Soundscape-32 With Mixpander

Mar 1, 2003 12:00 PM, BY EDDIE CILETTI

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Soundscape has been in existence since 1993. Two years ago, Mackie purchased Sydec, Soundscape's Belgian parent, which meant higher visibility and more users on this side of the Atlantic. As a result, original Soundscape and Paris owners have, for a limited time, a $2,500 trade-in credit that can be applied to a new Soundscape-32 system.

I first reviewed Soundscape in 1994, and I purchased two systems (eight tracks each) and then upgraded both to 12 channels plus real-time effects. The fact that the system is still running on a Pentium and only last summer did software development — which had been running concurrently with Soundscape-32 — reach the limit of the hardware is testimony to the system's foundation. Compared to that old hardware, Soundscape-32 adds eight tracks and higher resolution, in half the rackspace, with the familiar interface.

Soundscape-32 ($6,500 list) is a 2U hardware-dedicated workstation that supports resolution up to 96 kHz/24-bit. You might be fooled by its intuitive and uncluttered design, but Soundscape has an underlying power and flexibility that make even a modestly endowed PC rock 'n' roll. I've been mixing 24 tracks to 5.1 on original Soundscape hardware since 1998 on a system that is still a reliable performer. My focus for this review is the Mixpander DSP Card; it raises the bar on processing headroom, kinda like dropping a hydrogen-powered V-8 into a Volkswagen. So pop open the sunroof and transport yourself to the AutoStrada 'cause we're headed for Tuscany with the hammer down. (That's my fantasy; substitute as necessary.)

DOWN ON THE FARM

The ability to add DSP is not exclusive to Soundscape: Pro Tools has Farm cards, and companies like Mackie and Universal Audio (UAD-1) and TC Works (PowerCore) manufacture cards for native-based systems. Mixpander not only increases Soundscape's power, but it also opens 16 bidirectional portals into native programs like Cubase, Cool Edit Pro and GigaSampler. Unlike host-based software, Soundscape doesn't care about computer power; it can tolerate a computer crash and continue to play through it.

Within the system, latency is extremely low. Even with lots of processing, it's only up about a dozen samples at 44.1 kHz, translating to 0.27 milliseconds. When interfacing with host-based programs, Mixpander's driver contributes about 1.5 ms, going and coming.

Though I have experience with this product, not every new feature could be tested, so I tried something unusual: posting a message and a request for feedback on the Soundscape message board. Because a workstation can be many things to many people, I wanted to learn how the system is used and what features are important to users. One user mentioned that Spindelay's ASIO FX processor allows users to access a whole range of VST plug-ins; another reminded me of the integrated video player, which I tested.

MOVE THIS: IMPORT

Soundscape-32 can also import and export Pro Tools projects; while my testing was not comprehensive in this area, I learned that the PT session need to be saved on the Mac side with PC compatibility. The emphasis here is on the word “session,” which includes the file that will restore all of the audio tracks to their proper location with whatever accompanying tweaks. The Import feature cannot read individual audio files unless they have been saved in a PC-compatible format like “.WAV”; although with some experimentation, I was able to do this with Cool Edit Pro. My request would be for Soundscape to make the Import feature more transparent, capable of opening both session and sound files from other programs, regardless of platform.

TESTING, 1, 2, 3

Software installation was fast and mostly easy. The program itself fits on two floppy discs, as do most of the plug-ins, although no floppies were actually used — everything was downloaded from the Net. The newly updated and released operations manual is the largest file; compiled from plenty of real-world experience, it's extremely detailed and comprehensive.

While it was unnecessary to run Soundscape on a dual-Celeron system, the pair of 21-inch monitors was the deciding factor: I find dual monitors a necessity for all workstations. (This is especially true for Soundscape, which has two primary windows: an Arrange window displaying audio tracks and automation, and a Mixer window with two modes, wide and narrow. A multitrack session mixer can easily fill a 16:9 monitor in either mode, a future upgrade for sure.)

Once the hardware was installed and happy, I formatted a new 60-gig drive the slow way. There is a quick-format mode, but I just wanted to see how long it would take. Let's just say that the process started before the sun went down and didn't finish before midnight. Meanwhile, I already had plenty of sessions on the old system, and all were within 3% of exhausting the available resources. Because the goal was to test Soundscape-32 with Mixpander, it seemed a practical place to start.

My old system consisted of two 12-channel boxes linked together. My habit of using only one drive per unit turned out to be quite serendipitous: The two drives slid into Soundscape-32 and mounted transparently. All of the project folders, sound files, arrangements (session files) and mixer files appeared in the File Manager window. Two clicks, and the tracks and mixer appeared; only the second set of 12 tracks needed to be reassigned at the mixer. I was quickly up and running.

