Apple had plenty of surprises at their Developer Conference this year, including new hardware (the G5 Power Macs), and new software (Panther). In this specially extended Apple Notes, we consider the likely effects on the Mac-based musician...
At this year's Worldwide Developers' Conference (or WWDC for short), Apple promised to unveil Panther (or OS 10.3), the latest cat-themed release of OS X. And while the first preview of a major new update to Mac OS X would in itself have been something for Mac aficionados to get excited about, rumours were circulating for many months before the WWDC that Power Macs based around a new processor architecture would also be introduced at the conference.
The new Power Mac rumour was first given substance by Apple moving the original date of the 2003 WWDC from May to June, fuelling speculation that the man known for 'one last thing' in his keynote presentations, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, would have one big hardware-orientated thing to show. And days before the keynote (or Job-note, as such presentations have affectionately become known), the rumour was confirmed beyond the doubt of most Mac fans when specifications of a G5-based Power Mac were accidentally posted on the Power Mac G4 page of Apple's on-line store.
In many ways, Apple's WWDC announcements were exactly what the Mac world had been expecting: we got to see Panther, and new G5 Power Macs were indeed introduced, with Jobs confessing (with regard to the Apple Store slip-up) that the specifications were true, but only scratched the surface. And he was right, although not just about the new Power Macs. The desktop-focussed 2003 WWDC keynote will perhaps turn out to be the most significant event for Apple this year, and, oddly for an occasion aimed primarily at developers, it was certainly one of the most significant events for Mac-based musicians in Apple's history. So, while the general news of the new Power Mac G5s will be old news by the time you read this column, we're going to take a more detailed look behind the WWDC announcements and investigate what the G5 will mean for the future of Mac-based music making.
Cast your mind back to 1997: this was the year Apple released computers featuring a G3 processor, and host of cool advertising showing snails with Pentium II processors on their backs, steamrollers flattening Windows-based notebooks, and Intel's annoying dancing foil-wrapped fools being toasted. At that time, there was little doubt that Apple's machines were roughly twice as fast as the competition; in the Summer of 2000, I was using my then-ageing 266MHz Power Mac G3 desktop to produce music with Logic 4.5 and the EXS24 software sampler — something I probably couldn't have done with a 266MHz Pentium II-based system.
In 1999, Apple introduced the Power Mac G4 at Seybold, a conference for print and publishing professionals, and these were also great machines, but the company would later have problems maintaining the performance advantage with the Windows-based world. Part of this problem could be attributed to the operating system: while Microsoft gradually improved consumer versions of Windows with more advanced technologies, and had NT for more demanding users, the classic Mac operating system couldn't be scaled quite so easily to take full advantage of the latest hardware facilities. Apple solved this issue spectacularly with Mac OS X, but problems with Motorola, the manufacturer of the G4 processor, coupled with the difficulty in scaling the G4 to higher clock speeds while maintaining performance, saw Apple fall behind in the desktop market.
The later Power Mac G4s weren't bad machines, especially the 'mirror door' models based on the architecture of Apple's flagship server, Xserve; but compared with Intel, who were now flying with later revisions of the Pentium 4 and Xeon processors, not to mention the high floating-point performance from AMD's offerings, Apple's desktops were not the greatest when, aesthetics aside, raw computing power was required. This mattered less in the general computing space, where processors had become fast enough for word-processing and Internet use, and Apple still had an advantage in the notebook world because G4s ran cooler and consumed less power than the competition; but for studio musicians who needed a powerful desktop to run virtual racks of synths and effects, even the dual-G4 systems became no real match for dual-Xeon monster machines.
However, Apple have never been known to rest on their laurels, and together with IBM, another member of the original Power PC processor alliance, Apple have spent the last couple of years developing the G5 processor (previously known as the Power PC 970) and a new Mac architecture that promises to place them in a position similar to that they enjoyed when the G3 chip appeared around six years ago.
The Power PC G5 processor, to use its full name, draws on previous Power PC processor designs and is based on the execution core of IBM's 64-bit POWER4 processor, designed for high-performance workstation and server products. For a detailed tour of the new processor's architecture, it would be best for readers to check out Apple's web site), but features such as an enhanced Velocity Engine and two double-precision floating-point units are going to immediately raise the eyebrows of Mac-savvy musicians and engineers. Most Mac music software is already optimised for the G4's Velocity Engine, including intensive convolution-based reverb effects such as Altiverb, and native-based audio software makes heavy use of floating-point arithmetic. Already, the potential benefits should be forming in your mind...
