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Accelerate Your Mac!
Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown

4/13/99
New Software Samplers and Cards-
What A Difference A Year Or So Makes

Good news, faithful readers, another critical area of music software is getting full support on the Mac. When I started this little domain for Macintosh noisemakers, I began with a talk about the lack of interesting software synthisizers for the Mac. Well, now with Metasynth and the Retro and the Vibra, that's no longer a problem. In the growing world of computer based samplers, the Gigasampler is in a category of its own, but new and interesting tools are coming out for the Mac as well. Most notably the DS-1 from Bitheadz, which tries to be a full blown polyphonic replacement for a hardware sampler. The Koblo Stella looks very cool, but it seems to be designed more for special effect sounds than as a general sampler. In any case, there is no longer a need to feel like things are insufficient on the Mac, though as I said, the Giga is really its own super cool thing. Bitheadz also just released an update of the Unity that supports Rewire and MAS so if you are using Cubase or Digial Performer, you can route the outputs of the DS-1 to one of those apps as if it were an audio stream from within the sequencer

Another cool thing is that after that same year, people answer my email. Bitheadz was one of the many companies who I contacted when this column was getting underway, and like most I never heard back from them. Not so anymore. If I didn't know better, I'd think that people were actually reading this page, and that it made a differnce in what people buy. But we all know that's nuts.

More On Yosemite And Audio

As Mike noted from a reader report, apparently you can authorize a disk in another machine, put it in your Yos, and it should work. I have heard of that working, so if you have another machine and have an app that doesn't yet do non-floppy authorizations, that SHOULD work. Also remember, the only audio cards currently working in the Yosemite are the Sonorus Studi/o, the MOTU 2408, and the Ensoniq PARIS. That's it, no others.

For MIDI, Opcode has cleared the "serial port in the modem slot" card for OMS use. I forget the vendor name, and I don't have an internet connection here so I can't check it. In any case, that's good news, because you only have to give up a modem (and the USB versions of those are here or nearly here) instead of a PCI slot for a MIDI port. I was told some time ago that USB drivers for MIDI would be forthcoming for the Mac, but I haven't seen it yet. Roland announced their USB interface would support Macs, but I don't know of anybody yet who has used one successfully. My understanding was that the problem was timing accuracy in the Apple USB implentation, but I could be wrong, if any of you are using the Roland or Opcode MIDI interface over USB, please contact me, I'd like to get some feedback. Audio of USB is still slated for this summer I am told.

Finally, the Yosemite users I have heard from have reported solid disk performance with the onbaord UDMA controller and drives. Those who have added another have also been happy. Very cool.

The Big News From Yamaha

As Mike posted yesterday, there is an exciting new audio/synth card for the Mac. My legendary typing skills got the name wrong, its SW1000XG. To paraphrase James "Hollywood" Henderson, I couldn't type CAT if you spotted me the C and the A. The combination of synth and audio capability on one card is nothing new on the PC side of the pond, various cards have been doing this for some time, but it's new on the Mac. What this card has is the same soundset and synthesis capability as a Yamaha MU100 module, along with stereo analog I/O and S/PDIF digital out. It would dramatically improve the card in my eyes if it had S/PDIF ins that would accept 24 bit words, but even as it stands it's quite a card. It talks MIDI via OMS, and installs its own driver so that the OMS setup will find it when it searches, and it talks audio via ASIO. Notably, it doesn't directly support FreeMIDI or Sound Manager, so you can't use if for anything that doesn't talk ASIO. For me personally that doesn't matter because SonicWORX 2.0 will have ASIO support, but those of you using non ASIO software and editors should take this into consideration, since Yamaha has quite specifically stated they do not intend to write a Sound Manager driver. I really hope Apple considers making ASIO 2.0 a standard on the Mac. It's free and as of version 2.0 should support apps sharing the same hardware, better sync and monitoring and so forth. It already supports 24 bit words and 96k sample rates.

Interestingly, at the xgfactory.com website, it appears that Yamaha may have tipped its hand on another issue. They were advertising their compatability (via ASIO) with the Unity DS-1 sampler, but also said that this was not the "final solution" for sampling with the SW1000XG. The SW card has an expansion slot where currently any one of three expansion cards can be added. The three cards are a harmony card, a physical modeling card, and a FM synthesis card for those subwoofer destroying techno bass sounds. Rumor has it that Yamaha has been developing a sampling card to add to that list, in response to the deafening chorus users who have asked for that capability. That bit about not being a final solution looks like a big fat hint to me. I can only hope that if they do develop such a card, they will make it compatible with their own totally cool A3000 hardware sampler. VERY mysteriously, their EX series synths include sampling as a means for synthesis, but they aren't compatible with the A3000 and can't read A3000 sample CDs. Don't ask me why, 'cause I don't know.

