Mac Audio Utility
Kendall Wrightson takes a look at Opcode's Audioshop, affordable Mac software for audio CD-ROM track sequencing, entry level sound file recording/editing, and sound resource conversion.
The user interface for most Mac software consists of menus, a toolbar full of icons, and a window in which to work. However, an increasing number of audio and video applications sport colourful, 3D graphics. Audioshop presents a particularly striking front panel of an audio compact disc player, complete with power-on button and a headphone socket.
In the US, Opcode's virtual CD player can be purchased for $49 — 'widgit' territory. We Brits, however, are asked to part with the very un-widgit like sum of £69.95 (inc. VAT). Fortunately, hiding behind Audioshop's striking interface are facilities worthy of the title 'Utility' for which £69.95 is a reasonable price (provided you're unaware of Audioshop's Stateside cost).
Ownership of a SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) CD-ROM player (Compact Disc Read Only Memory) has, until recently, been difficult to justify due to the high cost of hardware and a scarcity of useful software. However, the past two years have seen average CD-ROM prices fall from an overdraft-stretching £1,000 to a more wallet-friendly £250. With a little haggling, you can snap up Apple's CD-150 for £250 — this compares favourably with non-Apple drives, since the former is bundled with a QuickTime Starter Kit and several other CD titles including an interactive version of Douglas Adams' excellent Last Chance to See book.
Over the next few months, the 150 will be further discounted as Apple's new CD-300 finds its way on to dealers' shelves. The stand-alone version of the CD-300 (which is shipped with 10 CD-ROM titles) has a suggested retail price of £395. The £325 internal version — the 300i — fits snugly into the Quadra 900/950, the new Mac IIvi and IIvx and (if you live in the States), the Performa 600 (a cheaper version of the IIvx — see Apple Notes).
The CD-300 is twice as fast as the 150, offering access times comparable to hard disks, its performance born of a need to achieve smooth direct from CD (QuickTime) video replay. QuickTime is the fundamental software component of Apple's interactive multimedia concept, a system that is intended to rival Commodore's CDTV and Phillips/Sony's CD-I (Compact Disc Interactive) systems (see Mac Notes June '92).
As the front end to an audio CD player (in this case a SCSI-connected CD-ROM), Audioshop is a more sophisticated (and prettier) version of Apple's own CD Remote desk accessory, one of a number of small drivers and system extensions that are supplied with all Apple CD-ROM players. Like CD Remote, once a disc is playing, it's possible to carry on working in another application. In Audioshop, the CD graphic can be set aside (collapsed into a animated graphic that indicates the CD is playing). Clicking on the collapsed icon brings the Audioshop CD player back into view.
Audioshop offers all the usual audio CD transport controls, including a track select keypad and separate buttons for the four Repeat Modes: play current track once then stop; cycle current track; play to end of disc; cycle round all tracks. The Display button toggles between three display modes: Remain (where the Single clock shows the track time remaining and the Total Clock shows the total time remaining); Lap (where Single = elapsed time of current track and Total = elapsed time of tracks played so far); and Time (where Single = how long Audioshop has been running, and Total = time of day).
Audioshop's Random and track sequencing (programming) facilities are accessed by clicking the front panel Playlist button, an action that changes the Display Box into a scroll box (containing a list of CD tracks), and adds seven new buttons; Random, Sort, Edit, Player, Add (a Playlist) 'A' and 'B'. The latter two offer loopback points as found on most domestic CD players. Randomise randomises the current Playlist, while Sort lists Playlists tracks in order of name, type, size... or one of seven other categories. To aid Playlist programming, the Playlist Box can be 'Pulled' out as a separate window.
Unlike CD-I ready audio CDs, standard audio CDs do not contain information regarding disc and track titles, so when a disc is inserted, Audioshop asks you to enter a name. Tracks are named by highlighting a Track, pressing return, typing in a name and pressing return again.
With the Playlist window expanded to full size, the CD transport controls are hidden (unless you are using a large monitor). However, the player front panel can be zoomed into a window that contains only the transport controls, and tracks can be played by double-clicking their names. A new player is created for each new disc inserted.
Track programming is achieved by dragging tracks to new locations within the Playlist Window. One of my favourite pastimes is putting together compilation tapes, and Audioshop is ideal for this application, calculating the total time of the current Playlist in the Display window (when Remain mode is selected). Without multiple CD-ROM players, it's necessary to pause the the recording machine (cassette, CD-R, DAT, DCC, MiniDisc...) as Audioshop asks for the relevant disc. Once a Playlist is complete, it can be saved as a Playlist file. (Playlists can be saved as text files too).
It's worth noting that Audioshop's front panel volume control has no effect on the CD-ROM's volume, and its VU meters will display a simulated level unless you have routed your CD-ROM's audio output via the Mac's own line in sockets, which are only fitted on the most recent Macs.
Unlike line in jacks, most Macs since 1990 have been fitted with a microphone mini-jack input socket and a strange looking plastic microphone. Without additional applications software, recordings can only be edited using the simple waveform editor in HyperCard 2.1 (with which all new Macs are supplied). However, editing is very slow, and no cue or playlisting facility is available, so the HyperCard editor is limited to trimming start and end points.
