Paul Austin spotlights the latest in 16‑bit Amiga recording as WaveTools and the latest incarnation of Clarity take the stage.
Unfortunately, due to further delays, it is still impossible to fully explore the Toccata 16‑bit sound card alongside WaveTools that I promised in last month's column. Alas, it still appears almost impossible for the manufacturers to translate the manual from German to English at anything like a respectable speed. As a result, Toccata remains on the sidelines and Clarity steps into the spotlight. But first we'll concentrate on WaveTools, the very latest direct‑to‑disk Amiga system, which in time could become a musical monster.
Ever since the arrival of CD, 16‑bit recording has been the standard to which we've all aspired. Unfortunately, for the vast majority such high ambitions have remained well beyond the reach of the average bank balance. Thankfully the financial tide is turning, courtesy of WaveTools. Like most 16‑bit systems the hardware requires a Zorro slot, which limits it to desktop machines such as the A2000, 3000 and 4000 running 68030 processors or above.
Assuming you have the necessary hardware, installation is a simple matter of slotting in the card. Adding the necessary I/O phono connections is slightly more unusual in that they're attached to a blanking plate, which connects to the card via a short cable. When the card, blanking plate, and audio leads are in place it's time to add the software, by simply dragging the icons onto your hard disk along with a single library file (which is added automatically through an install icon).
Although a hard disk isn't listed as essential, it's arguably the most important element of all. Like the SunRize 16/12‑bit samplers, WaveTools is a direct‑to‑disk system, but unlike SunRize it appears far more comfortable with slower drives, though it must be stressed that WaveTools — as it stands — is a far simpler system. In short, the difference between the two is that while the SunRize boards are a combination of multitrack recording, mixing, and mastering, WaveTools is essentially a mastering system with limited mixing abilities.
Like the Clarity 16‑bit sampler, WaveTools opens on a Workbench screen with a small control panel handling an array of samples. Not surprisingly, you can open as many windows as you want, cutting, pasting, copying and mixing between them as required. Just like its innumerable 8‑bit counterparts, you're given the ability to mark and play audio regions via the usual click‑and‑drag mouse manoeuvres, and you're also free to initiate playback from any point. But before you can edit, it's a good idea to have a sample on hand.
Clicking on record initiates the process, but before you can import anything you have to define the filename or opt for the monitor screen, which allows you to adjust the various input/output signals thereby avoiding clipping problems during actual recording.
If all's well you can return to the main window, re‑select record, and then name your file, after which you're taken to a separate record screen to define the sample rate, right up to the maximum 48kHz of DAT if you wish. Here again you can monitor the input strength and make any final adjustments via a small gain control.
Once you're happy, the last job is to define the length of the sample. An estimate of the required storage space is provided so you shouldn't suffer any unexpected storage problems, but considering one minute of CD quality (44.1kHz) stereo eats up over 11Mb of hard disk space that's perhaps a bit optimistic. As for sound quality, there are no complaints whatsoever. In fact, it ranks alongside any direct‑to‑disk system on the market. Alas, good sound quality alone doesn't make a great sampler.
Although mentioned briefly, mixing is a real let‑down. As you'd expect, the process allows two samples to be combined into a new super sample. Unfortunately, mixing within WaveTools is at best a hit‑and‑miss affair. The system can only play one stereo sample at a time, so there's no means of monitoring both samples in real time. As a result, you're forced to adjust the levels of each via small graphic oscilloscopes which move in response to accompanying sliders. The user is consequently forced into a bit of graphical guesswork, which more often than not is woefully inadequate. Worse still, it is impossible to monitor the volume changes prior to mixing, even on an individual basis. Fortunately an Undo option is provided, but this requires yet another file on disk, eating up yet more valuable disk space.
Given the aforementioned limitations it might appear that there's little to recommend WaveTools. However, an imminent update could turn the tide and allow the board's excellent sound quality to team up with much improved functionality. The finishing touches are currently being applied to an add‑on card which will provide a DSP, SMPTE timecode and, most important of all, real‑time 8‑track recording and mixing. This new add‑on, entitled the RTX module, will ship as a £299.95 upgrade and will, hopefully, address the shortfalls of the existing WaveTools system.
The aforementioned RTX module is, in fact, the cause of the rather curious blanking plate and cabling mentioned a little earlier; when combined with the RTX module, WaveTools becomes a full‑length Zorro with a built‑in 50‑pin connector providing a hardwire connection between the two.
