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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown
After a wonderfully relaxing holiday in which I not only didn't do much with my computer, I couldn't do much with my computer, and during which a storm in Detroit forced me to stay in Memphis an extra day (worse things have happened), I return. Sometimes even the most dedicated digital audio dweeb needs to watch some college football and forget everything possible about converters and sample rates and PCI busses and all of that. But as the Byrds (and the Bible) so eloquently said, "to every thing there is a season" and right now, it's back to stringing ones and zeros in order and calling it music.
Like most people I have made some New Years resolutions. A few of them are none or your business, but a few might prove interesting.
I resolve to spend more time with friends and family and less time working on music on my computer, NOT.
I resolve to try to spend my audio money more intelligently. The things that hold their value and keep their usefulness the longest tend to be electronic and analog. Microphones, preamps, compressors, amps, monitors and the like will last longer and be worth more in a few years. I'll try to keep that in mind before I buy the latest gizmo or upgrade my processor before I need to.
I resolve to make every attempt to find a reason to drink a really good bottle of champagne at least once a month. Why should such fun only come around once a year?
I resolve to start playing live again.
I resolve to spend more time training my ears. As good as I hear now, I could do much better. A friend of mine records with an ADAT and two multi-effects units and a couple of compressors. His work sounds BETTER than many commercially released recordings because he has been doing it for 25 years and has fantastic ears. Even more than mics, time and money invested on improving listening skills will pay back in multiples.
I Hate To Sound Like A Jerk, But . . .
I get a lot of emails asking why I don't mention certain applications or DAWs or plug-ins or whatever. I am a single individual, with a fairly high stress full time job working on computers, and I do as good a job on this page as I can in what I loosely call my free time, since I probably should be doing something else with it anyway. I'm not trying to play some martyr trip here, and the amount of work that I do on this page isn't even a tenth of what Mr. Maximum Impact Mike does on the rest of xlr8yourmac [I have no other life -Mike ;-], but the fact remains that I am just a guy with a Mac and some audio apps who likes to record and mix and master and play with sound. Because of this, what I write about will by definition be more limited than what you can find on some other sites where many people contribute, like harmony central or a host of others. I assure you that there are many ways to skin the audio cat, and just because I use Cubase and SonicWORX and a Korg 1212 card does not mean that I think that you can't use Performer, Paris, Sound Designer, and an Audiomedia III. Really, I promise.
In addition, I try to keep this site kind of interesting with reviews. I have the Metasynth and Vision DSP coming up, and both of them are wonderful apps. If you as a reader think that I really should review something, let me know. However, I have written to pretty much everybody and have gotten very little response, in fact, often the smaller, more personality driven companies get back to me and the bigger ones do not. It's just the nature of the web and this column-I don't get the same kind of response as you would if you called from Electronic Musician. Put another way, if you know of some way to convince somebody to loan me a $3000 audio workstation for a few months so I can work with it and review it, not only will I like you, I'll buy you a drink at Mac World next fall. But other than that, I'm gonna continue to tell people what I can while still holding my job and making some of my own music.
Does Yosemite Sam Have A Voice?
Could somebody who is at MWSF PLEASE ask an Apple rep about the new G3 boxes and tell me about the audio built in? I'm not kidding, at all, I have yet to see even a single word about audio on those new boxes. I can see from pictures of the back that it will include the often inconvenient eighth inch mini jack. But will there be an A/V model with RCA or even balanced inputs? Are the converters 16 bit or 24 bit? Sample rates? Anyone? Anyone? Beuller? The Smoot-Hawley Tarrif? Anyone?
Also, before you go buy a Yosemite box for pro audio work, take note that there appear to no serial ports of any kind, so MIDI will be an adventure. In fact, for people with a couple of Studio 5s or MTP boxes, that may just be a deal breaker. Any info would be welcome.
Can OS 8.5 Get Her Groove Back
As Mike has been discussing, many people are experiencing problems with OS 8.5 and the Apple Video Player and a few other apps. I'm gathering information as I can, and I encourage readers with problems and/or solutions to 8.5 related audio problems to email me at the address at the bottom of the page. Please do so, I'll try to get some kind of FAQ page going about this and a few other issues. Unfortunately, I have little experience with 8.5, since I fell prey to the dreaded disk corruption on my boot drive and went back to 8.0 after that happened, but since it's such a big deal, I'll reinstall the updates and see how things go for me. But if I loose my boot drive again, y'all owe me. In addition, the problems with audio playback and quality seem to be related to the use and playback of compressed audio and video apps that use Quicktime to work with the compressed content. I don't do much with Quicktime or compressed audio, mostly because while the quality of the codecs has improved dramatically over the last few years, it's just not even close to good enough to use for recording and editing. In fact, few things bother me more than everybody's new "CD quality" compressed format, since they almost never are as good as CD quality, and frankly CD quality isn't such great shakes anyway. ATRAC compression (used in Mini Discs) sounds excellent, and supposedly there is a new lossless codec to be used with the DVD-Audio spec, but I'm sorry folks, you can't make a file one thirteenth of its original size and have it sound the same as the original. If you don't believe me, just stop by and we'll do a comparison with my (not all that amazing) recording and monitoring setup.
