The Digital Dream

by Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

Digital audio workstations are the most seductive concept in radio today. They promise no tape and thus no blades, excellent audio quality and the ability to access material randomly and immediately.

Indeed, some digital audio workstations deliver all this and more. Others do not. In all cases to date, the creators of advanced digital audio workstations have failed to address radio's needs specifically and audio engineers in general. The only group of people to find digital audio workstations user-friendly so far, have excellent music and computer backgrounds and a great deal of patience.

Those in the forefront of radio production will adapt digital systems to their own needs. First they must decide at what level they want to pursue the digital dream. The first level is a system that will record at least 62 seconds of 16-bit full-bandwidth (minimum of 44.1K stereo sampling rate) digital audio. Such a system will allow for digital storage and manipulation of all spots and station production. In fact, such material could be accessed from multiple rooms simultaneously. Several systems are about to be introduced (Ryne from England and Dynacord from West Germany) that could accomplish this level at a modest cost of $20,000 to $25,000.

The second level of the digital dream requires ten to fifteen minutes of full-bandwidth sampling so that songs can be converted to random access recall. These systems offer all the basics for production except full multi-track capability. The company that has the most going for it in this price range ($60,000 - $120,000) is unquestionably Waveframe, a U.S. based company that makes the Audioframe. Its audio quality is unrivaled, but it has been slow in developing software.

The third and highest level of digital audio workstations feature full multi-track capability (at least 16 tracks) and huge amounts of random access memory (96 meg is not uncommon). At this point, only two companies make such a beast, New England Digital (the Synclavier system) and Fairlight (Australian-based make of the Fairlight III). It is not surprising in view of the staggering costs of such a system ($180,000 - $360,000).

Synclavier has received much publicity lately via their systems at KIIS and Hot 97. Those staffs are realizing just how complex the system is. It comes with two boxes of manuals and requires extensive training courses. At last, the company seems committed to the idea of adapting Synclavier's awesome potential to radio's needs. Only time will tell. Right now, the system is suited best to those with large budgets and ample research and development time. Meanwhile, Fairlight is even further behind New England Digital in addressing radio's needs. The Fairlight III is very much a musician's tool at this point.

Aside from the mega-prices that are associated with exotic digital audio workstations, they are beyond radio's current learning curve. However, change is in the air. Surprisingly, it will occur at level one. The reason is a major breakthrough in microchips. The chip at the heart of the Dynacord system performs 100,000 functions. With chips replacing circuit boards, the price has dropped dramatically while the features have significantly increased. The problem not solved by such chips is the cost of memory. If fact, memory and back-up ultimately become the major cost of every system. Storing all of a station's commercials and songs will be an expensive proposition for awhile longer. But prices are falling, optical storage systems are here and demand favors economies of scale.

So don't give up. On the contrary, 1989 and 1990 promise very positive developments for digital audio production and radio. In the meantime, avoid getting the "kiddie" systems that some manufacturers and radio people are touting as digital audio workstations. They suffer three major problems: 1) lowered audio quality, 2) short memory times because they are merely samplers and 3) reduced capabilities of manipulating the audio.

If we're going to be seduced, let's find a digital audio workstation worthy of our dream.

We'd like to thank Mike Lee for this month's feature article. Mike, as many of you know, is President of Brown Bag Productions in Colorado. We hope to dig him out of the snow and twist his arm for another article soon.


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