Test Drive: Pacific Recorders & Engineering ADX Ensemble Digital Audio Workstation

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adx-ensembleby Jerry Vigil

In May of 1993, we offered a limited review of the ADX digital workstation based on a one-day visit to PR&E in California. A lot has changed since then. Now there are several configurations in the ADX series, and the DAWN software engine has been upgraded considerably. The ADX family includes the ADX Pro, the ADX Eight, and the ADX Ensemble. This review takes a close look at the Ensemble, a stand-alone, digital disk-based workstation featuring automated digital mixing.

The Ensemble is an 8-track workstation designed around the DAWN software, Version 4.1. This software was initially designed for A/V applications, but PR&E has worked closely with the designers over the years to bring the current version to you with several modifications aimed at making the interface more "radio friendly." Their efforts were successful. However, the Ensemble is still a workstation that requires time spent with the manual. It's not that the Ensemble is difficult to use. It's simply that there are so many features and functions available that you must read the manual to learn how to drive this machine at top speed. And the learning curve is not long at all. Once you get the essentials of recording and editing, the rest falls into place quickly.

THE PARTS

The roll-around stand features a 17-inch color monitor setting above the dedicated control panel. This panel brings the more frequently used functions to your fingertips and eliminates "clicking" menu selections for these functions. Below this panel resides the computer keyboard used primarily for naming files and projects. The keyboard also offers many single keystroke shortcuts for several functions. In front of the keyboard is the mixer panel where faders, EQ, sends, returns, pan controls, and the scrub wheel are located. Below the scrub wheel is the trackball with two large buttons on either side. The trackball is used to move the cursor around the screen and perform the basic "mouse" point, click, and drag functions. The bottom portion of the roll-around stand houses a Power Macintosh 6100/66, a unit that houses the external drives, and a third unit that houses the digital I/O and analog I/O cards.

THE BASICS

When you record something into the Ensemble, you record a Soundfile. These Soundfiles remain on the drive in their entirety until they are deliberately removed. As a result, all editing is nondestructive. The Soundfiles are represented on the screen as Cues. Cues can be the entire Soundfile or a segment of the Soundfile. The cues are edited, cut, copied, pasted, and moved around the eight tracks in what is called the Mixview window. This is where practically all your time is spent. The work done in the Mixview window is saved to a user named file called the Mixfile. To load a previous project, simply go to the folder icon for that project, double click, and that folder opens to reveal all the Soundfiles and the Mixfile for that project. Double click the Mixfile icon and the Ensemble loads the project. This is a process that takes about thirty seconds for most basic commercial and promo productions. Saving a project is a little faster.


THE MIXVIEW WINDOW

One very nice feature about the Ensemble is that it can be configured in many different ways to suit your particular tastes. For example, the eight tracks in the Mixview window can be displayed horizontally, like most digital multi-tracks, or the software can be configured to show the tracks in a vertical display that scrolls from the bottom during playback and record. For this review, we'll discuss things in the horizontal mode.

The Cues in the Mixview window appear as blocks with user-definable names on each block. You also have the option to display any or all Cues as waveforms. One complaint about many disk-based systems that display waveforms is the amount of time it takes to draw and redraw the waveforms. No complaints here. The graphics on this system are very high resolution and waveforms are drawn quickly.

There are two zoom icons in the upper left corner of the Mixview window. You can zoom out to see the entire project on the eight tracks, or zoom in for really close work. The entire project is also easily viewed on the smaller Mix Overview Bar above the track display. Cues are displayed as lines instead of blocks or waveforms, but they are distinct enough to see individual cues. Also, you can move anywhere within the project by placing the cursor at any point on this Mix Overview Bar and clicking once. The system locates to the new position and the screen updates almost instantly.

A timecode display is next to the zoom icons. This shows the position of the TimeLine, a vertical line that designates the current "tape" time or position of the "playback head." Below the timecode display is a small set of transport control icons. These are duplicated on the control panel and are seldom used unless you prefer using a mouse instead of dedicated buttons.

