Continuing its line of project-studio-level recording systems, Digidesign follows up the Digi 002 with a rack version called, simply enough, the Digi 002 Rack. But with this release, the project part of that ever-popular compound term project studio is slowly becoming irrelevant. In both hardware and software, the Digi 002 Rack moves Digidesign's midlevel Pro Tools LE platform very close to the pro ranks in nearly every way.
The Digi 002 Rack is a Pro Tools LE-based FireWire interface that supports the latest Mac OS X operating system and Windows XP. The name Digi 002 Rack is somewhat of a misnomer: The original 002 is a Pro Tools LE mixing control surface and interface combination that also functions as a stand-alone digital mixer. Most of the real estate that makes up the 002 — faders, rotary controls, navigational buttons, scribble strips and so forth — is absent from the rack version. It also has no stand-alone functionality. In this sense, it's more like a modernized version of Digidesign's wildly popular Digi 001 interface.
What the rack unit does share with the Digi 002 is its audio specifications, input and output layout, and volume and monitoring controls. It operates at as high as 24-bit, 96kHz audio resolution and connects to a computer via a single IEEE 1394 FireWire cable. Also, like the original 002, it includes four high-quality mic preamps; eight total analog inputs and outputs; and MIDI, ADAT and S/PDIF I/O. On the software side of things, the Digi 002 Rack includes Pro Tools LE version 6.1 running on Mac OS X (specifically, version 10.2.4) and Windows XP. Aside from being a simple upgrade to meet the modern age, Pro Tools LE 6.1 is a significant overhaul in both look and feature set that still retains the comfortable functionality of previous LE versions.
One of the beauties of the Digi 002 Rack is its portability and easy setup, thanks in large part to the robust FireWire technology that alleviates the need for PCI cards for connection to a computer. In other words, the Digi 002 Rack can run on laptops, as well as desktops (more detail on this to come). Digidesign's USB-based Mbox is an even more portable system, but it is comparatively limited in terms of fidelity and breadth of I/O options. In contrast, the 002 Rack is mobile, great-sounding and packed with I/O, making it a truly professional recording system. To prove the point, I used the 002 Rack on a six-week album project in Nashville. Thanks to some fortunate and not so fortunate situations, I was able to put the 002 Rack through a range of real-world production tests.
First, a few words about setup on the Mac OS X. It's imperative to use not only Digidesign's latest supported Mac operating system but also the Apple Disk Utility to erase and partition any recordable FireWire drives (and, of course, back up any existing files before doing so). I did not do a disk erase on my drive before I started, which led to “unsuitable for playback” errors when reopening saved sessions. Thanks to Digi's always-helpful tech-support staff, I was able to work with them to solve the mystery. But it bears emphasizing that to avoid unnecessary problems, it's wise to closely follow Digidesign's compatibility documents available in the support section of the company's Website.
THE RHYTHM METHOD
For the album sessions, the studio's main room was outfitted with a Digi 001 PCI-based interface with a Studer console and Apogee Rosetta converters. At the start of the record, I used the 002 Rack in a B room for composing MIDI- and audio-based rhythm loops for certain songs, as well as for resampling regions recorded on the main system. There are some welcome new additions to MIDI functionality in LE, but the first significant news comes before you even create your first MIDI track. Until version 6.x for Mac OS X, Pro Tools relied on Opcode's OMS application for MIDI capability. Due to Opcode's demise and Apple's own MIDI development, OMS is replaced by Apple's Core MIDI app. This brings with it some benefits and some drawbacks and is a controversial subject that is beyond the scope of this article. However, Core MIDI is a modern, attractive and user-friendly application, but it lacks some of the flexibility that OMS had. In terms of new developments in Pro Tools LE itself, there is a bump in MIDI track count to 256 and something new called Virtual MIDI Pro Tools Inputs, which route supported third-party applications into Pro Tools as MIDI tracks. Another great new addition is Groove Quantize, which lets you apply MIDI notes, including velocity, to an audio performance grid.
