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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
By Adam M.
July 1, 2002
Copyright (C) 2002 Nolex
Last week, I went to Michigan to visit with my sister. She plays harp with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and she's been interested in audio & computers for quite some time. Her goals are to produce her own music CDs (this means digitizing audio), and publish sheet music of her own musical arrangements (this means MIDI) in her home. She's surrounded by people who use PCs running Windows; they think it's rather silly to use a Mac. I pushed her towards the DVD-R equipped 800MHz flat panel iMac as a first computer, partly because I'm a Macintosh Consultant by trade & I could help her out, but also because all the propaganda coming out of Apple these days seems to imply that OS X will be an awesome music platform. I read all the same news sites all of you do, and I keep seeing various press releases: "our software works with OS X," or, "our drivers have been rewritten to use Core Audio under OS X." What I haven't seen is an article that says, "I stuck all this stuff together, and it actually worked." So, that's what I wanted to find out: What is the state of MacOS X audio? Does it work?
A couple things about me: I know the Mac. I've had a lot of experience with Apple hardware and OSes over the years. I am not a musician. I played violin & cello using the Suzuki method in grade school (never could read sheet music). I'm also not a sound engineer: I remember that "impedence" caused a buzzing in the speakers in a grade school play. I know probably just enough to be dangerous. So, please don't berate this article if I use music or sound engineering terminology poorly. I'm hoping that this article posted on XLR8YourMac.com will start a dialog with the Mac community to see what else works in music, what suggestions you have for my sister's home studio, and where I blew it. I think this will help everybody who's interested in this subject, including her.
You'll also notice that wherever possible, I try to explain what I think something does related to music or sound engineering terminology. This is my basic understanding after what I've read combined with lots of helpful hints from the guys at Guitar Center. I'm hoping that as corrections come pouring in, my sister & I can get our hands around this terminology a bit better, and it will hopefully become a useful resource for the rest of the Mac community who's interested in music production on OS X as well.
The first thing I did is taught her about her Mac, which of course is critical. A good grounding in bits, bytes, file types, what a hard disk is (and how to treat it), how to use the Finder, what folders & files are, how to move things around a hard drive, where her stuff is, what the dock does, and the like are critical to using a computer and make comprehension of everything else later much more understandable. Since MacOS X is the future and I want her in it as much as possible, we spent most of our time in MacOS X and very little in OS 9.
She got an Alesis QS 8.1 synthesizer (computer/electronic based device that generates sound) to "input" sheet music into Sibelius (sheet music creation software), as well as for its excellent (and award winning) "True Stereo" piano sound that will be a great second instrument to her harp. The Alesis is a real hammer-action keyboard, and after playing with a bunch of them she decided that she liked the key feel of this one the best. (Of course, everyone's different.) Since we wanted to grab MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a standard that transmits which key you hit, how hard, and how long you hold it, not the actual sound itself) events as well as digital audio (sound converted into bits that a computer can store), and we wanted a total OS X environment, I looked around for audio & MIDI interfaces that worked in OS X. We decided on Tascam's US-428 for a variety of reasons. First, it's relatively cheap for what it does. It can bring in digital audio in a variety of ways: it has an S/PDIF coax (standard to transmit digital audio data between digital devices; cable plug physically looks round with a metal rod in the center, a lot like an RCA plug) jack for pulling in digital audio (if you have a device that supports it, like a DAT deck or other digital music device), 2 unbalanced (a single division on the plug making two segments to mark where positive & negative signals go thru) & 2 balanced (3 segments on the plug for positive, negative, and ground; better for noise/hiss reduction if your devices support it) 1/4" plugs, 2 XLR jacks (a circular jack with three pins - positive, negative, and ground - in a triangle formation within it) for microphones, RCA outputs (the red & gray/white plugs you commonly see on your home stereo equipment) to connect to external powered speakers or an amplifier, and a headphone jack so you can listen to your mix quietly or to monitor tracks while you lay down a new track.
At first I was really against using USB (Universal Serial Bus, 11Mbit/second) for digital audio: I figured it just didn't have the bandwidth of FireWire (400Mbit/second), so the quality would suffer. But on the FP iMac, there are two USB controllers driving the three USB ports on the back. I explained to my sister that as long as she had the keyboard & mouse on one controller, and the Tascam on the second controller (which I think covers ports 2 & 3 on the back of the iMac), there shouldn't be a problem with USB 1's 11Mbit/sec bandwidth. I just told her to unplug her other stuff (printer, etc.) before recording.
Also, I recently saw Charlie Clouser give a very interesting talk at the Apple Store in Palo Alto on digital audio, and he built a song from scratch using Propellerheads' Reason. I asked him about USB vs. FireWire audio. His explanation was that in his tests, FireWire could simply handle more audio ins simultaneously; in a small home studio where you only have one or two instruments, it's likely overkill. So, I figured that with Guitar Center's return policy, we had nothing to lose in trying it, just time.
