Test Drive: Korg SoundLink Random Access Digital Audio Production System

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korg-soundlinkby Jerry Vigil

As digital audio technology marches on, hard-disk based recording systems not only get better, but there are more of them to choose from. At just under $40,000, Korg's SoundLink enters an arena of high-end digital multi-track systems where the competition is tough, but it goes into the game with an arsenal of goodies that warrants consideration by any studio looking for a digital workstation.

The SoundLink is a true 8-track recorder in that it has eight inputs and outputs. Some multi-track systems utilize only two or four inputs which you must then assign to the various tracks. The input/output configuration of the SoundLink eliminates that extra step by dedicating input 1 to track 1, input 2 to track 2, etc.. But the SoundLink is more than just a multi-track recorder. The faders and buttons you see on the console in the photo are part of the SoundLink's fully automated, digital mixer. And if that's not enough, wrap up the package with a built-in 16-track MIDI sequencer.

The console is all that needs to be near you. The two large rack units are the Main Unit (which houses the bulk of the electronics) and the Storage Unit (which houses the hard drives and the tape backup). These two pieces can be installed in an adjacent room using the single 50-foot cord that connects the console to the Main Unit (which is connected by one cable to the Storage Unit). The footprint of the console is relatively small -- about 28 inches wide and 16 inches deep. The meter bridge contains eight LED bargraphs, one for each channel, plus two more bargraphs for the stereo L/R mix levels. To the right of these is the large LCD display, roughly five inches wide and three inches high. If you desire, a regular monitor can be plugged into the back of the console, but the small LCD screen is really all that's necessary.

There are about 130 buttons on the face of the console. Sixteen of them are devoted to the MIDI sequencer. Twenty of them are dedicated to the automated mixer. There are MUTE and SOLO buttons for each of the eight channels. Each track has a playback/record button which arms and disarms each track. Each track has a Record Select button switchable between Channel and L/R Bus. This enables fast and easy digital mixdowns to two tracks which frees up six more tracks for continuous multi-tracking and virtually unlimited tracks. Finally, each track has a Channel Select button switchable between Line and Track for input/source and "tape" or track monitoring. There are eight faders for the eight tracks plus a ninth fader which controls MIDI Master Volume and a tenth fader which is the L/R mix master level.

The transport, locate, and editing controls are to the right of the mixer section. At the bottom of the LCD display are the letters A through H which correspond to eight buttons below the display. These buttons are "soft" function buttons; their functions change according to which screen is displayed. To the left of these buttons are two UP/DOWN buttons for cursor control. To the right of the eight soft buttons are two PAGE UP/DOWN buttons which scroll through the different pages available in each of the operating modes.

There are seven operating modes selected with seven buttons near the top right corner of the console. The first mode is the MISC mode. This mode is used primarily for initial setup -- reference levels, digital formats, video sync modes, system date/time settings and more. Once these items are set, the MISC mode is engaged mainly to begin a new "session" or rename an existing session.

In the SoundLink, a "session" is just that. When you produce a promo or spot, all the sounds on your tracks, all your effects, levels, EQ, etc., are part of that session which is then saved to the hard disk. Any session on the hard disk can later be retrieved, complete with track assignments, effects, levels, etc., using the DISK mode.

Six screens make up the DISK mode where sessions are loaded, saved, and deleted. This mode also dedicates a screen to the sequencer. Another screen is used to delete unwanted "sounds" on the hard drive. (When you record a piece of audio, it is referred to as a "sound.") Two screens are used for backing up and restoring sessions to and from the 8mm tape drive on the Storage Unit. (Backup and retrieval time is twice real time.) The final screen in the DISK mode is a system screen used for installing additional SCSI drives, formatting drives, and other seldom used functions.

