Music On The Macintosh
Software and Hardware
Newer, cheaper models have brought the Apple Macintosh within the reach of an increasing number of musicians. Tim Tully presents an overview of hardware and software products for the computer that pioneered the Graphical User Interface.
From the first, the Apple Macintosh had a fascination for the creative individual. The machine's hi-resolution screen and graphical user interface showed immediate potential for aping and automating the traditional work patterns of the eye-hand-coordinated; it seemed naturally to grant access to things graphic as well as musical.
Indeed, the conventions of the Mac's user interface have reshaped many facets of the composing and production process itself, introducing us to new ways of visualising and modifying music: notes seen as horizontal bars on a scrolling 'piano roll' grid, to which they are 'quantised'; an 'event list' that shows music as numbers instead of notation. Clicking-and-dragging, cutting-and-pasting, global controller changes and hand-drawn sound waveforms are as familiar today as they were esoteric seven years ago.
Whether you're talking MIDI, digital audio, or the two in tandem, the Macintosh today can be configured into one serious music-making machine. In 1992, the Mac offers MIDI sequencers, digital audio systems, and powerful amalgams of the two.
A sequencer is the application most people think of when you say "MIDI software". While some sport such goodies as algorithmic aids to composition, sequencers are most commonly thought of — and used as — digital emulations of a multitrack tape deck.
While three sequencers dominate the current professional market, they are facing a serious challenge from a couple of capable newcomers. Passport Designs' Master Tracks Pro 5 (£349.95), Mark of the Unicorn's Performer 3.64 (£459) and Opcode Systems' Vision 1.32 (priced at £399.95)) are the big boys on the block. The new kids are Cubase 1.83 (£575), Steinberg's direct port of the heralded German Atari sequencer, and Beyond, a £199 contender from Dr. T's Music Software.
In addition. Passport and Opcode respectively offer Turbo Trax (£89.95) and EZ Vision (£129.95), stripped-down versions of their professional programs, for the hobby and multimedia markets.
When they first appeared, the three major players took very different approaches to their look, feel and operation. But over the years, each of them (as well as the newcomers) has profited from the others' experience, and incorporated the successful elements of the competition. As a result, all the current Mac sequencers share a good number of similar features and functions, and choosing between them can require a long hard look. In the end, one's choice of Macintosh sequencer could easily come down to a matter of taste and feel.
Every one of the Mac sequencers now offers both of the popular approaches to editing: piano roll (see page 94) and event list editing. Some programs — notably Cubase — have expanded these two basic paradigms to provide even more options.
Another feature now common to all is graphic editing of MIDI controllers: you use the computer's mouse to draw and edit MIDI continuous controllers and other parameters (pitch bend, volume, pan, aftertouch). Every program also offers some kind of recordable on-screen fader. Performer, Vision and Cubase have dedicated modules that assign fader functions to controllers, SysEx or other MIDI events; Master Tracks Pro 5 has a volume fader on each track and one master volume fader. All let you record fader moves in real time, giving you rudimentary but effective automated mixdown. Those whose output is assignable can control MIDI-compatible effects units, mixers, synth parameters and so on.
All the Macintosh sequencers, except the junior versions Turbo Trax and EZ Vision, support composing for film and video. Each can lock its timing to tape via SMPTE and MIDI Time Code, allowing the user to create a score at the same time he or she sees the visuals it will accompany.
These sequencers are all mature, fully-featured programs that (with the exception of Beyond) have been performing successfully for at least a few years. No one of them should seriously disappoint anyone. If you look at the trade-offs below, you should be able to find one that fits your working style.
While Mac sequencers have borrowed and improved upon each others' features and functions, there are still clear ways to differentiate among them.
Opcode Systems' Vision is perhaps the most feature-heavy of all the Mac sequencers. It is based on Opcode's original MIDI Mac Sequencer, a pattern-based program that grouped a number of multitrack sequences into a song file and let you play any of the sequences in any order. True to its heritage, Vision too can chain sequences and subsequences in any order within a file. While many people are comfortable with that paradigm, mercifully, Vision can also be used as a digital analogue of a tape deck, where you can record from (and to) any precise point on any track, building up tracks one at a time; one sequence is one song and that's that.
Vision has excelled at developing its graphic editing. Zooming in or way out requires but a few clicks. To hear what you've recorded you can play from any point, solo a track with a click, play any individual note by clicking on it, or scrub your MIDI tracks by command-clicking and dragging. You can select any note, group of notes or several discontiguous groups of notes with the mouse, and a 'select by rule' feature lets you select specific events by typing in parameters. Though you may need to navigate through a series of dialogue boxes, you can describe details of pitch, location, events occurring before or after other events, and a number of complex boolean-style rules (less than, greater than, and so on) to select precisely the MIDI events you want.
