I became vaguely aware of the existence of Merging Technologies on an AES exhibit floor ten years ago. Far in the back of the convention hall, in the distinctly unglamorous area usually reserved for the vendors of bulk cassette pancakes, was a small, unassuming display consisting of an Intel 386 PC on a folding table with a few placards introducing the “Pyramix Virtual Studio.” Two gentlemen in suits sat nearby and their conversation seemed mainly between each other as the crowds passed them by to ogle at the latest large-format consoles and digital tape machines. Cut to 2003 and Merging Technologies is still here, offering what is arguably the most universal and full-featured audio workstation on the planet. Audio workstations tend to specialize. The usual areas are multi-track production, audio-for-picture post-production, nuanced editing, CD mastering, and high-resolution DVD-A or SACD production. Most DAWs are best suited for a single discipline and only marginally support the rest. With version 4.1, Pyramix Virtual Studio offers an all-in-one solution that will satisfy professionals at the highest level in all of these crafts.
Product PointsApplications: Studio, post production
Key Features: Turnkey system; Mykerinos dedicated DSP card; DirectX, VST-compatible; up to 384 kHz; SMPTE timecode; video-compatible; PCM; DSD; Scarlet Book SACD; expansion options
Price: starts at $3,495
Contact: Merging Technologies at 847-272-0500, Web Site.
At the core of the Pyramix platform is the Mykerinos PCI card, now in its fifth generation of development, built around an advanced Philips Trimedia DSP engine. At AES in October, Merging will release a firmware upgrade that will raise the channel capacity of the card to 128 inputs and 128 outputs of 32-bit floating point audio at sample rates of 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz (1 Fs). With the upgrade, there will also be 128 available internal mixer channels freely configurable as input strips, auxes, and busses. For example, a 100-input, 12-aux, 16-bus mixer is possible at 1 Fs. The maximum sample rate supported is 384 kHz (8 Fs) and for each doubling of rate the I/O channel and mixer bus counts are halved. Multiple cards interconnect via the company’s HDTDM bus and, at AES, Merging will show a four-board system capable of 16 channels of DSD, an industry first. The Mykerinos virtual mixer offers EQ, dynamics and effects, all of exemplary audio quality and very low-latency. Merging’s close association with Philips also opens Pyramix to the latest Trimedia chip software developments, such as a new SRC and DSD-PCM conversion algorithm soon to be added to the system. In addition, some of the industry’s most gifted designers have written Mykerinos plug-ins.
Connection to the outside world is handled by an assortment of daughter boards supporting all standard digital formats. At the most basic level, an inexpensive Pyramix system with a single Mykerinos board and a “MADI-X” daughterboard makes for a complete 64-track 48 kHz sampling digital recorder/editor/mixer, with tape machine-style auto-input monitoring, SMPTE chase lock, and full parameter automation! Multichannel analog converters are not included, although the Mykerinos card has a 96 kHz stereo analog utility output with automatic down-conversion from sources at higher than 96 kHz. Onboard sync options are video/HDTV, LTC, VITC and word clock.
Track, clip and media management are thorough and flexible almost to a fault. There are so many ways to customize the workspace and keyboard operation that there is the real possibility of getting lost. Tracks can be linked, collapsed, expanded, grouped and color-coded at will. For example, track grouping can be defined according to solo/mute/record status, input/output connection, automation, and media folder. Clip grouping seems limitless and mind-warping complexity is possible.
Multiple projects can be open simultaneously, with full drag-and-drop or cut-and-paste between projects. Media management is quite thorough as well and is designed to integrate Pyramix into large environments of networked users and extensive libraries. Project interchange is supported between AES31, Akai DD, CMX, DDP, OMF, OpenTL, Pro Tools and Sonic Solutions platforms. The software also comes with various presets of keyboard shortcuts to enable users of other platforms to feel at home, as well as a macro editor for building repeatable complex operations. A macro library that will be familiar to Sonic users is included. Version 4.1 also offers background digitizing. This feature, of vital importance to busy facilities, enables a complete project to be input while simultaneously editing another project in the foreground. Background digitizing is further augmented with autoconform of a CMX format EDL via 9-pin machine control.
Pyramix operates in two main windows – the Composition window and the Project Tabs window. Compositions are clip-based, each clip carrying its own non-destructive volume level, fade in/out, and sync point. As the mouse is moved over a clip, various handles become active allowing edges, levels, and fade times to be adjusted. A volume envelope feature is available for creating any number of points within the selected clip that can be stretched to create a complex level ride. The corresponding rides move along with the clip anywhere on the composition’s time line permitting less dependence on the system’s automation. Crossfades between clips are automatically activated by a hot key and further refined with the precision “multi-point” crossfade editor. A source-destination editing model, indispensable for classical music and dialog editors, is fully implemented, and enhanced by the extensive grouping options. Crossfades are virtual, permitting adjustment at any time, without rendering fade files.
At the left of the composition window sits the track header panel providing I/O and mixer assignments, solo/mute/record/play/monitor/ automation status, as well as playlist access. Playlists are enabled for audio clips and automation passes, permitting punch-in compilations from multiple takes or mix passes to be easily recalled within a single composition. Even though tracks can be grouped, nested and color-coded, dual monitors are strongly recommended. The Project Tabs window, which accesses all the organizational features of Pyramix – EDLs, libraries, groups, playlists, markers, customizable workspaces, the fade editor, CD P/Q sheets, machine control, etc. – is best left open on a second screen.
