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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown
|Bring in the Noise Turns One Year Old!|
Mac Audio Year in Review
Mike's little "here's what was happening one year ago" [bottom of each daily news page-Mike] link made me notice that May 11 is my web audio nerd birthday. My real birthday is still a few months off, so it's nice to get an excuse to throw a party now. I looked over the articles for the first year, and there are forty of them. I have been silent these past few weeks due to some heavy goings on in my personal life and a lack of real news from digital audio places, but even so, I managed to get 40 articles up this first year, and only a few of them are really embarrassing. So I'm getting a new thing up three out of every four weeks and it's usually something useful.
I really want to thank Mike for his tireless efforts on this site, and for letting me say whatever the hell I want even when he strongly disagrees with it. I cannot imagine how much time it takes for him to do it all, considering what my tiny little thing involves. Big shout out to Adam Lang for running the rock solid mail server on which I get me xlr8 email, and letting me use it for free. I've been around production servers that are not as solid or run as well. You da man Adam. I also want to thank the people who read this site and email me, or at least the ones that didn't send hate mail. This site has been a way to get useful information out to the public, and it's helped some problems get fixed, and that's really what it's supposed to be about. Finally, I'd like to thank Kimberly S. for putting up with my racket and letting me use her Mac to mess around with loops in Session which is how this whole thing started for me. Girlfriends of musicians have a rough life in a lot of ways, and though I may be more responsible than most, I wouldn't want to count the times that she was glassy eyed bored listening to me talk about converters and mics and pickups and who knows what else.
Since we are a year old now, I thought I'd do a little review of the last year in computer audio and also take a peek at what I think is around the corner. Let's start with the good stuff.
PC audio companies bringing their stuff to the Mac. I'm an unrepentant libertarian capitalist who believes that competition is the best thing for vendors, customers, and pretty much everyone else. Since the Mac is selling better, more and more hardware vendors are trying to come over and make some money, and it's a very good thing. Reports have been mixed about support, but it's the right trend, and a great sign. Some software vendors are following the lead as well, I just wish nemesys were one of them
The success of the G3 marketing campaign kept a lot of companies supporting the Mac. Apple kept hammering away on the fact that a G3 is a faster processor at the same clock speed. Some of the claims made by the Mac faithful are rather silly, but by staying on that point, Apple was able to sell a ton of those machines and remind audio people that the PowerPC has some real advantages for us.
Opcode's Vision DSP was perhaps the most exciting news in software in this last year. Steinberg and Emagic had been slowly taking over the mid level sequencer market for some time, and for good reason, they make great stuff. V-DSP put everybody on notice that Opcode was not planning on becoming a hardware company. It has become my sequencer of choice, and it's the cheapest way to go 24 bit if you have the hardware. Once again, competition good.
Digital types were greatly helped by some advances in the analog realm as well. Microphones and A/D converters got better and cheaper this year. Companies like Midiman and Alesis have eight channel 20 bit or better converters coming to market that cost less than a good stereo 16 bit outboard converter cost not too long ago. Microphone companies like Audix are setting new standards for quality mics at excellent prices, one of their Neuman ripoffs is my next mic. I've also been hearing some heavy breathing over that new gold colored Shure. Gotta check that one out when I get a chance.
Now for the not so great stuff
Nearly six months after deep sixing some pretty critical audio hardware on all of their shipping machines, Apple still has not done much to remedy the situation. Serial and SCSI are nearly necessary for audio people, for MIDI and CD burning respectively, and those solutions are needed. MIDI over USB still is not working, and audio over USB is even further off. While I applaud Apple's pushing the envelope on hardware, for each technology they drop they need to have a viable alternative IN PLACE, or allow the old function to be added easily and a reasonable cost.
Two companies reached new lows in late software delivery, Creamware and Bias were both unforgivably late in releasing software that was repeatedly promised at specific dates. I understand that software is not easy stuff to write and delays occur, but it's so bad in this business that when somebody says "to be released by mid-June" one has to consider in what year. Creamware is still not talking about when Pulsar/Scope support is coming to the Mac, and Bias released Peak 2.0 I think a year after it was originally promised. To make matters worse, there have been a healthy number of patches to it already, leading me to believe it may have been released even earlier than would have been ideal. I really hope this nonsense changes, though I'm not holding my breath.
The Digidrive that cost three times the bare drive.
The guy who said I reminded him of Don Crabb.
