Optimising G-series Macs & iMacs, Part 1

Tips & Tricks

Published in SOS November 2000
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Technique : Computers

The recent G3, G4 and iMac computers are fast and attractive to musicians, but they present various dilemmas when it comes to connecting your MIDI and audio interfaces. In Part One of this short series, Paul Wiffen looks at the various ways to get MIDI data flowing reliably in the absence of ADB and Serial ports. This is the first article in a four-part series. Read Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

The latest Apple computers have more CPU power for music and digital audio than ever before, and sequencers and plug-ins are expanding to allow you to exploit this power to the full. The latest mass-market iMacs have greater speed and power under the bonnet than professionals had to make do with on top-end machines just a few years ago. PowerBooks, too, for the first time, have suitable amounts of oomph for music and audio, and if you get one of the latest G4s you will be positively spoilt by how much processing the CPU can manage.

However, if you upgrade to one of these new machines, all will certainly not be roses straight away. You'll find your new Mac is missing several old staple interfaces that have been on every Mac since day one. Gone are the serial ports (designated modem and printer) where every Mac user had previously attached their MIDI Interfaces, big or small. Gone is the ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) port to connect your Logic or Waves dongle. Gone are the SCSI ports for connecting additional hard drives, let alone a sampler for high-speed SCSI transfers to a sample-editing package. Why have these interfaces suddenly disappeared?

The reason would seem to be that Apple want to drive the development of new interface standards and believe it's only by removing old faithfuls that they can force third-party manufacturers to create devices for the new interfaces.

The first of these is USB, which theoretically can take the place of both serial ports and ADB. USB, or Universal Serial Buss, was developed as a general interface for a huge variety of peripherals and adopted by Apple on the iMac as the means of connecting their own new keyboard and mouse, as well as all the other devices which USB can support, such as printers, scanners and CD-R drives. The plus side of USB is that Apple computers can now take advantage of peripherals developed for the whole computer industry. The downside is that there is nowhere to plug in the traditional MIDI interface or software dongle.

Before we look at how to deal with this, a quick word about terminology. As the computer industry's tech-support burden has increased exponentially over the last 10 years, they have desperately tried to alter public perception of this with a degree of spin which would probably qualify them as advisers to New Labour. Chief among the weapons they use to convince us that all is well is the word 'issue', which has pretty much replaced 'problem' and 'bug'. The Cordon Bleu version of 'issue' is, of course, 'known issue', referring to bugs which the software producer has been made aware of and is theoretically addressing in a software release due "next week".

Originally, of course, the word 'issue' just meant something which needed to be looked at and addressed with a specific strategy, and this is how I will use it for the remainder of this article. Don't get depressed and think that the new Macs cause nothing but trouble (although this can sometimes be the case). Ninety-five percent of the issues I am raising have solutions on 95 percent of new Macs, but rest assured, where there really is an insoluble problem I shall have no hesitation in reviving Ye Olde English word 'problem' to alert you to it! For the purposes of this article, at least, the word 'issue' means something you need to be aware of and not an end-of-the-world nightmare from which there is no escape!

Dongle Issues

Although some software producers, such as Steinberg and MOTU, have moved away from dongle-based copy protection, Emagic and Waves still employ dongles to legitimise the use of their software. A new purchaser of Emagic software can opt for a USB dongle, but how do existing users move across their serial port dongle (or dongles, if they are long-term users who still have separate dongles for the MIDI and audio sides of Logic)?

The answer I have found to be the most reliable is the Griffin Technologies iMate, which will cost between £50 and £75, depending on where you buy it. This is a USB-to-ADB adaptor originally designed to let people plug their old Apple ADB keyboards, trackballs, and so on, into the new Macs. However, it's not as simple as just buying one of these little plastic connectors and plugging it in. To allow something as complicated as a dongle to be seen, you need to go to Griffin's web site (www.griffintechnology.com) and download an extra piece of software which has to be installed to allow the dongles to become visible to their respective programs. The software version that made the iMate work for music dongles is 1.7, but looking today (as I write this), the latest version on the site is 2.4. Provided you use a more recent version than 1.7, you should be OK. If someone (especially in a computer store with no experience of music-software copy protection) offers you an alternative to the iMate, get a cast-iron guarantee that they will refund you the full price if it doesn't work with all your software (whoever's fault it turns out to be).

