Martin Russ joins the Blue & Whites and examines the goal of all‑software music creation.
After a lot of careful sifting of specifications, searching through my bank for money, and painful decision‑making, I've bought a 'Blue & White' G3. The lure of benchmark figures four times those of my 7300/200, for less money, proved too strong, and so now I've got a vested interest in making sure that the latest G3s are usable for music. So you won't be surprised that my G3 arrived with a Gee Three Stealth 'true' serial‑port card fitted instead of a modem, and an Adaptec 2930 Ultra SCSI card, as well as a 19‑inch monitor.
The pictures you may have seen of the 'Blue & White' G3s are somewhat deceptive — they tend to show it alongside a large monitor, and it came as quite a shock to find that my cramped studio was now required to host a box which seems a good third bigger again than its Power Mac 7300/200 predecessor. And the tower design proved a challenge to fit underneath a shelf designed when 14‑inch monitors were big — the G3 is about the same height as the 19‑inch monitor!
Early impressions of the real thing are much as you might expect: it's fast. It looks better from the side view than the front. Why is the CD‑ROM hidden behind a plate that does nothing but get in the way? Wow, the mains cable is see‑through too! It makes the rest of my equipment look drab and old‑fashioned. Curiously, though, the new black/translucent keyboards seem to be much harder to read and use in dim studio lighting than the older beige keyboards... Boy, does it fly along, though!
Over the next few months, I'll be working my own way through the G3 and I'll report back as I find or resolve problems. Serial ports, USB, and FireWire are just three areas that I'll be looking at. If you have any interesting personal 'Blue & White' G3 experiences, then feel free to drop me a line or an email.
The imminent arrival of a new computer, of course, forces you to make a number of awkward decisions. Do you back up everything on the old one? Do you buy a SCSI drive case and fill it with the hard drive from the old computer so that all of its contents are still available after the old computer is retired? Do you use the old computer as a 'dirty' Internet browser/email/games engine, and have the new machine as a 'clean' music‑only workhorse? Do you take the opportunity to pull everything apart, clear away all the dust and fluff, and rewire everything afresh? Do you assess what you are still actually using, and what could be retired to storage (like those floppy disks, 44Mb SyQuest cartridges, all those cover‑mount CD‑ROMs that you were going to get around to looking at...)?
Although we are often told that you can now 'do everything' inside a computer, the reality is normally less impressive. Some parts of the puzzle always seem to be missing or restricted in some way. But at the recent Recording Technology Exhibition (née APRS), technology guru Paul Wiffen of Digital Media Ltd showed Sound On Sound a glimpse of a truly complete computer studio.
The screenshot shows what was going on. Bitheadz's Retro AS1 virtual synthesizer v1.3.1 was producing a Van Halen 'Jump'‑type synth‑brass sound on one MIDI channel; their Unity v1.2.3 software sampler was playing back samples of a bass guitar, rock organ, piano and drums in stereo audio pairs via four MIDI channels; and the output of both was being fed into Steinberg's Cubase VST 24 v4.1 via Rewire.A VST Fuzz plug‑in was used to beef up the bass guitar, whilst Cubase was also driving the Retro and Unity sound generators to produce the music, and a multi‑channel Sonorus StudI/O card sent separate digital audio outputs to a mixer, which then produced the final audio output.
If you are counting, that's absolutely everything taking place in software except the final track mixing — which could very well have been done in Cubase. The 'MIDI' triggering of Unity and Retro takes place inside the Mac, and all of the digital audio stereo pairs are routed and controlled inside the Mac too. Paul said that you will need at least a 266MHz PowerMac to run this system, but a 300MHz or faster 'Blue & White' G3 would be ideal. Although this demonstration used only two Rewire‑compatible applications (Unity and Retro), it is only processing power that limits their numbers. Steinberg and Bitheadz (amongst others) have been moving ever closer to complete digital audio integration for quite a while, and this was a clear demonstration of how it is all coming together.
Let's think about those figures for a moment, and you'll perhaps see why today's 450MHz G3 is only a stepping‑stone. Here we are using about a grand's worth of fast PowerMac computer to get five stereo audio tracks, when for the same money I could get at least eight, and probably 16 multitimbral parts, each with a few notes' polyphony, from a synthesizer, sound module or sampler. But give it a year or two, and we'll be a lot nearer to parity in performance on a 700 or 900MHz G4 processor. Eventually, the software alternative will turn my hardware into retro collectables, but we're some way from that yet. In the meantime, the combination of hard and soft approaches to music gives you enormous power, and I look forward to some emails revealing how a Top Ten hit was made using a G3 and a synth module...
