In the late 1980s it was pretty obvious to even the casual observer that digital editing was going to change the way audio was produced. In 1991 I edited an album – Jubilate, The Central Band of the Royal New Zealand Air Force – on the Sony DAE, a system based on u-matic video recorders. I wanted more!
In 1992 I put together a business case for a ProTools digital editing system for Radio New Zealand. As well as giving us some experience with the technology, it would also speed up the production and editing of live and studio recordings. The case asked for $38,000, and was considered very political because Head Office Engineering controlled the purchase of all technology at Radio New Zealand at that time. There were some objections to the purchase, and the business case sat on a number of desks for weeks. At one stage I called the P.A.(Gina?) of one executive to get the case moved along to the next signatory.
Probably the most telling was the barrage of questions that arrived on the last day that our vendor quotation was valid. All were already answered in the actual business case, but they were answered again and I was assured the case would be signed the following Monday. I got a short extension on the prices, this being quite a big deal as the US dollar was about 0.50c at the time, and quite volatile.
I was told privately that the case was problematic because Engineering wanted to ‘guide RNZ through this complex area and we had to make the right purchase’. They had previously requested a large sum of money (I think it was $50K) from RNZ Concert to investigate digital editors. I recall the manager at the time (Elizabeth Kerr) saying something along the lines of, we will we decide if we want something investigated and what we are willing to spend, if we want you to do that work at all. As it turned out, buying our own system (for less than the proposed research budget) was eminently more sensible. Putting the tools in the hands of actual people, using it on real work… need I say more?
The case arrived on Monday, signed, and I quickly placed the order with Rob at ProTel.
We had one hitch when the disc arrived – it was 1.2 gig unformatted, which worked out to be only 1 gig in practice – not enough for our purposes. We needed 2 hours of stereo recording time to fit a 100 minute concert and a 20 minute interview for the interval. A replacement Hitachi drive was found, apparently the largest SCSI drive on the market, for $7,250. Yep, that is not a misprint.
The final rig was a Mac IIFX, ProTools 1.1, Sound Tools, a Hitachi 1.2 Gig hard drive, and a JL Cooper 8 fader midi controller. At that time ProTool was two pieces of software – ProDeck (the mixer) and ProEdit (the editor) – and we also purchased Quick Keys to allow repetitive editing tasks to be stored and replayed on a key stroke.
The first problem we faced was the noise of the gear in the rack. Screen extender technology consisted of low-loss extension cables. Many of these did not work with the IIFX, creating horrible ghosting. Eventually we found a local company that made cables, and it worked.
The second was the time we had to wait for the waveform profile to be calculated. We’d record a two-hour concert into the system in real time, and then have to wait while the waveform display was created before we could edit. It took ages. This was solved in 1993 when ProTool V2 came out. They had merged ProEdit and ProDeck into one program, and the waveform was now calculated during the recording process. Both of these changes sped up the editing process quite a bit.
The editor was installed in Studio One in Broadcasting House in Wellington, and we quickly started using it for studio sessions. We’d record in the morning, or all day, and then immediately edit and master to DAT for broadcast.
We also added a TDM upgrade (I can’t recall when) to allow for more processing, and a removable optical re-writable disc system. This helped us defer some editing for later, and smooth our studio use a bit. We also added a second 4 channel IO card.
TDM allowed us to use Sidechain audio compression (AKA New York compression) in the digital domain.
For the best part of 5 years I was the primary user of that system, and we did a lot of innovative work. At a pinch you could get 8 tracks of replay out of the system. Luxury.
One of the features I used a lot was the manual automation editing, but not in the way you’d expect. In the analogue world it was normal for the engineer to ride the level during the editing process to ensure that you did not have the sound level trailing off at any point. When people start answering a question they have more energy; as they get to the end of the question they can get a bit quiet. In the digital world tracking this was more difficult as you want levels to be consistent at edit points and the editing with existing automation was not very reliable in the early V2.x software. The workaround was to use the manual editing to ‘sculpt’ the audio. At the point that you felt the audio was tailing off you’d drop an automation edit point and lift that one dB or so. Same if things we getting a bit loud. It was a simple matter to create a volume profile to keep things nice and even. This allowed a level of polish that was not possible in the analogue world, and resulted in a very clean and consistent sound over the length of the interview. Vastly superior to using audio compression.
The other was the QuickKeys program. This allowed editing to be executed much more quickly – one key could be programmed to open a window, select a cross-fade type, and click OK, as fast as the system would do it.
The system was replaced by SADiE in the late 90s after a project to find a replacement for all RNZ documentary production. The tale of how that system was chosen is a story for another day.