Find out just how long it takes to set up a musical environment on a Powerbook, and welcome the Melodyne pitch and time software to the world of OSX, as well as discovering how Microsoft broke QuickTime and Apple fixed it...
It was great to hear from so many of you about the Douglas Adams piece in September's Apple Notes. Originally I had worried that this column might not be the best place to put it, but it seems that it reached the right audience. I thought, therefore, that you might like to hear a little about what Paul 'Wix' Wickens and I set up on Powerbooks for Paul himself and Gary Brooker to use at the September 17th tribute to Douglas at St Martin's‑in‑the‑Fields, especially as I learnt a couple of valuable lessons in the process.
Once the first of the Titanium Powerbooks which Apple UK had kindly agreed to lend for the event turned up, I set about making the necessary basic installations to achieve the sounds that Wix needed. These were organ sounds (for which we knew we were going to use the Native Instruments B4, as Wix is already a dedicated user) and vocal samples which Wix already had prepared. To play these back we decided to use the HALion sampler from Steinberg.
The Titanium came through with OS9.1 installed, which was a relief, as I thought it might have been set up for OSX. However, there was still a good deal of chopping and changing to be done before everything could be set up. The first thing we needed to get going was a USB MIDI interface, to allow the sounds to be played directly. (No sequencing was to be used for this event; everything was to be played live.) There were none of the small Steinberg MIDI interfaces available when we trying to set this up, as the old model (the USB2) had been discontinued, and the new one to replace it was not yet available. I did have a MOTU Fast Lane USB, but I had forgotten the palaver you have to go through to be able to use this with Cubase. You cannot just download an OMS driver for the Fast Lane. Instead you have to install FreeMIDI to get the driver you need for the Fast Lane, but not until you have first installed OMS. When FreeMIDI sees OMS as it is being installed, it puts the necessary USB OMS driver in the OMS folder. So first we had to put OMS 2.3.8 on the Titanium, then install FreeMIDI 1.46, downloaded from the MOTU website. Having got the necessary driver for the Fast Lane into the OMS Folder, we could go back to OMS and do a Studio Setup to find the two MIDI ports of the Fast Lane and make them available to OMS, and thus to the VST Instruments.
This long‑winded process completed, it was time to get the necessary host software for HALion onto the computer (B4 can run as a separate application, but HALion, only existing as a VST instrument, must run within a sequencer that has VST plug‑in compatibility). On the Macintosh you need at least Cubase 5.01 to be able to run HALion. To achieve this, I had to install Cubase 5.0 from CD and then run the 5.01 updater on the HALion CD. First, though, I had to copy this across onto the hard drive, as the CD‑ROM drive is needed for the Cubase VST CD — without it the installation will not authorise. A similar procedure was needed to get HALion 1.1 installed, running the 1.1 Updater downloaded from the Steinberg web site, with the HALion CD in the drive once it had been used to install the 1.0 version. After this lengthy process, the simple installation of B4 from one CD, with no updates, was practically a pleasure.
Now I decided to quickly check that both HALion and B4 were playing properly, but I found, to my horror, that although B4 was triggering fine, HALion kept playing very late, and was also locking up the computer completely from time to time. On opening up the Performance meter in VST, it became clear why this was happening. The CPU loading was very quickly passing 100 percent with just a few notes being played. Time to look in the Extensions Manager and see what unnecessary extensions were running. By switching off everything to do with Airport, Internet access and DVD reading, I was able to get HALion triggering regularly and not locking up the computer. Changing the Monitor Display setting to Thousands of colours, instead of Millions, increased the available power even more. Clearly a Powerbook 500 set up for general computing needs a fair bit of customisation before it is an ideal machine for music.
Once MIDI was working properly, it was time to install the USB audio interface. We used an audio interface for two reasons: firstly, to reduce latency to under 10mS, so that Wix could play naturally; and, secondly, to give a better quality output on quarter‑inch jacks. I had arranged to use the EgoSys U2A, as it was the one which came out best last year in my testing of small USB audio interfaces. With the new driver from Propagamma, the German company which creates USB drivers for Egosys and Swissonic, you can get latency down to 7mS, from its previous figure of 14. (Propagamma drivers for Roland and other USB devices can be purchased at www.usb‑audio.com.) Again, this installation went relatively smoothly, once I had burnt the new driver onto a CD, with all the lights on the U2A reassuring me that it was working fine — though there were a couple of anxious moments of silence before I found the software volume controls on the new final page of the control panel.
Now it was time to go over to Wix's place and get the samples loaded. I was confident that HALion 1.1 could load samples in both Akai and Gigasampler format (Wix has both), so it would be fairly simple to get them into the Powerbook in one format or the other. However, although HALion does load both formats, it only does so from CD‑ROM, not the Zip cartridge to which Wix had saved the samples. As we didn't have a way to burn CDs in Akai format, and Wix didn't have a CD writer in his Gigasampler PC, it looked as though we were stuck, until Wix remembered that he had previously imported Akai samples from Zip cartridges into Emagic's EXS24 software sampler on his studio Mac system. By fiddling about we managed to get EXS24 to do this again, and then put the resulting AIFFs (which you need to use Sherlock to locate on the Mac's hard drive) onto a Mac‑formatted Zip which HALion would read. Of course, there was a certain irony in needing to use EXS24 as a format converter for HALion, but I have informed Steinberg about this issue, so hopefully there will be a HALion upgrade to take care of it. At last Wix was ready for the rehearsals.