Each track has a set of Track Select function buttons (or icons) on the Mixview screen. You get Monitor Input, Solo, Mute, and Record Enable. Again, these are duplicated on the control panel and seldom used if you prefer using the control panel. Next to each set of buttons for tracks 1 and 2 are small level meters. These are the only level indicators on the system and are only on tracks 1 and 2 because those are your input channels. (The ADX Eight Multitrack System is the configuration that features eight input channels.) Two other buttons on each track of the Mixview window are the Track Playback Status button and Slave/Master button. Unless other gear is synced to the Ensemble, it will always be the master unit. The Track Playback Status button is used to tell the system whether or not to load that track into the RAM buffer for playback. By "turning off" unused tracks with these buttons, playback operations are sped up a bit.

RECORDING

The first step to making any recording is to open a project. The Ensemble uses the Macintosh file management format, so Mac users will feel right at home opening new project files or existing files. (Windows users will also get the hang of things quickly.)

New projects are started by creating a new "folder" for your Soundfiles. Name this folder whatever you want. Maybe it's the name of the client or the name of the promo. Each project folder can be stored into another folder. For example, all commercial project folders could reside in one folder titled "Commercials" and all promos in the "Promo" folder. Once the project folder is named, you are asked to name the Mixfile for the project or accept the default name. After this, system initialization takes place, and, after about 20 or 30 seconds, the Mixview window appears and you're ready to record. Click the Record Enable icon on the screen or press the Record Enable button on the control panel for track 1 if you're only recording a mono signal, or enable both tracks 1 and 2 if you're recording stereo. It doesn't matter if there's audio already on these tracks. You won't record "over" anything. An indicator shows how much recording time is left and counts this time down as you record. To begin recording, press RECORD on the control panel or click the icon on the screen. Recording begins immediately. If you press RECORD and PLAY simultaneously, the screen scrolls as you record to indicate how much time is passing. If you just press RECORD, "off-line" recording takes place and the screen remains stationary. You can place the cursor on a specific track and click once on that track; then, when you stop the recording, the Cue is placed on that track. When the recording is done, the Cue of the entire Soundfile is placed in the Mixview window and a default name is assigned to the Cue. This is a good time to rename the Cue if you prefer to have each Cue titled, such as "Music Bed," "Voice 1," "SFX," etc..


EDITING

Not enough will be said in this review about the exceptional editing capabilities of the Ensemble. As mentioned, when recording is done, the entire Soundfile of each recording is placed in the Mixview window as a Cue. These Cues can be cut up into a million pieces, moved all over the 8-track work area, copied, cut and pasted, and otherwise maneuvered in ways I've not seen before on any other system. This system is easily one of the most powerful I've seen.

Essentially all functions on the control panel are available on the screen in the popular pull-down menu method. But there are several functions available only by using the pull-down menus. For the rest of this review, we'll refer to control panel buttons unless the function can only be accessed via a pull-down menu on screen.

After recording a Soundfile, it's best to trim the front and back of the Cue of any silence or noise before and after the desired portion of the recording. The Ensemble uses a RAM buffer, so the scrub function works very well. Use the scrub wheel to move the TimeLine and cue up to the beginning of the audio where you want to the Cue to start, then press the MARK START button. This moves the start point of the Cue to the position of the TimeLine. Do the same on the back end of the Cue and press the MARK END button. Now you have a nicely trimmed Cue that visually reflects its proper length in the Mixview window.

After recording elements into your project, about the easiest thing to do is move Cues from track to track. This is a simple click and drag function. It doesn't get simpler. Need to edit out a bad take in the voice track? Click on that Cue to "select" it. Press the EDIT button. The screen switches to the Edit Mode where the waveform of the Cue is quickly drawn on the screen and enlarged for easy editing. Zoom functions are available. Use the scrub wheel to find the in point of your edit. When located, press the "[" button. Find the out point and press the "]" button. Indicators on the screen move to show the Edit Region you've selected. Press the CUT button and, within a second or so, the edit is done. Press the EDIT button again to return to the Mixview window. The audio that was "cut" is now placed in the "clipboard." Audio in the clipboard can be "pasted" anywhere in the project by pressing the PASTE button. Pressing the COPY button instead of the CUT button after marking the Edit Region copies that audio into the clipboard where it can be pasted elsewhere in the project, leaving the original cue untouched.

