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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown
|NAMM on the Horizon
Well, folks, the orgy of audio insanity known as NAMM is nearly upon us. Not a lot of "news" type stories are coming out, as companies are frantically trying to have stable betas of the stuff they announced at the last NAMM, and to get screen shots of the stuff they plan to announce this time. One of the cool side benefits of writing the column is that I get to meet some people via email, and I could actually meet some of these folks and make some contacts there if I just happened to be on the other end of the country. But I can't, I live in Connecticut. So, I need an xlr8yourmac reporter to give me and the world the big word from NAMM this year. In return for your efforts, you will get a cool T-Shirt of my choosing, a free copy of whatever record I finsh next, and the undying gratitude of the unwashed millions on the internet who need to know what's going on in the world of fire hot audio toys. Contact me below.
Everything I hear is that there will some very reassuring announcements at NAMM about the USB issues with the new Macs. One thing that many people forget, is that Win98 also includes plug and play support for USB devices, something I didn't believe until I took the USB Zip drive cable out of my iMac at work and plugged it directly into a Think pad and neither machine crashed. Hope they don't start doing that with other kinds of computer stuff, because I don't know how I'll make a living. But anyway, many hardware vendors had a cheap way to look Mac friendly, make some USB stuff, sell it to iMac people, then if it doesn't fly with them, Win98 is a second shot. I can't imagine that all these USB scanners and printers would be out there if the only box with USB was the iMac. For MIDI/audio, this means that there are already functioning USB devices that transfer both MIDI data and audio data, but only for PCs. I believe that many or all of them will be coming over to the Mac very soon, and I am confident enough of this that I am holding off on buying some new MIDI hardware to see if a PCI USB card (since I have extra PCI slots believe it or not) is a better idea with some of the new boxes I expect to see from NAMM. I also hear that there will be options for legacy serial MIDI devices that won't involve taking a PCI slot.
Firewire, however, looks like a different story, at least for a while. Right now only digital video uses firewire in any significant way. Mark of the Unicorn, despite what some people will tell you, do NOT use firewire in their 2408. Firewire is a protocol, not a wire. It's a protocol that happens to have a standard connector and wire right now, but even that is not set in stone. The 2408 uses a the same wire and connector as firewire, but uses proprietary means to transfer the audio and sync info over that wire. If Win98 is the tractor that pulls USB with a good dose of help from the iMac, then consumer electronics will have to be the tractor to pull the firewire wagon. PC manufacturers and Windows are not pursuing firewire even to the extent that Apple is, so we have to hope that the hardware will become ubiquitous in home electronics and thus bring to cost down for us computer geeks. Home theater, digital camcorders, set top boxes, and other consumer devices will have to catch on before the technology will likely get all that inexpensive. I'm very exited about the Yamaha mLan stuff, and many people seem to believe that audio hardware manufacturers will put firewrire on everything, but I'm not holding up any purchases waiting for that to happen.
More on Yosemite/Audio/MWSF and other related things
Much IP packets have headed my way in the form of emails about my statements about the Yosemite G3 boxes and audio and Macworld and so on. Though I stand by everything I said, I did run across an excellent argument about what the REAL story at MWSF was. Robert Morgan and AppleRecon are practically the only rumor and analysis sources I take seriously. Big Bad Bob is a Greedy Capitalist Wall Street Type (which is a wonderful thing in my book) who has covered tech stocks and Apple for longer than most people who write about Macs have been using them, and certainly for a lot longer than I have. He has a somewhat dicey rep in some Mac circles, probably because he isn't a Cupertino boot licker. In the most recent RFI article at Mac Week Mssr. Morgan makes the case that MWSF 1999 was actually about the enterprise Mac. Web Objects, OS X Server, and perhaps most importantly, the 50 iMacs booted off of a Yosemite box were the real stories. That's not a perfect summation of the article, but it's something like that. Go read it, it's great. As a network tech on a huge academic network, the tools offered are getting closer and closer to what so many network admins have dreamed of--portable desktops, super cheap client systems, and the kind of central administration that makes people in my line of work put on weight just thinking about it. If I could work on pretty much every software problem from a server, it would be walking around a whole lot less, and those Dunkin Donuts would add up a lot faster.
