Percussa micro super signal processor

Ed.: Make no mistake about it: digital sound tech, from mixing to processing, has evolved to a fidelity on par with its analog predecessors and opening possibilities well beyond what they offered. But the making of that evolution wasn’t easy, and it was more than a technical challenge. You can thank the creative spirit of people like Paul Frindle. As contributor Primus Luta explains to CDM, his work is about more than just engineering or tools – it’s driven by creative, musical energy. -PK

Author’s note: I wanted to bring this piece to the CDM audience because, whether we know it or not, if we Create Digital Music, we are indebted to people like Paul Frindle.  While this piece is on the technical side, one of the things that I hope readers will pull away is his creative spirit. May Paul inspire you to bring that same energy to the work that you produce in the digital realm.  You can read the full interview, with war stories from Virgin Records, Trident Studios, SSL and more at AvantUrb.

In the world of audio, Paul Frindle is a legend.  During his tenure at Solid State Logic, he was responsible for the channel electronics of the SSL G Series Console.  He was also a part of the team that broke the “damnable black art” of digital conversion.  He went on to cofound the (pre-dot=com) startup Oxford Digital Ltd. Their first contract was with Sony (who would eventually take over the company), developing the application design of Sony’s flagship digital mixing console.  The result of this work was the OXF-R3, to this day regarded as the pinnacle of digital mixing consoles, not only in music, but also in film.  Like everything Paul has worked on, as much of a landmark as the OXF-R3 was, it proved to be but merely a stepping stone.  Where it was leading, however, could have been much different.


Sony-OXF-R3

Sony’s legendary OXF-R3 console.

“I think there was a fantastic opportunity to revive the large studio concept, by integrating non-linear storage and editing into the OXF-R3,” Paul says. “It was already a massively-powerful workstation, wide open [enough] to accept it. This would have been amazingly powerful and creative, and would have knocked underpowered workstations off the map for many years to come, restoring a much-needed differential to the elite studios against the upcoming project studios.”

The OXF-R3 has only continued to blur that line in favor of the project studios.  Strapped for the kind of clients who could appreciate — let alone could afford — high-end studios, the great studios of their time have faded away one by one. If those studios could have stayed on the leading edge of digital tech, would it have been enough to halt those closures? We may never know.  Fortunately for all studio buffs, high-end and project alike, there was another avenue of exploration left for Paul that would give his work the broadest audience to date.

“The design of the OXF-R3 was amazingly ahead of time. It was a great big, highly flexible processor with a whole load of software running on it, which was restricted and presented on a panel just for conformity and convenience. It was already ‘software in a box’. It could even be controlled remotely. All of the design systems and debugging tools I was using on it consisted of on-screen GUIs.”  This was a dramatic, yet understated shift from the way technical engineers had previously worked.  It was a physical product, but the brains of it was moving into the virtual space.

“I was warning that the OXF-R3 product concept was obsolete even before we finished it. The large digital tape recorder was nothing more than a very costly and highly delicate ‘bit bucket’ organised like an analogue machine. With the meteoric rise in performance of digital technology, it was fairly easy to envisage a time when a unit bought for £1000 would be capable of doing a large chuck of what a mixer needed.  In the near future, we would be able to make art without all this paraphernalia, at a miniscule fraction of the cost. I was far more excited about this than doggedly hanging onto established formats and design constraints.”

oxfordeq

Paul’s work for Sony Oxford was a new high water mark for digital audio processing in software.

Not one to let this excitement lay dormant, Paul and a few others started their own pursuit.  “The plug-ins project was initially hatched from humble beginnings, almost by us working in our spare time and at nights. My colleague actually did the first proof of concept EQ plug-in over the Christmas break and it all grew from that.

“What people needed most were high-quality, refined and indispensable applications; the EQ and Dynamics were adapted to provide that. Making them identical to the OXF-R3 applications was a link to our existing reputation. Of course running these in 48bits for TDM or double float in RTAS actually provided better performance than was available in the OXF-R3 32-bit, fixed-point environment. And it has to be said that we ironed out a few bugs along the way too, so these were actually better than the applications in the large format console.”

