The digital audio workstation, or ‘DAW’, has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Back in the mid-’80s, such a device would have been a complete miracle if it could play back four tracks simultaneously. Of course, developments in DSP technology and the constant upping of processing rates has seen the number of tracks and the amount of audio manipulation limited only by ones budget, effectively. Yet, there may even been another event horizon approaching with increasing speed, one where expensive hardware used in many of these systems becomes redundant. Can we seriously move from what has been termed ‘mixing in the box’ for many years to actually mixing in one box? And if we can, how does this effect the manufacturers of these high-end digital audio workstations and ultimately the end users? For many years Pro Tools was without question the DAW to have. It began to rule the roost as Sound Designer in the early ’80s and subsequent adopters have continued to be faithful to the hardware/software combination. More recently, however, the likes of Steinberg’s Nuendo and in certain areas Apple’s Logic Pro have been making some serious inroads.
What makes this extraordinary is that these two pieces of software do not rely on any additional DSP hardware. Of course, everything relies on some kind of I/O interface, but that aside, all of the processing is completed by the host computer, and this is what makes ownership of a piece of powerful DAW software much more affordable. Prism Sound’s SADiE has had a hardware dependent and native version (can run without manufacturer specific DSP hardware) for some time, as has Merging Technologies Pyramix system. In November of 2010 Avid revealed Pro Tools 9, a significant release for the company: “A ‘native’ workstation is one that relies solely on the host CPU for processing,” explains Max Gutnik, senior director of product management for pro audio at Avid. “Based on that, Pro Tools has been native for years, beginning with Pro Tools LE. Pro Tools  HD Native was the first native product with Pro Tools HD software. We created HD Native for those customers who wanted all the features of Pro Tools HD combined with the absolute best performance possible on the host. It’s something our customers had been asking us to build them for years.” The biggest problem that any users of digital audio equipment face is that of latency and relying on the host to deal with multiple channels of audio in complete synchronisation, coupled with any additional processing on top, is one reason why until recently DAWs have relied on external DSP processing. The host computer really has done very little. Merging Technologies, however, introduced a groundbreaking software release back in January 2008 in the form of MassCore: “We bought out a version of the software that used one of the cores of a multi-core CPU for direct audio engine processing,” recalls Jonas Wadsten, project manager at Merging Technology. “Basically, it sections off one of the cores so that your computer can’t see it. On a ‘quad core’ computer your host operating system will only use three cores because that is all it thinks it has. Then the other core is removed from the operating system and in essence a pipe is made between the Pyramix application and that CPU core. So you get immense amounts of processing and minimal latencies because the host doesn’t have to allocate resources to the core.” What this means is that by using the MassCore technology the Mykerinos DSP cards that were the backbone of the Pyramix system DSP, are now no longer needed to process audio and so their power is used to deal with the immense amount of I/O and its synchronisation. High-end offering When it comes to high-end post-production, Steinberg’s Nuendo has certainly been gaining some ground in professional circles. Nuendo has never had any manufacturer-produced DSP hardware available for it, instead Steinberg recommends control surfaces (ironically perhaps from Avid – until recently Euphonix), interface cards from RME and its own synchronisation hardware, the SyncStation. Nuendo is adept at ADR recording and session management (as is Fairlight’s EVO system and Pyramix), whereas to get similar functionality in Pro Tools you really need to buy third-party apps to help you manage large sessions. In post-production, re-conforming a session using EDLs or Cut Lists is essential, so when Virtual Katy – a tool that performs this task – was released for the Nuendo platform (it was already available for Pro Tools) it helped boost its standing and usability in the post world. Pyramix and EVO also include re-conform packages as standard. SADiE, on the other hand, has strengths in other areas, specifically radio, where its workflow is suited to drama and documentaries, in other words dialogue-heavy environments: “Originally the DSP hardware was made by SADiE and controlled by the SADiE software and that gave it bit transparency, which is crucial in mastering,” explains Peter Nash, key accounts manager at Prism. “In post-production we have moved from several audio for picture products in the early ’90s to where we are today where we can run QuickTime and AVI files alongside the audio EDL. But, it is all about workflow and that has always been very fast in SADiE. There is no rendering and no crossfade files making it a very quick way of working. High-level editing is really where it’s at to be honest. This has been confirmed recently where the BBC, who have had SADiE since 1991,have signed a contract with us so that SADiE is now officially the craft editing tool right across BBC Radio and it integrates directly with their large scale automated playout system. So, we will be putting 250 systems into the BBC starting at its new base in Salford.” Matching the pros Of course, all of these workflow systems are great, and if they are built into the package you are buying, will save a lot of money, but can