Soundscape SSHDR-1 Review

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MIX FIELD TEST: Soundscape SSHDR-1
Digital Audio Workstation with
V2.0 Hardware/Software Upgrade

Reviewed by Mel Lambert

The more observant "Mix" reader will recall a previous review of the basic SSHDR-1 in Mix' November 1996 issue. Why return to the Soundscape's PC-based workstation so soon? Simply because the recently unveiled V2.0 software and hardware upgrade from this UK-based manufacturer has literally transformed the capabilities of this feature-rich system. In many ways, the revitalized SSHDR-1 V2.0, with its brand new 32-bit operating system, offers outstanding value for money and, with the recent addition of full lock to video and EDL management, now represents a viable choice for sound editorial and related applications.

   In essence, the SSHDR-1 V2.0 ("HDR" stands for Hard Disk Recorder) comprises a simple interface card for a Windows 95/NT-compatible platform that connects to a maximum of two outboard processors. Each rackmount, 2U Processor Unit houses the system's A-to-D and D-to-A converters, DSP engine and companion I/O circuits. As before, the Processor accommodates a pair of analog and digital inputs and four analog/digital outputs; new for V2.0 is an internal accelerator card that also provides a direct interface for TDIF-compatible systems (Tascam Digital Interface) via a D-Sub port carrying eight channels of simultaneous digital I/O. Also added in V2.0 is frame-accurate LTC/VITC lock and video sync, plus EDL/Autoconform and video-capture capabilities, each of which add useful applications within editing and mix-to-picture environments. MIDI IN/OUT ports are also featured, for use with outboard sequencers or hardware controllers, including the J. L. Cooper CS-10 and MCS, or Penny&Giles MM16.

   Internal DSP provides an unlimited number of virtual disk-based tracks, with 12 - increased from eight available on earlier software versions - being active and capable of mixing to the main stereo and aux outputs. Onboard DSP provides somewhat limited EQ, dynamics and related processing, but which can be enhanced via simple upgrades to be described later. A dual-voltage PSU allows the system to be used on 110/240V supplies.

   No audio is handled within the PC; it simply provides a control and graphics interface for the system software; Soundscape recommends a modest-speed Pentium with 8 Mbyte of RAM. While the software screens will pack onto a single 14-inch monitor, a pair of 17 or 19-inch units makes life a whole lot easier, albeit with a cost penalty. A base SSHDR-1 V2.0 system, comprising an interface card, a single Processor Unit and V2.0 software package, costs $4,495; the user needs to provide a PC, monitor and keyboard, plus IDE hard drives. (Soundscape recommends Western Digital, Maxtor, IBM or Seagate models). The latter can be mounted permanently within the Processor Unit, or housed in removable drive caddies that are available as an optional extra for $450. So, for around $6,500, it is possible to put together a very tasty 12-track system packed with a number of useful functions.

   And it's also good news for existing SSHDR-1 users running V1.18 software, of which there are close to 4,000 around the world. The factory-installed SSAC-1 Accelerator Board upgrade, which costs $1,000-$1,850, adds the DSP necessary to offer enhanced track capacity over the original system, and to accommodate the additional functionality of V2.0 software. It also adds the new TDIF interface port, and a multiway Expansion Port that will provide additional functionality . As a bonus, V2.0 software can address any drive connected to the controlling PC as a virtual drive, allowing project and related system data to be stored on the same (possibly removable) media as the sound files. In this way, a total Soundscape Project can be accessed from a single drive rather than having to match sound files with the appropriate floppies or Zip drives. A neat touch.

   Current V1.18 users will also benefit from increased storage capacity; V2.0 now handles a pair of larger 4.2 Gbyte drives, with 64-character Take File names, plus a 128-character comment fields, timecode data, attribute flags (archive, read-only etc.), sample/frame rate and other extensions. The Take Directory (now renamed "SFile Manager") functions very much like Windows 95 Explorer, with files that can be moved or copied easily between different units and media drives. Record/replay hard-disk resolution is 16-bit, with 18-bit Sigma-Delta 64-times oversampled A-to-D and D-to-A conversion. (Soundscape is also developing recording software that will enable the user to choose between the current 12-track/16-bit capability, or 24-bit resolution across between six and eight tracks.)

