Paul Wiffen reports on some historic developments for Mac musicians, as Apple announce their official support for the mLAN interfacing standard, and also comes to the rescue of more readers seeking advice.
January, for me, was completely taken up with the San Francisco NAMM trade show (which yielded plenty of Mac music news you can read about elsewhere in this issue, as well as last month's), and the music and audio event I hosted at AppleWorld, near Heathrow. I would just like to extend my thanks to those SOS readers who supported this event, which took weeks of work persuading developers and manufacturers to come along and show what they had launched at MacWorld. Despite the cruel irony of UPS delivering the first Titanium PowerBook to Apple HQ an hour and a half after the presentations finished, and Securicor trying to deliver the first Mac‑compatible SoundBlaster Live PCI card to my home just as we were starting, we achieved a record number of UK firsts. The first working demonstration of mLAN, from Terry Holton and Nick Howes of Yamaha R&D; the first demonstration of Digital Performer 3.0, the FireWirebased 828 I/O digital recording system and the Altiverb sampling reverb software, by MOTU's Matthew Davidson; the first hearing of the Native Instruments Spektral Delay plug‑in; the first public demo of the Dsound Vol 2 Stomp'n FX guitar plug‑ins by Takamine demonstrator Steve Fairclough; the first public showing of the Swissonic AD8 8‑channel mic preamp/AD converter rack with optional mLAN interfacing, by the company's Daniel Feusi; and the first showing of Nuendo and VST 5.0 for Mac, by Mike Cox of Arbiter and Ron E Dee.
But the first that really excited me was an Apple employee (Stuart Harris, my co‑presenter) standing up for the first time anywhere in the world and publicly acknowledging Apple's agreement with Yamaha on mLAN — and announcing its impending inclusion in OSX for both multi‑channel audio and MIDI support. Those of you who read my series on mLAN or music on the new Macs will have spotted my frequent references to the agreement, but this was the first time it was acknowledged by both Apple and Yamaha at a public event.
The mLAN announcement gave added importance to the mLAN demo by Terry and Nick from Yamaha R&D which followed it, as the audience slowly digested the fact that the hundred channels of audio which they were talking about, with only 5mS latency, plus MIDI and timecode support, would all be available from within the Mac OS through a single FireWire cable. Nick graphically illustrated the difference this would make to working practices by chucking away my entire emergency box full of audio, MIDI and optical cables (which I had deliberately left on the stage for him to use as a prop) and producing a single FireWire cable by sleight of hand.
Although mLAN will, sadly, not be in the first release of OSX, slated for March 25th, those who cannot wait to start using it now can do so under OS9 with any ASIO‑ and OMS‑compatible sequencer, thanks to the drivers which Yamaha are giving away with certain mLAN products. (These products —the YGDAI card for the 02R, 03D and 01V mixers, the mLAN option for their synths and samplers, and their audio/MIDI hub — were covered in part three of my mLAN series in SOS August‑November 2000.) So not only is mLAN finally a reality on the Mac platform, but it will also soon be an integral part of OSX.
Time has been so short this month that I have had none to further examine OSX, as I was hoping to do, but I promise that between now and next month's column I will have a proper look at it (including the preliminary mLAN stuff, if available).
When I took over this column, just three months ago, I explained that I would regularly be trying to assist readers in sorting out their Mac‑related problems. The following email from Simon Weston has prompted me to give some serious thought as to what I would recommend to someone just starting to do music on the Mac platform at this moment in time:
"I am a total novice in the mixing/recording game and I would really appreciate some advice as to which of the many options make sense for a beginner. I use a 350MHz iMac with 64Mb of RAM. I am primarily interested in remixing and sampling from existing audio tracks at present, although I do have access to a MIDI‑compatible keyboard. I have downloaded a number of demos (for example, Unity DS1 and Retro AS1 from Bitheadz, and ReBirth RB338 from Steinberg/Propellerhead. I have also requested a demo disk of Sound Edit 16."
The first point I would make (and it is one that I was forcefully reminded of last year, when I participated in an Apple Mobile Solutions presentation where I found I couldn't run VST on a basic iBook without removing a load of extensions) is that, in this day and age, 64Mb is very tight for running any music applications. So a few quid spent on an additional 64Mb, as a minimum, wouldn't go amiss. That said, there are a couple of excellent 'jack‑of‑all‑trades' programs coming onto the market as I write which may well run inside 64Mb. (However, I can't be sure, as all my machines have 128Mb as standard, so I can't even take some memory out to check.) The first of these is the celebrated Reason, from Propellerhead (Midiman, +44 (0)1423 886692; reviewed in the last issue of SOS), which is just now shipping. It combines sample playback, 'analogue' drum sounds, percussion loops, monophonic synthesis (for basslines, and so on) and polyphonic synthesis for triggered chord parts. It offers an awful lot for a very reasonable price of £299.
If that is too much for your budget, iSynth from France (Digital Media, +44 (0)20 7586 9556) may well be worth a look. At £69 including VAT it would also let you combine sampled audio with analogue drum sounds, monophonic and polyphonic synth parts. If you want to trigger the MIDI parts in either Reason or iSynth from the keyboard you have access to (although both Reason and iSynth allow you to enter parts in step‑time in analogue‑style sequencers), you will need to get a USB MIDI interface. Those who followed my piece on using the new Macs for music (see SOS November 2000‑February 2001) know that I think of this as a last resort, but if you're using an iMac you have no choice.
