Test Drive: AirCorp AirCart, Korg i3, and SADiE Disk Editor

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by Jerry Vigil

This month, we don't Test Drive any one particular piece of equipment, but instead kick the tires on three new and interesting items found at the recent NAB convention in Dallas.

The AirCart from AirCorp Systems

aircorp-aircartA hot topic, not only at the convention, but throughout the industry for some time now, has been the issue of data compression and its possible ill effects on audio when audio is compressed several times and/or mixed with other compression algorithms. That's one reason the new AirCart® from AirCorp Systems should capture the interest of many in the coming months. The AirCart is yet another in the growing family of "digital cart machines." What sets the AirCart aside from the others is the fact that there is no data compression in use, and the format is the 3.5-inch, 128 megabyte magneto-optical disk. The result is eleven minutes of stereo, uncompressed audio recorded at 48kHz sampling frequency (better than CD) on a small and durable medium.

Furthermore, AirCorp Systems has exchanged technology and information with Digital Broadcast Associates. The two companies share the AirCart's format to create a new digital standard known as Aspect®. This new standard will permit complete compatibility and interchangeability between machines from either manufacturer, and opens the doorway for other manufacturers to look at the Aspect standard as a format they may adopt for future pieces of equipment. The fact that the format doesn't use data compression will certainly make it one for other manufacturers to consider. As we continue to journey into the digital domain, there's no question that an industry "standard" will answer many of the questions concerning station engineers everywhere.

The AirCart is still in the developmental stage. The unit we saw was a working prototype. Beta units are expected to be on site within weeks, and full production and shipping is scheduled for the first quarter of 1994. There are no "playback only" units. All units are record/playback units. Operation is extremely simple as the unit's front panel would suggest. You get two LED bargraph level indicators; input level controls for each channel; a Record, Stop, and Play button; and an LCD display. The 3.5-inch magneto-optical drive offers a rugged feel with a relatively quick load and eject time.

The LCD display offers what you'd expect -- intro time, length, client name or song title/artist, etc.. Expanded display functions not available on the prototype are planned for the beta units. The 3.5-inch magneto-optical disks are available from several manufacturers including 3M, Hitachi, and Verbatim. We were told these disks would be available for under twenty dollars each, a fair price for a 128 megabyte magneto-optical disk. A nice feature of this type of disk is that a magnetic field is not enough to erase the data since it is "melted" onto the disk with a laser. Other preliminary specs include a frequency response at 5Hz to 20kHz, S/N ratio >90dB, THD <.05%, and play start time of 10ms maximum. There are XLR balanced analog ins and outs and an optional digital AES/EBU or S/PDIF interface (coaxial/XLR/optical with sample rate converter.) The cost of one AirCart is expected to be between four and five thousand dollars.

Korg i3 Interactive Music Workstation

Korg was on hand with their SoundLink digital workstation, and sitting next to it was something you don't see often at a radio convention...a MIDI keyboard. Introducing, the Korg i3 Interactive Music Workstation. The i3 is a 61-note, 32-voice polyphonic, fully programmable synthesizer featuring a 16-track sequencer, integrated digital multi-effects, and a floppy drive. On the surface, it looks like another music workstation, but the i3 goes a step further and includes a hefty database of pre-programmed sequences in a large variety of musical styles. This by itself is nothing really new since pre-programmed sequences for music workstations have been available for some time, but the i3 enables the user to "interact" with these sequences in a most innovative way.


The i3 has over 10,000 tracks of pre-recorded sequences stored in its 1 megaword ROM "Style" memory. There are 48 of these musical Styles to choose from including a number of rock, dance, country, R&B, and ballad Styles. You also get Reggae, Latin, Fusion, Salsa, Bossa Nova, Waltz, Dixieland, Blues, Motown, Rap, and on and on. Now, pay attention. Each of these 48 Styles has 4 "Variations." A Variation consists of six different sequences, each containing up to six MIDI tracks (drums, percussion, bass, and accompaniment 1, 2 and 3). These sequences are referred to as Parts, and the "interactive" magic occurs when these Parts are triggered by the chords you play on the keyboard. Play one chord, and the i3 plays one way; hit another chord and the i3 will analyze the chord and its relation to the other chord, then play something completely different yet "stylistically" and musically "correct." Want to end your song? Hit one of the two End buttons and the i3 performs a perfect ending. Oh, it does the same thing with intros, too! All the Styles can be modified and saved to disk, so you can end up with quite a collection of different Styles to choose from over a period of time.

The i3 also lets you edit and store "Arrangements" which allow you to select which instruments are played, their volume, panning, effect balance and more. What does this all mean? It means the i3 does the "performing" of the music YOU create! With just the most basic knowledge of chords, ANYONE that can push buttons can create music on the i3 -- not just simple, unsophisticated noise with a beat, but music worthy of being under a spot or promo! Wow! Now we understand why the i3 was at a radio convention!

Many of you have been working with synthesizers and sequencers for years, making your own music beds for spots and promos; but making a decent bed takes at least a fair amount of musical skills, not to mention the technical skills involved in knowing how to use a sequencer and synthesizer. The i3 allows someone with no musical background whatsoever to create halfway decent music -- and here's the key word -- QUICKLY! Again, it does help to know a few things about chords, like how to make them and which ones work best with each other, but this is something that can be self-taught from an easy to read $10 book on music basics.

