Test Drive: 360 Systems Instant Replay Hard Disk Audio Player

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by Jerry Vigil

When digital audio storage and retrieval became practical, 360 Systems was quickly on the radio scene with their DigiCarts. Several companies introduced "digital cart machines" during this time. They all attempted, and most succeeded, to emulate the analog cart machine in many ways. There are systems that record audio to a floppy disk which is then loaded into a playback unit, maintaining most of the characteristics of analog decks by requiring you to "plug" things in and out of the machine. Other systems, like the DigiCart, incorporate internal hard disk drives, and several audio elements can be accessed from a single unit. And the many "digital studio" hard disk storage/retrieval systems available also provide random access to audio stored on drives. Most of these systems display a bank of "cart machines" on the screen which the user can trigger remotely, with a mouse, or with a touch-screen to activate playback. But even with the ability to quickly scroll through audio files on a drive and load them immediately, you're still spending time scrolling and loading. If you have just one DigiCart in the studio, in effect, it's still like having one cart machine, because you have to locate then load the audio you want to play before you can play it. The new Instant Replay from 360 Systems is a disk-based storage/retrieval system that eliminates this step and makes life in the digital world... even faster.

Imagine the morning show producer, or the morning show DJ, having to shuffle carts of sound effects and comedy bits in and out of the few cart machines available, while making sure the next song is loaded, not to mention the station jingle, the next few commercials, a promo, and whatever else might be part of the stop-set at hand. Most studios seem to settle on six as the magic number of cart machines available. Some deal with a couple more, some deal with less. Only the talent on air can really tell you whether six is enough or not, and most will say, the more, the better. Well, the 360 Systems Instant Replay is the equivalent of adding FIFTY cart machines to the control room. Let me repeat that. FIFTY CART MACHINES IN THE CONTROL ROOM, EACH LOADED AND READY TO FIRE WITH THE PRESS OF A SINGLE BUTTON! And there are TEN banks of fifty carts machines, each bank easily loaded in less than two seconds with a mere two keystrokes! If you're a morning show producer or personality, you're probably drooling at the mouth, and you have good reason to be doing so. And the advantages in the production studio are just as tasty.

Fifty "Hot Keys" on the top panel of the Instant Replay represent the start buttons for fifty cart machines--five rows of ten. The keys themselves are large and far enough apart that it's difficult to accidentally hit two at a time. And, they are made of a rubbery material that is not only comfortable to touch, but it feels very durable. And the keys are "silent," so there's no clicking noises that might get on the air if the unit is used in the on-air studio. Each Hot Key has a built-in LED that illuminates bright red when playing, so there's never a question as to which Hot Key is active. Only one Hot Key can play at a time, and if another is pushed while one is playing, the old cut mutes and the new cut begins playing immediately. So there's no mixing or overlaying of sounds. (It's a much more complex machine that can read multiple audio files simultaneously.)

As for knowing what's loaded on each key, that can be handled in three ways. Print an overlay, via the printer port on the back panel, and place it over the Hot Keys. This will put the user-given name of each sound below or above its respective Hot Key. You can also print a list of sounds assigned to the fifty Hot Keys and simply look at the list to see what is where. The list can be sorted by Hot Key number, index number (more on this number later), or alphabetically by name. An overlay or list can be printed for each of the ten banks. Finally, the large, bright, 2-line by 20-character blue fluorescent display can tell you what's where. The fifty Hot Keys also double as an alpha-numeric keyboard for naming sound files and banks. The keys are laid out in the standard typewriter QWERTY format and beat the heck out of systems that make you scroll through the alphabet one letter at a time.

To the right of the Hot Keys and below the display are the Instant Replay's function keys and transport controls. The STOP, PLAY, RECORD, and PAUSE keys work as you'd expect. When in STOP mode, the display shows the selected cut name, index number, total length, and position on the current bank if the cut is assigned to that bank. When in PLAY mode, the display changes to show elapsed or remaining time as the cut plays, along with name and index number. Pressing and holding the STOP key also displays the software version number, remaining recording time on the drive, the total number of files on the drive, and the total recording time of all those cuts. Pressing the BANK SELECT key illuminates that key and starts the top ten Hot Keys (keys 1 through 10) flashing. Select a bank by pressing any one of the flashing keys, or you can use the UP and DOWN SCROLL function keys to scroll through the banks as shown on the display, then press the ENTER key when the desired bank is located. The display shows the bank's name, number, and the number of Hot Keys or Presets assigned to that bank. If you know which bank you want, the fastest way to select it is by pressing the BANK SELECT key followed by the respective Hot Key.

Pressing the PREVIEW key illuminates that key and mutes the main output on the rear panel allowing the user to preview a sound file using the headphone output on the rear panel. Volume is adjusted with the headphone level control to the right of the function keys.

