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THE GREAT DAW CHALLENGE - Mixonline

THE GREAT DAW CHALLENGE

The old debate was simple: digital vs. analog. But today, we have PC vs. Mac, native vs. host-based, digital consoles vs. audio interfaces, hardware samplers
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The old debate was simple: digital vs. analog. But today, we have PC vs. Mac, native vs. host-based, digital consoles vs. audio interfaces, hardware samplers vs. GigaStudio, EXS24 and Halion, FireWire vs. PCI; take your pick, and someone can build a case for the best way to work. As the format war's intensity increases, it has become imperative to carefully weigh not only the monetary considerations but also the investment of one's time and energy. With the pace of today's work, there simply isn't time to head down any blind alleys.

In my work as the Digital Doctor (a consulting business serving the New York area), I consult with a diverse group of clients with very different needs and goals: studio owners, musicians, producers, composers working in film and television. The common thread is that they all want to use their CPUs to track, edit, mix, post, send MP3s and browse the Web — all while doing it faster, cheaper and easier than they did yesterday.

In the past month alone, my studio clients have sequenced running Logic and VST instruments and printed to Pro Tools; dumped files from Logic running on one CPU into Pro Tools|HD for mixing; played songs straight out of Digital Performer 3 into analog gear and then into Pro Tools for mastering; tracked through Pro Tools hardware into Cubase on a PC; transferred files from Nuendo to Logic; and brought 24-bit Tascam tapes to be transferred to Pro Tools for editing and mixing. The point to all this? The lack of compatibility among formats is costing people a lot of time and money. There is a great deal of pent-up demand to be able to move freely between studios.

These issues lead to the two questions I'm constantly asked: One, what is the best choice for a user setting up a high-end DAW on a single CPU? And two, how does one incorporate multiple CPUs into a powerful and dependable system? This article will focus on the first question of setting up the killer computer-based studio, providing two case studies that are pretty typical of what I see daily. I will tackle the issue of compatibility more fully in my next article.

Even though a single CPU is capable of power that was simply unimaginable a few short years ago (in 1985, I was able to awe my friends with Professional Composer's eight tracks of MIDI running on a PC that sported 64K on the motherboard), users' expectations have increased at an even faster rate. The goal, therefore, is to design a combination of software and hardware that meets users' needs and desires without sacrificing reliability/stability. The first decision is possibly the most important: whether to use “native” (referred to as host-based processing) or invest four times as much in a TDM system.

Let's look at native systems first. With the increased CPU power available today, mixing a project entirely with native plug-ins has come closer to being a reality. But soft synths, video playback, and applications such as Reason and GigaStudio all compete for the same processor cycles that plug-ins do. As more demands are placed on the system, even the fastest CPU will eventually buckle.

NATIVE SYSTEMS AND LATENCY

The biggest drawback to host-based systems is latency. Software companies seem to have conveniently missed this point. Every manufacturer I speak with tells me that latency is not a big issue, yet it is the Number One concern of musicians and producers. Even the lowest buffer settings yield 1.5ms to 3ms delays and are more of a fantasy than a reality when it comes to large files. The song that starts out with 16 tracks and a somewhat livable 3ms delay setting will die an ugly death when it reaches 64 tracks of audio, 128 plug-ins and 16 virtual instruments. In order to record a session with this file, all of the tracks would have to be bounced to disk. This is not the DAW dream. Although many interfaces feature “no latency” inputs, these are generally limited to a stereo pair, with the live inputs combined with the stereo mix from the sequencer and fed directly to the interface's output. When combined with an outboard mixer and reverbs, this setup can salvage a small overdub session, but this is definitely not an alternative for pro applications.

Bluntly stated, the current level of latency in host-based systems is simply unacceptable for most of my clients, large or small. Therefore, a combination of card-based and native processing power is still necessary for the pro user. For the moment, at least, Digidesign dominates this approach. In addition to zero latency on input, Digi hardware also provides confidence monitoring, extensive DSP power, high track counts and extended sample rates. It also offers compatibility with most major studios, in addition to the highest reliability.

These issues would seem to make Digidesign hardware and Pro Tools an obvious choice. For many users, it is. In terms of composing and arranging via MIDI, however, pro users need sequencing tools that are simply not yet available in Pro Tools. (Real-time quantize, looping, notation, VST support, to name just a few — these desires are not news to developers of Digidesign, and I'm sure they are hard at work on them.) The other important consideration is that most musicians and producers typically have logged years on their chosen sequencer and are loath to sacrifice that experience. This leads many users to seek to improve their work environment with Digi hardware, as opposed to completely starting over with Pro Tools.

INTEGRATING THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

For many, then, the discussion boils down to a two-part question: which sequencing program to use in conjunction with Digidesign hardware, and how to control the hardware via the chosen program. Logic, DP3, Cubase/Nuendo, Sonar, etc., all have their devotees. Of these, Cubase/Nuendo and Sonar, although excellent native applications, do not support Digidesign hardware at all.

