SOUNDSCAPE - EMusician

SOUNDSCAPE

R.ED RECORDER/EDITOR (WIN) A high-powered audio box with a splash of color. For a number of years now, Soundscape Digital Technology has maintained a
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R.ED RECORDER/EDITOR (WIN)A high-powered audio box with a splash of color.For a number of years now, Soundscape Digital Technology has maintained a well-deserved reputation for producing high-quality, computer-based digital audio workstations. The British company continues that trend with its latest offering: the R.Ed Recorder/Editor. This new hardware and software combination provides 32 tracks of 24-bit recording (or up to 16 tracks at 96 kHz), 28 audio input channels, and 32 output channels. Complete with professional-grade connections and synchronization options, this DAW has plenty of DSP power onboard.

The R.Ed hardware consists of a 2U rack-mount box, an ISA controller card, and a connecting cable. The rack-mount unit's front panel contains only an on/off switch, indicators for power and disk activity, and two removable drive carriers. The rear panel is where all the action is: three TDIF ports; MIDI In, Out, and Thru; word clock I/O (configurable as a Superclock signal); one stereo AES/EBU input; and two stereo AES/EBU outputs.

The rear panel also has connectors for the host PC and an expansion port: a 512-channel audio bus designed to work with Soundscape's upcoming line of Mixpander cards. These recently announced PCI cards greatly enhance the system's DSP capabilities, because the Mixpander/9 card boasts 11 times the R.Ed unit's processing power.

POWER WINDOWSIf you have some extra cash, load up the R.Ed box with options. For $799, you can add analog I/O (two channels in, four out) with balanced XLR connectors. The A/D converters on this board provide 24-bit, 96 kHz audio with signal levels at +4 dB. If you're doing video work, you may also want the Sync AV board for $649. This option provides LTC and VITC SMPTE time code (input and output), an RS422 port, and video blackburst sync capability. If your SMPTE needs are simple, you can get by with the LTC-only board for $549.

The host controller card is installed into an ISA slot on your PC. One computer controls up to four R.Ed boxes, with up to two units per host controller. If you don't have an ISA slot, purchase a parallel port adapter. (According to Soundscape, a PCI controller card is also in the works.) Because the R.Ed hardware handles the audio crunching, you can get by with an average-speed CPU. With the parallel port option, you can even use a laptop using EPP printer port mode.

This system is completely professional and high-end except for one thing: the cable that connects R.Ed to your PC is a cheap ribbon cable like the ones typically found inside computers. In a congested rack, this cable easily crimps or tears. You'll need to find some properly sized screws of your own because the connectors don't screw into the hardware; I inadvertently dislodged the cable several times.

What's more, the controller cable that comes with the system is only 5 feet long, though Soundscape says that you can extend the line to 25 feet using inexpensive IDC connectors. I'd like to see the host controller card and cable eliminated altogether, because my PC already contains a device specifically designed to speak to other processors; it's called an Ethernet port, and the R.Ed box needs one.

Because the hardware handles the real-time audio processing, communications should be handled with traditional networking. The software can already run remotely, provided the R.Ed box is directly connected to a PC on the network. An Ethernet connection would eliminate the need for the controller card, the flimsy cable, and a nearby computer. (Soundscape says that because Ethernet ports are not standard on many PCs, the parallel port connector and upcoming PCI controller card are better options.)

R.Ed ships without hard drives, so you will need to buy at least one IDE drive to start. The system holds up to four hard disks (two fixed internal and two more in the removable drive caddies) with a maximum 137 GB per drive. That's more than half a terabyte of total disk storage. Kudos to Soundscape for choosing standard IDE drives for its systems; this form of storage is cheaper than tape on a track-per-minute basis, and you can find inexpensive large- capacity drives. Soundscape says that some of its customers are using IDE drives as backup media.