You can not only drag selected notes up, down, earlier or later, but modify any selection via menu commands, conveniently duplicated in a pop-up 'Mogrify' menu in each window. This includes transpose, quantise, scale, reverse, and substitute notes, as well as the usual cut, paste and merge functions. Vision handles graphic controller editing with a strip chart in each track window. With all the power of its graphic track windows, however, Vision surprisingly gives you no way to view an entire sequence graphically, making mixing and matching large sections somewhat clumsy.
Vision requires the user to use its proprietary system extension, the Opcode MIDI System (OMS) that lets Vision know the names and channels of all your instruments. You can layer, custom-transpose and map each one, identify multitimbral parts and more.
OMS also gives Vision a 'hot link' to Opcode's universal editor librarian, Galaxy, and automatically updates its instrument patch list when you edit in Galaxy. Vision lets you name drum notes, show 32 faders on screen, play multiple sequences of different time signatures and tempi simultaneously, and channelise notes on input.
If Vision has a weakness, it is perhaps the flip side of its strength. The program's plethora of functions and depth of concept inevitably have an impact on its ease of use. Many operations are far from intuitive, and require the user to know the program in depth, or refer often to the manual. Unfortunately, the manual is not terribly user or process-oriented, and can be frustrating as often as it is helpful. If you need all the features and functions you can get, and use a sequencer often enough to keep the details at the tip of your tongue, Vision may be your cup of tea. EZ Vision is the entry-level version of Vision, offering the same look and feel, but lacking a list editor, SMPTE sync, and multi-channel tracks. It has only 16 channels and 16 tracks, and is not copy protected.
Master Tracks Pro, recently upgraded to version 5, has unequivocally fewer features than Vision (and probably the others, too), yet has maintained a high profile, even among people who make their living with their music. The reason can be inferred by comparing the instruction manuals of the different sequencers — Master Tracks' is seriously slimmer than any of the rest (and also better written). The implicit suggestion here — that the program is easier to learn and use — is correct.
Although Master Tracks Pro pioneered a number of the hippest Mac sequencer features — graphic editing itself, for example — over the years many of them have been incorporated into other programs and in some cases improved upon. At the same time, Pro has proven to be an intuitive and useful sequencer with a proven balance of power and friendliness.
It is the only major Mac sequencer that is not copy protected. Furthermore, with the exception of Performer, Pro's combination of event list and graphic track windows, along with its graphic track overview window offers probably the most informative combination of macro and micro views of your music. The track window not only lets you see all the tracks, but also shows you the name of the instrument patch each track is set to, its initial volume and any labeled markers you place in the sequence.
Operationally, most of the things you'll want to do while composing and editing music are available in Pro. The program allows click-and-drag editing of single notes, and drawing of controller data in specialised windows. It permits very rapid cut, copy, and paste of entire tracks and sections of tracks, has recordable volume faders, allows real-time recording in four modes (overdub, looped overdub, punch-in and looped), uses a straightforward graphic tempo map to let you change tempo at various points and more.
The new version lets you make any track transmit MIDI over multiple channels to layer instruments. A snap-to-grid feature makes dragging notes more accurate, and the length of a stem on each note now tells you the note's velocity and can be edited by dragging.
Pro offers a useful Fit Time command that lets you specify with frame accuracy how long you want a section of music to be. The program automatically adjusts the tempo of the selection to make it the length you require — invaluable where the producer tells you to cut 10 seconds off a piece after you've finished it.
For editing, there is still nothing in the competition that combines the elegant power and intuitive operation of Master Tracks' change filter. Every command in Pro's change menu — Transpose, Strip, Thin, Quantise, Humanise and more — can be simply programmed to have its operation apply to specific events through a single graphic dialogue box. Clicking on a graphic of 16th notes and a handful of check boxes directs the operation.
The downside of Master Track Pro includes its inability to select discontiguous groups of notes, or to click-and-drag more than one note at a time. Nor are note drags undoable. It will also sometimes act anomalously with notes that cross bar lines, creating stuck notes or splitting a note in two.
Passport's 16-track junior version of Pro is called Turbo Trax. It has no event list editing, controller editing, and does not sync to MIDI Time Code.
To say that Mark of the Unicorn's Performer (currently in version 3.64 ) sits on a spectrum between Master Tracks Pro's ease of use and Vision's heavy feature implementation would be an oversimplification.
