Leopard is finally with us - but while it promises improvements for general Mac users, will it offer anything to musicians and audio engineers other than incompatibility?
Apple originally announced the successor to Mac OS 10.4 'Tiger' at their August 2006 Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). At the time, they hoped to be shipping Mac OS 10.5 'Leopard' a year later, at the 2007 WWDC; but with the effort required to launch the iPhone, Leopard's release was pushed back to October and this year's WWDC saw the unveiling of the remaining core features Apple had developed for Leopard.
And so, on the last Friday in October at 6pm, Leopard went on sale, and those who visited an Apple Store that night — myself included, I must confess — were rewarded with a Leopard t-shirt, which, if nothing else, is great for those days when you're doing laundry. Leopard itself comes in Apple's new, smaller-style packaging previously used for iLife/iWork '08, and has a snazzy purple space hologram on the front. Inside is a DVD containing both Power PC and Intel versions of the new operating system; the installer will automatically take care of making sure you end up with the appropriate version. There's also a small, 80-page manual that gives you a visual overview of the new features.
It seems to be a trend with Mac OS X that even-number releases add more music and audio-related functionality than odd-number releases. Mac OS 10.2 (Jaguar) introduced the Audio MIDI Setup utility and was arguably the first release of the operating system that became widely adopted by musicians and audio engineers, while 10.4 included a new Network Device in Core MIDI, along with the ability to use many audio interfaces as one by creating a Core Audio Aggregate Device. So in Leopard, while Core Audio has been improved in certain areas, there aren't any significant new features for music and audio work, although musicians and audio engineers will still arguably benefit from many of the improvements Apple have made in the user interface and at the core of the operating system.
The most obvious changes in Leopard are those to the general user interface, specifically the new Dock, Menu Bar and Finder. The Menu Bar has lost its friendly rounded edges (even though menus themselves now have rounded edges), and instead gained a degree of transparency, allowing it to blend more seamlessly with your desktop background. This looks quite pleasant when you're looking at your desktop, but after a while I found I had to use a greyscale image on the desktop because it looked a bit odd running a full screen application like Logic Pro and seeing a colour-tinted Menu Bar from the desktop background.
The Dock has been given a new 3D perspective, and the icons now sit upon a shelf that reflects its contents and whatever windows are hovering above. Instead of a clearly visible arrow under a running application's icon, the Dock now displays a blue light, which is hard to see when you set the Dock to display smaller icons. However, if you position the Dock to the left or right of the desktop, it returns to a more 2D, Tiger-like appearance.
In addition to the questionable aesthetic improvements, the Dock also offers a new feature called Stacks. In previous versions of OS X, when you dragged a folder to the Dock, the icon for that folder would be added. You could then either click on it, whereupon the folder would be opened in the Finder, or Control-click it, which would enable you to navigate the folder from a pop-up menu, where the sub-directories appeared as sub-menus. Dragging a folder to the Dock in Leopard now creates a Stack, and the Stack always shows the icon for the first item in the folder, which will vary depending on how you've set the Stack's 'Sort by' option, which you can do by Control-clicking on the Stack.
Although I knew about the behaviour of Stacks, I still felt a bit disconcerted when the shortcut to the Applications folder I keep in my Dock (which is now a Stack, of course) appeared with the Address Book icon instead of the Applications folder icon itself, as before. After a bizarre sense of needing to rebuild my desktop from the days of OS 9, I realised that the Address Book is, of course, alphabetically the first item in the Applications folder, but it seems a shame you can't tell a Stack to use the static icon of the folder it represents. The workaround is to create a dummy file in the Stack with an appropriate icon, but this seems unnecessarily clumsy.
Clicking a Stack displays the contents of the Stack as a Fan or Grid. A Fan splays the items in a manner not dissimilar to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, while a Grid shows the items in, well, a Grid. A Fan shows fewer items than a Grid, but unless you've specified a preference in the Stack's 'View as' option, the Stack will automatically display a Grid once the Fan's number of items threshold has been passed. However, even Grid view won't be able to display all the items in a Stack, so you'll need to use the 'Show in Finder' button when you can't find the item you're looking for in the Stack.
As you can probably tell, I'm not a big fan of Stacks. Perhaps the real killer for me is that when you want to look in the sub-folder of a folder that's a Stack, you have to click the folder and have it open in the Finder. Previously, if I was opening the Audio MIDI Setup Utility, I'd right-click on the Applications folder in the dock, hover the mouse over the Utilities folder and select Audio MIDI Setup from the sub-menu. Now, to do the same thing in Leopard I have to click the Applications Stack, select Utilities, double-click the Audio MIDI Setup icon in the Utilities window that's opened in the Finder, and then close the Finder window once I'm done.
