Quad is a 4‑track 'Portastudio'‑style digital recording system for the PC. Could it replace your cassette‑based multitrack? Panicos Georghiades and GABRIEL JACOBS find out...
The success of Windows 3.1 and the subsequent flooding of the market with inexpensive sound cards (two years ago) made stereo digital recording and editing on the PC a possibility. However, the high price of hardware (especially RAM and hard disks) has, until recently, prevented this method of working from becoming the standard for everyone to adopt.
What's more, quite apart from the price, slow computer processing has traditionally made computer‑based recording less attractive than recording with conventional equipment. Last but not least, what most musicians are really interested in is multitrack, rather than stereo, digital editing.
Over the last year or so the cost of hard disks has fallen dramatically, so much so that their price tags are now about half what they were last year: a 1Gb drive (100 minutes of stereo CD‑quality sound) now costs £450 (and many people are forecasting that there will be a similar drop next year). 486 processors are now the norm, and Pentiums are no longer financially out of reach. All these factors have made it possible to manipulate the larger amounts of sound data that are required for longer pieces of music and, more importantly, for multitrack recording. And, of course, things are still moving ahead. For example, the imminent arrival of 32‑bit Windows95 is going to improve speeds even more.
The one remaining fly in the ointment is the quality and power of sound cards. Even some modern ones do not have the specifications for good quality audio, nor the processing power to handle multiple tracks, nor the ability to record and play back simultaneously. The sound card that comes with Quad does.
Basically, Quad is a software‑hardware combination offering 4‑track recording and mixing. You can buy the software and hardware separately, but buying them as a package saves you over £100. The package comes from US company Turtle Beach, better known for its professional hard‑disk recording system, 56K, and its Multisound sound card, which was the first really high‑quality sound card for the PC, incorporating a professional music synthesizer chip (the Proteus 1).
The software works just like a normal multitracker with all the normal frills — faders, pan controls, mute, solo and grouping and punch in/out capabilities. But don't let the word 'multitracker' mislead you. Here you don't have the common sound‑quality limitations that characterise cassette multitrackers, since the whole process is digital. And you get extra facilities thrown in — so, for instance, unlike conventional multitrackers, you can record multiple takes on each track and select the best one. This means you can bounce four tracks onto one, in one go, whereas with a cassette‑based device you need a spare track, so you can only bounce three.
There are four independent channels/tracks in Quad — hence the name. Each channel has an independent level meter, pan and volume controls, and solo, mute and edit buttons. All controls can be manipulated with the mouse or externally via MIDI messages (controllers 1, 7, 8 and 10).
Each track can have Play, Record, Punch and Off modes. Active channels are indicated by a green (play) or red (record) light. You can also give names to channels for easy identification, and a grouping facility allows you to control a number of channels belonging to the same group with just a single set of controls. There are three colour co‑ordinated group buttons: one for level, one for panning, and one for muting.
Quad really does computerise the multitracker analogy.
In Record mode you can use one of three sampling rates (11.025, 22.05 and 44.1 KHz) and either 8‑ or 16‑bit resolution. When you record, each mono track or two tracks (making a stereo channel) are saved as a Windows Wave file on disk, so you only have as many active files as tracks in your project. Even when you punch in on a track, this doesn't create a separate file: the data for the new take is added to (or inserted in) the existing Wave file representing a particular track. Using two timers, accurate to a thousandth of a second, you can punch in/out and re‑record a section of a track that you want replaced. Although you can replace sections using punch‑in, you can't edit waveforms, because Quad itself doesn't include any editing facilities. It does, however, include an option in which you can specify the name of your Wave editor program, if you have one. This is triggered by the edit button on Quad's screen. You also get Wave SE, a special version of the Wave for Windows wave editor program (which does include most of the editing features of the full package, except for the effects).
You can have up to 14 markers in any project file. These markers not only enable you to access a section of a file quickly via a Locate button, but can also be used to create a cycle (loop) effect within a file during playback.
