Hands On: Apple Macintosh Computers
New machines and lower prices have brought the Apple Macintosh within the reach of ever more musicians. David Mellor is your guide on a first-timer's tour of Mac-land.
The history of personal computers, as we musicians know them today, started with the introduction of two very important items of equipment. One is still with us today in a very recognisable form, and one is still with us in spirit. These two computers are the Atari ST and the Amstrad PC1512. Maybe you don't remember the Amstrad, but its claim to fame is that it was the first IBM-compatible computer that the average man or woman in the street could afford. This was a personal computer that came seriously configured for hundreds of pounds rather than thousands, inspiring the cost-cutting competition that has led to IBM-compatible computers (or Windows-compatible as we may now call them) at truly reasonable prices.
The other of my two examples, the Atari ST, is also an example of sensible pricing. The ST, when it came out, was a very powerful computer, and although the games oriented marketing led some people to believe that it wasn't to be taken seriously its longevity in the market and acceptance at the highest levels of music making show that it is a tool for grown ups as well as a toy.
The problem with IBM-compatible and Atari computers, a problem which is still with us now, is that they are not truly user friendly. 'User friendliness' is a term which has been grossly abused over the years by purveyors of computer hardware and software to the point of being meaningless. I think most readers of this magazine will have leaped the hurdle of so-called computer literacy, but there are many highly intelligent people in the world who don't take advantage of what computers can offer because they are seen to be difficult to use. Now if you are an IBM-compatible, Windows or Atari user you will be violently disagreeing with me at this point. But I used to be an IBM-compatible owner, an Atari owner and a Windows user myself. Then I discovered the Mac. I used to pride myself on how confidently I could navigate the hazardous waters of MS-DOS (if you don't know what that is, count yourself lucky; my advice is never to allow yourself to be troubled by it!). I used to think that the operating system of the Atari was quite sensible and straightforward. I used to think that those people who raved on and on about how wonderful Macs were were total idiots who had somehow undergone a type of religious conversion. I was wrong on all three counts.
The problem with Macs used to be that they were terribly expensive. A Macintosh SE, such as the one I now use for writing, graphics and music sequencing, used to cost in the region of £3,000 when it was a current model. This seemed to me like an awful lot of money for a computer that uses the same processor as an Atari ST! Fortunately for me, the time when I discovered the Mac coincided with a realigning of Apple's new equipment prices and a consequent drop in second-hand values. You can now pick up a Mac SE for £450 or less. There has even been a recent offer (short lived unfortunately) by some dealers to sell a Mac Classic (the current near equivalent of the SE) for roughly the same price. All this means that you can now buy a sensible computer for the price of one that really hasn't been properly thought through.
I ought, before I continue, to tell you two things. The first is that I am going to concentrate on the types of Mac that you are most likely to come across or may want to acquire at a reasonable secondhand price — the SE, Classic and LC — rather than outdated versions such as the 512 or Mac Plus, or the more exotic and costly varieties. The second is that if you want a computer that will be suitable for complex graphics or large spreadsheets, as well as music sequencing and word processing, then these basic Macs are a bit on the slow side. Also, recording 16-bit digital audio onto a hard disk is still a bit of a grey area at this price level. You can't do it yet with a small Mac, but who knows what new hardware add-ons may be just around the corner?
Apple's thinking in introducing the first Mac nearly a decade ago was that it should be seen as much as possible as an 'appliance', in much the same way as we would see a photocopier or fax machine as an appliance to do a simple task. The small Mac comes with everything for the user's convenience and, provided you have software at the ready, you can just plug in and go. The main unit of the SE and Classic contains the processor, hard and floppy drives and a small-but-usable 9" screen.
The size of the screen used to be perhaps the main barrier to changing over to the Mac (apart from price) but it's amazing what you can do even in a compact work area like this. If you are writing a letter, or anything destined for a sheet of A4 paper, then you can comfortably fit in a 6.25-inch line of text, which just happens to be an A4 page less the margins. For music sequencing, obviously the more information you can fit on the screen at a time the better, but I run Cubase quite happily, and I can even look upon the small screen as an advantage because it doesn't dominate my work area. On the SE and Classic, the screen is only available in mono without any shades of grey, pretty much like an Atari hi-res monitor. Music software designers have commented that colour may be pretty, but it slows down the task of redrawing the screen. I like colour as much as anyone but I know where my priorities lie. The LC can be supplied with grey-scale or colour screens.
