ION: The Universal Translator

Industry Standards. When it comes to communicating with technology in the audio post production business, there are many. This, of course, would seem to belie the meaning of the word "standard", but in reality no single comprehensive standard exists for integrating the various devices that populate the studios of the sound post industry.

Attempts certainly have been made by governing associations such as SMPTE and EBU to establish a "universal" protocol. The "ES Bus", based on RS-422 serial, was first established in the mid-1980's and subsequently published in the last few years as a set of industry standards. Unfortunately, this protocol has not been widely implemented, which certainly has undermined its reason for being.

Many would say that Sony 9-pin has become the de facto industry standard. In fact, there are many dialects of this common communications protocol. Moreover, when was the last time you used this method to issue a cut, copy or paste command to a device?

Why can't the industry get together and actually implement an all-encompassing standard? Is it because manufacturers have a vested interest not to do so? Do they have higher priorities on their various agendas? Or is it possible that connectivity in the future will no longer be an issue as the industry replaces all of its existing technology with the proverbial "studio-in-a-box" digital audio workstation (DAW)?

Although it could be argued that there are some vested interests at play, and that such integration is not high on certain manufacturers' priority lists, there are realities that tend to sabotage valiant atempts at consensus in this regard. One is the "moving target" nature of our industry at this time.

It is important to remember that sophisticated sound post production revolved around sprockets for many decades, and that feature films and television series have long relied on this technology. They still do for certain aspects. However, in the last 10 years we have witnessed numerous attempts to revolutionize the way this work is done.

As manufacturers attempt to overcome the inertia that has set in from the use of the same techniques and technology for such a long time, there is a tendency to overshoot the mark. This "pendulum effect" tends to temporarily give credence to the feeling that existing technology will be usurped by all-encompassing DAW-type devices that will no longer have to communicate with the past, or even to other devices in the present, in a sophisticated way.

But who would have predicted the emergence of an extremely cost-effective new tape format such as employed by the Tascam DA-88/Sony PCM-800, and one that would so quickly establish itself as a "currency" in our industry? The overwhelming success of that format gave pause to many that vowed that tape was dead. It simultaneously demonstrated that the pendulum was starting to come back toward the middle.

It would seem that since many "replacement" non-linear audio technologies were not very concerned about comprehensive connectivity, they found themselves on islands surrounded by tape and sprocket media. However, it is true that a form of connectivity is clearly receiving a high priority through common file formats such as AES 31.

Yet, a common file format is not enough. Manufacturers of two-inch, 24-track analog multitrack transports agreed years ago to the equivalent of a common file format. Although tapes recorded on one can be transferred to another, a Studer machine interfaces with the outside world in a different way than a "file-compatible" unit made by Otari or Sony.

The United Nations of Technology

So where does this leave us? Our industry is looking more and more like the United Nations. We have extremely diverse technology, each with its own unique merits, which collectively can produce a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. To continue the analogy, it would appear that some form of "simultaneous universal translation" facility is needed to allow everything to communicate together, since there are obviously many distinct languages being spoken.

Since 1982, Soundmaster Group has been accumulating extensive expertise in the practical interfacing of disparate technology, and we have implemented these multilingual skills in our own form of simultaneous universal translation. ION, an acronym for Integrated Operations Nucleus, provides users with a central platform that seamlessly integrates the various technologies from the past, present and future. With ION, a creative operator can employ the most appropriate technology for a given task.

To help understand this philosophy, simply compare our industry's tools to those found in a craftsman's kit. Within the latter a hammer is designed to drive nails and a screwdriver to turn screws. It is true that you can use the handle of a screwdriver to drive a nail, but doesn't it make more sense to use the tool that is best suited to the job? To date, our industry has not been able to successfully integrate the best tools of the past with those of the future. As a result, users have been forced to proverbially drive nails with screwdriver handles, while a hammer lies just out of reach. ION endeavors to correct that problem.

Soundmaster Group wishes to play the role of "facilitator". For example, we realize that there is a great race among DAW manufacturers to produce the most complete and cost-effective modern tool kit with exciting new capabilities that our industry could only dream of in the past. As we clearly believe that these tools become even more powerful when integrated with those already in existence, we are prepared to do the hard work to achieve this.

In other words, we will learn and incorporate a company's proprietary protocol and then link it with the other protocols we have already mastered via our universal translation process. As a result, that company's technology gains the capability to comprehensively communicate with many others through ION, when on its own it could not.

