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


NAMM Show Roundup Issue #2

In installment #1, I wrote about some of the hardware and new products at NAMM, this time we'll concentrate on what is really most germane to this column-software. A number of the "new" software tools had been pre-released or pre-announced, but those in attendance got "first looks" at a good bit of new or finally working software.

What was a better kept secret than the fact that Gary Bauer was running for President? Reason from Propellerheads/Steinberg. Reason is a "virtual rack" of synths, effects, mixers, and sequencers that runs as a standalone app, or ReWires into your sequencer. Rodney Orpheus of Steinberg did a "big splash" demo of it for all of us in which he had some bizarre number or synths and loops and effects going at the same time. All of this only took about two thirds of the processing horsepower of the 450 Mhz G4 they were using. It was a very impressive display, though I must admit I'm a bit suspicious of the efficiency of the app. It's hard to do critical listening on the NAMM floor, and the number of synths and effects seemed to defy the laws of audio mathematics that we have come to consider unbreakable. The concept is as follows, the app presents a virtual rack, complete with holes for your virtual rack screws (I'm not sure if they include virtual non-conductive washers to avoid virtual ground loops, gotta ask Rodney about that) into which you insert any number of modules. A module can be a mixer that looks remarkably similar to a (non virtual) keyboard mixer made by a certain company from the Northwest of these United States of America, or it can be a subtractive synth, an effects box, a sampler that can load a sound font bank, or a ReCycle player. Adding any of these modules immediately puts it on a channel strip on your virtual mixer, and fills in the name on a piece of virtual masking tape. Changing the name of the module updates the masking tape (with a virtual eraser? Or does a virtual lackey sneak in and virtually re-tape the mixer channel before firing up the virtual coffee maker?). At the bottom of your virtual rack is a virtual transport that looks much like the Cubase transport window.

The synths and samplers and ReCycle players are the heart of the tone generation of the virtual studio. They main synth is a subtractive module with a couple of envelopes and oscillators, a filter, and a modulation matrix. The sampler, again, looks suspiciously like a tried and true hardware model, and can load at least SoundFont banks (and maybe something else, I'm not exactly sure) and is a full featured sample player and editor, with very nice looking graphical keymap editing. Nobody has yet made a hardware ReCycle file player, so Steinberg couldn't copy it, which perhaps explains why I think it's the coolest thing in the rack. It's a dedicated sampler like module that shows the ReCycled loop with the chop points obviously laid out. Of course, it tracks to the tempo on the transport bar. However, this virtual player does some things that are unique. First, the whole loop can be filtered and pitch shifted. Very useful. Second, individual slices can also be pitch shifted within the loop, so your kick can get a little more interesting at the level of the slice.

Reason is another product that I can't imagine being anything less than a big success, and it's an impressive piece of software. That said, I'd like to give it a closer listen under conditions where I can be more critical, and I do have one complaint. Does a computer really need to model the real world THIS MUCH? Maybe that's what the market wants, but when you flip your virtual rack, you can see virtual three prong power cables plugged into the back of the modules. Is this going to far? Reason does a few things to take advantage of the unique things capable from within a computer like collapsible modules, and the ability to rearrange modules quickly in the rack, but there's nary a pop up menu or a resizeable window or a zoom bar to be found. There are some things about the physical world I really like (don't try selling me a bottle of virtual Cliqout), but the LCD screen on a real world sampler is a hindrance, and is kept small and monochromatic because the screens are so expensive to include. Keeping the sampler window small, only one possible size, and monochromic in the virtual world seems like unnecessarily transplanting the weaknesses of the real world into the virtual world. Like I said, I'm sure that this is what the market wants and I bet the wild success of ReBirth had much to do with the fact that it mimicked not just the sound but look of a Roland beatbox. Steinberg/Propellerheads is doing the smart thing by sticking with what works, but I'd personally like to see at least SOME attempt to take advantage of the virtual world, even if it's only there when people ask for it or need to use it.