Let's say you have a Cue of a voice track that reads, "Win cash all weekend (pause) thousands of dollars" and you'd like to overlap the word "thousands" on top of the last part of "weekend" to give it that double-tracked effect. Scrub to the pause between "weekend" and "thousands." Press the SEPARATE button. Now, the one Cue becomes two individual Cues, and the second one, with the latter part of the sentence, can be moved to an adjacent track and slipped back just enough to overlap the other Cue. This takes mere seconds to perform! If you want to reclaim one of the two tracks used for this scenario, select the two overlapping Cues and press the SEGUE button. This digitally mixes the two Cues together to form a single new Cue which can replace the other two. Again, all editing is nondestructive. You can always retrieve the original Soundfile, or you can use the UNDO button. Like most workstations, the Ensemble offers an undo function, and you get a hefty thirty-two levels of undo. The REDO button sends you the other direction after undoing and, again, offers thirty-levels of redo.

The opposite of the SEPARATE button is the SPLICE button. Pressing SPLICE "splices" two selected Cues together so they can be manipulated as one Cue, but they still retain their individuality and can be separated. Use the SPLICE/JOIN function from the pull-down menu to actually make the two Cues become one.

The INSERT button takes whatever audio has been cut or copied into the clipboard and inserts it at the selected point within a Cue. This is handy if you need to extend a piece of music by another bar or two. Just mark the part you want to repeat, press COPY, cue to the insert point, and press INSERT. Seamless looping of audio is performed using the Fills function. A "Fill Region" can be defined and then "filled" with audio from a "Fill file." Confusing? Yes, a little. Rather than take a paragraph to describe the steps, let it suffice to say that the Fill function is a very versatile way to loop music or sound effects, but you won't stumble across this function and start using it without reading about it first.

Other editing functions on the control panel include the CLEAR button which records "digital silence" to selected regions and/or Cues. The X-FADE function takes two Cues on adjacent tracks with overlapping audio and automatically fades one out while fading the other up. This function works nicely on promos or spots with several testimonials, one after the other. The fades sound smoother than abrupt edits.

Most of the editing functions explained so far are pretty basic, but when you go to the pull-down menus, you begin to see the real power of the Ensemble. There are several special paste functions under the PASTE SPECIAL menu selection including Reverse Paste which creates a new soundfile of whatever audio is in the clipboard (from a Cut or Copy function) with the audio reversed. This is also where the Ensemble's time compression function is found. Again, a new Soundfile is created with whatever time scaling is applied. I took a sixty-six second voice track and shrunk it to sixty. This took about three and a half minutes for the system to rewrite the file. The result was a very clean, glitch free time compression with only a couple of places where it was barely noticeable that something had occurred. Though a bit time consuming, this is a nice function if you can't get the voice talent back for a second read. If done to stereo tracks, such as music, the function takes longer. Other Paste Special functions include pasting a pitch shifted version of a Cue and pasting an EQ'd version which retains the selected Cue's EQ settings. More on the EQ section later.

One of the most impressive editing functions found on the pull-down menus is the Strip Silence function. Together with the Checkerboard function, these two functions make producing promos with multiple voice effects lots of fun. Let's say your promo has ten sentences or phrases you want to set off from each other by using a filter, flange, echo, or whatever effect you like. Rather than record several individual Soundfiles with the different effects, just hit RECORD and start reading the copy. When done with the first line, reset effects and read the next line, reset effects and read the next, etc., being sure to leave a little space in between each read. (This shouldn't be a problem since you're pausing to reset effects anyway.) When done, you'll have one long Cue in the Mixview window. Now, select the Strip Silence function and the Ensemble goes through the entire Cue, separating each segment of the read, making each an individual cue with Mark Start and Mark End points set exactly at the beginning and end of audio for each segment! Very nice. The silence threshold and duration settings can be customized. What you have on screen now are ten Cues all on the same track with empty space between each. If you're like me, you want each element to slightly overlap each other to give the promo a sense of fast motion. Next, use the Checkerboard function from the pull-down menu. The Cues automatically place themselves on adjacent tracks--first Cue on track 5, second on track 6, third on track 5, fourth on track 6, etc.. Very fast track assigning! Now, you're ready to move each Cue into place. The CAPTURE button comes in very handy here. Use the scrub wheel to cue to the point where you want the next Cue to start, select that Cue, and press CAPTURE. The selected Cue instantly moves to that position. The Capture function is also handy when back-timing vocals to jingle sings or musical posts. Pressing the SHIFT key on the keyboard while pressing CAPTURE moves the end of the Cue to the TimeLine.

