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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown

Uh, Can I Like Go To Sleep or Something

Well, dear readers, another excuse for something not being done on time. You'd think I was, like, Event or something. The Ray Gun review is nearly finished, but was derailed when I was tapped Tuesday to play in a band on Halloween, leaving me three and a half days to learn all the tunes. The UMAX has barely been booted since. The Metasynth and Xx apps are initially very impressive, but I want to give them a real workout before I start jabbering about them in public. Suffice it to say they are the first audio/MIDI apps that have forced me to go back and brush up on my Illustrator chops.

Stay Tuned . . .

I Should Have Mentioned This Before

Whilst checking up on one of my favorite Sample CD vendors, I realized that all this time I had not pointed any of you folks towards them. When you get a minute stop by rarefaction and see what really creative/disturbed people with computers like to do. Run by a group of true individuals with more credits in the music and software businesses than anyone would care to list, they make stuff that doesn't sound like everybody else. They also have cool things like Manifestos on their site, and also words to live by for the home recordist. "FINISH THINGS and SHARE THEM." Good advice to people with home studios where the process can always be delayed another day.

Cakewalk for the Mac

A number of people have been asking me, as usual, about less expensive ways to do basic recording, DSP, and maybe MIDI on the Mac. Cakewalk, in the PC MIDI business since I think the DOS days, has a Mac product called Metro, which they bought and retooled a few months ago. I have never used it, so I can't vouch for it's capabilities in person, but on paper it has a nice combination of features for both audio and MIDI, and the Metro sequencer had a good rep in its previous incarnation. Metro 4 now supports audio recording and VST plug-ins, and recently added at least some form of score printing as well. It lists for less than half of what most higher end audio apps cost, so if you don't need as much audio horsepower, take a look.

I Thought We Were Beyond This

So, OS 8.5 seems to be a real great thing so far. I saw that big ol' Power Point presentation at the Apple sponsored conference last week. 8.5 has better networking, improved ethernet drivers, the nifty Sherlock search engine (write your 10 line HTML plug-in today). Strangely, the folks from Cupertino didn't mention the last new feature of 8.5 in that presentation--included, free of charge, is the special CATASTROPHIC DISK FAILURE UTILTIY. The best part of this utiltiy is that it runs invisibly in the background so you never quite know when it will destroy all the data on your disk. It's kind of like having all of your critical data on a Zip disk. Other forms of removeable media don't offer nearly the same adrenaline rush when holding mission critical databases, but with a Zip, you can live in the rarefied air of constant low level terror that next time you pop that sucker in a drive it will start clicking and bingo, your 1500 entry contact list is gone like last months Roquefort. How about a new OS 8.5 advertising campaign, "The Thrillseekers OS upgrade" or "We Don't Just Re-Write Computing History, We Re-Write Your Partition Table" or to keep it short "Think Data Loss."

And we all thought 7.5.2 was bad, I don't remember it blowing out whole partitions . . .

Back to 8.0 for me.

Cross Platform Audio Architecture

warning: higher than usual audio geek content

Anyone who has read this column regularly has heard me whining incessantly about the availability of cool cards and apps for the Mac. I'm sure all those Windows developers are rushing out Mac versions of their apps because of my whining too, ha ha. Windows seems to get the good stuff first and maybe get them only, which is funny considering how much hassle Win 95/98 is for most (not all) audio folks. There are a few interesting things on the horizon, however, that may help change that a bit.

I was recently conversing with an audio/computer/guitar guru friend of mine who is also a legit programmer, as in he can write assembly language. He programs for Intel almost exlusively, using a variety of GNU and commercial tools, and he kept on returning to two things while explaining stuff to me; the superiority of RISC processing and the importance of parallel processing. I have written here for a while that I believe the future of computer based audio is native DSP with parallel processing. Well, there's just one little hitch, right now if you want parallel processing you have a choice of OSes that are really not ready for prime time when it comes to audio/MIDI work (NT, Linux, Be) or are prohibitively expensive (IRIX) or don't do audio at all (most other UNIX flavors). The contenders on that list are in the first batch, and if either NT, Linux or Be gets a critical mass of hardware/software support, and full featured MIDI capability, the MacOS may finally have a competitor in the audio arena. Or better yet, maybe the MacOS will get some parallel processing mojo sometime soon.

Audio hardware vendors have responded to this by building hardware DSP into their audio cards, particularly on the windows side. Because of the huge demands that real time audio DSP puts on the host processor, it only makes sense to juice things along with dedicated DSP. Most of the DSP chips on those cards just sit doing nothing, waiting for somebody to write something for them, since by definition a DSP chip has special instructions built in that need apps written spcifically for that chip. Different companies try to get around this problem in different ways, Digidesign, for instance, made hardware DSP (their TDM farm cards) and had the clout to get developers to code for those chips, and Pro Tools users are accustomed to paying premium prices for those plug-ins so it pays for the developers to do the extra work. The Lexicon Studio system theoretically could be hooked into DSP cards via its expansion bus, and that system includes hardware for legendary quality Lexicon reverb, and reverb is the dominatrix of the audio DSP world, capable of making the fastest host CPU "Kiss the boot, of shiny shiny leather . . ."

Now, all this is fine and good for people spending thousands and thousands of dollars on systems, but does most of us no good at all. We all know that todays $3000 hardware DSP system is tomorrows native host shareware, but what if I don't want to wait that long? Two companies, Yamaha and Creamware, are staking out the territory to tide us all over until something comes along to make this all easier and cheaper. Here is the critical difference between those sytems. Yamaha's DSP Factory uses basically the same chips as they use in their hugely sucessful O2R and 01V digital mixers, while Creamware uses Analog Devices silicon that should be open to third party development. I don't think that either approach is better or worse than the other, that proprietary Yamaha DSP has been used with great success to completely change the landscape of digital mixing. The promise of the Creamware card lies in the fact that, according to what poeple at Creamware have said, when a developer codes for their card, there is no extra step to make it available for the other platform, or maybe in the future, platforms that the SCOPE/Pulsar system uses.

Right now, even if a developer writes a VST plug-in for Windows, that plug-in has to be rewritten to work on the Mac side, and vice versa. It's costly, time consuming, and saps resources that could be used to put together cooler software. I have always believed that open architecture and open development will win over all else in the long run, and I truly believe that this is try in the audio world. It's particularly true in the pro audio computer world, since nobody seem to give a rip about that market anyway, keeping some of the political wrangling out of the decisions being made. I don't see Microsoft and the DOJ going toe to toe over DirectX vs. VST.

Somebody, someday soon is going to get a hardware audio DSP thing going that lets people write modules and synths and what not for just that one card, and have it work in most or all apps. I really hope whoever does this includes Mac support, and that group may well be Creamware. I'm keeping my ear to the ground.

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