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Bring in the Noise
by Thad Brown
I FINALLY UPSET SOMEBODY
Well, the first article about how cool PC audio can be generated not a single piece of hate mail, but I knew it was only a matter of time. Re: last weeks MPEG report, turns out I was leading a generation of budding audio pros into the severest error by not naming my MPEG layers correctly. SO, I hereby publicly swear to use Roman numerals whilst enumerating compression codecs for as long as I live and actually remember which codec I am trying to describe.
Remember, folks, Nietzsche could be right, we may have to repeat this life over and over again eternally, retracing these same steps each time. At the high brow level, this gives each of our decisions and actions an overwhelming importance, we chose it forever and again, but on a more mundane level it means that if you are reading my MPEG article and you think it sucks, every second you take to continue to read and confirm that it sucks is a second you may have to repeat over and over eternally. That may be funny, but don't think it's not serious . . .
THE COMING BATTLE OF THE GUI
I ran across a page at the Yamaha site the other day. It has screenshots of various software implementations of their new DSP/mixing/recording card. You can check it out here. Those screenshots are a fascinating little microcosm of a battle brewing in the audio soft world. The fight is over what exactly this stuff should look like. Audio, of course, is no easier to show visually than a Photoshop doc would be to show using only sound. Early on, the waveform was standardized as a good compromise, you get time from left to right, and amplitude from top to bottom. That was great when working with a few files, editing them, and even for some recording. Starting a few years ago, and starting in earnest right about now, the bar is getting raised higher and higher. A computer is no longer something you can have in your recording studio, a recording studio is something you can have in your computer. Ambitious computer audio folks like me can have 32 tracks of digital audio, effects, automated mixing, and non-linear editing on a quite modest Power Mac, with only speakers and a small outboard mixer for monitoring signals going in and out.
What confronts an audio developer is how to present this overwhelming amount of information in a way that makes some kind of sense, and that will fit on a 17 inch monitor. If you look at the above pictures, you will see some companies just copy a 24 channel mixer, a bunch of faders, knobs, and meters. Some will add a little jazz with some extra windows, but stick pretty close to the mixer console approach. Others are exploring some more distant waters, page-like layouts of tracks with a mixer window with some faders you can call up at will, resizable channel strips or audio channels, and some even weirder stuff.
Many people like the simple console approach. Lots of audio pros have used big mixing desks forever and don't really want to change. Some people have even wondered when someone will take the surface of a mixer, toss a few computer chips and a hard disk inside, and make a complete pro quality digital recording system that looks like a mixer. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that -- when I can mix like Tom Lord-Alge maybe I'll get him to drop the 48 channel SSL board, but right now I'd just like some lessons. But in the long run, there is no reason to believe that the computer based studio will continue to act like a copy of a hardware studio. The folks who want the "mixer with a computer in it" might also want a touch sensitive easel, palette, and ADB (or USB for the iMac) brush for Illustrator data input. I don't see that as the future at all, and audio, because it has no good visual reference anyway, may be just the place where the GUI goes wild.
HOW THE OTHER ONE TENTH OF ONE PERCENT LIVES
I was lucky enough to get to install a new NT box in an otherwise all mac studio (those windoze machines are useful for running Office and stuff). The man in charge has been putting together gear for over twenty years in the same place with a decent (not palatial) budget. He has a very nice computer setup, but the real family jewels are the microphones and a holy grail early seventies Neve mixer. In addition to getting the IBM up and running, I was able to look around and talk audio with him. It really brought home what we computer jocks are going up against. One equalizer from that Neve is worth more than my entire recording rig. I don't regret the way I record (and after all I don't have any choice), but there is NO way I can even get near the quality of that setup. What we do have, though, is the ability work at home, whenever we wish, and with all the time we can spare to experiment. We have to exploit that as much as we can.
GOTTA GET MY LITTLE NAME TAG
Good news, faithful readers. It looks like yours truly will be attending a big studio professional shindig in NYC later this month, as a representative of xlr8yourmac. I was shocked that they offered to give me a press badge for a day, so I will get to report back on exciting topics like audio file format transfer, the dangers of upgrading, and the all digital studio. Should be fun, and maybe I can get some rep from Avid or Lexicon all sloshed and they will let me review some of the REALLY cool stuff. One can always hope, and take plenty of cash to buy drinks. NYC Marriot, here I come . . .
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