Buying A Mac For Music

Tips & Techniques

Published in SOS January 1995
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MARTIN RUSS fights the corner for the Apple Mac, surveys the current Macintosh product range, and generally tries to persuade you to buy one!

 

With the hours of practice that it takes to become a good performer on an instrument, it makes sense to employ labour-saving devices to make recording that music as easy as possible. Capturing that spark of inspiration can often be the beginning of a great song, and while most people appreciate the value of patchbays, workstations and sequencers, the computer itself is often overlooked.

EASE OF USE

The easier a computer is to use, the faster you can use it and the less it detracts from the creative process. The ideal music computer should be consistent, intuitive, easy to install, use and maintain, reliable, expandable, and several other things besides. I may be biased, but I think I'm describing an Apple Macintosh. It is probably significant that one of the major areas in which Macs are predominant is in graphic design, where users do not want the computer to distract them from the task at hand, and do not necessarily want to be computer-literate in order to create. I would argue that music has similar requirements.

What makes the Macintosh so easy to use? One of the major factors must be the intuitiveness and consistency of its user interface. Not only do things tend to work more or less as you expect them to, but they also tend to work in the same way regardless of the application (Apple-speak for program or software package). For example, Command-A almost always selects everything (A = All), Command-C invariably means Copy, Command-V means Paste, and so on. It is also relevant to point out that the user interface on the Atari that many of you know and love is loosely modelled on the Mac interface, and though there are differences (almost all of them improvements), the Atari user should have no difficulty whatsoever in moving across to a Mac.

By contrast, Windows on the PC bears a cosmetic similarity to the Macintosh Desktop, but there is not the same level of consistency: for example, to select everything in Word for Windows you press Control and the numeric keypad 5 key, whereas in Excel you press Control, Shift and the space bar.

If you're used to a Macintosh, Windows feels like a poor and inferior imitation. On the other hand, if you have never used a Mac before, Windows on the PC probably seems OK because you've never seen anything better. Just remember that Windows is about to undergo its fifth rework and it still isn't as good as the Mac. Windows does a complicated balancing act on top of DOS, a rather old and tired operating system, whereas the Mac has almost nothing underneath. For those who like to get under the hood, the Mac has a 'monitor' function built into the ROMs which enables you to look at registers and memory for debugging, but it appears in the ordinary system font in a scrolling window on a grey desktop. The same function on a PC, by contrast, shows basic ASCII text on a plain screen.

NURSING THE HARDWARE

Then there's upgrading and maintaining... When I bought my CD-ROM drive, I connected it to the SCSI port on the back of my Mac, dragged across the SCSI software from a floppy into the System folder, rebooted the Mac and I was up and running. I have known people take three days to install a CD-ROM on a PC, and even then they can't use it at the same time as a network card or MIDI.

Looking after a Mac involves making backups regularly, checking that the System Folder is not full of unwanted Extensions, Fonts and other enhancements, defragmenting a hard disk occasionally, and doing virus checks -- that's about it. In contrast, maintaining a PC can involve complex changes to the AUTOEXEC.BAT, CONFIG.SYS and WIN.INI files, where you use an ASCII editor to add text commands which set things up, configure how things work, and lots of other nitty-gritty details. And then there are still the backups, virus checks and other paraphernalia to take care of.

Mention networking to a Mac owner and they will show you the built-in LocalTalk (aka AppleTalk on older models) port, or perhaps even point to the built-in Ethernet port (on the latest models). But mention networking to a PC user and they point to an add-on card, which has to be configured by setting switches on the board to select the right interrupt and address. Then you need to try and place the driver software where it doesn't conflict with the other drivers fighting for space in the frugal 640K of memory which the PC provides for such things -- and those previously mentioned ASCII files will still need to be edited.

The Mac has networking software built in as part of the System; for a PC you buy it. The Mac can address huge amounts of memory without any problems; a PC has a 640Kbyte 'bottleneck' and uses several complicated workarounds to get at larger amounts of memory. If you want to add more memory to a Mac, you simply plug in more SIMMs; in the case of most PCs, you have to go through an installation ritual.

