Steinberg VST System Link
By Barry Rudolph
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Steinberg, which invented VST (Virtual Studio Technology) in 1996, debuts VST System Link, a new protocol for interconnecting multiple computers by way of standard digital audio cables and formats such as ADAT, TDIF, AES/EBU and S/PDIF. For now, VST System Link is only possible between computers using ASIO 2.0 (Audio Stream Input/Output) hardware protocol and a Steinberg host application such as upcoming versions of Nuendo or Cubase.
More than just another computer network connection (i.e., Ethernet), VST System Link can distribute computational needs among any number of computers. Distributed computing is used for large-scale problem solving, such as human genome mapping or predicting global weather patterns. A problem is "parsed" into separate and manageable chunks for many computers to work on in parallel.
VST programs are host-based and dependent on the computer's "horsepower," so factors like bus/clock speed, memory and hard drive specs dictate the number of tracks possible, how much and how many plug-ins you can use at the same time, and overall system performance and latency. A VST System Link network allows users to spread out a music/recording system across as many other computers as necessary --even using different computer platforms and disparate software applications, as all computers connect via standard ASIO 2.0 protocol.
Computers are linked in a daisy-chain configuration, with each passing accumulated information to the next. VST System Link uses a single bit (the least significant bit, or LSB) of the 24-bit audio stream as a carrier for transport and sample-accuracy synchronization information. Optionally, other bits of the audio stream can be used for up to hundreds of channels of MIDI information. Steinberg allays any fears of audio degradation by simply not running master audio down the same digital audio I/O channel as System Link data and instructions. Each computer in the chain (at this time) has to run its own VST host program to accommodate whatever VST plug-ins or instruments you require. Editing and tweaking are done locally on that specific computer.
You could record and playback audio tracks on one computer and then use MIDI to play virtual synthesizers on a second computer, use any number of effect processing on a third computer, and then mix it all on a fourth computer. Computers can be added to or subtracted from the system without crash or reboot --and the first computer in the chain does not have to be reconfigured to recognize a system change. This "hot-swappablity" means that you can use any of the linked computers offline for other tasks such as balancing your checkbook or watching and playing with Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. However, in a daisy-chained system, if one of the linked computers crashes, then only the subsequent linked computers afterward are affected.
Used as a music production network, VST System Link allows the number of computer/users to expand and contract depending on workload and work methods. Autonomy between computers is always maintained even while linked up. Every user can access as many audio tracks as desired and as many VST instruments as necessary. Each additional computer in a VST System Link network adds hard drives and increased processing power. Audio or MIDI data recorded outside of the studio on a laptop is easily integrated into the session, simply by docking onto the local system. Routing is controlled by a master software patchbay running on the first computer in the chain. A typical configuration might include a keyboardist with many virtual synths operating on one computer that does not affect the mixing engineer's computer running with many VST effects and plug-ins. Nonetheless, all of the different computer's audio sources remain in perfect sync with VST System Link's sync protocol using just a single digital audio cable to connect them.
For post-production, several engineers and producers can work on different scenes on the same project at the same time. Separate workstations for dialog editing, effects/Foley and music scoring can stream audio output to a fourth computer for the final mix. Another machine can be used to run digital video in perfect sync, with a lockup time of only a few milliseconds.
The ultimate music mixing system can be realized by connecting many computers together with VST System Link. One computer is the mixer with many EQ and dynamic processors, one an effects rack running reverbs and flangers, and another is running virtual instruments such as Native Instruments' Absynth. There is no latency in mixing the virtual instruments, nor is there any timing fluctuation (both of which can be major headaches if locking computers together with MIDI); and the full 24-bit resolution of the virtual synths and the FX outputs is passed directly to the mixing computer.
VST System Link is included in new versions of both Nuendo and Cubase in the first quarter of 2002.
Steinberg North America, 9200 Eton Ave., Chatsworth, CA 91311; 818/678-5100; www.steinberg.de.
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