There remains a special place in my heart for Sony Professional Audio. It is perhaps partly driven by the MCI JH636 desk we are slowly refurbishing bit by bit for the studio, or maybe its the tenacity Sony once had for that unknown element within audio product development. The Sony Oxford OXF-R3 is one of the marvellous epiphanies that pushed the boundaries of what is commonly accepted and laid the foundation for what was to come.
The link between my MCI JH636 and Sony Corporation developed sometime around 1982 when Sony acquired MCI. It was roughly the same time that Sony unleashed its digital audio stationary head (or DASH for short) recorder. The DASH PCM 3324 was a 24 channel, 16 bit digital multi-track tape-based machine. It was the first commercially available method of recording multiple tracks of audio digitally. Due to the exorbitant cost and extremely restrictive sizes of hard drive storage at the time, half-inch reel to reel tape remained the preferred method of storage. It was a cheap and incredibly familiar medium for what was up until 1982, an entirely analogue based recording industry. As the decade progressed Studer also released their own DASH recorder – the D827, and Sony made several revisions to their’s including a 48 track version dubbed the PCM 3348. The digital revolution was well and truly under way.
As the eighties came to a close the legacy of MCI seemed to fade away into the aether under the Sony Corporation. Interest shifted away from the traditional analogue tools of the previous decades, and towards digital technologies. By 1993 Japan based Sony had formed a development partnership with Oxford Digital, a British tech firm that formed in 1988 with the help of five former Solid State Logic (SSL) employees. At the helm of Oxford Digital was Paul Frindle, a former audio/tech engineer at the renowned Virgin Records and Trident Studios, and a technician from SSL. Frindle spent a large part of the 1980’s bouncing between projects within SSL. His first role of involved researching digital assignment within analogue consoles, an idea that had questionable viability at the time. This ultimately lead to Frindle crossing over to digital audio systems research exclusively. It was a time that predated the internet, and certainly predated computer technology powerful enough to process digital audio in a way that would replace entire analogue consoles.
The idea of digital audio consoles or digital signal processing was largely met with scepticism from an industry so staunchly analogue in culture. Frindle on the other hand saw the potential of digital audio and its ability to potentially escape the physics and restrictions of analogue designs. Prior to the launch of Oxford Digital, Frindle designed the G series analogue console channel strip for the SSL 4000 console. A channel strip that is still highly revered to this day. It is a feat that must both be a badge of honour and a constant irritant to its creator.
With the new Oxford/Sony partnership came a new name – Sony Oxford. The result of the partnership was the Sony Oxford OXF-R3 digital console; A huge 96 channel highly programmable digital console with totally groundbreaking features. It was well ahead of its time and greatly fuelled the analogue/digital divide. While manufacturers like Lexicon and Neve were venturing into digital console territory themselves, and companies like Euphonix were incorporating total digital control over analogue circuitry in their CS2000, the OXF-R3 itself was nothing more than a behemoth of a digital audio processor. It was software running inside a system that physically conformed to familiar console aesthetics, but entirely escaped the analogue domain.
It had some relative success as a product, making its way into dozens of music and film studios including The Hit Factory and Real World Studios. It offered busing and panning for a number of surround sound formats. Each channel featured dedicated digital dynamics and equalization using cutting-edge digital algorithms. 24 side chain busses were accessible at the push of a button, each with their own dedicated high and low pass filters. Recall was across the board and close to instantaneous. The 96 channels were quickly accessible across the boards 48 faders with the press of dedicated banking buttons. Facilities for digital interconnection to multiple multi-track recorders like the DASH 3348 also came as standard, including multiple transport consoles. To aid in maintenance, troubleshooting and repairs the desk also had an entire diagnostics system built right in it.
In many ways, the Sony Oxford OXF-R3 Digital Control was simply a technical stepping stone to modern times. Paul Frindle himself acknowledged the idea that the console would be made obsolete by the time it hit the market. Digital technology moves so quickly, essentially following an exponential trajectory compared to the linear behaviour of the human brain. Open reel to reel dash recorders were replaced by much more compact ADAT machines. Digital audio workstations like Digidesign’s DSP powered Pro Tools squashed the ability to record, store, edit and mix music into a desktop sized computer, replacing the need for huge and expensive digital desks and recorders. And third party manufacturers were beginning to develop plugin effects and processing as an alternative to outboard effects.
Despite all that has technologically changed over the last two decades, the OXF-R3 remains an outstanding piece of equipment designed and built from the ground up by exceptionally talented people. People whom weren’t discouraged by the enormity of the task at hand, and who saw well beyond common conventions. It is no surprise that for a person like Frindle, whom despite the scepticism, the failed attempts and knock backs, could envision the day when digital could do it all, and could also see and acknowledge the lost opportunities. It remains a point of disappointment for him that the OXF-R3’s potential wasn’t fully realised as the years rolled by. The OXF-R3 offered a powerful and flexible processor almost ideal for incorporating non-linear storage and editing capabilities. The OXF-R3 could also be a DAW, but no manufacturer wanted to take on the task of ever developing it beyond just a mixing console.
In 2006 the Sony Oxford venture ended. Paul Frindle started Pro Audio DSP with Paul Ryder, also a member of the OXF-R3 development team. In the latter part of the 1990’s, Ryder was instrumental in porting the channel effects and processing of the OXF-R3 to plug-in effects for digital audio workstations. The plug-ins were successfully sold under the Sony Oxford brand and utilised DSP within TC Electronic and Digidesign systems, and now live on as Sonnox Oxford plug-ins. Oxford Digital continues to develop audio systems and software just north of London.
As for the fate of the Sony Oxford OXF-R3, a bunch of them are still in use today in studios around the world, almost as a lonely tribute to another time and philosophy of digital development. In many aspects we have come full circle from the days of pushing digital technology as a way of escaping the physical restraints represented by analogue audio systems. Digital Audio Workstations more than ever are reflecting the older concepts and aesthetics of analogue technology. With GUI’s replicating the finer inconsistencies and the wear of analogue hardware, and the signal paths concentrating on the non-linearities and design restraints of analogue design.
I can’t help but feel that it must be somewhat bitter-sweet for Paul Frindle. His involvement in the SSL G series development and his instrumental role in the Sony Oxford OXF-R3 somehow aligned in time and space during the 21st century. We now swim in countless digital emulations of analogue equipment, SSL bus compressors and channel strips. Old digital reverb units are being digitally reproduced as plug-ins, clock cycles are being consumed to truncate the higher bit depths of modern DAW’s to down to imitate the 1980’s digital aesthetic, and processing power is disappearing into a void of saturation, non-linearity and noise of old equipment. It seems even the most talented and forward thinking developers in professional audio are faced with an uphill battle against common conventions. While it is terrific that music and music making is in abundance, I can’t help but feel that there is something missing. That old sense of innovation. Of crossing a frontier previously unexplored. Creating tools that don’t just inspire creativity, but that are creative in themselves. That don’t simply mimic an aesthetic of the past, but open the door to something new and entirely different.