Mac OS 10.3 has been with us a few months, and has been dissected and evaluated to destruction in the mainstream computer press — but just how useful are its new features for Mac-based musicians and engineers?
I have been using Mac OS 10.3 (Panther) on my main music-making Macs for several months now, and wasn't really aware of just how much I was using its features until I sat down to write a song with a friend on their Mac, which was still running some flavour of OS 10.2. Within 10 minutes, I had asked them to take over computer operation for the rest of the session, because I was missing the bells and whistles of OS 10.3 so much. Even though Mac OS 10.4 (Tiger) was about to be previewed as this article went to press, it will be a while before we're all using it, so let's take a closer look at the handy features introduced with Panther.
The most obvious thing I could identify that was slowing me down in Jaguar was the lack of Exposé. I mentioned Exposé in passing in my feature on using Mac laptops for music in April's SOS, but for those of you who are not familiar with it, it is the one feature of OS 10.3 whose use is immediate and obvious the first time you encounter it. It's also the one feature which has its own System Preferences Control Panel, where you can set Exposé up so that Function keys and/or the act of moving the mouse to screen corners will activate it. The idea is pure genius. As we all end up working with so many windows layered on top of each other these days, Apple's system programmers have come up with a way to either instantly see miniature versions of all open windows, or to clear the screen completely so you can see the Finder and Desktop clear of clutterance (a third option allows you just to reveal all of the application windows on their own). So, whenever I hit F9 or move the mouse to the top right-hand corner of the screen, all my open windows suddenly shrink and arrange themselves so they are all visible with no overlaps. Moving the mouse over each in turn displays the name of each and clicking on the desired one brings things back to normal with that window on top. Similarly, if I hit F11 or move the mouse to bottom left, all open windows are shoved off to the sides to make the Desktop completely visible in a manner reminiscent of sweeping papers off a real desktop (the difference being that pressing F11 again instantly puts them all back!).
The way I work (in Emagic's Logic in particular) means I keep many different windows open. I am amazed how some of the pro Logic users I have worked with are capable of flying around from window to window in Logic using different Screensets, but I have never really been organised enough to set these up and use them. What's more, I do a lot of work with Powerbooks, where I don't have the convenience of the numeric keypad at the right-hand end of the computer to select the different sets with. With Exposé, though, I simply hit F9 (or move my mouse button to the appropriate corner) and suddenly I see the choice of windows before me. If the one I need is not immediately identifiable, moving the pointer over the various windows reveals their name in bold white lettering and I just click when the right name comes up.
Exposé has another major advantage over Screensets, in that it works with all the applications that you have open, not just Emagic's Logic. These days I find myself working more and more with Celemony's Melodyne open all the time in the background, so that I can quickly fix any Logic audio tracks which aren't making it from a timing or tuning point of view. Exposé is particularly useful for the kind of 'application hopping' this necessitates.
The only problem I have found with this approach is that Logic 's 'floating' windows for plug-ins and movies disappear when you activate Exposé. This is because Emagic make floating windows disappear when another application is 'brought to the front', and activating Exposé counts as activating another application...
Exposé is one feature of OS 10.3 which I would now be hard-pressed to live without in everyday working situations. But if I had to choose something really indispensable for the working musician or sound engineer, I would pick Activity Monitor.
Apple's latest OS revision at the time of writing, 10.3.3, comes with the promise of improved support for devices connected via mLAN, the Firewire-based audio and MIDI interconnection protocol. As regular SOS readers will know, I have been a vociferous proponent of mLAN ever since it was first announced. Indeed, in a dedicated article on the subject in the SOS August 2000 issue, I said "Apple appear to be planning full-scale support of mLAN, including MIDI, within the Mac OS. This could be a major advance for the support of music on the Mac..." It's nice to see that this is finally coming true, even if it is almost four years later!
Before OS 10.2.4, mLAN support was limited to stereo, but this release, in early last year, brought multi-channel mLAN audio support to OS X for the first time. This capability went relatively unnoticed, except to users of the mLAN-based PreSonus Firestation interface, who were very glad for its inclusion, and those few who finally managed to get hold of an mLAN YGDAI card for their Yamaha digital mixer and get it working. So I am very pleased that Apple are now prepared to blow the trumpet a little more loudly for its expanded functionality in OS 10.3.3 (even though this is another incremental upgrade).
