Nuage is the exciting result of a joint development between Yamaha and Steinberg, each bringing its specialist know-how to an integrated post-production solution that includes the Nuendo DAW at its core. With many changes afoot in the audio post world, is it now time for Nuage? Stephen Bennett has the detail.
Steinberg’s flagship DAW, Nuendo, (Audio Media, April 2013), is proving itself to be a viable alternative to the ‘industry standard', of Avid’s Pro Tools in the post-production world. While it has always had the ability to work with third-party audio interfaces and control surfaces, there has been an increasing desire from the industry for bespoke solutions that work together right out of the box. This is where Avid has excelled in recent years, with a combination of Pro Tools software, dedicated audio interfaces and a range of DAW controllers. To compete in this market, Yamaha has introduced its own integrated DAW-based audio system, the exotically named Nuage (pronounced in the French fashion). Is this really the dawn of a New Age for Yamaha? I popped over to Yamaha’s Pro Audio facility in (unseasonably) sunny Chiswick in the west of London to find out.
Sebastian Rodens, Product Manager – Post Production for Yamaha Music Europe, explains the rational behind the development of the Nuage system. "From the first days when Yamaha and Steinberg came together there was an idea to produce a professional studio solution based around the Nuendo platform. Yamaha brought its experience from the mixing consoles, while Steinberg has, of course, the software knowledge. Steinberg also understands the workflow of post-production professionals, because Nuendo has been developed for quite a while now. It has clients it can talk to about how they work and their various requirements. Our aim was to merge hardware and software as close together as possible and to ensure that Nuage fills the needs of post-production professionals today."
Nuage itself is a complete system, comprising a fader-based controller, a master/monitor section, I/O cards and interfaces, the Syncstation (Audio Media, March 2012) and, of course, the Nuendo software itself. “There are two different types of controllers: the Fader and the Master,” says Rodens. “You can use them individually, so you could, for example, just use the Master unit or just use the Fader unit – or you could combine them. The largest system you could build would have three Fader sections, so that’s a total of forty-eight physical faders. We also have what we call the ‘workspace unit’; these are blank sections where you can install any other studio gear. For example, here I have one for a mouse or a small keyboard. We have small and large workspace units along with one that is the same size as the fader controller. All the larger workspaces have a drawer for a keyboard or anything else you might want to store in there."
The size of the Fader and master sections are designed to line up with Nuendo’s on-screen controls when using standard 24-inch flat screen monitors. It looks impressive, with the hardware controls taking up the lower part of the channel strips in Nuendo’s new mixer, which is displayed on the screen above the Fader controller. The Fader controller itself has its own, more limited, monitor and transport section while the Master unit is more complete with respect to these facilities and also features an in-built touch screen display that can be used to adjust various parameters. It also sports, importantly, a nicely weighted shuttle/jog controller wheel. In fact, all the controls, including the faders, buttons and rotaries, feel solid and responsive, and OLED displays and illuminated touch-sensitive controls abound.
One of the major issues that manufacturers have when trying to provide physical control over the almost infinite number of parameters available on a software DAW, is the limited number of faders and knobs that can be squeezed onto a hardware controller. Steinberg has made sensible choices here, with controls defaulting to the most used parameters (pan, compressor threshold, and ratio, for example). They also make good use of the ‘extended channel’ mode of operation common on digital mixers, where one button press expands the parameters of the chosen channel or plug-in on to other hardware controls. Nowhere is this problem felt more profoundly than when using third-party plug-ins often throw up every single parameter right away. For example, frequency on an EQ might be half way down the third page of parameters! So if I could move these useful parameters to the top and hide everything else, that would be a good thing. We've always had parameter mapping technology in place using XML files... which of course is not very convenient. What we now deliver is an editor with a graphical user interface to change these XML files and make sure the most useful parameters are allocated to useful hardware controls." In practice this means that the parameters you really need to use in third-party plug-ins come up on your chosen hardware controls – something that automatically happens when using Nuendo’s excellent suite of plug-ins.
Another challenge that the designers of DAW controllers face is channel selection – you have eight faders, you have two hundred channels of audio? It’s usually a recipe for confusion. Not on Nuage though. "When we developed the system it was very important to be able to easily handle larger projects, even when using a single Fader pack," says Rodens. "You can navigate using the traditional channel bank controls, but you can also use the ‘touch stripe’ feature – you just drag your finger across the channels and it sweeps you through banks of channels. These can be colour coded, so that if you know all the Foley channels are red, it’s easy to swipe until you see this colour on the Fader controller." This works in a similar way to the ARC system on the Smart AV DAW controllers and is just as effective on Nuage for locating channel groups. "I think the colour coding is the important part for us because I do not have to watch the channel names," continues Rodens. "When I swipe really fast it’s almost impossible to read text. We took a lot of effort in colour matching these OLED displays to really match the colours within Nuendo."
