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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown


Emagic Releases The First Altivec Enhanced Pro Audio App

Whoa Hoa It's Emagic

It appears that the first major audio company to actually complete, not just promise, Alitvec enhanced software is the wacky Germans at Emagic. I don't talk too much about Emagic around here, and that's not because I don't like Emagic or anything. I just don't happen to use their software. Emagic probably is best known for their extraordinary TDM implementation. Many MIDI savvy Pro Tools users would rather have their children taken away than lose their copy of Logic. Emagic has also been pioneering some new hardware/software streaming drivers, in response to ASIO from Steinberg. In any case, they write some pretty nasty code. The downside of Logic is its legendary complexity, perhaps that's why I haven't ever taken the time to learn it.

The point of this blurb is, however, is that the most recent version of Logic includes Altivec enhancements. Way to go, guys, it's always nice to be first on the block. Your audio columnist here currently lacks both a G4 and a copy of Logic, so I can't tell y'all much about it. Any volunteers out there to do some testing?

Pulsar Mac Is (Sorta) Finally Here

As Mike mentioned on the front page at my request, Creamware has released public beta software and drivers for their Pulsar card. I've been talking about Pulsar for a while, but the Mac version has been delayed forever, so I pretty much gave up. It appears, however, that they are nearly ready with the Mac software. The current version lacks ASIO and the sample player modules, but it's obviously pretty close. I've started investigating the Pulsar information and press releases, and it makes a bit of sense why it's taking so long. Creamware has taken on the daunting task of writing a very complex and hardware abstract environment for their stuff to work in. It is sufficiently independent of hardware, that synths and plug-ins and devices written for the PC will work essentially out of the box for the Mac version. This gives them a potentially unprecedented platform mobility, both with Pulsar, and its big brother, SCOPE.

For those who don't know, Pulsar is a PCI card with Analog Devices SHARC processors for audio processing and synthesis. It also has 16 channels of ADAT I/O, and stereo analog and digital I/O. It is designed to be a system that allows a great deal of customization by the user. Using DSP chips for processing and synthesis is all the rage these days, and for good reason. Since the DSP chips can do whatever the programmer wishes, everything resides in software, so additional devices, algorithms, and synths are easily updated and created. It's the same idea behind the Korg OASYS PCI system.

In addition to pioneering the hardware abstraction, Creamware is also pioneering by sending me hardware. Yup, for the first time ever, someone is sending me hardware for review. I don't expect the first generation of software to be without some problems, but I"ll be working with a Pulsar on my Mac over the next few months. In fact, I probably need to make a new set of scoring procedures for reviews that include hardware.

When You Need Hardware, When You Don't

The Pulsar review raises an interesting general question. When is accelerated hardware good and when is host processing the way to go? This entire column is sort of tacitly based on the idea that you don't need massively expensive gear and a ton of PCI cards or $3000 reverb boxes to get great results. For a long time I was strictly a native processing guy, Cubase and a G3. Now, I'm trying to find a balance between accelerated hardware DSP and native processing.

Audio processing is a particularly strange thing, because it's almost all real time. It's nearly impossible to EQ the bass without having the kick drum going as well. That's a small example, but things get worse the more you start to mix. It's not hard to have a native EQ and compressor on a kick and bass sound, but later on in the same mix, it's possible to be working on a lead vocal while EQ and compression and reverb is needed on fifteen or twenty other tracks. Changes made to that vocal sound (in terms of EQ, dynamics, or time based effects) can involve any of those other tracks, you really need to hear almost everything that's going on. Not many CPUs can handle that quite yet. So, I think that today, in a world with budget limits, we should be using a combination of native processing and either outboard processors or PCI cards.

What we native DSP users have discovered is that there are two things that just murder a CPU, a good reverb, and a good synth. Often, people have synth modules they are running with a sequencer, so that's usually less of an issue, though of course I sure do like my software synths. The best soft synths to my ears sound as good as the best hardware synths. Reverbs, however, are different critters. As good as some of the native reverbs are, I still don't think I would use them over a high end TC unit if I had my choice. For years, we have been told, quite rightly, that the worst thing to do to audio is to convert it from analog to digital and back the other way. In fact, one of the best ways to pretty much guarantee a weak, thin, "digital" sounding mix is to do a bunch of A/D/A conversions to 16 bit files on the way to a 16 bit DAT. However, in the case of an effects unit, the returns are generally going to be mixed so low, that it's not such a problem. Beyond that, more and more effects boxes are coming with digital I/O options, generally S/PDIF or ADAT Lightpipe. Busing is not a particularly CPU intensive task, so setting up an aux send in your sequencer default project is a trickle, but the reverb plug-in it replaces can be whacking your G3 silly.

