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Bring in the Noise
by Thad Brown
I Feel Your Pain
Well, folks, I bet you have some of them there MISCONCEPTIONS about what it's like to write the audio column for Mr. Maximum Impact, Mike. I bet you think that once you start working for Mike, it's nothing but peaches and cream and milk and cookies from there on out, the songs come easier, the hardware never quits, and the Hells Angel knows to stop and wait until AFTER the greatest vocal performance of your life before he drives by your house. Well, you're wrong, kids. In a better world, all that would be true, fighting relentlessly for better music, better recordings, and the great good of informed audio hardware/software purchasing would bring the well earned respect of your fellow humans and a smile from the gods of fate. But that's not the world we live in, folks, and the fates can be a trio of cranky old crones.
First of all, I'm cheap. I think I have nearly pro quality ears, but I have no interest in becoming a studio owner. I do get paid for some jobs, and I try to get paid for more, but my primary interest in my studio is to record my own music on my own terms. I can take my time, experiment, and do it my way. The digital audio revolution has made it theoretically possible for me to make a recording as good as the big boys, but that's not really true. There are mic preamps in truly pro studios that cost more than my entire rig. So, my ears are vastly more capable than my budget, and as a result I'm cheap cheap cheap. Not that I ever spend any significant amount of money on anything other than audio equipment, mind you, by cheap, I mean that I will agonize and price compare for months before buying a mic that costs half a months pay, but that mic could hang with mics that cost four times its cost or I would not even consider it. So, I have been using a second hand Digidesign Audiomedia III card for some time now for recording. I got a sick deal on it because the digital inputs were not working, in fact I paid next to nothing for it. Well, I guess the AMIII heard me call its software sister Slo Tools instead of Pro Tools one too many times, and decided to send me up the creek by doing a little hari kari routine. I got my moneys worth on that card, believe me, but this came at a horrible time. Since I started writing this column, lots of people have written to me asking how to upgrade the audio input on their Macs without spending a ton of cash. I would dutifully reply with the party line that they were stuck, there are no cheap upgrades for Mac audio, and the reason for this is that the converters built into a Power Mac actually aren't all that bad anyway, so why worry. Well now I eat those words and scream in all caps, WHY THE HELL WON'T SOMEBODY MAKE A Mac AUDIO CARD WITH DECENT CONVERTERS AND LINE LEVEL JACKS FOR LESS THAN $500? Why doesn't MidiMan or Event just write a Sound Manager and an ASIO driver for one of the PCI cards they already make? I'm sure there is money in that, and didn't we learn from the Cold War that the best way to a vibrant, strong country is to give the people what they want, even if that leaves Dan Quayle in a position of potential power? Well I want a Darla for the Mac, and so do a lot of other people with credit cards, so I hope somebody wakes up soon and starts acting like the profiteers that made this country what it is today.
The real kicker in all of this is that the next generation of hot cards WILL have Mac support. I'm trying to get together a report about the new crop of mixing/DSP cards on the way from Yamaha and Creamware. Both are promising Mac support for the first time on an audio card, and both may well rewrite the book in their respective areas. I figure to see Mac drivers for those cards early next year, and I was already socking away a little cash to pick one up when they finally are ready for the UMAX. So, I solemnly apologize to everyone for being so glib in telling you that the built in audio on your Mac isn't that bad. I hate to say it, but it sucks. There is a fixed gain stage on the inputs that is a pain to deal with when it comes to levels, the mini jack is a total drag, and the converters are actually not all that great, even for 16 bit converters. Certainly not anything like the AMIII, and its specs are pretty pedestrian by now.
After trying to use the built in audio on my old Powerbase (better than the UMAX), I gave up and went into the DSP Factory/Pulsar kitty and found a used Korg 1212 for a decent price. The real scary thing now is that I'm running a clone that Steinberg basically says they won't support, that has a non-standard PCI bus, running an upgrade card that Steinberg insists will not work with Cubase, and I'm going to drop in a PCI card that has been known to have problems with other cards. If you have any pull with the gods of SCSI or the PCI sprites, put in a good word for me.
