In these days of multi-GHz CPUs, the silent music PC is but a memory, drowned out by cooling fan noise. But we can have the speed without all that racket, according to a German PC manufacturer...
Moore's law is all very well. For about the last 20 years, it has observed that the power of microprocessors doubles every 18 months, which is all the more remarkable when you note that almost every year, someone tells us that Moore's law is about to be made redundant. Usually the argument is something along the lines of 'we've reached the limit of electron lithography' or whatever. I've lost track of the number of times I've heard this in the last decade, and yet, here we are, with processors faster than ever, and with no real sign of the speeding up slowing down.
But the rate of progress of technology as a whole (as opposed to just processors) is by no means as predictable. That it goes forward in leaps and bounds is a given; but quite when the next big jump is due is difficult to predict from any sort of distance. It's the fact that you often can't see these big advances coming that makes them all the more surprising in one sense, and exciting in another.
Well, we're close enough to the next big leap to be able to talk about it with some confidence. It's the result of the convergence of predictable technical advances and somewhat less predictable commercial decisions. And it's going to have a very big effect on the way we create music and how we distribute it around our homes. In fact, over the next three years the PC architecture is going to change more than it's changed in its history. In three years' time, we may even have to redefine what we mean by a 'PC'.
I'm going to cover all these radical changes in detail, but not this month. There's too much to cover in one column, and some of the information is decidedly sketchy at the moment, so what I'd like to do is give you an overview, and focus on the specifics as and when it becomes available. The first change will be, visually, the most obvious. PCs will stop looking like PCs. Instead, they'll mutate into something that looks nice beside the aspidistra.
Now, I don't want to trivialise this. In fact, I doubt if it's possible to overstate the importance the appearance of a computer is going to have in the next year or so. We've reached the point where using a computer as a home media server is going mainstream. But I very much doubt if we'll actually reach domestic ubiquity for PCs if they don't smarten up their act. The fact is that most PCs look awful, no matter how many knobs and LEDs you put on them. So the search is on for a computer that not only looks OK in the living room, but which doesn't broadcast its presence with a noise only a few dB down from a vacuum cleaner.
Tying the new PC architecture together is the next big iteration of Windows, currently rejoicing in the development name of 'Longhorn', which I suppose is marginally better than Intel's unfortunately named next-generation Pentium: 'Prescott'.
The release of Longhorn is probably at least two years away, but I have seen video of an early alpha version, which at this stage, of course, looks pretty similar to Windows XP. But that's just the user interface. Underneath there are some pretty big developments.
But let's stay with the User Interface for a minute. It's going to be 3D. In fact, it's going to be 3D with the resolution and responsiveness of high-definition video. For example, if you have a video picture (lets say you've got a camera on the studio floor so that you can watch from the control room), you can see this in real time on the Windows desktop, and can even rotate it in 3D space so that it looks like it's on a billboard, viewed from an angle. When a window moves from the foreground to the background, you'll be able to arrange for it to flap, just like a curtain.
Gimmicky, perhaps, but it might just help you to navigate your way around today's ever-more complex desktops. Now, of course, most of today's computers won't be able to handle this. The ones that can have a graphics card that is compatible with DirectX 9: basically a pretty powerful graphics accelerator with advanced 3D capabilities. At last, after an incredible 17 years, Windows is going to abandon compatibility with the old VGA graphics standard, and is going to go straight for DirectX 9.
What this will mean for most of us is that real-time video and audio will be handled with ease by every new computer. Special video effects will be part of the operating system. Pretty exciting stuff; but the best news of all is that with all the graphics processing being carried out in hardware (the graphics co-processor, or GPU), the central processor will have even more time available for audio processing. We'll be looking at 4 or 5GHz CPUs, Hyperthreading enabled, with nothing much to do apart from generate, let's say, a perfect physically modelled orchestra.
I can't wait!
There's no doubt in my mind that the best-looking PC on the planet at the moment is the one made by the German company Hush Technologies, shown above. It's the most understated piece of design I've seen for a very long time. And it single-handedly defines the form factor for the Home Media Server.
I've been saving the best bit until last: it's almost completely silent. Cooled by an external heatsink that is an integral part of the design, the only noise is from the hard disk, and you have to practically put your ear against the machine to hear that. The noise that PCs make is not deafening, but it is intrusive, both in a recording and a listening environment. I've got a Hush Technologies PC in the house at the moment and I have to say that the silence really does make an enormous difference. It makes the perfect audio media server because it just sits there, quietly, and probably forever: with no moving parts (except the hard drive) there really isn't much to go wrong.
