This post might only be of interest to music tech geeks and it gets a bit tech-y, but hey, that's my business and I'll make no apologies ;)
This week we underwent a major overhaul of our recording system. The reasons for this are numerous - our old Mac Pro was starting to show it's age (even though we were on a HD3 system stuffed with DSP's for running plugins and mixer), Avid have just announced that the next Pro Tools software update will no longer support our HD cards or 192io audio interfaces and the ongoing march of native processing now offers a realistic alternative to DSP performance in terms of both plugin capability and audio latency. Another bonus is the fact that native plugins tend to be cheaper than their TDM counterparts. In fact, this upgrade is largely in the name of long term savings. As native processing progresses, the requirements of our clients stay largely static. We are at the stage where track counts are unlikely to increase dramatically for bands. We already work with sessions containing over 100 tracks and can take liberties using multiple microphones on guitar cabs and drums, adding various ambient microphones when tracking and comping the varying levels of vocal parts across numerous channels. We rarely run low on effects plugins and if we do, we simply bounce a few tracks down - at the end of a mix, it's unlikely you'll be changing that organ sound that you arrived at during the first day of recording.
Essentially, how much more power are we likely to need?
Going native and ditching the extra power afforded by TDM was still a risk so rather than place all of our eggs in one CPU we did decide to take some load off the computer by adding a UAD2 Quad Omni card (more on this later). So the new system looks like this:
- Mac Pro, Quad Core 2.8Ghz, 24gb RAM
- Pro Tools HD Native
- UAD2 Quad card with Omni plugin pack
- 2 x Avid HD 8in 8out audio interfaces
- Expansion card adding an extra 8 analog inputs to one of the audio interfaces
The reasons for this configuration are as follows:
We opted for the 'entry level' quad core in the interests of price vs performance. The faster buss & RAM speeds coupled with a larger cache than previous quad core machines means that in benchmarks they clock in very well. I have also wanted a UAD2 since trying one over at White Town's studio so it seemed to make more sense to put the money into processing on the UAD2 rather than on a higher spec Mac. The massive 24gb RAM was installed in order to take advantage of future versions of Pro Tools that will be 64bit and able to address much larger amounts of RAM. The new Pro Tools 10 can already cache session audio into RAM, allowing for snappier performance and removing speed requirements for project drives - i.e. it is now possible to mix a session straight from a thumb drive!
Pro Tools HD Native Core
The Native HD card provides a small amount of DSP processing power to take a load off the native CPU and guarantee certain levels of performance in terms of track counts, latency and delay compensation. I would stick my neck out and say that nowadays, for anyone but the largest studios or for those doing big post production projects, HDX is probably overkill. The only caveat in this is latency when recording. Although the latency when tracking without complex routing and effects is virtually indistinguishable from that afforded by TDM systems, this will ramp up somewhat and pose problems if extra recording is deemed necessary in the latter stages of a large mix. Of course, the solution to this is simple - do a rough bounce of the mix and record to that in a new session, then import the new recordings back into the mix. This amounts to around 5 minutes of work bouncing a rough mix and setting up a new tracking session. It also saves you a few thousand pounds on a HDX system. Well done those economists amongst you.
UAD2 Quad Omni Bundle
This is quite possibly the best sounding marriage of plugins and processing power that I have yet heard. I won't claim to have past experience of all of the processors that are emulated here but their authenticity is irrelevant (although I can say the tape machines, Moog filter, Roland Space Echo and a few others that I have used are pretty spot on) as they sound fantastic, feel responsive and ooze character. There are many favourable reviews of the UAD2 systems so I'm not going to repeat those, suffice to say that I love it. It's probably the best piece of processing equipment I've found when considering quality and price. Not that it's cheap as such, just worth every penny.
As we are working 'In the box' for the foreseeable future, we decided that there was no point in using three interfaces anymore. We still need up to 24 inputs occasionally but never 24 outputs. Therefore we down sized to two interfaces with an expansion card in one to give an extra 8 analog inputs. The new HD i/o interfaces also feature the 'Curv' soft limiter on each input which I'm interested to try although as a rule I never track hot signals to the converters. Might be good for an effect or as a safety for sources with wide dynamic range though.
We've now been working for a few days with the new setup and so far I've been blown away by each component. Upon opening a huge mix that we'd been working on previously to the point where it could barely play back, we found that we had CPU cycles to spare and RAM caching made playback instantaneous. The converters in the audio interfaces sound slightly 'fresher' and much clearer to my ears. It's not exactly a 'night & day' difference from the old 192's - which are still fantastic converters - but it is a welcome improvement. The UAD2 adds an extra cache of processing power but also a quality of sound across all of it's plugins that I've simply not found elsewhere. Everything feels more responsive and less linear. Driving inputs sounds as one would expect and many plugs have hidden controls to properly (or improperly) gain stage them or control extra functions not found in the original hardware.
It feels good to get off the Pro Tools TDM wagon. This was a major upgrade for us to undertake in the name of future compatibility really. Rather than having to get a new HDX system or equivalent in the future, I'm much happier to simply update to a new computer. DSP processing is a great addition to our system but in the grander scheme of things, it's an obsolete technology. Native processing will outgrow our requirements within the next few years and having a reliable, low maintenance, expandable recording system is a must to allow us to provide a service that keeps pace with clients expectations and allows us to be creative without restriction.