You also need outboard A/D and D/A converters because most of R.Ed's audio connections are TDIF. Soundscape sells TDIF-based converters in a number of configurations, with XLR, ADAT, and unbalanced connectors. Most of those let you choose your audio sync source, and some have extra connectors for word clock or Superclock synchronization. You can use TDIF devices from other manufacturers as well.

R.EDDY, SET, GOOnce you've connected the hardware, it's time to load the software. The install process puts the editing software and a driver for the host controller on your system. The host controller is not Plug and Play, so be sure that the I/O address in the driver matches the DIP switch settings on the card.

The editing software (aptly named R.Ed Editor) won't run unless the driver and host controller are configured properly, the cable to the R.Ed box is connected securely, and at least one appropriate hard drive is hooked up in the correct manner. Unfortunately, I received a defective host controller from Soundscape, and the lack of any useful diagnostic information turned out to be a real problem. I spent hours replacing hard drives, checking the cables, and mucking about with the driver settings. Yet each time I tried the software, I got the same useless error message - and then the program just quit. However, once I installed a new controller, the system ran fine.

R.Ed Editor (see Fig. 1) contains everything you need to route signals, record audio, and produce finished works. For the most part, the program is the same as SSHDR1 Editor, reviewed in the July 1998 issue of EM. The current version of R.Ed Editor works with Soundscape's older SSHDR1 Plus hardware too. It's heartening to see a company that supports its customer base by releasing new software that is backward compatible.

In R.Ed Editor, use the Mix window to route audio signals around your system. The Arrange window lets you manipulate Parts, which is Soundscape jargon for regions in digital audio files. Each Arrangement consists of up to 32 Tracks, each containing one or more Parts. The actual recorded audio is called a Take, and multiple Parts can refer to a single Take in order to save disk space.

R.Ed Editor's screen has tool buttons across the top with a set of status indicators below. Transport controls and more indicators are located across the bottom of the screen. All of these give you information about the state of your project, including the song position and SMPTE time, punch points, sampling rate, bit depth, and sync source. You can change many of the indicator settings by clicking on them, or you can modify them from the menus.

The settings offer plenty of options. The sampling rate is selectable from 22 kHz to 96 kHz, the resolution can be set to 16 or 24 bits, and all of the common SMPTE formats are supported. The audio master clock can be driven internally or slaved to an external source like a word clock or one of the digital audio inputs. R.Ed sends and receives MIDI Time Code or Song Position Pointer messages and chases to external time code. You have access to all the settings needed for SMPTE offsets, preroll/postroll, and the like. There's even a varispeed control so you can fine-tune the sampling rate.

MIX IT UPBefore recording anything, build your mixer in the Mix window (see Fig. 2). Here you create channel strips, set up auxiliary sends, apply effects, and route audio to the Tracks. The collection of possible channel strip types is impressive. In addition to the standard mono and stereo varieties, you can select mono-to-stereo and stereo-to-mono conversions; strips with four, six, and eight channels; and channel strips that are optimized for surround sound. Those types sport a spiffy surround panner (see Fig. 3), whereas the stereo strips just have the usual pan control with a centering button.

Each strip has a name, an input source, an output destination, a fader, solo controls, and a set of level meters. Multichannel strips get multiple meters, except for the surround-sound strips, which (oddly) get only one. There are mutes for both the input and output sides of the strip, solo groups, and a nice fader group implementation. The left mouse button moves one fader; the right button moves the group. The 16 buses available in the Mix window are useful for setting up mixer subgroups and auxiliary sends. All of the R.Ed inputs and outputs are available as well, and you can route inputs straight to outputs for live digital mixing.

Tracks appear as inserts within a given channel strip, with colors that match those in the Arrange window. I found it quite easy to set up configurations that routed live signals to the tracks for recording, and then send the signals back out of the tracks during playback and mixdown. I could do this without making separate sets of channel strips for each purpose.