On the MIDI side, the Tascam also has two MIDI ins & two MIDI outs. I figured that this would be fine for her keyboard, and there's even room for future growth if she gets another MIDI device. Most of the time she figures she'll be using MIDI for input to Sibelius, so being perfectly time critical isn't really an issue; Sibelius requires a good amount of by-hand work to make sheet music anyway. I didn't see much point in those external MIDI clock boxes. But if someone has experience with those and wouldn't mind explaining how & when they're used, I'm sure it would help the community.
What's also very cool about the Tascam is that it has a bunch of controls & sliders on its front panel. They aren't motorized, like the more expensive controllers. These sliders simply send data to software that understands it. For this reason, we didn't think we'd find them very useful. You'll see why these are useful as we continue.
Ok, so now we've got a MIDI keyboard, we've got the Tascam US-428, we've got a pair of not terrible microphones, and we've downloaded demos of Peak & Deck, ( http://www.bias-inc.com/), Tascam's US-428 MacOS X drivers (http://www.tascam.com/products/us428/downloads.php), Sibelius, & Reason. As a first test, I launched the US-428 Manager, a small program from Tascam that shows you whether the Mac sees the Tascam. I launched the program, and could immediately see that the drivers could see the Tascam. I soon learned that although USB is hot-swap (you can plug and unplug wires without shutting everything off first - you won't damage your equipment), Tascam's current drivers obviously aren't. After software has used the Tascam driver to communicate with the Tascam, turning off or disconnecting the Tascam confuses the drivers. I had to restart the Mac in order to get it to see everything again. Minor inconvenience, but hopefully one they can fix RSN.
Next, we wanted to see if the Manager could hear the microphones. We plugged in our microphones, turned them on, and flipped to the onscreen tuner. This is a cool feature that can tell you what note you're playing and whether you're in tune or not (good for tuning instruments in the field if you're in a pinch, also a good way to see if your audio sources are working). She tried humming a "C", and sure enough, the little meters started flickering showing her when she hit it exactly, and that she was humming a "C." Right there, we were pretty shocked. Already I'm thinking, wow, maybe Apple's further along with Core Audio than we thought... Up to this point, I thought of it as vaporware. A cool thing that might work in a year...
Ok, let's not get too excited. Next, we wanted to see if we could run the Alesis keyboard's optical out through an optical-coax digital converter, then out to the US-428. What I figured out after digging thru tons of manuals and the Web is that Alesis keyboards use a proprietary optical out standard called ADAT optical (optical DAT digital data). Since it's proprietary, that immediately translates to "more expensive." [Note: see this reader's comment on ADAT-Mike] Of course, this explained why our little S/PDIF optical-coax digital converter from MIDIMAN ( http://www.midiman.com/products/m-audio/CO2.php) didn't work. The US-428 Manager software on the Mac said it could see an optical connection, but couldn't make sense of it. There was an ADAT optical or coax to S/PDIF optical or coax converter made by MIDIMAN, the S.A.M., ( http://www.midiman.com/products/m-audio/sam.php) that would have worked, but it was $500. Hey, if my sister starts selling her CDs and makes some money, maybe we could justify it. But we figured that if it's a combination of harp & keyboard, we're recording the harp analog, so there's going to be noise from that anyway. A little noise from the analog keyboard patch cables probably won't matter. For now, we decided to go out from the Alesis analog thru 1/4" balanced cables, to give a good sound w/o a lot of distortion or hiss.
Ok, so what about MIDI? We connected keyboard MIDI out to Tascam in, Tascam MIDI out to Alesis keyboard in. We hit some keys on the keyboard, and the little light on the Tascam lit up every time there was a MIDI event. Hmm... This is working. Nope, I won't let myself get excited 'til we've recorded something.
Ok, let's keep going. We launched Sibelius, and I followed the directions to set it up. The Tascam US-428 was listed as a potential place to get and send MIDI events. I hit the test button. The keyboard made a note! Uhh... Cool. We created a new document, and my sister hit a bunch of keys on the keyboard. Sure enough, notes started popping up in Sibelius! Ok, this already works well enough that she could get started, even if nothing else worked. This is very cool. My sister's grinning.
Now, I'm wondering if MIDI works the other way. I hit Play in Sibelius, and our mess started playing. Sounded awful, because we didn't know how to properly input notes in Sibelius, but it worked. I then opened up a sample Sibelius song, set the keyboard to General MIDI (a standard for specific instruments to play on specific MIDI channels so even if someone doesn't have the same MIDI devices you do, at least the right instruments will play the right notes). I hit Play. The song started playing! We're pretty happy at this point. (Freakin' amazed, actually... I really didn't think Apple was this far along.)
