At the introduction of the TC Electronic System 6000 at the AES show in 1999, the concept and implementation were so novel as to prompt the question "What is it?" Now, after years of in-house and third party development, a better question might be "What isn't it?" Generically described as a multichannel processing platform, the System 6000 provides solutions for nearly every task encountered in the conversion, mixing, mastering and monitoring of multichannel audio.
Product Points
Applications: Studio, post production

Features: Control surface; reverb, EQ, pitch shift, compressor, tape emulator; room simulator; numerous processing plug-ins; numerous third party plug-ins; stereo, surround sound; rackmounted I/O box; Windows, Mac control software

Price: As tested $20,970 starts at $9,195

Contact: TC Electronic at 805-373-1828, Web Site.

Plus

+ Rigorous approach to sound quality and ergonomics

+ Full range of algorithms and applications

+ All-in-one surround mastering and monitoring solution

+ ICON controller is a design gem

Minus

- No word clock out

- Certain combinations of algorithms exceed system capacity

The latest System 6000 offers extraordinary converters and an wide range of tools for reverb, room simulation, compression, limiting, equalization, pitch shift, de-essing, up and downmixing, localization, restoration, stereo-to-surround conversion and monitoring, both binaurally and over loudspeakers. New algorithms are in continual development and TC has recently introduced an EMT 250 emulator, a Massenburg Design Works EQ and a six-main channel 6.1 room simulator.

Features

The basic System 6000 frame consists of four eight-channel, high-resolution DSP engines. Connectivity includes four expansion slots, inputs for word clock and timecode, MIDI I/O, a floppy drive and a PC card slot for software and preset transfers. The slots accommodate the company's excellent and versatile ADA 24/96 analog converter sets and additional AES I/O. Control of the mainframe is via an Ethernet port that connects directly to a PC network and/or to the optional ICON controller via its required single rack-space TC Remote CPU.

The ICON is a gem of interface design and programming. Composed of a 5-inch x 4-inch color LCD touchscreen and six moving faders, it features soft-textured 3D graphics that are vivid and easy on the eye, and is compact enough to sit atop a desk or mic stand. The ICON provides quick manipulation of a staggering number of algorithms, parameters and routing choices. TC also offers Windows and Mac software applications that emulate the ICON on a networked computer. Multiple users can share a single mainframe attached to the studio network and, conversely, the ICON, a PC or Mac can control multiple mainframes.

The optional ADA 24/96 analog converters are characteristic of the care that has been designed into the entire system. Today's commercially available converter chip sets digitize by oversampling at rates of 64 to 128 X the final rate. Sample rate conversions to final rates of 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz are typically done on the chip set, along with required brick-wall filtering to prevent out-of-band information from corrupting the final audio with aliased, or false, frequencies. Instead, TC has opted to include a dedicated Motorola 56303 DSP chip on its converter boards offering a variety of user-selectable proprietary filters. The resulting choice of sounds is an object lesson in why A/D-D/A converters can sound so different. In addition to this filtering finesse, a great deal of design work has gone into system clocking, jitter reduction and maintaining impressively low latencies throughout the system, typically a few milliseconds or less for analog I/O, and a few tenths or less for digital.

The System 6000 is organized on three operating levels Ð engine, routing and scene. The ICON's touchscreen allows you to efficiently point your way through the many layers and levels in the system. All four processing engines are simultaneously active and are loaded from factory and user libraries organized as 14 banks of 10 decades of 10 presets each. Presets can also be selected by application, algorithm or by a wizard that sorts by category and output format. A routing preset provides all the interconnections between the outside world and among the engines themselves, while a scene provides a complete recall of all four engines plus a routing.

The routing page is ingenious, considering that there are up to 16 physical inputs, 16 physical outputs, and four engines of eight ins and outs each, all displayed on a single screen. Connections, which appear as bright red pipes, are established by moving faders on the ICON. A single physical input can be sent to multiple engine inputs, and multiple engine outputs can be mixed to a single physical output. Engine outputs can be cascaded to engine inputs. Routing is a little mystifying at first, but eventually becomes second nature.

In Use

It was hardly possible to try the over 700 presets and 27 algorithms on projects that came through my studio during the review period. I drew from what the work needed and found the results to be exceptional.

Reverb has always been a mainstay of TC's product range. In the System 6000 there are routines ported from the M5000 as well as newly developed reverbs resulting from TC's research into multichannel room simulation and the psychoacoustics of early reflections. Localization is one of the most effective attributes of the new 5.1 reverbs, and is based on such esoteric techniques as Vector Base Amplitude Panning and Ambisonics. I tried an algorithm called VSS5.1 on a surround mix of a multitracked gospel choir. The program allows for the 360-degree localization of up to four sources within a variety of reverb fields. We were able to quickly create the effect of being encircled by the basses, tenors, altos and sopranos, each coming in from a different angle seemingly beyond the speaker array. Each source had its own settings of reverb level, reflection level and reverb color. Early reflection types are selectable from various rooms, halls and spaces. The spatial orientation was very credible, much more so than with simple 5.1 level panning. The quality of the reverb was detailed and natural.