Not all of the aesthetic changes in Leopard are bad, though. The brushed-metal appearance has now been eradicated and generally everything looks a bit more streamlined and sophisticated. The drop-shadow effect applied to the foremost window has been enhanced to make it stand out even more, and while menus and other panels still have a degree of translucency that shows the contents behind them, this background now becomes subtly blurred to allow the foreground text to be more visible.
A big change in Leopard is the introduction of a new Finder, combining the best ideas of the previous Finder with Apple's iTunes application. Perhaps the most important new feature, which the Finder benefits from, is Quick Look, which can provide a visual preview of a document without having to run the application that actually created the document. For Quick Look to be able to do this, each different type of document needs a corresponding Quick Look plug-in that knows how to interpret that document type and provide the relevant information to the operating system. This is similar to how Spotlight works, and Leopard ships with Quick Look plug-ins for common file formats.
Once a document type is supported by a Quick Look plug-in, you'll notice documents of that type displaying icons that reflect their content, rather than generic icons, as before. You can preview a document by clicking the Finder's Quick Look button or simply pressing the Space Bar. If the document isn't supported by Quick Look, the preview window will instead show some generic information about the file, such as its size and last modified date.
In addition to the three standard views that have always been available in OS X's Finder (icon, columns and list, which now has background shading for alternate entries), Leopard introduces a fourth view — Cover Flow — which enables you to flick through your files in the same way you would flick through media in iTunes. Cover Flow in the Finder also makes use of Quick Look to provide richer visual clues as to a document's content, and although I was a bit sceptical about its usefulness, I have to say that I started to see the potential when flicking through Sibelius scores, thanks to a Quick Look plug-in that Sibelius introduced with the recent 5.1 update. It really is a much nicer way to find a score I'm looking for, although this is admittedly a very specific purpose.
As I mentioned in a previous Apple Notes, an application like Sibelius really lends itself to being previewed in this manner, but the only other music application I came across that supports Quick Look at the time of writing was Apple's own GarageBand '08. In GarageBand, however, you simply get a screenshot of the state of the application when the song was last saved, although this is also surprisingly useful when used with the Finder's Quick Look preview function.
For more information about music and audio-related features added to previous versions of Mac OS X, be sure to check out these past articles:
- Mac OS X For Musicians, April 2003, covers 10.2 (endpoint29cc8e70.chios.panth.io/sos/apr03/articles/osx.asp).
- Mac OS X Tiger: A Musician's Guide, July 2005, covers 10.4 (endpoint29cc8e70.chios.panth.io/sos/jul05/articles/tiger.htm).
One of the most significant 'under the bonnet' changes in Leopard is support for full 64-bit applications — assuming you have a Mac with a 64-bit Intel or Power PC processor. One particularly nice aspect of the 64-bit support in Leopard is that, unlike Windows or Linux, you don't have to install a specific 64-bit version of OS X in order to run 64-bit applications. Another useful thing about 64-bit applications on Leopard is that, in the same way Universal Binaries contain both the Power PC and Intel versions of an application in one package, a single package can also contain 32- and 64-bit versions of the application — for both architectures — which is pretty handy.
Although you could run 64-bit applications in Mac OS X since Panther (10.3), the big catch was that not all of Mac OS X's programming frameworks offered 64-bit support, such as those frameworks that allow programmers to create graphical user interfaces. This meant that if you wanted to write an application that took advantage of 64-bit memory addressing, you actually needed to create two applications: a back-end application that handled the 64-bit addressing, and a front-end one that presented the user interface. And since the Core MIDI and Core Audio frameworks used by most Mac music and audio software weren't 64-bit compatible either, creating a music or audio application that supported 64-bit memory addressing was quite impractical.
In Leopard you can now, finally, create a 64-bit application with a graphical user interface that supports Core Audio and Core MIDI. However, despite this new, enhanced 64-bit support in Leopard, it may yet be some time before we start to see 64-bit music and audio applications running on the Mac.