An excellent real-world example of this has been in use for many years at the state-of-the-art facilities of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Toronto. The goal was to reduce the clutter of keyboards and monitors in its television audio post production suites and centralize control over its console automation system, digital video and audio transports as well as MIDI-based outboard gear.

The CBC wanted to be able to use its Neve Flying Faders automation keyboard as the command center, but the unit's motion control capabilities did not include needed features such as an edit decision list (EDL). As well, the system did not directly communicate with MIDI-based outboard processing equipment, such as digital reverb units. We were confident that through ION these capabilities could be retroactively added to Flying Faders.

We started by having ION learn the protocol used by the automation system to command external synchronizers. At a basic level, this allowed standard transport commands to be carried out by ION.

However, by connecting these simple commands to ION's internal universal translation engine, which is user-programmable, the same Flying Faders key that originally could only issue a "Play" command now became capable of changing a digital reverb setting on an outboard processor. Another key gained the power of manipulating an EDL within ION. Without any modification to the Flying Faders system whatsoever, we were able to make its keyboard retroactively "soft", including the ability to instantly re-map the system's external control capabilities with the touch of one of its own keys.

DTRS Dubbers?

Using the same multilingual philosophy, we were the first to fully utilize Tascam's proprietary protocol to integrate the DA-88 and Sony PCM-800, now known as the DTRS format. This has allowed us to control up to 128 machines comprising 1,024 digital tracks and has provided access to key features that are not available by simply using the Sony 9-pin protocol that the unit also supports.

For example, DTRS has a track delay feature that allows one track to be delayed vis-a-vis another on the same tape by up to 7,200 samples. However, we perceived this as raw material for developing the type of track slip feature that film re-recording engineers have come to expect from their sprocketed dubbers and recorders. Of course, traditional track slipping not only involves delaying tracks, but also advancing one track with respect to another. Re-recording engineers also require film frames/subframes rather than the somewhat foreign unit of samples.

The proprietary protocol gives us access to inter-machine offset capabilities on a bus that can contain up to 16 machines. By combining direct control of each track's delay register, and some automatic and invisible computer "sleight of hand", a single keystroke now commands DTRS tracks to slip as if they were individual dubbers, including in a positive direction. If this were attempted locally on the machine, the number of keystrokes and manual calculations required would prevent anyone from attempting to use the delay feature in this manner.

When one realizes that this capability allows a linear medium such as tape to reproduce a sound earlier than it was actually recorded vis-a-vis a reference picture, all the while maintaining the former sync relationship of the remaining tape tracks, the significance of this development becomes more apparent.

The DTRS family, as well as new sound processors such as the iZ Technology RADAR 24 solid state multitrack, are excellent examples of new, modular technologies that allow for a natural evolution from the past when properly plugged into an existing work ethic. In the case of RADAR 24, we are providing total control of all of its functions, including cut, copy, paste and undo, by communicating with the unit via its proprietary remote's protocol. This same philosophy is being used to tap into the tool kits of digital audio workstations. The resulting "bridge" should help ameliorate their "island" isolation.

A Palette of Technology

ION supports the ability to pick and choose from the strengths of a number of manufacturers to produce a custom palette of technology selected to address users' specific needs. Coupled with Soundmaster Group's patented SMART SYNC process, which enables time compression and expansion in real time, the seamless integration of sprocket, tape and disk media in this way provides for an evolutionary crossover of technique from one to another.

We are pleased that our theories are being used daily on high-level productions on three continents, for those who might question whether this approach is actually practical. In fact, Sound Services Inc. (SSI) in Hollywood, a major user of digital audio workstations, now considers ION to be the center of its studio universe.

We are a neutral company that exploits the most out of each technology we integrate. As a result, manufacturers and end users jointly benefit from the solutions we offer. We would appear to have been slightly ahead of our time, leading one studio executive to comment recently that for years we had provided solutions to problems he had not yet come across. However, he quickly added that these problems are now arising.

It would appear that the time is ripe for a solution of this kind. As a result, we are significantly enhancing our architecture through our ATOM initiative in order to provide even more comprehensive solutions to the industry in the years ahead. We welcome your contributions in this regard.

Robert D. Predovich

Chairman and CEO

Soundmaster Group

Toronto, Canada