Test Drive: The Arrakis Systems Trak*Star-8 Digital Audio Workstation

The Move Track function is just what you'd expect. Click on this button, then click on the track you want to move. The tracks then turn into the two familiar red bars attached to the mouse arrow. Move the tracks with the mouse and click the mouse button to place the tracks in their new position; or, use the Trak*Star's scrub function to more accurately locate the point at which you want to drop the track.

The next button on the left of the screen is the Fade Track button. Quickly attach one second and three second fades to the beginning or end of any track using the "Auto" button of the Fade Track function. You also have the option to manually "draw" the fade envelope for a sound file. This fade envelope can be as complex as you desire, with any number of fades, up or down, at any point in the sound file. Why would you need the ability to draw complex fades in such a uncomplicated system? Because this is also where levels of tracks in the mix are controlled. For example, if you record a donut jingle into the system and want to lower the level of the donut music bed for the voice-over in the mix, you must draw a fade envelope on the jingle audio file at the points where you want the music to fade and where you want it to come back up for the end sing. Furthermore, there is no "real time" level control -- you can't hear the level changes being made as you draw the envelope -- but you are given a dB indicator to show how much you're fading a track. (You can also boost a track's level by 6 dB using the same function.) This is a strange way of mixing tracks, and it takes considerably more time than just clicking on a fader somewhere; but real time level control in a digital multi-track environment is apparently something available only in systems with more DSP hardware, which obviously cranks up the cost of the system and complicates its operation. Perhaps a quicker way to deal with the donut jingle mentioned above is to duck the levels when the jingle is being recorded in the first place.

We found an experienced user of the Trak*Star-8, a Production Director, who sheds a little light on adjusting levels this way. Like many things in the digital world, it's just a matter of getting used to a different way of doing things. Jim Parker of WLRS-FM in Louisville offered this input: "To master [level control], it's just a matter of experimentation, finding out how many dBs to drop over how many seconds. For a standard donut, there are standard fade angles you can place where the sing ends and the music bed begins and vice versa. I find that a good uniform dB drop is from zero dB on the sing to -7 dB in about a 1/4 of a second." Jim has had the Trak*Star-8 since the spring, and it is his first time on a digital multi-track workstation. What does he think of the Trak*Star-8? "It's extremely simple to learn. I just love the system, and I learn something new about it every day." How much faster is his multi-track work? "I used to do a concert spot with all the bells and whistles in about an hour. I can do the same spot in about 20 minutes now."

Below the Fade Track button is the Edit Track button. Unlike the Edit File function, the Edit Track function lets you perform the usual copy, cut, and paste functions directly in the 8-track mix screen. This is one of the most impressive aspects of the Trak*Star-8. For radio production, ease of use is a must. Editing, moving, copying tracks and portions of tracks is extremely easy and intuitive. Anyone with basic multi-track experience can perform complex multi-track tasks easily after a couple of hours of practice. There's even a Split Track function that quickly cuts a track at any point and lets you move the cut portion anywhere in the 8-track mix. This is the same as blocking, cutting, and pasting; but it saves several steps and valuable time.

The Overdub function of the Trak*Star-8 enables recording while listening to the current mix. The system first writes a temporary "mix file," then prompts you for information about the file you're about to record. Once recorded, you can replace an existing track with the new track, or place the new track on an open track on the mix.

The Mix Down button accesses the unit's ability to mix down selected tracks to a single stereo pair. This frees up the other six tracks, and lets you continue to add more tracks to your production without quality degradation due to multiple generation mixes.

The Write Mix function performs a mixdown to another file but keeps your original mix and files intact in the 8-track screen should you desire to do a different mix or add/delete tracks later on.

The Trak*Star system duplicates on-screen functions with keyboard commands. This considerably speeds up many functions that otherwise require playing with the mouse. A list of keyboard commands is easily accessible by clicking on the Help button at the bottom right of the screen.

The basic Trak*Star-8 uses an 80286 PC system to run the software. You get a keyboard, a mouse, and a VGA color monitor. The whole package is light-weight and very affordable at just $5,495. All hardware and software is contained in the five-rackspace unit which can be installed away from the immediate work area. The only need to access the box is to use the 3.5-inch floppy drive for upgrading existing software or running other DOS programs and utilities. There are two inputs and two outputs, each of them analog. An optional 7-channel Routing Switcher Extender lets the user choose from one of seven sources for audio input. The basic system comes with a 120 megabyte drive which provides 24 minutes of mono audio recorded at 32kHz sampling, the unit's only sampling frequency. Optional 1.2 and 2.1 gigabyte drives add up to 494 mono minutes of recording time per drive. The Trak*Star-8 uses a 16-bit linear PCM data format -- data compression is not used.

One other aspect of the Trak*Star-8 that requires getting used to is the fact that you cannot record a mono track as a single track. When recording a file, you have the option to record it in mono or stereo, but regardless of your choice, the file will still take up two tracks of the 8-track. However, this does not take up precious disk space needlessly. In mono, total recording times are still doubled. The drawback is that you use up two tracks when you only need one. Then again, with the Mixdown function, you can easily regain tracks. This aspect of the software is probably related to the fact that there are no "faders" or "pots" to set track levels with. If you have a single, mono track, you need the ability to pan it left or right or center. This panning function, like the faders, are console functions not found in the Trak*Star-8. As mentioned, this is likely due to the additional cost involved in hardware, but then again, it could be part of the software design, a decision by the designers to keep the system simple. Other systems that provide level and pan controls also provide thicker manuals and longer learning curves. The big question for anyone considering the Trak*Star-8 is whether these sacrifices are too much for the sake of effortless operation and/or cost. If ease-of-use and price are important to you, then the Trak*Star-8 is a very sensible unit. Very seldom will you come across a digital multi-track workstation that only requires that you get familiar with just one screen. Arrakis Systems deserves a great deal of credit for being able to simplify disk based, 8-track digital recording this significantly.

A 2-track version of Trak*Star-8 is also available. You can buy it as a stand-alone unit for the same price, or as an add-on module for $1,995. When installed with the 8-track version, Trak*Star-2 is accessed by clicking the Menu button on the main Trak*Star screen. A list of available applications appears. You can leave Trak*Star-8 and install the 2-track program with the click of the mouse. Other application programs are in the works including Trak*Star News, a dedicated workstation for news departments.

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