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Accelerate Your Mac!
Bring in the Noise
by Thad Brown
5/11/98

Whither Mac Audio?
Or, why I am building a PC

I'm building a PC, first time ever. Strange way to start my first article in the brand spankin' new audio section of the coolest Mac site on the web, but it's the truth and I think it speaks volumes about the state of the Mac world right now. I am not alone in taking the audio capabilities of PCs seriously, for more and more semi-pro and hobbyist audio cats, the world of Windows audio with all its drawbacks (and my oh my are there some drawbacks) is looking increasingly attractive. The main reason I am building a PC is to stay on top of things at work where I probably deal with 8 to 1 Windows to Mac problems, but a crucial reason for getting a PII in the house is that for the first time ever there is a revolutionary, new, five alarm, gotta have it audio app available only for the PC and not the Mac. It's called Reality, it's from seer systems, it's a disk based software synthesizer/sampler that is rewriting the way computers make music as we speak, and you can leave your G3 in the closet, 'cause Cinderella is not invited to the dance if her logo is a fruit.

Before the nerve gas laced email starts pouring in, I LOVE Macs, I write and record all my music on a Mac, I set up Macs for friends and family all the time, and I continue to support, repair, and upgrade Macs at work. I am fully aware that Macs take less time and money to support, and honestly, without Macs I would still be recording on 4 track systems using cassettes. Instead, I have a 24 track digital studio running on a lowly Power Computing Powerbase running OS8 and Cubase. It lets me do things that five years ago cost $15,000 and ten years ago were barely possible for people like the Rolling Stones. That revolution in audio recording was made possible by the Mac and on the Mac, and that is why I think it is particularly representative, and fairly scary, that in that previously 100% Mac market there is now a serious challenge from the world of Windows.

What do Hanson, Beck, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Eric Clapton, and the Chemical Brothers have in common? OK, they all make more money from their music in a day than I have made in my life, but what ELSE do they have in common. Yup, that's right, their most recent records were recorded to a greater or lesser degree on a Mac. The Chemical Brothers are Cubase and Recycle users, the Bela Fleck record was done on the new Pro Tools 24 bit system (and Pro Tools is still almost all Mac), and the Dust Brothers have produced records by Beck and Hanson and they use Opcode's Vision with Digidesign hardware. At the level that these artists work, it is still a pretty much full on Mac world. But in the huge world of hobbyist musicians to semi-pro studio owners/operators more and more are working on PCs. This is not a completely new thing, there have been audio apps for Windows systems for years, but Mac users have thought of them in much the way Silicon Graphics users have though about Macs--nice stuff, good try, lots of creative folks at work, but it's just not pro quality. You know, "Thanks for playing, here's a case of Turtle Wax and a home version of the game." Just in the last few months or maybe a year, however, there has been a subtle shift. The Windows versions of cross platform audio applications are as good or better than the Mac versions, and some things are Windows only.

I am a die hard Cubase user, and Steinberg has been as multi platform as possible, at one point releasing applications for Macs, PCs, and Ataris at the same time. (Don't laugh, Atari boxes are fantastic audio Machines, they have rock solid MIDI timing and a whole lot of European dance music was made and is still made on Atari Machines running sequencer applications.) But even Cubase now has some crucial features only on the Windows version. But the Reality synthesizer app is a whole different critter, a new and amazing product with no Mac version and no plan for one. Seer says on their web site that there is no reason why ports to other operating systems CAN'T happen, but that there are no plans to do so at this time.

What happened? How could a company screw up competitive advantage, user loyalty, superior technology, groundbreaking software, and market dominance in a few short years? I guess that is a question that bewildered Mac users are asking all the time. One thing I can say for sure is that it has nothing at all to do with a Bill Gates conspiracy or anti-competitive actions by Microsoft. MSoft has been about as interested in audio as Apple has been in the business market. Windows NT doesn't even have a decent (much less pro quality) MIDI driver. MIDI to audio sync problems are common on 95 Machines, and even tweaked 95 systems seem more crash prone than Macs when doing audio work, a real problem when one performance can make or break a song. Apple has no excuses for problems in the audio market, it has been there for the taking with little or no competition from the dark side of the force.

I can tell you one reason why so many audio people are using Windows, price. I can get a quality Asus motherboard and a 233 PII for under $350. By using bits and pieces I already have or can get for next to nothing, I will build my PC for under $800. That is a complete system with the newest Intel processor. For better or worse, Apple decided they don't want or can't survive competition, and that means that I can't be a sophisticated Apple user and go to convention and save some money by taking care of things myself. In fact, the cheapest Mac I can buy makes a whole bunch of decisions for me as a user, it assumes I want one of my memory slots with a 32MB DIMM in it, it assumes I want SCSI-1 and a (blech) Western Digital IDE hard drive. If I want a PC, I can make those decision on my own and go with what suits me best, and save some money.

Audio PCs are attractive with people who can't afford a dedicated audio Machine, usually they have no choice but to use whatever PC they have at the moment. There is a good bit of useful shareware on the dark side, and even some free or nearly free plug-ins for big time audio apps. Even if the Mac will run audio apps better (and generally I think that they will), most people figure they have to use a PC at work, and some cool shareware on the web, so why hassle with compatibility problems?

What is there to learn from all this? In my humble opinion, the answer is get an OS with Symmetrical Multiprocessing on the market to try to feed the need for massive FPU performance necessary for real time effects, revive CHRP or something very much like it, and make the case to the audio world that there is a future in the Mac. I don't think that there is a chance that any of that will happen of course. Even in the small part of the computer market that is still Mac, the audio component is still a fairly small piece of that pie. But to see the pro audio community inching ever closer to an OS that has no MIDI driver (NT) or isn't stable when doing difficult and obscure tasks like using a scanner (Win98) just scares me to death. So maybe what can be learned from this is that in the end, if your computer stuff is really expensive nobody will buy it now matter how good it is. No matter what Mac users might think about it, people will put up with IRQ conflicts, slow hard drives, a kind of sleazy company, and that little freakin dancing paper clip to save a few hundred bucks and not get stuck using a computer other people will think is weird. Apple cannot just match the Windows world in price/performance, but has to beat Windows at the price game AND provide better performance, AND they have to do it without anybody else keeping them sharp.

Steve Jobs is a Silicon Valley hero worth millions and millions of dollars. I'm a pretty decent guitar player who works forty hours a week so that I can write my little songs and spend my weekends recording them on the computer that Steve and some of his buddies invented. I really hope that Steve knows what the hell he is doing, because those weekends mean a lot to me.

Thad Brown


Mike: I say let's not give up. Make Seer Systems hear your voice (politely!). Send their sales contact a message asking for a Mac version of Reality. They have a users forum as well where possibly we can make our voices heard.

I really want to cover the Mac Audio world and Thad has offered to help. He's working now on a list of links and other resources for posting here. Future posts will be more positive and more focused on the Mac. Thanks, Mike


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