The third mode button is the AUDIO button. This is where most of your production time is spent. There are four screens in this mode. The first is the Record/Play screen where you get a visual representation of the eight tracks and the audio on them. The audio, rather than being represented by a waveform, is displayed as a white bar with the sound's name. When a track is recorded, the SoundLink assigns that "sound" a default name like SOUND_0637 or SOUND_0023 depending on the number of the last sound recorded. These sounds can be renamed so the screen not only provides a graphic display of where and how long a sound is, but also a 10-character description of the sound. For example, tracks 1 and 2 might display sounds labeled "Music-Left" and "Music-Right." Track 5 might have three short sounds on it labeled "Door Knock, "Door Open," and "Door Close."

Most digital workstations require spending some time with the manual before one can jump in and begin recording and editing. With the help of a recently written, 36-page "Quick Reference Guide" for the new Version 2.0 software, we were able to shelve the large and somewhat intimidating 3-inch manual and began recording and editing on the SoundLink within a matter of minutes. We decided to first record a simple voice track to track 5. Arming the track was a one-step process. Pressing the REC/PB button above that track lit the red Record LED and armed the track. Levels were set, and the RECORD and PLAY transport buttons pressed (just like on an analog machine). The screen began scrolling to the left, updating itself once per second. With the voice track on disk, the recording was stopped by pressing the STOP transport button. The screen displayed the audio track with its default name, "SOUND_00123." (There were already 122 other sounds on the hard drive.)

Pressing the REW transport control offered an interesting effect. Rather than return instantaneously to the beginning of the track, as random access can do, the SoundLink "rewound" the "tape" at about the same speed real tape would rewind. The screen sped by, indicating it was indeed in a fast rewind mode. Ditto for fast forward. Though you can't hear the audio go by in the fast forward and rewind modes, watching the screen speed by certainly preserves that sense of working with an analog machine. Once the quaintness of this simulated analog rewind and fast-forward got old, we resorted to the quicker, almost instantaneous way of returning to zero -- by pressing the "0" button followed by the "ENTER" button. Zoom! That's what digital is all about!

Editing on the SoundLink also occurs in the AUDIO mode. This is done on Page 2 of the four AUDIO screens. There are three editing choices: Erase INtoOUT, Move INtoOUTDST, and Copy INtoOUTDST. All three editing functions require setting an IN point and an OUT point. To move or copy a section of audio, a third "destination" point must be set. The Erase INtoOUT function erases audio between two points but doesn't bring the two points together like you would if you were splicing a few words out of a voice track. So, the Erase INtoOUT function is most useful for removing noise on a track. To perform the kind of splice we're more familiar with, the Move INtoOUTDST function is used. Let's say you have a voice track counting from 1 to 10 -- 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. You want to edit out the 4,5,6,7 so it reads 1,2,3,8,9,10. Your IN point is at the beginning of 8, your OUT point is at the end of 10, and your destination point is after 3. When those points are set, one press of the "H" soft button performs the edit, basically writing over the 4,5,6,7 part of the track. The Move function is used for many other editing functions as well. For example, you can move a piece of audio from a point on track 5 to a different or the same point on track 6. If you wanted to move the entire sound to another track or somewhere else on the same track, a Capture function speeds up the process by setting the IN and OUT points with one press of the "CAPture" soft function button. The Copy INtoOUTDST function operates similarly but obviously does not remove the audio from the source track, nor does it use up additional space on the hard drive to make the copy.

What if you make a mistake after executing an edit? The SoundLink's UNDO button is in the top right corner and remembers one step back. Pressing UNDO restores the tracks to their previous state, but not to their state two or more edits back.

One final note about setting IN and OUT points for editing. Most often, this is done using the scrub function of the SoundLink. On the right side of the console is a large data wheel used for scrubbing the actual waveform of a single selected track. The "feel" of the scrub is not identical to that of rocking a couple of analog reels, but it's close enough to do the job. A Zoom In/Out function lets you get a close-up shot of an area you're scrubbing which helps a lot when doing things like removing pops or other very short noises. The data wheel is also used to enter values into various fields as well as locate the "cursor" or vertical line on the display to a point in a session.

