as well as it should have and a major rewrite of the software was required. This became version 2.0, which turned out to be a very strong product, and things took off from there. Pro Tools has sold over 8,000 systems worldwide and is the number one selling digital audio workstation, and now we're approaching the next generation — Pro Tools III."

Third Party Involvement

When did other software designers get interested in writing your hardware into their systems?

"We had a developer programme very early on, where we documented how to write software for our boards as far back as Sound Tools I. At that time a lot of the development work was academic, with Universities using our boards as DSP development platforms, and some pretty strange stuff came out of that. One of my favourites was an Australian project to build a digital audio scarecrow! They had this problem where ravens would fly in and decimate their crops, so they put a little shack out there with a motion detector and a Sound Tools system which played back the sounds of owls, which are the ravens' predators. An expensive scarecrow, but it worked!

"Pretty early on we decided we wanted to integrate digital audio with MIDI. We didn't want to reinvent the wheel by designing our own sequencer package — there were already several excellent sequencing packages out there — so we took our core routines for recording, playback and editing, and put those into something that, at the time, we called HD Play, but which later evolved into DAE (Digital Audio Engine). We licensed that first to Opcode, and later to the other major sequencer manufacturers, which allowed them to access major audio functions from within their programs."

It seems strange that nobody else has tried to elbow their way into this market, because you seem to enjoy a virtual monopoly in this area.

"There's an interesting dynamic that happens; nobody wants to write software for your system unless you've sold a lot of them, and then, once they do start to write a lot of software for your system, that puts you in a very strong position. It's very similar to what's happened in the personal computer industry — it's very difficult to launch a new computer right now, because it would be up against a PC or a Mac which already have 10,000 software applications. For example, the NeXT computer was a very exciting piece of hardware, but without the software nobody cared.

"I think we're coming up to another stage of critical mass; when we reach the stage that there are a lot of plug‑ins to our key TDM technology, I think the number of options and choices you'll have on our systems, as opposed to all the closed systems, will give us a huge advantage."

Enter TDM...

TDM is your new digital bussing/DSP farm system, which allows far greater integration of third party hardware and software within your desktop audio environment, but prior to TDM, there was the limitation that you could only run one plug‑in at a time. How does this work under TDM?

"In a single DSP system, you have to partition the DSP chip to do a few different things; Sound Designer uses part of the DSP to handle audio, but then it partitions some of the DSP processing power to be used by plug‑ins. That limits what any plug‑in can do.

"What TDM does is to allow us to have many DSPs in the system — TDM is essentially the digital patchbay that puts it all together. It provides 256 channels of 24‑bit audio, and it guarantees to provide audio on demand, on all those channels. If somebody adds a new plug‑in, the DAE is smart about putting that signal up on the TDM buss, telling a DSP to read that particular time slot on the buss, process the information, then return it back into the system where the central DSPs do the mixing. TDM is the hardware connectivity technology and DAE is the system management software that makes possible a multi‑processor architecture, enabling you to work pretty much as you would with conventional outboard gear."

So, with TDM, could you add more DSP power by buying more DSP cards if you wanted to do more things simultaneously?

"Yes, you buy another DSP farm, which is a card containing four fast Motorola 56000s, memory, and TDM. That's like having four outboard devices just waiting for the software to tell them what they are. These DSPs are dynamically allocated as and when you need more reverbs, more EQ, or whatever."

Could you expand further on the possibilities offered by TDM, because it goes much further than multitrack digital recording by bringing in real‑time signal processing and mixing?

"If you look at what Pro Tools has done so far, it's been able to replace the recording and storage device while at the same time allowing some very elaborate editing. The step forward with TDM is that you now have integrated digital mixing and processing, so you no longer have to take the output of your hard disk recording system back through an analogue mixer. If you look at TDM, it provides 256 channels, and by using one of our expansion chassis to add more cards, you can have multiple DSP farms to provide large‑scale recording and mixing.

"One issue with Pro Tools is that for large‑scale work, 16 tracks has not been enough. With Pro Tools III hardware (offering 16 tracks per card) we can now go up to 48 tracks, and with the DSP farms doing the processing and mixing, you can do a tremendous amount. It makes a fully integrated, digital system far more practical.

"We also support a lot of analogue I/O, which is something a lot of digital workstation manufacturers have ignored. There are lots of analogue devices that people love to use — tube limiters and so on — so, in our architecture, we supported lots of analogue sends and returns. Now, if you've got your lead vocal and you want to patch it via your LA2 compressor, you can, and because of the way we've handled the assignability of the inputs and outputs, it's much faster than dealing with a patchbay.