Get this working before you start messing

about with installing MIDI interfaces and audio peripherals. I am assuming, if you are an SOS reader, that your sequencing and audio programs and plug-ins are your first priority, so make sure you can get them open, even if you're using them with the Mac AV sound and your software keeps bitching that it can't find a serial port. (I wish Emagic would disable this opening error message now, with its option to go to Preferences; it's almost two years since Apple shipped a computer with a modem or printer port. In a new installation Logic is far more likely to not find serial ports than to find them, and the error message is very confusing for first-time users!)

If your software can't find the dongle immediately, here are some guidelines to reduce hair loss (self or stress induced). First, remember that each time an error message appears saying that the dongle can't be found, you may need to reboot the computer to get the software to take a fresh look next time. I have often found this to be the case with Logic, in particular. Use this time to practise deep, regular breathing to reduce stress (or to go and put the kettle on — although beware caffeine addiction from too many teas or coffees at this early stage. We've still got to get MIDI interfaces and audio devices working for you yet!).

If you're using a USB hub because your computer doesn't have enough USB sockets for all the USB devices you need to connect, what with dongles, MIDI interfaces and maybe even audio devices (which all used to plug into different interfaces), you may find this prevents your dongle from being detected. Sometimes even plugging into the keyboard USB slot causes the dongle to become invisible. Plug the iMated dongle directly into the computer first, to establish that all your software runs before you start moving it further away — either into the keyboard (which is a good place to keep an eye on it) or into a hub. Not all hubs are equal, either. Again, before you buy, insist on a guarantee, preferably written, that you can swap for another make if you can't get all your USB devices to work with your first choice.

USB Floppy Disk Issues

Another thing missing from your new Mac is a floppy drive. This is the one component which potentially can cause you more grief during the lifetime of your new Mac (and has caused me to stick more pins into my Steve Jobs doll) than any other. Because of this, many companies, such as Steinberg and MOTU, are moving away from Master floppy disk authorisation (it's an ill wind that blows absolutely no good), but even if you are in the fortunate position of having no software requiring this antique form of authorisation, I still strongly advise you to get an external floppy drive. I recommend the Imation SuperDisk, which reads traditional floppies (to my mind still the best way of moving small files about) and also uses its own proprietary 100Mb storage disks for larger-scale storage and backup. However, to use this, or other USB external drives, to run floppy-disk authorisations you may well need to get the USB Floppy Enabler — see the 'Going Floppy' box for more details.

MIDI Interface issues

Your main music software should now be graciously agreeing to run (even if you are having to click your way through half a dozen alert boxes complaining about the lack of MIDI interfaces and audio devices!). Now it's time to try to get some MIDI from a controller into the computer — and back out again, if you're old-fashioned enough to expect to control external MIDI devices, instead of internal synths in hardware or software. If you have a MIDI interface from a previous Mac, aka a 'legacy' interface (industry jargon for something which no longer works with current interfacing standards), then of course you can't plug it directly into the modem or printer port it was designed to work with. Time to spend another £50, I'm afraid. But before you complain, see how much a new USB MIDI interface will cost you and then read the section on getting a USB MIDI interface running; at £50 you're getting off easy.

This time you do have a choice, between a Geethree Stealth port and a Griffin gPort, which both cost about fifty quid. Provided you don't have a newer PowerBook (in which case you have to deal with the USB stuff later on), there is, in fact, still a traditional Apple modem connection hidden away inside your computer which you can use. It just needs the Stealth or gPort to let you plug your old MIDI interface into it. These ports actually fit into the bay designed for your internal modem (which you will have to remove). The beauty of them is that they don't require any additional software to make them run, and your sequencer will just see them (as in the past) as a traditional modem port. So if you have a 'dumb' interface with, say, one MIDI buss in and one MIDI buss out (even if it has multiple Out connectors), such as an Opcode Translator II, there's no software to install at all. All the MIDI sequencers on the market know how to drive MIDI I/O on a modem port, because that's how it has always been done. The downside is that you won't be able to use an internal modem for Internet access. This is no bad thing, in my book, even if some companies are now starting to try and get your computer to auto-connect to their site during installation, either for automatic registration or to get the latest version of their software. It's one of those ideas that might seem quite good in theory but usually ends up causing more problems than it solves!

