Field Test: Merging Technologies Pyramix 4.2 Workstation

Apr 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By K. K. Proffitt

Scalable DSD/PCM Recording, Mixing, Editing and Mastering

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A solitary triangle in one of Michael Bishop's excellent recordings convinced me that DSD offered a clarity that I didn't hear in my 48kHz PCM work. Bishop introduced DSD to a Nashville AES meeting several years ago, and I was struck by this one sound, a tiny point of light, with a decay as clean as the finish of a fine Alsatian sparkling wine. It was the first time I ever heard a recorded triangle that didn't sound false.

Pyramix Virtual Studio 4.2 from Merging Technologies supports multitrack DSD and PCM recording, as well as editing, signal processing, mixing and mastering in both formats. For this review, I concentrated on the system's DSD and surround features, and I was thrilled with the results. Although the system has some quirks that need to be fixed, Virtual Studio's quick flexibility, profound control and excellent sonic clarity make the Pyramix a powerhouse system for serious recording and mastering.

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Pyramix comes in numerous configurations, ranging from the software-only Pyramix Native (limited to four internal channels at 48 kHz with stereo input/output) to full-blown systems with eight cards that transmit and receive nearly every audio format. While Pyramix Native is fine for broadcast and simple editing, the hardware-based system offers PCM recording at sample rates ranging from 32 to 192 kHz, with bit depths of 16, 24 and 32. Internal sampling rate supports up to 384 kHz for processing, although there are no converters currently available for AD/DA that record that rate. If you are working in DSD mixing mode (“DXD” in Pyramix and Sony/Phillips parlance), then the sampling rate for processing will generally be 352.8 kHz (8fs of 44.1 kHz) at 32 bits. For all currently available platforms, DSD must be converted to PCM for processing.

The heart of the hardware system is the Mykerinos board, a 32-bit PCI board with mixing and effects processing powered by the Phillips Trimedia VLIW processor (32-bit floating processing capable of greater than 288 sustained Mflops). Mykerinos includes a PCI card and interchangeable daughter cards with varying connectors. Although this review's 4.2 system is limited to 64 input and output buses for PCM projects, Merging promises 128 input/output at 44.1- and 48kHz 32-bit floating point for V. 5.0. Similarly, with V. 4.2, you are limited to two channels of DSD I/O with one Mykerinos board and eight channels of DSD I/O with two Mykerinos boards, but with V. 5.0, 16 channels of DSD will be available on a four-card system. Multiple Mykerinos cards are connected using the HTDM cable.

Daughter cards available include ADAT optical (16 channels of 44.1 or 48 kHz on four Lightpipe connectors, eight channels of 88.2 kHz or 96 kHz with S/MUX or dual-stereo S/PDIF), AES/EBU I/O (available with SRC on the first eight channels, 24 channels of I/O total on 12 AES/EBU pairs, single- and dual-wire support for sample rates at 64 kHz and above), MADI (64 channels on BNC or glass-fiber duplex SC), Dual (a mixture of mic/line, line and AES/EBU I/O), SDIF (supports SDIF-2 and SDIF-3) and TDIF (24 channels of I/O over three DB25 connectors, limited to 48 kHz). There is a 96kHz analog output on the Mykerinos card with automatic down-conversion for projects with sample rates above 96 kHz.

Although no analog converters are supplied with the system (except the Dual daughtercard), Merging offers an 8-channel converter that supports sampling rates up to 96 kHz called the Sphynx. A lower-cost converter, the Dua II, supports four analog and four digital input and output channels. Pyramix also supports DSD converters from dCS, EMM Labs, Genex and Prism. I used the Prism Sound Dream ADA-8 with a DSD I/O module. Pyramix can sync to Video/HDTV, LTC, VITC and word clock via a cable “squid” that connects to the DIN connector on the Mykerinos card. Timecode “burn-in” is available via video output or throughput.

THE PYRAMIX PROJECT


The Project Module that you create contains a mixer, a Composition EDL comprising audio clips in tracks on a timeline, references to libraries containing master clips, other compositions, mixer, plug-in and fade settings.

