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


A Few Disjointed Notes

A few unrelated observations start out this week's noisiness.

The band that I called "Boys Against Girls" is in fact named "Girls Against Boys" or is it the other way around . . .

Marathon computer sent me a really really quiet fan that I have tried in two machines. I recommend it highly for anybody trying to work with mics too close to a computer.

The "Golden Ears" pro audio ear training CD set is worth its weight in Neumans. I got it as a gift last year, and I haven't had tons of time to work with it, but it does just what it says, it trains the ears to listen to recordings much more critically. Great stuff, and at the very least I have memorized the center frequencies for the ISO octaves.

As cool as loops and samples are, and as much as I like electronic music, when doing rock, nothing anywhere can substitute for a good real live drummer who can play the part right.

Reaktor is really cool.

If you don't have the time for the Golden Ears stuff, try to read "Sound Advice" by Wayne Wadhams in bits and pieces. I've had this book for a while, and dragged it out recently to look up some info about wind instruments. I had forgotten what a good book it is. It's not at all technical, but still passes on lots of useful information, including over 150 pages about mic, tracking, EQ and effects techniques for pretty much everything you'll ever want to stick a mic in front of.

The Portable Personal Studio?

This particular issue of "Bring in the Noise" comes to you partially courtesy of the fine folks at Amtrak. Trains are still the most civilized (if not the most practical) way to travel and I go Amtrak whenever I can. In addition to avoiding the inhumanity and stress of airports, I also avoid the appallingly expensive trip by bus from New Haven to LaGuardia or JFK. But I digress, the real point is how nice laptops are.

Getting ready for this overnight train trip included a decision to try to get some much overdue audio grudgework done. My employer decided that we could get things done better if we were carrying laptops with us, that way we could test circuits, get software we needed, have stable machines for emergency backups and so on. This is in fact true, and it has helped me lots of times on my job, but inevitably the little Stinkpad has also become the home of a few gigs worth of audio files and a bunch of apps. My favorite new audio toy these days is Acid, from the fine folks at Sonic Foundry, and I decided that I should take a few hours and "acidify" some of my favorite loops, hits, and lines.

I'm plugging away at that now, and will continue to do so, but I also have Reaktor installed on here, and Wavelab Lite, and a couple of other little things. As I have worked with this stuff the past few hours, I'm starting to realize that now that the Mac based studio is nearing something that could almost be called maturity, we are not too far off from the "portable personal studio." In the world of laptops, the Mac reigns supreme, and my PC laptop isn't even bending end for a PC. However, it can do a goodly big of real time software synthesis, some real time f/x, and it kicks booty for editing. Internal MIDI timing on a PC is a nightmare, but on a fast Mac laptop, I bet full blown dance tunes could be done start to finish. A 14.1" LCD screen running at 1024X768 is perfectly tolerable for hardcore audio use, and the drives are also big enough to hold lots of data. Take this level of performance and triple it or more, and that's what a G4 may offer on a laptop. For me, that means that the only thing lacking is multi-channel I/O, and that's only necessary for some kinds of music. A well equipped Mac portable with Unity, Vibra, a sequencer and some effects could absolutely do remixes and some electronic music without any problem. With a USB audio interface (OS 8.7 will support USB audio I hear), even some live audio could be added.

What's Wrong With This Picture?

I have a bizarre need to read anything printed about audio and recording, maybe because I can't spend nearly as much time as I'd like actually doing it. So, in preparation for this trip, I picked up pretty much a standard batch of things to keep my occupied--two audio mags (Mix and EQ) and a Gore Vidal novel. The most recent issue of Mix includes the most recent chorus in the "small studios are killing us" tune. I heard the same thing at StudioPro, I read it in these magazines, I hear it on the newsgroups on the web. What they say is that the quality, art, and beauty of music is being destroyed by people working on their own in small studios. Mix magazine seems particularly into the whole thing, probably because they cater to the real high end. I'm not knocking Mix, I buy it and learn a lot, but the fact remains that if they ran the same cover photo four months in a row, I don't know if I'd notice, since it's always a beautiful picture of some high end six figure console with NS-10s on the meter bridge and lots of hard wood and track lighting. I'm not the kind of person who can tell which model Amek or SSL it happens to be. This most recent Mix also includes an angry letter from a studio owner. This letter is from a guy who opened what he thought was a super bitchin studio in NYC that didn't do very well, and that he is now closing. I understand the bitterness over a failed business project (I hate losing money, and I've probably lost less than he did), and the person puts the blame on various bad places, but mostly on smaller, cheaper and according to him, inferior recording studios. He generously refers to those who do this kind of thing as "John Does with an ADAT."

