Brian Heywood brings you the latest PC news, and offers a handy tip to net surfers who may be getting lost...
A few months ago, I was rather fulsome about the idea of integrating digital audio with MIDI in applications such as Cubase Audio. While the 'all‑in‑one' approach does have certain advantages, there is also an argument for keeping the two types of music processing separate (ie. digital audio and MIDI). The problem with having a single application to cover a number of different tasks is that you have to 'buy' the whole package. So if you don't like the way the software performs a particular task, you can't do anything about it without scrapping the entire package.
Another problem with this kind of software application is that it tends to become 'bloated', ie. very resource‑hungry, requiring a powerful PC to handle facilities that you may never, or only rarely, use. Also, the larger and more complicated an application becomes, the more liable it is to be 'bugged'.
So, what's the alternative? Well, if you are a Windows user, you can take advantage of the Windows multitasking facilities to run a number of smaller, dedicated applications to perform the same task as one integrated package. The big advantage of using separate applications is that you get a much wider choice of software and hardware. So you can mix and match software and systems to suit your personal taste (and budget). As individual software packages are more tightly focused, they should be 'leaner and fitter', and, thus, should perform better and have less in the way of bugs.
For instance, if your favourite sequencer is Cakewalk, you could combine it with either the Soundscape SSHDR system or Digidesign's Session 8 to get a hybrid digital‑audio/MIDI system. The two applications would be synchronised via MIDI (internally in the case of Session 8, externally for the SSHDR), with the transport controls of the hard disk recorder controlling the operation of both pieces of software. External synchronisation — say to an analogue multitrack — can get slightly complicated, depending on your MIDI setup, but once you've got it sorted, you can virtually forget it's there.
The biggest problem I've had with this kind of setup is that the PC's screen gets very cluttered. One way around this is to use a virtual desktop like Borland's Dashboard or Microsoft's Topview, which let you have a 'virtual' Windows desktop larger than your VDU screen. Think of the VDU as a window on to the virtual desktop, which you can move around to see the various areas of the desktop's work area. You can place any applications that you don't happen to be using at the moment 'off the screen', making them visible only when you need to use them.
The change in the season seems to have woken up the various purveyors of PC‑based digital audio systems, who have obviously been whiling away the winter months adding features to their systems. In fact, it looks like there might be some interesting developments in the PC‑based hard disk recorder world over the coming months, with loads of new features, and prices (as ever) coming down. Watch this space.
Soundscape Technology have just released version 1.6 of the control software for their SSHDR hard disk recording system. The new version has a whole host of new features, including intelligent de‑glitching, improvements to the 'volume' tool and display options, 999 locators and improvements to the DAT backup and hard disk maintenance operations. Soundscape have also added audio 'scrub' tools that can be controlled either by the mouse or from an external controller such as the JL Cooper CS10.
One interesting enhancement is the inclusion of a 'noise gate' function; this tool scans the selected audio clips and performs automatic edits to remove any section of the take that falls below a certain threshold. The digital noise gate is non‑destructive (ie. it doesn't remove the audio from the hard disk) and has quite a number of user‑configurable parameters allowing you to optimise its use for various applications.
Another very interesting Soundscape development is a version of the SSHDR with removable hard disks. This configuration incorporates two removable IDE disk drives, so that you can switch between projects without having to backup to DAT during valuable studio time. The new unit costs £2850, and existing users can upgrade their units for £135. For more information about both these products, contact Nick Owen at Soundscape on 01222 450120.
One of my big gripes with MPC Windows digital audio is the lack of soundcards that can interface with a DAT machine using a digital interface. It seems a bit silly to edit the sound in the digital domain, using an advanced waveform editor, and then 'strain' the audio back through an analogue interface. Apart from the quality of the converters, you are held ransom by the quality of your PC's power supply, which was undoubtedly never designed for audio work. It's bit like producing a masterpiece in oils and then photocopying the result.
I've heard a number of good reports about the TripleDAT system, a Windows‑compatible soundcard which is reputed to be the basis of the most popular audio PC workstation in the German broadcasting industry. But until recently it wasn't available in the UK, so I never pursued it. However, it is now being imported by the UK subsidiary of Koch Media, so it is worth taking a closer look at. The most interesting feature of the card is the digital interface, which is available as either a set of optical connectors or as an S/PDIF signal via a multi‑pin connector on the card's back plate.