The third page of the AUDIO mode is devoted to dealing with "segments." Segments are nothing more than file pointers that tell the SoundLink where a "sound" begins and ends. So, when you record a voice track, it gets written to the hard disk as a sound. What you deal with when editing these sounds are referred to as segments. When you erase, move, and edit on the SoundLink, you are merely altering file pointers or segments. The actual sound, in its entirety, remains on the hard disk, thus making the editing functions non-destructive. Page 3 of the AUDIO mode lets you Erase, Move, Copy, and Trim segments. Remember, when you erase a segment, it will disappear from the track it was assigned to, but the sound itself still remains on the hard disk and is retrievable at any time until you actually choose to delete the sound in the DISK mode.

The final page of the AUDIO mode is the Edit Sound page. Here, sounds on the disk can be renamed, retrieved from the disk, placed onto a track, and more. An Expansion/Compression function performs time squeeze and expansion on sounds. There are three "quality" modes for the process; the higher the quality, the longer the SoundLink takes to perform the function. We used the middle quality mode to shrink a one-minute and eight second voice track down to a sixty and were quite impressed with the nearly perfect result. Another function in the Edit Sound page is the ability to convert a sound's sampling frequency from 44.1 to 48kHz and vice versa. The SoundLink records and plays back only at these two rates.

The next mode of the SoundLink is the MIXER mode. It isn't necessary to use the SoundLink's mixer. Remember, there are eight balanced INs and OUTs on the back of the Main Unit that can be sent directly to a console. On the other hand, there are a lot of features in the SoundLink's mixer, and you might prefer to send only the SoundLink's stereo master L/R mix to your console and do all your mixing within the SoundLink. There are seven screens which access the fully automated, digital mixer. Page 1 displays all ten faders and provides functions for enabling and disabling automated control of the faders and mute buttons. Page 2 accesses the unit's EQ. "Snapshots" of settings of this digital, 3-band, combination shelving and parametric EQ can be saved for later retrieval. EQ can be adjusted from -12 to +12 dB, 40Hz to 16kHz. Page 3 accesses the mixer's pan pots, reverb mix, and send levels for two auxiliary sends. Page 4 offers, among other things, the mixer's noise gates and phase switches. Additional pages present other features of the mixer too numerous to detail.

For the most part, it is the ability to automate and perfect a mix that is most attractive for radio production. How many times have you had all eight tracks loaded with sounds, voices, effects, and music, to the point that when it comes down to the mix, you need five extra hands to make all those fader adjustments halfway through track 1 and right after the doorbell on track 3, and so on? With the SoundLink's automated mixer, you can, one track at a time if you wish, precisely record those fader movements. And the SoundLink provides an "Update" function much like "punching in" should you want to revise a fader movement.

Along with EQ and noise gates for each channel, the SoundLink also has an internal, digital reverb accessed with the EFFECT mode button. In comparison to some of the digital reverb boxes you're familiar with, this reverb is very basic. There are three reverb types: Room, Hall, and Plate. You can adjust reverb time, High EQ, Low EQ, pre-delay, and a few other parameters. Nothing fancy, but you get built-in reverb if you want it, and again, "snapshots" of various reverb setups can be saved for later use, and multiple reverb settings can be used simultaneously within a session. The EFFECT mode also accesses the SoundLink's digital limiter which is applied to the L/R mix output.

The MIDI mode of the SoundLink is the sequencer section mentioned earlier. The sequencer won't be of much use to most people in radio production, so this review will not examine the sequencer. However, if your studio is equipped with keyboards, samplers, sound modules and so on, and if you regularly use MIDI to produce your own music beds, then you have another big reason to take a look at the SoundLink.

The seventh and final operating mode of the SoundLink is the MARK mode. Below the data wheel is a large STORE MARK button. A mark is nothing more than a marker to designate a place in time. If you're recording a voice track and the announcer stumbles at a certain point then does a retake, pressing the STORE MARK button on the fly will mark that point so you can get back to it easily. The first mark is given a default name of MARKNAME00. The second time you press the STORE MARK button, a new mark with the name MARKNAME01 is written. The MARK operating mode provides one screen that lets you Erase, Move, Copy, and Rename these marks.

