Test Drive: The Orban DSE-7000: Four Years Later

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by Jerry Vigil

Four years ago, the Radio And Production "Test Drive" took a look at the AKG DSE-7000. The software version at that time was version 1.0. The high priced workstation flaunted swift RAM-based operation, a dedicated control panel, and a user interface so friendly, anyone with even the most basic analog recording knowledge could be up and running on the DSE-7000, performing multi-track recording and editing, within an hour. Four years ago, there were a lot of digital workstations on the market, but most of these were cross-overs from other fields such as music recording and audio for video production. The DSE was, and still is, distinctive in that it was designed to do nothing else except radio production. Over the past four years, the DSE-7000 has gone through some changes, and all of them were for the good.

In appearance, the most obvious change is in the name. The AKG DSE-7000 became the Orban DSE-7000 early this year. Sister company Orban assumed support, development, manufacturing, and distribution of the DSE-7000. The strategic move also puts the DSE in a product line that is focused solely on broadcast audio.

The most pleasing change has been two major price reductions. Four years ago, a basic system with 17 minutes of recording time (64 meg of RAM) cost $53,600. Today, the same system is priced at $19,950 and includes a hard disk for storage that's twice the size of the disk in the 1990 system.

The more subtle changes have been in the software, as well as with the addition of some hardware. The most recent operating system is Version 4.0. But before we get into the details of the new features of the DSE, it might be useful for those totally unfamiliar with the DSE to get a brief overview of the machine.

The DSE is a RAM-based workstation; the alternatives are hard-disk based systems. The RAM is expensive, but the payoff is in the remarkable speed with which the editing functions occur. With hard-disk based systems, many functions require extensive reading and writing of data to and from the hard disks. With the DSE, the majority of the reading and writing is done to RAM, which is much faster than data transfer to and from disk.

The DSE is an 8-track digital recorder. You get a color monitor, the CPU which houses the computer and I/O cards, and the dedicated control panel. A roll-around stand is optional. The computer running the software is a 386 PC. A computer keyboard is attached and used for naming files. It is seldom used for anything else.

The two main screens on the DSE-7000 are the Editor screen and the Mixer screen. Most of the work on the DSE is done from the Editor screen. This screen shows all eight tracks with the waveform of the audio on each track. You get imitation LED input and output meters. Time indicators show current "tape" time as well as edit points and locate points. A "fuel gauge" displays the amount of RAM available for recording. "Pull down" menus access the various editing functions.

The Mixer screen also displays the fuel gauge, timers, level meters, and pull down menus, but it replaces the eight visual tracks with a mixer layout. This is where pans are set, and the two effects sends are accessed here. There are graphic "faders" that correspond with the faders on the control panel. While you might access this screen at least once during each production, you will only spend a fraction of your time with this screen, and the rest with the Editor screen.

The Job Control screen is where new productions are started or old ones loaded into RAM. Rename, copy, or erase productions or library sounds from this screen. Access DAT back-up functions, attach text files to productions with a built-in word processor, and defragment and "optimize" your hard disk from the Job Control screen.

Two things make the DSE-7000 incredibly easy to use. First is the program itself, and second is the dedicated control panel which brings practically all the "computer commands" to a well laid out, familiar looking control panel. There are eight faders, one for each of the eight tracks, and two master faders. Above each of the eight faders are "Select" and "Enable" buttons. Select basically turns that track on and sends its audio to the outputs. It also "selects" that track for editing. The Enable buttons enable the tracks for recording. (This is a 2-in/2-out configuration, and only one or two tracks can be recorded to at a time.) There are buttons for marking edit begin and end points, the Source In and Source Out buttons. Two buttons called Destination In and Destination Out are used to designate where "cut" or "copied" audio should go. You get the famous "Undo" button which negates an editing function and reverts back to the previous state. (Only one level of "undo.") If you get stuck, the Help button summons context sensitive help screens, in real English.