But Thad, I hear you all, say, what the hell does this have to do with audio. Well, not a whole lot, except that once again, after being really ticked off because these are DOA machines for audio, I am trying to be charitable again. If Apple is making sincere and successful attempts at getting back into enterprise and academic markets, and if they can get the real big fish (Oracle, Microsoft, and such like) to take the Mac seriously, it will mean a great deal more to them than if people make records on Macs. So MWSF was the MW Enteprise, and I am really happy about that, let's hope that people will be doing Oracle work on Macs in a few months, and that a few Fortune 500 companies order iMacs in the thousands.
But, the fact remains, and I want you to remember this, so I'll put it in all caps-THE AUDIO HARDWARE AND AUDIO COMPONENTS OF THE MAC OS ARE INSIGNIFICANTLY CHANGED FROM THE DAY OF THE 7200/90 AND OS 7.5.2. Read that again folks, print it out and put on the top edge of your keyboard and read it a few more times over the next few days. Go find a 7200 running 7.5.2, and prove me wrong. In fact, take that machine, put it next to the Yosemite G3, and find me another single spec, system, feature, or piece of hardware that is as similar on these two machines as the audio stuff. Well Thad, many will say, you audio people can just go buy a PCI card if you need better hardware, no reason to make everybody pay for you little audio habit. True enough, and Apple could also put some really clunky 7200 style video hardware on there and tell everybody to buy an upgrade card if they need better, but they don't. I know that not as many people use the audio as use the video, but the fact remains, with the 7200 if you wanted head snapping video or audio performance, you had to buy an expensive card. Now if you want head snapping video, you have to unpack your Yosemite G3 and plug it in, if you want audio that sounds better than what's on a $700 Presario, go find the AmEx card. [Where is our Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live Card? Maybe a petition to Creative to make a Mac version would help. It's an amazing card ($199 full version/$99 value edition).-Mike]
I hate people who just whine and whine and don't have any real ideas, so here is mine. Next time there is a motherboard rev, spend a pittance on a protocol chip and a pair of TOSLINK connectors, and give us a stereo pair of S/PDIF digital audio inputs and outputs. It's not overkill, many consumer CD decks, DVD decks, and Mini Disc players now have S/PDIF outs, so even non-audio types will use them. Digital recording also gets around the problem of setting levels, something that many civilians have problems with. With digital transfers, just plug in and make sure the clock is going the right direction (not very tough with two devices) and levels are ready to go. It also makes these machines ready, out of the box, to do real legit pro quality audio work. Just add your favorite sequencing/recording app. If a user has a DAT deck or even a Mini Disc deck, put that sucker in REC/pause, run line signals from a mixer in and out of the DAT, and have at it. Stereo analog to digital conversion outside of the computer with much better sound quality than the mini-jack, and if the user has a few more Schillings, they can buy a Flying Cow for under $300 or a Lucid converter for something like $800. So that's My Solution For Today, and I really hope Apple does something much like it soon. The audio community has been very good to the Mac, and I wish I could tell the many people who write me asking what audio card to buy, "You don't need a card, just use the onboard digital I/O and buy some converters instead."
Maybe I Am Getting Through
Check this one out. I got an email that a reader had takem my advice and purchased something. "What! What!" I hear you all scream. "A DSP Factory? A Pulsar? Maybe a fresh new Studio 64XTC or a 2408?" Nope, somebody went out and spent their hard earned cash on the Booker T. and the MGs set that I mentioned last week. I can now live my life that much happier knowing that I have ever so slightly tipped the worldwide scales of music in the direction of that which does not suck. Imagine three huge stacks of all the CDs ever sold, one stack is labeled "These definitely suck" and one labeled "These might or might not suck, tough call, you decide" and the last labeled "These DEFINITELY do not suck." Thanks to the web and xlr8yourmac and my little audio articles, another boxed set got tossed onto Pile Number Three.
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