The PLAYLIST key accesses the Instant Replay's ability to sequence selected presets or Hot Keys. Simply press PLAYLIST. The PLAYLIST key lights up to let you know you're in the Playlist mode. Then, press the Hot Keys in the order you want them to play. When done, press PLAY, and the sequence begins. You have the option to play the playlist in Manual Step mode or Follow-on mode. In Manual Step mode, when PLAY is pressed, the first preset in the list plays, then the unit stops. When it stops, it shows information about the next preset in the playlist and that Hot Key begins flashing. Pressing PLAY plays the next preset and so on. In the Follow-on mode, the presets play one after the other without stopping until the last preset has played. Modifying playlists is a breeze. To add an element to the middle, use the UP/DOWN SCROLL keys to scroll through the playlist. At the point where you want to add a preset, simply press that preset's Hot Key. To delete a preset from the playlist, scroll to it, then press the CANCEL key. Digital systems don't get much simpler.

The LOOP key illuminates when pressed and repeats playback of a single preset or an entire playlist. This is not seamless looping, but the function could have some use for unique applications. I had an occasion to make ten dubs of a spot. I recorded the spot, complete with slate to the Instant Replay, then used the Loop function to perform the shuttling.

The ASSIGN PRESET key is used to assign sound files to Hot Keys. The Instant Replay will hold up to one thousand audio files, limited in length only by the amount of disk space available. Of these thousand files, up to five hundred can be assigned to Hot Keys (ten banks of fifty). As with everything else on the Instant Replay, assigning files to Hot Keys is simple and intuitive. First, select the bank you wish to use. Then, scroll through the audio files to find the one you want to assign. When it's shown on the display, simply press the ASSIGN PRESET key then press the Hot Key where you want the sound file stored. Press the ASSIGN PRESET key when done. That's it!

Likewise, recording on the Instant Replay is as simple as it gets. When files are recorded, they are assigned an index number (from 0 to 999), starting with the lowest available number. Press the RECORD key. The display offers the option to accept the default index number or scroll for another available number. When ready, press PLAY. Recording begins immediately unless the system has been configured to start recording when audio is sensed at the inputs. Since there is no editing of the front of the audio file available (or any editing for that matter), it is certainly best to use the trigger mode to record. This way, files will begin playback immediately when the PLAY key or Hot Key is pressed. The trigger threshold can be set to anywhere from -6dB to -60dB. When through recording, quickly press STOP to end the recording. (If you wait too long to hit STOP, silence will be recorded at the end of the file which will be undesirable when in Loop mode or Follow-on Playlist mode. This also wastes disk space.) After STOP is pressed, you get the option to accept the default name or rename the file. Once the file is named, press ENTER and the file is stored on the disk.

As mentioned, up to one thousand sound files can be stored on the Instant Replay, but only five hundred can be assigned to Hot Keys at one time. However, the other five hundred can be played back, even though they're not assigned to Hot Keys. This is done by scrolling through the files in the display until the desired cut is shown. Once it's in the display, pressing PLAY will start playback. (Cuts assigned to Hot Keys can also be played back this way.) Of course, once you get even fifty sound files on the drive, scrolling through them one at a time to find a particular cut is a big waste of time. That's where the FIND key comes in. Press FIND to locate a file by name or index number. You can look at your printout of all files on the drive to find the index number, or you can enter the full name of the file or even the first letter or first few letters. Press ENTER and your file is instantly ready to play. If there are several files beginning with the letter or letters entered, the UP/DOWN SCROLL keys can be used to scroll through each of them. The FIND function is quick, easy, and a must when looking for sounds not assigned to Hot Keys. It's also handy when looking for sounds that are assigned to Hot Keys, when you can't remember which bank they're in! The last function key on the top panel tour is the MENU key. This accesses several setup and operational functions. There are several sub-menus under this key. The Record Setup menu is where the trigger threshold mentioned earlier is set. Record time limits can be set. The Record Overwrite option enables recording over existing files when set to On. The Record/Erase Lockout option prevents any recording or erasing of files when set to On.

Under the Operations sub-menu of the MENU key are functions to erase files, move files from one index number to another, adjust the output level of individual sound files (variable from -90db to +6db), change the name of a bank, and change the name of an individual sound file.

Under the Configuration sub-menu, the time display can be set to show time elapsed or time remaining when cuts are playing. The directory of files can be sorted by name or by index number. Menu instructions can be displayed in Spanish. This is where the digital output is selected (either AES/EBU or IEC-958 Type II). The output sample rate is 48kHz. The input is also selected from this sub-menu. Select from analog input, AES/EBU, D-NET AES, and IEC-958 Type II. Finally, the Instant Replay's GPI Input can be enabled which allows triggering the PLAY button remotely. This is a feature available only on newer models.

