Plug it in, plug it in

If you've opened an industry-related magazine lately, you are probably amazed at the choices one has when it comes to upgrading your production room. Of all the hardware solutions available today, I personally believe the best choice is the "off-the-shelf" approach. That is to say, the majority of computer-system components are standardized and readily available anywhere, and easily upgraded in the future.

Today, the RAP Test Drive looks at a Windows-based workstation that boasts a proprietary sound processor card, an ability to work with 3rd party peripherals, and two software programs that make up a suite for both average and advanced users.

The Spectral Prisma Workstation, bundled with the newly-released Express software, is billed as a turn-key system that you plug in, boot up, and use, right out of the box. Express is a "quick and simple" version of Spectral's popular Producer software that gives the average user a multitrack recorder, without all the frills, and learning curve, of a full-blown digital editor (like Producer).

One of the things that makes this combination a promising candidate for the broadcaster is that Express emulates a "real" reel-to-reel multitrack very well (albeit much more capable), which means your morning show producer, or even your part-timers, can get in there and get working with the minimum amount of pain. What sets this system apart from the rest is that Express is kind of a "training wheels" for Producer. Once a member of your staff wants to do more, it's only a matter of learning a little more of the same-—and not a different program altogether-—to step into Producer. As a bonus, multitrack productions made in Express can also be pulled up in Producer, allowing advancement to occur at any time, even in the middle of a project. It's a "comfort zone" for phobic or inexperienced computer users that's worth looking at.

Industrial strength hardware

For this Test Drive, Spectral sent us an industrial rack-mount Pentium 100 with 32MB RAM running Windows95, Prisma sound board, Power Technology DSP/FX board with software plug-ins (a 3rd party manufacturer), two 4 GB SCSI hard drives (for production), Iomega 1GB removable Jazz Drive (for archiving), Spectral ADAX-8818 rack-mount 8-channel A/D-D/A converter (to turn digits into sound), and JL Cooper CS-10 MIDI-based controller with transport controls, assignable softkeys and pots, an infinity wheel, and 8 assignable faders.

The Prisma card is a computer in itself that plugs into the PC much the same way you would any soundcard or modem. It's a powerful little thing, with processing and memory, onboard. It locks up to SMPTE and other time code, has integrated DSP (Digital Signal Processing, for effects), and a SCSI controller (for your faster-than-IDE-for-sure SCSI drives) built-in. Spectral knew that having the Prisma card acting as the SCSI "host" puts all the computing action in one, speedy place.

It's a blue-ribbon idea that has sold a lot of cards in the last few years.

If you are a reader of manuals, you'll find they are well written. Although they are technical in many places, expect to be educated in a clever way.

Take the express downtown

Starting up, Express transforms the screen into a "decidedly different from Windows" look. As Spectral aimed for keeping it simple, they moved away from the "icon" approach typically seen in computer programs today. Oh, there are plenty of 3-D buttons. But, for the most part, each button is labeled with what it does (I hesitate to compliment them on the obvious, but hey, that's the way it should be, and they did it).

Missing also are all the "hidden" menus normally associated with the Windows toolbar and the right mouse click (the toolbar doesn't even exist). The main "pattern" in Express is: do it with a left mouse click, adjust it with a right mouse click. So, what you see is what you get. Even the dialogue boxes (OK, Yes, No, Cancel) have been tweaked with instructions, options, and suggestions on each (in case you forgot what you just did to get the box!).

The screen is split, with the main "Control Panel" always present across the bottom. Here, from left to right, you can set PREFerences on projects, directories, transport controls, editing, mixing, and "hot-keys." Some of the more notable settings are: boot up to a specified project, auto-save options, overwrite confirmation, hard drive use, punch-in mode, momentary or locking FF/Rewind, waveform display, fader linking (for dedicated stereo track pairs), keyboard hot-key assignments, and controller hot-key assignments. A right click on PREF allows more cerebral adjustments, including I/O hardware types, controller types, sample rates, and other "computer-type" settings.

The next two buttons, DIRECTORY and EDITOR, choose which screen is displayed above the control panel. More on these, later.

The remaining time on the disk in use and the name of the current project are shown next to the screen displays. A click on the remaining time lets you choose which drive you're recording on or engage automatic drive selection.

The MIXDOWN button records all the tracks to a separate stereo file using what I call "phantom tracking" (even though there are only 8 tracks on the system, you can take those 8 tracks and record 2 more!).

Express has transport controls like the real thing: record, play, stop, rewind to zero, rewind, and fast forward. When any transport control is pressed (using the mouse, keyboard, or MIDI controller), the button "glows" orange--no little lights to replace in these switches, however.

To the right of the transport controls is a readout of the current cursor position. Below the readout is a slider bar that quickly moves you anywhere in your production.

A large GOTO button acts as an autolocate "store" with a right click, and locates that point with a left click. There are nine, smaller auto-locate buttons, for creating locate points "on-the-fly," if you wish. Clicking on a blank button sets the marker; clicking on a "programmed" button sends the cursor to that marker.