E-MU Digital Systems PARIS Pro 30 DAW

The already competitive digital audio workstation (DAW) market goes into overdrive with the introduction of E-MU's PARIS Pro 3.0 workstation system.
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The already competitive digital audio workstation (DAW) market goes into overdrive with the introduction of E-MU's PARIS Pro 3.0 workstation system.
Product PointsApplications: Professional and project studios

Key Features: 24-bit digital audio workstation; hardware- and computer-based DSP; software for recording, editing and mixing; 16-channel integrated control surface; modular I/O chassis, support for VST and DirectX plug-ins

Price: $4,995

Contact: E-MU at 831-438-1921 Web Site

Plus

+ Intuitive new features

+ Excellent sound quality

+ Flexible architecture

Minus

- All plug-ins must be handled by the host CPU (native)

The Score: A worthy contender to the professional DAW throne.
With its advanced features and intuitive design elements, this new implementation of the PARIS system aims to make inroads in the market now dominated by Digidesign's Pro Tools.

Amenities like an integrated control surface, flexible and easily expandable hardware and innovative approaches to processing power and user interface combine to make PARIS Pro a rewarding and powerful tool in the studio.

Features

The PARIS Pro ($4,995) is a desktop computer plus external hardware-based digital audio workstation for recording, editing and mixing audio. The basic system components consist of a C16 Pro dedicated control surface, the Modular Expansion Chassis I/O interface (MEC) and the EDS 1000x PCI card that handle 16 hardware tracks in addition to DSP and audio routing duties. Additional EDS cards serve to expand track and DSP capacity. Specific I/O needs are addressed by fitting cards into the MEC chassis.

The MEC includes four TRS analog inputs and outputs, as well as word clock, S/PDIF I/O and system connections. Modular options for the MEC's 10 slots include eight-channel, 24-bit A/D and D/A I/O cards, an ADAT lightpipe interface and a sync card, which includes SMPTE, blackburst, VITC and video time code burn.

As many as eight MECs and eight EDS cards can be used in one system, up to 128 EDS tracks and 128 native tracks are possible. For less ambitious installations, EM-U offers the compact Interface 2, which contains two analog input and output channels, and the single-rack-space 442, with four channels of analog I/O plus word clock and S/PDIF connections.

PARIS Pro can be used in both Windows and Mac environments. Minimum system requirements are G3 with OS 8.6 or better with 128 MB RAM for Mac, and 133 MHz Pentium II with Win95 or better with 128 MB RAM for Window systems. Audio can be stored on standard, inexpensive IDE drives, as well as SCSI or FireWire, keeping in mind that data transfer rates need to be at least equal 150 k/sec per channel for 24/48-bit audio and 86.2 k/sec for 16/44.1 kHz. Third-party VST and DirectX plug-ins are supported and the included effects are in a proprietary PARIS standard.

The system architecture is structured around a "dual-mode" approach. This clever design element enables access to the computer's native processing power while preserving the advantages of stability and efficient processing inherent in a hardware-centered DAW.

With PARIS, generally audio functions are handled by hardware as in a TDM system. Additional plug-in effects processing and native track capabilities can be assigned to the CPU to augment hardware resources. Playback, mixing, EQ and included effects are always handled via hardware, while native plug-ins are always handled by the CPU.

The Version 3.0 software provides all expected editing and mixing functions as well as an array of advanced operations. The project window, which handles overall session settings, and is the central link to windows and dialog boxes governing various system functions, is displayed at startup. The project window is where the user sets global tempo and time signature, sample rate and bit depth, SMPTE and Sync settings, recording and input monitoring, and basic settings for the control surface.

In addition to the preeminent mixer and editor windows, other main windows include transport, locator, patch bay and automation editing. A variety of specialized windows and subwindows handle functions including MIDI control, fine audio editing, shortcuts, markers and display of project and system information.

Configurations of onscreen windows can be saved as views, and accessed via the control surface or key sequences. Many functions and dialog boxes are accessible via keyboard shortcuts.

Each mixer channel offers fader display and level metering, and allows control of standard functions such as solo/mute, record enable and panning, in addition to inserts, sends and EQ. Each channel has four dedicated, fully parametric EQ modules (64 parametric EQ components can be handled on one EDS card), and eight aux sends to busses, which can be inserted for effects or external devices.