Digidesign has also developed its own new MIDI timing technology called MIDI Time Stamping. Unfortunately, it's not supported for the onboard MIDI ports on the Digi 002 Rack. According to Digidesign, the implementation would require a firmware update that is scheduled for the future. Digidesign's MIDI I/O hardware interface (sold separately) does feature MIDI Time Stamping. In terms of the 002 Rack's onboard MIDI connectivity, the single input and dual outputs are perfect for humble workstations. I plugged a Korg keyboard controller into input 1 and output 1. With the 002 Rack's additional MIDI output, I hooked up an E-mu Planet Earth module. The whole system — the 002 Rack, a G4 PowerBook, a Korg keyboard, the E-mu and a Lacie FireWire drive — was compact and effective.
Even with the advancements in MIDI, Pro Tools LE is still relatively new in the MIDI-sequencing world compared with the other software applications available. Pro Tools has gone to some lengths to improve its MIDI feature implementation, but some of the core issues, namely patch management, are still frustrating. Cycling through patches is not the most elegant operation in Pro Tools. I had the choice of reopening the Patch Select window to audition patches or setting it to None and cycling through the module itself. The nice thing about Pro Tools' MIDI operation is that it functions in nearly the same way as one works with audio. It may not have the intense development behind it that some of the sequencer manufacturers can boast, but it's certainly intuitive to operate, for the most part.
Once my rhythm tracks were arranged into a performance, I bounced MIDI data to discrete audio tracks and turned to the updated DigiRack plug-ins for processing. The suite includes several delays and a pair of EQs, plus a flanger, a reverb, a compressor, a limiter, a gate, an expander/gate and a dither. Pro Tools version 6.0 overhauled all of the DigiRack plugs to a universal look. (D-Verb is now part of the suite but without the spooky GUI.) Even better, all rhythm-based plug-ins now work in bpm-rate increments rather than samples. Digi Rack delay plug-ins are also outfitted with note values, including dots and triplets, and there is also a cool Groove slider for timing accuracy. For the rhythm programmer, this is welcome news. One drawback of note when moving sessions around is that the Long Delay II in particular cannot be read by older sessions and is therefore deactivated without preserving plug-in information. Pro Tools LE also loads with updates of the D-fx plug-ins, previously sold separately, in file-based (non-real-time) AudioSuite format.
Halfway through initial tracking, I ran into some serious trouble when the producer's Mac broke down due to a bad processor-upgrade card. Despite our best efforts to fix things ourselves, the computer had to be professionally serviced. All of a sudden, the Digi 002 Rack and PowerBook, out of necessity, moved from the B room and became our only recording system. It didn't take long to patch the entire studio — including the console, the outboard gear and the converters — into the 002 Rack's S/PDIF jacks. Progressing forward with the 002 Rack, we crossed our fingers as we opened 5.2.1 sessions on the new system, hoping everything would work in 6.1. Thankfully, the sessions opened perfectly, with all supported plug-in information and track and channel content preserved.
From an operational standpoint, we were able to work in LE 6.1 in the same way that the studio functioned with 5.2.1. key commands and all previous functions operated just the same in 6.x as in 5.x (which is indeed good news for current power users). I did, however, notice an unfortunate lag in editing speed. The studio normally uses a G4/800MHz tower with 256 MB of RAM. Using this system with LE version 5.2.1 and OS 9.2.2, editing operations were instantaneous. Now, with the Titanium G4/550MHz PowerBook and 512 MB running LE 6.1 and OS 10.2.4, editing was visibly sluggish. A hesitation was noticeable in even basic editing operations like trimming, scrolling, crossfading and so forth. One could surmise that this was because of the PowerBook's slower chip. But as an owner of the original fader-endowed Digi 002 running LE 9.2.2 on a G3/500MHz iBook, I know from experience that it's not a raw CPU problem, because that system gives instantaneous editing response. I can only conclude that it is due to the LE 6.1/Mac OS 10.2.4 combination. This shouldn't be too surprising with a new software rewrite running on OS X, an entirely new operating system, but it is a disappointment. I also received CPU-resource and buffer-setting errors on a session with no plug-ins and only four voices used. Although that was unfortunate (thankfully, Digi now offers a way to turn off the buffer errors without halting recording), switching from the default setting to 85 percent fixed it. Still, it did make me question how powerful the 6.x and OS X combination really is.