A Stealth or gPort seems to be the least problematic way of getting MIDI working on new Macs, and should ensure that you'll be no worse off than if you were using a single serial port for your MIDI interface with your old computer. However, If you can't use them, or had your multi-port serial interface connected to both serial ports on an older Mac, there is another solution, provided you have PCI slots to play with. (iMac and PowerBook owners, go directly to the USB section, do not pass Go and definitely do not collect £200).

MIDI Via PCI

The first PCI-based solution to the MIDI problem was from US company MegaWolf. They released two PCI cards: Romulus, with four serial ports, and Remus, the same card but with only two serial ports soldered onto the circuit board. Installing these once again allowed you to use your 'legacy' interfacing, whether it was a multi-buss device such as the ones in the Opcode Studio or MOTU series, or several 'dumb' interfaces such as the aforementioned Translator II on each of the serial ports. (Many experts assert that the latter will give better MIDI timing in critical applications.)

Thanks to Graham Hinton at Hinton Instruments, who brings the Megawolf cards into the UK, I was able to check them on numerous different G3s and G4s last year, and they worked pretty well once the required FreeMIDI or OMS drivers were up and running (the OMS way involved a bit of a kludge for multi-port MIDI interfaces, which could be slightly unstable). However, I was unable to persuade many people to go for this solution — mainly, I suspect, because it was taking up a precious PCI slot most people regard as more important for audio or other functions.

An answer to this problem has arrived this year in the form of PCI-installed audio devices which also offer MIDI interfacing. These may be in a specifically designed form, like the Digi 001, which offers one MIDI In and Out on its external breakout box, or in the form of devices transferred from the PC world. Combination MIDI/digital audio cards have been the PC norm for years, presumably because PCs provided no easy MIDI I/O like the Mac modem and printer ports. Two examples of combination cards are Frontier Designs' WaveCenter PCI and Dakota (which, I'm bound to tell you, are distributed by my own company, Digital Media). Both of these feature two MIDI I/Os in conjunction with one or two ADAT optical I/Os respectively, plus a co-axial SPDIF I/O. Mac drivers for these cards were posted earlier this year, although the cards had been shipping for some time before that for PC people. Both the Digidesign and Frontier products require OMS to make a sequencer aware of them, but despite some of the reservations I have with OMS (much of it still being in 68K code which forces slower-running emulation from G3 and G4 processors), they seem to work reliably. There are other Mac-compatible cards on the market offering both audio and MIDI connections, such as the Yamaha SW1000XG and the cost-effective forthcoming M-Audio Delta Audiophile 2496.

Hybrid audio/MIDI cards are attractive, as while you're using the PCI slot for the purpose for which God intended it (ie. digital audio multi-channel I/O), you're killing two birds with one stone and slipping MIDI in and out on the PCI buss, without taking up a second slot. Of course, if you already own PCI audio card(s) which you had just planned to move across to your new Mac, you don't gain anything, but for those setting up a music computer for the first time, they're close to an ideal solution.

  Going Floppy: USB Drives & Software Authorisation  
  People trying to do disk authorisations in the early days of USB floppy drives found that PACE and other authorisers wouldn't work, and until the USB Floppy Enabler extension was developed, authorisations would not work over USB. Most manufacturers who still require floppy authorisation now include this extension on their install CDs, but you should be able to find it on the web if it is not supplied.

At one stage, although Steinberg had made it possible to install VST on floppy-driveless computers via challenge/response, VST would crash during expansion unless the USB Floppy Enabler was enabled in the Extensions Folder, even if you had no floppy drive connected and were using the challenge/response to authorise. You had to have USB Floppy Enabler there just to get the program decompressed after installation. This situation was rectified a few months ago by v4.1R2, so you shouldn't run into problems unless you're still trying to work with an older install disk (in which case I heartily recommend getting hold of a v4.1R2 CD, which makes life a whole lot easier). Still, if VST crashes on expansion, in my experience it is down to the lack of USB Floppy Enabler.

