Test Drive: The Otari DDR-10 2-Track Digital Audio Recorder/Editor

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Without question, the control panel of the DDR-10 is the unit's single biggest advantage for broadcasters. Indeed, it is an advantage over every other hard disk recording system on the market. Last but not least, the controller for the DDR-10 is ergonomically designed with the broadcast audio engineer in mind.

Having established that the DDR-10 is a formidable soft-ware/hardware system, the next part of this review briefly details how you use it. Though popular mythology suggests that it takes weeks or months to learn the system, it actually takes a few days to a week. While the learning curve is not as short as that of a basic analog 2-track recorder, it is not as long as one might expect for a system that offers so much power. The control panel of the DDR-10 and the straightforward operation of the Sound Tools program are largely responsible for this shortened curve.

There are two primary screens or modes where most work is performed: the Tape Deck mode where recording takes place and the Waveform Edit mode where the majority of the editing power of the DDR-10 occurs. A third mode, the Playlist mode, is where saved "regions" of a soundfile are selected and manipulated. Rather than editing two sections of audio together in the Waveform Edit mode, the two sections can be defined as separate regions and "sequenced" in the Playlist mode.

Tape Deck Mode: This is where the magic of real-time, hard disk recording occurs. Levels are set using two bargraphs on the screen and there are on-screen buttons that emulate those of a tape machine. These transport buttons can be used with the Un-Mouse or you can use the transport buttons on the control panel. There is also a monitor button on-screen that allows listening while recording. If the monitor button is not selected, the output is muted during recording. This is very handy if you use an I/O module of your console to monitor the DDR-10. You can leave the faders up while recording, and no feedback will occur. Once recorded, the soundfile is ready for playback and editing in the Waveform Edit mode.

Waveform Edit Mode: When your recording is completed, click the "Done" button and prepare for the core of Sound Tools and the DDR-10 -- the Waveform Edit screen. This is a highly manipulable mode with the ability to make numerous changes to previously recorded material in the digital domain. The Waveform Edit screen appears after the recorded material is saved to disk. This can be a slow process if the file is long and the disk is severely fragmented. (You would be wise to keep any unneeded material off the drive.)

One distinct drawback of the playback function is a two second pre-roll that makes it difficult to manually start playback at a precise moment. This problem can be solved by using the provided Live List program which lets you select individual sound files for "instantaneous" playback.

The speed of fast forward and rewind depends on how much material you've recorded. It's very slow when you've recorded 20 or 30 seconds and very fast when you've recorded two or more minutes.

The initial function to perform after recording is a Trim, where you literally edit the beginning and end of the recorded material. This allows you to save needed space on the disk. Visually, trims and edits are easy to perform. All material becomes a waveform, which can be enlarged many times on-screen to assist editing. The control panel of the DDR-10 allows you to perform these functions with a scrub wheel and In and Out buttons.

Editing with Sound Tools and the DDR-10 is unlike anything in the analog domain. Edits are technically perfect. Gone are ticks, pops, gaps, drop-outs or other artifacts that can occur in analog. The editing described above is essentially destructive editing, although you can always undo your last edit. If you use the optional Back-Up File function, all editing is non-destructive. However, it takes time to create the back-up file. Another caveat is that the edits themselves take time, especially at the beginning of a file. Expect to wait a minute or more for an edit that's made to the beginning of a three minute soundfile. At the end of the file, editing gets faster. When doing heavy editing, make the soundfile as short as possible.

The DDR-10 also provides quick and effective linear fade-outs in the editing mode. You set begin and end points on screen. One click later, a super smooth fade is yours. Any portion of any sound may be reversed, and any number of reverses may be applied to any soundfile. You may also change the volume of any portion of any soundfile. Another option is to create "digital silence," something akin to the ultimate leader tape. Once you hear it, you'll understand why there is no silence like digital silence.

Playlist Mode: A quicker method of editing, which is ideal for music or spots and promos that are built in discreet segments, is non-destructive Playlist editing. Like a sequencer, it allows you to chain a variety of pieces together in any order you like. Using the familiar edit start and end points, you capture a region and name it. After capturing other regions and storing them in playlist memory, you drag each region (using the Un-Mouse) to the playlist box in the order you want them to play. If the edits or transitions aren't smooth enough, there are six different crossfades to help the process, and you can set the crossfade time to your liking.