Perhaps the most significant characteristic of the G5's design is that it is a 64-bit processor, making Apple the first company to ship a 64-bit processor with a desktop computer, although many people argue that the specifications of Apple's G5 Power Macs, which we'll investigate shortly, make it more of a workstation than a desktop. This technicality aside, a 64-bit processor is a huge step forward because of its ability to process 64 bits of data in a single cycle, which perhaps sounds a little obvious. But the point is that to process a 64-bit (or anything larger than 32-bit) value in a 32-bit processor requires two cycles, and even though it's well-known that most native audio software uses 32-bit floating-point processing, it's possible to exceed this data length when doing precise calculations. In addition to this, many plug-ins operate at higher internal resolutions, such as 48-bit, to offer even more precision in the processing, and these are some of the areas where a 64-bit processor is going to make a big difference to Mac-based musicians.
However, the ability to handle 64-bit wide data paths has a knock-on effect over the entire architecture of the system, and it's another big advantage of the Power PC G5; the amount of memory that it can address. The G5 supports 42 bits of physical memory address space, setting a theoretical memory limitation of four terabytes of RAM; and although it's impossible to put this amount of memory in a desktop computer at the moment, it does at least afford plenty of growing room.
One area in which a processor's performance can be crippled, no matter how brilliant the design, is when it comes to the buss that keeps the processor fed with data — and a fast buss speed is crucial in high-performance audio applications, especially virtual instruments such as software samplers. To this end the G5 communicates with the rest of the system via a 64-bit DDR (Double Data Rate), bi-directional frontside buss (FSB); quite a mouthful. What this means is that the G5 can send and receive 32-bit blocks simultaneously, rather than switch between send and receive modes with a single 64-bit block of data, and that the speed of this buss can be up to 1GHz, depending on the speed of the processor itself, giving a maximum bandwidth of 8GB/s, which is pretty impressive!
As one would expect from a company that has previously invested so much time in dual-processor systems, the G5 was designed to support symmetric multi-processing, which allows a multi-threaded application to carry out different tasks simultaneously on different processors, as discussed in our OS X for Musicians feature in SOS April 2003. However, dual-processor systems frequently share the same buss to communicate with the system, such as in dual-G4 and Xeon-based systems, whereas each processor in a G5 system is given its own independent buss. This means that the maximum bandwidth in the forthcoming range of G5 systems will be 16GB per second, and using a technique called cache intervention, it's possible to improve performance further, for one processor to access the data in the other's cache. The technology is undoubtedly impressive, but one of the most important questions about a new design of processor, even if it draws some heritage from the designs that came before, is how well existing applications, and, indeed, the operating system itself will perform. In this case, the question is: how well will existing 32-bit code run on the new 64-bit G5 processor? Fortunately, Apple state that current 32-bit code — in other words, all your existing applications — will run natively on G5 systems and require no emulation modes to get in the way of performance. The reason for this is apparently because the Power PC architecture was designed with both 32-bit and 64-bit operations in mind, and the G5 also includes the same Velocity Engine instruction set from the G4 processor. This means that Velocity-Engine-optimised applications will immediately benefit from the G5's performance — a situation that will only improve as applications and Mac OS X itself are further enhanced for G5 systems. The G5s will ship with Mac OS 10.2.7, which includes support for 64-bit processors, and this is something that will probably be taken further in Mac OS 10.3.
Incidentally, until the G5s are available in August, it's interesting to note that the most recent range of G4s are being 're-released', having been unavailable through distribution channels for a while. Particularly of note here is the slight tweak to the OS that once again allows you to boot into OS 9 (after the start of this year, this was no longer possible on new machines). This 'bridging manoeuvre' (or U-turn, if you prefer!) may well have been done for the benefit of the influential Mac-based Quark Xpress user community, but it's good news for those musicians who haven't yet made the switch to OS X.
And what of the computers themselves? Continuing in the tradition Apple have established since the G3-based Power Macs were introduced, the Power Mac G5 will be available in three different configurations, using a G5 processor at three different clock speeds: single 1.6 and 1.8GHz models, along with a high-end dual-2GHz model (and Steve Jobs has promised a three-Gigahertz version within 12 months). These clock speeds represent a pretty significant jump for Apple, and are actually in line with the clock speeds of other 64-bit processors from competing manufacturers, such as AMD and Intel.
