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Bring in the Noise
by Thad Brown
Wanna Rob a Dane?
A few weeks back I did a review of the extremely hip sounding, extremely fun playing Vibra 9000 from Dennmark based Koblo. At its then list price of $349 I said that it was a great deal considering its quality and uniqueness, though considering its specialized nature, it might be a little steep for some of you. Good news if you fell into that category, they just lowered the price to $149 United States Sirignaros, including shipping. At that price, nearly anyone interested in Mac audio should give it a serious look, and Koblo needs to worry about people taking them seriously. If even that paltry sum is too much, and it's less than a nice dinner for two with a good bottle of wine, Koblo is also making the Vibra 6000, and easier to use monophonic version of the 9000 with a little less control, and it only costs $99.
So, today begins the international "Let's Go Rob a Dane" movement. Don't feel bad, they WANT you to rob them. In other software pricing news, lot's of things seem to be heading lower in price. Maybe the software market is getting big enough and competitive enough that price competition is making more sense. For instance, VST plug-ins used to go for $300-500 depending on the company and product. The newest plugs from Prosoniq and Arboretum are going for much less than that. Windows users have already been to the promised land of really cool audio programs for under $200, maybe us Mac users can get there as well. Speaking of lowering prices, rumor has it that version 2.0 of all of the SonicWORX editors will get a signigicant cut in list price. Excuse me while I drool on my keyboard . . .
The Tide Turns, At Long Last
In other thank-God-I-didn't-listen-to-my-friends-and-buy-a-Dell news, the world of Mac audio upgrade cards has almost completely turned around from its rather dismal state of a year or so ago. Yamaha now says they will be writing Mac ASIO and Sound Manager drivers for their SW1000XG card. If you do a lot of MIDI work with mimimal audio, that card is essentially their MU100 synth with hard disk recording and effects built in. It will integrate quite completely with their upcoming much anticipated DSP Factory, can be upgraded with daughter cards, and only costs $799. Excellent news, in my opinion, since this means that pretty much all of the recently shipping or announced cards will include Mac support; Event's Layla, the Mark of the Unicorn 2408, SCOPE and Pulsar from Creamware, the two Yamaha cards, of course the new Pro Tools system, and on the cheaper end the Midiman card mentioned last week. In fact the only card that isn't getting Mac support is the card from Soundscape, but since they are a completely Windows shop, I'm not surprised. We still get drivers a few months after Windows users, but that's an annoyance rather than a reason to change platforms.
Optimizing Your Mac for Audio
In response to a number of reader requests, here is a few things you should do to get you Mac set up optimally for audio.
No single thing will boost performance more than running the cleanest system possible. Extensions are just what they sound like, pieces of software that extend the functionality of the OS when they are loaded. Unfortunately they also take up CPU clock cycles and each one ever so slightly (or sometimes dramatically) reduces the stability of the OS. This may be an occasionaly nuisance or performacne penalty when running business apps, playing games, or using Photoshop, but when trying to stream 24 tracks of CD quality audio, these small things can really become dramatic. I currently run about six extensions when I am recording or mixing; Korg 1212, Appearance, two QuickTime extensions, SystemAV, and my video drivers (in this case a Twin Turbo card that seems pretty audio friendly. Some ATI extensions are not, particularly with the Korg 1212 card). Notice that I don't even load CD-ROM drivers, which is sort of a drag, but in an emergency I can always use CD-ROM Toolkit to load drivers on the fly to grab a sample from a disc, thanks FWB.
Upgrade to OS 8 or 8.1
OS 8 is one of the best things that ever happened to Mac audio. It's stable, it looks nice, it seems more efficient, and developers almost universally recomend it for audio. 8.1 had some glitches for me, but now runs beautifully. I'm going to do a little report on 8.5, but every developer I hear from seems very excited. For now, keeping current seems to be a good thing.
Don't use HFS+ on you audio drive
HFS+ or HFS Extended is a perfectly fine thing if you are short on space on your laptop or your boot drive. It lets you control cluster size and keep tiny little system files from taking up more space than makes sense. Audio files are so big, though, that the benefit in disk usage is minimal, but the audio files can be broken up into smaller pieces, possibly necessitating a great deal more movement by the drive heads to read the files. So format your boot drive with HFS+ if you want, but leave your audio drive vanilla HFS.
This last one brought up another important point. If possible have a drive dedicated to audio and one for boot and apps. This frees the audio disk from wasting time looking for system files.
Buy more RAM
This is particularly important if you are using a slower drive or 24 bit audio. When the app is streaming 24 channels of digital audio, it is always loading data into a RAM buffer for each track. The less often it needs to refill that buffer, the less the disk heads need to run around in between reads. With a larger buffer, the disk can get bigger chunks of data into RAM and work much more efficiently. With current RAM prices, 128 MB is fast becoming the standard with 64 as bare minimum. I run my UMAX with 96 and I'm feeling the pinch.
Be careful with upgrades
One of the biggest mistakes audio people make is moving too fast to a new machine or a new card or a new app. Audio is such a specialized thing, and puts such specialized demands on the OS and hardware in your Mac, that it is often a fairly traumatic experience to change hardware or software. I'm a computer tech, so I don't mind it, but if you plan to use a system to make money or don't want to bother with the box that much, be careful upgrading. Expect a significant amount of downtime while troubleshooting any problems that come up. Learn what net resources are available since tech support is so often nonexistent or makes a problem worse. If you really are not confident with this kind of work, pay some nerd like me extortionate amounts of money to figure it out while you worry about other things
Reviews on deck
Just wanted to let you know that I haven't forgotten about reviews. I have three or four things on the way, but I like to actually use this stuff before I write about it. Check back soon for reviews of another software synth and some plug-ins, and one real interesting one. It hasn't come to the mailbox yet, but a major Cubase competitor is sending me their audio recording/sequencing app for review. I wrote them asking to review something else I thought the video multimedia types would like, and the offered me this, even after I warned them that I am a giant free marketing organization for Steinberg. They said, essentially, we think we have a lot of things going for us that Cubase doesn't, and we're not afraid of an honest review by a Cubase user. I like the attitude, and once I have used it for a few weeks I'll write it up.
Til then, remember that Otis Redding did it for real in mono . . .
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