Back in that August 2000 SOS mLAN article, I wondered whether this kind of close integration of audio within OS X might not get Apple into trouble with their old legal sparring partner, The Beatles' corporation of the same name. Ironically, it is probably Apple's recent runaway success with the iPod, iTunes and the associated music download store which has caused the latest round of litigation with The Beatles' legacy, as the consumer market is obviously generating far more revenue for Apple than mLAN support ever will. But if things go against Apple, will they be forced to remove music support like Audio MIDI Setup from the OS as well? We had better take a look at the level of mLAN support in OS 10.3.3, in case it turns out to be an endangered species!
Connecting an audio device with mLAN support causes the basic device to appear as an option in the drop-down menus of the main Sound Control Panel (accessed through System Preferences) and then this is managed in the normal way, with main stereo system I/O handled in the upper part of the panel and multi-channel assignments for both in and out in the lower half of the panel. Supported devices appear in the both the Audio and MIDI sub-pages of the Audio MIDI Setup utility, and are managed in exactly the same way as if they were USB- or PCI-based. However, as usual, the key place you need to look to get everything working properly is in the Audio Hardware Preferences of your sequencer, where you select the Core Audio driver that your software is going to use. It is in these drop-down menus that your device name should appear, and you can then select it for input and/or output. Programs like Ableton's Live allow different devices for input and output, while mainstream sequencers like Logic and Cubase restrict themselves the same single device for both audio in and out.
MIDI support is happily more flexible, with the incoming notes just routing themselves automatically to the sequencer's input. I have not yet had a chance to work with any of the Korg, Kurzweil or Yamaha devices which support mLAN, so I cannot comment on how easy it is to route the output of MIDI tracks on your sequencer to the different MIDI channels inside your keyboards, but if it's like everything else in Core MIDI, it will be a breeze. The biggest problem may be finding where these channels turn up inside your keyboard, and making sure that they trigger the required synth sounds.
So what exactly does the enhanced mLAN support in OS 10.3.3 consist of? Apple's web site describes it as support for the latest generation of mLAN devices, spearheaded by the Yamaha 01X, which was reviewed in SOS March 2004. These latest mLAN devices use the new, more powerful mLAN chipsets which allow you to use more than eight channels of audio, and at 21st-century extended sample rates. I first mentioned these new chips in my November 2000 mLAN piece for SOS, as Yamaha had announced them at the AES in LA in October of that year. As you can see, it can be quite a long haul from the announcement of a chip to its arrival in products on sale to the public! As a result, the majority of mLAN devices on the market at present contain the older generation of chips. However, users of older mLAN devices need not worry, as the firmware updates which are needed to bring them along for the ride can be downloaded from www.mlancentral.com.
This update to the mLAN protocol is for compatability, rather than added functionality — I can't see anything in terms of functionality that wasn't already available in the later versions of OS 10.2 — but it is reassuring to know that whichever mLAN device you buy, OS 10.3.3 delivers the goods.
In recent years, all the major music and audio applications have offered some means of measuring system activities such as CPU usage, disk I/O transfer rates and memory usage, thus allowing you to get an idea of how your application is performing. In the early days of hard disk recording, the Disk I/O meter was invaluable for checking how many tracks you could record at once, but these days it is CPU power that the musician or audio engineer needs to keep his eye on. In Logic, this is shown in the CPU Audio meter, which displays how much power is being consumed by Logic and everything running under its auspices, such as effects and instrument plug-ins. However, as it is part of Logic, the meter cannot display performance statistics for any other applications.
The new Panther utility Activity Monitor, on the other hand, tells you everything you might wish to know about what's going on in your system, and the information can be displayed as lists or visual charts which are updated constantly. The CPU section is nothing if not exhaustive, and lists all the open applications (including the Finder, the Dock and System UIServer) with their associated user, the percentage of total CPU power consumed by each and the amount of real and virtual memory that they are using. A moving bar-graph at the bottom of the window is updated every second and shows User activity in green and System activity in red, so at any point you have an overview of last 20 seconds of CPU activity and the ratio of user activity to that of the System during that time.
