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Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) Evolution

Dr. Robert Moog was the pioneer of the analog synthesizer. His visionary work is recognized by all who participated at the leading edge of music synthesis. However, these devices had to be adjusted hourly to keep them in tune. Creating a composition with them was tedious at best. Hal Chamberlin and David Cox, founders of Micro Technology Unlimited (MTU), quickly realized this problem disappeared with digital synthesis, and started to develop products using digital synthesis and audio editing.

The roots for the DAW started from the commercial needs for precise control of audio on computers; government funded speech research, commercial telephone research, and University computer music synthesis centers. Only the music centers needed 16-bit quality A/D-D/A converters running at CD quality sample rates. The first Professional DAWs were mini and mainframe computers with audio A/D-D/A converters added for audio input/output. The status "father of Digital Audio" is granted to Max Matthews who was at AT&T doing speech research for Telephony.

In the late '70s, University computer musicians wanted digital synthesis on their desktop, instead of dealing with University mainframe accounts. This created a small but exciting digital audio market. In 1977 MTU shipped the first digital music synthesis software and D/A converter boards for 6502 microcomputers (KIM-1, SYM-1, AIM-65, OSI, PET, Apple). All other companies with plug in boards and software used square wave oscillators that created sounds like a "bee in a tin can". MTU was the technology leader, shipping wavetable synthesis products in 1977.

A typical Apple II workstation would crash hourly with more than 3 expansion cards. This was unacceptable because some professional clients needed to compute uninterrupted for 12 to 20 hours to generate one high quality song. The software techniques MTU evolved allowed creating as complex a musical piece as desired, by dropping from real-time on the computation. Thus, a slow system (early microcomputers were slow) could, over tens of hours, compute a perfect orchestral.

Thus, MTU learned in the '70s that absolute reliability was mandatory to get the work done. Early microcomputers were inexpensive relative to minis and mainframes, but lacked the disk speed to record or process digital audio at professional sampling rates. Thus, in 1979, MTU developed and shipped the world's fastest floppy disk controller and software for audio playback -- 37.5KB/second sustained speeds. For example, Corvus Concepts Inc. hard drive for Apple II was only 8KB/second, 1/5th MTU's sustained speed, and MTU clients had inexpensive, removable media! Other comparisons are: Apple floppy disk - 900 bytes/sec, IBM floppy disk - 3Kbytes/sec, HP floppy disk - 192 bytes/sec for program, 1.5Kbytes/sec for data. It is clear that MTU was the leader in fast disk transfers.

The first professional quality direct-to-disk Digital Audio Workstation with 16-bit dynamics converters on a microcomputer was shown by MTU at the 1979 West Coast Computer Faire in Los Angeles, CA. Mix Magazine confirmed this in writing in their "The Audio Industry - 20th Anniversary" issue in September, 1997.

Since the mid 1960s, MTU's founders understood the advantages of digital synthesis, the problems obtaining the audio output (and input) hardware, and the requirements for shielding Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) for the sensitive Analog-to-Digital (A/D) and Digital-to-Analog (D/A) converters. Thus, in 1982 MTU pioneered the DigiSound-16 externally shielded Input/Output (I/O) module for A/D and D/A converters. From 1982 to 1988, it was interfaced to DEC, SUN, MTU, IBM and Apple MAC-II computers, all used in professional audio work. Today, the accepted standard for professional products is to shield and remove the audio converters to an external box outside the computer.

Using the standard computer operating system and drive formats was very difficult. For example, on a SUN-3/160 computer, recording 16-bit stereo at 44.1KHz required 90% of the computer resources! Thus, most digital audio workstations even today use proprietary hard disk formats to speed up transfers. In 1981 to '86, MTU developed a series of microcomputer workstations. Using a proprietary file format, we could obtain incredible sustained transfer speeds from floppy disks. However, it was proprietary and required MTU to interface to every device that came along. Thus, it was not truly "open architecture"... allowing other products to be added easily. Today, using various standard operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, each peripheral device manufacturer insures their hardware works with Windows. This creates a truly open architecture workstation... if the standard operating system drive and file formats are used.

In the late '70s, we were delivering A/D/A converters for Kim-1, SYM-1, AIM-65, Apple and PET 6502 microprocessor based "DAW predecessors", and also to mainframe and super-minis used at Universities worldwide doing music research and composition. In fact, the very first professional DAWs were used in Government funded Speech Research used for Sonar and the CIA. This was the advent of professional music workstations. There were cumbersome, but did the "digital audio" job. The hard drives used in those days, such as CalComp were "dishwasher size" for 300MB. The second company to come on the market was IMS (Integrated Media Systems), who's owner/founder developed an A/D/A box for Stanford University called the "Samson Box". He later sold to Studer and his descendent product was the Dyaxis DAW. We predated them in developing quality audio converters.

The first hard drive MTU directly used in a product was Priam's Data Tower system. We demonstrated this in NYC in 1986 at the AES Show. Subsequently, we used the Priam 66MB and 100MB RLL drives for several years. Then, a Priam engineer changed the epoxy that glued the read/write head to the positioning arm. The epoxy cured 8 months later and rotated the head by a few microns. Priam was shortly replacing their 100MB RLL drives at a rate of 10,000/month. Needless to say, it killed them. The Priam epoxy episode painfully pointed out how sensitive every engineering aspect of drive manufacturing is. This knowledge has led MTU to not use some drive manufacturers (such as Micropolis, who subsequently was sold and then terminated) as we believed eventually they would follow the route Priam paved.

In the late 1980s, Hewlett Packard introduced their 660MB non-recalibrating drive with 10 discs (the 20th surface held servo feedback control data) and we switched to that drive. However, HP was difficult to work with and later discontinued their hard drive manufacturing. In the early '90s, we found the CDC Imprimis Division drives, which were awesome for audio and reliability! We used CDC drives exclusively under the Imprimis name. Seagate later bought this division, and over the next several years the CDC (now Seagate) executives cleaned up Seagate's act.

In 1988, with 11 years experience listening and supporting users in every field of professional audio worldwide, MTU began the development of the Microsound hardware and Microeditor software peripheral for PC/AT-Windows computers. Microsound uses non-proprietary, standard format hard drives and audio files. When IDE, JAZZ and ZIP drives were introduced, MTU DAW clients could use them immediately, further proof we have one of the few true "open architecture" DAWs.