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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown
|Price Cuts and GUI Ruts
Opcode Raises The Bar
Last Thursday I found an email from the Opcode press mailing list about massive price reductions in their software line. The gist of it is that Studio Vision Pro will not have a suggested retail price of $499, Vision DSP in a retail store will cost $199, and in the U.S. there will be a downloadable, .pdf manual only, no telephone support version of V-DSP for, get this, $59. I was sufficiently surprised that I personally contacted my man at Opcode to be sure that somebody from MOTU hadn't hacked their mailing list. Vision DSP is the app that I gave a fantastic review to and called the biggest software news of my first year at xlr8, and now you can have it for less than the cost of Peak LE. It was a value at something like eight times that price.
It doesn't take Sam Donaldson or Warren Buffet to figure out what Opcode is doing here. The market for digital audio software has been exploding for a few years now, but pricing has not moved all that much. By taking phone support, manual printing, and bundled software out of the equation, they can sell you a world class professional program for a shareware price. This should really do something for their market share, since I was already recommending it to people who were starting out. More market share means more users who can possibly be leveraged to buy hardware, more beginners who may upgrade later but will start with the cheap version.
This price change is also a shot across the bow of everyone else in the audio world, that the competition is about to get much tougher when it comes to price. Opcode thinks it can make money selling a great program with VST and 24 bit ASIO support for under $200 retail, under $100 download. He who sells similar function for $500 (or more) better have a damn good plan for convincing people why they need to spend the extra ducats, and I wouldn't want to be trying to make that case myself. Another highlight of that review was the Quicktime support, so those of you doing audio for video type stuff, you now have a way to get very nice "sweetening" work done for next to nothing other than the pain and suffering of learning a pro audio app.
To sum up, Opcode is doing something very new here, and quite experimental. I think it will work for a number of reasons, but mostly for the simple reason that all things being equal or nearly equal, the cheaper thing wins. Vision DSP could hang with anybody's audio app at any price point, so things are nearly equal, and now V-DSP is way way cheaper. If their app sucked, it wouldn't matter if they were giving it away, but it doesn't and I expect they will be very successful with this strategy. I applaud innovation anywhere, and innovation in pricing counts as well. Word to Opcode for taking a chance and pushing the envelope.
Audiophiles And Their Foibles
I just read a copy of a high end audiophile magazine where they were talking about $10,000 CD players?!? I'm not kidding, and they were also talking about something being the best CD player for under $1000? Who buys $1000 CD players? Who buys $10,000 CD players? My CD player is a Yamaha that I paid $120 for about three years ago. If it had a S/PDIF out I'd never sell it. I can buy an eight channel 24 bit converter module for my PARIS rig for under $400, so what do you get for a $1000 CD player? Does it make the Backstreet Boys sound good? Does "Black and Blue" suddenly sound as good as Exile? Does Pat Martino play slower so I can figure out those licks? I MIGHT pay a grand for a CD player that could do that stuff, but not for any of the ones that were being discussed in this mag, which as far as I could tell pretty much played CDs. Like my Yamaha.
Don't get me wrong, you can get better converters and a better mechanism. CD tracks ripped from the disks and played through my PARIS converters sound better than through the Yamaha. But they don't sound much better, I assure you. I'm not at all golden eared, if there is such a thing, but I can hear better than the average bloke, and $10,000 for a CD player is nonsense.
What's In A GUI?
Macintouch had a link to a design company that wrote an article about how much they think that the new Quicktime 4 interface sucks. Regular readers know that I am strangely fascinated by how software people decide to represent audio and the controls that we need to deal with it. This article and the rest of the site is well worth the time to get a handle on what a programmer and GUI designer has to consider when building an audio app.
Two things are pretty much agreed upon with sequencers and DAWs-the "piano roll" display for MIDI data, and a similar waveform display for audio. Some number of "tracks" are arranged on the vertical axis, and time advances at a constant rate from left to right, as long as your drummer doesn't suck too much. Beyond this, however, nobody agrees on much. Different companies use totally different approaches to how to present and edit additional control data.
