Paul Wiffen reveals highlights of the MacWorld Expo, and laments the passing of Apple's earliest UK evangelist while celebrating his permanent contribution to popular culture.
Though you would never have guessed it from Steve Jobs' keynote address (mainly celebrating the arrival of Microsoft Office and nine other mainstream apps under OSX) or a brief glance at the exhibitor listing, there was actually quite a lot of good news for the musician/audio engineer at the MacWorld show in New York this summer. To start with, there was a hike in processor speeds for the new G4 series (codenamed Quicksilver, although the mirrored speaker in the front of the new case makes it look so much like HAL that this might be a more appropriate name!). This increase means that power–hungry audio applications and synth/effects plug‑ins can be fed more of what they need. What was formerly the fastest processor, the 733MHz model, is now the entry‑level machine, with a price point to match (in the region of £1199?). The fastest single‑processor machine is now 867MHz, with a Superdrive for burning CDs and DVDs. This machine, which is likely to cost around £1999, saw off a Pentium 1.7GHz PC in comparative speed tests with Cleaner 5 (done in half the time) and Photoshop (80 percent faster). For the totally power‑obsessed, the dual‑processor 800MHz should really cook in applications which support multi‑processor use — such as Cubase VST, Final Cut Pro or anything running under OSX.
On the subject of OSX, a new release was announced for September. This version, 10.1, improves greatly on the OS's performance (which has, until now, provoked adjectives such as "sluggish") and adds features including built‑in iTunes, DVD playback, digital camera support and data CD‑burning from the desktop. I was disappointed that there was no mention in Jobs' keynote of audio (let alone mLAN or MIDI). However, afterwards on the Apple booth I was assured that 10.1 does indeed feature new audio hooks, which firstly mean that audio applications in 9.1 'Classic' mode can input and output sound (so Cubase and Logic should start working in this mode) and secondly that developers can produce OSX versions which talk directly to the hardware.
As a result of Apple's 'seeding' of developers with the new version, Emagic and BIAS were showing Logic and Peak (respectively) running under OSX — well, beta 10.1, actually — at the show. Apple were using Peak as an example of how quickly apps could now be ported, since the BIAS people apparently did it in a few weeks. Logic (which I know better) did not seem to have suffered at all for the port, and was even talking to the Emagic USB MIDI Interfaces (AMT4, AMT8 and Unitor 8) and their EMI 2|6 USB audio interface directly under OSX. Emagic are now able to work fully with their USB audio interface because OS10.1 has the first ever multi–channel audio support in an Apple operating system, so six outputs are possible for the first time. It is still unclear whether mLAN will be the main way in which audio is handled in OSX, or whether other hooks to suppport generic USB and FireWire devices will also be there in the end. As well as the OSX‑compatible Peak, BIAS showed Deck 3.0, with a new master fader and an effects buss offering VST plug‑in support. They even include 25 plug‑ins of their own, as well as Peak LE, Roxio's Toast Lite and Waves' Audiotrack, in the Deck bundle.
On the hardware front, Midiman continued to cater for those using USB computers, showing the brand‑new Duo and Quattro interfaces. The $349 Duo is a high‑quality stereo I/O box with preamps better than the 'Studio' interface they launched in January, but the Quattro really caught my eye, with 4‑In/4‑Out audio plus one MIDI I/O, all in one box for the same price. If you need mic preamps and so on, there's an interface on the Quattro to let you plug the Studio directly into it.
Griffin Technologies added to the already‑shipping iMic USB solution for simple stereo I/O with a more complete USB stereo interface/power amp called the PowerWave. This offers four phono connectors for stereo in and stereo out, in addition to the normal mini‑jacks and the Apple Pro Speaker connector, and should retail for well under £100. Like the iMic, it supports up to 24–bit recording and can also act as a USB hub. Griffin also showed the PowerMate USB Audio Volume control, which not only gives you real‑time control of volume but looks really cool, with its smoothly milled surface and a glowing light like the power–indicator ring on the Titanium and iBook.
Another interesting USB control device, the ShuttlePro, was shown by Contour Designs. It not only features a jog/shuttle wheel (as its name implies), but also nine small and four larger buttons, strategically placed around the wheel, all of which can be programmed to carry out any function. It comes not only with presets for Final Cut Pro and Premiere, but also for dedicated MIDI + Audio applications Cubase VST, Logic Audio and Digital Performer.
The sad news of Douglas Adams' recent death from a heart attack took me back to my undergraduate days in the late '70s. The student house I shared in Oxford back then was the typical maelstrom of arriving and departing weirdos, loud music and louder opinions. There was only one thing which could bring a semblance of unity to the household; the weekly broadcast by Radio 4 of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. For me, Douglas' humour often went beyond satire and gave glimpses of universal truth. The mind that generated ideas like 'Anyone who wants to be President of the Galaxy should on no account be allowed to be President of the Galaxy' wasn't content to just make us laugh, but also think. When Hitch Hiker's transferred to the West End as a play, I sat with the faithful in a half‑empty theatre. When the more (although not completely) successful television adaptation came along, I sat with the video remote control, pausing it to read the graphic readouts which were the added bonus. Needless to say, the novels became reference works to refresh the memory on the intricacies of the original script, for those party‑piece recitations!
An ex‑Sequential Circuits colleague of mine, Rick Huber, turned out to be an even bigger Adams fan than I was, actually naming his MIDI switch‑box company Zaphod Electronics after Douglas' self‑centred anti‑hero. The switch‑box was reviewed in a US magazine and a few months later a letter from Douglas turned up at his trading address, in California while I was there.