Although the phrase 'Blue & White G3' is rather frequently used this month, Bitheadz have an alternative. Black & Whites is actually the name of a new product derived from the Unity DS1 sampler software. The same playback engine is this time used to provide piano sounds — hence the monochromatic name. With more than 420Mb of samples included, ranging from sets as small as 3Mb to as large as 44Mb, this is not a compromised piano by any means — just Steinways and Rhodes. Some of the pianos strive for sonic accuracy, whilst others stretch the boundaries, and seven velocity curves allow people whose technique has been ruined by playing light synthesizer keyboards to sound as if they still have the touch.
Acronyms of all shapes and sizes are well catered for: using Steinberg's Cubase VST with Rewire allows Black & Whites to be integrated into a sequencing environment, whilst MOTU's MAS2 plug‑in standard provides the same functionality in Digital Performer. Support is also there for FreeMIDI, OMS, Sound Manager and ASIO, which means that you can use Black & Whites with all the popular sequencers and digital interfaces, on both Mac and PC. With hard disks and RAM ever cheaper, this type of software application becomes more useful as time goes by. Point your browser at www.bitheadz.com for more information.
The latest press release from Musictrack details the new features in MOTU's Digital Performer v2.6. There's a whole host of new additions, including the RAM‑based audio loop recording feature called POLAR, which lets you work on layering via multiple takes within a looped environment. Better yet, you can now name audio inputs, outputs and busses, and OMS (Open Music System) support is improved, as well as more direct‑from‑audio/direct‑from‑synthesis software options. What's more, version 2.6 is a free update for version 2.5 users, with competitive upgrades and crossgrades from other packages available. Expect a full review in SOS soon, or visit www.musictrack.co.uk.
I often get emails asking me which sequencer to buy, so this is perhaps a good moment to say a few words about choosing one. I have to confess that the first Mac sequencer I ever used was MOTU's Performer ‑‑ on a Mac Plus some years ago! But if you have any of the other major Mac sequencer packages, most of those features I've just mentioned will probably either be already present, or due for inclusion in the next release. Sequencers play a constant game of catch‑up and leapfrog, and the leader changes rapidly and unpredictably.
What you should be looking at is not merely lists of features or specifications. You will be spending a great deal of time using the sequencer you choose, and so you should make sure that you get one which was produced by people who think the same way that you do. There's only one way to do this: try them out. Try a friend's system, take some time out in the studio, visit a shop or a show, get a demo version and immerse yourself... The approaches of the major sequencer manufacturers are different enough to mean that one of them should have the right combination of metaphors, techniques and methods. One of them will feel right and will 'click' with your way of working, and that's the one to buy. Having bought it, spend time learning it and becoming familiar with it. And don't jump to another sequencer just because it offers a new feature that yours doesn't yet have. Stick with your chosen one and really learn it — think about how long musicians take to learn an instrument...
- Powerbook Audio
Last month I looked at the new Mac G3 PowerBook, with its alluring bronze translucent keyboard, and briefly mentioned the new Digigram VXPocket laptop soundcard. Well, since then I've heard it in action thanks to the people at SCV London, and I'm impressed that someone is taking the laptop seriously. (The concept of using portable computers for 'in situ' working was apparently used for some of the audio production on Star Wars Episode One!) Whilst I'm slightly cynical about the benefits of 24‑bit converters in the audio‑hostile environment of a PowerBook computer, the S/PDIF digital I/O is very useful indeed for a range of mobile recording and production uses. The VXPocket is a Type II PC card, requires MacOS 8 and up, and costs just over £500 including VAT.
Digigram have a long history of making audio‑related products, and the VXPocket is a stablemate of the VX222 PCI soundcard, which offers more interfacing options like a headphone output and AES‑EBU digital interfaces. Contact SCV London for more details on Digigram products.
- Stealthy Stuff
Gee Three's Stealth add‑on serial port card for the 'Blue & White' G3s comes with a CD‑ROM that contains 8,115 bytes of software driver and a 3,998‑byte text document. By my reckoning that's just under 650Mb of unused CD‑ROM... but the ability to have an old‑style serial port is more than compensation for a little empty space!
- Mac Music
Web sites come in many flavours. Very often it can mean lots of graphics and little in the way of useful content. One notable exception to this is Mac Music, which is French in origin, but the addition of /eng/ to the address turns it into a more Anglicised version. Well worth a visit at www.macmusic.org/eng/.
One of the intriguing effects of the Internet is a trend towards lower prices. At the time of writing, Opcode were offering Vision DSP for $59! Combine that with something like the VSamp virtual sampler for $25, add some free VST plug‑ins, grab some public domain MIDI files and samples, and protect your music files from crashes and lock‑ups with Aladdin Systems' Flashback for $9.95, and you have a sub‑$100 bargain. And, slightly outside of the music mainstream, Strata have been known to offer their professional video effects program, the $400 MediaPaint, for just the cost of postage and packing... If you ever wondered why you should visit a few Mac music‑related web sites regularly, then you now know. But remember that many of these bargains are short‑lived. Happy hunting. (Thanks to Jeff Smith for letting us in on some of these bargains.)