Logic and DP3 are both sophisticated and mature programs, though Logic offers much tighter integration. HD support for Logic is shipping, while MOTU's HD support is promised with its long anticipated 3.1 update. DP3 and Logic can both be run with the sequencer “taking over” the Digidesign hardware and under DAE. This allows for the no-latency monitoring and DAE plug-ins (a huge plus). Until now, it has also ruled out using the host's native plug-ins. Emagic's release of the groundbreaking ESB-TDM Bridge (which allows users to run DAE on one track and Logic/VST on another) was a pivotal moment, allowing users to have their proverbial cake and eat it, too.

However, many longtime Pro Tools users do not want to abandon the program. For some, the elegant automation and ease of use are irreplaceable, while for others, it is the need to interface with other Pro Tools studios on a daily basis. One answer is to run both applications at the same time (Logic or DP3 handling the sequencer chores and Pro Tools handling the audio), synchronized over the IAC bus (an internal bus of the Mac OS). I have many clients who do this, and it has proven to be quite stable. The drawback is that only one program can be the master (i.e., start and stop the other). This can be solved by configuring Pro Tools hardware as the digital clock master, while using a synchronizer (for example, the MOTU DTP, Digi's USD or the new Sync I/O) as the time-address master. Each application sends MMC to the synchronizer and receives MTC back from the synchronizer. In this way, the fronted application always has control of the system. It's fast and accurate, and it works.

In order to explore today's realities, I want to examine two real-life scenarios where users have dealt with single-CPU issues and have come up with configurations that work.

DP3 AND PRO TOOLS

Joel Goodman, of Hifiproductions, is a composer and DP3 user who works primarily for film and TV.

“My current MIDI/recording setup is entirely computer-based, with Digital Performer fronting my Digidesign hardware. There is no physical mixing console and no outboard effects [other than an occasional PCM 80], and all mixing and DSP are done in the computer via TDM plug-ins. The way I typically work is to compose in DP, do some ‘premixing,’ and then transfer everything into Pro Tools for additional recording and final mixdown.For me, DP and Pro Tools each have major features to offer that the other doesn't. One of the most important Pro Tools features is that it is now in almost every studio. So when I need to go to a larger facility, I can just bring my drive and I'm ready to go. But when it comes to composing, and especially composing to picture, Digital Performer is indispensable.

“One of those ‘indispensable’ features is the way that DP handles separate cues as ‘chunks,’ allowing me to work with one file per reel of film. So instead of having 35 files and the need to open a new file with each cue, I usually only have six files. Chunks also help keep setups and tracks to a minimum while promoting more consistency. Perhaps most importantly, when a director comes over to hear my work, everything is right there. Another important aspect of Performer is the conductor track, which allows you to view tempo and meter changes in the main Arrange window. Logic handles this in a separate window, which prevents editing the tempo and MIDI tracks in parallel. While I'm sure there are work-arounds, these are important features for film work.

“I decided to run Digital Performer under DAE instead of using MAS [MOTU Audio Engine], for several reasons. The first is to access TDM plug-ins, which are truly top-shelf, and to ensure that what I work on in my studio will transfer exactly to what we use in the final recording and mixing. An important problem with this scenario is the inability to automate effect parameters, which both Pro Tools and Logic can do. Another important limitation has to do with using soft synths [such as Absynth, Virus, etc.], which ‘connect’ to Digital Performer via Digidesign's Direct Connect. Digital Performer only allows one instance of each as opposed to using the soft synths in Pro Tools, where I could have up to eight instances. Also, VST is not supported directly and requires the use of a ‘wrapper,’ which is buggy. The lack of full support for soft synths and VST is especially frustrating when considering the direction sound developers are taking. A perfect example is ILIO's amazing new plug-in, Stylus, which has been creating a huge buzz. Even though Stylus has an MAS version (as well as an RTAS and VST), DP3 still leaves any user running under DAE out in the cold.

“The second and most important reason I turned the Digi hardware over to DAE is that under MAS, it is not possible to monitor your input without latency. This became a deal breaker because, for me, zero latency is critical. The trade-off here is that DP can't punch in on-the-fly when running under DAE as it does under MAS. The work-around in this case is to use Digital Performer's auto-record feature and set the punch-in/out points before recording. This is something I hope will be addressed by DP soon. While I have considered sequencing in Pro Tools, there are far too many limitations, especially the absence of notation editing and printing.

“When all is said and done, one of the most important reasons that I compose with Performer is that I have been using it since Version 1.22, about 15 years! In that time, Digital Performer has grown into a stable and elegant composing tool. For now, the ease and speed of composing in DP, combined with the ability to edit and mix in Pro Tools, are a great combination.”

LOGIC AND PRO TOOLS

Andy Snitzer, a New York City-based musician and producer, has composed with Logic Audio and Pro Tools for years. The advent of soft synths and samplers has created a new set of problems and solutions, as the next example will illustrate.

