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Bring in the Noise
by Thad Brown
7/17/98

604 vs. G3, Audio Specific Tests

The Big Shootout

For some time, audio types have been arguing over G3 vs.604e performance The pricing of the G3 systems is pretty attractive, but in other ways those machines are horrible for audio types. IDE CD ROM drives won't extract audio digitally, upgrading the SCSI bus to acceptable performance leaves you with a machine with 2 PCI slots, and Western Digital IDE drives really aren't quite what you need to shove 32 tracks of audio through the CPU. But in addition, many nerd types whispered that 604 processors were actually BETTER than G3s regardless of cost. The surprising FPU performance (the core of all audio processing) of the 604e chip and the very high speeds they run seemed to make them ideal sound boxes. Well, lucky for me, small dog sent the 200/604e card that originally resided in my UMAX S900, so I could do a head to head comparision.

I picked up the Mac OS X dud UMAX with a Powerforce 220/110 card preinstalled. The extra PCI slots, drives, and RAM expanability were just too much to pass up. The PF easily acclerated to run stably overnight at 337Mhz, but still would seem a bit shaky here and there, so I backed off to a "conservative" 325/130, where it has yet to crash. Mike has published enough benchmarks on the remarkable cards to make me doing more on them sorta silly, so I picked seven audio tasks that I do all the time, using three different applications. Some of them are much more disk than processor intensive, but I wanted real world results for audio only. The tasks were

  • 1. Convert a large stereo 24 bit file into a 16 bit file and save in SonicWORX.
  • 2. Time stretch a 4 minute bass track 15% with SonicWORX.
  • 3. Run the neural/audio rendering denoising algorithm on a (poorly tracked) guitar track.
  • 4. Rip a five minute song off of a CD with Peak.
  • 5. Open a large (1.7GB) song in Cubase.
  • 6. Play the same 20 track song and count the number of reverb plug-ins I could turn on without crashing or overloading the CPU.
  • 7. Do an "offline mix" of the same song into a 24 bit file that could be used for further processing or mastering.

The reasons for choosing 1,2,4 and 5 should be obvious. The others need a bit of explanation. The neural denoising algorithm is one of the more remarkable and powerful included in SonicWORX. It does an amazing job of doing what I would have said was impossible, removing noise and only noise from recordings, leaving the music untouched. I don't know how those crazy code crunching cats of Karlsruhe did it, but somehow they did. This little piece of software is also one of the most demanding on the CPU that I have ever seen. I started it on a large stereo file on my old Powerbase, and it took over 3 hours to do the job, but do the job it did. Job number 5 concentrates on the most CPU demanding real time job there is, adding reverb. A good reverb can take the processing bandwidth for a dozen dynamics processors and hundreds of EQ modules. Since real time processing is all the rage, reverbs are a great test for a CPU, once the reverb limit was reached, I turned on mono and stereo compressors and the EQs to get an idea of what headroom was left. Not terribly scientific, but interesting. Finally, task number 7 is one of those that people like me do all the time. The traditional way to mix was to hit "record" on a stereo analog or DAT tape machine, run the multi-track deck through a mixer and effects, and change the levels and whatever on the fly. People who have gone 100% disk like me push a button that says "Create File" and watch a little bar go across the screen while the program crunches the numbers to make the final mix. Doesn't look as cool, but it works.

The Results

I tested everything in four configurations, PF 325/130, PF220/110, PF 220/Motherboard cache, and 604e/200.