I have found this to be endlessly useful, from diagnosing exactly why a machine is not coping with a level of activity you have previously seen it handle (which can happen if you've accidentally left Airport or Bluetooth switched on, for example), to making sure that processing power is divided between simultaneously running applications in a roughly equal manner. If this is not the case, you can soon find out which is the greedy application or process and do something about it.
Instant visual feedback is also available for system memory usage (in the form of a pie chart), disk activity (two hospital-monitor-type plotters, with green indicating disk-read activity and red showing write activity), disk usage (another pie chart) and network activity (with displays like the disk activity ones).
To the new user, this can all seem like overkill, but it can really help you understand just how all your CPU, disk and memory resources are being used and where you might need to expand these, or clear out unwanted stuff to free up more resources.
There are a few things that Garage Band won't currently do. It won't import a MIDI File, that staple of the old-fashioned consumer application (which of course even the most high-end professional program will do), but I think this says more about the consumers that Apple are aiming at. Their target market would not want to import a MIDI File, preferring instead something built up from loops, which is why the loop engine built for Soundtrack is a major part of Garage Band. You can bring in any loops in the Apple Loop format, thereby facilitating the automatic tempo- and key-matching this file format offers.
More restrictively, the only export route out of Garage Band is into iTunes, using your currently set iTunes quality level. This means you cannot start a song in Garage Band and then develop the MIDI sequences for each track separately in Logic (or indeed any other sequencer application). However, you can solo each track in turn, export them to iTunes as audio files, and then bring the exported tracks into Logic as AIFFs. This works fine, but come on Apple — would it really kill you to let us export a MIDI file for the virtual instrument tracks?
Garage Band will also only accept a few basic MIDI controller messages via MIDI: pitch-bend, mod wheel and sustain pedal. Its resolution for Fix Timing (quantise in more common sequencer speak) is 1/32nd note, and the same seems to apply to moving an individual MIDI Note once it has been recorded. It can only be repositioned on a 32nd-note division (although if a note is recorded between those divisions, it is placed between the grid lines). You can't build your own sounds, samples or effects from scratch, either, nor can you edit the parameters for the preset instruments or effects processing, so you won't be able to spend hours tweaking things to perfection. But then that's not what Garage Band is about. The idea behind it is to make the compositional process as simple as possible, so that you can get an idea down while you feel inspired. Anyone who has been sidetracked into solving a technical problem while they were songwriting, and has found that once they had solved the problem, they couldn't remember the tune, riff or harmonic progression they were working on before they ran into the obstacle should certainly appreciate this!
Each time OS X has been significantly upgraded, there has been a transitional period when a number of music and audio-related applications and bits of music-related hardware have stopped working and required upgrades to maintain compatibility with the new OS. This happened in the shift to Panther, too, but most music and audio companies now have compatible drivers on their web sites. In fact, in my experience, USB modems are the only remaining hardware that still doesn't work with Panther — according to British Telecom, there are none which can be made to work, either. The workaround I have managed to find for this is to buy a router like the Alcatel/Thomson SpeedTouch 510 or 530, which has both Ethernet and USB connectivity, and works with Panther via the former protocol.
Technically, Garage Band is not part of Panther, but of the iLife suite of Utilities. However, it comes pre-loaded on every new Panther-driven Mac, and it doesn't run without Panther installed, so it almost feels like part of the OS. So far, SOS has looked at the program in Apple Notes, but it's time for a closer look, especially given the waves it's now making in the mainstream press (one UK Sunday paper I saw recently rather quaintly described it as "all you will ever need to make hit records").