Now, at the other end of the music production chain, in the studio, a silent PC is obviously a very desirable piece of kit. I've tried the Hush Technologies computer with Reason and Cubase SX, and it works, but not brilliantly: it's just too slow by today's demanding musicianly standards. That's going to change over the next few months as Hush bring out more powerful models, and there is a very good reason why you get less than cutting-edge performance from this type of PC.
The thing is that we've now reached the point for most applications (with the notable exception of multitrack audio with software plug-ins, and video), where anything with a clock speed of around 1GHz is 'good enough'. Good enough, certainly, for playing back virtually any form of mainstream media; MP3s, WAV files and even MPEG2, which includes DVDs (the Via motherboard inside the Hush Technologies computer has a hardware MPEG2 decoder, reducing the need for a fast processor even further). The benefit from scaling down the performance is power consumption, and, while most of us don't even think about what our non-laptop computers cost to run, this also reduces the amount of heat produced, which has the biggest benefit of all for readers of SOS: no need for fans.
So don't expect to run all of your software applications on this device: it's no workstation. But think of it more as a very flexible rackmounted effects unit, processor or sampler. Right now, I'd say that the perfect application for it in the studio is running an application like Gigasampler. I know that a lot of serious composers have whole racks of PCs running Gigasampler, each making an unholy racket. They might need more Hush PCs to achieve the same performance — but I'd say it's worth thinking about, because instead of a wall of fan noise you'd be able to hear a pin drop (it's important to qualify these ravings by pointing out that I haven't actually tried Gigasampler on the Hush PC yet, but I'll report back to you as soon as I have.
In what looks very much like a 'me-too' or 'we're not going to be left out' move, Adobe has bought Syntrillium, creators of the very fine Cool Edit Pro. I have a lot of respect for this program because it's what made me change career, from working exclusively with pro audio to video!
About five or six years ago I was making progress in my quest to get a little-known but very good digital audio workstation adopted by radio stations. Then, almost overnight, I found that stations were switching to a program that cost virtually nothing (compared to my expensive hardware solution) and worked incredibly well, even on the glacially slow computers available at the time (which were, I guess, running at between 120 and 300MHz).
So it's a program that signalled the way for virtually the entire audio-production business (and, latterly, the video equivalent). Well, Adobe have certainly bought a good product. They've renamed it Audition, which is not surprising, given that they were never going to rename Premiere Wicked Video Splicer. I hope that this takeover will mean that, as with the Pinnacle purchase of Steinberg, audio is beginning to be taken seriously by the video guys!
There are other new physical forms planned for PCs, most of which are vastly more attractive than the standard beige tower. Some are actually quite noisy, but then that's the price you pay for leading-edge performance.
One thing that all small PCs tend to have in common is a lack of expansion potential. This might not matter at all if you are served by the normally quite generous selection of ports available on most current models, but it can be a problem if you need to fit a full-length PCI card.
The answer to this issue is simply not to use PCI cards — and in the near future, you won't have to. Recently, I told you how Avid has moved its entire product range across to an architecture that uses Firewire for all data communications with an external I/O and accelerator box. Although they weren't the first to do this (the first was probably Digidesign with their 002 system — and it's maybe no coincidence that their parent company is none other than Avid!), the Avid announcement has, effectively signalled the end of significant developments based on the PCI buss. Firewire has always been seen as a fast interface because it has been used for video. While most people know that Firewire has a theoretical bandwidth of 400Mbits per second, not everyone realises that DV (the domestic and semi-pro digital video format) over Firewire uses as little as one tenth of its available bandwidth. Which means that — for audio at least — there is almost no limit to the number of audio channels, and MIDI, for that matter, that you can move over Firewire in real time.
But while it's tempting to think that all PC expansion will be external in the future, there's more going on inside the computer that might challenge this vision of the future. The technology in question is PCI Express, a replacement for the PCI buss that promises quite staggering new capabilities for PCs, and which will be with us in as little as two to three years time.
I remember writing excitedly about the PCI buss when it first appeared. It was so far ahead of the then-standard ISA buss that the possibilities were at the time simply mind-boggling. Virtually none of today's multitrack audio and video cards could have existed without PCI, and we're still going to have to live with it for a couple more years. PCI Express is even further ahead of PCI than PCI was an advance on ISA. Just to give you a taste of how important PCI Express is going to be for music and video: it supports Isochronous data transfer modes. Put simply, what this means is that for any given media type (audio, video, or whatever) it is able to guarantee delivery from source to destination. No more glitching. It will transform the role of computers in the home and in the studio.
There'll be more on these and other exciting developments in the shape of future PCs over the next few months.