Digital recording options for Atari users

Yamaha CBX-D5

Digital recording for Atari users

Even with the 'humble' Atari ST series, it is possible to do digital recording alongside today's all singing and all dancing computer based systems, it's just a case of how you approach the situation. As far back as 1987, the Atari ST had access to a hard disk recording system known as the Lynex, which consisted of a 1u interface connecting the ST to a digital audio converter and hard disk system in another 3u case. It was a system similar to the Synclavier systems which connected to the Apple Machintosh, and like the Synclavia, the Lynex came at a price.

A few years later in the early 1990's, Yamaha launched the CBX-D5 "Digital Recording Processor" which was a Yamaha CBX-D5hardware audio recorder and processor which was ideal for the computers of the time that would have difficulty recording/processing audio on their own. This unit does require a software front-end though - it is not a stand-alone recording system, so requires some Midi/Audio software, Steinberg were among the first to supply this in the form of Cubase Audio, which also solved a particular thorny issue for Steinberg as it was also the first version of Cubase to run on the Atari TT030. With the software in place and all the necessary connections made, the CBX does all the processing when recording and playing back audio to and from a hard disk, thus taking all of the load off the computer.

The CBX-D5 came in an attractive cream 3U box that is rackable with the supplied "ears", the front panel has input level controls, a headphones jack (and level pot) a variety of mode displays (source, record & playback freq) and six 12-segment level meters (2 for input, 4 for output). The back panel of the unit is an array of connectors - ins & CBX-D5 Connectorsouts consisting of analog balanced XLR's, AES/EBU, SPDIF and Yamaha's proprietary Y2 format. There is also word clock in/out, a serial serial connector (for direct connection to the host computer), SCSI in/thru and Midi in/out/thru.

For the time it was released, this is quite a serious piece of hardware! The CBX can record up to 2 tracks at a time and playback up to 4, 2 units can be linked together - doubling the aforementioned record & playback facilities, and none of this slows down your host computer whatsoever - it is just left to run your sequencing software. On top of this, each CBX-D5 has 2 internal DSP's giving you 4 bands of full parametric digital EQ per channel and 2 sends of digital effects - 82 fully editable reverb & modulation effects. These are the same processors found in Yamaha's popular SPX 990 units and an earlier version of the DSP found in the later Atari Falcon030. All of the CBX parameters are controllable from the host software, and dynamic adjustments can be recorded in your sequencer as part of a MIDI track. They are very reliable, sound good, and allow recording and playback audio with no lag, something that can still defeat todays PC's when under heavy load, and no strain on the computer making them ideal for Atari users or those of us with an older PC or Mac.

It should have been simple, create a reasonably priced digital recording system that can connect to your existing setup, and give the masses CD quality digital multitrack recording and mixing, but it was not that simple. When the CBX-D5 was first released they were a bit expensive and Yamaha quickly dropped the price to make it more reasonable, but the increasing processing improvements of home computers made the CBX's almost obsolete overnight - recording 4 tracks on your PC with a cheap soundcard was a far more attractive alternative for most than outlaying the cost of your computer again for a hardware box that did the same thing (albeit with far better quality ins & outs & FX). Yamaha made a huge loss on the CBX series and dealers off-loaded them at crazy prices. You don't see many in the 2nd hand market - people that own them don't seem to want to part with them - and there isn't much of a market for them now - today's PC's & Macs can record & playback as many tracks as you are likely to need without a hitch. BUT for people who are using what is today considered Retro equipment, the CBX-D5 is definitely worth getting if you spot one at a good price 2nd hand. Yamaha also made a cut-down 1u CBX-D3 with phono jacks instead of XLR's and no AES/EBU or word clock and no DSP, though other than a few adverts at the time of release, I have yet to see one of these devices.

Good Points for it include professional in's & outs, 2 SPX-990 FX DSP's, 4 band full parametric EQ's, it takes the processing load off your computer so you don't need the latest all powerful computer to record and comprehensive metering on the front panel. Bad Points include recording at somewhat outdated 16 bit, 44.1/48kHz format A/D convertors are also older 16 bit linear but better results can be obtained with an external A/D converter.

Yamaha AW2816While the CBX series was a bit of a failure for Yamaha, it didn't stop them from developing other systems including the 'O' series digital mixers, which when combined with a hard disk recording system, created the AW series of digital multitrack recorders.