PRICE & PERFORMANCE

Macintoshes used to be horrendously expensive, and I bought an Atari purely because I could not afford a Mac at the time. But times change, and Apple have changed their pricing policy to the point where Mac prices are comparable to those of equivalent PC-compatible computers. The new Power Macs represent a clear path to incredible power and yet are cheaper than the complex and expensive new-generation Pentium-based PCs, which are still hamstrung by backwards compatibility with previous processors.

In an often apparently crazy world, you might expect that the right answer is not always the obvious one. For musical applications, the Power Macs may be OK in a year or so when the software has evolved to take full advantage of the available processing power, but just at the moment, the Quadra 800s or 950s have the right combination of speed, NuBus slots and processor type to make them almost ideal for high-end MIDI and digital audio. You don't need a machine with NuBus slots to handle MIDI-only applications, but most serious hard-disk recording systems take up one or more NuBus card slots. The problem is that both the Quadra 800 and 950 have been superseded, which means that you're only likely to find them on the second-hand market. The same goes for the AV models, the Quadra (and Centris) 660AV and 840AV, which are excellent for multimedia and digital audio.

If you're sure you won't need more than three NuBus slots, a Quadra (or Centris) 650 or an older Quadra 700 might fit the bill. For basic MIDI sequencing, a Quadra (or Centris) 610, an LC630, or an LC475 would be suitable. Indeed, the 68040-based LC475 is currently available at a very attractive 'bundle' price, complete with monitor, mouse and keyboard. If you're sure you don't need the NuBus slots this machine is very attractive for MIDI applications, but if you can afford it, go for 8Mb of memory rather than 4Mb, otherwise you may find that some software packages are too large to run. You can also run most MIDI software on the now extinct 68030-based LCII or III, but expect certain things, such as screen redraw time, to be noticeably slower than on the 68040 models.

 

"The ideal music computer should be consistent, intuitive, easy to install, use and maintain, reliable, expandable, and several other things besides. I may be biased, but I think I'm describing an Apple Macintosh."

 

And then there's a whole series of rebadged and slightly tweaked Mac variants: the Performas. These are intended for home use, and the lower performance models are usually found in a different set of retail outlets to the more traditional Apple Centres -- Dixons, for example. The 5xx and 6xx series are probably the best ones to consider for music, though the LC475 is also available in a Performa version. By the way, check out the quality of the display if you're buying a Performa bundle or a used Performa, as some of the early Performa displays were decidedly un-sharp.

Take care if buying a Mac abroad; while most Macs have automatic power sensing, some Macs built exclusively for the United States home market may not automatically switch between 240 and 110 volts, and some USA models have different system ROMs to those sold in Europe, which may cause software compatibility problems.

TEST DRIVE

It's always advisable to try before you buy, and if you can get to test-drive some Macs, preferably with MIDI software, you'll be able to get an idea of how speed performance varies from one machine to another. Make sure that any demo model does not have an accelerator secretly hidden inside, and check that your prospective purchase has a realistic amount of RAM and a sensible size of hard disk. RAM is still quite expensive (about £30-£35 per Megabyte), and hard disks get faster (and correspondingly more expensive) as they get larger. Lots of RAM and a large hard disk may improve performance, but make sure to allow for these in your budget. In some cases, it may be cheaper to go for a new Mac with sufficient RAM and disk capacity than to buy an obsolete model and upgrade it. Check the table in the 'Past Macs' section for more information on Macs, both current and obsolete. Some Mac suppliers specialise in second-hand Macs -- I bought my Mac from a small friendly Apple dealership that deals with many second-user Macs (ExMicro on 0115 945 5077). And there are always private sales if you like taking a risk.