I checked with Digidesign to help clarify the reasons behind the performance issues. According to representatives of the company, a Titanium G4/550MHz PowerBook, although not a relic, is not ideal for running Pro Tools LE 6.1 with OS X. According to the company the combination smokes on dual-processor Macs, machines that take advantage of the new operating system. But Digidesign says that the processor-intensive nature of OS X, combined with the extra bandwidth required by the FireWire bus, creates an environment that relies on superfast computers for optimal success. For those choosing to run a Digi 002 Rack on a Mac, I highly recommend a dual-processor G4 or G5 desktop for serious mixing and editing. Incidentally, performance is reportedly excellent on fast and modern Windows XP configurations approved by Digidesign testing.
As disappointing as the performance issues were, the good news is that Pro Tools LE, with versions 6.0 and 6.1, has finally become a full-grown software title that moves beyond what the LE modifier might suggest. First, much of the functionality that was once reserved for TDM users is now available in LE. I was especially glad to see single-stroke key commands (aka Commands Focus) implemented, as well as the time-compression/expansion trimmer tool and the ability to deactivate and reactivate tracks. That last one is a lifesaver for CPU-starved users. Pro Tools LE has also expanded to 32 active voices (audio playback tracks) with 6.x.
Some other exciting new features include support for the popular ReWire protocol, DigiTranslator support and a handy new file-management “browser” called DigiBase. In short, DigiBase allows you to view, audition, search and import audio and video files, including drag-and-drop session file capability. Video producers will be happy to know that they can finally get their timecode ruler in LE as part of the DV Toolkit option, but you do have to pay extra to get it. Some brand-new Pro Tools features include Relative Grid (maintaining a region's relative position within a measure when moving it from one location to another while in Grid mode), a selector that works both horizontally and vertically, a playback-cursor locator and new options for toggling track height.
BACK TO THE RECORD
As luck would have it, the artist on this recording project received an endorsement with Baldwin pianos just as the record was getting underway. Because I had a portable rig, I requested and was granted permission to track an impressive nine-foot grand piano for three songs right in Baldwin's Nashville showroom. The setup consisted of four mics that were sent straight to the 002's four preamps. The piano was miked internally with a Røde NT4 stereo condenser going into channels 1 and 2 and an Audio-Technica 4060 tube mic sent to channel 3. An A-T 4033 room mic was placed about 10 feet away from the piano's open lid.
A single FireWire cable connected the Digi 002 Rack to the PowerBook. I ran sessions at 24-bit, 48kHz resolution to preserve bandwidth. Pro Tools LE 6.x comes with a much-appreciated new Click plug-in. But the producer wanted to record an actual click sound to disk, so we used a Zoom drum machine sent to input 5 to capture a pulse. The only other pieces of gear were three sets of headphones, a small Rane headphone mixer and the Lacie FireWire drive. With the PowerBook sitting atop the 002 Rack, everything fit perfectly on a small square table.
The mic preamps were extremely effective, transparent and revealing. Everything was captured cleanly and in stark honesty, right down to the whisper of the hammers and the slight thump of the pedals. In the end, the Digi 002 Rack did exactly what we were hoping for. It took a sonically complex and gorgeous-sounding instrument and reproduced it faithfully, resulting in an album-worthy set of tracks. We took the portable rig back to the studio and once again patched all studio components into the 002 Rack. From there, we overdubbed vocals from the Studer into the 002 Rack digitally via the Apogee.
The next day, the producer's ailing Mac was repaired, and we once again switched back from the 002 Rack to his standard 001 configuration. Going from sessions tracked on a more modern Pro Tools system back to earlier software versions running on older hardware used to be a troublesome endeavor. Those days are gone, as the 6.1 sessions opened back up perfectly in 5.2.1. We did notice that the piano sessions revealed a slight boost in midrange presence and openness back in his studio than they did out in the field. We checked with headphones to confirm that the sound was slightly improved to our ears when running through his Apogee Rosetta as the clock source rather than the 002's internal clock. This finding shouldn't come as a surprise when using a separate clock source that costs the same as the 002 Rack itself. But to put things into perspective, the built-in converters on the 002 Rack are, by themselves, wonderful and a clear improvement upon those found on the Digi 001. Incidentally, even with any negative aspects that may exist with the Digi 002 Rack (most of which could be alleviated with a robust computer), the producer found himself missing it when it was taken out of the production chain.
DIGI 002 RACK > $1,295
Pros: Extremely portable yet professional-level Pro Tools LE-based system. Excellent mic preamps. Improved MIDI support.
Cons: Requires higher-end computer. Sluggish OS X performance.