The RADAR hard-disk recording system has been around for longer than any other turnkey digital multitrack currently in production, giving it the stability and pedigree that no other HDR has. iZ Technology has always been RADAR's developer and manufacturer, but the product was originally sold under license by Otari starting in 1994, before the rights reverted back to iZ in 2000. For years, professionals like Daniel Lanois [Tape Op #37] and Chris Walla [#19, #111] have given praise to RADAR for its robust stability, the musical sound of its converters, and the system's comprehensive remote control. (See also the Margo Price review on page 94.) Engineers who have relied on the platform swear by its tape-machine–like, mono-tasking workflow — with its focus on capturing great performances instead of on endlessly editing takes.
But, for a lot of professionals and studio owners like myself, RADAR was a non-starter, as my clients demanded Pro Tools and other popular DAWs. Well, all this changed in 2015 when iZ introduced RADAR studio, which at its core is a rackmount Windows PC that can run Pro Tools — or any other Windows DAW for that matter. (Besides Pro Tools, we installed and ran some basic tests on Ableton Live 9.5 with no issues.)
As a studio owner who has become increasingly weary and wary of the constant DAW/computer/converter upgrade cycle, RADAR studio was very attractive to me for several reasons. A primary reason is the stability of a purposely configured system that's been optimized for recording music, first and foremost — as opposed to a computer mainly designed for email, web browsing, social-media interaction, and cloud-based storage, with music recording as an afterthought. The Mac platform in particular, with its inherent upgrade/update-triggered bugs that wreak havoc on Pro Tools and other demanding audio applications, was really starting to feel more like a hindrance than Apple's artist-friendly marketing led me to believe. While RADAR studio is based on a Windows PC, it comes with 10 years of tech support, and that was ultimately more meaningful to me than the "safety" of sticking with Mac. When you connect with technicians at iZ (which is easy, because they actually answer the phone), the techs can remotely administer your computer over an IP connection, diagnose any issues, and install any recommended upgrades. All updates are vetted by iZ, before they're installed, so the days of wondering if Pro Tools version 12.xx will work with the latest mountainous version of macOS are gone.
Like a lot of people reading this, I felt that there were two barriers that had me carefully considering my decision. One was the price; RADAR studio is not inexpensive, but I hope that by the end of this review, folks needing a solid professional system will see the benefits of spending their money on a RADAR studio over some comparable Mac or even PC–based solution. The other big hurdle was leaving the Mac environment. I've been using Macs since System 6, so this was no small issue for me, but I've found macOS to be less and less "professional" with each new version. Therefore, I felt that I needed to consider a Windows-based DAW in order to minimize the problems I was encountering with upgrades gone awry. (See my End Rant in this issue.)
The heart of RADAR studio is a rackmount PC that runs a carefully optimized OEM version of Windows — in our case, Windows Embedded 8.1 Pro Multilanguage. (But iZ plans to migrate to Windows 10 in the future when it's been proven to be as solid as "Win 8.1.") There's absolutely no bloatware on our system, and all of the various OS, driver, power-management, and background-service settings have been tweaked by iZ to maximize stability and performance for recording music — and nothing else. With an SSD for its system drive, the machine boots up in less than seven seconds, and applications launch quickly. The processor is a Core i7 (a 3.6 GHz Core i7-4790 quad-core Haswell in our case) with 16 GB of memory (upgradeable to 32 GB), which should yield a significant bump in performance over a quad or 6–core Mac Pro tower from 2012, and more speed than the quad-core base model of the now-aging Mac Pro "Darth Vader" (or "Trashcan") that hasn't seen an update since 2013.
Despite having never used or even booted up a Windows PC in my life, when our RADAR studio showed up — with absolutely no printed documentation of any kind — I was able to power it up and have Pro Tools running in a few minutes. (RADAR studio ships with PT 12 installed, but you are responsible for an iLok and valid PT License.) It turns out that documentation is available online and on the system drive, but being a total PC idiot, I didn't think to check.
I've been using our RADAR studio for about a week at the point of writing this paragraph, and while Windows is still a bit foreign to me, I've been able to sort out most of the administrative tasks, like moving files, creating folders, and installing software, pretty easily. I'd say that even the most die-hard Mac heads will be able to figure out Windows on RADAR studio pretty quickly, Plus, if you have any questions, you'll have a 10-year window to call iZ and ask them how to delete files or unmount drives. I've since made a cheat sheet for the studio that explains the most common functions that Mac users may need to know when working in Windows. But, it's important to point out that Pro Tools in Windows is pretty damn close to Pro Tools in macOS. And iZ has gone one step further by offering a keyboard setting that remaps the modifier keys to work like a Mac. You can even plug in an actual Mac keyboard into RADAR studio, and your Pro Tools (or other DAW) keyboard commands will work as expected. In other words, there is almost no learning curve with RADAR studio, Pro Tools, and a Mac keyboard.
Finally, when our RADAR studio arrived, I had a client in the studio who had brought his own recording system (Samplitude on a Windows PC, for what it's worth), so I took advantage of our studio computer being free and decided to upgrade our Mac Pro tower to Pro Tools | HD 12. I also bought a Mac Mini to run PT 12 to have a ready-to-go backup for our Mac Pro. I spent several days installing software and plug-ins on all three machines, and I would have to say that, despite having never used a Windows PC, our RADAR studio was the easiest to deal with. Ironically, the Mac Mini with the latest macOS (OS X "El Capitan") had the most issues and was the biggest headache. My advice — don't be scared of Windows, especially the super- optimized installation on RADAR studio.