The newly designed system architecture for the Power Mac G5 is based upon AMD's Hyper Transport interface, which provides an efficient way of connecting the G5's PCI-X expansion slots and other I/O with the Apple-designed system controller. The new Power Mac architecture also supports an AGP 8x graphics buss, a 400MHz 128-bit memory buss that accommodates up to 8GB of PC3200 128-bit DDR memory, Serial ATA for internal storage, and an array of other input and output connections. However, in pausing for breath, you might be wondering what some of these specifications mean: Serial ATA, PCI-X? Will your existing peripherals be compatible?
PCI-X is basically an advanced protocol for dealing with expansion cards that demand more bandwidth. Whereas a typical PCI slot operates at 33MHz, providing a maximum bandwidth of 266MB-per-second of bandwidth (enough, theoretically, for several thousand mono, CD-quality audio tracks, by the way!), a PCI-X slot operates at 133MHz, allowing for a maximum bandwidth of 2GB-per-seconds. While the bandwidth of your existing PCI slots should really be enough as it is, PCI doesn't always operate as efficiently as it should, and this issue has also been addressed in the PCI-X specification, which should really benefit high-bandwidth devices such as audio and DSP cards. Although most existing PCI cards should work in the newer PCI-X slots since backwards compatibility was one of the design goals, 100-percent compatibility cannot be guaranteed, so it will be worth checking with your audio or DSP card's manufacturer about this issue when Power Mac G5s become available.
Serial ATA is an evolution of Parallel ATA, which is the interface used in current Power Mac G4s and, indeed, most desktop computers to connect internal hard drives. In a Parallel ATA configuration, the connected drives compete for data from the same 100MB-per-second buss, whereas with a Serial ATA interface, each drive is placed on an independent 150MB-per-second buss. One immediate benefit of these independent busses is that it will now be possible to see some serious performance enhancements when striping the two internal drives using Mac OS X's software RAID features, which was found to be ineffective in last month's SOS feature on current Parallel ATA-based Macs. This is obviously ideal for audio and video work, and Power Mac G5s will be able to accommodate two internal Serial ATA drives for a maximum of 500GB storage capacity.
When Jobs asked his WWDC audience if they should fit the new Power Mac G5s in the existing Power Mac G4 enclosures, the answer was a unanimous "No!". He didn't need their answer, though, and a new, sleek and beautiful aluminium enclosure — designed in the way only Apple can — was unveiled, which retains the the easy access and carrying handles of the previous design.
One of the biggest criticisms of the later Power Mac G4 models, especially the 'wind tunnel' — sorry, I mean 'mirror door' — models was the sheer noise they made when switched on. Although the Power Mac G5 requires nine fans, Apple have worked their magic (remember, this is the same company who made Cubes and later CRT iMacs silent!), and have designed an intelligent cooling system with low-speed fans. They claim an ambient noise level for the G5 of 35dBA. Part of this design means that the inside of the enclosure is divided into four separate areas, and Mac OS X is able to monitor the temperature of the internal components and dynamically adjust the fans as necessary. While everyone would like a quieter computer, musicians are a group of people whose lives will be made easier by this new and quieter case — especially if you find yourself needing to record in the same room as your subject — and only Apple could design something this intelligent that didn't require you to butcher your computer with a lining of acoustic foam.
The front panel mercifully features USB 2.0 and Firewire 400 connections, and every Power Mac G5 model also includes a Super Drive, which can now write DVD-R discs at 4x speed, read DVDs at 8x speed, write CD-R and CD-RW discs at 16x and 10x speed respectively, and, finally, read CDs at 32x speed. On the back panel, you'll find three PCI-X slots, a dual-display capable graphics card with DVI and ADC connectors, additional Firewire 400 and USB 2.0 ports, a Firewire 800 connector, and Gigabit Ethernet and modem ports. For wireless connectivity, the Power Mac G5 can be fitted with additional Airport Extreme and Bluetooth modules.
Given that Apple were, for a time, known as a company that had offered built-in audio connections as standard, but then began to phase them out, it's good to know that musicians are catered for better than ever with the audio I/O on the Power Mac G5. There's the usual 3.5mm mini-jack connections on the back for line-in and out analogue audio, with an additional headphone mini-jack output on the front panel, and the converters used are capable of handling 32, 44.1 and 48kHz sampling rates and 16- or 24-bit resolutions. However, the really good news is that the each Power Mac G5 also includes optical digital I/O with TOSlink connectors delivering S/PDIF-format audio at either 16- or 24-bit resolution. When slaved to an external clock, 32, 44.1 and 48kHz sampling rates are supported, and using the Power Mac's internal clock mode rates between 16 and 96kHz can be used.