A new project requires the configuration (or selection) of a virtual mixer and here is where the processing power of the Mykerinos and the expertise of the designers who have created its DSP code really shine. Aside from the richly textured 3D graphics throughout, the mixer’s sound quality is impeccable. Mykerinos “effects” that are currently available include EQs, dynamics, reverb, a denoiser/declicker, and various meters and utilities. There is also support for DirectX and VST plugs but these run on the host computer’s CPU. All Mykerinos-based plugs are capable of operating at the maximum sample rate of 384 kHz and their parameters can all be automated, whereas DirectX/VST plug-ins typically run at 96 kHz maximum and are not included in the system’s automation.
The remarkable Algorithmix NOVA restoration processor has been implemented in Mykerinos as well. This package creates a 2-D color map interface that allows the user to identify and remove extraneous sounds such as coughs and chair squeaks from a recording. Mykerinos plug-ins are capable of running in DSD projects, bringing advanced processing tools to the formerly untouchable rarified atmosphere of SACD production.
PCM and DSD metering is well implemented. Peak/RMS levels, crest-factor, phase, and stereo Lissajou patterns are displayed with animation that is crisp and smooth. Perhaps as a way of paying homage to founder Claude Cellier’s stint at Nagra-Kudelski (where he designed the Nagra-T) there is a “modulometer” plug-in which produces a photo-realistic animation of the round VU meters on the original Nagra, complete with proper ballistics. The modulometer plug is quite amusing. In DSD mode, the VU meter displays ultrasonic and DC levels to assure compliance with Scarlet Book SACD standards. Surround mixing up to 5.1 is presently supported. By creating a surround master section in the mixer, all track strips automatically receive a full 5.1 panning module with divergence and LFE control. A “jelly fish” style meter indicates coverage patterns as a channel is panned, and divergence values are shown both numerically and as an “orbit ring” graphic.
One of the most interesting new features in Pyramix 4.1 is the “Virtual Transport” application. VT is a client-server agent that enables Pyramix to communicate with and synchronize to external applications (clients) on the same computer, or on networked computers. Among the clients currently available are Video Play, MIDI-sync, Sony 9-pin sync, and Server. Video Play allows frame-locked picture to chase Pyramix’s play cursor. Video can be in a variety of codecs as well as DV imported via FireWire. The MIDI sync client sends and receives MIDI timecode for synchronization with sequencers and other MIDI-based hardware. This deftly lets Pyramix off the hook from having to support MIDI composition internally since there are so many such programs that are already fully developed. The Sony 9-pin app permits control over compliant hardware via LTC, VITC, or control track, including track arming and the Server app includes the master transport control, the client launcher (called the ‘lounge’), and the network frame where slave/master status is set.
The review system arrived just in time for mastering the SACD release of Patricia Barber’s latest recording, “Verse.” The original source was analog tape and I had already done a pass from the 1/2-inch, through a Manley Massive Passive EQ, directly to a Meitner DSD converter. I loved the simplicity and purity of the resulting DSD recording, but there were also some areas that needed work in order to end up with something that was not only simple and pure, but also a good record. There were a few edits, vocal plosives and sibilance in spots, and an aggressive trumpet solo needed some dynamic control. All easy enough in the double-sampling 2 Fs PCM world but, until now, I had no way of dealing with this at anything approaching DSD quality. Pyramix supports DSD mastering with a two-stage work flow. The load-in and play-out of pure DSD is done in what is called a “DSD recording” session. In DSD recording mode, clips can be created, trimmed, and moved, but no level changes, mixing or processing are possible. This is by virtue of pure DSD being a 1-bit stream. Any processing on pure DSD would result in samples of more than one bit, which, by definition, is no longer DSD; therefore, transcoding to some form of PCM is required. The Sony Oxford Sonoma system does its work by converting to what is called “PCM-narrow,” also known as “DSD-wide,” which consists of 8-bit samples at the native DSD rate of 2.8 MHz. Merging opts to transcode to 32 bits at 352.8 kHz sampling. Merging and Phillips have done research indicating that 32/352.8 kHz PCM is transparent for DSD, and based on the experiences of a number of picky engineers, this author included, practice seems to support this theory. Once your DSD material is loaded, the “recording” project is closed and reopened as a DSD “editing session.” In this mode, DSD is real-time transcoded by the host computer to 32/352.8 kHz for processing by Mykerinos. Pyramix’s high-resolution strip tools then become available, as well as mixing, gain-rides, and cross-fades. At the output of processing, the 8Fs PCM is remodulated back to DSD in real-time for monitoring though an external DSD DAC. There is a caveat, however. It is not advisable to put your pure DSD through more than a few passes of transcoding/remodulating because the ultra-HF noise produced by DSD noise-shaping will become unmanageable. Pyramix allows you to keep the audio in 8 Fs format for interim processing steps as a way to avoid ultrasonic noise buildup.
I began working on “Verse” in edit mode and opened a parametric EQ and a dynamics processor. Listening to Mykerinos processing at 352.8 kHz sampling was a beautiful thing. If the computer were hidden inside a large metal box of glowing vacuum tubes with big Bakelite knobs on its face controlling Pyramix, I would have been totally certain that I was using first-rate analog gear. The Pyramix EQ was as smooth and easy to listen to as any analog EQ I’ve used. The compressor too had a surprisingly analog-like character and behavior. There was simply no perception of the kind of artifacts we normally associate (rightly or wrongly) with digital processing.
Once you’ve completed your DSD editing project the system provides an “SACD Edited Master” export that will create a DSD image file, including Scarlet Book track markers, text and speaker configuration.
Pyramix Virtual Studio 4.1 is a significant accomplishment. Merging Technologies has produced a truly universal workstation capable of the most sophisticated tasks at the highest audio quality. As with any system of this complexity, there is on-going development and glitches will be discovered from time to time. Nonetheless, the system appears solid and ready for prime time.