Make some noise

Introduction

The volume meters and mixing console are on-screen, and you’re turning knobs and pressing buttons with your mouse. The multitrack deck and vintage synthesizer are actually pieces of software, and so is the reverb-effects unit. In fact, aside from a music keyboard, a special musical interface, and a pair of speakers, everything in this set-up is a piece of software. Welcome to the virtual recording studio. Outfitting even a modest studio used to mean spending thousands of pounds for recording decks, effects processors, music synthesizers, and other hardware devices. But thanks to the fast processor in the Power Mac G3 and G4, these days, the Mac itself can handle most of what once required dedicated hardware. With the latest audio software, it’s easier and less expensive than ever to set up a professional-quality home recording studio – or to add versatile, economical audio tools to your existing pro studio. To find the best music-production tools, I spent several noisy weeks testing more than a dozen software packages. I also created some MP3 audio files to help you hear the best features in action. (Go to www.macworld.com/samples.html to hear my musical creations). So happy together
A virtual recording studio has many of the same components as a traditional studio, but it runs within the Mac’s friendly confines. Here’s what you’ll need to turn your Mac into a high-tech studio. Jump in line  A sequencer program, the most essential component of the virtual studio, turns the Mac into a multitrack recording deck. You can build complex arrangements by recording new tracks while existing ones play back. You can also use editing features to fix flubbed notes, transpose keys, and much more. Sequencers offer huge advantages over conventional tape recording, starting with undo features no razor blade can approach. You also have instantaneous access to any point in a recording – no rewind or fast-forward delays. Best of all, sequencers provide non-destructive processing: they don’t permanently apply your edits and effects to the audio tracks you’ve recorded unless that’s what you want. Non-destructive editing gives you infinite freedom to experiment with sounds and effects, and it’s made possible by the speed of today’s computers. Sound off  But a sequencer is nothing without sounds. With software synthesizers, the Mac can mimic anything from a vintage analogue synthesizer to a grand piano to a cello. You generally play a software synth using an external music keyboard plugged into the Mac via some variety of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) hardware device for connecting electronic musical instruments to each other and to computers (see the illustration “The ins and outs of desktop audio”). Do you have to own a MIDI keyboard? No, you can create music by entering notes manually in a sequencer program. But it isn’t exactly efficient – more akin to typing a letter via hunt-and-peck with the mouse and the Mac’s Key Caps instead of simply using your keyboard. Some software synthesizers are designed for creating dance and rhythm loops – repeating series of bass and drum lines. These programs can help you create infectious dance grooves that would make even Gordon Brown get up and shake that thang. Software synths are a great way to expand your studio’s sound palette. They cost hundreds or even thousands of pounds less than hardware synthesizers, and if you have a PowerBook or an iBook, they’re a lot more portable. Cause and effect  Once you have your sounds, effects plug-ins let you add audio effects, such as auditorium-like reverberation. These software effects are comparable in quality to those of dedicated effects hardware, which can be much more expensive. Effects plug-ins work within your sequencer program, and – as I’ll explain shortly – several different plug-in formats exist. Your choice of a sequencer may very likely depend on the plug-ins you want to use. All you need is ...
