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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown
You've got Mail...
After having little or nothing to review for a few months, now I have enough to keep my busy for I don't know how long. The Ray Gun review (in Issue 25) was just the tip of the iceberg, my friends. From Arboretum comes the Metasynth and Xx MIDI tool, both by Eric Wenger, and Opcode sent my Vision DSP as well as a couple of their newly VST'd plug-ins. I'm starting work on a very sample intense thing of my own right now, and save for the first track which I need done soon, I'm going to try to use Vision for the whole thing. That's like switching from Quark to Pagemaker or Illustrator to Freehand for those of you audio challenged types who may be reading this. Well, I guess switching from anything to the Metasynth is like switching from oatmeal to kiwi fruit, so I should be used to it.
So keep reading. I actually use this stuff for a while before I start jabbering about it, but I hope that's why you read this. You can find less in depth and informed audio reviews at lots of other places. It may take a while, but I'll get it done.
New Software, and Even Some New Hardware
A few intersting tools have shown up of late in the wonderful wold of Mac audio.
Soundview is a Mac tool for sample analysis and DSP and comes from the sound research lab at Johns Hopkins. It's most interesting use for me and for many of you is that it looks like a very good tool for taking a look at room acoustics. Paired with a good test mic, I bet almost all of us could find some problems in our primary listening environment.
If you are a session musician, there is now a company called Long Term Solutions selling a prefab Filemaker database that appears to keep track of everything buy your hairspray, suede boot, and hooker tabs. Actually maybe all those things go into the "entertainment" field. OK OK, this is a family site, I'll stop those kind of jokes. Seriously, very few musicians track the amount of money they make and spend on musical careers, and there can be signigicant tax advantages to doing so. I don't track what I spend on equipment because I really just don't want to know, but if you have the stomach for it, I bet it would be well worth your time to check out this or something very much like it. They have a functioning downloadable demo at their site.
There is a new beta of MIDIPerl. Two things that I wish I understood WAY better than I do now.
RME auddio has released Mac Soundmanager and ASIO drivers on their web site. They make very high quality digital only cards for perfectly reasonable amounts of money and are distributed in the US by Sek'd. The company is also planning OSS (Linux) and Be drivers. We should all be thankful that they want their cards anywhere they will fit. May that attitude infect all who make audio gear, and may they sell many a card to Macintosh owners.
If you are looking for a snippet of sound or an effect, and don't want to buy a whole sample collection, The Ultimate Sound Collections offers a web based store for buying sounds. I can't vouch for quality, but it's well designed and sure is convenient.
Reality Check, or, if Toni Kukoc Made a Record . . .
Every once in a while I get the big fat reality check that only the Internet can provide. For example, while writing the longish whine below about the BeOS, I got a letter from Zagreb, Croatia of all places. There is a fine man there named Sven who wrote that he is a Mac nut and audio gearhead and that he reads my column and likes it. Considering how I write, I'm first and foremost amazed that he understands it. I remember trying to read guitar amp reviews in German, and the combination of obscure guitar speak and a foreign language had me headed back to the TV to take in another episode of Komissar Rex (the Austrian version of Lassie and Law & Order, rolled into one show, Rex is a cop dog) in about ten minutes. After somehow deciphering my column, he writes:
" Last year I bought Power Mac 7300/200 with some equipment and establish small recording studio at home and work as a Macintosh consultant and freelance sound designer, making jingles and commercials for my clients and also producing (for my own pleasure or so called "bedroom producer") hip hop, trip hop and big beat kind of music, stuff witl lots of sampling, loops, etc.
Keith Richards has said in interviews that music is actually like food and water for humans. At some level we need it to survive, or at least to avoid going crazy. I guess that isn't literally true, but it's damn close. To be reminded that in a time and place where there are probably very few external forces driving a person to make music, the internal will and love for it can survive is really something else. I will continue to whine about the BeOS and whatever else is bothering me, but emails like these keep in perspective that we are lucky to have the tools we do for making music, and most of us live in a world where it's a whole lot easier to do it than Croatia. I tip my virtual cap via TCP/IP to Sven for keepin' it real in Zagreb.
Where do you want to Be today?
I know that my rep with some of the more rabid Mac users isn't all that good, and I know this because I actually read the email that I get from xlr8. But despite what you may think, I like Macs fine, I just have some issues with Apple. I didn't start using computers because I like them, or I wanted to make money, or because I grew up with them. I played video games on computers for about 6 months when I was in grade school and then switched to pinball. I started using computers when I realized that I could use them to make music, which is what I really like doing. The process of getting the beasts to do the recording thing forced me to teach myself enough about them that I got a job in a showroom and got promoted and eventually switched over to networking and now I make a decent living from computers. That is a nice side benefit, of course, but the real reason I did this is to make music, and if tomorrow I was told that I could play guitar for a living and never use a computer again for anything but email, that decision would not take 10 seconds. Actually, I might not even need the email.
