As Intel and AMD continue to push the clock speeds and architectures of PC processors, music software developers are taking advantage of the optimisations possible, as demonstrated by Waves with the latest update to their native plug-ins.
Intel (www.intel.com) have broken the 2GHz barrier for notebook PCs with the launch of the new Pentium 4 processor-M model. Originally released in a 1.7GHz model just a few months ago, like all CPUs intended for mobile use, the mobile Pentium 4 has a lower power consumption than the standard range for longer battery life. The 2GHz model should already be available in machines from Dell and Hewlett Packard by the time you read this. Although desktop PC sales seem to be dropping, perhaps because many people are realising that their existing model will still be perfectly adequate for some time to come, notebooks are continuing to sell successfully, and this release is only likely to push the trend further. The fastest clocked speed for Intel's standard Pentium 4 range is now 2.53GHz at the time of writing.
Meanwhile, AMD (www.amd.com) have released the Athlon XP 2200+ processor, which features a Quantispeed architecture to allow more instructions to be accomplished per clock cycle. This is the first model with AMD's new 0.13 micron technology and smaller die size, which ought to bring operating temperatures down -- always good news if you want quiet fans. Also, it's worth remembering that the latest AMD model numbers indicate relative performance rather than clock speed. Although it's potentially confusing, this approach aims to allow more appropriate comparisons between the Intel and AMD product lines. For example, this latest 2200+ model actually operates at a clock speed of 1.8GHz, but will apparently give an Intel Pentium 4 2.2GHz processor a run for its money "on a broad range of end-user applications". Once again, Hewlett Packard will be one of the first companies to have desktop machines available featuring the new processor. An XP 2400+ model running at 1.9GHz isn't thought to be far away.
Like Apple, AMD are keen to point out that clock speed isn't everything by attacking the so-called 'Megahertz myth'. But after generating support for their Athlon range and its excellent Pentium-beating performance, I can't help thinking that this new approach will backfire with customers who don't understand all the details. Intel have already fought back by commissioning a white paper demonstrating flaws in AMD's model number system, and are apparently running educational seminars for their retailers so they can explain what Intel consider to be the 'truth' to customers.
Meanwhile, AMD's next generation 64-bit Hammer processors are already creating a lot of interest. Featuring an integrated memory controller, they can run existing 32-bit applications in addition to 64-bit ones; in contrast, Intel's Itanium will feature hardware emulation to run 32-bit applications, which could make it slower than a Pentium III in this mode. Like the Pentium 4 before it, the Itanium's ultimate performance will depend greatly on the software being specifically written to suit its strengths. At the very least, you'll need an expensive 64-bit operating system like Windows XP 64-bit Edition, and it's unlikely there'll be many 64-bit applications available to musicians for some time to come.
Initial reports on early AMD Hammer prototypes suggest that it could provide similar performance to a Pentium 4 of approximately double its clock speed, although it's too early to say exactly what clock speeds will be available by the time it starts to ship in its ClawHammer version around Christmas time this year. The first model number looks likely to be 3400+, but this might indicate an actual clock speed of 1.6GHz or 2.0GHz.
Software Technology have released the next development in the Vaz series of software synths. Vaz 2010 builds on the success of Vaz+ and Vaz Modular (reviewed in SOS March 2000) by adding 16-channel multitimbrality, with up 16 voices available from each instrument. Running either stand-alone or as a VST Instrument or DXi, it uses a new Intelligent Processing System (IPS) that can apparently use up to 50 percent less processing power. An independent pattern sequencer is available for each channel. This can sync directly to the host application when run as a plug-in, and you can create submixes using the 16:2 mixer that includes various integral effects plus support for plug-ins. Vaz 2010 will retail for £129.
Another free update for Wavelab users has been released. Version 4.0d not only cures a host of minor bugs such as misreporting Windows 2000 on an XP system, but also includes many small new features. The Auto-Split tool now has various automatic level detection options, so you get easily repeatable results without having to normalise files or adjust its definition of 'silence' first. After selecting any ASIO driver option, you can now launch the ASIO Control Panel to adjust buffer settings, and select whether or not to enable audio monitoring during recording. Active plug-ins in the master section are more obvious, and global bypass now includes the post-master (dither) slot. Speeds above 32x can be selected for audio CD burning, and the Montage CD resample/render options can now be used to create a CD image or basic audio CD from files using non-44.1kHz sample rates.
Sound Quest's Infinity is now up to version 2.05, and the free update includes quite a few new devices, instruments, controllers and objects. Examples include a VST Instrument and DXi host player, MIDI arpeggiator, and a selection of step sequencers: the iFM 6-operator FM synth, iMoog emulation, iBass, iSynKick and iDrumKit. All 40 audio effects have been enhanced to work more efficiently, both inside Infinity and as VST or DX plug-ins, and new objects include the FM oscillator, used in iFM, and a WaveTable that's apparently ideal for recreating classic analogue sounds.