What is most attractive about having an instrument like the i3 in the production room is the fact that it enables the producer to write music for the voice track. Let's say you have a simple winner promo to produce. You have an announcer open talking about how Joe Listener won a million dollars from your station. Next comes the winner's voice track -- lots of screaming, etc.. Then back to the announcer close -- "keep listening for your chance...." Many of us will use three music beds on a promo like this, or a least make some sort of musical or effect change when the winner's voice track begins, then again when the announce close starts. With an instrument like the i3, you can have the same song playing under the entire promo, and where you would normally change the music bed, you could simply change chords (or do any number of other things within the same "song"). The result is a bed that sounds like it was written for the voice track. In fact, it was!

There is much more to the i3 than is covered in these few paragraphs. If you're even half interested, call your local music stores and find one that has an i3 in stock. Go by and get a demo. Play it yourself. If you're not an accomplished musician, you'll smile from ear to ear as you "create" music on this machine. If you are an accomplished musician, you'll be able to take the i3 to its limits. The i3 lists for $3,200. Korg is also introducing the i2 for $3,800. For the extra bucks you get expanded ROM on a 76-note keyboard. 

SADiE Disk Editor From Studio Audio & Video

Finally, there was one other booth at NAB that warranted a glimpse by anyone looking into digital multi-track systems. While manufacturers throughout the U.S. are very busy creating better, faster, and more cost efficient multi-track hard disk systems, don't think for a minute that our European counterparts aren't doing the same. From Studio Audio and Video Ltd. in Cambridge, England comes the SADiE Disk Editor system. Ted Hayton, Sales Engineer for Studio Audio of England provided the demo on the SADiE system. Like many hard disk systems available, the SADiE system doesn't have a dedicated control panel; it is mouse driven. As Ted proceeded to display some of the various functions of the version 1.75 software, it became apparent this was a 4-track system. I said, "Ted, are there only 4-tracks?" Ted then loaded up the version 2.0, software slated to be available this month. After a few moments, version 2.0 pops up on the screen. Suddenly, there are eight tracks to play with, and a ton of added features including real time mixdown of eight tracks with metered faders into two or four channel outputs, an optional effects output, waveform editing, compatibility with CD recorders, real time digital EQ, compression and Time Stretch, automated mixing, reverse playback, 8mm support for archiving to the Exabyte format, overdub capability, sample rate conversion, pitch shifting, digital vari-speed while maintaining the sample rate on the digital output, and a couple of other nice things.

The 15 minute demo hardly provided enough time on the system to relate to you a comprehensive opinion of the SADiE system. But, as Ted led the tour of the system, it was obvious that simplicity was at the core of the design. After a while, I stopped letting Ted take me through the machine and just began ordering up various functions, expecting to wait for several seconds for each to arrive. I said, "Ted, move tracks 3 and 4 to tracks 1 and 2." It was too easy. "Ted, does this thing have Time Squeeze?" With a quick click of the mouse, Ted had selected the voice track of the commercial loaded into the system. Another click brought the Time Squeeze "fader" on the screen. Now, if you have a lot of experience with the Time Squeeze function on hard-disk based systems, you know that different systems handle this function differently, and most of them stumble through the process. Ted placed the cursor on the Time Squeeze "fader" and began moving it up and down. In real time, the voice track made the digital adjustments necessary to lengthen or shorten the track. There was no need to set the "squeeze" or "stretch" time then wait while the system rewrote the audio file. It acted as though the function was occurring in RAM rather than reading and writing to hard disk. "That's great, Ted, but can it do EQ?" Click. Here's the EQ screen. Again, select the track requiring EQ, click on the EQ control and adjust EQ - IN REAL TIME. "Ted...that's pretty good! Can it do compression?" Click. Here's the compression screen. With the ease of adjusting a compressor in an equipment rack to your side, Ted adjusted the compression on the voice track...IN REAL TIME...no waiting for the system to rewrite the audio file with new "compression information."

Not enough time was spent at the SADiE booth to satisfy this workstation junkie, but it was obvious that this hard disk based system had made some inroads into disk-based multi-tracking, especially with the new 2.0 software. A complete 1 gigabyte system, offering over an hour and a half of stereo recording at 44.1kHz can be yours for just under $10,000. Like any good system, the SADiE is expandable in many areas if you've got the bucks. The company delivers software updates free of charge up to one year after purchase, and updates can be downloaded from CompuServe. The system can be expanded to six hours and twenty minutes of stereo 44.1kHz recording. The system driving the SADiE is an Intel 486DX33 operating under DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1.

It isn't the price tag on the SADiE system that makes it attractive, and the lack of a dedicated control panel may discourage many in the broadcast field. But, the speed with which the system performed its many functions was very obvious. In fact, the SADiE system appeared to be one of the fastest hard-disk systems this test pilot has seen. The BBC Radio seems to have taken to the SADiE system with great affection. The system is also found in studios at Digital 101 in Thailand, Radio FFB and Radio Kiel in Germany, and there is a significant number of recording and post-production studios worldwide that have purchased the SADiE system. In the United States, some of these companies include E.A.R.S. in Chicago, Masterfonics in Nashville, Sterling Sound in New York, Soundelux and Lorita De La Cerna in Chicago, Panthon Studios in Arizona, and Disney Imagineering. Over 200 SADiE systems have been installed worldwide. What's the bottom line? If you're looking for a lot of punch in a disk-based multi-track system for under ten grand, give these guys a call. 

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