Unfortunately, editing the Mix window was a bit cumbersome. You enter edit mode with a tiny button on the Mix window itself, but the editing tools are firmly attached to the main application frame. I often place the Mixer well away from the main window, so I had to move the mouse around a lot to get to the correct buttons.

The toolbar buttons are shared with other program functions. They don't show a grayed-out status to let you know which are appropriate for the activity, nor do they have the tool-tip messages that indicate what their functions are. Using the system is further complicated by the fact that you can choose four active tools at once - one each for the left and right mouse buttons, plus additional tools assigned to Alt+left-click and Alt+right-click. Accessing four tools at once can be efficient once you get used to it, but after awhile, I longed for the standard mouse technique where the left button selects an item and the right button brings up a context-sensitive menu.

LAYING DOWN TRACKSMaking a recording is easy in R.Ed. First you create mono or stereo tracks in the Arrange window. The Parts appear in the window as colored blocks representing the time and tracks they occupy. You can zoom in horizontally or vertically, and the audio waveforms appear inside the colored blocks if you expand them far enough.

Once you've created the tracks, route audio to them in the Mix window, arm them, and hit Record. You can record all 32 tracks at the same time, but I started to run out of DSP power when I attempted to play back all of them simultaneously. R.Ed's performance is tied to hard drive speed and Mixer configuration, so your mileage may vary. Punch-In and loop recording are also supported, which means you have several chances to nail that guitar solo. Previous Takes are always saved, in case the solo gets worse on subsequent attempts.

Once Takes are recorded, you'll find plenty of familiar editing tools at your disposal. You can copy, move, reverse, trim, phase shift, and remove DC from your audio. You can adjust volumes, create fades, and drop markers and use them as editing aids. Other tools round out the package, so all the basic audio editing needs are covered.

TAKING CONTROLMixer automation is a new feature in R.Ed Editor. You record, move, copy, and edit automation tracks in much the same way you would manipulate audio tracks in the Arrange window. The Mix window lets you decide which automation track records events for a given Mixer control. When you click on the Mixer with the Info tool, the element under your mouse displays which controls can be automated, such as volume, panning, effects, aux sends, muting, and other parameters.

R.Ed also ships with Console Manager (see Fig. 4), a separate application that is the system's link to the outside world. The program lets you identify the MIDI and serial port devices on your system. Console Manager supports many devices, including controllers by JLCooper and Penny & Giles, digital mixers from Tascam and Spirit, and the Mackie HUI.

Soundscape sent me a Mackie HUI as part of this review. After wiping my drool off the console, I discovered that Soundscape's support for this device is quite extensive. In addition to fader, pan, and transport settings, you also control send levels, effects parameters, mute, solo, and track arming. R.Ed track names appear in the HUI channel strips, and the effects' names with their associated parameters appear on the main HUI screen when you access them - very cool. There are a few missing features (the Undo button doesn't undo, and the Save button doesn't save), but overall the HUI implementation is impressive.

Console Manager also supports generic MIDI messages, such as MIDI Machine Control, real-time events, MIDI controllers, and NRPN messages. You can map any MIDI controller message to any R.Ed control that supports automation, and then use the system with an external sequencer or MIDI hardware. This is a very powerful feature, but one thing is missing: there is no virtual MIDI port available within the host system for Console Manager. So to send MIDI messages from your sequencer to R.Ed on the same computer, you have to use a virtual MIDI router.

SPECIAL EFFECTSAudio recording and mixing is only the first chapter of the Soundscape story. You can purchase additional effects and plug-in packages to greatly enhance the system's capabilities. Real-time effects are inserted into the Mix window's channel strips. Most of those come with extensively detailed control panels (see Fig. 5) that allow precise tweaking of the effect settings.

Offline effects are also available - you can access them through the toolbar buttons in the Arrange window. Some of the add-ins provide import and export functionality for entire sessions. For example, Soundscape offers a plug-in for OMF files. This is an Avid format that stores project timings and source material to be used by an Edit Decision List processor when you're working with video.