POWER MACS

As I see it, the immediate future of computing belongs to the PowerPC chip and the PowerMacs which use it. Developed by IBM, Motorola and Apple, the 60x series of chips uses a new processor which is designed to run fast and efficiently. Although this represents a break with the 680x0 series of chips which have been used in all pre-PowerMac models, Apple have managed to ensure that the compatibility of the PowerMacs is excellent, and PowerMacs run existing 680x0 programs at speeds comparable to a mid-range Quadra. Programs which are written to take advantage of the PowerPC chip run much faster -- anything up to 10 times faster than the fastest 680x0 Mac. So-called 'native' applications will gradually appear as software developers make the conversion, and you will find that an increasing number of programs will support both 680x0 and PowerPC processors.

For music and MIDI, the PowerMac is still something of a gamble. MIDI is one of the areas of the operating system that suffers because of its very specialised nature and relatively small market share. Manufacturers of MIDI software are working on enhancing their software systems to take the maximum advantage of the PowerPC chip, but this could take a while. In the meantime, keep a close eye on what is happening, because the performance gains from 'native' PowerPC applications are stunning. In a year or so, things may look very different.

CONCLUSION

If you're reading this, you can probably be described as a high-tech musician -- especially if you are involved in the use of digital audio, multi-track tape, synchronisation, or even MIDI. This makes you a very rare and special person, because most people who make music still do it with guitars, playing along with records at home, or playing a piano or home keyboard from sheet music.

Special applications, such as music, require special computers. The Mac has always been used by creative and imaginative people, so it follows that it enjoys a smaller, more highly dedicated and more exclusive ownership than the mass-market PC-compatible clones. The Mac helps you to make the most of your music, by making the computer part easy, consistent and friendly. As I see it, any other computer just has to be a step backwards.

 

EVANGELISM

I am biased. This article is biased. It is my intention to make you think hard about buying a Mac, and to warn of the potential problems in buying PC-compatible unless you already know a lot about PCs. I have used both computers and I know which one I prefer. I am so confident about the Macintosh that I am prepared to promote their use for MIDI and musical applications, and once you've tried one, I'm sure you'll end up thinking very seriously about buying a Macintosh.

Having said that, you need to take a balanced view. You should read widely in the computer press (Mac and PC); talk to computer users and musicians; and try various computers for yourself at length. Ultimately you should buy the computer that best suits you and your music-making -- it's just that I happen to believe it's a Mac.

 

CURRENT RANGE

The Apple range changes very rapidly -- new product announcements appear at an astonishing rate. Keeping up with exactly what is current is not easy -- in fact, the list that follows may well be out of date by the time you read this!

• LCIII
• LC475/Performa 475
• LC630/Performa 630
• Quadra 650
• Workgroup Server 80 (like a Quadra 800)
• Workgroup Server 95 (like a Quadra 950)
• Power Mac 6100
• Power Mac 7100
• Power Mac 8100
• PowerBook 145B
• PowerBook 150
• PowerBook 165
• PowerBook 520
• PowerBook 520c
• PowerBook 540
• PowerBook 540c
• PowerBook Duo 230
• PowerBook Duo 280
• PowerBook Duo 280c
• PowerBook DuoDock II

To find out what the current range looks like, you need to contact your nearest Apple supplier. If you are unsure who your nearest supplier is, try ringing Apple UK on Freephone 0800 127753. They have a database based on postcodes -- so have the first part of your postcode ready to quote to them.

 

NON-MUSICAL USES

You can use a Macintosh for tasks other than music! This article was written on a Mac, and it will probably be edited and prepared for printing on a Mac as well. There are excellent programs for all the usual business tasks: Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Databases, Diagrams, Presentations, Accounting, and more.

My Mac gets used for both music and writing, as well as sorting out my invoicing and keeping several databases on all sorts of things. I use just one program for the majority of my non-music work: ClarisWorks. And for entertainment there are a large number of superb commercial (and shareware) games, with none of the hair-thinning hassle of trying to install a soundcard, SCSI, CD-ROM drivers, and Windows onto a PC.

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