Like HyperCard's Audio Editor, Audioshop's recording time is dependent on available RAM. The record set-up dialogue box offers a choice of 11kHz and 22kHz sampling rates, and compression ratios of 3:1 and 6:1. Compression refers to file size not dynamic range, the purpose being to reduce the amount of hard disk space required when recordings are saved. With the default memory partition of 1024k, Audioshop offers 27 seconds at 22kHz. Recording level is automatic.
The 22kHz sample rate delivers a 10kHz bandwidth, and the Mac's 8-bit resolution offers only 48dB (max) signal-to-noise ratio. Sound quality through the Mac's built-in speaker is, of course, unspeakably naff, but when plugged into an amplifier and a decent pair of speakers, it isn't that bad. Interestingly enough, Opcode claim that Audioshop will be compatible with future Macs offering 16-bit stereo audio. It's a shame these Macs didn't appear back in October when the Falcon030 was launched, but that's another story.
In the version of Audioshop I received (v1.03), accessing the record button is only possible by (take a deep breath) accessing the Playlist Window, clicking Add, loading in any sound — say a Mac system sound — which adds an edit button, clicking the Edit button, which opens the edit window, which contains (at long last) the record button. I strongly suspect that this lengthy procedure will change in future versions — how about a front panel button labelled 'Record' for instance?
Audioshop plays sound files (which are called 'Tracks', just like audio CD tracks) direct from disk, so there is no limit on the number of tracks that can be sequenced in a Playlist. However, you must have 600k of free memory to ensure continuous playback, otherwise Audioshop may need to pause playback while loading the next segment of audio into RAM. Opcode also suggest that some System Extensions — particularly file sharing — may interrupt playback and should therefore be disabled.
As stated earlier, sound files can be recorded via the Mac's own microphone (or external devices such as MacRecorder) or added (via the Add button). Sound files can also be leached from system and application files. The currently supported audio file formats are Resource (standard Mac sounds, the sort that play if you double click them under System 7.x), AIFF (the Audio Interchange File Format, a general purpose, cross-platform format), HyperCard, (MacroMind) Director, and QuickTime audio tracks. Audio files loaded in one format can be 'Saved As' any other, which is a very useful utility for multimedia users.
Playlists can contain both CD-ROM audio tracks and Mac sound files located on any type of disk, though to record a mixed file Playlist to one source (ie. a tape recorder), you'll need a mixer to combine the CD audio and Mac audio.
Having recorded a new Track, or opened an existing sound file (or Track), the sound's amplitude over time is displayed in a box within the resizeable Edit window. The time scale (the horizontal axis) can be changed, by dragging the Zoom Dial (situated at the bottom left hand comer of the Edit Window). Its effect is instantaneous — no waiting for screen redraw.
Although Audioshop can playback Playlists of any size from disk (as long as 600K of RAM is available), long Playlists may not load if insufficient RAM is available, since the entire sound must reside in RAM when editing audio.
The toolbox is situated below the Power button (which should be labelled 'Close' — this is taking the virtual CD player interface too far). The dotted rectangle is a selection tool that allows a section of the sound to be highlighted (the length of the highlighted section being displayed in the length box), whereupon it can be Cut or Copied (from the Edit Menu). Cut/Copied audio can then be Pasted into the desired location, by moving the cursor to the desired insertion point.
The remaining editing tools are Envelope (for fade in/out and amplification/attenuation); (pitch) Bender; Echo; Vibrato; Flange; Reverse; Crop (deletes the selected portion — an alternative to Cut); and Swap channel, a command that relates only to stereo recordings made using stereo input devices (when a stereo recording is made, both channels are displayed in the Edit Window).
The effects tools settings can be edited, but their parameters are not intended to be set taken too seriously. Settings for the flanger, for example, range from Woosh to Whoooosh!
Back in the Edit window, the playback rate of non-CD audio tracks can set to any value between 1 kHz through 65kHz by selecting values from the Playback menu. Another Edit window menu item — Sequence Track — allows the insertion of pauses between tracks, and allows any track to be repeated a set number of times.
So, apart from being a sophisticated CD remote control (for those that own CD-ROM players), and a useful Mac sound file editing/processing device, for what serious applications can Audioshop be used? Editing voice mail is the most immediately obvious, though Opcode's manual tends to wax lyrical about audio visual presentations, family slide shows and the like. These are possible, but with no synchronisation, the possibilities are somewhat limited. Sequencing songs together is possible with enough RAM, though with a 48dB signal-to-noise ratio and 10kHz bandwidth there isn't really much point.
Multimedia authors will relish Audioshop's file conversion and editing facilities when creating animation and QuickTime movies, but Audioshop's biggest market is undoubtedly education, since its attractive interface and simple operation will appeal to students of all ages who, in the process of having fun, will learn much about sound (and the Mac). For the average SOS-reading Mac musician, Audioshop will probably be used for widgiting around — ie. having fun or wasting time, depending on your point of view!
£69.95 inc VAT.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
Review by Kendall Wrightson
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