For users, this resulted in what are still being called the best equalizer and dynamics processing plug-ins on the market.  For Sony, however, the greatest deliverable was the system they built to create both the OXF-R3 and the plugins.  “It was a complete hierarchical graphic design system running on a specially-designed processor, which allowed real-time interaction and analysis of the action for almost every instruction in your processing design!”  If this description sounds familiar, it is because what Paul is describing is a modular environment for signal processing, much like tools like Max/MSP, AudioMulch and Plogue Bidule.

“Not only did it allow engineers without formal programming skills to build highly complex applications, it also very crucially allowed us to experiment freely and actually listen to what was happening in real time! It was this system that enabled me to delve so deeply into what we could hear and why, exploit that knowledge and realise the applications for the OXF-R3 console and subsequently the Sony Oxford plug-ins. Quite simply, I was able to ‘play around’ with all sorts of  wacky processing models to get the behaviour that matched the all-important sounds in my head.”

This freedom of experimentation allowed Paul to move from traditional audio utilities like EQ’s and dynamics processors into more creative arenas.  “The Transmod was something that I have always wanted since the mid-1970s, and over the decades had tried on several occasions to make out of analogue technology. But it was doomed to failure because of the relatively poor accuracy and stability of [analogue] components. During a lunchtime, I knocked up a digital version of my old idea as proof of concept, and it just worked!

oxford_inflator

“The Inflator came about because I received a late night call from a friend who had been doing high-profile sessions in L.A. with Eric Clapton and BB King. He had slogged away for months doing recordings and mixes, but had been beaten into production by another engineer who managed to make it louder. He wanted to know if there was anything he could possibly do to make it louder without wrecking the sound completely.  I was reminded that I had to make my first transistor power amp design in 1970 twice as powerful as the previous tube amp design to get the same volume and impact. All I had to do was to apply all this old knowledge into a digital process and the same effect would be available. I used a combination of math packages and the OX-R3 design system to experiment and extract the salient details of what made the tube amp louder. This was definitely a walk on the wild side, since for the first time in this employment I was making something whose sole purpose was to generate a heap of distortion!”

After leaving Sony Oxford, Paul set out on his own again to further explore the creative possibilities opening up through digital audio.  The result is his latest venture Pro Audio DSP.  “This initiative was conceived as a way of getting this stuff done without too much interference from marketing executives and sales infrastructures.”

The first product is the Dynamic Spectrum Mapper plugin.  “It was yet another object I had always wanted to have, but the idea was given greater urgency from listening to what people were trying to achieve in their productions using greater amounts of compression, the kinds of character they were trying to produce, and the difficulties they were battling with along the way. This, and a deep personal dislike for the artefacts produced in conventional multi-band designs, gave impetus for the design of the DSM. Digital processing seemed to provide the possibility of actually making it at last.

Dynamic Spectrum Mapper introduction from Paul Frindle on Vimeo.

“I am particularly pleased with the DSM because it’s exactly the sort of thing I want to bring to the marketplace – serious processes that have groundbreaking practical purpose and facility.  They are, at the same time, artistically capable and great fun! Such things excite me because they bring genuinely new capabilities and artistic power to the production process.”

If there is a theme to be found throughout Paul’s career it is a continuous effort to push forward this idea of the technology as art.: “I don’t want to waste the rich experience of the past in some manic push for ‘newness,’” says Paul. “Neither do I want to simply try and blindly copy what was there, in the hope that it does the same ‘kind of thing’. I want to understand it and use that understanding to produce new stuff, which is truly creative and actually advances our art. We should be carrying the past forward with us in a continuous process of advancement, not writing it off to history, or reverting to it in a religious search for past success.”

Speaking with Paul, his mind is so focused on the present or even the future, it’s easy to forget his historical relevance.  Working dilligently to realize the ‘sounds in his head’ and put them out into the world, he is not only an inspiration for the work he produces, but for the creative ethic it exemplifies.