   The good/bad news is that a utility supplied with V2.0 software will update V1.18 files to the new file format; unfortunately the process in not backwards-compatible. In addition, V2.0 will read DAT backups created by V1.18 and earlier projects. Version 2.0 also supports full operation via a 10 Mbit/sec network utilizing TCP/IP protocols.

A Key to Success: Flexible Expansion Options
As will be readily appreciated, in its base format the SSHDR-1 V2.0 provides a lot of mixing and processing power. But that is just the beginning. A number of hardware options enable the I/O configuration to be expanded, in addition to offering some powerful signal processing functions. The SSPA-1 Pro Audio option ($375) comprises a sub-panel that replaces the unbalanced I/O with balanced XLRs for the two analog input and four analog output ports, in addition to AES/EBU-format digital I/Os via XLRs.

   But to really extend the creativity envelope, Soundscape's SS8IO-1 Expander Unit ($1,995) offers a number of very useful I/O extras. Connected to the base Processor Unit's TDIF I/O via a simple cable, the SS8IO-1 provides eight additional analog inputs and outputs (with 20-bit converters), word clock, SuperClock (256-times word clock for converters, etc.), plus TDIF and ADAT ODI interfaces. Analog XLR I/O ports can be set to operate at nominal levels between -10 and +4 dBu, via trim pots and internal jumpers. In this way, a user can expand the I/O capacity for live multitrack recording to hard disk, for example, or to provide more Aux Sends and/or direct output ports from the V2.0's virtual mixer. Usefully, the SS8IO-1 features an array of front-panel LED meters (one per data channel), as well as select buttons for I/O format, sample rate, clock source and metering modes. (Up to four different system configurations can be stored and recalled from internal EEPROM.)

   And if your application will never require direct analog I/O to the system - maybe because you already have access to converters, for example, or it will be used within an all-digital environment - the SS8IO-D Expander is available for $1,099. (Should your needs change down the line, a useful pair of options - the 8IOD A-to-D and D-to-A Upgrade Kits - add eight analog inputs or outputs for interfacing with non-digital systems.)

   Such I/O flexibility and expandability is, in many ways, unprecedented in a DAW costing so little. In addition to serving as a full-function editor, mixer and processors, an all-digital SSHDR V2.0 could handle eight-channel transfers between ADAT and DA-88 machines, for example, or to interface directly to a Yamaha 03D, 02R or Mackie's Digital Eight-Bus. (And, of course, MIDI data from these and other digital mixers can be used to control various SSHDR functions, or routed into the mixer as automation data and/or program changes.)

   Yet hardware options are just the beginning. A new CD-R software module co-developed with an outside vendor for V2.0 enables the system to function as a Red Book CD-Recorder with a range of recorders. The Soundscape/PointCD SCSI CD-R plug-in handles PQ editing, crossfades, ISRC codes etc., and generates a merged file on the PC with a data file for PointCD.

Other options provide Edit Decision List management and AutoConform for automated inload and laying up of sound elements to picture in a dialog or sound-effects editorial suite. The Soundscape Remote Control Device Control (RDC) is a Windows-95 application that allows external audio and video transports to be commanded via an RS-422 or MIDI Machine Control port. RDC's pop-up, relocatable window provides the normal array of transport commands, an eight-position autolocator, plus jog/shuttle wheel. Built-in drivers are provided for a number of popular ATRs and VTRs.

SSHDR Editing and Mixing Environment
Having hooked up the necessary master Processor Units and companion I/O expanders, booting the V2.0 software presents the user with a number of options. A couple of easy-to-follow master Setup Screens select the master sampling rates (22.05, 32, 44.056, 44.1, 47.952 or 48 kHz) and SMPTE/EBU timecode rates; the user is now free to bring up the Edit Screen and begin to assemble sound files. A companion Mixer Screen enables externals sources to be blended with replayed disk tracks, panned between the master Left and Right Outputs and outputted from the system, or to combine external inputs prior to their being recorded to hard disk. Simplicity personified.

   The Edit Screen is very easy to follow, and comprises a conventional Now Line with Sound Clips that can be named and set to display modulation envelopes. At the bottom of the screen are a series of transport icons and timecode displays that correspond to the Now Line, Left and Right Locator handles. Sound cuts can be recorded directly to the Edit Screen at the Now Line, or transferred via drag-and-drop from a companion Sound File Manager Directory; a separate array of pre-stored Markers is also available for timing references. (New for V2.0 is the ability to directly audition cues from the List Manager window, as well as additional text fields that show the timecode frame rates and other important parameters used when the file was recorded into the system.)