Around the back of the SE and Classic are the all-important ports. You may find one or two ADB ports according to model. ADB stands for Apple Desktop Bus, and in here you plug your QWERTY keyboard and mouse. You can, if you need or wish to, plug the mouse into the second ADB port in the keyboard. Some protected software packages use ADB equipped dongles.
SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) ports are becoming more common on computers, samplers, and indeed all kinds of equipment. On the Mac it has a different type of connector than we are used to, but you can buy an adaptor from your high street computer store (at a cost of around £25!). I use my SCSI port, and adaptor, to plug into an external optical disk drive which is shared with an Akai S1100. If you ever have a conversation with your computer-owning friends that drifts to the question of what is the optimum size for a hard disk, I can confirm that having 300MB on line is sheer luxury (although I'm still searching for a SCSI switcher so I don't have to replug between the Mac and the Akai).
Further along the rear panel are two ports for modem and printer. These are also used to connect MIDI interfaces — more on this later. The thing you have to know about Macs is that absolutely everything hardware-wise is different to IBM-compatibles and Ataris. Do you want to use your existing printer when you change to a Mac? You are probably out of luck. I was fortunate enough to have a printer for which an AppleTalk interface is available (at a price), but if you want to print then you'll need something like an Apple StyleWriter or Hewlett Packard DeskWriter (list prices £295 and £425 respectively). Further up the scale, of interest to those who want to print music scores, is the Apple Personal LaserWriter NT at £695. In some respects, however, it's more than worth putting up with the total lack of peripheral compatibility, and occasional higher pricing — Apple have some things better sorted out than other computer manufacturers, and if a product is advertised as being Mac compatible then you are unlikely to have any problems getting it to work.
The floppy disk drive needs a mention since this is also a Mac-peculiarity. The Mac formats floppy disks in a completely different way to IBM-compatible and Atari computers. (Point of interest: an IBM-compatible MS-DOS formatted disk will work in an Atari drive, but the reverse isn't true.) There are three Mac disk formats — 400k, 800k, and 1.44MB on high density disks. If your Mac has a SuperDrive, as fitted to all the newer machines, then you can use the high density disks and also read IBM-compatible disks (with the aid of a program called Apple File Exchange, which comes free with your Mac; other software is also available to handle the same task).
If you don't have a SuperDrive then you are isolated in Mac land, which isn't all that terrible, but it's something you need to be aware of. If you plan to exchange data with other Mac users then the 800k format is the one to use. (I doubt if you would want to exchange data with anyone who hasn't had their old 400k drive updated!).
If you haven't used a Mac before then you won't believe how simple and sensible it is. Comparing it to MS-DOS or Windows is like comparing a CD player to a wind-up gramophone. Even people who can't change a fuse can use it — and don't let any computer nerd tell you this isn't the way things should be. The Atari operating system is fairly easy to use and is similar to the Mac, but once you have used the Mac you'll see how many features Atari had to leave out to get round Apple's patents and copyrights.
Figure 1 shows an opening screen — the desktop — similar to what you will see on the SE or Classic you have connived your way into experimenting with. At the top left is the expected menu bar. At the top right is a clock which is a software addition to my system and appears in most programs, but not Cubase (but who cares about time when you're making music?). The Mac icon next to the clock shows that MultiFinder is active, which means that you can have more than one program active at the same time. (Knowledgeable readers will have noticed that this computer is running System 6.0.7 rather than System 7 — I have explained why in a sidebar).
Beneath these are two icons for hard disks; one is the internal disk and the other is my removable optical disk, which the Mac regards as a huge floppy. If I had been using a floppy disk then that would appear on the desktop too. (The "DM" in the icons is there because I used Disk Manager software to install the optical disk — I didn't have them personally monogrammed!). Any disk can be named simply by clicking on its icon with the mouse and typing in the new name. You can edit the existing name by clicking on that.
