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The language of digital audio workstations

Audio post operators on any and every budget have access to converters of extremely high quality.

You may find that the tools you already possess, plus a bit of study, are all you need to get some corporate post and local spot work.

Although it pains audiophiles, severely compressed MP3 downloads, written to disk on a home computer and thrown into a CD player, sound just fine to many people.

That sound you are hearing comes from spools — the kind that are used to hold reels of tape — rolling into oblivion. At this point an entire generation of young engineers has been trained with only a cursory exposure to tape. Clearly, the digital era is in full swing with regard to sound, both for music and audio post applications.

Although even diehard fans of analog tape have given up the ghost and fallen in line with the legions of operators who embraced digital audio early on, there are still some fundamental issues that need to be worked out. How to move files from one digital audio workstation (DAW) to another, what factors to consider when choosing a workstation and the future of the mixing console are several of the most important questions that facility owners face. This article will attempt to address where the industry is today and where it may be heading.

How good are your ears?

When CDs first became available to the public in the mid-1980s, the advantages of digital sound were widely touted. By today's standards, many of those early recordings sound terrible. Sub-par analog-to-digital converters were routinely used, which resulted in multiple distortions, especially on the high end. Operators who were not used to making sure that audio stayed as close to the 0dB mark as possible added unwanted noise to recordings, and tools to normalize audio — simply put, to bring an entire track as close to this optimal level as possible — hadn't been developed and brought to market.

Today, while there may be disagreement regarding which ones offer the truest digital representation of an analog source, the fact is that audio post operators on any and every budget have access to converters of extremely high quality. Mastering houses also have learned how to create 16/44.1kHz masters with all the dynamic range possible within this standard.

Current broadcast standards affecting the vast majority of viewers blur whatever distinctions exist between the best converters and the very good. But is 16/44.1kHz good enough in the long term? Technology has advanced in two areas that have a major impact on this recording industry spec, one that the broadcast industry has picked up on. Most audio experts hear a clear improvement when 24-bit technology is substituted for 16-bit. 24-bit yields a dramatically increased number of resolutions, impacting the way subtle dynamic changes are heard. The result is a warmer and richer sound. Doubling the 44.1kHz sampling rate to 88.2kHz, or even more dramatically, sampling at rates as high as 192kHz, also yields a clearly improved product. In addition to the advances in bit depth and sampling rates, the development of DVD means that record and film producers have much more storage space available to them than ever before. Obviously, music benefits most when it need not share disk space with the more demanding needs of video. In many instances, however, a judicious allocation of bits for video will still leave enough room for audio mixed to the higher standards, even when that audio is blown out from stereo to a 5.1 field. Not today, but one day in the future, digital transmission will catch up, and the average listener will own equipment capable of decoding material delivered to this higher standard, which is why many television producers are archiving their programming with mixes built to these elevated standards.

But what kind of quality does the consumer demand now? Will he or she be willing to buy another round of audio equipment to hear records and surround sound tracks played with the greatest fidelity? Although it pains audiophiles, one of the reasons Napster came under siege from the record labels was that severely compressed MP3 downloads, written to disk on a home computer and thrown into a CD player, sound just fine to many people. While high-end mastering engineers find distinctions between the Dolby AC3 and DTS compression schemes, and pine for records and soundtracks mixed with no compression at all, the plain truth is that consumers are content with a level of audio product that falls far short of that which today's technology can output. If you are building an audio post facility though, at any level, one thing is certain: You need to weigh in on the future of digital audio transmission and make equipment purchases that fall in line with your strategy.

Purchasing a DAW

The options available to the audio post professional today are staggering, considering the capital required only a decade earlier. At that point, if you did not have $100,000 to spend on a DAW — not counting a console and all of the required ancillary equipment, including analog tape machines, DAT decks and a large patch bay — you could not be in the game.

In addition, digital editing brings specific advantages to the post world where, unlike the record industry, keeping an EDL with hundreds of clips accessible at all times is essential. The high cost of this technology helped cement audio post as an area reserved for highly capitalized companies. The residue of this phenomenon is that even today, when affordable DAWs are readily available, there are far fewer project studios specializing in audio post than music.

What factors should you consider if you are planning to build a single station audio post room? Your choice of workstation is critical. Given its wide use, Digidesign's Pro Tools platform deserves some consideration. In its early days Pro Tools was a great idea — multitrack audio on an off-the-shelf Macintosh computer — that could not quite cut it in either professional music or audio post applications. CPU speeds were not fast enough to manage all the data necessary to run a session, especially an audio post session, without running the risk of constant crashes.

That era is past. The current generation of Pro Tools systems routinely run continuously with minimal problems.

Pro Tools costs more than some other products, but this fact must be balanced against an assessment of the added power and flexibility of the system, compared to what $25,000 would have bought in 1990. Pro Tools plug-ins cost more than the native versions of those same plug-ins, and adding farm cards to a Pro Tools rig can add expense, but there are no format issues involved in moving audio between Pro Tools systems. Sessions begun on one Pro Tools rig will open on another, although various setup issues including I/O will need to be addressed.

It is important to remember, though, that many of the problems associated with moving between platforms are being addressed at this time. Also, other digital audio solutions are available. Of the cost effective systems that combine proprietary hardware and software designed to work on personal computers, the E-MU Paris workstation is worth a look for any project audio post facility that does not require 100 percent compatibility. The $10,000 system offers a fully functional 48-track recording and mixing environment, complete with the plug-ins that ship with Paris and some popular third-party software. A 16-track mixing control surface also is included with every Paris system.

