Test Drive: Otari ProDisk 464 Digital Record/Edit System

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otari-prodisk-464by Jerry Vigil

For most people in radio production, digital workstations are nothing more than nice pictures in the trades, hopes for a brighter future (probably at another station), or maybe a passing promise from management to someday "upgrade...if the ratings get better." (When the ratings ARE better, isn't it usually something else that gets upgraded?) But let's not dwell on the insufferable plight of the forgotten Production Directors of America. Out there in radio production paradise, and sometimes in the pages of RAP, we hear about many who are working with TODAY's tools. In fact, this month's interview with DSE-7000 user Rich Van Slyke is a good example. And while AKG is doing very well with their DSE, future voyagers into the realm of digital workstations should pay close attention to Otari's ProDisk 464 as it begins to make inroads into the broadcast market.

About a year and a half ago we reported Otari's purchase of the 464 from Digital Dynamics. At that point, the 464 presented itself as an awesome disk-based, Macintosh driven, digital multi-track machine, expandable from four to sixty-four tracks. And, at the time, the unit probably had many homes in post-production suites for film and video and large recording studios. But as an Otari product, the original 464 proved to be nothing more than the groundwork for what was to become an even more powerful machine with a more friendly user interface. Otari had plans, and changes were coming.

This Test Drive is unusual in the sense that we're catching the 464 in the midst of these changes. When we received the machine, it came with new "test version" software. This particular software version isn't even in the hands of current owners of the 464 yet! Only about a half dozen "beta sites" are using it. We also received the old manual for the original software and the new manual for the new "GUIDE" software. After spending a couple of days with the manuals, we contacted Otari's Product Specialist Matt Ward to ask a couple of questions about the new software. Matt said, "Wait. We've got an even NEWER version of the GUIDE software ready. Let me overnight that to you!" So, we get that package, install the new software, and continue. And just to drive home the point about the changes the 464 is going through, when the unit was picked up about a week later, we were told of another, even NEWER version of the GUIDE software. Bottom line: the Otari techs are very busy updating, upgrading, refining, and optimizing this new software for the 464. But there's more.

Aside from the new software (which will be shipped to current owners this month), Otari has also introduced a new Hardware Control Panel (or HCP) which was demonstrated at NAB last spring. Not unlike the software, this HCP has undergone some changes, adding new features suggested by users of the prototype. The new controller is expected to be ready for shipping by the first quarter of next year. The control panel is specifically designed to eliminate having to use the keyboard and mouse of the Macintosh, bringing many of the keyboard and mouse functions to dedicated transport and edit controls on the panel. For radio, this is almost a must. In radio production studios, the more people that can operate the room and the shorter the learning curve, the better.

To further drive home how busy the Otari team has been, the long awaited DSP card for the 464 is now ready and is being shipped. The DSP card goes hand in hand with the new GUIDE software and adds many new functions to the 464 not previously available. More on GUIDE in a moment, but let's take a closer look at what the ProDisk 464 physically consists of.

As mentioned, the ProDisk is an expandable system. The smallest system is a 4-in/4-out configuration. The system used for this Test Drive is a 4-in/8-out setup. The 64-track version is a 32-in/64-out configuration. These are analog ins and outs. A 2-in/2-out digital I/O card is available for $2,075. A basic 8-track system would consist of the ProDisk Storage Unit which contains two hard drives and an 8-millimeter tape backup drive. The Audio Unit contains the processing hardware of the 464. The cost at this point is $47,150. You need a Macintosh. Otari sells a basic system with 19-inch color monitor and internal hard drive for around $6,000. The new DSP card for the ProDisk goes for $3,195 and is essentially a must, especially with the new GUIDE software. So, for a little over $56,000 you have one heck of a digital 8-track setup. Add two grand for the digital I/O if you want to mix digitally to DAT or maybe retrieve audio digitally from DAT or CD, such as sound effects or music.