Ok, Sibelius is pretty nifty. Let's see if we could actually lay down a CD with this equipment. We launch Peak. It has a very simple UI, which is good. It can only handle two tracks at a time, which won't be enough for us, but at this point we just want to see if it could work. Once again, we test with the microphones. I record my sister talking. We play it back, and hear it (clearly) through the Mac's internal speakers.
At this point, I want to start to press this setup to see where the limits are. So, I go to Apple menu: System Preferences: Sound, and click the Output tab. Sure enough, the Tascam US-428 is listed as a place to send sound. I choose it, we connect our speakers to the Tascam, and sound starts playing from the Mac, through USB, to the Tascam, to our big speakers. Wow, everything's kinda working, and sounds good too. Beep sounds, or my sister's talking in Peak, plays thru the big speakers. I quickly figure out that MacOS X's volume control (thru keyboard or slider in Sound Pref Panel) does nothing; instead, on the US-428 itself, there's a dial where you control the volume of the connected speakers. Neat.
So, now what... We've got MIDI cables & audio cables connected from the keyboard to the Tascam. Now I really want to push things. I try playing a song from Sibelius (which is sending MIDI data) to the Alesis keyboard. Then, as the Alesis is synthesizing piano notes, that's being played back thru the balanced 1/4" plug audio out cables back into the Tascam. I record this in Peak. Sure enough, I'm able to record this way! At this point, I'm shocked that USB can actually handle this much data simultaneously and not screw up.
Now, we load up Deck. Deck's interface is a little intimidating at first. But as we begin to go through the tutorials, we see it's very nicely laid out and has LOTS of useful features. And much cooler, it seems like the US-428 & Deck are made for each other. On Deck's Mixer window, there are volume sliders where you can control each individual track's volume & left/right stereo panning. As you move the US-428's sliders around with your fingers, the onscreen sliders in Deck move exactly the same way on your Mac. We're amazed by the communication between all these different pieces of software, and that all this is working in OS X. Wow.
We see that commonly used buttons like Rewind, Fast Forward, Play, Record, Stop, Mute of specific tracks, etc. on the Tascam control onscreen equivalents in Deck. We decide to record the piano, sending the left channel out of the Alesis to Input A on the Tascam, and the right channel into Input B on the Tascam. We hit Record, then Play on the Tascam to start recording, she plays something. She hits stop on the Tascam (which is right next to her on the chair, unlike the iMac which is a few feet away). Recording stops, and we see a waveform on the iMac's screen. We hit Rewind, then Play on the Tascam. Sure enough, it starts playing. And it sounds stellar.
Ok, this is super cool. Up to this point, Core Audio has been theory, conjecture, a bunch of tech notes I've read. Now, we're laying down 44.1KHz audio and it sounds like CD-quality. We're liking this. My sister is blown away.
The next day, we take the iMac & the Tascam to the harp room. We put the iMac outside the room, so the iMac's hard disk & fan noise won't interfere with the recording. We put the Tascam inside the room next to her on her harp bench, so she can control the computer remotely. The swivel arm for the iMac's monitor makes it very convenient to turn it towards the glass door so she can see what's happening on the iMac outside the room, then swivel it towards the keyboard & mouse when she goes outside the harp room to name files. We set up the microphones, adjust them, then mess around with the trim knobs on each input until there's no clipping on loud sections of her music. Deck makes this very easy, with an onscreen meter per track. We turn off as much stuff around the house as we can that makes noise -- air conditioner, clocks, close windows & doors, etc. Then we record a song. We play it back, and are pretty amazed at how well all this is working. We even try recording harp as another track along with the piano we recorded previously, and it worked (although she wasn't happy with the result).
As a final couple tests, I stick a DVD in the drive (The Matrix). The DVD plays flawlessly, and the audio is piped thru the Tascam out to the speakers. Those monitor speakers kick major butt. Sounds great compared to Apple's little round speakers that come with the iMac. Next, I load up the demo for Reason. I find that as I hit keys on the Alesis, Reason makes sound. Lights are blinking in Reason's modules. It uh, does stuff. Neat. Reason is so monstrous that I can tell you could spend a solid month and hardly make a dent in what it's capable of. I play a couple demo songs to make it seem like I'm intelligent (I'm such a wuss, I'm not about to try recording something myself), sounds awesome. Reason can make very cool sounds, if you know what you're doing with it. But what I was blown away by was that the keyboard was sending MIDI events, that the Tascam was receiving, that were going thru USB, into Core Audio, piped off to Reason, Reason was synthesizing instruments to make the sound, sending it back thru Core Audio, back thru USB, to the Tascam, to the speakers... All on an iMac. And it sounded great. Very cool.