To the left of the large data wheel are the SoundLink's locate, edit, and transport controls. You get PUNCH IN, PUNCH OUT, and AUTO PUNCH buttons. Obviously, the SoundLink provides automatic punch in/out as well as manual punch in/out. Both work like a charm and are easy to use. Below these buttons are three more buttons that control the unit's "repeat" feature. Two points can be selected for repeated playback or looping, but the SoundLink does not provide seamless loops. There is about a one second pause while the SoundLink goes back to the beginning of the loop.

There are 99 locate points. The STORE, RECALL, and MARK buttons provide easy storage and retrieval of the locate points. A MEASURE button toggles the large, red LED time display (located above the data wheel) between time code and measures. A LOCK button is used to transmit transport control messages to external devices. Finally, the DIAL STEP button toggles between how the data wheel locates within a session. When set to SEC, moving the data wheel clockwise or counter-clockwise moves the location of the vertical "cursor" line in steps of one second per click of the wheel. This is the easiest way to move around in a typical radio production piece of thirty or sixty seconds. Press the DIAL STEP button again, and the mode switches to "minutes" which would be handy if you had an hour long program and wanted to move quickly from one end of it to the other. Another press of the DIAL STEP button sets the locate function to the "Segment" mode so that one click of the data wheel moves the cursor (or digital "playback head") to the next segment on the selected track. The locate mode can also be set to "Mark" which locates the next Mark with one click of the data wheel. Finally, the data wheel can be set to scroll frame by frame for the most precise movement. LOCATE and EDIT buttons above the data wheel select the wheel's function, whether it is used to locate within a session or to change the value of fields in the LCD display.

You get 120 track minutes with the SoundLink's standard setup, expandable to 720 track minutes (at 44.1kHz sampling). Other inputs and outputs on the SoundLink include a headphone jack on the console, a metronome output, 2-channel assignable digital ins and outs (AES/EBU, S/PDIF, CD/DAT), two sets of MIDI IN, OUT, and THRU jacks, as well as all the necessary jacks for interfacing with video machines and computers. There's also a jack for an external keyboard which speeds up the process of naming sessions and sounds. As mentioned, an RGB video output is available if you prefer a screen larger than the LCD screen built into the console. The A/D converters are 16-bit linear with 64 times oversampling; D/A is 18-bit linear, 8 times oversampling.

While the name Korg symbolizes something for "the musician," it seems the SoundLink is suited to a broader marketplace which doesn't exclude radio's production studios. Granted, most radio producers may never use the unit's 16-track MIDI sequencer or bother with the internal effects and signal processing if they have extensive outboard gear. But the SoundLink's learning curve is notably shorter than expected. The software is potent, but it's not cluttered with ten thousand confusing features you'll never use. The overall "speed" of production on the machine was certainly no slower than working on an analog 8-track, and as time passed and functions became more familiar, speed picked up considerably. Also, there are several ways to do things on the SoundLink, and it's obvious that the longer a person uses the unit, the more shortcuts they will discover. What is also pleasing about this hard-disk based system is that just one cable connects the console to the rest of the system. There is no additional PC computer to deal with, no computer monitor, no mouse, and none of the necessary cables to hook all these up with. Installation is unusually quick and painless.

As with most digital workstations, one great advantage is the ability to upgrade by simply installing new software. With the SoundLink, this is done via the 8mm tape drive. This Test Drive examined software version 2.0 which was released only six months ago. Before we returned the unit, we were fortunate enough to get our hands on a pre-release copy of the version 3.0 software which, among many other features, adds stereo expansion/compression and sample rate conversion, expanded mid-range frequencies on the EQ, threshold recording, a "Shift" function for quick movement of a segment without setting IN, OUT, and destination points, and more. The new software is slated for release in the first quarter of the new year.

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