IN SESSION

My recording project started life as a 24-track ADAT session. Out of necessity, I have become quite adept at conserving resources, sculpting wonderful 24-track to 5.1 and stereo mixes, albeit to outside recorders. Before, there was not enough “extra” DSP to add a single TC Dynamizer or a reverb during a 24-track mixdown. (I often “captured” reverb and saved multiband processing for the mastering stage.) With Soundscape-32 and Mixpander, I had a Dynamizer on the main mix, as well as a submix of the snare and room tracks. Two kick tracks and a bass were subgrouped and mildly peak-limited using the Soundscape dynamics processor, which I love for its visual translation of the work being done. The 4-band equalizer is not new, but is such an improvement over its 2-band predecessor in terms of sonics and features. The mix-in-progress was nowhere near tapping out the system, so reverbs, Dynamizers and EQs were randomly added everywhere. The system never ran out of gas, and I noticed resource optimization balanced the load on each DSP chip each time a new plug-in was added. I could become very spoiled.

With the exception of the initial hardware installation — which included tweaking the location of the various PCI cards along with a beta version of the software — the system did not crash during three weeks of testing. I used Version 3.6 exclusively. No sound files were ever lost, and there are 99 levels of undo, although the latter consumes memory and, used to excess, can slow the system down although I never experienced this. To demonstrate how robust the system is, I opened Adobe Premiere and simultaneously played a video project while Soundscape played a 24-track automated mix. There were no glitches, no hiccups and no complaints from either program.

HARDWARE CONTROL

Automation and control-surface options deserve mention because Mackie has probably done more to push development in this area than any other company has since its aquisition of Soundscape. Randomly mating controllers and workstations yields mixed results and often minimal functionality. You expect the faders, mutes and transport controls to work. But plug-ins vary greatly and present a challenge to developers. That's why Mackie's claim that its control interfaces seamlessly with Soundscape-32 is so encouraging.

I think it would be great if a little DIY software package was included with every controller and workstation so that users with lots of time on their hands can bring all of the pieces together. As with LINUX, people should be able to contribute their work toward the common good. Meanwhile, back in reality land, I tested Soundscpe-32 with CM Labs' Motor-Mix, focusing on faders, balance, mute and transport controls because those were the required tasks at that project's stage. My only request is to be able to access Console Manager from more than just the mystery icon at the bottom-right corner of Window's System Tray.

WISH LIST

My requests are, er, simple. Soundscape has great potential as a mastering tool. Quite often, I put each “item” on its own pair of tracks and stereo fader. Placing ID flags from 101 upward translate into track-start IDs via the burning package. The only trouble is, the package does not recognize a multitrack session, which adds several extra steps to the process and extra reverse steps if changes need to be made.

I'd also like to be able to burn CDs in real time from the Arrange window to either a stand-alone CD burner or the computer's burner. My other request is for a stereo mixer module with a width control, from mono to hard-panned. Stereo modules require less desktop space, simplifying level, EQ, effects and dynamics linking for track pairs.

FINALE

I have always loved the power of workstations. Soundscape-32 just happens to be perhaps the most reliable workstation that behaves like a piece of dedicated hardware. (Because it is.)

For the amount of potential time that can be spent on a session, especially considering musicians' fees and their priceless performances, stability becomes one of the best features and the biggest selling points for any product, specifically Soundscape-32. And, while I generally shy away from user groups, I must say that the Soundscape crew is a responsive and helpful bunch. Go to the “Support” section of www.soundscape-digital.com and ask them yourself. People who have this system swear by it, not at it.

THE HARDWARE RUNDOWN

INS AND OUTS

Unlike many systems that provide only a digital interface (which may also be proprietary), Soundscape-32 includes basic analog I/O — stereo-in and 4-channel-out — perfectly suited for basic audio production and sound-for-picture applications. Digital I/O comes in two flavors: AES and TDIF. The AES I/O replicates the analog connections (plus Word Clock I/O); in addition, these portals can be independently routed. The three TDIF connectors can directly interface with Tascam's DTRS products (DA-X8 Series of tape machines), Soundscape's 8-channel I/O boxes or your own preference of digital conversion. (That's 24 channels plus the analog and AES inputs.) MIDI I/O for timecode is part of the package; options include SMPTE timecode I/O and RS-422/9-pin support.

FOUR-CAR GARAGE

A flip-down front panel reveals two hard drive caddies that accept standard IDE drives. (There are two internal IDE hard drive bays, as well.) Each bay supports up to 137 GB, providing over half-a-Terabyte (548 GB) of storage capacity. Soundscape-32 is capable of 32 tracks of 24-bit recording at 44.1 kHz/48 kHz, half as many tracks at 88.2 kHz/96 kHz.

CONTROL AND EXPANSION

For processor-intensive applications such as multitrack music production, an Expansion port links Soundscape-32 to Mixpander. There are two PCI card options with an additional five or nine DSP chips. Of course, I chose the 9-chip card! Two systems can be controlled from a single PCI interface card — up to four hardware units max — totaling 128 simultaneous audio tracks at standard resolution. The system can also be controlled via a printer port and a special “EPP” cable that is handy for portable applications via laptop.

Screenshot Gallery:


Soundscape's Dialog Mixer Window


EDL Processor


A variety of plug-ins are available.


The new and improved crossfade window


Soundscape 32's enhanced surround capabilities


Soundscape's video editing features

Want more? Click here to find out Eddie Ciletti puts Soundscape's power in perspective.






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