Moving groups of Cues is a breeze. Clicking on a Cue selects that cue and highlights it. Clicking another Cue deselects the first and selects the new Cue. Holding the SHIFT key while clicking additional Cues enables selecting multiple Cues. When multiple Cues are selected, they can all be moved simultaneously with the click and drag function of the trackball. If you want to somewhat permanently group these selected Cues together, use the Group function from the pull-down menu. At any time, the Ungroup function can reverse the process. If you want to completely turn the group into one easy to manage Cue, use the Assemble function to write a new Soundfile made up of all the individual Cues.

Moving around on the Mixview window is fast. As mentioned, placing the cursor in the Overview Bar and clicking will instantly locate to anywhere within the project. Pressing the GO TO START button locates to the beginning of the selected Cue. Press the GO TO END to locate to the end of the Cue. SET 1 and SET 2 set locate points wherever the TimeLine is located when pressed. These can be used on the fly as well. Press GO 1 or GO 2 to locate to the SET 1 and SET 2 points. The GO 0 button is a return to zero function. Press LOOP 1-2 to playback repeatedly between the SET 1 and SET 2 points.

There are "nudge" buttons for moving Cues in small increments either forward or backward on a track. The ADD MARK button places markers within a project that can be used to jump the TimeLine to. Notes can also be attached to these markers, and the notes will appear in the Timecode bar of the Mixview screen when the Show Notes function is selected. The SAVE button saves the Mixfile to disk. The button stays lit if changes have been made to the Mixfile. It goes out after saving. One modification I'd like to see is a flashing SAVE button when changes are made that haven't been saved. This would get your attention and remind you to save regularly. Soundfiles are recorded directly to disk, so they are always retrievable. But the Mixfile, which is where MOST of your work is done, is saved to disk only when you exit the project or press the SAVE button. On a couple of occasions, I lost work on new projects because the system locked and required re-booting. The Soundfiles were there, but the Mixfile, which had all my edits and 95% of my work, was nowhere to be found. (The system did not lock up regularly. On one occasion, I performed a "non-function" by double-clicking a Cue while pressing the Option key. The system didn't know what to do. The other time, a "disk full" message had just been received, and it's probable that the lockup occurred because of a lack of disk space. Outside these two occasions, the system performed according to design.)

There are several other editing functions, both on the control panel and in the pull-down menus, that space won't allow mentioning. But you get the idea; this is a full-featured system, and then some.


AUTOMATED MIXING

The Ensemble's editing power is quite impressive, but when you combine it with automated mixing, the total power of this package reveals itself. The Ensemble's mixer controls are to the left of the scrub wheel and track ball. The eight faders are motorized and record even the slightest touch. The MANUAL button on the control panel turns the automation on and off. The system defaults to the automatic mode, so, upon power up and when loading projects, the faders instantly move to the respective positions. It's a treat to see for the first few times.

This has got to be one of the easiest automated mixers to use. When playing back a project, the faders are active. Any adjustments made are recorded. Soundfiles are all recorded at a default level, so, when the TimeLine gets to a particular cue on a track, the fader instantly jumps to the default position. To change the level of the Cue, move the fader. Of course, there's another way to adjust levels. If you want to raise or lower the level of an entire Cue, just click on the Cue while pressing the Command key on the keyboard. The Cue starts playing, and a "fader" pops up on the screen. Use the trackball to adjust the level. That's it. No need to adjust faders. Fade ins and fade outs? Yes, you could use the faders to record fades, but pressing the FADE IN and FADE OUT buttons on the control panel performs perfect fades. Just set the TimeLine at the point on the Cue where you want it to begin fading out. Press FADE OUT and a line is drawn on the Cue to indicate the fade. Upon playback, when the TimeLine meets this fade line, the faders automatically move and fade the audio out. Same with fade ins.