If you will be editing, overdubbing, mixing or mastering PCM audio, then choose Editing Project and select bit depth and sample rate. For a DSD project, choose either DSD Project (for recording and playback of 2.8MHz DSD files) or a DXD Mixing Project (for overdubbing, editing and mixing with automation in the 352.8kHz/32-bit domain). Then name a new workspace, project name, project and media location. A Mixer Wizard appears to guide you in selecting a template for the mixer or to help build a mixer with various tracks and buses. You can then choose Connect Automatically to enable the system, creating connections to the hardware.

In DSD or DXD mode, the Wizard currently only allows creating a basic mixer, which can be modified once the Project wizard is finished. At press time, no templates were available for DSD projects. Fortunately, right-clicking anywhere on the mixer brings up context-sensitive menus, but some of them are nested three layers deep. Like other areas of Pyramix, added configuration power means added complexity, but this often indicates features that separate Pyramix from the “also-rans” in the DAW market. For example, Pyramix offers two surround panning algorithms: Constant Gain allows the surround panning to preserve a constant gain on all main channels wherever the position control is placed; and Constant Power, where the surround panner preserves a constant power sum on all main channels wherever the position control is placed. Audio engineers familiar with Michael Gerzon's theories on localization and uniform ambience around the listener will appreciate this.

The Pyramix interface allows you to have multiple projects open and drag-and-drop assets among them. Background digitizing with auto-conform of a CMX-format EDL via Sony 9-pin machine control is supported, so you can work on one project while recording another. Media management is comprehensive, offering networking support for large studios with shared users and libraries.

Pyramix supports project import/export with AES31, Akai DD, CMX, DDP, OMF, Open TL, Pro Tools and Sonic Solutions. There is, however, one session-sharing limitation. For example, Pro Tools is supported only up to V. 5.0, limiting the Pro Tools session interchange to a maximum sampling rate of 48 kHz. To make your DSD files available to Pro Tools|HD, render the DSD tracks one at a time as 24-bit Broadcast .WAV or .AIFF; otherwise, you'll get a multichannel file. Then, sample rate-convert files appropriately; for example, to 192 kHz. Choose the box that maintains its file format or it will revert to pmx, the Pyramix native format. In my early attempts at rendering 20-minute DSD files, I kept them at multichannel format. The machine crashed with an “Out of Memory” warning. Another time, I rendered them as multichannel files and ran into the Broadcast .WAV 2GB limit or the .AIFF 4-gigabyte limit. If you are recording long orchestral pieces and you want to transfer to another system for PCM “high-resolution” editing, then you must render files in overlapping parts and put them back together on the target machine.

Another caveat: Don't record to an HFS-formatted drive with MacOpener. I tried this and got chunks of audio interspersed with silence at regular intervals. Because XP professional-format drives with NTFS and OS X don't read NTFS, I moved the FireWire drive to another PC and the files to an HFS+ drive on that platform. I didn't format drives with Fat32 on an older version of Windows: None of my machines running older versions of Windows have FireWire cards — the case for the majority of older machines.

The manual states that MacDrive software is necessary to use HFS/HFS+ formatted disks. Unfortunately, MacDrive did not recognize my FireWire HFS+ drive. There's nothing in the manual indicating that MacDrive was incapable of reading FireWire HFS+ drives, one of the most common methods of file sharing in studios. When I used NTFS to format the FireWire drive, I could easily write to it, but unfortunately, OS 10.2.3 does not read NTFS. I tried MacOpener, which worked fine with Windows XP but not with Pyramix (as detailed above). The FireWire drive was recognized by the hardware no matter what its format, but it would only be seen by WinXP with MacOpener, so I suggest that a clarification be made.

FACE TO INTERFACE


The common project setup has three windows: Composition, Tabs and Mixer. The Composition window comprises tracks with clips that have auto-active handles. The mouse pointer changes to various tools when moved over a selected clip or when pressing a modifier key. The editing in this area is similar to Nuendo: Crossfades can be implemented via hot key or further refined with a multipoint fade editor. The editing model can be either a full two, three and four-point source/destination type, the more familiar cut-and-paste paradigm or a combination of both.

A really handy feature is the nondestructive clip gain, which allows you to set the level for individual clips, thereby avoiding frequent changes in automation.

To the left of the tracks is the Track Header panel, where you'll find the usual “tape deck” status controls: play, record, mute, solo, monitor, automation status and playlist access. Beware that some of the items are three-way toggles. If you don't hear audio when you're in record, then check this panel first.