   Sound cues can be moved freely within the Edit Window, and snapped to either the Now Line or pre-set markers, if that is your requirement. Scrub editing is also available across eight of the 12 available replay tracks; used in conjunction with a familiar AVI Player, digital audio and picture can be scrubbed simultaneously. (And yes, with a suitable video capture card, you can record a work print directly onto one of the system's hard drives for full integration of sound with picture.)

Soundscape hardwareAll in all, V2.0's editing environment is more easy to use than previous incarnations, and packs a lot of handy, user-friendly features into a minimum amount of space. Comprehensive cut and paste functions, with user-selectable crossfade profiles, are provided, together with the ability to create a tempo-based grid so that events can be snapped to sub-bar intervals down to 32nd notes.
   Features to come in a subsequent software release include punch-in and-out recording - currently you need to define the range of a recording, and the system then records new information between these limits.

   Dependent upon the system configuration, the user has a wide selection of analog/digital I/Os with which to connect the system to the outside world. A base SSHDR offers a pair of analog/digital inputs, four analog/digital outputs plus eight TDIF-format digital I/Os for linking to a companion DA-38/88, for example. (And there are several brands of TDIF-compatible format converters for interfacing directly to other S/P DIF, AES/EBU or even Yamaha-savvy hardware.) Additional sources can be accommodated through the addition of more Processing Units - a pair would provide direct inputs from four analog and 16 digital sources to the 24 available hard-disk tracks, and eight simultaneous analog (for monitoring, aux sends and master analog outs, for example), plus 16 digital outputs. Up to eight units can be interconnected to provide 96 playback tracks from one system.

SSHDR Mixing and Processing Environment
Having determined what you want to input and output from the system, now comes the time to develop signal paths and add processing. All of which is achieved through a dramatically revised Mixer Window that supports the additional eight digital inputs/outputs and now incorporates a user-definable routing/channel structure. Presets for different configurations can be saved or loaded as required. The Mixer Window enables the user to lay out a series of mono or stereo channel-strip icons across the screen and then allocate suitable input sources via pop-up windows accessible from the top of the each module, and outputs from similar displays available from the bottom. Within a single-processor configuration, the user can develop as many mixing channels as necessary, with internal busses and effects processes, plus external aux sends/receives using the SSHDR's original 2-in/4-out array, plus the SSAC-1's eight-channel TDIF I/O port (connected to the optional SS8IO-1, DA-88 or Yamaha 02R, etc.).

   The process is simple: select a mono/stereo module from the menu, drag it into place, choose a source, choose a destination, and then drop into the icon any signal processing that might be required. Here, the new V2.0 software comes into its own. Each channel can have any number of real-time processes, including EQ, compression/limiting, gate, expander, chorus/flange and reverb (with more to come); these functions are limited only by the available DSP. Other in-line functions include level metering, a trim pot and sample delay.

   A total of 16 internal busses per unit enable signals to be sent to real-time effects or to external Sends/Receives, utilizing any of the available analog/digital I/Os. The V2.0 mixer supports third-party real-time plug-ins that can be integrated into the configuration with the same ease as any of the standard mixer components. If the user has access to multiple Soundscape units, all of the individual inputs/outputs/tracks and DSP processing power are seamlessly integrated into a single mixer. The Mixer provides total recall of all system parameters, including the settings of any real-time software Plug-Ins. Multiple mixer configurations can be loaded and saved as required. On-screen faders can also be linked for stereo operation, or formed into VCA-style subgroups with any fader in that group serving as master. Full timecode-based dynamic and snapshot mix automation is planned for a later software release.

   A typical mixer configuration might include disk tracks from Soundscape and tape tracks from an ADAT or DA-88, for example. The user can define a 24-channel mixer (12 disk tracks from Soundscape, eight for digital tape tracks plus various effects returns and//or subgroups), routing to a digital stereo output; analog inputs might be used as an auxiliary effects return, to accommodate a stereo input from an array of MIDI instruments. Used in conjunction with an external MIDI-based sequencer - or even a MIDI-capable mixer, such as the Yamaha 03D - a number of the SSHDR's functions can be automated and/or recalled as Program Change data, etc.