Some Soundscape plug-ins are actually separate applications, including EDL Processor and CD Writer. Both of these programs communicate with the R.Ed hardware. EDL Processor assembles audio collections and bounces them to new Takes at the appropriate points in time. CD Writer lets you assemble stereo tracks and burn them to a recordable CD.

Plenty of big names show up in Soundscape's effects roster. TC Works offers heavy-duty Reverb and Dynamizer plug-ins; Aphex provides Aural Exciter and Big Bottom processors. Effects bundles from Soundscape and Arboretum Systems include flangers, phasers, filters, delays, choruses, stereo emulation, ring modulation, sonic decimation, and tube tape saturation. You can also get pitch and time adjustment, dehiss/declick processing, sideband compression, and codecs for MPEG, Dolby 4-channel surround sound, and Apogee UV22.

SEEING R.EDThe real-time effects aren't free, in more ways than one. Each third-party effects package costs a few hundred bucks, and some will run you much more. For example, the Dolby encoder retails for $1,099, while Cedar's Dehiss goes for about $2,500.

The effects can also suck up a lot of DSP power. UV22 encoding and TC Works' Dynamizer each use about 45 percent of R.Ed's processing power. Of course, some types of effects use more DSP than others. The basic R.Ed system has just enough DSP power to run 16 stereo channels, each containing one instance of the built-in 2-band parametric EQ. However, R.Ed never fails to tells you how much DSP and memory you're using, and it gracefully lets you know when you've exceeded the limits.

If you need more oomph, there are a couple of places to get it. The forthcoming Mixpander cards feature a lot of DSP power. You can also steal some power from a Soundscape Mixtreme card, which supports the same set of effects as R.Ed, by connecting either 8 or 16 channels to the board through external TDIF cables.

COLORFUL SOUNDTRACKSR.Ed is well suited for film and video post-production work. The variety of synchronization options, accurate audio placement, available effects, and support for EDLs and cue sheets all contribute to the system's capabilities in a post-production environment. R.Ed also has a built-in AVI player and supports video capture cards for full-screen, full-motion video playback and audio sync.

The system is great for producing radio spots or musical compositions as well. I worked quickly and efficiently when creating tracks, and mixdown was a breeze. Sound quality is excellent, which is expected in such a high-end system, and I noticed no sonic abnormalities. Depending on your A/D converters and monitoring environment, the result may vary.

R.Ed has a number of file administration features too. The system provides all the tools you need to manage the files created by the R.Ed hardware, and you can transfer files back and forth to the host PC at will. You can even convert Takes into WAV files for use with other software.

The documentation isn't quite up to speed with the software, though. The latest manual covers version 2.04, yet I was running version 3.01. (Soundscape says that a new version of the manual will be posted on its Web site by the time you read this.) The system provides no software-based help, but plenty of readme files and tech notes are on the Web. I usually found what I needed if I dug for it.

THE BOTTOM R.ED LINEThe biggest hurdle with the R.Ed system is its cost. This is professional gear, and it comes with a hefty price tag. Soundscape recently announced some less expensive R.Ed models that support fewer tracks and less disk capacity, but you'll still have a hard time getting up and running for less than $4,000 - and that doesn't include the cost of a computer or A/D converters. Even so, consider the heavy dose of functionality you receive. If you shop around a bit for a digital mixer and a 32-track recorder, you may even start to think that R.Ed is a bargain.

A decision to invest in the system locks you into the Soundscape platform, in part because the plug-ins don't run on anything else. However, R.Ed is extremely expandable and upgradable, which is more than can be said for a good number of dedicated hardware systems. You can download software updates from the Web, and the company shows a commitment to its customers by maintaining backward compatibility when it releases new hardware.

All things considered, this is a great system. Whether you're shopping for a large post-production house or you simply want to do some colorful home recording, R.Ed won't leave you singing the blues.