Speaking of plug-ins, I quickly learned that most of the major plug-in companies, like Sound Toys, UAD, Sonnox, Eventide, Wave Arts, Waves, Valhalla, etc., support Windows. I lost more plug-ins migrating from PT 10 to 12 than I did switching from macOS to Windows. Sure, if you're still in PT 10 on a Mac, you may lose a few RTAS plug-ins, or you might have to spend a chunk of change updating them to 64-bit AAX versions from vendors like Waves. But the bottom line is, if you have licenses for 64-bit AAX plug-ins, you will most likely have download access to Windows versions of those plug-ins.
This review focuses primarily on how RADAR studio functions in Workstation Mode, with third-party DAW software on Windows, but note that RADAR studio can still be booted in RADAR Mode to run the classic software discussed previously in our reviews of the legacy hardware [Tape Op #24, #56]. In the same reviews, we also covered iZ's Nyquist and S-Nyquist converters. So I'm not going to retread old ground here. Also, I wasn't able to do a comprehensive A/B test of the iZ converters against our Apogee Symphony I/O [#87] and Burl Audio [#84] converters, but I will say that after doing several album projects on our RADAR studio, everybody involved remarked that the system sounded great, and that the speed and usability of Pro Tools running on RADAR studio was impressive. One producer in particular texted me after a session, "That RADAR system is some next-level shit!"
One obvious feature of RADAR studio is the optional Session Controller (which can mate to an optional Meter Bridge). It functions in the same way that a remote control for a tape machine does, and iZ offers a mapping of all of its switches and controls to Pro Tools. But to call it a tape-machine remote is selling it short. I'd say it falls somewhere between a multitrack remote and an edit controller for video production. There are transport controls, track-arming switches, a jog wheel, and many other dedicated function buttons, along with a QWERTY keyboard — all in a package about the size of an Akai MPC. Long- time RADAR users swear by the Session Controller. It feels solid and professional, and it's one of the reasons the RADAR platform is popular with folks who value the tactile interfaces of dedicated multitrack recorders (digital or tape). In practice, while we really liked the solid feel of the Session Controller, we often found ourselves going back to the Mac keyboard, because we were so used to the keyboard-based workflows in Pro Tools. Either way — Session Controller or Mac keyboard — your productivity will not be interrupted by a need to learn new software or hardware.
Moreover, iZ hasn't stopped there, because the soon-to-be- released RADAR Session app will give you multi-touch control over Pro Tools using a standard (20'' or larger) touchscreen monitor. We have our RADAR studio set up with our main Apple Cinema Display mounted behind the mixing console, and an inexpensive ($200) touchscreen monitor attached to a rolling cart for the Session Controller or Mac keyboard. This gives us multiple control and viewing options when using Pro Tools (despite Pro Tools only supporting single-touch while we await the release of RADAR Session).
Two-channel AES3 and S/PDIF, along with SMPTE LTC and MIDI I/O, are on every model above the base RADAR studio computer. (SMPTE and MIDI only work in RADAR Mode.) There are lots of multi-channel digital options, including MADI, AES3, TDIF, and ADAT. Of course, with the reputation that iZ has built on its converters, many users are going to want the Classic 96 or Ultra Nyquist converters from iZ. Both versions come in banks of eight channels, and a single RADAR studio maxes out at 24 channels of iZ converters, but multiple RADAR studio computers can be synched together for more channels. With that said, RADAR studio being a PC opens up a lot more possibilities and can get you out of the box, so to speak. Because it has PCIe slots, you can drop a Pro Tools | HD Native card or any other Windows-compatible PCIe card (from the likes of Avid, RME, Lynx, Focusrite, SSL, etc.) in the system. A full-blown 24-channel RADAR studio system is close to $10,000, but you can get a RADAR studio with no converters for just under $3,000. You might ask, "Why would I buy a RADAR without converters?" Well, if you are thinking you need a new Mac for your Pro Tools rig, and then you realize that your HD Native card won't work with the new Mac Pro computers, that cost much more than a RADAR studio, unless you buy an expansion chassis — and that iZ offers 9 more years and 275 more days of free tech support than Apple — you'd agree that RADAR studio is a very cost-effective alternative to Mac-based systems.
One promising piece of news from iZ concerns RADAR Bock Audio understanding of what made these mics sound the way they Expander, a feature that's currently in beta testing, that will allow you to use RADAR studio with multiple interfaces simultaneously. Right now, any application running in Workstation Mode can communicate with one ASIO driver at a time. That means your DAW can use the iZ converters, or PCIe or USB–based converters from another vendor — but not at the same time. (A popular workaround on Windows is to use the free ASIO4ALL universal driver, which allows aggregate I/O using multiple interfaces.) Note that Pro Tools | HD has a maximum I/O count of 32 channels when non-Avid I/O is in use. With any other DAW, like Harrison Mixbus, which comes bundled with RADAR studio, when RADAR Expander becomes available, we'll be able to use 24 channels of iZ conversion plus 32 channels of our Apogee Symphony I/O.
Lastly, speaking of PCIe, we bought another UAD-2 Quad processor card [Tape Op #67] to put in our RADAR studio for our UAD plug-ins. Installation was super easy, and integration with Pro Tools was seamless.
So in conclusion, if you're looking for a professional studio computer, you should seriously consider a RADAR studio. And in that last sentence, I'm using the word "professional" in the way you think of classic audio gear like a Studer tape machine or an API console. When you buy professional gear, you expect a level of reliability and support that you don't always see with systems consisting of multiple components from different manufacturers. With RADAR studio and iZ, you are dealing with a small company dedicated to serving audio professionals, not hobbyists. iZ is like a boutique audio company in that regard, in contrast to some of the large, faceless corporations that care more about their bottom lines than taking care of the customers that initially put them on the map.