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iPod

Apple Notes By Paul Wiffen

On October 25th 2001 Apple released their first non‑Mac device for many years, called the iPod. Apple Notes spots a vital clue which makes the iPod rather useful to the recording musician, whatever the general consumer makes of it...

Having been alerted by the comments surrounding the launch of faster portables the previous week to the fact that Apple were planning to launch a brand new 'digital lifestyle' device, I was actually online when their web site changed to reveal the iPod.

A Toy For The Boys?

iPodReading the specs, I took the iPod at first for what I am sure it is primarily meant to be — a super‑MP3 player with Apple flair, aimed at the well‑heeled 'toys for boys' market (although I'm sure many a female power executive will want one for her daily fitness routine). As such, it clearly gives the same kind of FireWire synchronicity with the Mac for music that DV cameras achieved with iMovie and the same kind of inter‑operability that Palm Pilot and digital camera owners have come to expect via USB. As soon as you plug the iPod into the FireWire port on your Mac, it synchronises itself with the iTunes setup you have installed (an updated iTunes 2 comes free with iPod, presumably to give extra functionality for iPod‑specific capabilities) and starts charging via that same FireWire connection — great if you don't need another wall‑wart power supply to carry around with you constantly, which I certainly don't.

The 5Gb internal FireWire drive in iPod can hold up to 1000 songs in MP3 format, and gives you the necessary hardware (and hi‑fi headphones) to listen to these anywhere, whatever you are doing. It has up to 20 minutes of jog protection, which I won't be needing, as I can't jog for even a quarter of that time!

It can even operate as a stand‑alone FireWire drive for more general Mac files, presumably in the same way that any Mac can currently make its internal hard drive available to another Mac in 'target mode'. At 4x2.5x3.75 (inches), that's a pretty small additional hot‑swappable hard drive, of the kind of capacity that was standard in portable computers only 18 months ago. But as I read through the spec on the Apple site, I knew there was something more to this product, as I got the sort of 'hairs standing up on the back of the neck' feeling which usually accompanies witnessing the birth of a new way of doing things. I had it when I first saw two ADATs plugged together and swapping eight channels of audio over a fibre‑optic cable; I had it when I first witnessed FireWire sending digital video and transport control functions between a DV camera and a Mac; and I was getting it again as I read the iPod specs. I knew it meant something big for the working musician/audio engineer, but I couldn't work out exactly what. I re‑read the spec and the spiel on the web site again, carefully looking for the clues I had missed, but I couldn't quite grasp what it was that was so exciting.

iPod Epiphany

At 6am the next day (my brain had clearly been processing the data all night, while I slept), I awoke with the knowledge of the potential of iPod for musicians and audio engineers fully formed in my head. I think the clue had come in two phrases from the Apple web site. The first was the opening phrase: "When you first plug iPod into your Mac, all of your iTunes songs and playlists are automatically downloaded into iPod at blazing FireWire speed." So whatever you had loaded in iTunes would be transferred to the iPod at the fastest currently available transfer rates — that was clearly important. The second clue was in the tech spec of the headphones — 20Hz‑20kHz frequency response — which I remember thinking, when I first read it, seemed a little over‑spec'd for MP3.

The thought in my head as I woke up that next morning was "so if you have to keep your stereo mixdowns in iTunes in 16‑bit, 44.1kHz linear AIFF format (which, being allergic to MP3 in both principle and practice, I do), or even in similar fidelity WAV format (if the taint of the Windows world is upon you), and they get downloaded into the iPod, will they play back with full fidelity on iPod?

Two minutes later, I was sitting at my Mac in my dressing gown, surfing back to the Apple site to search for that key phrase "also plays back audio files in AIFF and WAV formats". Having failed to find it in three re‑reads of the iPod pages, the next thing I did was fire off an email to Apple in the UK and in the US, enquiring whether iPod would play back AIFFs and/or WAVs, and had anyone thought of the implications for the professional musician/audio engineer if it could?

The Answer

Full marks to Apple, as the answer came back within 24 hours (today, in fact, the very day I had set to write my Apple Notes column). Not bad, considering that for the first 13 of these hours no‑one in the US would have read my message, because it was outside working hours! First I heard from Apple Audio Technologies Manager Dan Brown, who was fairly sure that it did play back full‑resolution AIFF and WAV files, but was forwarding my message to the iPod team because he wanted it confirmed for the same reason I did. Then I had a message a couple of hours later from Donald Beirdneau (don't they have great names at Apple?) of the iPod team, stating that it definitely did.