This card will not be the only one of its kind. Good quality rumors have other synth manufacturers natrually looking to make some money off of the desktop computer based studio. The SW1000XG does have some advantages, like it works now for one. The MU series is very good sounding for what it does, which is general synthesis, and it can be controlled with the cool new Phat.Boy. What I don't know about it is ease of editing on the Mac, converter quality, and the stability of the software. I have a PC friend who owns one, and I'm going to try to bribe him and borrow it for a day or two. Yamaha, needless to say, won't answer my email. I'm certainly not that important yet.

Will The G4 Change My World?

A while ago I was talking about G4s and native processing and I made some snotty remark that I bet those Altivec instructions would do a hell of a lot more for gamers than pro audio people. Well, lucky me, I was full of it. Since G4 upgrades and Macs are only months away, I have been poking about the web and seeing what I could find about them. First of all, the brutal thing about native audio processing is that it MUST be real time. It doesn't do anybody much good to be able to hear a reverb on a vocal when you can't hear the rest of the mix. Second, audio DSP is almost purely (like over 99%) floating point math. As I have discusse before, the G3 certainly isn't a BAD audio chip. The backside cache on the G3 is a big improvement over motherboard cache for audio, but still the raw FPU performance is not much better than a 604e at the same clock speed. The G4 will roughly double the G3 in FPU at the same clock speed and support up to 2MB of cache. So, your 450 G4 will immediately double your available native plug-ins. That's a nice start, but the real heavy breathing for sound people is the Altivec unit. There's a good in depth article over at Mackido, but in short, it's the bomb for audio. The Altivec vector processing unit, according to what I am told, does exactly what audio DSP programmers need done, and it does it really really well. Since audio processing is all that FPU math on huge streams of data, the parallel capability and instuctions are almost tailor made for audio DSP. All too often, processing improvements help out only limited and specialized functions, and since audio is a fairly small market, we don't usually get the good stuff. However, with Altivec, I am told that the theoretical increase in performance will be quite close to the real world increase in performance, or in other words, this time we ARE one of the specialized apps that will get a massive boost. So this means a 10 to 16 TIMES increase in real time audio processing for plug-ins and apps that use Altivec. Yup, ten times the plug-ins is not out of the question. And PARIS supports VST plug-ins, so how happy is my life?

Oh, and someday we'll get two of these suckers on one card.

Cool Surround Sound Movie Alert

I saw "The Matrix" at a reasonably modern theater over the weekend. The soundtrack of that film is a who's who of hip industrial and techno noises right now, and the sound design was top notch. Surround mixing is also getting better all the time, and it seems they put a little extra effort into getting the sonics right in this movie. The theater I was in was a touch underpowered, and I'm almost sure there was a low end driver gone the way of all paper in one of the side speakers, but it wasn't too noticeable. In a top flight theater with a newer system I bet it would be an incredible sound experience. One particular scene with a Propellerheads tune was something else . . .

Records You Must Buy If You Know What's Good For You

It's xlr8yourmac confession time. Once upon a time, I was an analog reactionary. Yup, it's true, and I'm ashamed, but I submit to the court that part of the problem was that digital stuff sounded horrible for so long, and I ask for understanding due to this undeniable fact. It's true, I used to have long hair and I played nothing but guitar, and blues and jazz guitar at that. I was a snob, plain and simple--any ideas that happened after about 1970 were suspicious to me, or at least any ideas from people who weren't named Pat Martino. Whenever somebody tried to play me a garage or drum'n'bass record, I'd spit fire and run to another room. I even liked some singer songwriter music from the 60's, like I owned a Cat Stevens record. Now that's about the most embarassing thing I could admit on this website without risking incarceration, but it's true, I had Cat Stevens Greatest Hits. There I said it. Today, I still have long hair, but the snobbery is pretty much gone.

I'm not exactly sure when or why things started to change. I think partially the machines got a lot better, and partially I started to realize that the guitar players I loved the most were innovators not followers. I had Benny Goodman records, but because of the "Who hired the guitar player from Mars" genius of Charlie Christian. My favorite blues record of all time was "I'll Play The Blues For You" by Albert King, a record where Albert somehow melted down the smooth funky R&B of the 70's with his deep roots blues playing to make a shiny, sharp new kind of blues. I'm not the smartest cat in the world, but it started to dawn on me that Charlie Christian and Albert King and John Fahey and Grant Green and all my other heroes didn't get to where they were by screeching everytime something new came along. So I tried to be a little more open minded about things, and luckily for me, my girlfriend's little brother treats dance music like religion, and he started to hip me to some cool new sounds. It was DJ Food and the Sharpshooters who finally brought me over to the trip hop team, and as I listened to more stuff, I liked it more and more. This music was old news to a lot of people, but not to me.

