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                       Review: AudioLab 16 Part One
                             By:  Bohus Blahut 
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If you've read my last few articles, you'll note that I've been waxing
wisttully about my days playing around with the native 8bit audio on the
Amiga.  However, most computer platforms now support 16bit CD quality
audio.  Just as many Amiga users were eager to shatter the HAM8 graphics
barrier by adding 24 bit display boards, many audiophiles now seek to boost
the Amiga's aural performance by adding one of several 16 bit audio cards.

One of the earliest of these 16bit cards was the SunRize Studio16 card. 
This is a card aimed to replace an analog multitrack recorder in a sound
studio.  Many of my colleagues used it to create soundtracks for films,
or record bands.  Sadly, this card is no longer available.  In its stead
are several other 16 bit audio cards for the Amiga like the Toccata, and
the Delfina.  The problem is that there hasn't been a single piece of
software that supported several audio cards for editing, converting, and
other operations.  Enter AudioLab 16. 

If I were to compare AL16 to another piece of software, it would be
ImageFX.  ImageFX lets you load up 24 bit pictures into a RAM buffer, and
uses any of a myriad of displays to show you the image.  If you have an ECS
machine, it can give you a rough preview of the image.  IFX can also take
advantage of an advanced graphics card.  In both cases, IFX enables you to
work in full 24bit quality no matter what your preview looks like. 

The same is true of AL16.  If you're using the native Amiga audio, AL16
will work in full 16 bit quality internally, and produce a 14 bit preview
out the Amiga's 8-bit audio connectors!  If you have one of several
supported audio cards, you can hear the full 16 bit version.  This
flexibility allows you to use AudioLab 16 in a regular Amiga, and not have
to change the way you work when you upgrade to using an audio card. 

When you first open up AL16, you're greeted with a little window asking
whether it should open up on a public or custom screen.  Every time you
close the program, it asks whether you'd like to save the layout of your
windows.  This makes it easy to keep your workspace neat, which becomes
pretty necessary with a program like this. 

There are a lot of windows, which may be daunting to some.  Since I use
MacroSystems' MovieShop editing software every day, I have become used to
programs that are a veritable WindowFest.  This may make AL16 seem
complicated at first, but any sophisticated multi-step process is going to
seem complex to the uninitiated.  To aid in this, AudioLab 16 is logically
laid out.  The GUI is a little sparse, but not unfriendly to getting the
job done. 

AL16 covers the bases well, and has many of the components of a
full-fledged sound studio.  There are tools for file conversion, DSP
special effects, editing, mixing, remote triggering, multitracking, and
more.  Almost all of the things that you need to get done in an audio
project are here.  In fact, there is so much to cover, we've split this
article into two parts.  This time we'll cover some of the basics, and
leave complex and multilayered processes like multitracking till next
issue. 

For this look at Audio Lab 16, we'll be using an Amiga 4000 equipped with
16 megs of RAM on an '040 Warp Engine.  This machine is hooked up to a 17
inch monitor using a Retina Z3 and CyberGraphx.  (The extra real estate of
a monitor this size is definitely helpful with a program with this many
options.) There's no extra audio hardware in this machine, so we'll use
AudioLab's ability to squeeze 14bit of performance out of native Amiga
hardware.  Next time, we'll use a Toccata card in an '040 2000, and the
we'll also test AL16 with the DraCo version of theToccata. 

The test sample is the music from our upcoming demo video for The Vantage
Point.  We've licensed a brilliant performance of the song "Brazil", and
it's ideal for testing out this software.  The recording features lots of
panned stereo effects, and is an extra dimensional recording from the 60's.
(For you audiophiles out there, the recent resurgence of Lounge Music has
brought with it CD reissues of several superlative recordings from the 60's
featuring experimental stereo techniques, and outstanding instrumental
performances.  Some titles to check out are "Persuasive Percussion" from
Varese Sarabande, and "Space Capades" from Capitol records) I recorded the
music through the Toccata using MovieShop software, and exported it in
several formats. 

The way that AudioLab16 keeps the various phases of work separate is by
grouping related windows.  Clicking on an item in the 'Environments' list
brings up various groupings of windows, dependant on the work you're doing.
The first Environment is the 'I/O Mapper'.  This is where you perform file
conversions, play files, and record sounds.  You get to these various
functions through another list manager of windows. 

Since we simply want to load up "Brazil" and play it, we use the first
optionFile: Analog.  This will automatically detect and load formats like
AIFF, Studio 16_3, WAV, RAW, MAUD, and 8SVX, and play the sound through
whatever output device you're configured for.  After hitting 'Execute' the
sound starts playing through the 4000's audio outputs almost instantly.
The "Brazil" file is over twenty megs long, and AL16 played it from the
hard drive flawlessly.  The output is quite good, definitely good enough to
serve as a preview for most work that you might be doing.  (I'd also like
to point out that I've hooked up the 4000 to a stereo system.  Even 16 bit
audio is going to sound pretty crappy coming out of the speakers of a 1084
monitor.)

Once we're finished playing the sample, we need to convert it to AIFF,
Maestro, or MAUD to continue working on it within AL16.  You choose one of
these three formats as the internal format that AL16 will use for all of
its work.  This means that if you are planning on a project with several
audio samples in different formats, you'll first have to convert them to
one of the above three formats.  If the samples are stereo, you'll also
have to unzip them into two separate Right and Left Channel files. 

