Matthew Vosburgh reports on this unassuming little program that turns any Macintosh computer into a powerful sound sampler.
Matthew Vosburgh reports on this unassuming little program that turns any Macintosh computer into a powerful sound sampler with sophisticated editing facilities.
I think we can all remember the days when sampling was the province of the extremely rich, and machines like the Fairlight were held in awe by us people whose bank balances only ever reach five figures when we're way overdrawn. Luckily enough, sampling has become much more accessible since then, a case in point being the MacRecorder system from Farallon Computing of California. It's a hardware/software combination that turns any Macintosh into a powerful sampling and sound editing device for around £175.
The MacRecorder hardware is a small grey box with an attached cable which plugs into one of the Mac's two serial ports. It is fitted with a level control, a built-in microphone (which is usable but not exactly state-of-the-art), and mini-jack inputs for external mic and line sources. While this box handles the input, the sound output is taken care of by the Macintosh itself, since all Mac's are capable of replaying 8-bit sampled sounds through either the Mac's built-in speaker or the audio output socket on the back of the computer. Once you've plugged the box in, which takes all of ten seconds, you can load up the software and go.
MacRecorder comes with a demonstration disk and two different sound sampling programs, HyperSound and SoundEdit. HyperSound is a very basic tape recorder type program which runs within HyperCard (this kind of HyperCard sub-program is called a Stack). Although HyperSound is a well put together program, its facilities are so primitive that I think 90% of users will ditch it in favour of the other program in the box - SoundEdit.
SoundEdit is a self-contained program which utilises the type of user interface that was pioneered by Digidesign's 'Sound Designer' program. Starting up SoundEdit displays an empty sample window labelled 'Untitled'. When you click on the Input Level icon, the window starts to display the incoming sound in real time so you can set the record level. The Mac's speaker also plays the sound, so you also get a preview of what effect the conversion process has. There is one extremely clever feature - clicking on the bargraph icon shows you a real-time Spectrum Analysis display of the input signal, which can help you decide what sample rate is necessary.
SoundEdit supports four different sampling rates: 5kHz, 7kHz, 11kHz, and 22kHz. The highest rate is necessary for any sort of quality work, but the lower frequencies are still useful if disk space is in short supply and sound quality is not that important - if you're making samples for use with HyperCard, say. There is also a Compressed option, which samples at 22kHz but then stores the sound in a compacted form, so it only takes up an eighth of the space. The reduction in sound quality that this produces, however, is completely unacceptable. I found myself continually sampling at the highest rate with the compression switched off, as this still gave me over 33 seconds of sample time on my 1 Megabyte Macintosh SE (with the RAM cache turned off).
Once you've got things set, you click on the Microphone icon to start sampling. Sampling always begins immediately - there is no facility for setting a threshold level which has to be reached before recording starts. You're shown a graph on screen, while sampling, which indicates the sample time being used up. Recording automatically stops when the memory is full, although you can stop earlier by moving the mouse or clicking its button.
Once you've captured your sound, you're immediately shown it on screen for editing. Like Sound Designer or Alchemy, the program lets you select parts of the sample with the mouse, and you can then Cut, Paste, Delete or just Play them. Trimming the beginning or end of a sample is just a matter of dragging across the bit you don't want, and hitting the Delete key, which takes no time at all. You can also home in on any part of the sound by dragging the triangular indicator in the Zoom box, which can vary the display from showing minutes at a time to showing a tiny fraction of a second in great detail.
Choosing the Set Pitches option gives you a six-octave keyboard on screen, so you can play the sample at various speeds and set the playback pitch you require. You can set a loop in the sample by selecting an area and getting Set Loopback from the Edit pull-down menu.
You can change the loop's start and end points while it's playing, in increments as small as one sample, but it would still be nice to see functions like crossfade looping and zero-crossing detection added here. Good loops are certainly possible to achieve at the moment, but they're not as easy to perform as they are with some other programs.
The most fun part of SoundEdit is the Effects menu, which lets you dramatically alter a sound in various diverse ways. You first mark the part of the sample you want to process (you can select the whole sound by double-clicking anywhere on the waveform), and then pull down the effect you want. The effects provided in version 1.0 are:
AMPLIFY: This lets you alter the volume of any part of the sound after it has been sampled. The program asks you for a percentage, so entering 200% will make the sound twice as loud, 50% makes it half as loud, etc. Very useful for adjusting individual words of a long vocal sample to the right level. Entering amplification values which are too large can make the sample clip, but as with all the effects, you can always Undo and try again.
