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Accelerate Your Mac!
Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown

It's the Bring in the Noise Fire Sale

Every regional area of the States has at least one irritating small time capitalist who is always advertising what great deals you can get from him. In my home town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, it was Hi-Fi Kenny.   Here in Southern Connecticut it's Bob's Discount Furniture.  Come to think of it at the end of their commercials, both would say in a horrible whiny and irritating voice, "Come on Down!"  Perhaps Kenny and Bob are related.  In any case, I am taking advantage of my place of prominence on the web to sell some gear.  Come on Down!

The reason for this is that I am buying a Yamaha DSP Factory within a week or so.  So, the main item up for sale is my beloved Korg 1212 I/O card.  I picked this baby up second hand a few months ago, and it's been an excellent card.  You can read about it at the web site, but it's main features are ADAT I/O, excellent converters on the card, and S/PDIF I/O.  Lots of people write me asking how to get better audio cheap, well, here's the way. I think many people who read this column could use the card as a 4 in 4 out card, just by picking up a Midiman Flying Cow, which is perfect since the S/PDIF ins will take 20 bit words, and that's what the airborne bovine puts out.  Sweetwater sound is selling them for $600, you get mine for $350.  Now, let's say you need some extra storage for that, well Come on Down!  I've got a spare narrow 4.5 gig Barracuda, and the Korg 1212 and 'Cuda will go together for $500.  Now, if you really want to go all out, here's the best deal of all.  For only $1000, I'll toss in a Powerbase to go with that card and drive.  Come on Down!  I'm not kidding.  I'll install the card and drive in my Powerbase, set up all the drivers, load all the shareware and freeware audio stuff I can find, tweak the extensions set and all that, box it up, and ship it to you.  It only has 16 MB of RAM 'cause I cannibalized it for my UMAX, but it also has an ethernet card in there, and you can upgrade the 603e processor to a Powerlogix G3 if you want.  Get this, just to prove what I nice guy I am, I'll even cut a 500MB partition on the 'Cuda and set up LinuxPPC on it for you.  Come on Down!

The only warnings are as follows.  The card is used and out of warranty, but it's been a flawless performer for me.  The Korg card has some show stopping problems with Adapted 2940 cards and with the built in ATI drivers on beige G3 Macs.  Other than that,  it's a wonderful card.  Actually, this brings me to another non-news related issue.  A few people have asked me if I can do this same kind of thing for them, set up customized audio machines.  The answer is yes, but not cheap.  Contact me below and we can talk price.

What Kind of Drive Should I Use For Audio?

Mysteriously, this question has recently supplanted "what G3 card should I use for audio" as the number 1 query to the caliban email account.  Perhaps this is because more people are going to 24 bit recording, and hence the strain on some 10MB/s SCSI systems is starting to pile up.  It's not a simple question, and it will get trickier as sample rates go up even further.  As most of you know, one minute of 16 bit 44.1k audio takes up almost exactly 5 MB of disk space, while one minute of dramatically better sounding 24 bit audio takes about 7.5 MB.  Doing a little math reveals that streaming those off of the drive takes only .08333 and .125 MB/second respectively.  Not much.  Put another way, a 24 track, 16 bit song would only be streaming 2 MB/s off of the drive, the same song at 24 bits is 3 MB/s.  Theoretical  performance for 10 MB/s SCSI is obviously way way beyond this, but in the real world, even the 16 bit 24 track song can tax such a single drive trying to run the apps and audio on a 10 MB/s bus.  Why?  Mostly because of the drive not the bus.  Since audio files are so big, they can easily spread over the entire drive, meaning that the heads have to do a lot of traveling to get all of the data.  I have no personal experience with this, but my guess is that a very low seek time narrow drive, like a narrow Cheetah, would be a fantastic audio drive as an internal drive on an 8600 for example. [See the drive performance articles on the main site SCSI/IDE Features page for more information on drive and controller performance-Mike]