The Source In and Source Out buttons are used the most when editing, and they are used together with the large scrub wheel on the control panel. Many workstations offer the audio scrub feature, and many offer the feature with a data wheel like that on the DSE. But few come close to the precise and "natural" feel of scrubbing in RAM with the DSE.

To the right of the scrub wheel is a red LED display which shows only the current "tape time." Above it are two buttons to set locate points 1 and 2, and two buttons to recall each of those points. For transport controls you get Play, Rewind, Fast Forward, and Stop. When Fast Forward and Rewind are engaged, the audio actually plays back at a gradually increasing speed, exactly as it does with real tape. If the idea is to make one feel as though they're working with tape on reels, the effect works. Of course, if you want to go from the end of a piece of work to the beginning, it isn't necessary to hit Rewind and wait the few seconds it takes to get to the beginning of the project. You can just press the Head button to instantly go to the beginning of the project. The Tail button instantly puts you at the end of the project. The Rewind and Fast Forward buttons can be set to move through a project in "pages" of 20 seconds or 60 seconds with each press.

The control panel is very easy to get used to. In fact, this is the way the entire DSE is designed. The same "user friendly" approach is taken with the software. The DSE is one of the few digital workstations that actually uses terminology that is exclusive to working with analog tape. For example, in the Editor screen, if you need to move audio on a track, there is a function that lets you put "Leader" tape in front of it. The Splice function performs the exact kind of splicing you are used to with tape. Mark the Source In point and Source Out point (the same as the first and second grease pencil marks on tape), select Splice as the function, then press the Execute key. The audio between the two points disappears, and the two marked points are joined together. Suppose you don't want the two points to come together; instead, you want silence to replace the audio between the two points. Select the Erase function instead.

Recording and editing on the DSE-7000 is surprisingly easy, and once you become familiar with the layout of the control panel, editing and moving audio can be done with extraordinary speed.

So, you kind of get the idea of what it is and how it works. But how far has the DSE come in the past four years? Let's go down the list starting with new hardware options. In 1990, you could only get 16 meg RAM cards for the DSE; now there are 64 meg RAM cards. Four years ago, maximum recording time was 17 minutes; now it's 70 minutes with the maximum of four cards installed. The 1990 version offered a 676 megabyte hard drive for storage of productions and library sounds; now you can get a 2 gigabyte drive that can store up to eight hours of audio. The new optional Intelligent Digital I/O Module lets you edit and mix multiple analog and digital formats easily. Mix and edit 44.1 kHz CDs with 48kHz DAT audio and 32kHz audio files on the hard drive, all within the digital domain. The optional DAT back-up system offers back-up of library sounds and complete productions, including all the individual tracks, mixer settings, production notes, and even the last Undo. Dozens of productions or hundreds of library sounds can be saved on a single data DAT, and a built-in reminder lets you know when it's time to clean the DAT heads! A 17-inch color monitor is now available.

The many new hardware options are wonderful, but so are the many improvements made to the software. To preview a library sound, you used to have to load it into RAM before playing it back. Now, the DSE reads the audio from the disk and lets you preview sounds immediately -- a nice union of a RAM-based system with a typical disk-based system function. Now, all mixer settings including faders, pan, effects sends, track enables and more are saved and restored with each production. Peak overload warning indicators have been added to the level meters. A new Skip Silence feature lets you move through a production more quickly by skipping silent sections and cuing to the beginning of audio an any enabled track. Three-point editing is now available making it a breeze to "hit posts" and back-time perfectly. When you retrieve a sound from the sound library, the new Dub In function inserts the audio at the edit point and slides everything after it down, without over-writing it. Of course, if you want to over-write audio at that point on the track, the Dub Over function will do that. A new Move function lets you move audio from one place to another, on the same track or to another track, and eliminates a lot of keystrokes previously needed to perform the same task. The DSE now has Auto Punch-in and Punch-out! There's ±20% vari-speed, too!

