Vic Lennard considers the place of Atari's Falcon030 in the world of digital audio.
Let me start by saying that my entrance as a writer for Sound On Sound is long overdue and that it is most pleasing to link up with Paul White and his editorial team again after a gap of some two years.
Shortly after Atari announced the Falcon030, I became Technical Editor of Atari ST Review magazine. Consequently, it was my job to investigate the techie side and report on it. It became clear that at the kind of price point indicated by Atari, the Falcon030 was being targeted at the semi‑professional working primarily with digital audio and video. Much was written about the inclusion of a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) and although recording direct‑to‑disk is possible without a DSP, as one or two ST programs demonstrate, the latter is necessary for manipulation of the digitised sound.
Digital audio software was available from day one: D2D's 4T/FX offered a 4‑track 'portastudio' approach but was clearly not up to the job; how any manufacturer could expect a user to record with one program, convert the data with a second and then load into a third for editing is beyond me. 4T/FX had clearly been marketed before it was ready, apparently due to D2D promising to immediately release the product as soon as the Falcon030 appeared.
On the budget side, a couple of programs were launched. WinRec was, and still is, an excellent shareware 2‑track recorder while the commercial MUSiCOM, from Compo, offered real‑time digital effects such as echo and flange. But each of these simply demonstrated the power of the DSP without giving you access to it in terms of editing. A bit like eating a Chinese takeaway; given an hour or two, the hunger returns.
Some 18 months on, the picture is a little more rosy with the release of two professional products in the shape of DigiTape and Steinberg's Cubase Audio, each of which are interesting products in their own right.
DigiTape is a powerful, modular program capable of recording up to eight tracks of digital audio to a single hard drive and, in keeping with most modern German programs, is adorned with a superb user interface that bears more than a passing resemblance to a mixing desk. Unfortunately, at £499 it lacks some key facilities, such as punch in/out and variable tempo, and is extremely fussy as to which version of AHDI (Atari's hard disk driver) is used.
Cubase Audio is probably the most long‑awaited of all Falcon products; eight tracks of digital audio completely integrated within the MIDI sequencer that has become very popular on each of the three platforms it supports — ST, PC and Apple Mac. Yet even here there have been some teething problems and to get the best from the program your Falcon030 needs to sport 14 megabytes of memory and a large, fast SCSI hard disk. Hardly the scenario of which tight budgets are made!
Currently if you want to use your Falcon030 seriously for digital audio, various hardware modifications have to be made.
A bass boost circuit was originally incorporated within the Falcon's audio circuitry. In the same way that you wouldn't use a tape recorder with a loudness control permanently on, such a bass boost has to be bypassed or removed. Fortunately, only early develop‑ment revisions of the Falcon030 have such a bass boost, so this will only concern you if you buy your machine second‑hand from a developer.
The second problem lies in the Falcon030's input and output circuitry. Stereo sockets of the 3.5mm variety tend to infer that Atari may not have originally intended the Falcon030 for the professional market. Such sockets can be lived with, but the microphone levels cannot. Lack of support for line‑level inputs and outputs leads to distortion and extra noise — try connecting a synth to the mic inputs on your mixing desk and you'll see the problem. While this can be circumvented by incorporating resistors in the external leads, a proper fix requires such resistors to be situated within the computer.
Any computer relies totally on the stability of its timing clock and this is absolutely critical where digital audio is concerned. Some weeks ago, I received a copy of a fax from Atari Benelux stating that some reported crashes and crackling noises within Cubase Audio were down to timing problems. It enclosed a 'small hardware modification' which requires the soldering of a 14‑pin chip on top of an existing one, the cutting of a circuit board track, and the removal of a surface‑mounted resistor — not the kind of operation that even an experienced hobbyist would wish to undertake.
All three of these retrofits can be carried out by any official Atari dealer — and the Atari Workshop (081 693 3355) actively carry out such work — but they are likely to be chargeable once your machine is out of warranty. Couldn't the first two problems have been controlled from CPX modules, ie. the little programs that let you set up various parameters? And should the third problem be classed as a design flaw and so be a free modification? I'll leave it to you to decide for yourselves.
One reason why Cubase Audio works best with the full 14 megabytes of Falcon030 memory is down to an innate problem with SCSI hard disks. Every so often, these go through an auto‑calibration procedure which can lead to glitches at best and program crashing at worst. To get around this, Cubase Audio buffers data in the Falcon030's memory. This is like continually refilling a reservoir to supply a house with water; should the supply to the reservoir stop for a short time, water is still available. Many German hard disk manufacturers have agreed to be involved in the new 'AV series' of drives, which give priority to data read/write and only recalibrate during latent periods. Cost and availability are yet to be announced.
But all is not doom and gloom. Cubase Audio is an excellent program and works well with the correct configuration of hardware and TOS version. To say that editing is a piece of cake is an understatement; a simple double‑click on a digital audio track brings up the waveform editing window where you can cut, copy and paste with the on‑screen toolbox in much the same way as you would with a MIDI track. I would expect the shortly‑to‑be‑released Falcon030 version of Notator Logic Audio to be of a similar quality and to offer an equally easy editing facility.
One other prospective program worthy of mention is Compo's MUSiCOM 2, a vast improvement on the original. Now sporting 2‑track recording and editing, a spectrum analyser, jukebox and playlist feature, it appears to be the near‑perfect 2‑track editing program at a price around £70. Add to this the optional digital interface, for transferring data to and from a DAT machine, and you have a machine capable of editing master recordings and putting together super jingles for around £1,000. Beats using a razor blade anyday!
With software support such as this, the Falcon030 can only go from strength to strength. And in case you are wondering, I purchased mine some six months ago...
- Cubase Audio: Harman Audio, 081 207 5050.
- Notator Logic Audio: Sound Technology, 0462 480000.
- MUSiCOM: Compo Software, 0480 891819.
- DigiTape: CGS, 081 679 7307.
- 4T/FX: D2D Systems, 0223 421107.