The TripleDAT has a number of unique features — it can control your DAT machine using the built‑in infra‑red remote transmitter, for example. It also allows you to use your audio DAT as a backup medium for your DOS files — over a gigabyte's worth. As the cost of a DAT tape streamer is around the £1000 mark, you could even ignore the card's audio side, and simply use it as a cheap backup system!
On the software side, the TripleDAT comes with a Windows application called TripleMAGIC!, which is a non‑destructive real‑time non‑linear digital editor. The software offers a number of advanced features such as real‑time crossfades, a multitrack editing interface and modular filters and effects. The software can synchronise with either external devices (such as tape machines), or internally to a Windows MIDI sequencer, using the supplied device driver software. The modular effects include a dynamics module (stereo compressor, and expander, gate), 4‑band parametric equalisation, a pitch shifter, a delay and a room simulator (echo and reverb).
The performance of the system will depend a lot on the specification of your PC, so a 486DX‑33 with 8Mb of RAM will only give three or four mono (or two stereo) tracks, while a 90MHz Pentium with 16Mb of RAM and a PCI or SCSI hard disk controller will give between 10 and 12 mono (or eight stereo) tracks. The number of tracks available will also depend on how much extra work the PC has to do (for example, if you don't use real‑time crossfades, you'll get more tracks, and so on). The system should cost under £950 — for more information contact Colin Harvey at Koch Media on 01252 714340.
As one of an occasional series of items on 'things I got right', I see that the price of recordable CD drives has started to crash, with the JVC double‑speed drive and the Archiver software being reduced to just over £2000. While this seems a lot of money, the price is considerably less than it was last year. Hopefully, by this time next year, everybody will be able to record their own CDs. For more information about the JVC CD‑R system, contact Nick Fletcher at JVC Professional Products on 0181 896 6000.
One of the problems of the World Wide Web (WWW) is its size. It's so immense that it can be a bit of a chore to find anything of interest — it's difficult to know where to start. Of course, if you know the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) of the page you want, you can usually go straight to it, but this doesn't help if you just want to browse the net (sometimes known as cybersurfing or net surfing). Luckily, there are people on the net who selflessly maintain indexes to other pages that pertain to a particular topic. For instance, if you point your WWW browser at...
...you get an index of bands and music‑related services that are available via the WWW, usually with graphics, sound samples and other multimedia goodies available for download.
Desktop and tower PCs, on the whole, are pretty reliable animals, mainly due to the fact that they have few moving parts. The most vulnerable parts of the PC are the hard and floppy disks, which can be swapped for new units if they fail (have you backed up recently?).
One other component that whizzes around and is thus liable to wear out is the cooling fan in the power supply. If this fails, or gets very noisy due to becoming worn out, you can swap the entire power supply for a new module, but this seems a bit wasteful to my mind.
If your PC is out of guarantee, or you can't persuade your dealer to replace your power supply unit (PSU) at a nominal cost, it's a fairly simple to process to replace the PSU fan. This is usually an 80mm axial 12V DC unit, with a brushless motor drawing in the region of 200mA. Maplin do a replacement (YP40T) that costs just under £10. Before ordering a new component, make sure that your fan is of this type, by taking the PSU out of the PC and checking the label on the fan. This will tell you whether you have a standard fan type, and also whether it is possible to replace the unit easily.
The actual replacement process involves removing the PSU from the PC's case (do please make sure that the power lead is disconnected), opening the PSU, and then snipping the red and black wires that lead to the fan. When connecting the new fan, make sure that the joins are well‑insulated from each other and from the rest of the PSU circuitry. It's not good enough to use insulating tape, as it can get quite hot inside the power unit. Either use plastic 'wire joint' protectors like the Maplin JH91Y (36p each), or use a small insulated connector or connector block.
IMPORTANT. After unplugging the PC, leave it to discharge the PSU for at least five minutes before starting repair work on the PC. This is because some capacitors in the PSU are charged to quite high voltages, and can take a while to discharge.