I look forward to the day when the reason somebody doesn't make a fantastic record is not because they don't have access to the equipment, but because they don't have talent!

"On our new 888 I/O interface box there are also four pairs of AES/EBU digital interfaces, which means you can plug in external digital processors such as a Lexicon 300. Of course, the external device must be something that you can lock to our system clock. All digital outboard gear will lock to our system, because it receives our clock signal via its input, but what you can't do is feed 'wild' [unsynchronised] digital sources — such as DAT machines or CD players — into our interfaces, because these would all be transmitting separate clocks. We don't have a lot of DSPs doing asynchronous sample rate conversion, and though we may consider producing a hardware add‑on now that asynchronous sample rate converter chips are getting cheaper, the number of applications that actually need that facility are pretty small when you come to think about it.

"What we've always tried to do is to keep the prices of our systems low by including what we see as the core capabilities, and this allows the user to add hardware options. For example, you can buy the SMPTE Slave Driver or the Video Slave Driver depending on whether you want to resolve to black burst or linear timecode."

Driving Hard

Now that Pro Tools III manages to get 16 audio tracks on one card, using a single hard drive per card, what demands does this place on the disk drives themselves?

"I am very happy with what's happening in the hard disk industry, because they're getting faster and cheaper at a very rapid rate. One of our directors was the founder of Quantum, the disk drive manufacturers, and he foresees the same rate of improvement continuing, which is something like a two times improvement every 14 to 18 months. There are 2.5 Gigabyte drives that sell for 1300 dollars in the US and that are easily capable of 16‑track recording.

"Historically, media management has been a big headache with hard disk systems, whereas tape is cheap and easy to remove. But if you look a year or two into the future with things like 9Gb hard drives already coming along, you can follow the trajectory curve and envisage maybe 20Gb drives that are inexpensive and provide hours and hours of recording time. I think tape will always be around for archiving, but hard disk space will become cheap enough for all kinds of multitrack recording. And of course, we're all looking forward to affordable, archivable disk technology to supersede tape."

Digidesign + Avid = ?

How will the alliance with Avid benefit Digidesign? Obviously you both have a wealth of technology to share, and some geographical advantages for marketing in that both companies are located on opposite coasts, but what differences can we expect to see as customers?

"One of the things that Digidesign will get out of the merger is that Avid have some very strong networking technology, which will be useful to us. This is an unusual merger, because mergers normally happen when one of the companies is not doing well and the other company comes in to fix it. That's not the case here, as both companies are extremely fast growing and profitable. We've decided to do this with as little disruption as possible to either company, so Digidesign will remain a subsidiary; I will report to the CEO of Avid, but nobody else has a new boss. From the customer's standpoint, Digidesign will continue to look much as it does today.

"The benefits to our customers will come from a number of things. There's the two technology pools, and Avid has invested heavily in a number of areas that are very relevant to what we do. We have a lot of learned audio technology accumulated over the past 10 years, which means we can each greatly enhance our products. We can obtain networking and video expertise from them, and we can really help Avid enhance the audio features set of their Media Composer system and some of their other mainstream products. Both companies should also be able to increase the rate at which we introduce new products.

"I also think that we're going to be able to improve our level of customer service through this relationship, especially in Europe. Digidesign was faced with a lot of infrastructure investment for the coming year, and people like Chas [Smith] at Digidesign UK need a lot more support. Currently, if your system breaks down, the chances are that the hardware will have to be sent back to the US, and any replacements come from Chas's demo stock. But all that's due to change with the setting up of a proper circuit board exchange system. Professional products have to have professional support. Avid, on the other hand, have already invested in a service infrastructure, so if your Avid system breaks down, you can call somebody's beeper and they'll be over in 45 minutes. For me, it's going to be very exciting to address some of these problems and to provide a more pro‑active approach to marketing and support in Europe."

The step forward with TDM is that you now have integrated digital mixing and processing, so you no longer have to take the output of your hard disk recording system back through an analogue mixer.

How do you explain the popularity of computer‑based systems like yours when pitched against dedicated hardware units, which provide a solution in a single box and with a purpose‑designed user interface?

"There's a misconception that dedicated systems with built‑in computers are going to be more powerful and more purpose‑designed, but the reality is that if you look inside those boxes, it's usually a '1986‑generation' computer that's running it. By using off‑the‑shelf PCs and Macs, we ride that curve of incredibly fast technological advancements that are being made in this very competitive market. If you look at something like a Pentium chip or a Power PC chip, those things are infinitely more powerful than the dedicated computer systems running hardware products that need to be designed to have a five‑year life cycle. And you can't play Myst [a highly addictive computer game] on a hardware audio workstation!"