Another consideration is the amount of RAM in the machine and the amount you have dedicated to your app.  When a multi-track app is playing back multiple streams of audio, it has to set aside RAM buffers for each track.  Increasing the buffer per track will decrease the work the drive needs to do to play back the audio.  Think of it this way, you have to keep 24 loaf pans with holes in them from running out of water (I know this sounds silly, just stick with me, or if you have the concept down already, go ahead and skip to the quiz).  I have given you a shot glass and a really powerful faucet.  The most time consuming part of the process is going to be the time in between filling the glass and the time you dump it in the pan, and that's also when no new water (data) is being fetched or added to a .  The RAM buffer is the shot glass, your arm is the drive head.  If you get a bigger RAM buffer (say a pint glass), then you don't have to fill the glass as often to keep the pans full, and your arm has to spend less time moving back and forth wasting effort.  Make sense?

What this means in real world performance is that if you have 32 MB dedicated to your audio app, and your drive is starting to give up, instead of buying $1300 of SCSI drives and hardware, a new $300 dollar 128MB DIMM may do just as much good.  Will it be fun to have an 18 gig UW 'Cuda on a UW SCSI card? Yes.  Will it speed up file copies?  Yes.  Is it necessary for 99% of the audio work done in the world today?  No.

An interesting development in this drive insanity is the new ATA PCI cards for Power Macs.  I had a TurboMax delivered to me last Friday for my UMAX. I'm lucky in that I have PCI slots to burn, and after reading Mike's description of those cards, and seeing that they are certified for Media 100 use (way way more drive intensive than audio), I decided that I would give one a try.  Initial testing with a cheap Maxtor drive have been startling--the Maxtor performs nearly as well as my 'Cuda in audio specific applications. [See my IDE Performance Tests of the Maxtor 10GB drive in a beige G3 system, it's IO performance even at 8MB file sizes approached 14MB/sec sustained, higher than any 7200 RPM SCSI drive I've seen and literally the equal of a Cheetah drive in throughput.-Mike]  A search about UDMA drives and audio on Dejanews revealed that some older implementations of UDMA controllers and drives were murder on MIDI timing.  Here's why.  In some cases the controller and/or drive would flim when it was supposed to flam, and this would freeze the whole system bus for over 20 milliseconds.  Now that may not seem like much, but 20 milliseconds is enough to turn a "slightly behind the beat" into "opiate drenched post 2 A.M swing."  I haven't had time to do really serious testing of MIDI timing stability with the new card, but I should have it done within the week.  If this pans out, it will be a very cheap way to get drives "good enough" for audio work for very reasonable amounts of money.

More On The New G3s And Audio

Mactimes had a rosy colored glasses article about audio on the new G3s.  A reader sent it to me and basically said, "Here ya go, ya big downer, these boxes are fine."  Everything in the article is true, if you own an Ensoniq Paris system, or you have one of the new MOTU 2408 units, you and your blue G3 are good to go. Unless you want MIDI.  In which case you need to wait or get a PCI card with serial ports on it.  And of course make sure that your favorite apps don't use floppy based copy protection.  I think that these blue G3s will someday be very nice boxes for audio and MIDI, just be very careful what you buy.  I've decided to get a DSP Factory, and if I get the main card, an ADAT I/O card, and an SX1000XG (all of which I plan to get), then I've just filled three PCI slots and I have no room for a SCSI or ATA card.  That means that for me, ANY of the G3 models are potentially a problem.  Everybody needs to be sure that both now an in the future they can fit in all of the stuff then need in their Mac.  I still haven't seen much about the expansion chassis that supposedly will be available for people needing extra slots, and that may help out in the long run.  Do your homework folks.