For years, I have thought that there were really only three serious problems in the recording/music business. Namely,

1. Record companies too lazy or incompetent to break and support their signees

2. Coke

3. The Backstreet Boys

Looks like I was wrong. The real problem with the recording/music industry is . . .


Yup, that's the real freakin' problem these days. Boring old WinNT tech by day, musician/recordist by night. That's the problem. Guys who work day jobs and then spend lots of time and money trying to do something they enjoy as well as they can, or people who are getting by with minimal equipment and try to make it sound good. No matter how many physics books I read, microphones I buy, and bands I record, in the end I'm a John Doe with an ADAT, or rather a John Doe with a PARIS, 'cause I may be a hack, but I know a good deal when I see it. Know what else is wrong with the music business these days? All those local bands that don't have record deals that keep on confusing the morons who actually shell out their cash for those Backstreet Boys records. Really, what the hell are those amateurs thinking? The industry spends all that money trying to get their Backstreet Boys records all SSL'd to perfection, and some people STILL think that they should write their own songs and go play them in front of people in their own town. Really, they do, I swear. Know what else? Some people actually prefer the music these hacks make to those Backstreet Boys records that cost so much money. I'm not kidding, it's true. Know what those guys in those bands are? John Does with guitars. As long as I have a head of steam going, here's another thing that needs to stop. All those freakin dance music DJ/producer types who make records with samplers and turntables and a computer. They don't even need recording spaces, they do it all on their own, no studio needed at all. Then, to make it worse, sometimes they print singles of their no studio necessary records, and entire rooms of startlingly attractive people sweat and shake their booties to those songs like the world is about to end. The nerve, screwing up our record business. From now on whenever I see one of them coming my way, I'll say to whomever will listen, "Another stinkin' John Doe with a sampler." Actually, I think we should expand this out to other parts of life, like say golf. What the world really needs is to get rid of all those bums out on the course that can't shoot below par golf. All they do is get in the way of the really artistic pros. If you can't drive farther than Tiger Woods, get the hell off the course and make room for somebody who knows what they are doing. Makes my blood boil just thinking off all those people missing fairways and shanking 6 foot putts. Who needs 'em? From now on, they are the 12-handicap-having-into-the-bunker-hitting John Does with a sand wedge.

I'm picking up on one line in one letter from a guy who clearly is upset at a business debacle. Still, this isn't the first time I have heard this, in fact it's not even close to the first time. And frankly, I'm sick of the attitude. If you own a studio, you're in one of the toughest businesses around, and I don't wish anyone ill who does that. Still, business climates change, and anybody in any business has to be ready to deal with new kinds of competition. The great irony of this is that most of the loudest people talking about the demise of the real recording studio are baby boomers who saw the big time studio business go from in house studios owned by the labels (and watched very carefully by the labels) to the big time for hire Bastilles now apparently being stormed by all of the John Does (or perhaps Jean Phillipes) with ADATs. Do you suppose all of the house engineers at Capitol and Columbia were, like, really excited around 1970 when bands decided they wanted to record their own way, with people the felt comfortable around, and when they felt they could perform best? My personal guess is no, they weren't all that excited about that, because it probably threatened their jobs. Now there's another change. It's not going to put Quad of Ocean Way out of business, but it's making things tougher for some people. I'm capitalist, may the best studios, large and small, win.

Chips Wars

Everybody who does even semi interesting work with native audio processing knows that we are still miles from the day when floating point and/or vector processing will make all audio work as easy as editing this text file. Even so, the bar is getting higher and higher, and competition is getting stiffer. On the PC side, AMD is about to release their new high end chip, Athlon. From the specs that I have read, it is about to be the highest performing floating processor available in a desktop PC. It walks all over a PIII in raw floating point power (one can argue that the KNI in the PIII are a response, but there's about as much KNI optimized software as there is MMX optimized software), and, sad to say, Athlon also beats out a G3. Argh. A real fast G3 is close, mind you, but for the most powerful floating point math today, it's gotta be running on that other platform

In my not too humble opinion, the day of dedicated hardware will not end until multi-processing on a very multi-threaded OS becomes a reality (OS X? Be?). In the mean time, single processor systems will be the only option. Much has been made about the potential superiority of Altivec enhanced G4s for audio and similar processes (video rendering, some photo DSP, etc.). Anybody with an interest should definitely go check out MacKido and read the Altivec section to understand what I'm talking about. I don't think anybody questions that the processor has the capability to rewrite the book for audio work, the question is whether there will be enough software to take advantage of it. Well, if the rumor sites are to be believed, and in this case I think that they can, there are developers at Siggraph ready right now to announce Altivec ready software. We have been told that Motorola went out of their way to make it easy for apps to use Altivec, and now there is evidence that this is true. That's fantastic news folks, think 24 Renaissance EQs and 24 Renaissance Compressors and a really great reverb with bandwidth to burn.

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