Digital reverb is also thought of as horrible expensive, but that's not really so true today. Sure, the best TC Electronics, Lexicon, and other high end units are very expensive, but a number of good reverbs are available for a lot less. Drummers love the way Yamaha REV 500s sound on their kits, Alesis reverbs can sound excellent on some things, and used Ensoniq and Sony multi-effects with very good sounding reverbs are out there for not too much cash. It's certainly something to consider when you are watching your CPU get killed by one reverb plug-in, and it's a way to have some sanity in your setup while we wait for multi-core gigahertz G4s.

By the way, this also speaks for some of the recording systems that include DSP on the card, like the DSP Factory, PARIS, Pro Tools, and the new Korg OASYS PCI. These are very different units, but all share some audio I/O, and more or less hardware based DSP. One of the great things about using PARIS is knowing that I always have 16 tracks of recording, four bands of EQ per track, and a certain amount of DSP on the card, enough for a couple of reverbs, some delay based effects, and at least a few insert compressors. Since PARIS also supports VST, the CPU can add more effects. In fact, I think of PARIS as my "bread and butter" stuff, and use native effects for more specialized situations. You can get much the same effect with some digital outs and a decent reverb box or two.

A Small BeOS Blurb

Not much here about BeOS of late. I never got around to putting it on my PC, but I'm taking on my boot drive some time very soon. I've had good luck with Win98 Second Edition at work, and my home machine has a bunch of junk I want rid of anyway. So, this time around Be and linux are going on the PC. However, it's getting down to brass tacks with Be. Nobody disputes the exceptional quality of what is under the hood, but the developer support has been mostly in the form of press releases, not released code. It's been some time since those releases were sent out as well. I really honestly hope that BeOS is the bees knees, I believe in competition, and with OS X still not a known quantity as far as MIDI is concerned, BeOS could have a real niche market with the OS level MIDI implementation. We'll see what I can find once I have it up and running on the little Cele.

Some Really Disjointed Comments

Last night I saw an East Coast band called The Prodigals, who are sort of an Irish Traditional rock/funk/fusion band. They have a monster bassist for you who play that instrument, and are a jolly good time over a few pints. However, what struck me was the music played in between sets. For some reason this Irish pub insists on playing pretty awful eighties music all the time. I love the lads behind the bar, but I certainly wouldn't exchange CD collections with them. Anyway, in between rousing renditions of "Cum On Fell The Noize" by Quiet Riot (I actually saw them open for Black Sabbath in Minneapolis when I was about 14, they sucked then as well) and "Sweet Caroline" I was treated to some early Beastie Boys. Now, it's always a sign that ones age is advancing when one starts saying "These damn kids these days ought to listen to [fill in the blank], they were better than these losers," so I guess I'm about to show my advanced age. I think all of the late model white kids mixing hip hop and rock need to go to school with the originators of the concept. Or, in other words, Korn needs to give a serious listen to "Fight For Your Right To Party" and lighten up for heavens sake.

Further curmudgeon notes. I was treated to a copy of Maximum Rock'N'Roll a few days ago. Once again, I'm showing my age by saying that I read it probably 10 years ago, and remember a number of my friends being ecstatic that their high school punk band managed to get a tiny, grainy picture of themselves next to their 4 song tape being reviewed. From a similar era, I found a copy of "Damaged" by Black Flag in the used CD bin. Like the Beasties, this era of Black Flag, despite the gloom and doom content of much of it, had a sense of humor. They were also concerned primarily with the pursuit, consumption, or horrific absence of beer. That's pretty much what I remember from American punk rock. However, the copy of Maximum Rock'N'Roll that I read includes verbose, hair-splitting discussions about veganism and American corporate culture worthy of the most self impressed and obsessed group of socialist undergraduates. It's fairly scary to see these kids so deeply worried about this stuff. Most of my punk friends spent some time pretty upset as well, but usually because they didn't have any beer.

Those of you who think that rock journalism is in fact what Frank Zappa said it is, I encourage you to look into the writings about music from the land of cucumber sandwiches and crisps. The Brits have the best rock'n'roll mags anywhere, Q and Mojo being my favorites. There is also now an online version of Q at which this week includes a poll asking whether you would prefer free sex or free music. Rolling Stone and Spin should hang their heads in shame when they read Q.

How about them Billboard Music Awards? I saw it in a bar with the sound off. Don't think I missed much . . .

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