DVD Audio Will Actually Happen

The International Committee Of People Who Get To Decide Things But Whose Name I Forget announced that the DVD-Audio spec is finally in place.  I read the press release over at Harmony Central and there weren't too many surprises.  However, there was some good news, mostly that there was some flexibility built into the spec so that producers and musicians can decide some things about how their music will be reproduced.  The biggest choice is that multiple sample rates are supported, including 44.1 and 88.2, which means that current CDs can be released without doing really strange math on the sample rates.  You should be very happy.  Also, the format can carry completely distinct surround sound and stereo mixes on the same disc, so that people who don't have surround systems won't have to listen to a surround mix that has been folded into a stereo mix by the DVD player.  Instead, they can listen to a stereo version that was mixed to be stereo, and when the get the surround thing going, they can listen to a mix that was designed for surround.  I sure wouldn't let a DVD player mix my music, so I'm happy about that.  I also solemnly promise that as soon as there is a player that will playback DVD-Audio discs at anything like a reasonable price, I'll buy one, and I'll get a second pair of monitors so I can listen to at least 4 channel surround.  

Before we've finished "The Audio Dweeb Week In Review", a very very off topic postscript by yours truly.  One of the strange things about being on the periphery of the music biz is that one gets to tell "I knew them when" stories.  More often than those stories, however, are the stories about bands or artists that should have been wildly successful but never were.  I grew up 90 miles from Minneapolis, so I REALLY know about that, but even aside from the Husker Du and Run Westy Runs of this world, there are the guys like Charlie Sexton.  With Husker Du, it made some kind of sense, they wrote really disturbing music sometimes, and they, um, weren't really ready for a guest spot on Baywatch or anything.  But Charlie Sexton is even more confusing to me.  Chuck put out a fantastic record called "Under the Wishing Tree" a few years back that had great songs, top flight production, a really fresh but not jarring use of unusual instruments, and a couple of really catchy potential singles.  He's also a badass guitar player and looks like Matt Dillon after a month long fast.  I saw a show on the "Wishing Tree" tour in New Haven, and it was one of the most memorable I have ever seen--probably weren't 75 people in the club, but he put on a show like it was 1200 in a 600 capacity room.  What went wrong?  Who knows, go ask the Seahorses and Tony Visconti and Paul Westerberg and my buddies in the Gravel Pit.

The rarest of all of the musician stories, however, is the "How on earth did he/she get a record deal" story.  Often a simple case of jealousy, sometimes this one is genuine--you know, of all the people?  I recently picked up one of those while reading the greatest magazine in the world about rock'n'roll, Mojo.  I don't know if I have mentioned this in this column, but I played blues for a living in Vienna for a year, and that pretty much cured me of wanting to play blues again.  In addition to the inherent problems in playing nothing but music from the 50's and 60's, I wasn't, er, bowled over by the groove virtuosity of the Viennese blooz playing royalty.  Not that there were no exceptions, if you need a backing band in Vienna, get in touch with Michael Strasser for drums, Markus Linder on piano, get Hannes Kassehs for rhythm guitar, and Gottfried Gfrerrer for slide, and find the bass player from the Blue Wave (fronted by Christian Dozzler, who can sub for Herr Linder if he's busy doing theater work or chasing girls that night), and you'll have a backing band that could hang with pretty much anyone in the states.  Beyond that, however, I suggest bringing your own guys.  So I'm reading that copy of Mojo and discover that somebody from that scene, somebody who I had gotten quite lit up with on many an occasion, has a record deal.  Nice guy, never understood much of what he said to me because he tried to speak in English, and I'm happy for him, but it just never crossed my mind that he would get a record deal.  In my humble opinion, I could eat his lunch on stage any time we played together, which we did on numerous occasions.  But the words were there in black and white, he's got a record deal and he's in Mojo, and I fix computers, so who's eating lunch now?

That's it folks, gotta go watch the X-Files. So do ya think Mulder really will wind up shot in the head or something? Or maybe it'll turn out that Scully is actually a man? In any case, it'll be the best sound on TV.

Have an Audio question? Check the Audio FAQ first.

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