Version 3.2 software, released in January 2003, offers an emulation of the legendary EMT 250. Although it has been a while since I have had my hands on the science fiction-like levers of the original, the sound from the S6000 was readily familiar, like recalling a taste. The emulation is so thorough that there is a parameter for bypassing the input transformer. The transformer "in" setting adds a warm resonance and roundness to the reverb effect. The sound of vintage digital reverbs (Did I really say 'vintage digital?') cannot be separated from the sound of their analog stages and converters. This is one reason why so many software emulations fail. TC has done its homework in this regard, modeling the analog circuits as well as the digital processes of this classic.

Also in V3.2 is a "Halls Of Fame" bank of presets from mixing legends such as Al Schmitt and George Massenburg. The value of the settings of great mixers is debatable since we are missing the other side of the equation Ð their tracks. Still, it is a guilty treat to see the values that these folks have dialed in, and the few that I scrolled through sounded very good.

Most of my work is in mastering and in this context, the System 6000 has a great deal to offer, particularly for facilities looking for an easy move up to surround work. There is a 5.1 monitor matrix algorithm that obviates the need for a separate surround monitor controller, if you are willing to give up an engine to it. The matrix includes full channel control, bass management, calibration and a digital fader. Using the S6000's mastering-grade DACs to drive your mains and running the system on internal clock offers the additional benefit of jitter-free monitoring.

The A/D side of the ADA 24/96 qualifies as a primary converter in accuracy and detail. The unusual filtering options offered do allow for some interesting choices. The "linear" filter sounds clean and transparent, though I found it slightly lean in the low-end when compared with my reference A/D converter. The "natural" setting seems to enhance the perception of the ambience in the source, but still remained clear and detailed. The "bright" filter did exactly that, adding a shade of edge and grit that might enhance certain sources. On the "vintage" setting, the conversion took on an extra warmth and fullness characteristic of a quality transformer with a low-frequency resonance. The standard filter emulates a mid-tier converter, though I am not sure what the application would be. From a mastering perspective, the range of colors is very useful.

The new optional Massenburg Design Works stereo and surround equalizer is one of the most musical sounding EQs I have heard, and approaches the quality of a dedicated hardware linear-phase double-sampling EQ. The standard TC EQ included in the basic package is effective and smooth, though not up to the level of the MDW in excitement.

Unwrap, TC's upmix process for repurposing stereo to 5.1, proved to be one of the highlights of the system. A client who had just licensed a stereo televised folk concert for DVD release did not have access to the multitrack, and the artist was in love with the original two-track mix. Unwrap exceeded all of our expectations by creating a credible center channel and extracting the existing stereo reverb and ambience to a very pleasing surround presentation. We arrived at a good result quite quickly despite the complexity of the parameters. I later tried the program on a Mozart piano and violin concerto off of a hybrid stereo and multichannel SACD. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I preferred the stereo layer processed through Unwrap over the disc's own multichannel layer. Unwrap will likely not work in all cases, but I was impressed by these two.

Backdrop is TC's process for noise analysis and removal. A noise print can be sampled, or profiles can be created using buzz, room and hiss presets. A multitype mode allows for simultaneous use of all three. Working with some 78 rpm transcriptions and noisy guitar tracks I was able to get excellent results quickly. More refined results were possible though use of the patch's inner parameters.

Though I worked in a surround format I should point out that almost all of these tools work just as ably in stereo mode.

In the nit department, the compressors could benefit from a greater range of attack and release times, and I missed the benefits of an auto-release mode. (TC has stated that there will be more dynamics processing options in the next major software release.) A system word clock out would also be helpful since the ADA 24/96 DACs work so well on internal clock, but an AES output can always be used as a master clock source. You must also be conscious of your DSP budget as it is possible to exceed the system's capacity, in which case an alert will display, especially at double-sampling.

Summary

The S6000 offers an unprecedented range of capability for a single device and its designers have made a determined effort toward sonic excellence throughout. While specific single-purpose machines might outperform the system in some areas, it is as close to the perfect all-in-one processor as we are likely to see for quite a while. As a complete multichannel solution it has no peer. The S6000 is digital done right.

Review Setup

Dunlavy Aletha monitors, emmLabs Switchman MkII monitor controller, Mytek 8x96 A/D and D/A converters, Yamaha 02R96 mixer, Sequoia Workstation.