 
USB For MIDI Issues

If none of the solutions for MIDI mentioned so far fit your particular computer, you have to deal with MIDI over USB (at least for the time being). mLAN may soon become an option on FireWire-equipped machines (G4s, more recent portables, and the latest iBook launched at Apple Expo Paris), and if you're in the market for a new computer, I would advise going for one of these if you can afford it. FireWire already has some exciting non-music uses, such as editing digital video, and it won't be long before it will host the most powerful musical interface ever, in mLAN, but for now USB will have to do for both MIDI and digital audio.

You may detect from my tone that I regard USB for MIDI as a last resort — if you can't fit in a Stealth or gPort and don't have a free PCI slot, it's something you're stuck with. This conclusion is based not only on some very frustrating experiences, for myself and other people, but also on some sound reasoning, which I'll expound as we go along, that seems to explain why it is more problematic than other interfacing for MIDI and digital audio. Not that I don't know many people who are working succesfully with USB MIDI interfaces — but I have witnessed fraught installations, sudden interruptions of normal communications, intermittent and, in some cases, unresolved problems with USB MIDI which mean I just cannot wholeheartedly endorse its use.

One exception seems to be the Emagic USB MIDI interfaces, the Unitor 8 MkII and the AMT8, but then only when they are addressed directly by Emagic's own sequencers. Then they seem to work perfectly, which makes me think that the problem with USB is not a fundamental unsuitability for MIDI per se, but a combination of USB with another factor. As Emagic's Logic communicating directly with their own interfaces doesn't require OMS to establish a communication link with the hardware, I deduce from this that the additional factor of OMS, in tandem with USB, may cause things to come unglued. [A similar situation exists with Mark Of The Unicorn, whose own MIDI interfaces don't need OMS to communicate with their Digital Performer sequencer. Also, if both interface and software come from the same manufacturer and don't need OMS, any problems can be addressed to a single supplier — Ed]

This deduction is borne out by conversations I've had with people more technically aware than myself, who tell me (as alluded to earlier) that the fundamental problem with OMS in the year 2000 is that much of it is still written in 68K code (code written for the 68000-series processors that Macs used for 15 years but which have now been superseded by the PowerPC chips). As a bridge between older software and current CPU hardware, a level of code is used that makes the newer processors behave like the old ones when lines of code arrive which were written to run on the 68000 series. This is referred to as 68K emulation, as opposed to 'native' which denotes code running on the type of processor for which it was actually written.

The problem with 68K emulation is that not only does it use the newer processors less efficiently, so that even though they run quicker it takes them longer to do anything in 68K emulation mode, but that things seem to be getting worse with the later generations of PowerPC CPUs. In other words — and this is my own personal observation, not accepted fact — as Power PC processors are optimised to run native code faster and faster, they actually seem to be slower and slower at 68K emulation, to the point where they might actually be tripping up over it.

This is my attempt to rationalise phenomena I have witnessed when USB MIDI interfaces are used in conjunction with OMS — crashes, lost and stuck notes, major playback timing glitches, more than normal slowing down when large amounts of data are transmitted, and other unacceptable MIDI problems. The fact that such problems are rare when USB is directed over MIDI by the built-in drivers for Emagic's own interfaces in Logic, for example proves that, on its own, USB is acceptable for MIDI. This statement is supported by the fact that the bandwidth available on USB is several times wider than that of the serial interface which performed admirably for over a decade.

If circumstances dictate that you use USB for MIDI, and your sequencer of choice is Logic, spend the extra money to get one of Emagic's own interfaces and save yourself some headaches by not using OMS to connect the MIDI. If you aren't using Logic [or a MOTU sequencer, in which case you can consider a MOTU interface — Ed] you have no choice but to install OMS to get your software to recognise the hardware, but try and keep the OMS setup as uncomplicated as possible. The more things OMS is trying to juggle, the more likely it is to trip up over a USB hiccup. If this happens it may produce a late note, a data clog or, at worst, a crash. As a safety measure, get the supplying dealer to agree to swap the interface for a different make or model should you or they be unable to resolve problems which may occur with it. I have mentioned in the past that salespeople are often more ready to agree to this kind of thing when closing a sale than at a later stage.