Nonetheless, there's more than a little truth in that characterisation. Performer's user interface is very close to that of a multitrack tape deck, making it quite easy to get started. The program's consolidated control panel displays the controls you'll use most often in about as compact and easy-to-read window as you'll find. All the shuttle controls are there; start; stop; record; fast forward; rewind; and skip. In addition, the control panel sports 24 function buttons.
Directly below the transport controls, eight buttons control auto return, stop and replay, and chunking buttons let you string a number of sequences together. To the left and right are the tempo control and location counter, below them, 10 more buttons that set loops, and open the track overview window and three kinds of note editing windows.
If this sounds confusing, it's not when you see it. A whole lot of concept and control is made accessible by the way it's designed and arranged. Indeed, on the screen, Performer is undoubtedly the best-looking of the Mac sequencers; its buttons have a 3-dimensional look, and sport graphics that indicates the buttons' function. Significantly, the graphic design of Performer's controls contributes quite strongly to its ease of use, and ultimately the user's productivity. It's no mean feat to cram a few dozen controls onto a computer screen in a way that lets the user find what he or she needs quickly and without distraction. The muse can take her leave at the slightest provocation, and that can be particularly galling when the provocation is an expensive piece of software. Performer's intelligent visuals makes controls quick to find and use.
While Performer began its history as an event list editor, it currently provides a powerful Track overview window that shows track names and a piano roll display of tracks. Master Tracks Pro long held the prize for a similar feature, but the Performer version has an added feature: you can not only click-and-drag elements, but zoom its overview window in and out to set the length of each unit, and perform macro edits on divisions other than just bar lines.
Performer shows you any number of track windows as piano roll, event list, and click-and-draggable music notation. You can also cut, copy and paste in any of these displays, during playback if you wish.
The notation window, while no substitute for a scoring program (it can't show notes shorter than a 16th note, and doesn't show tuplets), is a nice feature for those who prefer that kind of display.
Performer will play any selected section and let you scrub in the event list. The bottom of the notation and piano roll windows display a controller editing grid, akin to Vision's strip chart, where you can draw in, edit and reshape controller data. This feature leads the pack in that it lets you see and edit any or all kinds of controllers in one window. Performer is also the looping champ, allowing you to set as many loops as you want, including unlimited nested loops, anywhere in a sequence.
You can create moving recordable sliders and groups of sliders that control continuous controllers by mouse or MIDI keyboard controller.
The Performer manual used to be clear and useful, but overtime has grown into two books and a few short pamphlets. Finding a specific reference can therefore be a harrowing business.
Cubase, from Steinberg, clearly comes at sequencing from a different perspective. It supports both graphic and event list editing, and gives the user a number of other ways to view MIDI data. It's designed to let you do almost anything, including save and load, while a sequence is playing.
Cubase's tape transport-style window controls record and playback, and a dozen or so read-outs give you song position, tempo, meter, punch in and out status, and so on. An Arrange window lets you enter track information and view a graphic overview of the song.
When you record in real or in step time, you create a Part that appears in the track window as a horizontal bar. To arrange your music, you can move, copy, stack and otherwise manipulate these Parts however you like. Cubase even lets you make a 'ghost copy' of a part, move it, for example, to another track to play another instrument, and changes to the original affect the ghost copy.
Cubase uses four windows for editing MIDI events, each window providing a view optimised for particular performances and editing. The Key window displays a piano-roll grid above a controller pane. The Grid window is an alphanumeric event list, augmented by graphic representations of event lengths and velocity. The Drum window uses diamond-shaped notes and drum machine-style programming that make creating and editing drum tracks a very intuitive process. The Score edit window displays the sequence in standard notation, with all the features for moving, copying and creating notes. Cubase offers tools that let you: draw notes or controller curves; click and drag events to change pitch, attack time, duration or curve parameters; 'kick' an existing event earlier or later; and 'paint' in'a string of notes of specified durations.
Selecting and editing facilities are very flexible, particularly with the program's exceptional Logical Editor. This device not only lets you select any number of adjoining or discontiguous tracks, parts, notes or other MIDI events, but offers powerful boolean selection and editing criteria, pretty much on the order of Vision's. The Logical Editor lets you select any MIDI event: higher, lower, equal or unequal to any value, or inside or outside a selected range, length or position within a measure. You can then apply an operator to the selected events that, across a wide range of values, adds, subtracts, multiplies or divides any one of the events' parameters, including pitch, controller value, attack time or length. You can also change existing events and add new ones that match the Logical Editor's settings.
