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

10/27/99

How To Buy A Sound Card

This has once again become a really hot question in the xlr8 mailbag. So, we are going to do a little tutorial and checklist for you, and then probably move this into the woefully out of date FAQ. [Note: Thad's talking about the Audio FAQ, not the massive main site FAQ that covers everything from CPU upgrades to USB and is updated regularly.-Mike]

Question number one is whether you need a sound card at all. All Power Macs include basic stereo 16 bit 44.1k audio capability. They don't use the greatest converters in the world, but they work. If you just want to record an occasional sound or do speech to text or such like, a better microphone and a small preamp may do just fine. Look into the single point stereo mics that are sold for taping lectures and very rough live sound, they usually include a battery preamp to get the signal hot enough. Sony makes one, so do a few others. You can get a dramatic improvement over the mic that comes with the Mac for under $100 in this way.

If, however, you are planning on doing something more involved, like transferring audio from your LP collection or eight tracks or DATs, or maybe making your own music, you will probably want better sound than this. Now things get tricky, and you have to ask yourself some tough questions and give yourself honest answers. The first question is if you want a card that only has audio in and out, or do you want a card with onboard processing that can do synthesis and/or effects/mixing? For the converting LPs crowd, this is easy, they don't need it, but if you are planning on doing music production, even pretty modest music production, you will be surprised how quickly you can eat up a 400 Mhz G3 with some polyphony or a few reverbs. Trust me, I know of what I speak. If you need DSP on the card, your options are now defined. If, on the other hand, you just want audio I/O (stands for in/out), you have a few more questions to ask. First, do you need multiple channels of recording and/or playback? Next, do you want your card to have digital to analog converters on the card, or do you want an all digital signal path from external converters of some kind or another? Now, we'll step through these one at a time . . .

I Think I Need Some DSP . . .

. . . for synths or sampling or audio effects. OK, smart choice. As much as I believe that the studio is moving "in the box" over the long run, hardware has its charms. You never wonder how many Eqs you have in PARIS or what your polyphony is with a synth module. You know ahead of time and can plan to use what is available. There are really two families of cards here, those that do synthesis and those that do audio DSP. Sadly, there is no Soundblaster Live for the Mac. Those of you that don't know of this card, it's a nice consumer card on PCs that has a digital output, analog I/O, a headphone preamp (which screws up your converter quality, but how much can you complain for the price), and onboard synthesis and sampling. In fact, the on board sampler uses system RAM, so it's even cheaper. And after all, a 16 bit 44k sample is just like another, isn't it? I use a SBLive for monitoring Acid and other non-PARIS audio on my PC, and I have helped recreational PC audio types use them. Some day, this hardware may come over to the Mac in the form of the announced but not delivered version of the APS from EMU. Until then, the decent sounding $99 synth sampler card for the Mac does not exist. What does exist are the following. The cheapest entry into this realm is the Yamaha SW1000XG which I personally would love to take on a spin. It has the same hardware as their MU100 synth modules, and has the capacity to take daughter cards designed for the MU line of synths. It also has a S/PDIF out (48k only I believe) and no interference causing headphone amp. Finally, it also does some mixing and effects on whatever audio or synth streams you choose. Moving up in price a few hundred dollars is where the Creamware Pulsar lives. Creamware is about a year and a half late on the original release date of the Mac software for this card, but they announced at AES that they were serious this time. The Pulsar is a different critter in that it uses DSP chips for its synthesis and effects, so there is a constant tradeoff between polyphony and audio f/x and mixing horsepower and so on. They ship a goodly number of synth modules and a sample playback module with the card, and also have their own effects. If the Mac version of the software works, it may be a great choice, but in all honesty I wouldn't want to be the person who finds out if the software works. Caveat emptor. Next up is the recently announced and soon to ship OASYS PCI from Korg, which like the Pulsar does both synthesis and DSP on the same card, with the same resources being used for both.. I saw this demoed at AES and was very impressed by the features, software support, and stability. Korg navigated the line between allowing other people to add to the product (by releasing their synth programming/creation software), and delivering something that works out of the box very well. At $2200 (not $220 as I said a few weeks ago) you have a right to expect something good, but it looks like this card is it.

If you are looking for audio only with hardware DSP for tracking and effects, you have two options on the Mac, Pro Tools or PARIS. However, by talking about these systems, we are getting into the realm of audio workstations, not sound cards. Most people here know I use PARIS and love it, on the other hand Roger Nichols uses Pro Tools and loves it. He makes much more money than I do, so he can afford to.

