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


NAMM Show Roundup Issue #1

I came, I saw, I suffered sensory overload, auditory fatigue, and mightily sore feet. I met people, scared people, had Apple employees glare at me, saw a few heroes, and had a certain software industry insider tried to abscond with my date. In other words, a good time was had by all.

Since this was my first NAMM, I'll tell you all a little about the show, how it looks, how it works, and who does what. First of all, it's huge, there are three main exhibitor areas plus special rooms for the most well heeled companies. The heavyweights like Roland, and Yamaha and Korg rent out these special rooms on the concourses between the main exhibitor areas. The two main rooms are very roughly divided between "traditional" companies making things like guitars and band instruments and such, and "modern" companies involved in software and pro audio. Needless to say, I spent most of my time in the software and recording room. The third room was the Kentia hall, where smaller and often more exotic companies had their stuff. Finally, in all of these rooms, you could purchase the ubiquitous "trade show $8.00 turkey sandwich" to be washed down with the "$2.50 tiny cup of Coca-Cola." Some things never change.

There were comparatively few "market busting" announcements or products this year. Maybe the closest one would be the Gigastudio from Nemesys or Reason from Propellerheads/Steinberg. But even these releases were extensions of what current products already do, rather than paradigm shifting tools. The desktop audio world is getting more mature every year, and re-writing the book is getting harder. There is also a small but noticeable backlash among some veteran and expert users against throwing the kitchen sink into every app. I talked to more than one person who said "I already have more than I use in my sequencer/recorder/software synth, I just need it to run better, be more stable and sound as good as possible." It's a small group, but there is a bit of a "keep it simple but make it good" attitude if you look for it. But, here are the most exciting things I found . . .

What's more high end than a Breitling on an actress driving a vintage Porshe? The Korg OASYS PCI, that's what. Korg is very obviously positioning their PCI card as THE way to get extremely high end synthesis inside of your Mac or PC. The Korg room was predictably one of the nicer ones at the show, and in addition to showing off their traditional keyboards and DJ tools, they sequestered Dan Phillips (OASYS PCI guru and upcoming Bring in the Noise interviewee) in a tiny superheated and unventilated room with some huge Genelecs and a fast Mac for a demo of that card. I saw a short version of the demo when I was at AES, but this one was even more informative. The air quality may have been taking years off of Dan's life, but I sure appreciated the access. OASYS PCI is unique in a number of ways. However, what Korg seems to be using to distinguish its card from everyone else is talking about sound quality and the faithfulness of the synth modeling. Dan showed a few things that were pretty amazing, but perhaps the most impressive was the Prophet Five model. Designed with the help of a former Sequential Circuits employee, it's a HUGE sounding synth model. I'm not Prophet 5 expert, but it sounded real close to me, and even if it doesn't sound exactly like the original, it still sounds pretty incredible. The physically modeled flute sounds were also impressive, with performance nuances like breath sounds and portamento included. The other analog synth models were also true to the original, and Dan talked a good bit about including the "non-linearities" of some of the old warhorses. Non-linearity is a term that means the "mistakes" in circuits and instruments that often made them sound so good.

The downside of the OASYS PCI? Well, the $2200 price is nothing to sneeze at. It doesn't have a sampler module, it's not scalable, and the interface used to control the card is not exactly eye catching. Still, that lack of graphical intensity keeps RAM requirements to a minimum, and you certainly can't fault the sound quality in any way at all. I can't imagine it's going to be anything but a big success. Now get Dan some fresh air.

Speaking of Mr. Phillips, I still have room for some more interview questions. Send 'em in to the email address at the bottom of this page.