Up to four VST or DirectX plug-ins can be inserted on each channel and channel inserts for external devices can be assigned to I/O through the patch bay. All channels, submixes and global master modules can be automated for volume, pan and mute status; aux send volume can also be automated.

The editor window will be familiar to DAW users, with tracks laid out on top of each other, and audio waveforms or MIDI data in discrete blocks. Each visible editor window corresponds to a submix, or defined set of EDS tracks, and tools are available for arranging, editing and scrubbing audio. Multiple timebase rulers can be viewed at once, using absolute time, SMPTE or bars/beats. Other bars allow for tool selection, nudge and slip, grid and snap controls, crossfade details, and display options. Solo/mute controls and metering are also available per track from the editor window.

MIDI events are aggregated into "chunks," which are analogous to audio segments and can be used in a similar way, right alongside audio in the editor window. Each "track" used in this way corresponds to a MIDI device, and up to 64 such MIDI tracks can be created. MIDI I/O is accomplished through the use of a third-party MIDI card. MIDI data can be recorded, edited, saved and imported in real time or by assembly. PARIS can generate and sync to MTC.

Audio is saved in a PARIS proprietary format (PAF files) as PCM data, in either 16 or 24 bits at a variety of sampling rates. Sound Designer 2 and WAV files are also supported. In fact, all three formats can be used in the same project. Recording can be done to sd2 and WAV files, but only in 16-bit mode.

Projects are saved as PPJ files, which include all mix and nondestructive edit data, as well as up to 99 levels of undo which can be saved with the project - a truly awesome feature. Projects can be imported and exported in Avid's open-media format (OMF) for use with other DAW and multimedia systems.

To control all of this, every PARIS system comes standard with the C16 control surface - an interface that contains many functions found on a digital mixer or recording device remote. The C16 has 16 100mm faders, each with mute button, channel select button and LEDs to indicate null position and input, or record enabled status. Channel mutes are globally converted to solo via a single keystroke. A single-channel control section contains soft knobs to adjust EQ, sends and panning for the selected channel. A slightly larger fader controls the main L/R bus.

On the right side of the C16 are transport and marker, locate and looping controls. A large jog/shuttle wheel controls the position of the "now line" cursor and can also scrub audio. Associated buttons allow audio jogging and some data entry with the wheel, and a fine control enables small increment changes. A keypad is present for data entry, and onscreen views can be saved and accessed here. A knob handles control room monitor level and there is a foot-switch jack for punching in and out. Extended functions include undo and redo buttons, a "play selection" control and various keys and key combinations to access specific shortcuts, functions and windows.

In use

Setting up a system this complicated is an involved process. The manual is refreshingly helpful with well-laid-out diagrams and instructions, and tips for configuring your system to maximize data throughput and minimize device conflicts. Some of this may be complicated for non-computer experts. PARIS Pro is an extremely powerful piece of audio equipment; to achieve optimal performance, a stripped down and dedicated system is the way to go.

I had some early issues requiring system tweaking and extraction of an unruly CD drive before achieving stability. Once the system was up and running, however, it did not crash once in several months of work, and I detected no glitches or latency issues with hardware playback.

My overall impression of PARIS Pro is that developers very familiar with the needs of audio engineers designed it. Many of the feature implementations and controls are intuitively done, as is the overall system architecture.

The C16 control surface is the best example of the system's design going a long way to eliminate the frustrations of mixing with a mouse. Its tight integration with the software is a superior solution to the third party control surfaces I have used in the past. The jog/shuttle wheel is a veritable godsend, and with well-implemented transport controls, faders and controls like undo/redo, you can really cruise. The lack of moving faders is conspicuous, however, as they are now standard on many relatively inexpensive products.

Another well-done element is the virtual patch bay window. In this window each of the system's components can be dragged into a field and patches are represented on screen by connecting lines. Simple click-and-drag operations connect internal modules to each other or external I/O points. Through submenus, one can access details as minute as trim level or word clock format, or in one stroke can exchange modules to switch globally between analog and ADAT inputs.