I can tell you a few things for sure from my short time with 8.5. First, the entire way that the sound manager accesses the audio hardware was changed in 8.5. I have this on good authority from people who I trust at Steinberg, and for them it changed the way that they did their Apple DAV ASIO driver, or rather how they didn't do it. As most of you know, Macs have audio cards in them, they just don't take up a card slot, sorta like built in ethernet. The card still has to have memory access, a way to talk to the PCI bus and processor and all of that. The way that Sound Manager talks to this card was changed in 8.5, and that probably has something to do with all the problems people are having. One thing I would like to know is if people using Apple G3 desktops are having the same problems as older Power Mac users. Maybe Apple tested things on the G3s and said good enough. In addition, Quicktime was updated with the 8.5 release, and perhaps none of these problems will be fixed until there is an update of Quicktime, in fact, that's my best guess, that QT 4 may solve some or all of these things. I use a PCI card for my audio I/O (analog and digital), and while I was using that card (a Korg 1212I/O), on occasion the audio would break up and sound pretty awful. I discovered that by selecting a different output in my master panel in Cubase, when I reselected the same output again, the audio would be fine. That is, instead of routing my audio to the analog outputs of the 1212, I would route it to the S/PDIF out or to ADAT channels one and two, and then immediately reselect the analog output again and that would take care of it. In anthropomorphic terms, the audio hardware and software lost their little minds, and then after my slapping them up a bit, they found them again. This happens occasionally under 8.0 as well, but it happened much more with 8.5. I wonder if selecting a different sample rate in the sound control panel and then reselecting the old sample rate would help anything.
Some readers have found some improvements with 8.5 and pro audio apps, and some have found just the opposite. I found improved performance only with Finder related tasks like file copies and such things, so the upgrade may not be worth it. One thing to remember is that sometimes the newest and latest is not the best thing, and if audio is a critical part of what you do with you computer, maybe you should just use 8.0 or even 7.6.1. In fact, one reader wrote me that 7.6.1 gets him vastly better performance with Digital Performer plug-ins that 8.0, and that 8.5 is even worse, in his case, he had his real time DSP capability cut in half by going from 7.6.1 to 8.5. It may be worthwhile to consult with the vendor of the audio apps you are using. For me, Steinberg seems pretty gung ho about 8.5, and I have received no dire warnings from the folks at Prosoniq or Opcode or anything, but the same may not be true for you. I do think that the audio soft companies could help everyone out a great deal by posting ideal, recommended and not recommended OS versions for us.
The Audio Card Recap
I am still getting tons of email about audio upgrade cards. Sorry folks, I'm not holding back any super special information to hoard all of the inexpensive, fantastic performing cards to myself. The same companies I mentioned in previous columns are the ones to consider. I do believe that the future will only get better an better for Mac audio cards, and I can't believe some of the PC companies that are promising Mac support in the first two quarters of '99. But as of now, the options are limited and fairly expensive. If you can't wait, get a digital only card and some outboard converters, and upgrade the converters as they get cheaper.
More Cards for the Mac
I am hoping for a few interesting announcements about audio from Mac World, but a few things did come out over the holidays. Lexicon posted drivers for the Lexicon Studio, and Yamaha posted drivers for the DSP Factory.
The Lexicon is a combination mixing, DSP, and I/O system. It takes the opinion (that makes a great deal of sense) that reverb is the real CPU killer when it comes to audio DSP, and it provides one reverb chip equivalent to the (incredible sounding) PCM-90 digital reverb, and there is room to piggy back another. With the reverb handled purely by hardware, that leaves LOTS of processor bandwidth for the other host based DSP plug-ins. The Studio system also includes some very good converters in a separate box, for optimal sound quality, and options to add a great deal more conversion and I/O if needed.
The DSP Factory has been covered here before. Check out the web sites and newsgroups for what PC users think of it. I don't know exactly what this means, but these drivers had been projected for JUNE '99 release, and that info was from people from Yamaha. They were obviously off by a few months, let's hope that this will become a trend and the Mac drivers for everything will come out earlier than expected.
Most of the opinions I have read from PC users of both of these systems has been very positive, and I think that they will make many a Mac user very happy. One thing I am trying to find out about these systems is what the control options and software integration plans are for these systems. I'm not sure to what extent either card includes control or recording software from the companies that make the hardware. My assumption is that at some point a user is supposed to use whatever sequencing or recording environment they normally do, but for now, it will probably be two different apps.
The Year Ahead
Lots to look forward to around here, folks. New apps, new cards, new Macs (maybe speaking MIDI some way or another), and maybe a new OS. I'll have the next batch of review coming up real soon, and while you wait for your new Strawberry iMac, I strongly advise you to run, don't walk, to you nearest record store and buy the recently released Booker T. and the MGs box set, "Time is Tight," and then go home and barbecue something. You'll be glad you did.
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