All of this conversion is a step that I wish were unnecessary.  To go back
to the ImageFX analogy, IFX will load a myriad of file types, and convert
them to 24 bit IFF internally.  You don't have to first go through and
convert all of your pictures to a single format first.  It would be nice if
AL16 could simply autodetect and convert files at the same time. 

While it is good to be able to unzip stereo files to be able to work with
individual channels, all of the work involved can be cumbersome.   For
simple effects like reverb, I'd like to be able to add it to both channels
at the same time.  What if you perform the reverb on both separate
channels, then re-zip the file, only to find it unsuitable?   That's a lot
of steps to have to re-create. 

As far as sources for sounds, the Web is replete with sound files.  The
problem is that these are often ripped from movies and songs, and are
subject to copyright restrictions.  It's fine to use these for just playing
around, but as far as creating a product for a client, these files are
strictly verboten.  Since much of my work is in editing, I usually record
sounds myself using a Nagra (an analog portable recorder), or DAT.   For
music, I use CDs that I bought from Token Music [(612) 437.1708] that
include in the purchase price a licensing fee. 

I've also purchased several sound effect CDs.  There is an excellent pair
of CDs available from Sound Ideas: "SFX on CD Rom".  The first disc has
audio CD tracks of 300 awesome sound effects, and the on the same disc the
same effects already in WAV format.  The second CD has 1000 effects in WAV
format only.  The only problem I have with the discs is that the sounds are
recorded at 22kless than half the quality of a CD. 

This isn't a problem with the first disc, since I can simply re-record the
sounds from it, but the second disc doesn't feature the tracks in audio
format.  Fortunately.  AL16 has the ability to convert the sample clock
without changing the quality of the sound, allowing me to convert all of
the WAV files up to 32k or 48k, whichever you're using.  Even thought they
are sourced at 22k, the sounds are pretty good.  If what you're doing is
multimedia or kiosk applications, then 22k is the ideal compromise between
quality and space. 

AL16 also has the facility to rip sounds right off of an audio CD, provided
your CD player supports this.  I wasn't able to test this, since none of
our CD roms drives are able to pull digital data off of CDs.   There is
also the ability to record through a parallel port sampler, which we will
test in the near future. 

So, the I/O Mapper gets sounds into and out of AL16.  It also lets you
convert to other formats, especially if you plan on moving to other modules
of the program.  I used AIFF as the internal write format, and converted
all of my work to that format.  Now we move to the Signal Processor
Environment to start messing around with Real Time effects, and sample
editing. 

The 'Signal Processor Environment' consists of a large window with a list
of several effect operators, range controls, and file selection.   Each
Operator opens up another smaller window allowing you to change parameters
of the effect.  It is here that you can also set ranges, or portions of
your sample to be effected.  This is also a good way to preview an effect
on a sample before committing to rendering time. 

Yes, the effects are rendered.  The 20 Meg "Brazil" file took little time
to render on an '040 machine.  What makes AL16 special, though, is the
ability to preview many effects in real time!  Most effects like Reverb,
Tap, and Time Stretch have a realtime preview for immediate feedback.  This
is where most of your time will go, playing around with sounds and making
them sound really freaky. 

Note that you can't stretch and pull at a sound too much without it
starting to distort and lose some quality.  It's just like taking a small
graphic and blowing it up to twice its size.  The image starts to look
blocky because the computer has to "invent" data to put in the empty
spaces.  Although, don't forget to let creativity creep in.  Weird
distortions might be exactly the effect that you're looking for. 

If you're performing these effects on separate stereo files, once you've
added the effect to both left and right, you can interleave the files back
together into a single stereo sample.  Here are some of the more radical
effects that you can expect to play around with. 

  Comb Filter     Lets you pull a single frequency out of a sample
  Delay 'N' Tap   Delay with user definable 'N' number of echoes
  Distortion      Like stomping on distortion pedal for electric guitar.  
                   Wanna be Trent Reznor?  Apply this operator to your 
                   voice.
  Flanger         Adds a sweeping quality to sound.
  Hum Remover     Removes 50/60 kHz hum from sound.  Good for removing 
                   cable hum.
  Pitch Shifter   Changes pitch of sound without changing duration.  
                   Change Dirty Harry into Dirty Shirley Temple.
  Room            Reverb with selectable size of virtual "room".
  Time Inverter   A fancy way to say "playing samples backwards".
  Time Stretch    Change the duration of a sample without changing its 
                   pitch.  Good for trying to cram in dialogue where it
                   just doesn't fit.

There's a lot to cover here, and now that we've gone through the basics,
next issue we'll get serious.  We'll get into applying some of these
effects, and using some of the other facilities of Audio Lab 16.  We'll
work with the signal generation tools, the remote triggers, and the
multitracker mixer.  We'll see, er...  hear the difference that adding an
audio card can make.  Until then, check out the demo version of AudioLab 16
on AmiNet. 

(Just to remind you how cool the Amiga is, I wrote this review in Final
Writer while playing a song in AudioLab 16 and also was transferring a 25
Meg file over ethernet to another Amiga!)