Once patches are in place, recording is straightforward - a matter of enabling tracks and setting a recording path. To simultaneously record and play back numerous tracks requires speedy throughput rates on the hard drives. The ability to work with IDE drives can result in huge cost savings here. The 24-bit input modules were of good quality: quiet and transparent.

I was especially pleased with the amount of headroom available at the inputs and within the system, where you can really push levels without audible distortion. EM-U has addressed the issue of digital clipping internally. The DSPs handle overflow values by setting the level to the correct maximum digital value rather than turning the signal into hash with binary artifacts. The result is audibly superior when dealing with a hot signal, and it freed me up to get more out of bit depth without living in constant terror of a transient digital clip.

In general, the controls are comfortable to those familiar with a traditional console and tape deck setup. The mix window display is perhaps overdone - after a long session, the console's photo-realistic representation can be fatiguing. Barring that, mixer window operations are well implemented and many are accessible in several places, speeding up work. For example, the EQ can be adjusted by mouse on the C16, or by double-clicking on the channel and working on an EQ curve, depending on your preference.

One mixer window feature that is fabulous - and so simple I wondered why I hadn't seen it before, was the drag-and-drop feature for mixer settings. This allows you to click on a channel strip section, like EQ for example, and drag to another channel, thereby copying all the settings. This can also be done with the whole channel strip at once.

Another simple - but new - concept I fell in love with is the editor window's "object jails." These are small regions where audio can be dropped and parked, and then dragged into the editor window as needed -much like cut-and-paste, but without having to make your move immediately. E-MU has clearly been observing users and thinking creatively.

The editor window is straightforward. I liked the ability to easily work with MIDI and audio tracks together. The context-sensitive cursor also works well, changing from a drag to a trim or crossfade tool depending on location. Double-clicking on an audio segment brings up a fine editing window for the corresponding audio track. Audio segments can be given sync points for quick alignment with grid markings, and using bars/beats mode, sampling and loop creation is speedy.

The time-compress/expand tool is also a step forward, allowing audio segments to be dragged to a desired length right on the screen without calculations. A nice touch is the ability to display multiple timebase rulers simultaneously and easily switch the grid between them. In general, the editing functions were on par with the best I have seen in DAW software.

Automation can be written on the fly in the mixer window, with the C16 controller, or written in and edited by hand, much like MIDI event editing. Pan, mute and volume information can be separated out into streams for fine-tuning. The automation functions are easy to use and powerful, although I would like to see full automation of all mixer functions in a future version.

The included hardware effects (several compressor/expander/gates, chorus, delay, and reverbs are included) sound great, with familiar algorithms from the E-MU DP-Pro. There are plenty of inserts and sends for these and the DirectX and VST plug-ins, and you can serialize up to four on the aux sends. While the dual-mode architecture is a positive design element overall, with plug-in processing it shows one Achilles heel, as all plug-ins are handled via the CPU. Depending on the speed of the processor this may be limiting, although I was able to get to over 20 simultaneous plug-in instances without a glitch.

E-MU has intentions of opening up its proprietary effects processing standard to third party makers, but for now this is a disadvantage for high-track-count applications when compared with a TDM system. On the other hand, the library of effects available in VST and DirectX formats is huge and, on average, much cheaper than TDM plug-ins. When viewed in the light of rapidly increasing CPU speeds and possible third party ports for the PARIS effects standard, this tradeoff will depend on further developments and user priorities.

Summary

The E-MU PARIS Pro system is well designed and powerful. I grew to appreciate it more and more as I used it extensively. The architects of this product are clearly in tune with the needs and habits of professional engineers. It shows in clever features that include drag-and-drop settings, the ability to save 99 levels of undo and support for inexpensive IDE drives. The company has also done an admirable job of creating duplicate ways of addressing the same function, be it from screen, submenu, keyboard shortcut or control surface, making for efficient operation.

Sound quality is first rate, and overall there are few compromises and many nods to expansion and economy. Given the price point and feature set, PARIS is aimed squarely at the industry-standard Pro Tools systems. The PARIS Pro should attract a strong user base on the strength of its cost, power and flexibility.

E-MU has made a quantum leap forward with PARIS Pro 3.0. I would strongly encourage anyone in the market for a computer based DAW to try one out.