Garage Band combines a conventional MIDI sequencer, a loop-based product (along the lines of Acid, Live or Apple's previous music-for-video excursion in this area, Soundtrack), a collection of virtual instruments, some sampled and some synthesized, and DSP effects. Even if your Mac didn't come with iLife pre-installed, and you have to pay £39 for it, Garage Band represents phenomenal value for money, especially as it comes with the sort of loop library that you could spend a fortune putting together from third-party CD-ROMs or sample CDs. I'm not personally a fan of replacing drummers and other musicians with looped recordings, and yet even I'd have to say that the ones you get with Garage Band are pretty tempting and inspirational when used as part of the recording process. Making use of the loops is easy, too, because Garage Band offers the same tempo- and key-matching facilities which Apple developed for Soundtrack, so you don't need to worry about key clashes between bass and guitar loops.
The built-in instruments are impressive. The default Grand Piano sound might not have Steinway or Bösendorfer quaking in their boots, but it is the same kind of compressed piano sound that made the Korg M1 a big hit, because it cuts through anything in a track and because it has that full-on attack which is so important for dance music (the reason for this is the same as it was on the M1 piano, too — the samples that make it up are very short!). The other keyboard presets are of the electric persuasion and clearly show their lineage from Emagic's electric piano, organ and clavinet plug-ins. The 'Whirly', 'Classic Rock Organ' and 'Smokey Clav' presets are my particular favourites. The synth sounds are very usable as well.
The six drum kits cover the range from Jazz through Pop and Dance to Rock and Techno, and all load incredibly fast considering how many samples they contain. The other half of the rhythm section is adequately covered by eight different bass presets, and the acoustic guitars are very nice too, but as always, you have to avoid the sampled electrics, which sound as bad as those on any £2000 keyboard.
But then why would you want to use a sampled guitar when Garage Band comes with a load of amp simulators and other guitar effects built in? Just get a quarter-inch jack to mini-jack lead (not always the easiest thing to find, admittedly...), plug in an electric guitar and play. If you can't, now is the perfect time to learn in the privacy of your own headphones, and with effects presets ranging from 'Arena Rock' and 'British Invasion' to 'Clean Jazz' and 'Dreamy Shiver', there's something to suit all tastes.
In all seriousness, the guitar processing in Garage Band is almost enough to make me give up all the third-party plug-ins I have used over the years, because it is so immediate. The plug-ins are great when writing, even if you might want to use more editable plug-ins when producing your finished track. The signal processing available to put on a vocal is equally impressive, turning the thinnest-sounding voice or mic into something acceptable.
If you're recording a guitar or vocal part live with processing into Garage Band, I recommend setting the Audio Preferences to 'Faster Response' so you don't get a delay in your performance compared to your backing track — this is the equivalent of reducing the buffer size in more professional programs. The Faster setting sounds to me like a three-millisecond latency in and out (ie. 128 samples at 44.1kHz). The 'Slower Response' setting is more like 512 samples (12ms at 44.1kHz) each way.
I think Apple are to be congratulated on making Garage Band so easy to use. A name keyboard player I know wrote a couple of tracks for his new album in the program while we were sorting out issues with dongles, third-party plug-ins and audio interfacing for his 'professional' setup. There is a moral there somewhere!
So often, upgrades to the operating system of a computer can seem like more trouble than they are worth. Any marginal improvements to operation or performance brought about by tweaks to routines at OS level can be outweighed by incompatibilities with the main programs and peripherals that the musician is using, usually because the needs of musicians and audio engineers have not figured highly enough in the priorities of the OS developers. Much of the credit for the relatively smooth move to Panther for musicians must go to the Emagic developers who have now been integrated into Apple's development hierarchy.
The upshot is that Panther now offers some seriously useful tools to speed up, streamline and troubleshoot the music-making process, especially if you are using multiple applications locked together. And whilst Garage Band may not cater to the most demanding tastes in terms of editability, and although you cannot integrate your favourite existing tools into its workflow, it is the fastest program I have ever seen for chucking the various different elements of a song together quickly — the perfect musical sketchpad. I've always been a fan of Macs, but now they're almost a turnkey solution for music-making. Being able to buy an off-the-shelf computer and finding it set up ready to go for MIDI sequencing, audio and MIDI loop-management with tempo and pitch adjustment, audio recording and guitar and vocal processing is a huge step forward, especially for entry-level users, and would have been unthinkable as recently as a couple of years ago. Thanks to Panther, it's now a reality.