Printer output is controlled from a MENU key sub-menu. Options are printing a list of sounds assigned to the current bank, all sounds on the drive, or an overlay as mentioned earlier. Other sub-menu functions include Playlist Protection On/Off, Playlist Erasing, Preset Protect On/Off, Preset Clear, and more. A Bank Assign function assigns a range of sound files to a bank all at once. Fast!

Finally, in the MENU key sub-menus, we come to the File Transfer menu. Individual sound files or entire drives can be copied to other Instant Replays or 360 Systems DigiCarts (if the DigiCart has the file transfer option installed). This is where DAT backup and restore functions are also accessed. The file transfer rate is 8 to 1, and the backup/restore rate is 5.33 to 1. The entire contents of an 8-hour drive can be stored on a single 120-minute DAT.

The last stop of the top panel tour are the bar-graph level indicators and input level controls at the far right. The rear panel offers the headphone jack, balanced XLR analog ins and outs, a 0dB/-10dB output attenuator, AES/EBU XLR digital I/O, IEC-958 Type II digital I/O on RCA jacks, the printer output port, A/C input, and Power On/Off switch. New models with the GPI interface include a 1/8-inch phone jack. The Instant Replay features a built-in sample rate converter which lets the unit accept sample rates anywhere from 24kHz to 56kHz. All digital input signals are converted to 48kHz. The standard parallel printer port will work with many printers. A Hewlett Packard Laser Jet was used for this review with no problems.

As with any disk-based digital audio system, disk fragmentation can become a problem. The Instant Replay offers a defrag function along with a Format Disk function accessed by turning the unit off, pressing and holding the STOP key, then turning the unit back on.

Other specs on the Instant Replay include a frequency response of 20-20kHz, Dynamic Range >90dB, and Sigma Delta, oversampled A/D and D/A converters. The unit weighs just under ten pounds and has a 15" x 9" footprint. The advantages of Instant Replay in the on-air studio are obvious. Not only morning shows, but any "produced" show would benefit greatly with this box at hand. Each air personality could have his or her own bank of sounds which could be anything from personalized drops and jingles to sound effects, music beds, and more. The audition side of the on-air console could be fed to the unit so each jock could record whatever into his or her bank from the on-air studio. This would eliminate having to have a second unit in the production room, connected to the unit in the on-air studio. However, having at least two is the best setup because the production studio would then have its own Instant Replay!

What can you do with an Instant Replay in production? Save time. Granted, it doesn't take much time to take a CD out of its case, open the CD drawer, load the CD, and cue to the desired cut. If you know what cut you want, maybe that takes ten to fifteen seconds. Add ten to fifteen seconds to unload the CD and put it back when you're done, and now you're at thirty seconds. If you do that twenty times a day, there's ten minutes. In a week, it's a full hour of time spent loading and unloading CDs! Hard to believe, but it's true. The Instant Replay can shave those fifteen seconds down to one, maybe two, and it'll completely eliminate the other fifteen seconds spent putting that CD away because there's nothing to put away.

And what about those sound effects? You need a car crash for another ambulance-chasing lawyer spot. You open the sound effect catalog and spend maybe thirty seconds locating the CD and track number, if your fast. Then you have to load and unload the CD player and put the CD back...another thirty seconds. How many times do you search for sound effects every day? Three? Five? At five times a day, that's another half-hour a week added to your other hour of time spent handling CDs.

As you need sound effects and music beds, record them into the Instant Replay. For clients that use the same music bed, record that to the Instant Replay. Promo beds for ongoing promotions--Instant Replay. Next time you pull out the Bar Background sound effect, record it to the Instant Replay. Use bank 1 for commercial beds, bank 2 for promo beds, bank 3 for sound effects, bank 4 for jingles/drops, etc.. Eventually, you'll get a large percentage of your most used audio onto the Instant Replay, you'll begin to remember where everything is without looking at a list or overlay, and you will eliminate HOURS of time spent every month doing nothing more than loading sounds into CD players, cart machines, DAT decks, etc.. Think of the Instant Replay as a sampler with five hundred trigger keys and eight hours of sampling time!

And there's more! The Instant Replay is also a nifty, digital, 2-track recorder! It's ideal for grabbing voice tracks quickly. Next time someone waltzes into your studio needing to lay a voice track, and you're in the middle of something else, just hit the RECORD button on the Instant Replay. Set a level and hit PLAY, then send the announcer away. No need to unload a current project from another machine and load blank tape. No need to unload the fresh voice track and re-load your other project. No time wasted. When it's time to use the voice track, it's there, ready for "instant replay."

Yes, this is all wonderful, and the icing on the cake is the affordable price, $2,995 for the model with the "small" 4-hour drive! The Instant Replay is one heck of a tool for the on-air studio, but it also helps put the production room into turbo mode. This is as close to "instant" as digital gets!

Thanks to Steve Cunningham at 360 Systems for his assistance with this month's Test Drive.

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