What's more Germanic than Sauerkraut, Hacker-Pschorr, and life threatening game shows? The Creamware guys, that's what. I had a nice time meeting the totally delightful and charming developers from the land of lager, and briefly thought of busting out my Viennese cab driver German. They had both a new product to show, and the final version of the Mac Pulsar software. The new product was the Powersampler PCI card. In case you had a hard time with second grade, the Powersampler is a powerful sampler that resides on a PCI card. It includes a software front end and a PCI card with analog and digital I/O. The card uses the same Analog Devices SHARC processors that fuel the Pulsar and Scope platforms from Creamware. The Powersampler uses 3 DSP chips for 32 voices of polyphony. The Powersampler also continues the noble tradition in Creamware products of scalablility. The 3 DSPs can be used in parallel with the Pulsar (or any other Creamware SHARC card for that matter) as a stand alone sampler, or they can be used to expand the power of the Pulsar by 3 DSP chips. Since the Pulsar already has a sampler app that can be purchased after market from Creamware to run on the Pulsar, adding this DSP card can enhance and expand the Pulsar, or work as a sampler on its own. The card and software is also cross platform, so in a few months it can even migrate to a new machine later on if you wish. If the Mac software and drivers work, it will fill a much needed niche on the Mac market for a sampler card other than the nice but very expensive Samplecell PCI cards.

Creamware was also demonstrating the final version of Mac Pulsar 1.31. According to Alex, it crashed once the first day and hadn't crashed the second day by the time I was there. I talked about the RAM requirements of the Pulsar app with him and others at the Creamware booth, and looked at the current version. As of now, everything that works on the PC side works on the Mac, save the STS 4000 sampler module. I've been working a bit with the new Pulsar software, and so far it's impressive. The RAM requirements are down, the stability is up, and the ASIO drivers are finally available when not running the full Pulsar app. They had some of their after market synths and devices running, and I must say Pulsar looked awfully fetching on a pair of LCD monitors.

Emagic and MOTU were both showing updates to their flagship apps that expand on the capabilities of these top quality tools. I took a bit of time at the Emagic booth to listen to their new virtual synth (mentioned here a few weeks ago when it was announced), and it sounds damn good. They were also showing their new polyphonic 24 bit sampler for Logic. It looked so good, I kind of wish I knew how to use Logic. I tried to find someone to talk to me about G4 optimization in Logic, but couldn't find anyone who had much to say. Actually, Altivec was conspicuously absent from most discussions, as were the K7 and Intel vector type units. I guess it's a lot of work to prep software for those specialized number crunchers. MOTU was showing Digital Performer 2.7 and gave a thorough look at the POLAR RAM looping system. Soon after NAMM (or during it and I missed it), they announced a 12 channel 24 bit 96k sample rate interface for their wildly successful audio interface. Still hanging off of the same PCI card as the 2408 and 2412, it's a whole lot of high end converters for your MOTU system.

What shows more commitment than a diamond ring and an inability to make independent decisions? Dead presidents, that's what, and Native Instruments has put some dead presidents behind their Mac product. NI is another company from the PC side with updates to their Mac version of their once PC only app. I was lucky enough to get to talk to their "Mac guy" and get a look at version 2.3 of Reaktor. I'll have a full review up quite soon, after I have tooled around with the VST 2.0 version of their software, but the early line is that it's pretty top notch stuff. NI has made the admirable commitment to the Mac of hiring a specialist developer, and in the short span of three months it has shown real results. The VST 2.0 implementation of Reaktor looks like it will set the standard for other after market virtual synths. With in house development and an ahead of the curve product, NI is a company to watch in the Mac market.

There was good and bad news about Opcode. There was no Opcode presence at the show, save the stray former employee ejected for setting fire to Les Pauls. That was a joke, by the way. There was also a "Save OMS" movement, but little comment came from Gibson. The good news is that Doug Wyatt, the man who wrote the previous versions of OMS for Opcode, has been brought into the Apple fold to write OS level MIDI code for OS X. Doug estimated once on the Opcode users group that OMS would need one programmer one year to rewrite for OS X. If they hire him an assistant, he might be able to have it done when it ships. In any case, it is very very good news for people who work with MIDI on the Mac. In fact, considering the blistering floating point performance of Athlon processors, and the nearly doubled clock speed that bending end PCs run, MIDI timing and things like the names management in OMS are really the major things that make the Mac a great music platform. With Doug on board, Apple has the chance not only to maintain that lead, but extend on it. For years, Atari computers and hardware sequencers have been considered the benchmarks for MIDI timing accuracy, let's hope that OS X can set new standards with a little help from Doug.

That's it. I may have one more NAMM article. My pictures came out terrible, so I'm not posting them. Next up a couple of reviews. Hang tight, and I'm prepping the question for Dan Phillips in the next day or two. You can still pipe in with a last minute question.

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

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