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Thomann's Cool Online Guides: DSP Accelerators

3. Rise, Fall & Resurrection

DSP Accelerators are often mistakenly believed to be a recent addition to the computer studio, when in fact they’re part of what enabled the whole concept of the computer studio to become a reality in the first place. In the early to mid-nineties, the two main computer based recording systems, Digidesign’s Pro Tools and Soundscape’s SSHDR1, provided their own DSP processing outside the computer. Computers at the time were simply not powerful enough to cope with real-time effects processing. Gradually, a few more budget-priced soundcards emerged with DSP built in, providing a suite of good quality effects that could be used alongside existing recording software. The Emu APS and Yamaha SW1000XG are prime examples of DSP soundcards that offered multi-effects to the computer musician, some time before host programs such as Cubase and Sonar were able to provide real-time processing themselves.

The UAD-Xpander is the world's first ExpressCard audio DSP expansion system for Mac OS X and Windows Vista laptops.

When Steinberg introduced their Virtual Studio Technology (VST) in Cubase VST, it gave the increasingly powerful computers of the day the opportunity to run real-time effects plug-ins of their own. These simple effects were useful, but initially had little chance of standing up to the sound of powerful digital multi-effects hardware units, or getting close to matching the quality of professional analogue outboard gear. Meanwhile, at the top end of the market, Digidesign’s DSP Farms were happily running studio-quality professional effects in real-time from the likes of Focusrite and Line 6. The Pro Tools system was exclusively DSP based however, and ignored the potential power of the computer itself.

VST plug-ins soon began to improve as talented programmers and manufacturers got involved, and all the while, computers became ever more powerful and capable of running quite complex effects and synthesis. The explosion of software plug-ins at around the turn of the century seemed to offer the promise that the computer could do anything – just upgrade your CPU and run dozens more effects. The range, diversity and affordability of these plug-ins made DSP based systems seem narrow and limited by comparison, and most were soon discarded in favour of more RAM and faster CPUs.

Over time though, musicians found that the increased complexity of some software effects took large chunks of processing power from their computers, forcing them to find a balance between performance and plug-in counts. This meant that as a project developed, CPU limits would often be reached, and compromises had to be made in what and how many plug-ins could be run in real-time. The promise of endless computer or ‘host’ based effects was not fulfilled, and it wasn’t long before people were asking whether it was possible to get some kind of specialised DSP to run the more processor-hungry effects…

Today’s computer-studios can now benefit from both the enormous power of host-based effects and instruments, and the peace of mind and quality of DSP-based plug-ins.

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DSP Accelerators overview


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