Disk management is a strong feature; the floppy disk drive is motorised so once you put the disk in, the system takes over for you. If the software wants you to change disks, you will be prompted for the new disk by its name, and the wrong one won't do. If you eject a disk yourself (by pressing Apple-E, ie. by pressing 'E' as you hold down the Apple key), its grey outline will remain, and also the outlines of any windows you had opened from that disk. You can have several of these outlines on the desktop at any time to assist your disk navigation. To eject a disk and remove the outline, drag the disk icon to the wastebasket — note that this doesn't erase the disk, though you would be forgiven for thinking that it might.
You'll notice from the two screens on p44 that the icons are rather more meaningful than those that appear on the screen of the Atari. What's more, you can move them round to anywhere on the screen. If you don't like icons then you can view items in a window by a text list, as shown in the screen on this page, which gives you all the data you need including the last modification date (you can access the date of creation using the 'Get Info' command in the 'File' menu). I'll leave you to speculate why three of my files are dated 2nd January 1904!
Interesting features about the Mac's windows include the fact that the scroll bars scroll properly (not like on earlier Atari operating systems), and that if you click the full size icon at the top right, then the window remembers the size and position it had and returns correctly when you click the icon again. Perhaps the most important feature is that, as you can see, file names can be up to 31 characters in length, and can include capital letters and spaces. This one simple feature, in my opinion, elevates the Mac way above other computers because I can see from the file name alone what the file actually is. I currently have over a thousand files on my hard disk and I really do prefer the 'Fast delicate classical' of Figure 3 to 'FSTDLCLS.SNG', which would be the equivalent in Windows or on an Atari.
One thing that every computer ought to have these days is MIDI In and Out, like the Atari ST and more recent Atari Falcon. The Mac has none. Yes, none. There is a reason, which goes like this...
When Apple first set up as computer manufacturers they were contacted by a company called Apple Corps, a music publishing company owned by, amongst others, Paul McCartney. Apple Computer and Apple Corps came to an agreement that as long as Apple Computer stuck to computing, and didn't get involved in music, they could continue to use Apple as part of their company name. Of course, this didn't seem like a problem at the time, but along came MIDI and music sequencing, and it would have been really nice to have had a MIDI socket or two on Macintoshes, but there was that agreement. Even though no Apple computer has had a MIDI socket, Apple Corps were still concerned that the computers were being used for music sequencing via external interfaces and third party software. However, after a lengthy and expensive legal wrangle the two companies have made an undisclosed settlement. So, will we ever see an Apple computer with a MIDI socket? I wonder...
The lack of inbuilt MIDI circuitry doesn't at all hinder the Mac's usefulness for music sequencing. In fact, once you get beyond the basic stage, then the Atari's single MIDI In and Out are not really adequate. MIDI interfaces for the Mac are not well advertised and, I discovered, not many dealers know everything about how they can be used. Having taken good advice, I started sequencing on my Mac with Cubase 1.8.3 and two Opcode MIDI Translators (MIDI interfaces), one for the printer port and one for the modem port. Using two MIDI interfaces in this way means either that you get 32 MIDI channels to play with, or that you can keep MIDI note data and MIDI Time Code completely separate, which is always a good idea. (To get all 32 channels playing complex music simultaneously you may need something faster than an SE, Classic or LC, by the way).
Since my early Mac sequencing days with the MIDI Translators I have graduated to a JL Cooper SyncMaster which contains two interfaces, a SMFTE-to-MTC convertor, and switches so I can still conveniently use my printer and modem. If anyone wants to buy a one-owner MIDI Translator, or perhaps a pair, then please get in touch! The point I made about MTC, to explain a little further, is that you shouldn't try to mix it with note data in a MIDI cable. Mixing it with notes in the cable that goes between the interface and the Mac is OK because the data flows at a much higher speed.
It seems that many people feel there is some sort of barrier to using the Mac in a MIDI system, purely because manufacturers of MIDI interfaces don't make their products sufficiently well known. My advice is to contact SOS advertisers who deal in Mac computers, they'll get you up and running with the minimum of fuss.
If I were an advertising copywriter I would probably say something like "One day all computers will be this way". I'm not, however, and in any case it's obviously not true. There is still too much of a hurdle for newcomers to leap, still a lot you can get wrong if you are not careful, or if you delve into files you should leave alone, and it still crashes from time to time. One thing I am sure of is that whatever the truly user-friendly computers of the future are like, they will be more like the Mac than anything else around at the moment.
Feature by David Mellor
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!