Digital signal processing: What separates the men from the magpies in disk-based digital recording is signal processing. Equalization, compression, expansion, noise gating and time squeezing are all available on the DDR-10. Auditioning of the graphic and parametric EQ's is real-time in that you can hear the changes you're making, but any changes you decide to keep take a while to perform because the soundfile has to be re-written to the disk. The compressor/limiter contains all the expected parameters -- attack, release, ratio, threshold, etc. It works very well in a limited dosage. Brute-force, heavy compression sounds like just that. The expander, operating in the opposite fashion of the compressor, is of rather limited use in radio production. The noise gate works well and is more helpful but is generally used for cleaning up music tracks in a multi-track environment.

Time compression and expansion sound best on voice-overs. Complex material (such as music) tends to pick up some objectionable artifacts, especially if duration is more than a few percent. Time compression/expansion takes the system quite a while to perform and can't be auditioned prior to the changes.

Cost: The Otari DDR-10 is sold only as a completely bundled system. With a 345 meg external hard drive included, 5 meg of RAM for the Mac II ci, and the 19-inch monitor, the professional user price is $19,990. If you're willing to sacrifice the control panel of the DDR-10, you can have the same system by purchasing the computer components separately and installing Digidesign's Sound Tools in the system. J.L Cooper has released the CS-1 Control Station which emulates some of the functions of the DDR-10's control panel on a much smaller scale. Because Sound Tools offers you more flexibility in acquiring a computer, hard drive and monitor from third parties, its price is more difficult to pin down exactly. The best estimate for a system equivalent to the DDR-10 is about $16,000, or a $4,000 difference.

The DDR-10 offers three major advantages over Sound Tools: 1) a much more elaborate controller, 2) full SMPTE implementation, and 3) the heritage Otari has in the broadcast markets. On the other hand, Sound Tools gives you all the necessary firepower you need, offers greater flexibility in designing your own system, and comes from one of the top companies in this field.

Accessories: There is a wide array of helpful add-ons developed by Digidesign for Sound Tools and the DDR-10. Q-Sheet A/V is probably the best among them. Through MIDI, it allows you to "fly-in" sounds right on SMPTE cue from any external sampler or synthesizer that has MIDI. The recently released Sample Cell provides a state-of-the-art digital playback sampler that is hooked in via a NuBus slot on the Mac II. You can get up to 8 meg of RAM with eight separate outputs on each Sample Cell and may line up to eight Sample Cells together. Other software programs allow you to write your own P & Q subcodes for making compact disks and a limited version of 4- track recording via the DECK program.

Conclusion: Digidesign and Otari are going to make 1991 very uncomfortable for the fifty plus other companies that manufacture digital recording systems. Otari's entrance into this field will make broadcasters feel even safer with the system, which is manufactured in the United States. As magneto-optical drives become available for these systems, they will have another advantage over the competition.

The novice user of hard disk based digital recording systems may find the DDR-10 somewhat intimidating at first mainly because there are so many functions available with the Sound Tools system. For example, the DDR-10 has the ability to zoom in on a piece of audio so close that the entire screen fills up with the waveform of a sound as short as the snap of your fingers (and even shorter). Furthermore, you can switch to the "Draw" mode of the cursor and actually redraw the waveform, altering the sound in the most elementary way. There are powerful MIDI and SMPTE functions we didn't even bother to get into. The point is that many of the functions of the Sound Tools system of the DDR-10 probably won't ever get used by someone in radio production, and you shouldn't be intimidated by their presence. The most commonly used functions are easy to use. Even someone with limited experience in digital editing can perform basic recording, playback, and editing without picking up the manual.

Sound Tools, with its three thousand plus users worldwide, is obviously the most popular disk-based digital recording/editing system available. Otari has simply taken this powerful system, complete with all of its many options, and brought forth on the DDR-10's control panel those functions that will most apply to radio production, both today and in the future.

What the DDR-10/Sound Tools system really provides is a total replacement for any two-track analog tape machine. Think of it as providing the best sonic quality you can imagine with impressive digital editing. Think of the DDR-10 as easy to operate and affordable. And think of it right now, because analog two-track recording is fast becoming prehistoric.

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