If you think back to when Apple first released OS X, there was much talk of Carbon and Cocoa, the two different programming APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that developers could use to create applications for OS X. Carbon was an evolution of the old Mac OS 9 API, while Cocoa was a completely different API based on technology Apple had acquired with the purchase of NeXT, the company Steve Jobs founded after leaving Apple in 1985. While Cocoa makes it really easy for developers to create modern applications for Mac OS X, Carbon makes life slightly easier for developers working on cross-platform applications.
Apple originally announced that Leopard would allow developers to create 64-bit applications that used either Carbon or Cocoa for their user interfaces, but at this year's developer conference they changed tack and stated that only Cocoa would gain 64-bit support in Leopard. Now, although I haven't seen the source code for he major music applications on the market, I would speculate that the majority of cross-platform software currently uses Carbon to some extent for user interfaces, especially if it was released on the Mac prior to OS X. And this means, of course, that it's going to take a bit more work than most developers anticipated to offer 64-bit versions of their products to Mac users.
In the case of Apple, it's possible that Logic 8's user interface was developed using Cocoa, which will make it much easier for a 64-bit version of Logic to be released, but this is highly speculative, as Apple have yet to make any announcement regarding 64-bit support in any of their applications.
Even if we do get some 64-bit applications, the next problem will be plug-ins. A 64-bit application will not be able to use a 32-bit plug-in directly, which means that developers will need to release 64-bit versions of their plug-ins as well. And since many Audio Units and VST plug-ins probably use Carbon for user interfaces, plug-in developers will also need to switch to Cocoa for user interfaces. However, assuming 64-bit music and audio applications do take off on the Mac, it's possible we may see some bridging technologies, such as Steinberg's VST Bridge that allows Power PC plug-ins to run in the latest versions of Cubase and Nuendo on an Intel Mac, making it indeed possible to run 32-bit plug-ins in a 64-bit application. This is the approach that both Steinberg and Cakewalk have taken for 64-bit Windows applications.
As you probably know, Audio Units is an interface defined by Apple to make it possible for developers to create plug-in audio effects and instruments that can be used in any host application supporting the same Audio Units interface. The Audio Units interface defines many different types of AU plug-ins, such as effect units and instrument units, but there are also other, less commonly used types, such as format-converter units and panner units.
In the past, Apple have provided developers with starting points for creating effect and instrument units, and in Leopard there's a new starting point to make it easier to create a panner unit. To demonstrate the functionality of panner units, Leopard includes four new Audio Units plug-ins: AUSoundFieldPanner, AUSphericalHeadPanner, AUVectorPanner, and HRTFPanner, which offers Head Related Transfer Function panning.
In addition to the four new pan-related Audio Units plug-ins, there are also two new Audio Units effects plug-ins: AUDistortion and AURogerBeep. AUDistortion, as the name suggests, is a surprisingly useful distortion plug-in that features a novel 'Render Quality' option, where you can set the quality of the algorithm used to process the signal, for some truly nasty results. AURogerBeep is a quirky effect that allows you to inject a walkie-talkie-type noise when incoming signal drops under a certain level.
Although the Audio Units interface remains largely unchanged in Leopard, one useful addition is that it's now possible for Audio Units to send MIDI data to host applications. This is a potentially neat feature, so hopefully it's something applications that host Audio Units plug-ins will support.
New Leopard features aside, perhaps the most important question for any Mac-based musician and audio engineer will be compatibility. After all, the various bells and whistles of an operating system upgrade are pretty useless if the applications in which you carry out your day-to-day tasks are incompatible. However, the good news is that, for the most part, Leopard is one of the least disruptive upgrades in Mac OS X's relatively brief history, although, as usual, your mileage will vary depending on your chosen products.
It's usually best with any operating system upgrade to simply wipe your Mac and perform a clean install, and you can always perform a clean install on a separate hard drive if you want to play around with Leopard before committing to it as your main system. However, when I first got Leopard I decided to try upgrading the existing Tiger installation on my MacBook Pro, just to see what happened. To my surprise, it worked pretty well: all of my settings were transferred flawlessly, and most of my music and audio-related applications and hardware devices worked just fine. There were a few problems, such as the Digidesign and Apogee issues mentioned later in this section, but it really was rather painless. That said, I still felt more comfortable when I later wiped the same laptop and started again from scratch; but at least if you absolutely have to upgrade an existing installation, it will work, although I'd still make sure you back up your system before attempting such an operation.
Logic 8: For compatibility, Logic 8 seems to work just fine with Leopard, as you would hope, and Apple posted minor compatibility updates for the applications in Final Cut Studio 2, which can be downloaded via Software Update.