Handling massive audio files, generating real-time sound-effects, and simultaneously communicating with external MIDI gear demands a fast computer with a fast hard drive and plenty of RAM. Still, you don’t have to break (or even rob) the bank to set up a desktop recording studio. Power inside  An iMac will take you a long way, and even an elderly 604-based Power Mac will run the sequencers I tested. But if you’re planning to use software synthesizers and real-time effects plug-ins, you’ll want a G3 or better, with at least 128MB of memory. That’s because software synths can gobble up 50MB or more of RAM when you have lots of sounds installed. I used a 400MHz blue-and-white G3 with 128MB of RAM for my testing. I also used Mac OS 8.6, because Apple was still tweaking Mac OS 9, in order to address some audio-related issues. The company was resolving these problems as I finished this article, but they underscore two important points: first, verify compatibility with your Mac model and system software before buying any audio software; second, avoid updating the system software until you’re sure your audio tools will run with the latest Mac OS. Also, if my experience was any indication, getting a system to work properly can be a challenge. You’ll download update patches frequently as vendors release bug fixes. You’ll also become pals with the Mac’s Extension Manager control panel, because audio programs can bicker with one another and with other software. This is the bleeding edge, and hemorrhages happen. Room to grow  You’ll also need plenty of hard-drive space, because CD-quality stereo files gobble about 10MB per minute. The hard drives that ship in today’s iMacs and G4s are big and fast enough to record and play back several simultaneous audio tracks. But the more tracks you want to play at a time, the faster the hard drive you need. That’s because each track is stored as a separate file, and playing back multiple tracks requires the hard drive to access each of those files in real time. Some audio professionals use a second, high-speed SCSI drive to store audio tracks (although an additional fast IDE drive would also do the trick), keeping their programs and system folder on the Mac’s built-in hard drive. In either case, optimizing your drive – or drives – regularly will result in quicker access to your tracks. Radio radio  All Power Macs are capable of stereo recording and playback, so to actually hear your efforts, all you need is a set of amplified speakers or some headphones. But for recording, an inexpensive mixer – a device that takes multiple audio inputs and merges them into one or two audio outputs – will greatly streamline your audio connections, by providing multiple jacks into which you can plug microphones and instruments (see “The ins and outs of desktop audio”). You can also invest in third-party hardware that improves on the Mac’s built-in sound circuitry (see the sidebar “Beyond miniplugs: audio hardware options”). Savvy sequencers
I tested three popular audio/ MIDI sequencers: Emagic’s £549 Logic Audio Platinum 4.1, Mark of the Unicorn’s £549 Digital Performer 2.7, and Steinberg’s £329 Cubase VST/24 4.1. (For more information on all the software I tested, see the table “Magical musical software”). unfortunately, a fourth powerhouse sequencer – Opcode Systems’ Studio Vision Pro – is currently unavailable because Opcode has recently been bought-out. Previous to this, its customers had to endure poor technical support and a dearth of upgrades. Studio Vision Pro is a fine program, but I won’t recommend it until the company’s future comes into sharper focus. (If you’re new to music on the Mac, check out Christopher Breen’s round-up of inexpensive sequencers, such as Steinberg’s Cubasis and Mark of the Unicorn’s FreeStyle, at www.macworld.co.uk/sequencers/). Which sequencer is best? Forests fall and battles rage over that question. The easy answer: they’re all awesome. But because all three have very similar features and include some effects plug-ins, I based my choice on how the sequencer works. Digital Performer’s elegant look-and-feel makes it my favourite; Mark of the Unicorn has sweated the design details to create a program that looks beautiful and is a pleasure to use (see “Auditioning sequencers”). Even Digital Performer’s manuals and online help are superior – by contrast, Cubase doesn’t come with any printed material other than a “Getting Started” manual. Plug me in  The third-party effects plug-ins and software synthesizers you want to run may influence your choice of a sequencer. Cubase, Logic Audio, and Studio Vision Pro support VST (Virtual Studio Technology), a standard developed by Steinberg. Digital Performer doesn’t support VST; instead, it provides its own standard, called MAS (MOTU Audio System). Third-party VST plug-ins outnumber MAS plug-ins, but most major developers now support both standards, and many also support the plug-in formats high-end audio hardware such as Digidesign’s Pro Tools use. What’s more, two available MAS plug-ins let you run VST plug-ins within Digital Performer: AudioEase’s $30 VST Wrapper for MAS 1.01 and Cycling74’s £59 Pluggo 2.0.8. My experience with both was mixed – I was able to run many VST effects within Digital Performer, but VST software synthesizers sometimes misbehaved or required workarounds. Bottom line: don’t count on a VST adaptor, particularly for software synthesizers. Even though Digital Performer’s design and interface are superior, you may prefer Logic Audio or Cubase if your projects demand a VST-format plug-in. Plucky plug-ins