a purely software computer processing-based DAW really prove to be as reliable in a professional environment? “You’re going to end up in a situation where for virtually all applications you won’t be looking at external signal processing. I mean there are plenty of examples out there and SADiE went native because you can do this processing in the computer. There is no argument about it from that viewpoint,” explains Graham Boswell, commercial director for Prism. “But, the difficulty is the computing architectures if you like. For example, we have had various different buss formats, external connections like ESATA, FireWire and USB, and new things like Thunderbolt ,and of course we have got AVB for distribution of audio on networks. All of these things are developed with different criteria in mind and are trying to solve different problems – and they all have compromises and shortcomings that are appropriate to their application. But all things are converging – the evidence of the convergence is simply that we are having this conversation!” There are, of course, major benefits to doing all of the processing on the host, yet development of computer hardware, over which the DAW manufactures have no control, can potentially compromise their software in terms of latency and synchronisation. There are advantages to having external hardware in certain situations. “There are lots of advantages to native but Pro Tools DSP systems bring a level of performance and stability that native systems are not capable of achieving,” says Avid’s Gutnik. “For years our high-end Pro Tools TDM system has been taking advantage of both native and DSP power to give customers the best of both worlds. We think DSP systems will continue to be the choice of professional customers who depend on high-performance and stability and want the lowest latency possible.” Gaining trust Does external hardware give people more faith in the product in terms of stability and reliability, or does it all being completed ‘in the box’ make engineers suspicious? “I think they were suspicious ages ago. They absolutely were because they were abysmal! When you were running it on a Pentium 4 without hyper-threading! Now, if you can’t put EQ on every channel and run them into 72 surround busses, then I think, why am I bothering?” jokes Wadsten. “We absolutely see the native version of Pyramix becoming much more prevalent. It’s been huge,” he continues. “Nowadays with host-based ASIO and Direct X the only real difference that you’re looking at is latency and it is the real hard one. Even a native system with an i7 board running with gigs of RAM can easily do what our old Mykerinos cards can do and the price point is much lower. We are completely gone from the AMS AudioFile days where 16 tracks costs you ten grand.” So, as with everything technology based, people want all the toys (most of which they will never use) for even less money than before: “This is especially true since Pro Tools 9 came out. Now they want it for an even smaller amount!” concludes Wadsten. This, of course, is the crux of the matter. Nothing stands still in pro audio. Even now with AVB in full-flow, the next open-technology IP networking technology, RAVENNA, has recently released its first specification and is extending this kind of networking much further. The point being that it is impossible to say that the leading DAW manufactures will not go totally ‘in the box’ or not at a level that can be usable un-fearingly by professionals and home users alike. In that respect, in terms of ditching expensive DSP hardware, they are, as Boswell explained, in the hands of the computer manufacturers. If, as the likes of Nuendo, Logic Pro and Pro Tools have shown, it is possible to use third-party I/O while the software uses the host for DSP, then companies such as Focusrite with their RedNet and Saffire ranges of interfaces, Lexicon’s I-O | X range and SSL’s Delta-Link MADI I/O’s will surely become more recognisable alternative options to locked down manufacturer-based hardware interfaces. This can mean only one thing — that prices will continue to fall as more competition enters the marketplace. “Ultimately, the industry is changing quickly. More customers are collaborating and working on the go than ever before. Our customers have asked us for better sound quality, higher performance, lower latency without compromising scalability or stability,” concludes Gutnik. This coupled with Pro Tools 9 software being able to run with or without hardware suggests that flexibility is driving development and the computer hardware is making this possible. “The changing commercial background of our customers, their desire to have more integrated tools, getting over latency problems and integrating hardware and software better than they are now are important factors in determining how we develop over time. There is also the rise and rise of audio for video games, which is an interesting market, and I don’t think many of us in the pro-audio industry have really got a handle on that yet. I mean it is extremely different,” adds Boswell. “Everything has to rely on I/O and what we have been doing to that end is we have also been working on the newest possible audio transport. Partnering with our MassCore system is our new audio I/O, HORUS. It runs using the RAVENNA audio protocol, which is a year on from AVB. It has 24 analogue in and outs, with 24 AES in and outs, 64 MADI in and out and a RAVENNA I/O connection. It can be an A-D, D-A, A-D/D-A or an input and output device into a RAVENNA stream,” reveals Wadsten. So, this leaves us – the end users – with greater flexibility, increased value for money, continued stability and scalability, depending on the route you wish to take, and the need to update our computers. The manufacturers obviously aren’t out of ideas yet, and as host processing power continues to increase, the more in the box they will ultimately become.