In addition to standard quantising, Cubase offers a couple of unique and useful functions: Match Quantising and Groove Quantising. Match lets you quantise notes according to the rhythm of any other set of notes. Groove takes another approach: you can create a rhythm template by clicking notes of any duration anywhere onto a one-bar pattern, then quantise any piece of a sequence to that pattern. If you can get a groove you like happening in one bar, you should be able to have it happen anywhere.
Cubase's 192-pulses-per-quarter-note (ppqn) resolution limited the usefulness of these features, but by the time you read this a new version with 394ppqn should be available. This ought to significantly improve the feel of the Groove Quantise parts.
The MIDI Effects Processor is a delay unit that uses sliders to change the timing, velocity and pitch of a sound. It gives you a panel of onscreen sliders to play delayed versions of notes, to create an echo effect. While its resolution and flexibility are more limited than most standard delay units, it can be a useful in certain situations.
Beyond, Dr. T's entry to the pro sequencer market at a price around £200 less than the other professional sequencers, does quite a bit for the money.
Beyond uses 'subsections', rather like Cubase's parts. When you record a pass in a track, it's displayed as a 'section'. You can drag up to 16 entire sequences into and out of the Note Editor as if each were a single object. Each can start at any time, and you can play all of them at once. You can have up to 80 sections in a sequence. A cue feature lets you play or loop play up to four selected sections with just two clicks.
The program allows you to assign names to either of the Mac's serial ports, MIDI channels, instruments and program numbers, then call up this block of data by name, with a single click, to set things up quickly. It will 'chase' MIDI controllers, allow multiple pass recording, and allow you to set its MIDI clock resolution.
Beyond has a full set of transport controls, including Play Section, Play Selection, and Play From Selection. It has good looping functions, and you can set a loop playing to give a musical context for a punch in. Beyond allows step recording with the mouse, or a MIDI keyboard, and provides editable velocity stems on notes.
In addition to letting you filter your edits by such now-standard criteria as duration, velocity and start time, you can also select a group of notes in a sequence,and assign the rhythm in which those notes are played to the selection filter. Any edit you make will then affect only notes that have been recorded in that rhythm, or a subsection of it.
All in all, Beyond is an entirely serviceable sequencer, a good, solid entry-level program that has a good deal of power.
I found navigating by the counter to be slightly constrained, since you can only move by bars (not beats or ticks) by typing in the number in the counter, but this was a minor complaint.
The Macintosh today can produce high-quality digital audio — even allowing CD recording and mastering — via a number of applications and hardware configurations.
In its own right, any Mac can sample sound at an 8-bit resolution, rendering audio somewhere between telephone and analogue cassette quality. To handle 16-bit sounds the Mac needs additional hardware.
All Macs can record and play two channels of 8-bit, 22kHz sampled sound from RAM. Older Macs require MacRecorder to use this feature, though some of the newer Macs (including the LC, Classic II, and IIsi) have the necessary mic and digitisation hardware on-board. The basic 8-bit sound is OK for voice, but not so hot for music. Macromedia's SoundEdit software lets you edit 8-bit sounds surprisingly well, allowing you to splice, filter, compress, reverse, reverberate, or envelope the pitch of a sound file, among other things.
All Macs after the II have a chip that, with System 6.0.7 or later, can play four channels of 8-bit sound. Passport's Sound Exciter functions like a software sample-player that can play up to four simultaneous samples from RAM, over a range of pitches and volumes, triggered by a sequencer or MIDI keyboard. Sound Exciter includes a library of instruments and 'orchestras'.
Apple recently approved 8-bit Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) files that can be played directly from a hard disk. Two Passport programs take advantage of this: AudioTrax and Alchemy 2.5. AudioTrax adds two channels of audio to the Trax sequencer. Alchemy is a 16-bit, professional sample-editing program that now also edits sounds recorded by AudioTrax, providing a lot of power at a reasonable price (see below).
Ever since Digidesign introduced the Sound Accelerator — a card for the SE and Mac II — Macs have brought pro-level, CD-quality digital audio to more people than ever before.
The current Sound Accelerator — Sound Accelerator II — is the heart of a £3,995 hard disk digital audio mastering and editing system that can record and play back two independent channels of digital audio. The card is based on a single Motorola 56001 Digital Signal Processing (DSP) chip that's 65% more powerful than the original, and offers such functions as time compression and expansion and real time equalisation. Sound Tools includes a hardware digitiser called the Audio Interface, which has four balanced analogue inputs and outputs and both AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital I/O. The system comes with the Sound Designer II audio editing program that lets you modify, edit and re-arrange the hard disk audio with speed and precision.