What's more useful than Johnnie Cochran's cell phone number when you're in LA lockup at 3.00 AM? Groove Control from Ilio, that's what. The fine folks at Ilio were showing some of their sample libraries that include this new "technology" for working with beats and loops. A Groove control enabled sample library is one that comes pre-configured to integrate in a very new way with your seqencer and sampler. Those of you who have used ReCycle or ACID know that they are very good tools for getting loops that are at different tempos to work together, and ACID will even help out getting pitched audio in different keys to work together. Groove Control is sort of like ReCycle taken to its logical (and stereo) extreme. What Ilio does is pre slice and chop every loop on a CD, in phase accurate stereo, and generate a MIDI file to go with it. So, you load a loop into your sampler, load the MIDI file into your sequencer, and then work with your loop as if it were a MIDI file. As I said, this isn't totally new for a ReCycle user, but Groove Control makes a number of significant enhancements. First, it's in stereo, and second, the work is done for you. Beyond that, the quality of the results is better than loops chopped with ReCycle, Ilio guarantees that you can slow the loop down 40 BPM in your sequencer without having dropouts and other nasty sounding artifacts. There's NO way that can be done with ReCycle. The demo I saw was done by the man who did the Groove Control update for Liquid Grooves, and who was working on Groove Control from the start. As an example, he took four loops with totally different feels, BPM and sound from four different sound libraries and played them from Logic while Groove Controlled. The original loops were (I think) an old school sounding funk pattern, a hi hat from an electronica collection, a big acoustic drum from a Brazillian collection, and a conga pattern. Played by themselves, there was really no relation between any of them, but by using Groove Control, they synced up and sounded as if they were designed for each other. It was a mighty impressive demonstration. Finally, for the extraordinarily lazy like myself, they even include the loops already set up in song/project/arrangement files for all of the main seqeuncer packages out there. So, to get your GC enabled files going, you need only open up the right song from your seqencer, and then have at it, no MIDI files need even be imported. Ilio is sending me some libraries to test both on their own and with the Creamware sampler I have now. If I can do what they were doing at their booth, I don't know if I'll buy many non Groove Controlled libraries given the choice.

What could be more exciting than a Chemical Brothers show in your back yard? Meeting Brian Gerhard from Top Hat amplification. My Top Hat Club Royale made all other amps close to useless in my eyes, and I had never seen the man behind the tone before. Buried in the Kentia hall next to bass manufacturers selling butcher block neck through contraptions that sell for more than a good used car was Brian and a mouth watering collection of Top Hat amps. Top Hat also has a new product of interest for the home recordist, a five watt single eight inch speaker combo amp. It's sort of a Fender Champ but perfected. Featuring one preamp tube, one 6V6 output tube, and one knob, it's obviously not for your upcoming gig at Wembly, but studio tone gurus have long known that often it's easier to make a little amp sound big than it is to make a big amp sound big. Counterintuitive, I know, but true. So, this 5W beauty would be a fine way to get true amp/guitar tone to disk in your studio. It's also priced right, so for well under $1000 you can get it and a couple of mics to put on the 8" speaker. Tube guitar amps are still one of the places where I find computer simulations lacking, so this is a way to get some reality in a place where it's very useful.

What might get you more connected than a meeting with Mike Ovitz? Yamaha's mLan that's what. For those of you who have no idea what it is, it's an audio and MIDI over Firewire solution that Yamaha and a few others are pitching as the future of studio connectivity. I only saw it for a few minutes, but it did in fact work. They had a Mac running with a synth and an O2R (I think) and ASIO and OMS were happily talking to everything. I'm hoping to get a better demo of all of this one of these days.

What's looking more outdated than a Ford Pinto blaring a K.C. and the Sunshine Band song? My haircut, that's what. Long haired musicians are feeling constant pressure to don baseball caps with tiny brims and learn how to DJ. Reportedly, last year was the first in which turntables outsold guitars, and judging by the crowds in the Paul Reed Smith booth, geeter gun slingers are the last to keep their classic tresses along with sunburst finishes. This remains possible only by willfully neglecting the fact that the girlfriends of the DJs are cuter, and it looks like the DJs are making more money. For the long haired stalwarts, the PRS booth included some fetching single cutaway guitars looking suspiciously like those manufactured by a certain geetar company known for eviscerating its software acquisitions faster than most of us can put away a California roll. But for those ready to move away from the six and four string world, there is good news-you can now use your CDs to DJ and if you do it from behind a wall, there's a damn good chance that NOBODY could tell you're not scratching vinyl. CD DJ tools are not at all new, but I saw a demo in the Tascam booth that knocked my socks off. They have a CD system specifically for scratching types that sounded so much like the real thing I couldn't believe it. The DJ scratched for a while, and asked if I had any questions, and I could think of nothing anything to say but "Wow." So, save your dollars on that PRS and look into these systems if you want to get moving with the DJ thing but sold all of your vinyl a few years ago.

That's it for installment #1. More soon, mostly about the software updates. Until then, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the Neumanns.

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