If you are serious about making music with a computer, there has been really only one choice, Mac. If you aren't convinced of this (and if you read this site I bet you are) just drop by the web archive of the mailing list of any major cross platform audio app and read what the PC folks have to say. It ain't pretty I assure you. It can be done of course, and some people like Stevie Wonder use PCs for sequencing, and that says volumes, but for the most part, the audio community has belonged to Apple. I chose Macs because they were the best tool, not because they inspired me or they impressed me or I wanted to stand out in the crowd. Nope, I wanna record, and whatever lets me be creative is what I will use. So, to put it another way, I'm not an evengalist, I'm not a true believer, I don't wear little Mac buttons to meetings with the NT geeks to prove how different I think. The stuff that lets me create is the stuff I want.
A few weeks back I wrote about the future of hardware DSP on Macs, and what I see happening over the next six months in that arena. That was all fine and I stand by what I said, but I was in Sam Ash last week and there on the shelf sat one half of what I said was the future of audio DSP on the Mac. For less than $900 I could have picked up a Yamaha DSP Factory--and waited for the Mac future to catch up with the PC present. The other half of the Mac future will be shipping for the PC within a few weeks. And for this slower hardware support and comparative lack of cool shareware, we also get to buy everything from a single vendor and wait for third parties to support some of their insanely great ideas; while we sit with iMacs that won't take the floppy that I wrote this on, so I have to bounce it off of an NT server running Appletalk services because I want to make some corrections in BBEdit before I send it to Mike from work. That's a huge drag, and to add insult to injury, we have to pay a premium for hardware to that single vendor, and in return we get the cool audio cards five months after PCs.
All this was tolerable but not really all that pleasant until about a week ago. In anticipation of the Comdex show, audio companies started announcing support for the BeOS. Suddenly I realized that the problem with audio on WinTel has a great deal more to do with the Win than the Tel. My little computer geek mind started to spin around and I thought "Why should I wait for MacOS X? I don't need a multi-user environment (which OS X might not have anyway), I just need parallel processing, rock solid stability, super MIDI/Audio sync, and an OS decidated to working with audio. In fact, who knows if OS X will even have some of that?" The reason that Be wasn't a realistic option was the lack of professional audio application support. But now Steinberg announces their Nuendo package, originally planned for SGI, will run under Be. Emagic has announced that they will be porting their entire line to Be and writing Be drivers for their Audiowerk 8 card. Sonorus, Lucid, and Sek'd will soon be selling cards with Be drivers or writing drivers for their current cards. Perhaps most importantly, when interviewed, people from Be actually mention audio when asked about what their OS does. In fact, sometimes they mention it more than once, as if it might just be as important as video or graphics. Even if it isn't, it's nice to hear the attitude.
I first used Be with DR2 or DR1. I went out to buy a copy of some Mac magazine that had it included. It installed on the Powerbase and it looked like hell, the support for my graphics card must not have been perfect, but it was fun and cute. It had big primary color icons, looked just as French as all get out. I got the next DR because I was a Power Computing owner, and Be decided that if we were wierd enough to use a Power box maybe we'd really be into some off the wall OS as well. They were right, and the OS had improved dramatically. I knew just enough UNIX then to download and unzip some funky little audio apps, and had a great time. Stability with that build was a staggering improvement over the first one I had installed, it just didn't crash. Still, even at that point, which was less than a year ago, it was basically a lark for me, just for laughs and to be able to say I had a triple boot system (MacOS, BeOS, and Linux). Well, now that the list of people supporting Be include Steinberg, Emagic, and Intel, it may be time to reassess just what this thing is. Maybe this isn't just for laughs.
The ironic thing about this is that Be had every intention of continuing Mac support for their OS until Apple told them to go suck eggs. In the heady days when we were moving towards CHRP, Be could get hardware specs like everybody else, but when the days of "open hardware" were ended, Apple decided that Be had no business developing an OS for Apple hardware, and that was that. Anybody with any brains knew then and there that Be was headed the way of the Atari and the Edsel. Somehow, the people at Be managed to port an entire freakin' OS to another hardware platform in a few months, and did it before all the cash ran out, or at least before people quit loaning them money.
So here I am, audio nerd and computer nerd, with a Mac that may take six months to get either of the cards I would like to use, and that won't support some critical OS features that audio people need for who knows how long. This BeOS release still has a PowerPC version, so I ordered it, and I'll let you know how it works. Maybe some Be developer will even want me to review something, who knows. But the audio community has been on Macs not because the MacOS rocks so hard for audio, or because a three PCI slot box with an IDE drive is a massive music machine out of the box. Nope, Macs rule the audio arena largely because doing audio in Windoze is the second leading cause for musician suicide in this country, right behind Muzak. Microsoft and Apple seem fairly unconcerned about audio types, and that alone may give Be a huge advantage if they choose to grab it. All this sorta bums me out, because I don't WANT to switch platforms, but I do want the best tools I can afford. Sometimes I really, honestly, genuinely wonder if I will be writing this column in six months, or whether I will just build a PII box and run NT and Be on it.
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