"Dear Sirs," it read. "I came across a review of your MIDI switcher the other day, and thought that the name of your company seemed oddly familiar. I eventually worked out that this was probably because of a character I once invented in a book called The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who, by a staggering coincidence, was also called Zaphod. I vaguely wondered about suing you for $50,000,000 or thereabouts (MIDI is an expensive hobby) but my lawyer was busy so I've come up with a different suggestion.
"Either you a) send me $25,000,000 as an out‑of‑court settlement, in case my lawyer suddenly finds he's got a free afternoon; b) send me a free MIDI switcher; or c) at least send me a brochure. The choice is entirely up to you. Best Wishes, Douglas Adams."
Needless to say, Rick was pleased to send him a Zaphod MIDI Switcher (along with a brochure and a cheque for 25 million Altarian dollars), and I was very happy to transport it back to the UK. I had met Douglas a couple of times before at Argent's music shop, and had even sold him a MIDI keyboard, but this was an excuse to pay him a visit at home. Douglas, a long‑time Sound On Sound subscriber, was delighted to be able to show someone what he described as his "humble" home studio. This had over £20,000‑worth of gear in it, centred — of course — around the brand new Mac II, which I'd only glimpsed a couple of times before. He asked my advice on various items, and I discovered the joy of being treated by one of my heroes like an expert instead of a dumbstruck fan. Being able to sort out the Sound Designer link between the Mac and the EII sampler, and give him some sounds to use on it, was a particular pleasure.
Douglas himself knew the joy of being treated as an equal by some of his heroes from his time at University. He became firm friends with the likes of Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd (remember Marvin humming the opening to 'Shine On'?) and Gary Booker of Procul Harum, and filled his living room to bursting point with others to witness the impromptu gigs which resulted from their meetings at his place. They will both be taking part in a memorial service for Douglas at London's St Martin's‑in‑the‑Fields, the music side of which is being organised by another friend of his, Paul Wickens, who played keyboards for Paul McCartney and did the music for Douglas' Starship Titanic game. He plans to try and have all the keyboard parts he and Gary Booker will be playing on virtual instruments running on Apple Powerbooks.
Douglas would have loved that, because he was such an Apple aficianado (a member of the Apple Masters program) and used them in any part of his life that he could. Ever since he had first set eyes on the Mac he had been its biggest fan and evangelist. Stephen Fry, another regular visitor to Argents in the mid‑'80s, joked that he himself had bought the third Macintosh in the UK. He knew this because "Douglas bought the first two!" Douglas once asked me, with geniune bewilderment, "Why would anyone use anything else?"
Perhaps one of the things that Douglas liked about the Mac was that it was a glimpse of the future. When he lampooned the science‑fiction staple of talking computers and elevators, the reality seemed centuries off. Now if I leave an error message onscreen for too long, my Macs berate me in a female voice reminiscent of one of the backup personalities of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.
When Douglas died, at the frighteningly young age of 49, he was living in California and working on the script for a film version of Hitch Hiker's, doubtless on one of the dozens of Macs he owned. Let's hope that the project doesn't founder because he won't get to see it through personally. When the TV series of Hitch Hiker's was made, the technology wasn't quite up to Douglas' vision. These days too many science‑fiction movies, stretched thin on the bare bones of the latest computer‑generated visuals, have no character or humour to flesh them out. It would be great to see one where the ideas were up to the special effects (especially if they were generated on Douglas' beloved Mac).
July finally saw Steinberg's Nuendo audio recording/editing program become available on the professional platform for which I always felt it should have been developed in the first place. (I can get away with comments like that in the sanctuary of this column!) Notable features include 5.1 surround sound — and there's a plug‑in Dolby encoder on the way, which will prove to be the most economical way of encoding this surround format for cinematic film and DVD — and audio‑for‑picture capabilities. I realise that MIDI + Audio sequencers are now being upgraded to support surround, including MOTU's Digital Performer, but Nuendo is perhaps the most high‑end, primarily audio application on the Mac to date which isn't tied to specific hardware to make it run. Those who have already spent their hard‑earned with Digidesign may be interested to know that an ASIO Direct I/O driver is supplied as standard with Nuendo, so it can run on Pro Tools hardware (or indeed any other PCI solution with an ASIO driver), but I have been editing with it quite happily on an iMac and iBook, using the built‑in Sound Manager drivers. (Obviously, you might want to use something better than the Apple hardware for recording, and if you really want to start piling on the EQs and plug‑ins you would do better with a G4 processor.)
I now know more about this issue, the cause of which I incorrectly ascribed to OS 9.1 in combination with Steinberg or MOTU a few months back. When moving a Sonorus StudI/O into a new G4 (now the old G4, since last Monday!), I've learned that one of Peter Gabriel's technical team experienced the same problem I described in the June issue, which I'm also aware of with the MOTU 2408 and the Digi 001 card. On power‑up, the G4 showed a white screen and refused to boot. In the end, the only PCI card which could be made to work in this machine was the Frontier WaveCenter. So it seems that when this problem occurs, it is a hardware conflict with the occasional G4 (which just refuses to boot at all) and not the fault of any particular OS or audio package. Mercifully, the instances of this are very limited — I only know of three worldwide — but that is, of course, no consolation for the people who happen to buy an affected G4.