by Jerry Vigil
If you've been too busy to keep up with the trends in digital recording, you might have missed a few basics worth knowing. We have received calls and letters over the past few months inquiring about various digital recording systems on the market. Some of the questions pertained to the inexpensive hard disk systems that are now available. About one hard disk system it was asked, "How much RAM does it have?" Apparently, there is still a little confusion out there in analog land about recording directly to a hard disk. The question, "How much RAM does it have?" doesn't apply to hard disk systems like it does to RAM based systems. Samplers, an example of RAM based recorders, record audio into RAM where it can later be accessed and manipulated. In this case, the amount of RAM will deter-mine recording time. Today's new hard disk recorders, however, are recording directly to the hard disk, and the recording time is determined by the size or capacity of the disk.
"But wait a minute," you say. "I was just getting the hang of this RAM idea!" Don't be suckered into thinking for a moment that technology is slowing down to give us analog types some time to soak up all the stuff that has been thrown at us already. Remember that radio is a secondary market at best for much of the digital gear we use or wish we could use. Radio is not the market that determines the pace and the future of recording technology. There are very few com-panies keeping us in mind when they set out to design digital workstations, etc. It is our friends in the major recording studios across the land that compel manufacturers to make these new toys. Even so, when it comes to affordable hard disk recording, we can thank yet another market: The market for office computers.
In the world of office computers, LAN has been the new buzzword. LAN stands for Local Area Network. While network systems themselves are not new, the huge demand for them is. Being able to have several computers in an office accessing one large database has quickly become the way to go. Only one database of information has to be purchased and maintained, and a large number of people can access it at the same time from inexpensive, "dummy" terminals. Well, as things go, more and more people started accessing the same database, and then arrived the next problem for technology to rectify: "My computer is running slow today (whine, whine)." This sorrowful soul's computer was running slow because too many people were trying to access the same hard disk at the same time. The poor hard disk was having spasms trying to access ten parts of itself simultaneously and then send the data to the requesting terminals ASAP. So our good friends at The Big Computer Factory decided they could make a good buck turning out a super-fast hard disk drive -- one that would read and write data so fast that a "virtual plethora" of CRT stare-down masters could access information without having to take a coffee break after hitting the ENTER key. Keeping with their past record of giving us exactly what we want, the people at The Big Computer Factory built a hard disk drive so incredibly fast that even David Copperfield took interest. Before long, and only in the past couple of years, new LAN systems began popping up in offices everywhere, each reducing access time so much that users were actually starting to leave their novels at home.
Not too long after all this happened, the people at The Big Tape Recorder Factory (who had recently put their analog tape-recorder making machine up for auction) came upon an astounding realization: These office types at The Big Computer Factory had created a disk drive that could read and write so fast that it was also able to record and playback full bandwidth digital audio in REAL TIME, just like an R-DAT! Plus, the drive was so fast at locating pre-recorded audio that the audio could be accessed "at random," much like Random Access Memory! To top it off, they made it so cheap, even Donald Trump could afford it! "Gosh!" they said. "What are we gonna do with all our RAM?" You see, with a disk drive that can do this, RAM isn't needed to record digitally in real time and have quick, random access to the recording. RAM was necessary in the beginning because that was the only way to record digital audio in REAL TIME unless you used tape. Not so anymore. Only yesterday (it seems), you had to ask how much RAM a digital recorder had before you knew how much recording time you had. Nowadays, RAM is used as a buffer, and the amount of recording time you have is only limited by the size of the hard disk.
This disk recording method is not all that new. New England Digital turned many heads several years ago with the introduction of their "Tapeless Studio" which offered multi-track recording to a Winchester hard drive. Paired up with the Synclavier Digital Audio System, NED's Tapeless Studio, complete with options, went for over $300,000. Their smaller Post Pro system broke the six-figure barrier which later opened the door for similar systems from other companies priced in the high five figures. It is only recently, with the advent of inexpensive but fast drives and further advancements in digital technology as a whole, that the newer, "four-figure" systems have started cropping up. Granted, you won't have the capabilities of the larger, more expensive systems, but with the "affordable" disk recorders available today, you can get a two and even 4-track system with mixing and editing capabilities sufficient for radio production.
The secret behind the four figure systems is that the systems are designed with a basic personal computer as the work horse. This reduces hardware costs dramatically. An IBM AT clone can be had for under $2,000. Add the necessary digital/analog converter hard-ware and a software package that lets you manipulate the digital audio, and you have an inexpensive digital recorder/editor. High speed disk drives are the primary requirement, aside from the basics mentioned above, and that's where availability and affordability of the drives have played a major roll in the introduction of the low-priced disk recording systems.
The Dyaxis from Studer is a popular example of this new breed of disk recording system, coming in at under $10,000 for a pretty nice setup. If you have a MacIntosh computer, Studer provides the fast drives, additional hardware, and the software to set you up. Turtle Beach Softworks is one company which offers a card for the IBM PC which will convert your computer into a digital recorder. Their system is the 56K. If you already have a computer and a DAT machine (which provides the only digital/analog converters necessary), the 56K can be installed for under $3,000. A system complete with computer starts at under $5,000. There are pros and cons to these and other systems, and the rule of "you get what you pay for" still holds true, especially when you hold these systems up to the next level of hard disk systems priced in the five figure range. We have a Test Drive of the Dyaxis slated for the near future. At that time, we'll take our first detailed look at hard disk recording, mixing, and editing.
If you're shopping for a digital workstation, bear in mind that recording directly to hard disk is an affordable way to go. These drives still don't react as fast as RAM and there are other limitations when dealing with disk recording, but the systems are fast enough for a lot, but not necessarily all, of what we do. If you can afford a RAM based system with huge amounts of RAM, such as the AKG DSE-7000, this is still the "Cadillac" way to go, but don't ignore the many hard disk systems popping up everywhere. (Incidentally, we should be getting our hands on the DSE-7000 this month. Look for an article about it next month or possibly in September.) We'll keep our eyes open for the systems most adaptable to the production room and let you know what we find in issues to come. In the meantime, the smartest thing YOU can do is start working on your boss and that 1991 budget! ♦