Correction and Tip Roundup
I got a ton or nice mail about theSonicWORX review. Thanks to all of you, and trust me, it's the real deal. A few good tips came out of this that I will pass on.
If you need SCSI transfer of samples to your hardware sampler, a reader reports that D-Sound Pro can do this. D-Sound is a pretty nice shareware app that does a decent amount of what Peak and Sound Designer do, and includes a really cool picture of the author in the "about" window. For those of you trying to get by an the cheap, but with a sampler, D-Sound on its own or D-Sound with SonicWORX Basic or Artist may be just the trick.
Numerous readers (but one in particular) keep on reminding me that I don't cover the Paris system as well as I should. Paris is a high end dedicated Digtal Audio Workstation along the lines of ProTools, with support for hardware based DSP, 24 bit converters, and perhaps best of all, a hardware interface with knobs and faders. The one particularly vocal reader even said that he was awaiting my review of this wonderful platform, which may be a while because I haven't seen any $3,000 audio systems headed my way recently. If you have the scratch, though, Paris users are almost universally in love with their rig, so they must have something.
Finally, a helpful reader noted that the trick of using Toast to backup non-standard formatted discs will work with nearly any format, not just sample discs.
Lightpipe, Word clock, and digital connections
Just about the only good thing about my AMIII going south is that my new card (if it works on my computer) will include actual functioning S/PDIF I/O, a Lightpipe connection, and word clock in an out. Many people are quite confused about a lot of this stuff, so here is a quick tutorial.
Lightpipe is fast becoming the standard for multi-channel digital audio transfer. That's a very good thing, since it means that money spent now on good A/D converters with Lighpipe will be easily transferred to whatever gear comes along next. Although the protocol is from Alesis for ADAT tape machines, it's showing up all over the place now on converters, synths, and even a few samplers. The connector is an easy to use, impossible to put in backwards single optical cable with TOSLINK jacks on the end, and it will transfer eight channels of up to 24 bit audio at once. Look for it on an audio card near you.
A film uses thirty still frames per second to fool our eyes into seeing motion. That's awfully fast, or course, but in order to digitally store an analog audio signal such that it will fool our ears into thinking it sounds a little bit like being there, or at least sounds nearly as good as fresh vinyl, over 44,000 snapshots have to be taken each second. Now, I have a pretty good sense of time, but I couldn't tap my feet 30 times per second if it meant not having to have dinner with Dan Quayle. When using multiple machines with digital audio, they all have to agree on where each one of those 44,000 snapshots take place, and that is no simple task. Word clock is the term used for the sync signal that allows digital audio Machines to do this. No matter how good the internal clock of a Mac or an ADAT, at that kind of resolution, they will never be exactly the same, so one of them will have to slave to the other one, ignoring its internal clock and firing off audio events according to the clock generated by the other Machine.
The waters get even a bit muddier when built in sync is considered. Each of the main digital audio transfer formats also carry a sync signal along with the audio data, so in theory you should be able to lock to incoming Lightpipe, AES/EBU, or S/PDIF signals, or send out clock via those protocols so that other stuff can lock to your box. In practice, it is often handy to have stand alone connectors to get clock from a master house clock or from a sync box of some sort. Luckily for me, the 1212 has both BNC and ADAT connectors which should make all of this a lot easier when I get brave and try to use it. Up until now I have never bothered to even try to interface with ADATs or DA-88s, and have used sampled or sequenced drums and overdubbed everything else. In theory, now I should be able to record twelve or sixteen tracks of drums in an ADAT equipped studio, transfer those tracks to Cubase eight at a pass, and mix them with anything I do in my studio, all without mussing my hair with nasty sync problems. I'll let you know if that actually works.
If you find all this sync talk really sexy, you should drop by the Korg site and look at the online 1212 manual, which is a fantastic word clock primer. Bottom line, though, is that if you intend to deal with the outside world, sooner or later, and probably much sooner, you will have to have word clock. And wait till you start trying to sync video decks too, that's less fun than a January weekend in Duluth, with Dan Quayle.
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Disclaimer: The opinions/comments expressed here are the author's alone,