As you’d expect from an integrated system, user set-up is kept to a minimum. "Nuendo knows automatically when there are several hardware units connected and it gathers together what we call a workgroup, which is basically a set of Nuage units that you want to use," says Rodens. "This becomes very important if you want to have different sets for different situations. As soon as Nuendo realises there is a Fader pack connected it will display the custom mix console on the screen that’s situated over that Fader pack. You then have a one-to-one relationship between every channel on the hardware and the channel on the Nuendo screen. We also then have the metering there, which can be normal peak metering or it can also be set to display the wave metering from Nuendo [vertical scrolling waveform]. With the selector here on the right side of the hardware I can access all the racks of the new Nuendo mix console. If you, for example, activate a compressor, you just get the two most important functions displayed – in this case threshold and ratio. If I want to see more of a channel I can just press the 'e' button bellow the encoders and I get the detailed view of that whole channel; we call this the block mode. Again we have all the Nuendo racks available. You can activate all the dynamics and have all controls of all five dynamic modules available on the 32 encoders, and of course you have complete control over the EQ parameters. You can also open a second channel and, for example, compare two EQs or two dynamic sections and, of course, Nuendo now has spectrum analysers on the EQs, which is incredibly useful."
Ins and outs
The Fader and monitor sections are obviously the most visible aspects of the Nuage package, but Yamaha and Steinberg have also addressed the important task of getting audio into and out of the system. "The audio part consists of a PCIe card running the DANTE audio networking protocol,” says Rodens. "It provides the user with 128 inputs and outputs at up to 96kHz and 64 ins and outs at anything higher up to 192kHz."
Yamaha’s current range of CL mixers also use the DANTE protocol, so it makes sense to incorporate it into the backbone of Nuage. But, as Rodens explains, there are also pragmatic reasons for incorporating a networked solution into the package. "What will make audio networking for studios more important in the future is the flexibility and reduced costs that come with the system. Personally, I have come across more and more situations where I have to share rooms because studios are becoming multipurpose facilities. So, for example, I could have a Nuage I/O Box in Room 3 and an I/O Box in Room 5 and, without patching, I can access either interface. DANTE can also utilise the standard IT infrastructure built into a studio and, if you think about a location like Soho in London where houses and office buildings have been turned into studios, you are not forced to add extra audio lines – you can actually use what's already in there." The Nuage audio interfaces are basically DANTE break out boxes, with 16 ins and 16 outs along with a system link to enable everything to be synchronised from Steinberg’s Syncstation. Every unit can use direct monitoring (for low latency work) that integrates nicely with Nuendo’s flexible monitoring features, and there’s also a DSP-based bass management and speaker alignment built in. You can, of course, still use third-party interfaces or AD/DA converters with Nuage, so you can benefit from the controllers while keeping your preferred audio path.
Another problem that makers of dedicated controller hardware have to face is future compatibility. It’s a given that Steinberg will continue to develop Nuendo – but you’re not going to be able to add knobs to a Fader pack over the Internet. "These controllers don't have functionality on their own inside," says Rodens. "If, for example, you compare this to an Avid System 5 MC, each of those modules is basically a computer of its own, with its own limitations. That's not the case with Nuage. So if I want to update functionality on the surface all I do is update my software. It is very easy for us to add functionality by just doing a software update."
While many hardware-based DAW controllers come into their own when mixing, it’s rare to see one being used for editing or arranging audio. Watching Rodens’ hands as he expertly moves and cuts audio regions and effortlessly adjusts levels and automation without recourse to mouse or keyboard, demonstrates just how well thought out the Nuage system is. As a composer working in Cubase and Logic Pro, preparing audio for post-production facilities that use Pro Tools can be a major hassle. Nuendo’s ability to load Cubase files directly into the Nuage system could be a major time (and therefore money) saver, while those inevitable last-minute edits are also rendered easier when using compatible systems. Nuage is an ‘out of the box’ solution for audio engineers that integrates (in my humble opinion) the best post production DAW in the business with a superb dedicated hardware platform and I imagine that many of those who take the time to demo the Nuage system will also find it an attractive (alternative?) proposition.