Effects plug-ins, that tap into a sequencer to modify the sound of the audio tracks you record or import, are usually sold in bundles of about four to six effects. You’ll now find software equivalents for all mainstream hardware effects devices, including reverb for adding room reverberation; compressors and limiters, which add punch to vocal tracks; equalizers for boosting or lowering certain frequencies; and flangers and phase shifters, used to add rich, swirling textures to instrumental tracks. Smooth sounds You can also find offbeat plug-ins that don’t necessarily have parallels in the hardware world. Waves’ MondoMod (part of the £649 Pro-FX Plus bundle) creates stereo effects ranging from a gentle vibrato to a rotating Leslie speaker to a 45-rpm record played off-centre. And AudioEase’s $199 Rocket Science Bundle 1.0.2 includes both Roger, a plug-in that adds speechlike vowel sounds to audio tracks, and Orbit, which lets you move sound within a three-dimensional space. Then there’s the amazing Pluggo, which creates everything from reverb to robotic speech. Its low price belies its quality and usefulness – it’s got something for just about any project, and its ability to run VST plug-ins within Digital Performer (albeit imperfectly) is a real bonus. As I’ve previously mentioned, all of the sequencers come with a number of plug-ins that provide basic reverb, compression, and further sound-processing functions. But in terms of audio quality, these bundled plug-ins fall short of the third-party effects I tested. If you’re after the best possible sound quality, check out the £299 TC|Native Bundle 2.0, from TC|Works, or the £399 Native Power Pack, from Waves. I’m partial to the TC|Native Bundle’s interface, but both products provide superb reverb effects, powerful equalization plug-ins (which enable you to adjust specific frequency ranges – to boost bass and high frequencies, for example), and more. Almost all of the plug-ins I tested are available in downloadable trial versions, so you can audition them yourself to find out how they work with your tunes. Snappy synthesizers
If you’re like most musicians, you’re always on the prowl for new sounds – and software synthesizers deliver them. Instead of paying £600 or more for additional keyboards or sound modules (sound-producing circuitry you can attach to MIDI keyboards), for around £100 you can get a more flexible instrument. Once you’ve installed a software synthesizer, its name appears in your sequencer alongside your actual MIDI instruments, and you play it using the keys on your MIDI keyboard (see “MIDI magic”). When everything is purring, it’s easy to forget that some of your instruments are actually just programs running on a Mac. Dramatic pause  Alas, everything doesn’t always purr. A software synthesizer can bring an otherwise-fast Mac to its knees. One potential problem is latency – noticeable delays between when you press a key and when you actually hear its note. Generating high-quality sounds in real time is a processor-intensive job requiring almost as many calculations as Bill Gates’s home-improvement spreadsheet. Slower, pre-G3 Macs are particularly vulnerable to latency, but even a G3 can suffer from it if you’re running effects plug-ins at the same time – or are otherwise overtaxing the system. And just as system extensions can bicker, software synthesizers – generally running as plug-ins within sequencers – can also conflict with one another or with other plug-ins, requiring you to pull one or more plug-ins from the sequencer’s plug-ins folder until your sequencer runs smoothly. Old-time sound I loved every software synthesizer I tested, so picking winners wasn’t easy. But Koblo’s £149 Stella9000 2.5, which combines rich retro sounds with an easy-to-use interface, is hard to beat. Visit Koblo’s site to download the free Vibra1000; it does only one note at a time (no chords), but gives you an idea of what a good synthesizer has to offer. Dance to the music  If dance music is your specialty, check out Propellerhead Software’s £149 ReBirth RB-338 2.0.1. Distributed by Steinberg, ReBirth faithfully re-creates the sounds of Roland’s revered but long-discontinued TB-303 Bass Line bass synthesizer and TR-808 Rhythm Composer drum machine (see the screenshot “Boot up and get down”, on page 81). ReBirth is great for creating addictive dance beats that you can trigger from a sequencer or export to audio files for importing into a sampler or sequencer. Sample me  Another noteworthy program is BitHeadz’ £249 Unity DS-1 2.0. Technically speaking, this is a software sampler – that is, rather than synthesizing sound, it plays back recorded samples. You can expand its palette by sampling your own sounds or buying sample libraries such as BitHeadz’ £129 Black & Whites, which adds dozens of great piano and electric-piano samples. BitHeadz also makes a software synthesizer, the £129 Retro AS-1 2.0.1. During my testing, BitHeadz released major updates to Unity DS-1 and Retro AS-1 – alas, both had problems. I had trouble getting them to run reliably, particularly with Digital Performer, and if the message headers on the BitHeadz email discussion list are any indication at all, then I’m not alone. If you’re interested in these very promising programs, then you might want to download the trial versions to see if they behave with your system.
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