The original Sound Tools gained immense popularity. The new version offers more capability at a lower price and promises to give even more studios professional sound at a not-so-high price. If you think you'll be happy with four tracks of digital audio, Sound Tools II is your system, but serious multitrackers should check out Pro Tools.
Digidesign's Pro Tools is an expandable multitrack digital audio editing and mixing system which now supports up to 16 channels of audio. It consists of a NuBus card, the same Audio Interface used by Sound Tools II, and two pieces of software. The Pro Tools card has two 56001 chips, giving double the power of the single-chip Sound Tools II card. In essence this gives you more DSP per channel than Sound Tools II. Right out of the box, a single Pro Tools system gives you 4-track multitracking, editing and mixdown. To expand, up to four Pro Tools cards can be installed in any Mac II with enough slots, and each card connects to its own Audio Interface.
The two programs that control Pro Tools are Pro Deck and Pro Edit. The first is used to record the sound and eventually mix it. The second is used in between those two processes to edit the sounds: moving pieces of audio earlier, later or from track to track; trimming audio; and scrubbing. With a single system, you can record up to 32 tracks, although only four can play simultaneously. The 32 tracks let you have alternate takes on hand, and shift playback from one track to another instantly.
A basic 4-track Pro Tools system is £6,122.97 and does not include Sound Designer II (optimised for stereo and single track editing). Expandability is the key to Pro Tools, aimed at those wanting to build a digital multitracking system.
Audiomedia, for the Mac II family, is a less expensive version of Sound Tools that consists of just one card and a specialised version of Sound Designer II (also called Audiomedia). The card has built-in digital audio convertors, and RCA jack inputs and outputs. Audiomedia's fidelity is very nearly as good as the original Sound Accelerator (not version II), but cannot use the high-end digitisers available to the Sound Accelerator. In addition, its software cannot exchange sounds recorded on Audiomedia with MIDI samplers (however this feature is available from both Alchemy and Sound Designer II SK).
Passport's Alchemy is the premier RAM-based sample-editing program, boasting a brilliant user interface and a lot of editing power. It focuses on being a librarian/editor for MIDI samplers, and can get and send samples to essentially all of them. Alchemy performs sophisticated DSP, enveloping, filtering, cut-and-paste editing and other chores. Passport may be converting Alchemy into a disk-based program in the future.
The Holy Grail of computer-based music is to integrate MIDI sequencing with digital audio.
Opcode pulls it off with Studio Vision — Vision enhanced with powerful audio recording and editing features that use standard Digidesign hardware. It has all the MIDI sequencing power of Vision, and adds two tracks of digital audio that work in very similar ways. You can drag audio earlier and later, cut and paste it, and perform many other editing functions as easily as you can on MIDI data. You can have up to 16 tracks of audio in a sequence, but only play two simultaneously.
Studio Vision features the same non-destructive editing as the Digidesign software — where cuts, copies and so forth just move 'pointers' around in the file — and hot links to Sound Designer II for detailed editing. It's also file-compatible with Audiomedia and Alchemy.
By itself, the Sound Tools II system offers only two audio tracks, but an upcoming version of Studio Vision and other anticipated software enhance this. Both Mark of the Unicorn and Steinberg have promised releases of their own MIDI/audio amalgams, called, respectively, Digital Performer and Cubase Audio. Either could be available when you read this, though Digital Performer in particular has been 'just around the corner' for some time. Digital Performer will work with the Digidesign hardware or MOTU's proprietary Waveboard, a card without analogue-to-digital convertors (a DAT machine is pressed into service to provide the conversion facility).
All these programs will enable Sound Tools II to record and play four tracks of audio, as well as MIDI, and should be worth the wait.
Digidesign's Deck is an inexpensive program that makes a Mac with Sound Tools or Audiomedia a 4-track digital recording studio, with automated mixing, equalisation, and effects for each channel. Deck also includes a rudimentary MIDI sequencer that plays MIDI Files created with other sequencers and records and plays back MIDI tracks simultaneous with its digital audio. Deck only records one track at a time with Sound Tools, two with Audiomedia. In addition, its four audio tracks require double the hard disk storage space. You can further edit Deck files with Sound Designer II or Alchemy, and import them back into Deck for playback.
Q-Sheet A/V, an earlier Digidesign program used principally in audio for video, also has some MIDI capabilities.
Other Mac music products include Dr. T's new universal Librarian, X-Or, which offers some wonderful solutions for storing and editing synth sounds. Sonic Solutions makes a digital noise elimination system, as well as a CD mastering and editing system. In addition, Digital Dynamics, Symetrix, and New England Digital use a Mac front end for their high-ticket multitrack digital recording systems.
Feature by Tim Tully
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