Recently everyone and their cat are hiring kids with bloodshot eyes and baseball caps to rejuvinate flagging carreers and diminishing creativity. I'm sure one day we'll hear that, I dunno, one of the Hanson brothers will do a techno record. It's inevitable that anything good gets chomped on by the pop world and every trend will eventually suck. However, I have three examples I want you folks to consider for your listening pleasure. They all have really spun my head, and I think they all offer a unique new take on electronic and computer based music.

Garbage: Version 2.0

You've almost certainly heard some of this record on the radio, but it's worth hearing the whole thing start to finish. Version 2.0 is a very good rock/pop record that happens to do some very interesting electronic things. It's not a huge departure from the familiar world of a rock band, they have guitarists and a real drummer, and they support a singer who writes most of the words. Their first record was excellent, but this second one is completely differenct cup of iced French Roast. The recording, mixing and production are impeccable, and the sound is about as thick as I have heard from any record. Think of it as millenial Phil Spector-no frequency left unused. They deftly use loops and beats and synth sounds to fill in spaces that that the other instruments have left, and they do a good bit if DJ inspired breaks and sudden sonic changes. Then, there's Shirley Manson. She's a damn good singer, and she's got this "pixie hell raiser psycho space girl in a mini skirt and boots" thing going on. Hey, works for me. It's a great pop record with some real cool electronica.

Totally unrelated personal note. Butch Vig is the drummer in Garbage, and he has been a high end producer for years, most famous perhaps for bringing the Minneapolis/Seattle sound to Top 40 radio and MTV with "Nevermind" by Nirvana. He also played in one of my favorite bands when I was in high school, Firetown. They released a few records that sold, um, not terribly well. I saw them open for Roger McGuinn in Minneapolis in like 1927 or something, and I was ecstatic. Who knew I'd be pimping his rock/techno project on the web many years later?

David Bowie: Earthling

I recently saw the Rolling Stones Inc. play for the third time. Charlie Watts was as mesmerizing as ever, and Mick did more running than I could right now. But while it was a great show, and I had as good a time as I have ever had while being robbed, the Stones today are basically a nostalgia act. They gamely played some very good newer tunes and played them well, but the crowd that spanned five generations was really there to hear "Jumpin Jack Flash" and "Sympathy For The Devil." Against that backdrop, I picked up the new David Bowie record, and what an astonishing contrast. Like every rock star who tries to stay fresh and interesting, he has done some clunkers over the years, but this is the payoff for some of those failed experiments. Instead of hiring some hip kids to remix his record, he clearly spent some time learning the craft himself, and it shows. He sings as well as ever, and there are little bits of familiar sounds, but spiky guitar noises and fantastic jungle inspired loops are mixed in with live drums in a way that works as well as I have ever heard. This may be the first fully realized jungle/rock record. One track in particular could be a plain old soul balad with the changes, but instead it's a dark strange soul tune hash with random piano notes coming out of nowhere that somehow work. Hats of to David for keeping the faith, and forging ahead.

Grooverider: Mysteries of Funk

I THINK, but I'm not sure, this is a distilled verion of a two CD release from the UK. I guess we Americans lack the attention spand of our European brethren. I'll take the other CD thank you. This record is made by a DJ, so it doesn't try to do the band thing like the first two records do. There are vocals, but the real attraction is the beats and grooves. Drum'n'bass is known for frenetic pace and a certain amount of obscurity, but this record is brimming with jazzy plucked basses and truly soulful sounds. There's plenty of real fast beats as well, but as long as you aren't the reactionary that I once was, it's not at all hard to get around--remember to look for the beat in the bass not the drums if it helps. The spacey horn playing is nice as well. Drum'n'bass is for me really exiting stuff, and it's getting better and better as it makes tiny little forays into pop. It's hard to explain why this is such zeitgeist music, but like the many things modern, it's a little jerky and hard to follow, but at its best it's not being intentionally strange, it's just trying to pack in all the good ideas at once. I'm not much of a dancer, I go to clubs to listen, but the people who dance to this stuff are an inspiring lot. There's nothing like seeing a group of people on Monday who are clearly still out enjoying a couple of tunes on a Friday night. And they care about music like few others anywhere. I truly believe this music is in many ways the future, and it sounds just fine right now.

OK, end soap box.

See ya next week.


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