It seems to me that the combination of USB and OMS is a potentially dangerous one at least partly because you cannot always control which other signals (over and above what your MIDI stream is generating) are floating about on the USB buss. However, there are measures you can take to reduce or eliminate the problems you may experience at first. Some of these are obvious.

• Make sure you're not unnecessarily sending huge amounts of data as controllers or SysEx. Switch polyphonic aftertouch off if your receiving sounds are not set to respond to it, and check that synths are not sending a full patch dump when receiving a program change — which is rare, but not unheard of.

• When you do need to work with these data-intensive areas of MIDI, try not to overload the USB interface with other signals. Many people have the nervous habit of wiggling the mouse about while they're waiting for the computer to finish an operation, presumably because they want to reassure themselves it hasn't crashed. In the past, mouse movements would only clog up the ADB and not the serial port the MIDI data was coming over, but remember that both are now sharing the same connection with USB.

• If you have two USB connectors on your Mac, try to keep the MIDI interface all to itself on one of them and put any other USB devices on the other (especially if you're using a hub). This way, typing on the keyboard or moving the mouse won't add to the amount of data flowing along the same USB cable as the MIDI information. Of course, this may be difficult if you also have a petulant dongle which is refusing to be seen unless it, too, is directly connected to the computer (I always try to use those on one of the keyboard USB connectors, unless they really won't have it!).

• It's always worth removing and re-installing OMS if you find that your early use of USB MIDI is fairly problem-free but as time goes by things get worse. I've found this helpful on several occasions. It's also worth keeping an eye on the web site of your MIDI interface supplier as it is amazing how often a 'perfectly good' OMS driver is quietly replaced by an updated version — and if this happens, you can be sure there's a reason. Download the new driver and use it instead of the old one, although you may not want to throw the old one away until you've verified that the new one works better — new drivers often contain new bugs.

• If the worst comes to the worst and you cannot get your USB MIDI interface to work, ask the supplying dealer to exchange it for another model or brand. Often a device which doesn't work on one particular computer configuration will work fine on another, and vice versa. Sometimes an innocent-looking extension for a totally unrelated use will be the fly in the ointment and may remain undetected, but it may not trouble the driver for a different interface. In the end, whatever gets you up and running is good, whether or not you know why it worked.

Stay Tuned

In the next instalment of this short series, I'll look at issues which arise when you're expanding the digital audio capabilities of the new Macs (or adding them from scratch on the new G4 Cube, which has no built-in audio capability of its own). As you can imagine, with the many-fold increase in the amount of data being sent around when you start working with digital audio, the potential for problems also increases, in general areas such as digital audio over USB, and specific instances where particular PCI products conflict with updates of MacOS or individual sequencers.

In the meantime, anyone who has had any experiences with software/hardware mismatches is welcome to share them with their fellow readers by sending them in to SOS, whether the problem proved soluble or not.

  Useful Contacts  
  • M-Audio Delta Audiophile 2496, £179: Midiman UK +44 (0)1423 886692.
• Emagic Unitor 8 MkII, £499; AMT8, £349: Sound Technology +44 (0)1462 480000.
• Digidesign Digi 001, £880: Digidesign +44 (0)1753 653322.
• Frontier Designs' WaveCenter PCI, £299; Dakota, £499: Digital Media +44 (0)20 7586 9556.
• Geethree Stealth port, around £49: from Apple dealers.
• Griffin Technologies gPort, around £50: from Apple dealers.
• Griffin Technologies iMate, around £40: from Apple dealers.
• Imation SuperDisk, around £80: from Apple dealers.
• MegaWolf Romulus, £299.63; Remus, £235, including UK delivery: Hinton Instruments +44 (0)1373 451927.
• Yamaha SW1000XG, £479: Yamaha-Kemble UK +44 (0)1908 369269.
 

This is the first article in a four-part series. Read Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

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