Unfortunately, this column had to be filed before the actual event (or even before the second Powerbook, for Gary Brooker, turned up), so I can't tell you how it went, but hopefully many of you caught the BBC Online webcast, which went out on Monday, September 17th.
This month saw the shipping release of the program I have been raving about ever since I first saw it at NAMM back in January. What's more, it runs under OSX, which should make the B4 organ plug‑in feel a little less lonely as a music app in the new OS. For those of you who haven't heard about it yet, Melodyne is a stand‑alone application which can take audio files (AIFFs, WAVs, etc) and, having performed a (non real‑time) analysis for pitch, timing, and harmonic content, allow you to mess with these in real time, in a way previously only possible with MIDI data. The analysed files (up to 16 of them running simultaneously) appear on a 'piano‑roll' grid similar to that found in most MIDI sequencers, and you can pick notes up and move them in time or pitch (including stretching or shrinking them), increase or decrease the expression (vibrato or loudness), or even shift their formant content.
The upshot of this is that you can record a really good vocalist or solo instrumentalist and then change their performance after the fact, to fit a re‑write of the melody or feel of the piece without needing to call them back into the studio.
Needless to say, the software is much more likely to get used to fix the third‑rate vocal performance of a piece of eye‑candy from an Aussie soap, or a group of baggy‑trousered dance‑routine performers masquerading as a boy/girl‑band, because somebody forgot to check at the auditions that they could carry a tune in a bucket before they gave them a recording deal. But then I guess that's the way the industry crumbles these days! I suppose, if it reduces the number of Auto‑Tune fixes we have to listen to, it will be a welcome relief! As it happens, there is a full review of Melodyne elsewhere in this issue, and you can also check out MP3 examples at www.celemony.com.
Wednesday the 22nd of August sparked some major activity on the Internet. This was the day when the news broke that, by removing support for Netscape‑style browser plug‑ins from Internet Explorer 5.5 Service Pack 2 and Internet Explorer 6 beta, and decreeing that all extended functionality in IE must henceforth be provided via ActiveX, Microsoft had essentially broken QuickTime. ActiveX, in case you haven't guessed, is a proprietary Microsoft format. (Weren't Microsoft just rapped on the knuckles for forcing people to use their proprietary Internet‑access software?) Needless to say, this change went entirely unannounced and was only confirmed by Microsoft after end‑users found their plug‑ins broken, post‑upgrade. As a result, nobody with IE 5.5 SP2 or above was able to view QuickTime panoramas. It seems that Microsoft agree with me about QT VR; they think as a technology it is too cool to be allowed to live! Well, I guess after getting away with not being split up, despite the US court ruling, they now think they can get away with anything. Of course, no Apple user was inconvenienced because this problem only applied to IE users under Windows, but it may have occurred to the guys at the Seattle behemoth that if they could stop QuickTime working properly, then IE users might just think it was Apple's fault, not theirs!
Fortunately, this situation didn't last very long at all. Thanks to some quick work by the guys at QuickTime Engineering, there was an ActiveX version of QuickTime 5 available for download from Apple the very next day. It seems that as fast as Microsoft break things, Apple can patch them up, provided that the Windoze users know where to look for their salvation. Of course, if they knew that, they would be on the Apple platform in the first place!
Although I have already mentioned the Altiverb MAS (MOTU Audio System) reverb plug‑in in my January Apple Notes NAMM round‑up, I am grateful to Manfred Witteman of the Netherlands for reminding me about his fellow countrymen at AudioEase in an email, as it led me back to their site (www.audioease.com). This has now been expanded, to include downloads of many different reverb spaces for their excellent sampling reverb, complete with full details and pictures (no QT VRs, unfortunately!) of the venues, which include the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Vredenburg Concert Hall, in which they have fired their starting pistol! Not only is their implementation significantly cheaper than the hardware versions of this technology sold by Sony and Yamaha, but you can keep your library of spaces updated free via their web site. Now if only they would do a VST plug‑in version, I'd be in seventh heaven.
Another Internet‑based service which I revisited for the first time in six months or more thanks to an email pointer was DAW‑Mac (groups.yahoo.com/group/daw‑mac). I was a regular contributor to this list for a while, but left because of the huge furore over Bomb Factory copy‑protection procedures, which drove out all other topics for several months. Not only does this ad nauseam discussion finally seem to have gone away, but there seems to be a wider range of voices now (previously I used to refer to it as DAE‑Mac). If you want a barometer of developments in the world of audio on the Mac platform, this list will do very nicely, as long as you don't mind the occasional copy‑protection discussion cul‑de‑sac!