The Storage Unit and Audio Unit are rack-mountable, and, aside from the tape backup drive, there's no need to access these two pieces. So, they can be installed even in another room. The Macintosh computer can be stashed under a console, leaving just the keyboard, mouse, and 19-inch monitor as components that need close proximity to the work area. It's important to note that while many hard disk based systems utilize the computer and its hard drive for actual recording and processing of the audio, this is not the case with the 464. The Mac is connected to the Storage and Audio Units with one cable and basically does nothing more than download instructions to the main system and provide the graphic display on the monitor.

otari-prodisk-464-guide-screenGUIDE stands for Graphical User Interface for Digital Editing. The GUIDE software replaces the old software but keeps much of the original structure of old software, so anyone currently using the old software won't be dealing with something completely foreign when they get the GUIDE software. Having only looked at the manual for the "old" ProDisk software, it's difficult to make comparisons, but it's obvious the new GUIDE software is a step towards shortening the learning curve and quickening the process of recording and editing on the 464. This review won't attempt to compare the old with the new but instead will provide an overview of the 464 as it functions under the new GUIDE software.

If you're familiar with the MacIntosh or the IBM Windows user interface, then you're familiar with the "click" and "drag" functions of the mouse as well as the multiple window interface that lets you have several windows "open" at the same time. If you're familiar with computer based MIDI sequencer programs, you'll also find the layout of the 464's software familiar in many ways. There are several "windows" or screens that make up the entire 464 program. All the windows you'll need for basic recording and editing can be displayed simultaneously on the 19-inch monitor.

The GUIDE screen is the main screen, but, at this phase of the software, it is not used for actually recording audio. This is done from the Cue Editor window. From this window, tracks are selected and the recorded Sound File can be edited. Levels are represented on another small window in the familiar green and red LED fashion. The transport controls make up another window, and once tracks are selected and levels set, clicking the RECORD icon begins the recording. Clicking on the STOP icon ends the recording. Simple enough. Clicking on the SAVE box lets you name the Sound File and save it to the ProDisk Cue Directory which holds the sound files that make up the Sound Library.

Once all the elements needed for your production are recorded into the Cue Directory, it's time to begin working in the GUIDE window. This is where a "sequence" of "events" is built. The events are the various Sound Files that make up your production, and the entire production is saved as a sequence of Sound Files. Placing these Sound Files onto the GUIDE screen is equivalent to placing audio onto their proper tracks, at their proper places in time, on a multi-track analog machine. The only difference is that the Sound Files have already been "recorded." Transferring them to the GUIDE screen doesn't require re-recording anything.

Assigning Sound Files to tracks is simple. If you want a voice-over on track 5, then that is the track you should arm (on the Cue Editor) when you record the voice-over to begin with. Then, when you highlight the voice-over Sound File and click on the "Event" icon, the Sound File is automatically transferred to the GUIDE screen, to track 5, at the point in the sequence you have predetermined. If you know you want your music on tracks 1 and 2, then record them on those tracks to begin with. When the music is transferred to the GUIDE screen, track assignment is correct. If you easily forget what you have on your various tracks, you'll appreciate the 464's track naming function. Each of the tracks can be named easily by clicking on that track's name field and typing in a descriptive name.

What if you've recorded a voice-over on track 5, and you realize you really want it on track 6? On analog tape, you must rewind the multi-track, reload the voice-over, cue it up, and re-record the voice to track 6 while erasing track 5. On the ProDisk 464, click on the voice-over event to select it, then press the "option" key and the "down" arrow on the keyboard one time and let go. You're done!

Once all your Sound Files have been placed in the GUIDE screen and assigned to their proper tracks, you're ready to do some editing like you've never done before. As mentioned, Sound Files can be edited or trimmed in the Cue Editor after recording them, but they can also be edited and trimmed on the GUIDE screen. This is something that is impossible on an analog multi-track. Say, for instance, that you have all eight tracks filled with voice-overs, sound effects, zips and zaps; and your stereo music bed is on tracks 1 and 2. With the 464, it is possible to edit the music, either by adding to it or cutting from it, without affecting the other tracks. On the other hand, if you did want your edit to affect all the tracks, as would be the case when editing analog multi-track tape, that too is possible with the 464.