Quad offers three modes: Record, Playback and Mix. The first two are self‑explanatory. In the third mode, you can mix levels using the mouse (vertical faders, 0‑96dB) and pan using horizontal faders. All your mouse movements are recorded, and are reproduced by the program during playback. In this mode you can also bounce tracks down, or mix the whole thing to a Wave file on disk.
There are six transport controls: Rewind, Play, Forward, Stop, Record and Punch — unlike a mechanical recorder, there's no need for a pause button here.
Quad transmits SMPTE Time Code that allows any MIDI device to synchronise with it. This can be done with external equipment but, more interestingly, it can also be done internally and without any cables, with a sequencer running on the same PC under Windows. This is achieved via driver software. When you install Quad, three drivers are installed in the Drivers section of the Windows Control Panel: Quad Application Out (which enables other applications to transmit MIDI data to Quad as if it were an external MIDI device), Quad Application In (which enables Quad to receive MIDI data), and Quad MTC Sync (the device with which Quad generates MIDI time code). Again, timing is accurate to the millisecond. To synchronise a MIDI performance to Quad, you run your sequencer at the same time as Quad, and set it to accept MTC time code via the Quad MTC Sync driver. When you start playback on Quad (from any point in the recording), your sequencer follows it in sync.
In addition to the data for each track being stored in a separate Wave file, you can save mix data in what is called a 'Turtle Recall' file. This file not only stores recordings of the movements of the faders, but also settings about groupings, markers and just about everything else. In fact, you can store different Recall files for the same four tracks, with different mixes for different purposes.
The hardware part of the package is the Tahiti sound card. This is one of Turtle Beach's new range of cards which includes the Hurricane Architecture Chip, with the ability to handle 20 MIPS (Millions of Instructions Per Second). Those who are familiar with computers will know that only about 10 years ago this was the power of a standard mini computer running up to 25 terminals and costing £100,000.
It's this power that enables the Tahiti card to mix playback of up to four Wave files into two, and at the same time manipulate levels and panning information in real time, as well as record and play back simultaneously.
The card includes a stereo in (record), a stereo out (playback), an auxiliary in (mixes another analogue source), and an MPU‑compatible MIDI In/Out/Thru port. Other specifications, for those who like numbers, include a frequency response of 0‑20 KHz, a signal/noise ratio of 91dB, a dynamic range of 89dB, total harmonic distortion of less than .005%, and IM distortion of .01%. For those who don't like numbers, the sound is very clear!
Tahiti (like all other sound cards on the PC) offers only a stereo out. When you hear four tracks being played, the data is mixed in real time and output to the stereo out. If you wish to have four physical outputs (to use external real‑time effects, do quadraphonic work or generate 3D sound), you can achieve this by installing a second sound card in your PC. Both the Tahiti Windows driver software and Quad enable you to install and use two sound cards in the same machine, and thus have the potential for four outputs and four inputs.
Quad really does computerise the multitracker analogy. There's little new to learn, and at the same time it offers some of the extra advantages of dealing with sound instantly on a hard disk rather than on tape. The only thing that's missing is a real‑time EQ facility.
The sound quality of the Tahiti card is very good — certainly better than any analogue tape machine — and the system could conceivably be used for professional work.
There are two other multitrack software systems on the market (SAW and Samplitude). They offer an alternative approach to Quad, and although they include some interesting features, like the ability to move audio sections in time visually with the mouse, only Quad offers real‑time mixing and panning, via recording and replaying fader movements, as you would normally expect from a digital mixer.
Speaking from our own experience, we think Quad is currently the most usable and affordable digital 4‑track system for the PC. So if you're thinking of moving from analogue to digital technology, this is definitely something to consider.
- The only software of its type and in this price range that offers real‑time control of volume and panning.
- Easy to use and understand if you're used to a tape recorder.
- You can have four separate outs with two Tahiti cards.
- No timeline, so it's difficult to visually move sections around.
- Editor a bit slow.
- Only syncs as a master, not as a slave.
A 4‑track hard disk recording system which works very much like an analogue multitracker and represents very good value for money.