Paul White talks to designers Greg Mackie, Peter Watts and Bob Tudor about the new Mackie HDR24/96 hard disk recorder, and the company's plans for the future.
One of the highlights of the New York AES show, at least as far as project studio owners were concerned, was Mackie's launch of the 24‑bit HDR24/96 hard disk recorder. This is a hardware 24‑track machine with virtual tracks, up to 999 levels of undo/redo, a tape‑machine‑style user interface and onboard waveform level editing via an optional mouse, monitor and keyboard. Word clock in and out connectors come as standard, as do SMPTE, MMC and Ethernet, which allows the recorder to be used on a network or linked to a Mackie D8b digital mixer.
The HDR24/96's large internal drive can be backed up to IDE hard drives fitted via a removable bay. The recorder will provide sync code and/or sync to just about any standard including SMPTE, MTC and video. There will be at least one optional remote/autolocator and the I/O interfacing is via the same plug‑in cards used in the D8b, so you can use analogue, ADAT lightpipe or AES‑EBU connections (Tascam DA88s can be connected to the ADAT interface via a converter). Mackie expect the recorder to be in the shops before the end of this year.
I was fortunate to be able to spend some time at Mackie Designs' HQ earlier this year with company founder Greg Mackie, Engineering Vice President Peter Watts (formerly at Trident), and software designer Bob Tudor (who was apparently instrumental in creating the user interface of the HDR24/96) to discuss how the company's digital product line was evolving.
Greg Mackie: "It's probably pretty obvious to most people that we'll be going up as well as downmarket with digital mixers, though we don't have a new model to announce yet. We're working on a systems approach for all our digital products — for example, our recorders will plug into our consoles via a low‑cost lightpipe, and they'll all be talking to each other via the same software. Of course, they're not designed exclusively to work as a family — you can use our mixers with any recording hardware, and our recorders will work with any mixers. But when a line of products is conceived by the same designers, you're able to do a better job at integrating the systems."
Bob Tudor: "I think the 'one source' concept is important for those people using our recorders together with our mixers. If you have problems with gear from two different manufacturers, you may end up getting passed around, but with our system, there's only us to call if you need help. There's also a better level of integration — for example, the scrub wheel on the mixer will scrub the audio on the recorder."
I take it that, as with the mixers, you'll be releasing recorders both higher up and lower down the marketplace than the HDR24/96?
GM: "Very much so. Hard disk recording technology is coming down in cost and it's quite clearly the direction in which the industry is going."
When I spoke to you a few years ago, you were contemplating putting a hard disk recorder and a mixer in the same package. Since than we've seen systems like Roland's VS multitrackers, so does this still seem like a viable way to go for you?
GM: "We're still looking at that, but perhaps the combination of a cheap computer, like an iMac, and an external box is a better way to go. For most basic applications, I believe a computer like the iMac could handle the processing and that's probably the simplest option. But once you want to go beyond that, I think a separate hardware recorder and mixer is more appropriate."
Targeting The HDR24/96
So, what did you identify as the main weaknesses with current hard‑disk‑based recording systems?
GM: "Firstly, there is cost. What's out there in the way of serious systems is expensive. At the low end you can buy eight‑track, 12‑track or 16 maybe, but I think 24‑track is more cost‑effective. The idea of linking modules of eight tracks makes sense for digital tape, but not for hard disk, so we're going straight for 24 tracks in one box. I also think 24 tracks is about as many as most people need to have outside a high‑end pro studio, especially when you consider that we include a virtual track facility for recording alternate takes or for compiling vocals from multiple takes. Of course, you can sync multiple HDR24/96s if you need more than 24 tracks. We have the technology to do 24 channels flawlessly, and by putting everything in one unit, you only have to provide one set of transport controls, one set of I/O cables, and there's only one time‑alignment issue to deal with."