As I have said, I like competition of all kinds, and that even goes for operating systems. When the BeOS was left for dead more than a year ago, I don't think many people thought they would fare any better working with PCs than Power Computing did. But by what must have been incredible amounts of work and sweat and coffee, they brought over the whole OS to Intel, and in the process garnered interest and support from an incredible number of audio companies. Be presented a way to do something that wasn't Microsoft and all those MIDI timing problems, and that was built from the ground up for multi-threading and multi-processing, and offers the possibility of staggeringly good MIDI sync. The lowlight here is not the BeOS not being on Macs, but rather that in addition to not being on Macs, Be may evolve into a potentially dominating OS for audio work. I can only hope that OS X will offer a similar feature set and ease of development so that at least a few companies will consider supporting both, or that Apple invites Be back with assurances of a stable future on PowerPC hardware.
The Year Ahead
Where will we be when Bring in the Noise turns 2? If we make it there (and I hope we will), I would bet that about this time the G4/Altivec/OS X combination should be fully in place and generally supported by audio companies. If Altivec works as advertised and is as easy to develop for as we are reading, I bet almost all of the audio app an plug-in companies will be supporting it. This may mean a ten fold or greater improvement in native audio DSP. I think that audio to MIDI conversion tools will continue to improve, which is also a good thing. We are all going to be told that we have to get 96k converters or we suck, which I don't think is true, but it may be impossible to get people to work on anything else. In the next year we will see a real battle between independent and corporate web distribution of music, and I'm not just talking about MP3. The record industry is going to try to shut out small labels from the internet just like they shut them out on the radio, by outspending them in marketing, not releasing better records. It's going to be more than a one year battle, but it will have massive effects on how music is made and sold. I'm really hoping that smart, nimble, quick companies can take the lead and make money selling music on the web, 'cause the Backstreet Boys are bad enough as it is without them taking over the internet as well. Finally, by this time next year, some sort of higher bandwidth audio delivery medium should be emerging, either the enhanced CD or DVD-Audio. Either way, surround mixing and longer words will become more and more necessary, so start saving for another set of monitors and a DVD burner.
Thanks again, everyone. I hope we're still kicking next year. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming . . .
The SW1000XG On A Mac And Other New Toys
I only have one report on SW1000XG use on a Mac. Michael M. wrote in that he's using one on a Power Tower Pro, a machine not known for compatibility problems, and he could only get one channel to work properly. The OMS driver worked for him, but he could only get proper audio out of one channel. I haven't had a chance to ask about whether the external MIDI channels work correctly.
Another reader sent in info about Supercollider software synth, info at the Audiosynth website. It's a very impressive looking piece of soft kit. It's not for the beginner, and it demands some willingness to deal with a command prompt, but it looks easier to me that C sound or MAX. If you are looking for bending end software synthesis, this looks tough to beat.
I'm also really interested in hearing from ANY B&W G3 owners getting quality MIDI performance from one of the Roland or other USB MIDI interfaces. As always, email me at the address at the bottom of the page
Is Sound Manager Managing?
Sometimes general Mac audio issues don't really hit home until they screw up my life. It's hard to get nearly as worried about somebody else's problems. Like when I was saying the built in Mac converters weren't that bad until I had to use them.
Such is the case with the limitations of Sound Manager. Way back in 1943 when it was written, the fact that it dealt with 16 bit 44.1 audio was really ahead of its time. It's still a useful tool, but we basically have two technologies that desperately need some of the features of the other. On the one hand, Sound Manager will mix any number of streams of audio into a stereo pair that sounds pretty decent, but won't handle complex routing or longer words. On the other hand, ASIO supports up to 24bit/96k, can route to as many physical outs as you can afford, and is pretty efficient, but it can't share outputs between apps. This leaves a person like me almost needing one audio card per app. There is technology coming that may help this. ASIO 2.0 is supposed to support sharing and releasing of outputs between apps, the Mark of the Unicorn Audio System and ReWire from Propellerheads allow apps to route audio internally to each other (i.e. the output of my soft sampler shows up in a mixer channel in my sequencer), and the new proposed stuff from Emagic would allow this as well, but I don't see an across the board solution on the horizon.
This problem really hit home recently when I was starting to use the very cool Unity DS-1 which was sent to me for review. The Unity internally uses 32 bit floating point math for DSP and mixing, so it can output a high quality stream of 24 bit digital audio. Biheadz has a laudable willingness to support nearly everything, including MAS, FreeMIDI, ASIO, ReWire, and OMS. Way to go guys, but I still had a quandry. Cubase won't sync via OMS to PARIS so I can't use ReWire, and even if it did, I couldn't break up the ASIO I/O in PARIS to allow it its own ouputs anyway. Vision DSP doesn't support ReWire so that's out. Performer (which I don't own but with that new POLAR thing I might have to take a look at) doesn't support ASIO or OMS (two real backbone things in my rig), so I'm stuck with Sound Manager. That means that I have to monitor my sampler with the little eighth inch out on my Mac and when I'm ready for a final pass, output a file to disk and import it into PARIS. There's got to be a better way, and I hope it shows up soon.
See you all next week
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