Maybe Hardware DSP isn't for me

Now, if you DON'T need hardware synthesis and/or effects, the next question is how many channels you are going to need. Be realistic about this. If you are doing just overdubs in your house, or if you are just transferring audio from LPs or field recordings, don't overspend on a multi-channel I/O card. Let's say you are doing just this, overdubs to electronica or sampling or LP archiving. Then comes question number three, do you want external converters or are converters on a PCI card good enough for the work you are doing? It is a fact that the electromagnetic anarchy inside of the computer creates all kinds of problems for converting audio. Putting converters on the PCI card is less than ideal, but it's usually a good bit cheaper. An external shielded converter box WILL make a real difference, it's one of the things that I think makes PARIS sound as good as it does, all of the conversion is done like this. Once again, be honest about this. If you are doing mostly voice overs that you compress into an .mp3 and put on the web, then the converters on a card should work fine. However, if you are doing audiophile stereo recording of chamber music, then you certainly want external converters and a digital card to do the transfers. Right now, a nice low cost solution is the Audiowerk2 from Emagic. It has stereo digital AND analog I/O, so you can start using what's on the card, and if you get external converters down the road, the digital option is there. The Korg 1212 also has very decent and fairly quiet on board converters, as well as 20 bit digital S/PDIF I/O on RCAs. Unfortunately that's about it for cards with on board converters with Macs.

For digital only stereo cards, there are only a few options. The Lucid Technology PCI24 card, and the cards by rme audio. If you are enough of an audiophile to want digital I/O, it might be a good idea to get a card that is capable of recording 96k signals.

Our final group of cards is for people who need multi-channel I/O but don't want dedicated workstation I/O. You are in this category if you are working with editing many tracks at a time, or if you believe in the "in the box" studio as it stands now. Right now, the most versatile and expandable system by far is the MOTU system. Mark of the Unicorn has really run past everyone with this in my opinion. They have a host PCI card that can be connected to up to three external boxes offering a variety of different I/O options. For instance, the original 2408 will give you 24 channels, up to 8 analog and up to 24 of ADAT or TDIF. Other boxes include a new 24 bit 24 channel input box, a 12 channel 24 bit I/O box, and a digital only box. The options that this gives for integrating with your current equipment, or with gear that other people own, are pretty overwhelming. The second very nice option for this setup is the Sonorus Studi/o card. It's not really exciting, just a very good low latency all digital card with 16 channels in and out on Lightpipe connecters. If you already have an eight channel outboard converter or an ADAT, this is an excellent card. There are other options out there. Alesis, for instance, is making a ADAT card for computers, I just haven't had much feedback about it yet. Finally, Digidesign has announced their Digi001 card, which includes some digital, and some analog I/O, and also a Lite version of Pro Tools that uses their new real time audio f/x. It looks attractive, particularly since the file format is supposed to be interchangealbe with full Pro Tools. Do your demo at home, take it into a big PT place to mix. Sounds nice,

Hope this all makes sense, and I hope it helps. Like I said, I think the crucial thing is to ask yourself what you need. Don't over buy, but don't leave yourself needing and upgrade in a few months. And hardware DSP kicks butt.

Live Shows That Have Rocked My World

Despite all the stuff that I write here, I do realize that some music happens outside of the computer. I have seen a couple of fantastic shows recently. Check these bands out at a local music/beer selling venue in your town . . .

Sun Volt put out a record that I don't even own yet, but I was spinning Uncle Tupelo discs on the local college radio station back in the 1940's when I was still hip. I loved their first record, so when I saw them coming to town I had to check them out. They are massive live. No BS, no stage show, just four guys who won't be on the cover of GQ any time soon playing really good songs. At first, I didn't like some of the sounds and thought that the guitar player was leaning a little much on the Bigsby, but as the show went on, the sound really started to pull together and sound right. They got better as the night went on, and by the third or fourth encore, I was completely hooked. Check 'em out.

A much more commercial act to make it by was Macy Gray. She played a mid-sized club with an 11 piece backup band including a full horn section. They integrated the DJ with live drums as well as I have ever seen, and the band played with the kind of organic groove that only a bunch of people on the same wavelength can produce. I also fell deeply in love with the red haired backup singer. Deeply. Macy's Betty Boop meets P-Funk voice was great, and we all had a real good time.

Finally, a band that you most likely won't see, but did an amazing show so if you get the chance don't miss it. Tugboat Annie is an East Coast band with a few CDs out. They played at a local tiny gin mill place where I know a few folks. They do melodic alt rock to die for.

In Closing . . .

. . . another word about Opcode. The company is no longer even consistently returning authorization codes for people who have paid for the download version of Vision DSP. I sincerely hope that what seems too obvious to be deny (that they are six feet under as a software company) is for some fantastic reason not true. But, I think that anyone thinking about Opcode purchases should at least take a long look, and maybe even a long wait.


Have an Audio question? Check the Audio FAQ first, then the General FAQ Audio topic area.

Send Thad Feedback or new links at: tcb@caliban.grendelnet.com


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