BT: "I'm a Pro Tools user myself, but another problem with computer‑based workstations is that they're glued to the ground — it's not easy to take them somewhere else to record. What's more, if somebody else uses your computer, it may take you half an hour or more to get things back to the state where you can use it as a recorder. Then there's the complexity issue — with Pro Tools 24, you have something like seven manuals, and perhaps three of those are to do with hardware installation. With the HDR 24/96, the hardware installation is done already, so all you have to do is switch on, select a track and press record."
GM: "Essentially, the idea behind the HDR24/96 was that it should have the look and feel of a tape recorder but still have the additional editing facilities we've come to expect from a tapeless system. Technically, though, the recorder is a computer plus all the necessary hardware in one box, which is why you can plug a regular monitor, mouse and keyboard straight into it."
Peter Watts: "What we're doing is targeting the ADAT and DA88 market primarily, though we're also hoping to address the same market as the Otari RADAR. The technology is predominantly based around the software produced by Bob's team, but obviously there is some hardware. The machine is essentially a PC processor in a box running our own operating system — Windows is not involved — and the guys have come up with a system that enables an inexpensive Ultra DMA IDE drive to deliver 24 tracks with no problem, even if there are a lot of edits or the drive is fragmented [see the 'Drives & Backup' box for more on this]. As with the D8b mixer, there will be frequent software revisions that add functionality to the basic system."
BT: "I think the reason so many existing hardware hard disk recorders are unsatisfactory is that they're not using a high‑powered computer inside. Instead, they have an embedded processor that can only handle recording and playback, and will always be what it was when you bought it. By contrast, as Peter says, our system will evolve. It's based on a Celeron 450MHz processor, which makes it more like the Euphonix and Otari RADAR systems than, say, the new Tascam machine. There's no way people want to edit audio using just a remote controller, because you can't tightly integrate the audio with the moves. For serious editing, you need to be able to plug in a screen."
The Best Of Both Worlds?
The HDR24/96 interface seems tape‑like, and you can also do things like multiple punch‑ins and outs on the fly. Tape‑like interfaces are great for tracking, but have tended to be less versatile when it comes to editing. How flexible will the HDR24/96 be in this respect?
BT: "The editing side of our package looks much like a computer‑based system as far as the screen is concerned, but we've tried to keep both the feature set and the mode of operation as simple as possible. We've taken the Microsoft two‑button mouse approach, where the right button shows you what options are available while the left button lets you do things."
Greg Mackie: "It's probably pretty obvious to most people that we'll be going up as well as downmarket with digital mixers."
One of the disadvantages of some computer‑based systems is that you get monitoring latency when recording. Presumably, a dedicated piece of hardware like the HDR24/96 will behave exactly like a tape recorder in this respect?
BT: "That's correct; we use our own operating system rather than a version of Windows, which is not an ideal system for applications where precise timing is important. Microsoft/DOS is not the right way to go for high‑end audio or mixing applications. I don't really know what's going to happen on the PC platforms when Windows 2000 ships, because it has Internet Explorer built in, and they're always telling us not to use Explorer when audio applications are running! Similarly, the Mac is heading towards MacOS 10, so anyone writing software for that will have to deal with a completely different operating system. Because we have our own operating system designed specifically for audio use, we have an advantage."
The Integrated Approach
Of course, computer‑based systems allow you to handle both MIDI sequencing and audio recording/editing from within a sequencing package. Will the HDR24/96 be able to act as the audio hardware for these programs, or do you expect users to sync their sequencer to your recorder?
GM: "I think it's important to have a truly integrated system that works properly and is easy to use, which is why we plan to develop our own MIDI sequencer that will run on the HDR24/96 without you having to buy another computer, and that will offer full integration. If you do want to stick with your favourite sequencer, you have to sync your computer to the HDR24/96 just as you would to a tape recorder. However, you will be able to extract tempo information from a MIDI sequence to provide you with a bars and beats grid on which to edit your digital audio. Our intention is that the sequencer we write will be easy to use but very powerful. It should also be close enough to what's already out there that people will feel comfortable moving over to it."