Digital audio I/O on a Mac is obviously a big step forward, and with the low-latency Core Audio functionality in the operating system, some musicians won't have to worry about purchasing additional audio hardware, which can only be a good thing. And musicians aren't the only group of users who will benefit from having a digital audio output on their Mac, since this port can also be used to drive 5.1 surround sound home entertainment systems as well for DVD playback. While sceptics might suggest that this is the true reason for Apple including a digital audio output on the new Power Mac, if that were true there would be little need to include a digital input as well, not to mention that Apple show a definite focus towards professional musicians in all of the product's technical literature.
After demonstrating how a Power Mac G5 fared against a dual-Xeon PC by means of the kind of tests that have traditionally formed the mainstay of Apple keynotes (for example running Photoshop on both machines and comparing the time required for plug-in processing), Jobs broke with the past and invited his new colleague, Gerhard Lengeling, co-founder of Emagic, onto the stage to evangelise about what the G5 will mean for musicians and music-software developers alike. To begin with, Lengeling reported that the G5 (presumably the dual 2GHz model) was capable of playing back over 1000 stereo 24-bit voices, and that 1600 bands of EQ used only 25 percent of the machine's resources, which has certainly impressed some of the musicians I know. On the face of it, these are pretty amazing figures and could mean that it will be possible for a Power Mac G5 running Logic to replace an entire rack of 12 GigaStudio-based computers, for example, although it's important to bear a couple of things in mind.
A high voice count is easier to obtain when the sampler's audio data is stored only in memory, as opposed to being streamed from disk, which is a method most musicians rely on to use today's most advanced libraries, such as the Vienna Symphonic Library. To get 1000 voices streamed from a disk without using all 8GB of the Power Mac's memory would be quite unlikely with most modern disk drives, using up all the available bandwidth of a Serial ATA channel, although Apple do have a potential answer with their XRaid storage system. It's an expensive solution, of course, but with Apple's fibre channel card in your Mac and an XRaid, which is capable of delivering up to 400MB/s of bandwidth, this should be more than adequate to stream enough voices to your software sampler — something I look forward to trying when G5s become available.
After the figures had been discussed, Apple's VP of Worldwide Product Marketing, Phil Schiller, conducted a demonstration that was almost certainly designed to send two fingers in the direction of another group of German music-software developers. In order to show the G5's alleged superiority for running music software, and given that the latest version of Logic isn't available for Windows, an optimised version of Logic v6 running on a G5 was pitted against Cubase SX v1.051 running on the dual-Xeon Windows-powered Dell machine. The test material was a track Brian Transeau had produced for a Matrix Reloaded trailer, and while the Windows machine attempted to play the song back, it didn't take too long for everything to stutter and grind to a halt as the CPU performance meter, which Apple were only to happy to illustrate, was showing enough red lights to make it more useful for developing photos than playing back music. Schiller dryly commented that "I don't think that's how BT meant for it to sound." No kidding.
Lengeling was invited to press Play on the Mac, and, needless to say, the Mac/Logic combination performed the same song flawlessly with the CPU meter showing approximately 50 percent usage. And if this wasn't enough, just to rub salt in the wounds, the Logic song had been configured so that when it got to the point where the Windows machine tripped over its own shoelaces, a higher horizontal zoom factor was chosen, causing the Arrange window objects to gracefully fly past with little dent to CPU performance.
While this made for a great theatrical display, and I confess to laughing, being taken back and impressed by what I was seeing, ultimately you have to take the technical point of such a comparison with a pinch of salt. At the time, there was no mention of what plug-in effects and instruments were being used, and how many tracks were playing back, plus it would be too easy to handicap the PC by using plug-ins that were known to adversely affect CPU usage, while sticking to Logic's lean-and-mean effects on the Mac. But it was a good show, it proved a point, and running Logic on a G5 is obviously going to provide a very powerful music production environment.
Although the promised unveiling of the next major version of Mac OS X was somewhat overshadowed by the Power G5 announcement, Mac OS 10.3 (codenamed Panther) is nevertheless going to be a significant product for Apple. Among the many new features, one of the main highlights will be fast user-switching, which Steve Jobs confessed Microsoft had beaten them to implementing. This facility, already in Windows XP, allows users to instantly switch between accounts, keeping everyone's applications and documents open; and Apple have worked their visual magic so that the 'switch' is displayed by the desktop turning into a rotating cube — "because we can" said Jobs.