As it stands it's fairly difficult to recommend WaveTools to any would‑be investor, with the possible exception of those lucky few who can afford a dedicated mastering system. However, if and when the new RTX module arrives it may well be a totally different story. If the promised module and WaveTools combo ships at its present suggested price of £499, it may well take the Amiga music world by storm. But until it arrives I suggest you keep saving for the combo and look out for a follow‑up review in a forthcoming issue.
WaveTools £349.95 inc VAT.
Over the past year or so the Clarity software has evolved quite considerably with numerous revisions — although the hardware itself has remained the same. Therefore, it's high time for a second look at this impressive and cheap introduction to 16‑bit sampling.
Although a true 16‑bit sampler Clarity isn't a direct‑to‑disk system. This facility was promised as a potential upgrade when the product first appeared but alas, like many possible hardware add‑ons, this failed to appear. Still, even without it, Clarity remains a useful recording tool capable of limited MIDI applications in addition to a dump and fetch facility for various sampling keyboards. In fact, the lack of the promised improvements to the hardware is Clarity's only real drawback. After all, how many 16‑bit samplers retail for just £99?
However, this doesn't excuse the hyperbole and subsequent disappointment that surrounded Clarity's initial release. During this period the product's creators made a lot of noise concerning various add‑ons and improvements — none of which have materialised. Everything from DSP support to software‑based drum sequencing, SMPTE timecode sync and direct‑to‑disk recording were all "just around the corner".
However it must be said that the software has seen a lot of attention, with the latest incarnation — version 1.5 — boasting an all‑new Workbench 2.0 'look'. But perhaps best of all, the program now opens on its own screen — thereby avoiding the horrible clutter synonymous with its predecessors.
Another major change lurks within the Fast Amiga box. The old style box with delay values has been replaced with a simpler tick system, which provides much more flexibility and control over the whole Amiga range. All of the program's horizontal sliders, such as those in the Realtime Effects window, now have a numeric value enabling much more accurate recreation of previous settings. The sample info requester is the most fundamentally changed; certain features have been repositioned to give a more logical grouping of icons. All of the Loop features have been put in their own box, and the Seek Zero feature has gone completely — in favour of various new loop editing features.
Generally the program looks much slicker, the only problem being that the screen displays shown in the owner's manual are now somewhat out of date. An update manual is promised soon.
So what else is new? Well, Normalise will no longer produce clicks and is now a very effective way of maximising the volume of a sample. Recording is now exact, previously it used to leave some space at the end of the sample. One Amiga channel used to crackle during Amiga playback, real‑time effects and scope use — this has been fixed. All scopes should now work on most Amigas, even fast ones. Needles are now always in evidence on the VU meters.
Kill Samples has been added to the Project menu. It clears out all of the samples currently in memory — subject to user confirmation. Another new addition is the Tidy windows facility, which resizes and stacks all open sample windows in the top left corner of the screen, whilst Panel To Front brings the control panel to the front of your screen when obscured by others.
Assorted keyboard shortcuts have also been added: amiga‑I brings up a sample's 'Info' dialogue; block looping can be activated with amiga‑T; whilst Clarity/Amiga output can be toggled via amiga‑1 and amiga‑2 respectively.
Due to certain compatibility problems with the Yamaha SY99 keyboard, a couple of new options have been added to Clarity's sample dump/fetch facility: Acknowledge Pckts and Send Extra Pckts
Ordinarily when receiving sample data from a keyboard under the MIDI standard protocol, the individual data packets are acknowledged by the receiving machine. This allows for packets to be re‑transmitted in case of error. However, Yamaha have decided to ignore this and just pump out sample data in a continuous stream. This means that acknowledging the header and packets is not only redundant but also possibly damaging in terms of the software's ability to pick up all of the incoming data. As a result, SY99 users can now set the Acknowledge Pckts option to 'Off', whereas most users should leave it 'On'.
Because the SY99 has no facility for recovering packets that are received with a checksum error, it can appear to drop packets from time to time when receiving long 16‑bit samples. This means that although the Amiga has finished transmitting the sample, the SY99's display will still show it waiting for one or two packets, and pressing Exit will leave a click at the end of the sample. If this happens, you can now set the Send Extra Pckts option to 'On' and Clarity will transmit one initial blank packet before the sample data and then five extra blank packets at the end.
Completing the inventory of new Clarity features, the Save File Formats function has been extended to include 3‑ and 5‑voice 8SVX files. Previously, only the 1‑voice format was supported.
As you can surmise, the software has come a long from its initial release and now ranks alongside the Amiga's best recording and editing systems. In short, Clarity is perhaps the perfect budget buy for any Amiga owner with a sampling keyboard who wants to expand their horizons at minimum expense.
£99 inc VAT.