Overall, I'm thrilled with MacOS X. I really didn't think this stuff was far enough along that you could do anything useful with sound & OS X. In reality, I think we're on the road. I think the concrete's still drying, but it's a start.
Our mini studio isn't all roses at this point. We hit a few snags. First off, we were trying to figure out how to get the Tascam & Deck to record all four inputs (A, B, C, & D) simultaneously. So far, we can only get A & B to record, not C & D. We connected microphones to the XLR connectors for A & B, and we hooked up the keyboard to C & D. We know the audio is making it through, because we have our monitor speakers connected to the Tascam US-428, the Alesis' balanced 1/4" plugs are connected to inputs C & D on the Tascam, and when we hit a key on the Alesis, it plays thru the Tascam, (I assume) thru USB to the Mac, thru Core Audio, then back out USB, thru the Tascam, out to the speakers. At least I think that's how this is working. If that was true, then why wouldn't we be able to record inputs C & D when we choose Deck Track 3 as input 3, and Deck Track 4 as input 4? 1 & 2 work when the keyboard is plugged into those inputs. That's an annoyance now, but it will become a problem later -- she eventually wants 4 microphones for additional musicians, all playing simultaneously. It's a little disconcerting that I don't know if this is a broken US-428, or if it's a driver problem they need to fix.
One other annoyance is that the US-428 only has two microphone preamps (thru the XLR connectors) on inputs A & B. C & D are unbalanced inputs, and my understanding is that you'd have to buy microphone preamps to connect to these connectors. I wish Tascam had just splurged and stuck an additional 2 XLR preamp'd inputs. It would make things easier to hook up and use if they had. It's so simple now to move things around, I just don't want to detract from that.
It would also be cool if Tascam made a high end version, where the volume/pan sliders were motorized. It would be highly cool to see the Tascam sliders moving in unison with Deck's onscreen sliders. I know it's more expensive, but for the budget musician it would be highly cool. However, now that I've used the Tascam I see how even these non-motorized sliders are highly useful in music production.
I think the fact that all this worked is nothing short of incredible. My sister was expecting to begin to learn the basics of using a Mac on my trip, not to have laid down a whole CD of her music for my parents to hear when I got back. They were totally blown away, BTW.
Congratulations, Apple. It looks like if developers follow your
directions, this stuff "just works." Half of me is thinking this is
incredible on a brand new OS. The other half of me is thinking, "Hey,
it's a Mac. What did I expect?"
(Note: Adam later wrote that he had sent it to another site also - I didn't realize that until after it was posted here. I'm not an audio apps guy (other than typical end-user apps like iTunes) and rely on readers for audio articles. Please note when submitting articles if they are being sent to other sites also. Thanks. -Mike)
A reader wrote with more info about ADAT:
other than this, great review! thanx!
I read the July 1 "week with my sister article" which seems to have sparked some controversy from your notes at the bottom. I was really quite happy with it -- I liked the concept of to total newbie to OS X music technology giving it a swing and documenting the results. I'm also glad it didn't come down to, "I plugged it in and it didn't work. It sucks," which is usually the sign of someone who didn't read the manual and blames the computer for their ignorance. So I applaud Adam Masri.
Adam's choice of gear and software was pretty darn good for someone who didn't have a background in this stuff. The Tascam US-428 has received high praise from users everywhere I've seen it mentioned. Sibelius is hands-down the best notation software on the market. Peak and Deck are excellent programs. I've used Deck quite a bit in the past and think it's probably the most intuitive multitrack audio program out there. And Reason is the most amazing program since... I don't know... heck, there's never been anything as cool as Reason in my book.
As for Manfred's comment that the article should be pulled, stick with
OS 9, etc., I strongly object. The article is a well-documented user's
experience and there's no reason it shouldn't stand exactly as that. I
personally use OS X for audio almost daily. I play live electronic drums
for a weekly gig using a TrapKAT MIDI controller piped into my PowerBook
G4 running Reason, and I'm working Ableton Live into my toolbox, too.
It's so good, in fact, that the band leader -- a full-time professional
engineer for many years -- has been just astounded. He normally uses an
OS 9 rig loaded to the max with ProTools DSP cards and I/O. He can't
believe that an off-the-shelf machine, and laptop no less, can do what
my PowerBook and Reason can. Heck, I've been astounded -- I can get 2
millisecond latency out of my PowerBook's headphone jack. You used to
need a pro audio sound interface for that low of latency. Plus you get
OS X's stability, beautiful interface, and other goodies that are hard
to live without.
Another reader ("Manfred") wrote that this article should be pulled, complaining about various things, saying OS 9 is a better OS for audio apps, that the article was basically embarrassing for anyone experienced with mac audio apps, saying I should ask him to write an article on OS X audio, blah, blah, blah... (I forwarded his mail to the author of the article.)
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