Let's say your spot has a tag at the end done by a second announcer with a softer voice than the first announcer, and you want to duck the music under the tag a little. You can do this manually (heaven forbid) at the console during the mixdown, or you can lower the level of just that segment of the music as though it were recorded that way. Using the 464's Edit In/Out functions, a segment of the music bed can be highlighted, and the highlighted segment's gain adjusted with a nominal amount of keystrokes. Likewise, the tag announcer's Sound File can be selected, and its gain raised slightly to punch through the music. The thing to note is that these gain changes are occurring AFTER they have been "recorded" to the multi-track.

Okay, let's say you want to fade the music out after the voice-over, but you didn't fade it when you recorded it. No problem. Each channel of the music track is represented on the GUIDE screen as a long rectangle with a small block at each corner. If you want the music to fade out, "grab" the Fade Block at the top right of the music track and "drag" it to the left a bit. Boom! You're done! Play it back, and if you don't like it, there's an "undo" function that restores the previous setting. In fact, the undo function is active throughout the 464's editing functions so that all editing is non-destructive. Fade-ins are just as simple.

An interesting feature of editing on the GUIDE screen is that when you trim a Sound File down, you can still retrieve the parts you've cut. For example, let's say you recorded sixty seconds of ocean sounds for the background of a spot. You've placed the sixty second effect on track 3. You then edited the last thirty seconds of the track so the sound effect appeared only on the first thirty seconds of the spot. If, down the road, you decide you want those last thirty seconds back, they're still there! They haven't been removed at all, just muted. Recalling the rest of the Sound File is very quick and does not involve having to "place" the Sound File on the GUIDE screen a second time.

Other features of the GUIDE screen include track Mute On/Off buttons as well as Solo and Record Enable buttons. However, the Solo and Record Enable buttons are reserved for a future software version, most likely the version that will allow recording directly to the GUIDE screen without having to use the Cue Editor. There are numerous "time" indicators which show, among other things, where you are in the sequence, where your edit in and out points are, time code information, and fade in/out times. A Zoom In/Out function lets you customize the view of the tracks to accommodate precise editing or to get a view of the overall production piece.

The autolocator of the 464 is part of the Transport window and provides ninety-nine easy to set and easy to recall locate points. The standard MacIntosh "scroll bar" can be used to locate within the sequence. Several locate functions and points are also available on the keyboard. In fact, many screen functions accessed with the mouse are duplicated on the keyboard. There are numerous ways to move from one point in a sequence to another. It's a matter of finding a way comfortable for you and adapting that as your way of moving around. The same goes for editing on the GUIDE screen. There are several ways to mark edit points and perform the edits. Again, you are given the option to choose a way you prefer.

Another nice feature of the GUIDE screen is the ability to "Option/Click" on any event or Sound File and have that Sound File play without hearing the other tracks, much like soloing the track, only you've soloed the event, not the track. Similarly, you can Option/Click on several events and listen to them mixed together.

Waveform editing is available and the 464's scrub function works well using the mouse or a trackball. While waveform editing is handy when dealing with short sounds, like musical notes, scrubbing the rectangular events on the GUIDE screen is more than enough visual and aural input for precise editing of sound effects, music and voice tracks. There didn't appear to be any shortcoming with the unit's editing abilities. Copy, cut, paste, trim, move...just about everything you could want to do can be done.

The learning curve on the 464 isn't short. This is not a stripped down multi-track that anyone can use without some time with the manual first. But, the new GUIDE software does provide an interface that makes the learning curve shorter than you'd expect for a machine that does so much. We'd like to pass on our thanks to Michael Tapes of Otari who recently produced (with desktop video) a training video for the new software. While not a replacement for the manual, it certainly provided a strong overview of the basic operation of the ProDisk 464.

The standard disk drive of the 464 offers 120 track minutes per drive, and Otari now offers a one-gigabyte drive that increases recording time to 180 track minutes per drive. Available sampling frequencies are 48kHz, 44.1kHz, and 32kHz. Quantization is 16-bit linear PCM. Frequency response is 20-20kHz, and the S/N ratio is 90dB. The analog ins and outs are XLR balanced.

The Otari PD-464 is an awesome machine right now. As the new GUIDE software continues to evolve, the future looks only brighter. Add the forthcoming Hardware Control Panel and the 464 should be a top choice in multi-track workstations. By all means, if you can get a demo on the 464, get it. While we've tried to give you an idea of what the 464 can do, this review has really only scratched the surface.

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