Panther also features an improved and redesigned Finder, giving you better access to the most commonly used parts of the system, and there's an intriguing new Window management feature called Expose. This allows all the windows on screen to be miniaturised into tiles and spread all over the desktop at the touch of a button, enabling you to select the window you want at the front, and restoring all the other windows to their original positions. Although this sounds like a bit of a gimmick when described, it becomes apparent how useful Expose could be if you get chance to see it in action, and I think anyone who juggles a large number of windows, such as any Mac musician who uses a sequencer, will find themselves unable to live without Expose once they've tried it.
Other 10.3 highlights include a more efficient Mail program, enhanced file security, inbuilt fax support, an improved version of Preview, better synchronisation with an iDisk, and Pixlet, a new video codec that offers studio-grade compression without losing individual frames, enabling edits to be carried out on different workstations without having to worry about moving huge DV files around. And while there has been no mention yet of any improvement to Core MIDI or Audio, Panther will apparently fix an issue with OS 10.2 that prevents more than one mLAN device being used at a time, unless developers have written their own drivers to get around this problem.
Apple announced that Panther would ship publically later this year, and will cost the same as last year's Jaguar update, $129 in the US and £99 in the UK. Until then, it's only available to Apple developers.
Taking a step back from the WWDC onstage theatrics, Apple later published actual figures and methods for the Logic/Mac setup versus Cubase/Windows tests carried out in the lab. Apple's G5 Performance White Paper states that projects were put together in both applications with 'multiple unique audio tracks', and that 'five default reverb plug-ins' were added to each of the audio tracks "to see which could play more plug-ins". However, the document continues to say that for Logic, the default settings for Fat EQ, Autofilter, Chorus and Silver Compressor were used, while for Cubase, an equaliser, along with the default settings for Step Filter, Chorus and Compressor effect plug-ins were used.
The results presented are based on the number of 'simultaneous audio tracks with five plug-ins' that various systems could play back, although it's not made clear whether the plug-ins are the five default reverbs mentioned, or are made up from the secondary lists. I suspect the mention of reverb is erroneous, and the five default plug-ins are made of from the list of application-specific effects, but the reason I'm writing about this fact in such tedious detail is to highlight the uncertainty of the information provided by Apple themselves with regard to the tests carried out.
Aside from any confusion, the results published are that a dual-2GHz G5 system can play back 115 tracks under these conditions, the 1.8GHz G5 manages 59 (showing that Logic really does make use of two processors), and the 'low-end' 1.6GHz G5 still copes with 52 tracks. For the Windows machines, a Dell Precision 650 with dual 3.06GHz Xeon processors is capable of 81 tracks, while a 3GHz Pentium 4-based Dell Dimension 8300 managed only 35 tracks.
Again, it's hard to know what to make of these figures because no other information is given for these tests, and as with the onstage demonstration, the lab test comparisons are largely unfair because while Logic has been optimised for the G5 processor, Cubase contains relatively few optimisations for the latest Pentium-based technologies other than the SSE instruction set. As the testers were probably aware, Nuendo is more finely tuned for the latest Intel technologies, such as hyper-threading, which will find its way into the latest version of Cubase; so in terms of a real-world performance test, it seems unfair to pit an optimised application against an unoptimised application.
At this point, I might be in danger of offending some Mac fanatics by appearing to 'defend' the Windows platform here in Apple Notes, of all places, which isn't my intention. I'm incredibly excited by the Power Mac G5 and will be straight down to my local Apple Store to buy one when they're available; but tests such as the ones provided by Apple (and I'm talking purely about the music and audio tests here) don't provide any real comparison with the Windows platform. I think it's far more interesting to discard the Windows results altogether and just look at the Mac results on their own because, by current standards, they are impressive and something to shout about.
Despite the arguments about the validity of many of the claims Apple have made for the G5 and the tests and performance data collected, and regardless of whether the Power Mac G5 is indeed the world's fastest desktop, if it's actually correct to refer to the Power Mac G5 as a desktop rather than workstation, and so on, it seems that Apple have produced the best Mac for professional musicians and engineers in the company's history. They also have a new hardware platform that at least puts Apple in the same ballpark as the competition again, which is particularly important for an industry such as the music industry where Macs are still arguably the professional choice — a fact that is, admittedly, rarely based on technical merit.
With such a loyal user base, it often seemed strange why Apple didn't cater more obviously to musicians in the past; but with the Power Mac G5, Apple have arguably designed the most musician-friendly computer on the planet. Considering Apple's purchase of Emagic, the high-performance audio and MIDI support in OS X, and not forgetting the recent launch and success of the iTunes Music Store, I can't wait to see what Apple are going to do for us next.