The D8b has some very powerful effects and signal‑processing plug‑ins. Is there a plug‑in architecture for the HDR24/96?
BT: "Our philosophy is that recorders are for recording and that the effects and processors belong with the mixer. What the recorder needs to handle is editing functions like cutting and pasting, or crossfades. As far as we're concerned, mixers need faders, pots, mute switches and solo buttons."
GM: "The application of automated effects is very important for mixdown. What you can do with automated reverb and echoes, for example, is a lot of fun, and to do that, you need to have the effects inside the mixer or on a card as the D8b has. If you use an outside box, you have to go to MIDI control and then you don't have the same flexibility."
Do you foresee a point when it becomes so cheap to build digital mixers that there will no longer be a demand for analogue consoles?
GM: "I think there'll always be a market for analogue, where people want a one‑step process — they can reach for a knob and hear the result. I see digital as a replication of analogue and I don't think it has anything to offer over analogue in situations where you don't need automation. Analogue isn't going to go away."
Drives & Backup
When I was first shown the HDR24/96 during its development earlier this year, it was envisaged that a DVD‑RAM drive and SCSI would be built in to facilitate low‑cost backups, but since then the plans have changed. I asked Bob Tudor why these features had been dropped, given that DVD media are getting cheaper all the time.
"That was an idea from six months ago. We tried backing up to DVD, and it works fine, but takes around 4x real time; and to me, that's too slow. I've written the drivers for DVD‑RAM and I'll support it, but I don't look at it as the right way to go. Because we have a hard drive bay built in to the HDR24/96, you can back up projects at hard drive rates, by which I mean around twice real time — and that's per song, not per track.
"We are using Ultra DMA, which is a new technology being pushed by Apple and Compaq for use in low‑cost computers. The result is a range of low cost, very‑high‑capacity hard drives — 36Gb Ultra DMA drives are predicted to be under 200 dollars in the US by early 2000. SCSI is very expensive, so it isn't cost‑effective to archive to a SCSI hard drive in the same way as you would to tape. Ultra DMA, on the other hand, is considerably cheaper per track minute than two‑inch tape. SCSI works on device IDs so you can have several devices in a chain — that's its main advantage when you need multiple hard drives. It also used to have the advantage of speed, though today's Ultra DMA drives do as well. The drawback of Ultra DMA is that you can't have more than two items on the buss at any time, and in a typical computer, you'd have two IDE ports, allowing a maximum of four hard drives to be connected. In a hard disk recorder, there isn't room to fit more than four internal hard drives, so I don't foresee an application where that limitation of Ultra DMA would be a problem.
I'm not going to leave an album on one hard drive — I'll still back up anything important twice — but I'd rather trust my recordings to a hard drive than to any other digital medium.
"Ultra DMA is a technology that rides on top of IDE, and in the past, IDE was very slow. In today's world though, it's thinner, its quieter, it's just as fast and it's a quarter of the price of SCSI. The secret of our design is that we have devised a way to record 24 tracks at 24‑bit using up just half of the bandwidth of Ultra DMA. This gives us a useful margin to accommodate varispeed or reliable playback when the drive is badly fragmented. We also avoid the issue of having only certain drives that are compatible, because we can make a blanket statement and say that any Ultra DMA drive will work with the HDR24/96. The removable drive bays are around 12 dollars in the USA, so the total cost to the end user for 90 minutes of 24‑track, 24‑bit is about 185 dollars. It's the lowest‑cost professional medium available today.
"People have asked why we didn't fit Jaz drives for backup, but many users have found the Jaz media to be just as fragile as a regular hard drive. And I don't have to convince anyone that VHS tape is unreliable — we've all seen them get eaten in our machines. Even so, I'm not going to leave an album on one hard drive — I'll still back up anything important twice — but I'd rather trust my recordings to a hard drive than to any other digital medium."