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Readers' Problems

Apple Notes By Paul Wiffen
Published February 2001

The dual‑processor G4: especially tempting now that its capabilities are being exploited by major music software houses.The dual‑processor G4: especially tempting now that its capabilities are being exploited by major music software houses.

This month Paul Wiffen takes up residence as SOS's Apple expert. After relating his own Mac history, he turns Agony Uncle and addresses a few readers' problems...

Welcome to my first column. I am delighted to be receiving the Apple Notes baton from Vic Lennard (whose other commitments mean that he is having to step down), and not just because my old flatmate Ian Gilby, now publisher of this august title, has asked me to. Ever since the first Mac Plus came into my life, some 15 years ago, Apple computers have been a major part of my creative processes. First I used them as journalistic writing tools. Then came the revolution of on‑screen (if still offline) sound design, with the likes of the original Digidesign Sound Designer hooked up to the Emu Emulator II sampler. Those with long memories will remember that I used to write the Atari Notes column, and though I stuck with Atari for sequencing until VST came along (bringing to the Mac the same degree of built‑in audio capability that Cubase Audio Falcon offered), the Mac was my main loop processor long before that. I first used Blank Software's Alchemy for the task, and later Steinberg's ReCycle.

Wholly Apple

The Macrocks web site, devoted to all things Mac 'n' Roll.The Macrocks web site, devoted to all things Mac 'n' Roll.

The Mac is now the beginning, middle and end of all my music production. I haven't used a hardware synth or sampler for over two years, since I first saw Bitheadz' Retro and Unity running on the Power Macs. And the sheer convenience of VST Instruments running inside sequencer songs is streamlining the MIDI side of things to an unbelievable level. VST instruments such as the Waldorf PPG Wave, GST Mellotron and Native Instruments B4 also fulfil my need for antique timbres. The last I loved so much that, Victor Kiam‑style, I took on its UK distribution. The unparalleled breadth and quality of effects from modern software plug‑ins and PCI hardware means that the Mac now does all my effects processing, even acting as my guitar processor, with Steinberg's RedValveIt and the Dsound Stomp'n'FX. It was the 'mastering stage' programs that I felt were lacking for us Mac aficionados (where was our version of WaveLab, Steinberg?) until the recent advent of TC Works' Spark and IK MultiMedia's T‑Racks.

In my more general SOS articles, I've often (frustratingly) had to bear in mind that some of our less privileged brethren are forced by poverty, miserliness or plain pig‑headedness to use the compromise hardware and software foisted upon the world by the Wintel conspiracy. So I look forward to being able to trot out this kind of smug, biased observation in the relative safety of Apple Notes, knowing that I'm preaching to the converted. (The last time something like that slipped into my writing, the postman nearly collapsed with exhaustion from carrying the hate mail.) Not that everything is perfect in Appleville, of course, as those who have been following my recent series on the new Macs will know. But, as I said in my mLAN series (see SOS August‑November 2000), I feel FireWire will offer a genuine way around the I/O issues that currently plague us.

I don't agree with every decision that Steve Jobs has made since his return — you should hear my language every time I want to put a 20K driver from floppy onto a new Mac during an installation. However, I'm glad that he has turned around Apple's fortunes and saved the company from probable extinction. If fruitgum‑flavoured computers are what it takes to save my platform of choice from following Atari into oblivion, so be it. Indeed, I have been delighted at the number of women friends who have finally bought a computer because they were able to pick the colour of their iMac (even if I am only prepared to use the black or white — sorry, Graphite or Snow — ones myself, because they are the only ones that match my wardrobe). They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I'm highly amused by the bits of brightly‑coloured plastic hastily glued on to the newer PC chassis in an attempt to appeal to the fashion–conscious. If only their imitations went beyond the cosmetic, they might get somewhere!

I think we're at a very exciting time for Apple‑based musicians. The power available for plug‑ins in a multi‑processor G4, the possibilities for MIDI and multi‑channel audio support from within OSX, and even the sheer practicality of the silent running of the G4 Cube, bode well for the future.

First Contact

I would really like Apple Notes to become as interactive as possible (let's revive that flagging buzzword). I am sure that there are many of you out there who know as much as I do (or more) about making music on the Mac, and any experiences, good or bad, that you care to share with your fellow readers will be most welcome. Where my humble skills will allow me to act as a sort of virtual Agony Uncle, I'm happy to dispense advice, with the usual warning that no two computers ever behave in exactly the same way, even under laboratory conditions, let alone in the field. My thanks to all those who have already unwittingly got in touch with me through the re‑direction of the Apple Notes email address (applenotes@soundonsound.com). Now you know that I am on the other end of it, please continue to use it to share your successes and frustrations with your fellow users, or just disagree with me if anything I say doesn't square with your experiences.

After reading the first instalments of my articles on using the new Macs for music (see the November and December issues of SOS), David Knopfler wrote: "I am most grateful for what is clearly very useful guidance, but have to say I didn't feel reassured at the prospect of making the upgrade to a 450 dual–processor G4, which would probably be my machine of choice."

I find the prospect of the dual‑processor Macs mouthwatering, especially as Steinberg and Emagic now both have multi‑processor awareness. However, there's always a danger of compatibility problems with something as radical as dual processors, although when OSX comes along, it is supposed to arbitrate over which processor does what for all applications. When I discovered I was taking over Apple Notes, I began trying to obtain a dual‑processor machine, with a view to evaluating exactly what runs and what performs better — and by how much. David continues: "I'm surprised that no Firewire MIDI interfaces have been developed and that so many manufacturers are still allegedly dishing out 68K code."