This was great news indeed. Have you ever been in that infuriating situation where you want to play someone your work in progress and, by some miracle, you have your rough mixes on you in the form of a cassette or DAT tape, or burnt on a CD, but whatever format you have, the guy you want to play it to only has the means to play it back in the form in which you chose not to make a copy? You burnt a CD, he only has a cassette player there. You mixed to DAT, he only has a CD. You have both, but you're in his car where he still only has a cassette player. Murphy's Law clearly states that whatever form you have the mixes in, that's the one that won't be available when you really need it.

iPod will eliminate that problem. At the end of any work session, just drag your rough mix as an AIFF into iTunes (erasing the previous one, if necessary) and plug in your iPod. While you are putting on your coat, the iPod will upload the latest version, ready to play back anywhere (with no additional hardware). You don't need to take your PowerBook with you, you don't even need your portable CD player or tape Walkman. iPod can hold your latest mixes in the full glory of 16‑bit, 44.1kHz linear resolution and play them back with no additional hardware. The only thing which is not supported is 24‑bit, but then most people I know, even if they are recording, mixing and adding effects in 24/96, dither down to 16‑bit/44.1kHz stereo during final mixdown, as this is the format in which the music will be distributed.

As a 5Gb FireWire drive, the iPod can store 500 minutes of 16‑bit, 44.1kHz linear stereo. Now that may not be enough to match the 1000 songs it can hold in MP3 format, but it is more than enough for the various different songs the average musician might be working on at any given moment. For example, it's enough for 150 3.5‑minute pop songs (which is more than even Stevie Wonder has on the go at any given time) or, if your tastes run (like mine) to 10‑minute prog‑rock epics, enough for the entire output of Yes, Genesis, ELP and Pink Floyd between 1972 and 1975.

Essential Accessory?

How the general public will take to the iPod remains to be seen; they do, after all, have a pretty poor track record, choosing VHS over Betamax, Windows over Mac, and so on, so the masses may prefer their cheap and cheerful USB‑equipped MP3 players. However, the iPod's good looks, speed of operation and sheer sound quality should be enough to make it a hit with the same people who buy Nokia Communicators with colour LCDs when mobile phones are being given away with cornflakes. Certainly, anyone with a Mac running iTunes will find it much easier and quicker to use than any other MP3 player.

Whatever the reaction of the general consumer, one thing I am sure of: within six months, many a Mac‑based musician will be carrying an iPod everywhere they go, ready to whip out and play through their 'works in progress' at the first sniff of an A&R person. It might even convince those who obstinately continue to make music on the 'other platform' to see the error of their ways and embark on the true path. After all, even if there were an iTunes for the PC, how many PCs come equipped with FireWire?

5.1 Surround In OSX?

It has not been officially announced yet, but I can't help thinking that the next thing for OSX (in 10.2, perhaps) is support at operating system level for surround sound, probably sent out to 5.1 and 7.1 speaker systems via FireWire (safer than USB, which just about has the bandwidth for six channels, provided you are doing nothing else with that USB buss). Clearly, surround support is necessary for full compliance with DVD audio playback, and speakers from the likes of Harman Kardon are already connecting to the Mac via FireWire. I can't believe it will be long before they have a modular 5.1/7.1 surround system available, using FireWire to connect as many speakers as you need.

As so often happens, the demands of the many in the consumer marketplace have additional benefits for the audio professional. Wouldn't it be great if any surround mix you did could be played back at OS level from within QuickTime and/or iTunes, without requiring your expensive audio sequencer, with its dongle, to be open — or even installed? You could send your surround mixes to other people without them having to have the same software as you just to listen to them. Wouldn't it be great to just add a six‑output USB or eight‑output FireWire audio device to a Mac and play back surround from QuickTime or iTunes? I think it will be with us sooner than you'd expect. Who knows, maybe the iPod2 will one day support the surround headphone encoding which is now beginning to emerge.

SCSI In All Flavours

iPodI have had a few requests over the last few months to clarify all the various different types of SCSI and how they relate to each other in terms of speed and compatibility. I have been slowly trying to collate all the various bits of information as I have come across them, but was still a little uncertain myself of all the various versions and how they related to each other. I was therefore delighted, when shopping for a new Mac at the online Apple Store, to discover a link to a page on SCSI support. Mainly designed to inform potential purchasers of the Ultra SCSI PCI card for the G4, it goes well beyond this remit, to provide an excellent resumé of all the different types of SCSI and their capacities. This information not only confirmed some of the ideas which I had been postulating (such as all flavours of SCSI working with each other, but only at the speed of the slowest device on the chain), but also concluded with a table listing the seven current types of SCSI, together with their transfer rates, types of connector and number of available IDs.

The page also provides very useful figures, such as the total permitted length of cables in the chain (18ft) and individual cable lengths for SCSI‑1 and 2 (six metres) and Ultra SCSI (1.5 metres). I can't give you the URL, because every time I enter it, it takes me to an order page. However, it is easy to find. Go to the Apple Store (at www.apple.com), select the G4 family, and then any model. One click on the Continue button will take you to the Customise page and in the list of available options you will find the Ultra SCSI PCI card. Click on the 'Learn More' arrow to the right of this and you will be taken straight to the page in question.

Published January 2002