Level adjustments are referred to as "dynamic" functions of the mixer. "Static" functions of the mixer include the EQ, pans, sends and returns. To the left of the faders is a control panel with all the static mixer functions. At the top are level controls for Returns 1 and 2 and Sends 1 and 2. Below these is the EQ section. You get high and low frequency shelving EQ with a frequency and gain control for each, and a mid-range EQ with controls for Frequency, Q, and Gain. An EQ in/out button activates the EQ. At the bottom is the pan control.

All of these "static" functions--sends, returns, EQ, panning--are assignable to individual Cues. Let that sink in a minute.... That means if you have five separate Cues, of a voice track let's say, on track 5, each one of those Cues on that same track can have different send and return levels, EQ settings, and pan settings! This enables performing some very nice panning effects. For example, say you've recorded a short Cue with the call letters "KXYZ." Select the Cue, enter Edit Mode, and use the Separate function to separate each letter into four separate Cues. Select the Cue with the "K" and set its pan to the left. Set the pan on the "X" to the right, "Y" to the left, "Z" to the right. Even though you've "separated" these letters, no space has been put between them. They still play back like one Cue, only now, the panning bounces from left to right. It's instant panning and it's perfect.

What's more, you can copy and paste this static mixer information from one Cue to another or several! Say you've recorded a voice track for a promo without any EQ effects applied during recording. Every time you say your call letters, you want to switch to a filtered effect. Go through the voice track, using the Separate function to isolate each occurrence of the call letters. Then, go to the first Cue with the calls and set the EQ like you want it. Now, use the Copy Static function from the pull-down menu to copy this EQ information into the clipboard. Now, select all the other Cues with call letters, then use the Paste Static function. Bingo! All EQ settings copied to the other Cues! This works for any outboard effects as well by using the sends and returns. Needless to say, this is one workstation that can turn anyone into a mad tweak-a-holic!

SUMMARY

The ADX Ensemble is a bit intimidating at first, but a few hours with the manual and a few days playing around quickly gets one up to speed on this powerful workstation. As more time is spent on it, you begin to discover even more things that it can do. For software that was originally designed for A/V work, it has been nicely adapted to broadcast by the folks at PR&E. It's a great combination of a multitude of features with a friendly user interface.

The Mac based filing system is especially helpful. Different folders can be set up for different producers. A folder can be set up just for sound effects, another for music beds. Then, using the Transfer Window, sounds and music beds can be transferred into your current project. I also like being able to name Cues. This is helpful when recalling projects to update them. A glance at the screen quickly tells you where things are.

The system seemed a bit sluggish at times, especially when moving quickly from one area of a project to another and immediately using the scrub wheel. There is about a one to two second delay before the system loads the audio into the RAM buffer, ready for instant playback. This is typical of many disk-based systems and presents no problems once you get the feel for the timing of the system.

SPECIFICS

The ADX Ensemble is not cheap, nor does it feel that way, look that way, or perform that way. List price for the ADX Ensemble with a 2.4 gigabyte drive is just under $30,000, and this reflects a recent price reduction of around $5,000. Add the optional optical backup drive and get the whole package for $32,785. The optical backup is a great option because it allows you to read and write directly to the optical drive without having to load projects onto the hard drive first. This basically means you can have a library of removable optical disks for all your projects, each disk holding about one track-hour of audio. Each producer could have their own set of disks, one for promos, one for spots, etc..

You get AES/EBU stereo digital in and out and an AES/EBU stereo send and stereo return. All digital I/O can be software configured for S/PDIF. Of course, there are XLR balanced analog sends, returns, and stereo ins and outs. Multiple sampling frequencies are available, 32kHz, 44.1kHz, and 48kHz, but they cannot be mixed within a project. Pick a sample rate and stick with it. At 44.1kHz, the 2.4 GByte drive provides six track hours of recording time. Of course, the system is expandable. Up to four SCSI devices can be added, and the system can be configured with up to 32 internal tracks.

Other specs include Delta-sigma 18-bit linear A/D conversion with 64x oversampling and 8x oversampling on the D/A conversion, 24-bit signal processing and digital mixing, frequency response at 20-20kHz, and THD and noise <0.02%. The frequency range on the EQ section is 30Hz to 500Hz on the low band, 300Hz to 5kHz on the mid-range, and 1kHz to 6kHz on the high band. Gain range is ±15dB in 1dB steps.

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