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Prismatica & Internet Access

PC Notes
Published October 1994

This month, in addition to the latest PC product news, Brian Heywood gives you a quick rundown on how to access the Internet, and looks at the current options for digital recording on the PC.

As the weather turns damp and cold, there's less of a temptation to bask beneath the tropical British sun [where have you been living? — Ed], and so you may head back into your studio to dash off the next musical masterpiece. Ideally, your PC should act as a control centre, integrating the various technologies that you find in the studio, allowing you to (dare I say it) interface to your studio in a musical way. Whether this is done by running a single application like Emagic's Logic Audio or Steinberg's Cubase Audio, or by multi‑tasking MIDI and audio applications under Windows doesn't really matter — though there are advantages and disadvantages with both schemes. Currently, the first option is not really on the table. There are no serious professional music tools that give you integrated digital audio and MIDI. Steinberg and/or Emagic may be able to deliver something, but probably not until next year, and if the PC versions of the other flavours of Cubase are anything to go by, then it may be a good idea to steer clear of Cubase Audio until they iron out the bugs. There are other music packages that combine MIDI and digital audio, but they are either too lightweight for digital music applications (like LWA's SeqWin) or just have a few digital audio bells and whistles tacked on as an afterthought (Cakewalk, for instance).

Mixing and matching digital audio systems and PC MIDI applications looks to be a better bet, with SoundScape and Session 8 providing a solid multi‑track capability, which can be easily combined with a decent MIDI application to give you access to both worlds of hi‑tech music. One downside of this is that the computer screen gets rather crowded when you have two major applications vying for video real‑estate, and another is that you have to save your project (i.e. the song data) as two separate files, which is slightly awkward. Still, it's early days for digital audio on the PC, and I would say that more 'integrated' applications will trickle through in the next year or so.

Spectral Synthesis — Audioprisma

Whilst on the topic of digital audio on the PC, I've been playing around with Spectral's new 'low end' hard disk recorder recently. The AudioPrisma is a combined hardware/software system that is designed to be used with a Windows PC, and is aimed at the low end professional user at a price comparable to the SADiE, SoundScape and Session 8 systems. The hardware consists of an ISA bus PC expansion card and an external two or eight channel analogue/digital input/ output (I/O) module. Like the SADiE and Session 8 systems, the AudioPrisma uses dedicated SCSI hard disks, to ensure that there is no 'bottleneck' reading audio data from the hard disk.

The expansion card at the heart of the AudioPrisma has an impressive amount of DSP processing power, and is designed to operate totally independently of the PC, to the point that the PC can be reset without affecting playback of the audio. Also unusual is the ability to expand the onboard RAM up to 64Mb using standard SIMMs — it comes supplied with 4Mb of RAM. You have the choice of two external I/O modules; the stereo module is a simple set of high‑quality A/D and D/A converters, and interfaces to the card using the AES/EBU digital I/O. The eight‑channel unit is more interesting, as it provides eight independent inputs and outputs, as well as a whole host of nifty video synchronisation features (including the ability to 'burn in' timecode to a video signal).

The software element on the system is the Prismatica application, which is essentially a cut‑down version of Spectral's Studio Tracks (version 2) which runs with their larger AudioEngine system. The software can play back 12 simultaneous audio tracks, and has 96 'virtual' tracks for track laying or editing. Using the eight‑input interface, it is possible to record eight tracks at once — although Spectral do suggest you split the tracks between two hard disks, to ensure that you don't run out of bandwidth. As with Digidesign's Session 8, you can mix down to stereo in the digital domain using the built‑in mixer, which is really the only way you can take advantage of the 12‑track playback. Each mixer channel has two auxiliary sends (for connection to external FX units), and a two‑band digital equaliser that operates in real‑time. There are two mono effects returns for getting the FX back into the mix — slightly surprising, as most digital effects have stereo outputs. There is also a nifty patchbay for routing signals around the AudioPrisma, and a playlist editor for editing crossfades. There are also a number of post‑production tools, and though I didn't get a chance to try it myself, I am reliably informed that the 'time stretch' feature is particularly good.

The AudioPrisma is an interesting system, as it addresses both sides of the non‑linear editing equation. It can be used for both multi‑track laying, like the Session 8, and post‑production tasks, like the SADiE. The user interface does suffer slightly as a result of this, since it is somewhat less focused — but this is a small price to pay for the extra facilities. As non‑linear systems become more common outside larger video and audio production houses, they will be required to be more flexible, and I think that 'general purpose' systems like the AudioPrisma will become more common. To find out more, contact Dave Shapton at Spectral's UK office on 0442 64205.