Until recently, manufacturers of digital audio systems that rely exclusively on the host computer for all DSP needs have been reluctant to claim that their products are capable of handling the rigorous demands of audio post. As dual processor machines are coming to market, and with faster CPUs on the horizon, some of these manufacturers are getting bolder.

Steinberg originally released Nuendo, a multitrack software application for the SGI platform, in the mid-1990s. It was less than a smashing success. Undeterred, Steinberg realized that both Macs and PCs were getting faster, and bet that one day soon these platforms would be fast enough to handle the audio needs of both music and audio post professionals without the assistance of any of the cards that systems like Pro Tools and Paris require.

Steinberg also realized that multichannel audio was soon to become the norm, so it designed Nuendo with surround sound in mind from the beginning. The resulting application, released first for the PC and then for Macs, handles multichannel mixing beautifully and works with its own I/O hardware or with I/O built by a variety of third-party manufacturers. Price this option out for yourself but, with the Nuendo software going for about $1000 and computer prices dropping, this option is clearly worth considering.

Are you branching into audio post to augment the income you derive as a project studio musician/engineer? If so, you probably know all the secret corners of your digital sequencer's audio engine. A number of these applications, including Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer, Emagic's Logic Audio and Cakewalk, are adding surround sound and clip-based editing functions that make them candidates for some audio post work. Learn how to serve your clients' needs! You may find that the tools you already possess, plus a bit of study, are all you need to get some corporate post and local spot work.

Audio file interchange

No audio post facility exists in isolation. At the very least, the work you do will need to be laid back to a medium that carries both sound and picture. What equipment you'll need for layback is beyond the scope of this article, but the issue of file compatibility touched on earlier needs to be addressed.

A Pro Tools Session includes all of the digital audio and mix information that was saved with it. But what if you own another system — Paris, or a native application like Nuendo? Can you open Pro Tools files? In short, yes and no. Digidesign sells an application, DigiTranslator, for about $500 that will allow some other applications to open a Pro Tools Session. However, Pro Tools owners are not likely to spend $500 on an app that will let someone else open their Sessions. What does happen frequently is that users of other applications will ask a Pro Tools facility to save files in Digidesign's SDII format. Originally limited to 16 bits, SDII now can carry either a 16- or 24-bit stream. Any application that can read SDII files can open them easily, regardless of the system that originally created them.

SDII files are simply audio streams that start at one point and end at another. No EDL or mix information can be saved in this fashion. These limitations present no insurmountable problems for the recording industry. After all, in the old days producers carried reels of 2-inch tape around with one thought in mind only: Get a good performance! Mix decisions — save those that required on the spot bounce downs when track count became an issue — were intended to be executed only once, during the final mix. Therefore, sending off SDII stereo mixes, or even individual files, on cheap CD ROMs is simply an extension of the time-honored way record makers have worked for the last half century.

This methodology does not quite cut it in post, where sound effects, Foley, music and dialog editors are often working on a film at the same time. The pre-mix a dialog editor executed might work perfectly and still changes will be called for all the way up to the mixing stage. Many factors, including the fact that no picture is ever “final” these days, make it necessary for every file's location and all aspects of the mix process to be saved in audio post — not just the files themselves.

Finding a way to allow manufacturers in the DAW industry to get at all of the information stored in other manufacturers' files has been challenging. Fortunately, the AES Standards Committee Working Group on Audio-File Transfer and Exchange has been working on this problem for the last four years, and has made progress, according to Ron Franklin, president of WaveFrame Inc., in developing AES31, a file format allowing the accurate transfer of audio files and all related media references, tracks, fades and edit events between DAWS from different manufacturers. The interchange format is the first approved by a standards body — the Audio Engineering Society, with input from the audio industry itself. The standard has been ratified and is being implemented by manufacturers.

Do I need a mixing console?

Even the question seems strange, considering the fact that mixing boards have been the central destination point for all audio sources for more than 50 years. Consoles not only allowed engineers access to audio tracks for mix purposes, they also were key to the way audio was bussed to external devices like effects processors and tape recorders. Today, much of the bussing load is handled in software, and digital transfer protocols have streamlined the process considerably.

Very few audio professionals would argue that the days of the broadcast console are over. Of all the areas in this business, performance pressure is greatest at the point of signal dissemination. However, the post industry has very different needs. One of the most interesting areas of development is the proliferation of control surfaces. Add-on hardware designed to add fader functionality to computer-based DAWs that do not require them, control surfaces bring many of the advantages of a traditional mixing board to the user of Pro Tools, Nuendo and a number of other software-based workstations. Facility owners and operators have many interesting options when it comes time to look at control surfaces. Do you need to have 24 faders at your fingertips, or will eight do? Would you like to control EQ and plug-ins from the surface, or can you work some functions with a mouse? You can tailor your studio to include a workstation that meets your needs, depending on your budget and requirements.

These are exciting times for the audio post industry. The price barriers that kept smaller facilities with limited capital from competing with their more well-financed competitors are falling. We are seeing the first of the new breed — the hungry, talented audio post engineers who are willing to buy the equipment they need, hang a shingle, and go after market share.

Gary Eskow is a composer and journalist based in New Jersey.