The latest press release from Apple Computer in the States announces an upgrade to Apple's QuickTime system software: QuickTime 2.0. It adds support for Interactive TV, music and full-screen video, as well as the MPEG Standard. QuickTime has always been a wonderful advert for the way in which the Macintosh Operating System is designed. Just copy the QuickTime system extension into your system folder and reboot, and your Mac suddenly has the capability to put video clips into windows on screen. By contrast, on a PC, you need to add a hardware card to do the same task. QuickTime 2.0 takes this one stage further, by increasing the size and update rate of the windows — it must be admitted that QuickTime 1 does have a reputation for producing small and jerky pictures, usually caused by the hard disk or SCSI bus. Apple claim that on an LC475 it is now possible to display 320 x 240 sized windows at 30 frames per second, or full screen (640 x 480) at 15 frames per second — and the LC475 is almost an entry-level machine, available for well under £1000. This equates to a performance increase of about 300% over previous versions of QuickTime.
MPEG, the TV coding standard designed by the Motion Pictures Experts Group of the ISO for integrating video and computers, is rapidly becoming the de facto method of producing high -uality moving pictures on computer screens. Hardware MPEG decoder cards for the PC (like the ReelMagic and Mason cards mentioned last month) are now joined by QuickTime 2.0, which should make using video on a computer much easier. With the device protocols built in, connecting to video servers and information highways should be easy on a Mac, and the interactive possibilities (searching, editing, and playing back) with video information could make it the preferred development platform.
Apple have also added new music functions designed to make it easier for non MIDI-literate multimedia users to work with synchronised music and pictures. Apple are somewhat vague on the subject, but they do say that a piece of music that would occupy over 300Mb of CD-quality audio would fit onto an 800K floppy disk as a QuickTime music track. If you work out what the figures given actually mean, then the data rate for QuickTime 2.0 audio comes out at about 230 bits per second, which is very low indeed. Compare it with the data rate for MIDI, which is up to 31,250 bits per second, or the data rate used to transmit telephone speech, which is 64,000 bits per second. So it looks as though QuickTime 2.0 may not be offering heavily compressed audio, but some sort of simple interfacing to MIDI, which could well be the long awaited replacement for the MIDI Manager.
QuickTime 2.0 is due for release in the States sometime in the middle of 1994, and I will wait until I have used a real version before I pass judgement. It requires at least a 68020 based Macintosh running System 7 or 6.07, with a colour (or greyscale) monitor and 2Mb of memory (or more). Based on the current information, the video capability is timely and should be very useful, whilst the music functions are intriguing. With over a million copies of QuickTime sold on the Mac and PC platforms, and over 300 software products supporting it, QuickTime should continue to set the pace in multi-media.
I spoke recently to Cliff Smith of UK customer support at Digidesign UK (081 875 9977) and asked him how Digidesign saw the PowerPC in terms of plug-in cards. Digidesign make a number of digital audio and DSP cards for the Mac and PC, and are well placed to comment on how the PowerPC might affect the music business. Cliff said that Digidesign are looking at the PowerPC, as that's the way that Apple are moving, but since the first generation will be using NuBus, the existing cards will still be viable into the foreseeable future.
This sounds like a sensible position. The major advantage that NuBus offers over most PC-type buses is the ability to have a separate processor on a card and run it autonomously. You can buy NuBus cards like the Radius Rocket, which effectively puts a second computer inside your Mac, and the Digidesign cards take the same approach — but provide specific DSP or digital audio functions rather than just another processor. Any future bus like PCI, which has been predicted for inclusion in the second generation of PowerPCs, and even in some forthcoming Pentium PCs, would need to offer the same sort of flexibility. With a large established user base of NuBus, Apple may well include NuBus and PCI in the future, in much the same way as current Macs provide PDS and NuBus slots. So your NuBus card looks pretty future-proof!
Even computer-literate readers have an uphill struggle to keep up with all the acronyms that infest the subject. Here are a few useful ones prompted by the contents of this month's column.
The ISO is the International Standards Organisation, which organises experts into study groups who then produce world-wide standards.
The IEEE (pronounced 'I triple E') is the American equivalent of the UK's Institution of Electrical Engineers, and covers all the professional aspects of electronic and electrical engineering.
LC is a description used by Apple to denote Macintosh Computers which are Low cost and have Colour capability. After the LC I, II and III, the obvious LC IV has not appeared — instead we have the LC 475.
MPEG (pronounced 'em-peg') is an ISO standard that allows the compression of video. It has been co-operatively developed by more than 70 companies and institutions world-wide, including Sony, Philips, Matsushita and Apple. It is intended to become the digital video standard for compact discs, cable TV, interactive TV, video on demand, direct satellite broadcasting and even high-definition TV.
PDS is an Apple acronym for Processor Direct Slot — a way of expanding a computer by prociding direct access to the microprocessor's address and data busses.
PCI is the Personal Computer Interconnect bus, designed as yet another bus for inclusion inside PC compatible computers. It joins the ISA, EISA, Micro-channel, VESA, IDE and other standards.
Getting from the MIDI Information in a sequencer to the outside world is not that straightforward. There are several layers of software and hardware which provide the interfacing.
