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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
Macworld SF 2003 Audio Report
By Mark F.
Jan. 10th, 2003

It's San Francisco in early January... so that means it must be Macworld. Hopefully the rumors are NOT true that Apple is going to pull out of the show for next year. We'll see.

I'll break this report down to three sections: Consumer Audio, Pro Audio, and Video.

Consumer Audio
Well, it seems like M-Audio (or their consumer division, Midiman) is the company who is trying to replace Creative Labs as the choice for consumer sound cards on the Mac. There are other choices, of course, but M-Audio seems to be going after the Mac business with vigor.

Their Audiophile PCI cards have seemed to be the most popular OSX compatible alternative to the Soundblaster for two channels of input and output, for those who purchased Macs when Apple wasn't building them with audio inputs, or for those who desire better audio quality. But two channels isn't always enough.

At Macworld, M-Audio had a display featuring their $99 Sonica Theater USB sound card, featuring 7.1 channel outputs at up to 24 bit, 96khz (plus stereo line input). The show floor is not the place for critical evaluation of sound quality, but it sounded good to my ears. More information is available here http://www.m-audio.net/products/consumer/sonicaTheatre_page1.php.

Griffin was there too, showing their PowerWave USB audio interface, which lists for $99. It has the usual stereo inputs and outputs, but also includes power for external speakers. More is available here . I don't know how much power it puts out to external speakers, but there were running a set of JBL speakers at a reasonable volume at the show.

Griffin also had the iTrip, which was a cool little device that attaches to your iPod and will transmit the signal to any FM receiver. It's only $35, though it's not yet shipping. More here http://www.griffintechnology.com/products/itrip/.

A growing market is devices that can access .mp3 collections off a computer drive from elsewhere in the home.. and there are quite a few products that are coming out for that purpose. Most of them are Ethernet components, but Macsense had one that worked via Airport. It's called the HomePod, and unlike the other products I've seen, this has built in speakers, firewire and USB. The booth was pretty busy so I didn't get much more detail, but evidently the HomePod can find computers on the network and grab the song lists from them, support for Mac, Windows and Linux. More here http://www.macsense.com/company/PressRelease/20030107_b.html.

Professional Audio
The biggest thing I saw in Pro Audio at Macworld was not even an audio product. I was surprised at the number of computer enclosures designed to keep the studio fan-noise free. I bought an Isobox for my video studio at work, and though it works fairly well, it is still noisy enough that I had to unplug the server that was in it while I did some critical audio recording. I built my own enclosure that is quieter then the Isobox... but not as quiet as AcoustiLock.

I was amazed how much attenuation they were able to get with their system. It was much more effective then the Isobox and my home built enclosure, and the gCab which houses a single Mac lists at just $699. You can find out more here http://www.norenproducts.com/. There are rackmount solutions and solutions for more CPUs too.

Guitar center was there as usual, with the usual demonstrations by Emagic (Apple), Steinberg, Ableton, Digidesign, etc... it's a good chance to explore the latest versions of these programs if you haven't seen them.

The one software package that seemed new and promising at the Guitar Center booth was Bias Soundsoap. At $99, it seems like a very good deal for those of us who need to clean up audio on occasion (say, remove fan noise from a recording), or for video guys who need to clean up tracks. It seems to be more flexible and has more features then the other program at that price point, Raygun. It's available as a stand alone product, or as a VST or DirectX plugin. More here http://www.bias-inc.com.

The M-Audio people were showing a couple of new USB keyboards (and I don't mean QWERTY). The Ozone improves upon the Oxygen8, with more control knobs and a built in 2x2 24 bit, 96khz interface... the perfect addition to your Ableton Live setup. They also had the Radium, another USB keyboard featuring 61 keys and 8 control knobs but without the audio interface.

M-Audio has a good selection of USB audio interfaces, but I was pleased to find they are introducing a firewire solution, called the Firewire 410. Due in February, it features 4 inputs and 10 outputs. I didn't get a price, but hopefully it will be priced below the MOTU 824 since it has fewer inputs. It would be nice to have a lower priced firewire solution. Info on all M-Audio products can be found here http://www.m-audio.net/.

At the Avid booth, Digidesign was showing off Pro Tools 6 for OSX, which is to ship this month. Well, it looks like Pro Tools, and works like Pro Tools, so we can all be happy. It will include support for CoreAudio, which is a big plus. I'm looking forward to getting my copy as soon as it's out. Upgrades start at $75. More here http://www.digidesign.com.

Video
Of course, there's Final Cut Express, which everyone knows about. I was very pleased with this announcement, because it gives the editor who can't afford the full version of Final Cut Pro with a great choice.

For those who need a bit more capability than iMovie, but don't want to learn the Final Cut Pro interface, there's a new package in town. It's from Arboretum, and it's called Montage. There are no tracks... it's completely free form. You can move clips anywhere you want on the timeline based on how you like to work. It features real time effects too, if you have the CPU power. It's more flexible then iMovie for both audio and video editing, while still maintaining a good user interface. More here http://arboretum.com/products/montage/montage_main.html.

Avid Xpress DV for OSX has been out for a while now, and I have to tell you even as a happy Final Cut Pro user I have been tempted. I learned how to edit on an early Xpress system which I still have but don't use much anymore, so the interface is very familiar to me. The other big advantage is cross platform capability, as I work with an editor who works on Windows (I don't know why either). Avid has been offering a “trade up” program for owners of other editing software, where you can get $300-400 off the price.. and still keep your current software. The offer ends January 31... and I'm considering it. More here http://www.avid.com.

I have been using Cleaner for my compression needs, but it has been a struggle. Version 5 was troublesome, but I slowly worked through the bugs once I discovered and noted them. However, I always had trouble with it on my Dual 800. I was hoping my upgrade to Cleaner 6 would help, but so far it's actually even worse for me.

For compressing to Quicktime, Sorenson Squeeze has been much more kind to me lately, and they've just released Squeeze 3. Unfortunately, they don't support other codecs (with the exception of Sorenson, Flash, and MPEG4) and I need to compress to Windows Media. More here http://www.sorenson.com.

Conclusions
It seems to me Apple alternates their Macworld strategy between consumer and professional, and this pretty clearly was a consumer oriented Macworld. iLife will make it even easier for the novice to put their content on DVD or the web, and that's a good thing.

But that doesn't mean it was a total waste for content creators. The 17" Powerbook is a GREAT choice for those who need to do remote video and audio editing, where extra screen real estate is well needed. The 12" Powerbook is a good choice for those DJs who are working with Ableton Live in the clubs. Clearly, the Final Cut Express release shows Apple is still committed to the video market.
-Mark F.
http://www.particlesalad.com




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