Cakewalk 3.0

Cakewalk for Windows, the popular MIDI sequencing application from Twelve Tone Systems, is now up to version 3.0. The new version seems to be a evolutionary upgrade rather than having any revolutionary new features, but there are improved notation, MIDI control and editing features. On the notation side, Cakewalk now prints out up to 24 staves, and you can now also add lyrics, with words being aligned with notes on the selected melody track. MIDI functions are enhanced by the addition of MIDI Machine Control (useful if you have a Fostex R8, Tascam 688 or ADAT tape machine), and 96 independently assignable MIDI faders. Improved editing facilities include support of the DNA groove format, a percussion editing window, better scrubbing, more quantisation options, improved Windows MCI support and various user interface tweaks. The new version costs £299 (inc. VAT) but existing Cakewalk users (including those with Home Studio and Apprentice) can upgrade for somewhat less that this — for more details contact Mark Balogh on 0706 228039.

Digidesign News

The pursuit of the multimedia dollar (or pound) gathers momentum, with Digidesign announcing a new Multimedia Products Group headed up by Mike Rockwell. Pro Tools users might be familiar with two of Mike's programs (Region Munger and Track Transfer), as well as the Pro Tools instructional video, an example of his production work. It will be interesting to see how Digidesign assault the world of multimedia, since I would guess that the PC is the most active platform in terms of titles. Since Mr Rockwell seems to be a dyed‑in‑the‑wool Macintosh man, and Digidesign's only PC‑based audio tool (the Session 8) is not well‑suited to multimedia production, I wonder what Digidesign can come up with to attract PC users. Watch this space.

Understanding The Internet

One of the most confusing aspects of 'Cyberspace' is the role of the Internet. Unlike CIX and PAN, which are service providers, with racks full of modems, large computers, accountants and so on, the Internet is simply a standard way of connecting different computers together, just like a network. As standards go, the Internet is a pretty loose one, with everything above the basic networking protocol (which is TCP/IP) left to convention. Just looking at the plethora of buzzwords associated with the 'Net' — such as UUCP, Telnet, FTP, Gopher and the World Wide Web — you can see that the whole affair is a bit of a minefield. This is usually not a problem, since your service provider (say CIX) will shield you from the complexities of the Net — I can send email to people on PAN without worrying too much about how it's done.

However, if you want to take full advantage of the Internet's facilities, you usually have to dive into to a frighteningly complicated text‑based user interface, and learn how to 'Telnet' and 'FTP' with very little help. Probably the easiest way to get the best out of the net is to use the World Wide Web. This is a graphic‑oriented hypertext system which allows you to do most things by pointing and clicking. When coupled with Web viewer software like Mosaic, you have the ability to 'browse' the network. To get the best out of the Internet, though, your computer really has to become a 'node', and directly access the network, and there are a number of companies which now provide this service. Alternatively, you can deal directly with the organisation that adminsters the Internet in the UK, which is based at the University of Kent. It's called EUNET, and they can be contacted on 0227 266466, or faxed on 0227 266477.

Special Offer 3: Cybersurfing

An easy way to connect to the Internet is via a Cambridge‑based service called CityScape. When you join CityScape, you are provided with software that lets you link up to the Internet using your modem connected to a normal telephone line. Your PC essentially becomes a node on the Internet, and you can access all the facilities directly using the bundled software. I've had a play with Mosaic (the World Wide Web browser) and it really is an eye opener. After struggling all these years with the Internet, being able to simply click on a button and get automatically connected to a remote computer to peruse the available files is a real joy.

CityScape charge a fixed fee of £17.63 per month, with a one‑off £58.75 registration fee, and the only other cost is your telephone bill. You can access the service via numbers in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh and Cambridge.

The monthly fee is paid in advance for 12 months. Until the 31st of October 1994, PC Notes readers will get a free month (ie. 13 months for the price of 12) when they sign up with CityScape. Simply cut off the token on the top right‑hand corner of this page (no photocopies will be accepted) and staple it to your order, and the nice people at CityScape will do the rest. Cheques and orders should be sent to: CityScape Internet Services Limited, 9, Covent Garden, Cambridge, CB1 2HR. Ask for IP.GOLD for PC, total cost £270.25 (inc VAT and the one‑off registration fee).

The software takes about 10 minutes to install, and includes a professional email application, NCSA's Mosaic World Wide Web viewer, and a UseNet News reader. CityScape also offer a telephone help line for installing the software and email support thereafter.

Important: To be able to use the software (and therefore CityScape), you need a Windows 3.1 PC with at least 4Mb of RAM, 4Mb of free hard disk space and a V.32 (i.e. 9,600 baud) or faster modem. There is also an Apple Mac version, but if you are a Mac owner, what are you doing reading this? Pricing is the same for both versions. You also need a telephone line!

For more information, ring CityScape on 0223 566950, or fax them on 0223 566951.