A Macintosh has two serial ports — the Modem port and the Printer port. For MIDI use, a small hardware interfacing box called a MIDI Interface is required. These can be small, simple and cheap for users with basic needs, or there are large, complex and expensive ones for use in professional studios. Either or both of the serial ports can be used to connect to the hardware box, although the Modem port is often used for the simpler interfaces, since the printer port is usually connected to a printer. The 'standard' interface has one MIDI In and two or more paralleled MIDI Outs, and it uses a clock signal to determine the MIDI data rate — usually either 1MHz or 500kHz. The 'MIDI setup' dialogue box in MIDI applications lets you set the port to which the Interface is connected, as well as the clock rate.
The screenshot from Beyond 1.5 shows a typical 'standard interface' dialogue box, with pop-up selection of clock rate, as well as some additional synchronisation buttons. The screenshot from Cubase 1.8 shows a MIDI Setup dialogue box which also caters for Mark of the Unicorn's MIDI Time Piece, a multi-port MIDI Interface.
There is also a piece of software which sets up the Mac's serial ports so that they can drive a MIDI Interface hardware box correctly. This software is called a 'driver' — because it determines how the serial ports are driven. There are several different drivers which can be used to configure and run the Mac's serial ports; the official Apple one is called the Apple MIDI Driver, and this is currently at version 2.0.1, although I have heard of a version 2.0.2. Some MIDI software provides its own driver program — especially if the MIDI hardware box is complicated (if it uses both serial ports, for example), or the MIDI data is presented by the software in a different way to that expected by a 'standard' interface.
There may also be a small utility program which copes with the assignment between the serial ports and application programs, and acts as a sort of junction between incoming and outgoing MIDI data. This controlling program, which manages all the MIDI ports and the application programs, is called the Apple MIDI Manager, again currently at version 2.0.1(2). Apple's MIDI Manager is powerful and flexible. It allows you to send MIDI from one application to another using the routings defined by the Patchbay accessory program, and to control the synchronisation of several programs with each other and the outside world. The cost of all this functionality is that it needs quite a lot of processor power, which means that less power is available for your other applications.
Some manufacturers have additional software which connects the MIDI Manager, their own software, and their own MIDI drivers: Opcode's OMS (Opcode MIDI System) and Mark of the Unicorn's forthcoming FMS (FreeMIDI System), for example. Both enable you to achieve useful functions, like bypassing the MIDI Manager (especially useful in Macs which are not powerful enough to cope with the extra demands made by Apple's MIDI Manager) and connecting to the MIDI Interface hardware box via their own MIDI drivers. Information about patches is also interchanged, which enables patch names from a librarian program to be used in a sequencer program. Timing and synchronisation information may also be swapped at this level in the future, although this is currently handled by the MIDI Manager. Development on these programs is still ongoing, and the lack of a clear leader may result in a 'Beta versus VHS' type battle, where half of the users make the wrong decision. Watch this space.
I must admit to having very little feel for who uses what sequencer software, and I have had a couple of enquiries from users who feel isolated because they do not know anyone else who uses the same package. If you feel the same, and would like to contact other sequencer users, drop me a line via SOS.
I can see two possible outcomes from this: either some 'product specific self-help' groups will form, or else a single 'sequencer user group' may appear. In either case, there is plenty of scope for some hints, tips, file conversion, sharing of experience, and maybe even 'manufacturer independent' assessment of the relative merits of various packages.
Opcode's Studio 5 MIDI Interface has a reputation for power, with its 15 independent MIDI Ins and Outs, and consequent 240-channel capability. But the new LX upgrade enhances it further, with features like the ability to connect up to six 5LXs together, for 1440 channels over 90 MIDI Ins and Outs! The original 64K of RAM storage is multiplied by four times to 256K, to cope with power users who have been running out of memory when using lots of very large patches. There are many other improvements to the Modifiers, Maps and Program Changes too. Contact TSC on 071 258 3454 for more details.
The latest from Mark of the Unicorn is their digital timepiece — a synchronisation centrepiece for a digital audio system. Following the same line they started with their recent MIDI Express PC, Motu have included support for computers other than the Macintosh, which continues the growing convergence of software and hardware music manufacturers. After years of being abbreviated to MOTU, Motu have now started a new era, because the digital timepiece is trademarked with all the letters in lower case, so it is NOT a Digital Timepiece! I wonder how many magazine editors will correct the name wrongly! Contact Sound Technology on 0462 480000.
Another potential banana-skin for proof readers lies in the FireWire serial data bus technology that Apple, Texas Instruments (inventors of the NuBus standard that you find in most current Macs) and other computer manufacturers are currently demonstrating, as part of the work towards the finalisation of the IEEE's proposed draft for the P1394 Serial Bus Standard. With data transfer rates of 100 Megabits per second and more, this probably means that second generation PowerPCs may have a much faster alternative to the ADB and SCSI ports. Don't forget: FireWire, not fine-wire!
Spot the connection between these high street stores: Dixons, John Lewis, Ryman, PC World, Harrods, Nurdin & Peacock... Does it help if I tell you that Argos are the latest members of the club? The clue is in the column — they now all sell Macintoshes (Performas, actually).
The KRCS group plc, probably the UK's largest Apple dealership, have teamed up with Oscar Music to open a dedicated music division. KRCS are best known in the education market, which should mean that the rising generation of musicians are Mac-literate as well as music-literate!
After many years of rumours about official Macintosh clones, it looks like it has finally happened. Martin Spindler, head of Apple, is reported as having confirmed that PC manufacturers are being recruited to build licensed Mac clones. With Apple selling more computers in the US last year than any other computer manufacturer (over 2 million!), this move could also improve Apple's market share - currently about 14% according to market analysts Dataquest. In Europe, the PowerBook Duo is reported to have a 29% share in the sub-notebook computer market.