BACKWARDS: This reverses the selected part of the waveform. Repeatedly selecting random overlapping parts of a sample and turning them backwards, can quickly produce some really weird noises.
BENDER: Lets you define a pitch bend envelope for the sample. This pitch envelope is shown against a picture of the sample for reference, and is initially a straight line. By dragging any point on the 'elasticated' line, however, you can quickly produce a complex envelope of any shape you want. You can choose between a bend range of one or two octaves, depending on how extreme you want the effect to be.
ECHO: You enter the Echo Delay and Strength (a percentage again, 100% being an echo as loud as the original sound). The program then recalculates the sample with the repeat echoes added. With long delay times, it helps if you add some blank space to the end of the sample first, to make room for the echoes to decay in. It can produce effects ranging from bath-tub reverb to Grand Canyon type ambience.
ENVELOPE: Lets you define a volume envelope for the sound. Again, you can just drag out any point on the line, bending it quickly to an extremely complex shape. Like all these effects, it works by actually recalculating the sample, so if you don't like the result you must Undo straight away.
FILTER: This is a digital 5-band graphic equaliser on which you can even move the boundaries between bands just by dragging the dividing lines. This module came in very handy for adding extra treble to long samples that had been resampled at 11 kHz to save memory. Also, you can get great effects by whacking the bass up full and creating a totally bizarre kind of digital distortion.
FLANGER: A preset subtle flange, which sounded very good on things like white noise and acoustic guitar.
PING PONG: A stereo auto-panner kind of effect, which only works on stereo samples. Although only the Macintosh II can actually replay samples in stereo, you can make and edit stereo samples on any Mac with SoundEdit, as long as you've got two MacRecorders to input them with (using both the serial ports).
SILENCE: Turns all the sample values in the selected area to zero. Useful if you want to remove something from the middle of a long sample without changing the recording's overall length or rhythm.
SMOOTH: A fairly strong preset low-pass filter which can make heavily clipped waveforms sound a bit less appalling.
SWAP CHANNELS: Swaps the left and right sides of a stereo sample. Useful if you're editing stereo samples on a computer which isn't a Mac II, because you can only ever hear the left channel on ordinary Macs.
As well as all this useful digital signal processing stuff, the Effects menu also has three options which actually create sound. These are:
NOISE: This produces a burst of white noise of variable length and volume.
FM SYNTHESIS: Basically, a sine wave oscillator which is pitch modulated by a sine wave LFO. The variables are Carrier Frequency, Modulation Frequency, Deviation Frequency (a rather confusing way to say Modulation Depth), Amplitude (of the final waveform), and Duration (of the final sound). This module proved capable of generating all manner of strange bleeps, buzzes and sirens. Don't expect it to sound like a DX7 though.
TONE GENERATOR: Lets you produce pure sine, square or triangle waves of any pitch, volume and duration.
Another surprisingly advanced aspect of SoundEdit is the Mixer page. This lets you select up to four different samples (or sections of samples) as inputs to the mixer, which can then combine them all with an amazing degree of control. You can set how the volume of each sample changes during the mix, and you can drag individual samples backwards against each other in time. You can preview the mix (without the volume changes) and then, when you're satisfied, you click on the Mix button and SoundEdit creates a new sound file containing the result. You can even send various overlapping parts of the same sample to the mixer as different inputs, and then time-shift and crossfade them to produce some really original sounds.
All in all, the MacRecorder system is a very versatile package. If you're looking for a way to digitise sounds for use in HyperCard or Studio Session, then this system is it. From the educational point of view, a Macintosh and MacRecorder together make a teaching tool as useful in the classroom as a Fairlight or a Synclavier would be. As a sound postproduction tool, it is capable of doing almost anything that its 8-bit, 22kHz sampling rate can handle. A lot of work can be done more cheaply and quickly with SoundEdit than any other way, and will still sound great in the mix.
Whatever way you look at it, MacRecorder is a compulsory purchase for any Macintosh owner who reads a magazine like this.
£175 plus VAT.
Computers Unlimited, (Contact Details).
Review by Matthew Vosburgh
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