SOUNDSCAPE SSHDR1

Hard-Disk Recorder/Editor/Mixer

Reviewed January'94 by Eddie Ciletti

(New Hardware upgrades will be reviewed after May'97)

Soundscapeís SSHDR1 is an 8-track digital recorder, editor and mixer in a two-space metal rack case. A standard 386 or higher PC compatible provides the front end. For most of the tests, I used a plain vanilla 486 SX/33 with 8 MB of RAM and a standard VGA monitor. (Check out the sidebar for configuration, options and details.)

START YER ENGINES

Installation of hardware and software takes minutes -- way too easy. Yet the first hump, figuring out how to hear the source, was elusive. I was anxious to play, of course, so when the manual didnít open to the magic page (chapter three, page 16), I confess to taking the easy way out, OK? I reached out and touched a customer service representative at Soundscape where a live human quickly answered my question. A startling contrast to the more typical voice-mail.

GETTING IN

The recording process is actually quite simple. Analog or digital inputs are selected from the Settings menu, record-enable icons are accessed from the tool bar and the soundfile length is set on the time ruler. Click the pointing device (i.e., the mouse) in the Arrange window and, presto, visual and sonic contact! The recording begins when the "+" key is pressed. The rest is easy.

TESTING: ONE, TWO, THREE

My first basic test, editing the bizarre responses to my equally bizarre outgoing phone messages, proved to be a six-hour crash course in fun; laughter being the primary obstacle to progress. Soundfiles were loaded to Soundscape from cassette via the analog inputs. Level must be adjusted at the source because no input level control is provided. Sound files can also be normalized, that is, rescaled so that the highest peak is at maximum, or zero dB. Both input and output levels can be independently monitored. Apart from the initial obstacle, the rest of the software proved very intuitive. I was now ready for a musical challenge...

THE HANGDOGS

Over the past several months I have been working with a local folkabilly band, The Hangdogs. Rather than go the multitrack route, live-to-DAT recordings were made with an AKG/dbx microphone and preamp combination (see EQ, December í93). Flintstones-style mixing techniques included moving instruments, players and attitudes until blend and dynamics converged.

Creating a composite from the best takes of each performance was a good challenge for Soundscape. This time, transfer was from DAT via the SPDIF port. Each take is automatically numbered, but can be relabeled with text via the Information tool. The choice take, "Fools Rush In," was good up until the solo section. Four additional takes were loaded from this point. All of the takes were lined up at the downbeat of the solo, which was then divided into groups of four measures.

Due to guitar phrasing variances, creating the ultimate solo became a challenge that would have been facilitated by an adjustable crossfade tool. This feature, slated for version 1.16, is due about the time this issue hits the stands. (If the jump from version 1.14 to 1.15 is any indication, the next revision has much to offer.)

OVERDUBS and MIXING

Semi-automatic Slim, the guitarist, stopped by to add acoustic guitars. The fact that I was a Soundscape overdub virgin was compounded by working on two hours of sleep. Soundscape, however, was transparent and Slim was gone in less than real time. Up to 64 virtual tracks can appear in the arrange window, provided enough hard disk space exists.

In spots where the new guitars didnít lay in the pocket, obvious timing discrepancies were easily visible in Zoom mode. Out-of-time sections were marked and moved into place. Though originally trained to use stainless steel editing tools, I found the waveform views obviated the need for scrub or loop features. (These are also on the virtual drawing board.)

Because it was a live recording, feedback inevitably occurred. These problems were easily pruned by repeatedly playing the offending shrieks, adjusting the EQ (+14/-24 dB) until they disappeared. The bandwidth can be made narrow enough to not effect the surrounding music. In addition, only the sections that required processing received treatment. Again, remarkably transparent. In the same way, I tweaked the level of the overdubbed guitars to mold their dynamics to that of the song, producing the effect of automation. The end result was smooth, warm and punchy. (The only missing tools are compression and reverb. Maybe a hint of these at this yearís AES?)

LOOK MA, NO HANDS

I was often reckless, but I never crashed the system. (I was, however, slapped with a ticket from the Information Highway Police for attempting 14.4 K Baud in a 9600 Baud zone!) Though I didnít get to run Soundscape simultaneously with a MIDI program, I did have it open while logging on to AOL. Being able to run Soundscape in the background of this document was also pleasantly distracting. It allowed me to try new ideas quickly, delaying the completion of this review. Performance was not changed, but Soundscape could not export a soundfile to the PC. (More on that in a moment.)

In between projects I returned to the manual, each time a bit more calm and receptive. The information is there, but itís not organized for new users. The good stuff happened in the third chapter. I think that a "Top Ten List," at the head, would be helpful. Keeping the manual up to date with each software upgrade will be Soundscapeís ultimate challenge. (Both hard-copy and readme files document the changes with each version.)

SOUNDBLASTER, .WAV and the BACK-UP PROCEDURE

Soundscape will import and export 16-bit .wav soundfiles with the PC. I experimented with a few file conversion utilities that came with the Soundblaster audio card. Though crude and potentially time consuming, stereo files can be converted to mono and 16-bit files can be reduced to 8-bit. In addition, sample-rate conversion can also reduce file size, the prime consideration for some software applications. One problem occurred with imported, 48 K sample rate, .wav files. These played slower (probably at 44.1 K) in Soundblaster, which recognizes, but cannot correctly play, 48 kHz files.