PF 325/130 PF 220/110 PF 220/MB 604e/200
24 to 16 1:07 1:10 1:10 1:12
Time Stretch 7:22 9:17 10:09 13:20
Denoise 21:29 28:11 38:26 40:23
Rip CD Audio :50 :54 :55 :57
Open Song :11 :13.5 :14 :15.5
Verbs 4, 1 comp 3, 1 comp 2, 1 st comp 2, 1 comp/EQ
Export 1:56 2:12 2:19 2:23

What does all of this mean? Well, it looks to me at first glance like a 604e is slightly preferable when considered solely on processing horesepower. Then again, on the two tests least involved in disc access (time stretch and denoise) the 604e did not do much better than the G3 when the 10% difference in clock speed is factored in. Also, that is true only when considered with the motherboard cache though, the PF card running those especially processor intensive tests with the stock 220/110 backside cache outperformed the 604e card by MUCH more that 10%. So if someone starts selling 604e cards with backside cache memory that run at 350 for $500 we audio types should go and buy them. If not, the G3 kicks butt

The accelerated PF card also just feels faster. I was REALLY happy when I finished the 604e testing and could put it back in my box. What would really rock my world is a whole bunch of 604e chips on one board and an OS that supports SMP. THAT would really shake things up, I assure you. But until that happens, be happy with the G3 chips, they do audio work just fine.

Opcode gets on the USB bus

Opcode announced a very cool looking audio I/O option for the white hot USB market. It's a simple stereo SPDIF digital in and out for hooking up a DAT, outboard A/D converter, high end CD, or Mini Disc with digital ins or outs. The plan to sell if for under $200. They claim it will have mac drivers as well, presumably for the little teal terror iMac. It still won't do anyone any good for serious high end audio unless pro companies support it, but it's potentially a very nice bridge between the consumer and pro audio worlds on the Mac. Beats the mini plug on the back, but it's not exaclty an Apogee either. How about some USB MIDI and sync boxes guys?

My two cents regarding Mac OS X and hardware support

Well, NT 5 should have a multi-port MIDI driver. And dual processor support, and RAID support, and somewhat protected memory, and who knows what else. Really folks, Mac OS is not competing with Win 95/98 anymore, espcially a year or two out. Even Microsoft basically admits that 98 is a new browser and some bug fixes and a step in the direction of driver integration. Their stockholders and retailers know that this is the last hurrah for DOS, that NT 5 and consumer NT or whatever you want to call it is where MS has put all the marbles. In addition, lots of high end "digital authoring" apps and companies are looking at NT 5 with pretty dewey eyes as well. But Apple may have had a better option, the security and networking power of a UNIX core, a feature set to make NT users cringe, and the elegence of the Mac interface all wrapped up in whipped cream with a big fat Quicktime animated cherry on top. That was Rhapsody, and OS X could be the same engine but with an easier migration path for developers and users. In other words, a world class OS for the world class users who have stuck by the Mac for the past few (often trying) years.

But now Apple comes along and says with a straight face that machines ALREADY booting Rhapsody DRs, LinnuxPPC, MkLinnux, and BeOS will be so hard to support for OS X that Steve will have to steal from his grandma to make the helicopter payments. This while Apple is STILL SELLING 604e boxes as we speak. Can you imagine what Mac users would say about Microsoft if they did the same thing? This is at best an economic (not technical) decision to shake down everyone for a new box, and at worst is a punitive, small, and mean way to get even with anyone who has had the audacity to think so different that they "strayed from the fold" in the past few years.

For me personally, I'm not afraid of IRQs, Regedit, or our old nemisis Dr. Watson. I work all day on PCs and spend my free time recording on macs because they are amazingly powerful audio machines and joyful to use. I love Macs, they let me do things that sometimes still amaze even this computer saturated ITS nerd. I'm one of the good army, folks, but I'm smart enough to know when I am being taken for a ride. There is NO GOOD REASON why the machine that I bought last week can't be a part of the modern MacOS world 18 months from now. None, and if Apple doesn't want users like me on their platform, then I will do what they appear to be telling me to do. Get lost.

Now I promise never to talk about this again, it's no fun and has nothing to do with audio.

Tune in Later . . .

That's it for now folks. I gotta do some real audio work for a change, instead of clicking a stopwatch to see how fast a G3 stretches an audio file. Besides, it's my birthday this weekend [7/18], so I have a lot of champagne to drink. Steinberg says I should have my VST/24 upgrade next week, and the ever more impressive SonicWORX package review is under way. Hang tight, keep reading, and big shouts out to Mike, I can barely do one of these a week. Mr. Maximum Impact is the man . . .


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