Platform Games

With the increased popularity of the PC amongst musicians and the introduction of the Power Macintosh, how do Digidesign plan to support these various platforms?

"Apple scares me from time to time, although I really like what I see happening there over the past few months. Apple's focus has gone from trying to invent a lot of new products for a lot of new markets to concentrating on making just a few good CPUs — faster CPUs at low prices that compete with PCs — and realising that they need to put slots in them. A lot of Apple's business comes from the professional market, where people want something that falls in between a PC and a top‑end workstation for doing desktop publishing or high‑end graphics."

Are Apple's plans to move away from NuBus slots towards PCI slots going to cause Digidesign any problems?

"Apple have announced that they're going to move over to PCI slots (the system used in PCs), though there's a lot of speculation that we won't see those until quite late in 1995. The PCI is a much higher performance slot, which will allow us to move more data around over the buss, though that's not such a big issue for us because we have TDM. A nice bonus is that the PCI boards work in both Macs and PCs."

Where does that leave somebody who has bought a load of NuBus cards and who wants to upgrade to a new computer? Is there any way your NuBus expander chassis can be made to interface with a PCI system?

"A third party company has already announced that they'll be doing just that, though I'm sceptical about the technical feasibility of having a robust, reliable system implemented in that way. More power to them if they can do it, but I'm sceptical."

But if it can't be done, surely that's a major blow to anybody who has just invested a fortune in a large Pro Tools system?

"Customers need to step out of the mindset of always wanting the newest thing, just because it's new. If you look at a PCI‑based, future Pro Tools system, I think you'll find there are relatively few benefits over what can be achieved now with a NuBus‑based system. In fact, the PCI system has the limitation that you can only have three slots, then you have to use a bridge chip to support another three slots. Digidesign will continue to support NuBus machines and I foresee NuBus systems being very viable for at least three to five years, which is the kind of timescale purchasers tend to look at when buying any major new piece of audio equipment. I actually think that Apple will have a long overlap between NuBus and PCI."

The Future

Now that Digidesign are tied in with Avid Technology, are we going to see more video integration in your products?

"We're not ready to make any specific announcements about products, but I can say that when you combine the expertise of the two companies, it can only improve the video and networking capabilities of our products. Multimedia is a very fast growing area of our market, and we've already formed a multimedia products group in the US, lead by Mike Rockwell, and they'll team up with their counterparts at Avid. If you buy a CD‑ROM, a Nintendo game, a Sega game or a 3DO game, you'll find that already over 70% of the audio is done on our systems."

While Digidesign are obviously striving to build more powerful systems for professional applications, are you still keen to maintain an affordable product base for the non‑professional or semi‑professional musician?

"We're working in both directions. Avid are going to be a strong partner in post‑production, and this will help us develop higher‑end capabilities and integrate very well with their Media Composer, which is widely used for off‑line video production. The other side of the coin is that this will free up resources at Digidesign, allowing us to focus on the music industry. We have a couple of agendas there — we want to build the no‑compromise, professional digital studio‑in‑a‑box with lots of tracks, lots of plug‑ins, and hardware control surfaces such as the ProControl we showed at the AES Convention in San Francisco. That's our high‑end goal in music, but we also want to continue building products like Session 8 and to push those downmarket; after all, you can make a fantastic record on Session 8. I look forward to the day when the reason somebody doesn't make a fantastic record is not because they don't have access to the equipment, but because they don't have talent!"

How Plug‑Ins Work

For the benefit of those readers unfamiliar with your systems, can you explain how third party plug‑in software works?

"A typical hard disk recording system is based around a single piece of software that incorporates all the user interface and all of the routines that handle the real‑time processing and the data‑to‑disk transfer. Very early on, we broke that out into a separate audio operating system. You can think of it very much like a computer operating system which looks after things like the user interface, file handling and so on, and that's essentially what DAE (Digital Audio Engine) does for an audio application.

"But DAE is also designed to act as the hub for integrating other software; it has the hooks that allow another piece of software (the plug‑in) to get at the audio stream and route it to the DSP (Digital Signal Processor) that is handling the plug‑in. DAE has to organise how the DSPs in the system are deployed, so if the plug‑in needs its own DSP to run on, DAE has to arbitrate and manage that multi‑processor architecture. We thought we could write this in a year or so, but in fact it took us a lot longer — it's a very complex multi‑processing system and was very challenging to design."