Back-up to DAT was both effortless and interesting. Soundscape permits large filenames, which means youíll have a better chance of knowing what is being restored. Listening to the back-up process gives new meaning to the phrase "random access." Sound fragments st-st-stutter and alternate from side to side. Somehow, Humpty Dumpty gets put back together; a painless procedure.

FINALE

Soundscapeís SSHDR1 is a capable production tool well suited to the project environment. It is a cost-effective alternative to tape-based multitracking because of its ability to overdub beyond eight tracks. Although discrete inputs and outputs would be a plus, the lack of same does not detract from overall operation. Its minimal demands on the PC make it ideal for MIDI.

Ever since DAT, the world has searched for a replacement to the razor blade. Soundscape is a sharp, affordable replacement with extras.

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SIDEBAR: Putting it all together

SOFTWARE INSTALLATION

The windows-based software comes on a single floppy and installs in minutes. It creates a program group with sixteen icons that preconfigures Soundscape from 4 to 48 tracks. (The latter requires six units, each capable of eight tracks.) The program boots quickly and requires minimal processing from the PC so that other programs can run simultaneously. The PCís most complicated task is to calculate the graphic curves for the EQ display. (EQ doesnít change until the curve is completed. Though slower on SX models, itís quick on a DX/66. No problems were ever encountered, but the display can be turned off if your system is slow.)

THE PC INTERFACE

Communication with the PC is via parallel interface. One eight-bit ISA card will drive two units. Conflicts with other peripherals is minimal because the hex address of the interface does not conflict with any COM or LPT ports.

STANDARD VGA MONITOR

The four-track fits comfortably across the width of a VGA screen. The eight-track, however, which has four additional record and monitor enable "buttons" (8 total), nudges the other tools to the right, some off the edge of the screen. The user-programmable tool bar resolves this problem with nine available Pages, enough to organize the most useful tools together.

Double clicking the pointer on any blank space within the tool bar brings up a complete Palate of tools. As each tool is pressed, a brief helpful description appears. Tools can then be dragged to the bar in any order and can appear on multiple pages. For example, since record enable is used less frequently, I placed these eight icons on Page two along with a few basic tools.

THE LAY OF THE LAND

Starting at the top of the screen is Menu Row followed by the Toolbar and a calibrated Time Axis. Musical resolution options include bars, quarter, eighth, sixteenth and thirty-second notes, plus triplets, all the way down to SMPTE sub frames. Like a CAD program, there is a Snap feature. Snap makes locator flags, the "play head" and soundfiles click into place. It can also be turned off.

Most of the screen is dedicated to the Arrange window, which can be sized, scaled and zoomed to view all, or any portion, of the soundfiles. At the lower portion of the screen are the default locations for the mixer, audio and memory buffer meters, the take directory, the transport control panel and the locator. (Arrow buttons on the QWERTY keyboard also double as transport controls.)

SPECIAL FEATURES

In addition to the programmable tool bar, four tools can be loaded into the mouse at any one time. When a tool icon is selected with the left button, a black bar appears under the left side of the icon. Selecting with the right mouse button places a black bar under the right side of the icon. Pressing the ALT key while clicking puts a red bar below the icon. (Referring to the tool bar gives a visual indication of which tools are selected.) It is possible, for example, to have the edit, fade, drag and solo tools on the mouse at any one time.

POWER TOOLS

The Scissors tool is used to mark a track. Two marks define a section that can then be manipulated by such tools as Level, EQ, Fade-up, Fade-down, Move and Normalize, to name a few. Group gropes are also possible by placing the left and right cursors around a section.

THE HOT ROD: SVGA plus VIDEO ACCELERATOR

For comparative purposes, I also used a high-powered 486 DX2/66 to determine its effects on system performance. The PC was loaded with 16 MB of RAM, a 928Movie video accelerator and a 17-inch SVGA monitor. The default Soundscape window only takes up two-thirds of this screen. This leaves plenty of room to move the transport panel, mixer, take directory and memory buffer away from the arrange window which can then be expanded to fill the screen.

UNDER THE HOOD

Inside the box is the main PCB (home to the DSP), plus room for two IDE/AT 1.7 GB drives. Independent power supplies isolate the drives from the signal electronics, reducing the likelihood of digital noise entering the analog domain. Noise was never noticed, although on one occasion the Crystal Semiconductor, self-calibrating DA converter distorted as program passed through the -30 dB range. Repowering solved the problem.

The stereo inputs and four channel outputs appear in both analog and digital flavors, all utilizing gold-plated RCA connectors. (XLR connectors are optional.) Input sensitivity is selectable between -10 and +4. Output is fixed at -10. MIDI In, Out and Thru connectors are also provided. SMPTE to MTC requires a third-party box such as the JL Cooper PPS-100.

EQ: Eight arms to hold you

Pressing E diverts DSP power from the mixer to the EQ window. Real-time spectral processing is limited to two channels. Once tweaked, a tool makes the EQ "stick" to that track. Processing time varies depending on the take length and the number of filters applied to the take. Eight filters can be applied to a mono file, stereo files get four filters per channel.


APPLICATION: For project studio, audio-for-video and radio production.

SUMMARY: Competitively priced, eight-track, hard disk recorder/editor with built-in mixer and a generous complement of tools and features.

STRENGTHS: Easy to install and use; requires minimal PC power (386 or higher); features a programmable tool bar.

WEAKNESSES: This box works only with a PC.

PRICE: $2,750 w/o hard disk


For more information:

Soundscape Digital Technology, Inc.

U.S. address: 4478 Market Street, Suite 704

Ventura, CA 91361

Tel: 805-658-7375