“Until recently, I ran Pro Tools and Logic together on the same computer. Pro Tools served as my virtual mixer, accepting synth audio via my Digidesign 1622s, while I sequenced on those synths in Logic. Pro Tools controlled the audio via DAE, and Logic served only as a MIDI sequencer. When I finished an arrangement, I'd lock the programs together and record all of the MIDI parts as audio files in Pro Tools. From that point on, Pro Tools would be my working environment for overdubs, audio editing, mixing, etc. I had the best of both worlds as I saw it: MIDI tasks in Logic and audio tasks in Pro Tools.

“The advent of virtual synthesis blew this setup out of the water. In order to continue to work this way, and take advantage of both TDM and VST synths, things got too complicated. I'd load the Virus TDM, for instance, on a Pro Tools aux track and control it from Logic via OMS. Every time I wanted to change a patch, I had to switch programs! In order to use VST synths, I'd load the ESB on a Pro Tools aux track, and then load a VST synth on a DTDM track in Logic, linking them through Direct Connect. If I then wanted to print VST audio to tracks within Pro Tools, I'd often have to start Pro Tools in record with five or six bars of pre-roll, switch to Logic to re-establish the DC connection, switch back to Pro Tools to monitor recording, levels, etc. Switching between programs while running the Virus TDM would often cause Virus to freeze, meaning that I'd have to remove and re-instance the plug before audio output from the plug-in would stop!

“The solution to all of this was to turn the Digidesign hardware over to Logic, and to run only Logic during the composing/arranging/sequencing stage. I built my virtual mixer in Logic, accepting input from the 1622s as before, yet I've also augmented my mixer to take advantage of the soft-synth world. Even on my old 9600/XLR8 G4 450, the amount of virtual synth/sampler power I'm getting is amazing and a joy to work with. My default setup loads with four stereo instances of Virus, four EXS24 stereo instances, four EXS24 mono instances and four stereo VST synths [B4, Absynth, EVP88, Cheese Machine] running through the ESB. I've loaded additional Virus and EXS24 instances without any problems. The only practical limitation I have is that at a certain level, the density of VST/ESB data can cause clicks and pops, I believe due to the bus speed on my trusty ol' Mac. Nevertheless, I've lately been doing full MIDI arrangements that are 80 percent based in virtual synthesis. In terms of plug-ins, I've got access to all of my TDM stuff, and on the VST instruments, I've got VST plugs on the DTDM track that hosts the VSTi, and TDM plugs on the ESB track that routes the sound to my audio interface! Making sampler banks in the EXS24 is a dream: Point it at a bank of .WAV files, tell it to map chromatically…done. Working with ReCycle this way is also amazing: Recycle the loop, export the slices and a MIDI file, make an EXS24 instrument, drag the MIDI file in and off you go.

“In addition to functioning as my audio mixer, MIDI sequencer and virtual sound palette, my setup also handles simple audio recording, naturally! Since I still prefer to work with audio in Pro Tools, I generally bus all of my MIDI-generated output to audio tracks when I've completed an arrangement. Usually, I'll just record all tracks from bar one and import them into a Pro Tools session, compacting the files where there are tons of blank audio. Before that, though, when I'm still in Logic, if I need to record a vocal or a couple of guitar parts to arrange MIDI against, I can. If any of that ends up being final, I do the same thing I do with the synth output: bus to an audio track and import into Pro Tools.

“Once the session exists as audio only in Pro Tools, my good friend and frequent partner Kevin Killen can take a copy and start to do his thing on it, via our Titanium/Magma-based mobile rig. He prefers to work in Pro Tools. If at some point I need to do any additional MIDI work, I can either do it in Pro Tools, which is fine for an extra MIDI part or so, or if it's a bigger task, I can go back into the original Logic document. The flexibility is wonderful.

“While I do have a couple of practical limitations (which might well be remedied by a new G4!), I'm generally doing substantial work using host- and TDM-based virtual synthesis, MIDI, audio recording and audio mixing all on one computer. It's an amazing time.”

WRAP-UP

Because of the factors mentioned by both Goodman and Snitzer, many users decide to go with a combination of Logic and TDM. The tight integration with Digi hardware, as well as the extensive support for VST and soft synths, seems to make a compelling case. For established users, however, the decision to change programs is not to be taken lightly. The first tight deadline will often send my clients fleeing back to the safety of their original sequencer.

This fall will be a turbulent time. Apple's acquisition of Emagic is a perfect example of how fast things change. Soon, when Emagic, MOTU and Digi release versions that support OS X, the playing field may change yet again. VST is not supported in OS X (or it will have to be completely rewritten), so we will have to wait and see how that shakes out. Stay tuned.

Ned Mann, a bassist and recording engineer/producer for 25 years, runs Interactive Sound, a recording studio in Ringwood, N.J., and Digital Doctor, a studio consultation business.