Of course, remixing is quite a tricky business, and unless you are sampling existing material in fairly short chunks, you need more from a program than if you were sequencing your own music from scratch. To put sampled drum loops in time with an existing track requires some clever technology. Reason can change the tempo of drum loops which have been made into REX files (the format produced by Propellerhead/Steinberg's ReCycle loop manipulation program), but you would either have to make do with the limited number of free REX files provided with Reason, buy disks full of REX files (Steinberg have produced some excellent collections), or buy ReCycle, to make your own REX files from loops you sample. Either way, that entails more expenditure than just the cost of Reason.
If you have taken my advice and expanded to at least 128Mb of memory, you can look at basing your system around the big‑name sequencer packages, such as Cubase VST, Logic Audio or Digital Performer. I can't get into a big comparison between them here (space being far too limited), but personally I think of VST as a 'Swiss Army' penknife, Performer as a chef's blade, and Logic as a surgeon's scalpel. That should give you some idea of which might be best for your working style!
Like Reason, VST's REX capability probably makes it easiest for the fledgling remixer to match suitably processed loops to existing recordings, although if you know what you are doing, the timestretch functions in Logic and Performer will also let you match the tempo of your loops to the audio you want to remix.
The only drawback with using sequencers like the above, as opposed to Reason or iSynth, which integrate synthesis with sequencing, is that if you want to trigger any serious parts via MIDI you need to either internally add soft synths and samplers, such as Retro and Unity, which you mention, or use external MIDI synths and samplers. A 350MHz processor would definitely allow you to do the former, but either course of action necessitates a bigger budget. Retro is restricted to analogue synth sounds, whereas Unity also offers the ability to trigger samples but at twice the price. ReBirth might well be your best bet for the sort of Roland TR‑inspired analogue percussion and bass sounds some people like to use in remixes, but it is difficult to say without knowing the style you favour. Answers to a question like this could fill an entire article, but I hope I've at least given you some pointers.
Reader David writes for some advice on putting together a Mac G4 setup, on which he plans to run Cubase 5: "Apple's web site is currently selling a Mac with dual 533MHz processors and 256Mb RAM, with a 40Gb HD. Do I need this high a spec to run the sequencing software properly ? Also, is the standard sound card any good?"
Having just had my first experience of a dual‑processor G4 (mainly good, with a bit of bad mixed in), my initial response is that you should go the whole hog and get the 533MP, but every computer that Apple currently ship will give good results with Cubase 5. Even the humblest of the iMacs (with extra memory) has more raw power than the Macs I own (a 266 G3 tower and a 300 G3 PowerBook), and I do OK.
The real issue is interfacing. If possible, use the USB MIDI hardware device supplied by your sequencer producer, as this will not need to use OMS to communicate (sadly this doesn't apply to Steinberg's entry‑level product, which is a rebadged Midiman). For USB audio, look out for devices with lower latency than Sound Manager's 28mS; these include the USB Studio D from Swissonic, the EgoSys U2A and the Tascam US428, which also does two MIDI I/Os pretty reliably.
Apple's built‑in Sound Manager software should be fine for your starting efforts, especially on an iMac, but unless you plan to immediately upgrade your hardware with a PCI (in the case of a G4) or USB audio device, there is something major about the rest of the current Apple products which you need to be aware of. It's something I'm ashamed to say I missed in all the excitement at MacWorld, although it has been creeping up on us since the launch of the iBook and G4 cube. With the exception of the iMacs, all Apple computers now have no audio input as standard. So if you plan to plug your guitar straight in to record, better get an iMac!
Of course, the lack of an audio in may not bother you too much if you plan to buy a USB audio device or put a PCI MIDI/audio card in the G4 — still my recommendation wherever possible. Coming soon is the mLAN support that Apple have announced for OSX, which will let you use the FireWire connectors for both MIDI and digital audio; the first Yamaha mLAN devices for audio and MIDI are now shipping. However, if you're raring to go right now, your best bet is either a top‑of‑the‑range iMac with the USB MIDI device from your sequencer manufacturer, if you want to delay adding extra audio hardware for a while, or going the whole hog and buying a 533MP with a PCI MIDI/audio card. I think I may in the near future!
Although it's not a Mac‑specific web site, www.sonicstate.com, run by Mac enthusiast Nick Batt from his Sonic State Studios in beautiful Bath, has been doing a great job of reporting the many Mac developments from California in January. I saw Nick several times at NAMM, working the aisles like a demon to cover all the new product, and the results show in the news pages on the site. Check out their reports on Melodyne (www.sonicstate.com/news/shownews...) and Native Instruments Battery (www.sonicstate.com/news/shownews...), neither of which I was able to get over from Berlin and Munich in time for the Apple presentation referred to at the start of this month's column. Sonic State also cover hardware synths and samplers, and all the other things which appeal to the Sound On Sound reader, so they are well worth adding to your list of Favourites.