Pro Tools: It unfortunately goes without saying that if you're a Pro Tools user you absolutely don't want to even think about upgrading to Leopard until Digidesign officially qualify such a configuration. According to Digidesign's web site, the company are "working closely with Apple to bring support for the entire Pro Tools product line to Apple's latest operating system." Just to be unofficial, I experimentally tried plugging an M Box interface into my Leopard-powered MacBook Pro, but all I succeeded in doing was producing a kernel panic.
Sibelius 5: Staying with the Avid family, Sibelius 5 claimed to be Leopard compatible when I reviewed it back in September's SOS, and although the application does indeed run, I encountered a few issues. Sibelius reported that previous versions of the program can't save when running under Leopard, but I also encountered this problem in Sibelius 5. Installing the free 5.1 update solved the problem, however, and also added Quick Look support, as mentioned earlier, along with a Spotlight plug-in that allows a Spotlight search to find text in Sibelius files.
If you're installing Sibelius 5 from scratch, you'll also find that the Sibelius Sounds installers don't work, which is a problem Native Instruments have acknowledged exists with many of their installers.
Native Instruments: As mentioned above, some Native installers are not working. A patch is available from their web site for some products, but this apparently doesn't work for Kompakt, Intakt, or Kontakt Player-based instruments. At the time of writing, Native Instruments state that the following products are fully compatible with Leopard: Absynth 4, FM 8, Guitar Rig 3, Massive, Kontakt 3, Kore 2, Traktor 3, Traktor LE and Traktor Scratch. Native also mention on their web site that certain message windows will cause an application to become unresponsive in Leopard, but are currently developing updates for affected products that should be available by the time you read this.
M-Audio: M-Audio are also "working closely with Apple to ensure that our products and technologies will support Mac OS X Leopard" but are unable to give exact dates on when specific drivers will be updated. While it's possible that your existing drivers might work fine, M-Audio warn that your device may not function properly, so it might be worth waiting for full, official support.
MOTU: MOTU have a special Leopard compatibility page on their web site that details the latest application and driver versions users will need to be Leopard compatible, and it seems that all MOTU's products are covered, including Digital Performer, AudioDesk, the virtual instruments line and the various Firewire, USB and PCI interfaces.
Apogee: Apogee also have a completely revised line-up of drivers for their audio interfaces, and also a support page for anyone having difficulties getting their Mac to boot after accidentally installing Tiger drivers on Leopard. I had an Ensemble driver installed with my MacBook Pro during the upgrade from Tiger to Leopard, and although the Ensemble seemed to work under Leopard, there would be occasional kernel panics, most notably when unplugging the interface. This is a reminder to make sure you have the latest drivers with such a transition, and also another reason why a clean install is often the best approach, since it means that you won't end up with any incompatible drivers on your system.
Propellerhead: Propellerhead's Reason 4.0 and 3.0.5 are both compatible with Leopard, although ReCycle 2.1 has limited Leopard compatibility and won't run on an Intel or Power PC Mac with more than one processor. Propellerhead are apparently working with Apple to solve this problem. Rewire and REX technologies are both Leopard compatible, but Celemony have reported that Melodyne cannot be used in Rewire mode on Leopard at the time of writing. Melodyne runs fine in stand-alone mode, as does the Melodyne plug-in.
We'll continue looking at Leopard's features in future Apple Notes columns, but hopefully this month's extended coverage has given you a better idea of what's in store for Mac-based musicians and audio engineers. While many users will probably stick with Tiger for the time being, it's inevitable that everyone will upgrade at some point as companies phase out support for earlier versions of OS X.
Leopard is an interesting evolution of Mac OS X, and while I find some of the user-interface changes disappointing, some of the smaller improvements are incredibly useful. These include the list of wireless hotspots appearing with lock icons if they're password protected, or the fact that the built-in screen-grab utility now displays co-ordinates when you're capturing only part of the screen. However, from the musician's perspective there really isn't that much to get excited about in Leopard just yet. That applications like Sibelius are beginning to support Quick Look is great, but while this undoubtedly brings about improvements in usability, they're perhaps improvements that many will be able to live without for the time being.
The real potential in Leopard is that developers can finally start creating music and audio applications capable of 64-bit memory addressing, and this will be really exciting for those who make heavy use of memory-intensive tasks like running software samplers. In the meantime, musicians and audio engineers should be comforted that this could be the most painless operating system upgrade they've experienced.