The Tabs window contains media management for EDLs, workspaces, markers, groups, playlists, libraries, CD P/Q sheets, machine control and the fade editor.

The Mixer floats on top of these windows. I set up a surround configuration in DXD mode with surround panners on every channel; Pyramix supports configurations of up to 5.1 channels. The mixer provides a simple, clear way to create a surround mix and a stereo mix simultaneously. Surround panners are well-implemented. Unfortunately, Pyramix labels the LFE as a subwoofer; there's no lowpass filter on this channel. Pro studios generally use external hardware bass management, so it's not a serious flaw, but the nomenclature in the interface should be corrected.

Mykerinos plug-ins work at the highest sample rate available; in a DXD project, they're running at 352.8 kHz and 32 bits. Pyramix transcodes the 1-bit 2.8MHz DSD stream in real time to PCM for processing.

In DXD mode, dither is selectable for stereo and surround monitors, but you must not use it. Not only is it inappropriate for DSD, but used with surround, this selection creates a burbling sound with a vague tone. This needs to be eliminated as a selection in DXD mode.

These quibbles are small, though, compared to the system's immense feature set and flexibility. This review is far too short to cover the system's other aspects: VU meters in DSD mode that display ultrasonic and DC levels; virtual transport control and synchronization to external applications involving video play, MIDI and Sony 9-pin; DST file size estimation and creating DST files for future authoring; CD text for DDP; instant sync to PAL, NTSC and HDTV; the wonderful Algorithmix NOVA restoration software; Minnetonka Audio AC3 encoder; CEDAR Audio Retouch; Prosoniq MPEX2 pitch and time manipulator; DirectX and VST support; and the host of excellent built-in plug-ins to process audio. Pyramix is a modular system, so you can configure its feature set to your needs.

IN SESSION WITH SKORIK


Once I set up the system, I was asked to produce an album for Jeff Skorik, a well-known Nashville session vocalist, incredible tunesmith and fine guitar player. I recorded several sessions in DSD editing and mixing mode. I was anxious to try out the editing interface, and I considered these sessions to be demos for later arrangement. To my surprise, these simple tracks sounded very good, capturing a performance aspect I had never heard in his recordings before.

We used an assortment of mics: Neumann TLM 193 for vocals (with Millennia STT-1 Origin), AKG 451E with CK-1 capsule and Sennheiser MD 421 for the acoustic guitars (Great River MP-4), Sony ECM-MS 5 stereo for mid-room ambience (John Hardy M-1s) and AKG 414 B-ULS and Solidtube for far ambience (Great River MP-4).

I was amazed by the clarity of the sound. In fact, the surround mix was so good that I hated making compromises for the stereo mix. I also wanted to check out the rendering and SRC functions for archiving to 192 kHz, so I processed the AKG 451 track as a test. This mic was angled toward the sound hole and a foot away from the guitar. Jeff happened to sing with his head tilted down for that cut, and that one mic caught a mono mix with astounding clarity and resolution. When I checked it on my Pro Tools|HD system with Accel, I wondered why we couldn't release the cut as a surround mix and a mono mix rather than a stereo mix. Rarely have I felt that I didn't want to touch a track with EQ or dynamics processing for fear of messing up the track's intrinsic character.

Later, I was listening to piano tracks in DXD in the Pyramix and had to switch to an older Pro Tools MIX system with an 888|24 converter. For half an hour, I wondered if something was wrong with the monitors. Going back to the Pyramix convinced me that my monitoring system was fine.

Thanks to Mike Poston of Nashville's Equipment Pool (a longtime Pyramix user) and Zen Mastering's Graeme Browne (mastering engineer for “Matrix,” Chick Corea's recent Grammy-winning best instrumental arrangement), I could quickly find answers to the few questions I had after reading the copious manuals and downloads available at www.merging.com.

A NEW DAW HEAVYWEIGHT


Pyramix from Merging Technologies is a full-featured professional recording, mixing, editing and mastering environment for PCM and DSD formats. Its modular approach allows for complete customization without unwanted expense. And while its market share is comparatively small, especially in the U.S., other DAW manufacturers will want to watch this one closely. It's a mature and well-developed system that has the potential to become a major contender in the DAW wars.

Merging Technologies, 847/272-0500, www.merging.com.


K.K. Proffitt is chief audio engineer of JamSync, a Nashville facility specializing in multichannel mixing and DVD authoring.






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