One of the main complaints that the folks at iarchitect have about the QT interface is that it unnecessarily uses "real world" hardware as a model for software, even when the real world version isn't that great, or when it translated very poorly to the virtual world. Musicians are not known for being particularly forward looking with technology, so I often find that the same limitations are being imposed on audio software for no good reason. Why should an app look like a console if it makes it harder to use? My main apps, PARIS and Vision DSP, both have their strong and weak points in this area. In the editing, patching, and automation realm, PARIS excels at using the best of the virtual world. Free form recording, the way the tools work, the way markers and locators work are all exceptional. With mixing, however, the story is not quite as good. One really frustrating thing for me is that values cannot be entered into EQ and Aux send windows with the keyboard. The only way to modify things is to grab the knob with the mouse and yank it around until it's at the right spot. That's necessary with a real world knob, it can't respond to a keyed in value, but if I know I want a shelving EQ plus 2.5 db at 3.5 Khz it's much much faster to be able to enter this data with a keyboard. For most users PARIS makes up for this with a reasonably priced hardware controller which I can't afford. I think that the comfort zone of a mixer like interface is, for better or worse, necessary for digital audio apps, and most apps (like PARIS and Cubase) try to give the user a pretty familiar look to ease the transition from tape to disk. Dedicated editors and editor windows seem to have a little more interface experimentation going on, perhaps because of a lack of real world tools with the same function. My theory has been that editors often seem more "virtual" than multi-track apps because the analog equivalent of an editor was a splicer and tape.
Vision DSP has it's good and bad points, but it uses one of the best things about GUI design for audio-pop up windows. There are no pop ups in the real world, you can't touch a button on a synth and see all the patches in a big list, find the one you want, and then select it and let go. Pop ups in Vision are everywhere, selecting patches, assigning functions to faders and sliders, locating presets for f/x, and selecting controllers to edit, just to name a few. This kind of interface takes advantage of the virtualness of the computer and it's pretty transparent.
I've been saying for a while that the interface will eventually become a critical battleground for audio developers. The real fun will start in a few years when touch sensitive TFT screens get down to something like reasonable in price, and then your GUI becomes a touch controller and a mouse and a monitor. And keep an eye out for ways to use the virtual aspects of your programs instead of relying on them to act like a mixer, as well as informing developers of what you'd like to see improved in the interface. It's surprising how often they will listen.
He Recorded The Bluest Notes Ever
I have been asked many times why records, and particularly jazz records, from 50's and 60's can sound so great in comparison to records made now. You'd think that with all of the SSLs and Neves and Pro Tools and 128 track automation and so on it would be a piece of cake to beat up on mono recordings made 40 years ago onto mono tape with anywhere from two to ten microphones. Listen to a copy of "Midnight Blue" by Kenny Burrel or pretty much anything from Coltrane and Miles in this era and you'll realize that these guys could sound as good an nearly anything before or since, and maybe still haven't been surpassed in a certain kind of recording.
I tell people who ask me how these records sound so good that the answer is a combination of things. First, I don't think it takes a genius to get a good record out of Miles Davis or Jimmie Smith. Get a mic open and some kind of tape running and don't spill your drink on anything. But lots of the great jazz records of that era don't just capture great performances, they really do sound incredible. I personally think that the sonic quality is due to the fact that microphone and console technology were actually quite mature in that day, and tape was limited in tracks but still of very good quality. Lots of gear made today is trying desperately to sound like this equipment, and many of the mics made then, like guitar amps of that era, are the Roman Aqueducts of audio. Built to last a millenium. So the gear was there, but gear isn't the only thing necessary to make a great sounding record. For some reason, every technology seems to have a few people around who intuitively understand how to make the most of it. Look at what Wendy Carlos did with a synth or what Charlie Christian did with the electric guitar. They picked up on how it could be used in a way that nobody else had. I think that the people making jazz records in the 50's and 60's often were these kind of people, they knew how to make a great sounding mono LP in a way that nobody had picked up on previously.
But what the hell does all the prattle have to do with Macs and audio, I hear you ask. Recently in the jazz section of my favorite record store (Cutler's in New Haven, bless them) I found a copy of "Midnight Blue" with the letters RVG stuck on it. RVG stands for Rudy Van Gelder, the engineer behind nearly everything Blue Note and a few other labels did in the 50's and 60's. Blue Note had a rare combination of top drawer talent, owners and producers who had good ears and would stick with an artist they believed in, and the sense to let their musicians rehearse and record enough to get better quality releases. Many Jazz labels would schedule a date and pretty much release whatever went down, even if they were not thrilled with the results. Blue Note would take the time to make things better than that, and I think that their recordings show that both in the performances and recording quality. They had time to be a little more refined and experimental.
The quality also certainly extends to their recordings. As good as things from other labels (Verve, Savoy, Prestige, etc) sound, the Blue Note releases were almost always a cut above the rest. Lucky for us, Rudy Van Gelder is still alive, and according to the jacket on the CD, he has done 24 bit transfers of some of his signal recordings, and then prepared them for 16 bit CD release. The results are predictably astonishing, and anybody with even a passing interest in recording should pick up one or two to hear some of the best recordings ever. If you are interested in recording and jazz, then buy more of them. And, of course, some day they'll be released in a high bandwidth format of some kind, and I'll buy them too, so they can get me to buy the same record four or five times. Not stupid are these reissue companies . . .
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