Unlike the CBX series, these recorders could act as a standalone studio system, complete with mixer, mixer automation, effects and later built in CD recording. Cost was also kept down by abandoning SCSI hard disks as a recording medium, and adopting IDE drives for recording.

Syncronisation with computers like the ST is done over MIDI, while the mixer and effects can be controlled with MIDI control messages. These in turn can be recorded by the AW so that the performance can be repeated without direct connection to the computer.

The initial AW recorders could play back 16 tracks with the AW4416 having the larger mixer and the ability to record 16 tracks at once, and the smaller AW2816 able to record up to 8 tracks at once. Both devices had SCSI to allow for backup deviced to be attached, and could segment their hard drives into 'Projects', each with their own settings.

The AW series continued to be developed with the size of the devices getting smaller and more editing and recordign features being added, all of them though can be syncronised to an Atari over MIDI, making them an ideal addition to an Atari based studio for recording.

However Yamaha were not the only ones moving into this field...

Around the timw of the Yamaha AW series launch, a number of other manufacturers were also trying their hand at digital recording, including Akai, Korg, Boss and Roland. Both Akai and Roland developed recorders that used removable media based on Iomega's technology, Akai went for the high end using Iomega's Jaz drive format while Roland went for the low end of the market with Iomega's Zip drive. Out of the throng of digital multitrack recorders, only Yamaha and Roland continued, though they would later be joined by multitrack recorder legends, Fosex and Tascam.

Roland's VS series of recorders started with the VS880, which was later joined by the VS840 (Pictured). The VS880 used a traditional hard disk while the VS840 used the Iomega Zip drive. As they were aiming for the project and home studio market, they used compression to get more recording time out of the relatively small capacitied of their recording media, which worked quite well, but were no match for the high end recorders like the Yamaha's or even the Akai recorders. However the price was at least a third of the price of the lower end of Yamaha's range and around half the price of the Akai recorder, though neither of them had the display or the editing options that the Yamaha's offered.

Roland VS1824CD

This all changed though as Roland started looking towards the mid to high end market for their VS series, they had conquered the low end and now were aiming for Yamaha while at the same time Yamaha was releasing smaller and cheaper AW series recorders to take the project and home studio market from Roland.

But since PC's and Macs have become more powerful, what does all this mean to us?

Simple, as PC's became the core recording systems, these units fell out of favour and started appearing on the market at far more reasonable prices, both new and second hand. All of them feature MIDI so can be synced up to our computers and in some cases feature CD mastering built into the unit. Keep your computer, the sequencer you are familiar with and record everything digitally with full automation in many cases. But what should you look out for in these devices?

If you want real retro the CBX-D5 si the one to go for, though if possible get 2 so that you can record up to 4 tracks and playback up to 8. If you want something that you can use away from the computer, then the Roland VS series and Yamaha AW series are still among the best systems around, with the AW4416 still considered to be the ultimate recorder of its day and the 16 to 24 channel Roland VS recorders being some of the most flexible audio editors around (The later high end devices could have external VGA monitors attached for better clarity when editing). As with everything though, what you get depends on how you want to work and what space you have. If you need a simple system than you can just plug in, power on and play, the Roland VS840 or Fostex MR-8 may well be the one for you.

So long as what you choose has MIDI, you should be able to sync it to your computer, and with that, who needs a PC (Or Mac)?

But...

What about the Falcon? After all with its built in DSP, its DSP port allowing audio interfaces to be connected and Steinbergs Cubase Audio software, would that not make a digital recorder?

Well, yes it would, however with Cubase Audio there are some stipulations. All recording and playback must be to a SCSI drive, however the supplied utilities for recording will record to the internal IDE drive (Just to confuse things). Despite its popularity though, not all people like Cubase and it does need extra hardware to get the best out of it. Some falcons will not run Cubase Audio without being modified internally and if you want 16 track recording, you have to sacrifice the use of effects. While you get an internal mixer, you have to adjust it with the mouse, which is not the most intuative of methods for mixing.

The compromise as always is to use the Falcon alongside one of the above digital recorders, syncing them and giving another 8 tracks on top of whatever your recorder will allow, which is fine for those of us lucky enough to have a Falcon, but for the rest of us if we do want to take the digital plunge, the world is our oyster (Or at least ebay is...).