FXpansion have a novel addition to their website: a secret page that's been fairly widely advertised, and now even has a link from their main page. Skunkworks is the destination for anything that doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the site, including freeware programs, public beta versions of products that didn't make it into the commercial world, and so on. Two currently available items of special note are a Simple VST Host that provides low-latency VST and VST Instrument support for those who don't need sequencer facilities, and Enigmatron, a solo/lead synth based on their old Mysteron design, which is itself inspired by the 'singing saw' sounds of the Theremin. This generates continuously resynthesized gliding sounds and ambiences, and the new version has a built-in LFO and effects. Even in this embryonic state, it's capable of some unusual results and has already attracted plenty of user feedback.
Waves have released version 3.5 of their entire native plug-in range, and, for the first time ever, now include a detailed table of CPU overhead measurements, pinpointing the performance differences for the various plug-ins between versions 3.2 and 3.5. These figures prove what I was saying in last month's column about processor optimisations, where I pointed out that you can't judge processor performance until you know how your software has been optimised.
According to Waves' own figures, Renaissance Reverb drops from 21.6 percent CPU overhead with version 3.2, running on a 1.7GHz Pentium 4 processor, to 7.6 percent on version 3.5 (with the same configuration), which is almost a 70 percent decrease! The figures also show remarkably similar results from the 1.7GHz Intel Pentium 4 and Athlon XP1700 processors, both pre- and post-optimisation, although this may vary depending on the choice of other system components.
However, you don't have to own the latest processor architecture to benefit from the improvements; it's interesting to note that the 3.5 update still provides further improvements for Pentium III users. I compared both versions on my 1GHz Pentium III, and TrueVerb dropped from 6.1 to 5.2 percent, C4 from 9.1 to 6.2 percent, and REQ6 from 2.4 to 1.6 percent. However, Q10 remained unchanged at 3 percent when using all 10 bands, and Renaissance Reverb only changed from 11.4 percent (with the optimisations in version 3.2.1) to 11 percent in 3.5. To provide this level of improvement in an older processor range seems to prove that Waves have given their code a thorough overhaul, since SSE2 optimisations cannot benefit the Pentium III range at all.
The best news for PC Gold users with Waves' 3.5 update is the inclusion, for the first time, of the PAZ psychoacoustic analyser, previously only available in the Mac bundle. This real-time analyser is the best of its type I've used, with various display options for frequency, stereo position, and level.
The frequency analyser apparently uses wavelet techniques, as opposed to FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) analysis, to provide graphic accuracy. This certainly seems to improve the response speed, particularly at lower frequencies, making the display easier to read. It provides 52 bands with its low-frequency resolution set at the default 40Hz, but you can extend this to 20 or 10Hz if you're prepared to sacrifice a little reaction time. Peak and RMS options let you view either the maximum or average levels in each band, and you can even add A, B or C weighting, which is a great help for soundcard noise measurements. Since PAZ has nearly constant Q bands, pink noise will be correctly displayed as a flat spectrum when no weighting is applied.
The stereo position display differs from the common circular phase display by mapping the stereo stage across 180 degrees, although it still shows central mono signals as a vertical straight line, and hard left and hard right signals at 45 degrees to either side. The level meters have clip and peak hold functions to display peak and average loudness values, with the latter offering both peak and RMS options affected by the weighting filters.
Another first for PC Waves users in version 3.5 is WaveShell VST, which most significantly provides VST automation facilities within VST hosts like Cubase. The first time you launch Cubase after installing any Waves version 3.5 update, for example, a list of Waves plug-ins will appear, and choosing any of these will initialise WaveShell. This will appear in your list of VST plug-ins, and you need to choose WaveShell as your plug-in before selecting the actual Waves plug-in you want to use. DirectX 8 automation is also available to Sonar users.
Version 3.5 is a freely downloadable update for all version 3 users from www.waves.com.
I discussed PC reverb plug-in quality last month, and one method I've used in the past to audition reverb tails for smoothness, density, lumpiness and metallic colouration is by listening to a snare drum sound. However, an even better solution is to create an impulse file: start by creating a new mono 24-bit file about five seconds long, or just grab five seconds from another file and fill it with digital silence. Using a pencil-style tool (or similar, depending on which package you're using), draw a single full-scale pulse 1ms long at the start of the file -- it will sound like a dry click. Now convert this to stereo, and then use it to audition different reverbs -- the shortness of the pulse will allow you to hear the entire reverb from early reflections to the end of the tail, without any other distractions. It's quite revealing!