About the only thing that is not "instant" on the DSE-7000 is the time it takes to load a production into RAM, but improvements have been made to speed up this process. There are a number of other changes that have been made to the software. Some of them simply enhance the display in little ways, making it easier to read information on the screen. Other changes utilize new multi-key strokes on the control panel to activate new functions of the editor. All in all, the software programmers are doing a good job of keeping in touch with DSE users, constantly asking and listening to the needs of the users, and implementing the suggestions when possible. One nice aspect of the software upgrades is that they're free. AKG has never charged for upgrades which have come around about once a year. The current version number is 4.0.

Four years have brought many new improvements to the DSE-7000, but it's interesting to note that with the addition of the many new functions and features, the DSE remains as easy to learn and use today as it was four years ago. It's obvious, this is not an accident. For a production studio that is going to be used by a lot of people within the station, the short learning curve of the DSE is hard to beat.

Over the past four years, I've heard a lot of pros and cons about the DSE-7000, both from users and people considering buying one. One of the negatives that has always popped up (usually from people shopping for a DAW) is that because the system is RAM-based, if you lose power, you lose all your work. This simply is not true. Never has been. The DSE is constantly "shadowing" your work to the hard drive, and your entire project is there, intact, on the hard drive, ready for you to load back into RAM when the power comes back on. Another criticism I hear often is that the unit doesn't have EQ. Granted, in the old world of analog multi-trackin', the EQ is nice to have, but, for me, it was simply a matter of learning to apply EQ when recording rather than during the mix. And the few times where I needed more EQ after the fact, I simply re-recorded that track into the DSE with more EQ. Yes, EQ would be nice, but the sacrifice is small in comparison to the whole package.

One other complaint heard more than once is the limited recording time on the DSE versus the hours of recording time available on disk-based systems. This is certainly something to think about if you're considering the DSE. If you produce a lot of 30 minute or one hour programs, complete with sound effects, music, and voice, the DSE is not for you, at least not yet. If and when 128 meg or 256 meg RAM cards are available, then the DSE will handle such large projects (though your pocketbook might not handle the tag on a 256 megabyte RAM card). On the other hand, I produced at least a hundred commercials and promos on the DSE-7000, and the most complex one of them all used only a little over seven minutes of RAM. Most productions averaged around four minutes of RAM, and, of course, a simple voice over music sixty used up three minutes. The 17-minute system is plenty for the average radio production demand -- two 64 meg RAM cards make an ideal system.

By far, I have heard more good things about the DSE than bad. Many will say the DSE cuts production time by one-half or even two-thirds. Depending upon the project, this is entirely true. Editing voice tracks and music beds is extremely fast on the DSE, and this is due not only to the fact that it's being done in RAM, but because you're working with a control panel instead of a mouse. No matter how fast you are with a mouse, pushing a button is still faster than navigating a mouse on a screen then "clicking" the mouse, sometimes twice.

RAM-based editing on the DSE is faster than editing on a disk-based system for a number of reasons. One has to do with how the systems draw the waveform on the screen. On the DSE, when you move from one point in the project to another, the screen updates instantly because the information is in RAM, and the DSE doesn't draw highly detailed waveforms. With many disk-based systems (particularly those that don't use much RAM), when you move to another part of the project, that information has to be read from disk before the screen can be updated, and if the system is drawing a very detailed waveform, that takes even more time. A second here, and a second there -- it adds up.

For radio production, it's tough to go wrong with the DSE-7000. And now that its price tag is competitive with many of the disk-based systems, and even cheaper than some, this workstation that was four years ago a dream for many, can now be a reality. The basic system for $19,950 comes with 17 minutes of RAM and a 1 gigabyte drive. With the 2 gig drive the cost is $21,150. Get the 2 gig drive; you'll use it all! Additional 64 meg RAM cards (providing 17.6 minutes of recording time at 32kHz sampling, less at 44.1kHz) are $5,950 each. The digital I/O is $1,950 and syncs to external sources such as word clock. The DAT data tape backup drive is $2,750, and the larger 17-inch monitor is $850.

For more information on the Orban DSE-7000, call Orban in San Leandro, California at (510) 351-3500 or fax (510) 351-0500.

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