Before we all end up in court, David, I feel I should clarify the situation. First of all, the only 68K code I'm aware of that's currently being used is in OMS, the Opcode MIDI system, which, sadly, has had no new development since Gibson effectively 'mothballed' Opcode after purchasing them. The manufacturers who are releasing USB MIDI interfaces are almost certainly creating their OMS drivers in native code, but they can't do much about the core of the program, which is now well past its sell‑by date. As no‑one has paid anything much for OMS for several years now, we cannot really complain that anyone is ripping us off. Of course, OMS's shortcomings mean that USB has acquired a reputation for being unreliable with MIDI, which I am not certain it deserves (or certainly has to share with OMS, at the very least).

This situation may go some way to explaining why there are no FireWire MIDI interfaces as yet (although Yamaha's mLAN8P is very close). In the absence of another 'global' device such as OMS to allow these interfaces to be hooked into the numerous sequencing products out there, OMS would probably have been the only choice for making FireWire MIDI interfaces universally compatible. If manufacturers had already followed this route, I suspect we would now be viewing FireWire with the same suspicion as USB. Waiting until mLAN has established itself as a standard, preferably with support from within MacOS, means that FireWire MIDI interfacing stands a much better chance of a smooth, trouble‑free introduction.

A Bit Scuzzy

Dave at Eastside Studio has emailed a request for an article on SCSI. He says: "I've just bought an external drive for audio but I find I'm quite confused about SCSI, even after having read up on it. Is SCSI 1 the same as original SCSI? Is SCSI 2 the same as Ultra 2? If a SCSI card can handle three SCSI protocols, then surely — unless you buy the fastest drive it can handle — you're not getting your money's worth as far as 'Mbs per second' is concerned? Particularly if you're buying over the Internet, you need to know exactly what you want."

Dave is right when he says that a whole article on the various flavours of SCSI is required (and I will start researching this straight away). In the meantime, I can briefly answer his specific questions and give a few guidelines for those of you contemplating a similar purchase.

The different variations on the SCSI theme which Dave mentions are confusing — and he hasn't even touched on the thorny issue of wide (16‑bit) and narrow (8‑bit). SCSI 1 is indeed what we all used to know as plain old vanilla–flavoured SCSI, but SCSI 2 is definitely not the same thing as Ultra SCSI 2. SCSI 2 followed SCSI 1 and was succeeded by SCSI 3 but Ultra SCSI and Ultra 2 are much more recent developments. Like most modern Ultra 2 SCSI cards, the ATTO ExpressPCI Ultra 2 SCSI adaptor, in the Magma chassis I reviewed in the January issue of SOS, will actually handle all five standards, not just three. But Dave is right in saying that to get the absolute best out of the card you have, you need to use a drive conforming to the most recent standard it supports. I'm a bit rusty on the actual maximum transfer rates which can be achieved with each flavour of SCSI, but I will bone up on this stuff when I write the article Dave has asked for. In the meantime, you can pretty much rest assured that any current drive you buy will provide track counts undreamed of even a couple of years ago. However, if you plan to use a QuickTime‑nested format (like that of the Miro Motion DC20 I use) for a movie inside your sequencer alongside 96 tracks of audio, you would still be well advised to make sure that both your SCSI card and hard drives are Ultra 2.

As far as buying computer equipment over the Internet is concerned, I think anything that might involve compatibility issues, such as interface standards and transfer rates, is still best bought from a local knowledge‑based music dealer who knows what hard disk recording is and can test the product for your intended application. You might save a few quid by buying from web suppliers, but you'll find them unconcerned about your inability to get the number of tracks of audio and video you want. Even if they agree to do an exchange, you may find any money you saved swallowed up in return carriage, as the margins these people work on are wafer‑thin. Also, by the time you have the right product you could have wasted several weeks of working time in swapping units back and forth. Save your Internet purchases for software and hardware products which are easily identified as appropriate for the use you have in mind.

Coming Soon...

Next month, I hope to cram Apple Notes brimful of exciting developments, by testing the Internet as a journalistic tool and filing my copy via email from the first day of the MacWorld show in San Francisco. This is stretching deadlines to breaking point, so let's hope my email doesn't go three times around the world before arriving in Cambridge. Rumoured launches so far include a G4 PowerBook and a full public release of OSX, including built‑in mLAN support — but only time will tell.

Cool Sites

Each month I'll try and share with you any web sites I have come across, during my new ISDN‑liberated surfing, which are of particular interest to musical Mac users. To kick off, I thought I would mention a couple of general sites you might want to add to your 'Favourites' list for regular visitation.

www.macmusic.org

This is a good European‑based site (from Switzerland, I seem to remember, which has the highest per capita Mac ownership in the world). It's presented in English and French and prides itself on being first with the news. The site had daily updates from the Apple Expo in Paris, including a favourable report on a state‑of‑the‑union music presentation (see picture) by Christophe Martin de Montagu, Apple Europe's music liason, and one Paul Wiffen, a UK‑based know–it–all demoing the latest virtual synths. For more pictures, go to www.macmusic.org/fr/news/nefAE20...

www.macrocks.com

If you like your news a little more rock 'n' roll (occasionally almost Spinal Tap), this US‑based site can't be beaten. It was one of the first to bang the FireWire drum and recently has covered the increasing resources for heavy metal‑style guitarists on the Mac. Hello Cleveland!

Published February 2001