   The amount of simultaneous EQ, dynamics and related processing functions depends of what has been selected. A stereo channel with a single two-band parametric EQ section (more can be added to provide additional bands) sucks up around 5% of the on-board DSP; a compressor-limiter requires around 2%. Used judiciously, these functions should be adequate for all but the most demanding of multichannel mix sessions. (And if you do run out of power, consider recording pre-processed tracks to hard disk or DA-88/ADAT, and the return them into the master mix, or process a submix of tape/.disk tracks, or process the track as they are being recorded into the system.)

Flexible Parametric EQ and Dynamics Functions
The two-band Parametric EQ and Dynamics Sections are smooth and easy to use. There is plenty of overlap and adjustment range; real-time operation - even when dialing in large amounts of cut/boost - never once produced a pop or tick. Each EQ band extend from 20 Hz to half the sample rate, with a Q of 0.1 to 8.0, plus +14 dB of boost and -24 dB of cut. Sections can also be linked, copied from channel to channel, and also stored/recalled from a user library. The Dynamics Section enables large amounts of fast-attack/rapid-release compression to be applied - to control a background music track, for example, during production of a commercial - without noticeable artifacts, such as pumping and breathing noises. A very powerful adjunct for any workstation.

   Other available DSP functions include a real-time Reverb Module from Wave Mechanics ($349) that provides sophisticated control of a number of ambiance, delay and sound-absorption characteristics, etc. The Reverb Module allows individual or stereo-linked sound cues to be processed to produce a new stereo disk file. Interestingly, the module ships as part of the V2.0 software release; its functions can be unlocked via a simple 12-digit password key that will be provided by Soundscape once the user has paid the necessary activation fee. Other DSP functions will also be made available in this way, including a TC Works Module ($699).

   Also offered is an optional Time Module from Soundscape that provides Time Stretch/Compress, Pitch Shift (a usable +/-5 semitone range), and Sample Rate Conversion. Soundscape report that its algorithm produces an unchanged left/right phase response when processing stereo linked parts, so that center-panned tracks remain stable in the stereo image. The Sample Rate Conversion tool uses 128-time oversampling and sine interpolation to process individual or stereo-linked parts, and generates a file that is re-sampled at the new rate.

   And if the amount of on-board DSP isn't sufficient, Soundscape have two potential solutions. Future software releases will allow real-time effects algorithms from third-party vendors to run simultaneously on the SSAC-1's DSP. The SSAC-1 also includes an Expansion Port that allows connection to a external 512-channel audio bus. Playback/record tracks and inputs/outputs become resources for the bus, which can be routed where required. Connecting audio channels from one unit to input/outputs on another will then be possible; multiple units can also be connected together to form larger systems. According to company sources, an in-the-works Expansion Chassis will also enable multiple DSP and I/O cards to be installed for increased mixing capability and virtually unlimited processing power for effects algorithms.

In Nutshell: An affordable, crashproof Digital Audio Workstation
Using such a reliable, bullet-proof PC-based workstation was truly a revelation. With its unique combination of simple-to-use editing, on-screen mixing and powerful DSP options, the SSHDR-1 V2.0 is hard to beat. Factor in the high degree of expandability and connectivity to analog an digital sources, and it is easy to see that the system represents both an entry-level system as well as one that can grow to match changing user requirements. The addition of rock-solid timecode and video sync means that the SSHDR-1 V2.0 will chase sync to or command an external audio/video deck, as well as handling real-time video capture and replay from hard disk.

   My only complaints are relatively minor. The feature-laden screens become pretty cluttered on a single 14- or even 17-inch monitor; the use of dual monitors is pretty much a necessity with large-format configurations, particularly with extended mixer layouts. Also, the lack of punch-in recording is slightly annoying, although this should have been enhanced by the time this review appears. I also await with anticipation the ability to provide additional processing power, either via the SSAC-1's onboard DSP, or utilizing the Expansion Bus.

   All in all, the SSHDR-1 V2.0 is a system with a promising future. It sounds good - particularly the 20-bit converters being used in the optional SS8IO unit - and is capable of providing creative results. The user manual is well written and illustrated; the firm's Web Site also contains news of system upgrades and updates, as well as Hints and Tips from users. It's a DAW worthy of more than a second glance.

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