Too Good To Be True?
MIDI and hard disk recording on the Mac for only £260? It sounds too good to be true, but Paul Wiffen pinches himself and finds he is awake!
Every so often a product comes along for review which is so much fun that you forget that you have to write something about it. This is what happened to me with AudioTrax. As I sit here writing I am tempted to drop all the cold clinical reviewer's analysis of features and functions and wax poetical about how it gets the creative juices flowing; but then those of you who want to know exactly how it works would get very frustrated. Still, I hope that some of the excitement of using the program comes across within the feature-by-feature description.
Of course, every silver lining has a cloud, and mine was the misinformation that had reached me on the grapevine that the program would run on a 68000-based machine as long as you have MacRecorder. Sadly one look at the minimum requirements on the box disabused me of this notion. There it was in black and white: SE30, LC or Mac II. However, hope springs eternal in the human breast and as I put my humble Plus away, I remembered my friend Richard round the corner who had recently acquired an LC for his DTP work. One phone call later, I was headed for his place, clutching guitar and Zoom 9002, plus a couple of MIDI modules.
From here on in it was plain sailing. The LC doesn't even need MacRecorder as, like the IIsi, it has built-in A/D conversion. You'll need system 6.0.7 or higher, but then the LC requires this to run in any case. A potential problem appeared as I read that to run AudioTrax your System Folder must contain MIDI Manager (which I had left behind), but Passport in their infinite wisdom had licensed this from Apple so it was on the disks supplied.
Within minutes we had the demo sequence running — what a relief these days to find a Macintosh program you can run without all that tedious mucking around with hard disk installation and/or key disks. I whole-heartedly applaud Passport's stand on copy protection (they don't use it). In my experience, all it ever does is penalise legitimate users and throw down a challenge for hackers. All I had to do was simply copy the appropriate icons onto the hard disk (a folder marked LC preferences made sure we were ready to roll within any tricky customisation procedures), double click on AudioTrax, and the fun began.
Before you can actually use the program, the first thing you need to do is open a file and save it to hard disk; a selector box appears automatically to take care of this. You can either run the Passport demo sequence (a good move, as it lets you check that everything is working OK), or the impetuous amongst you can start a new piece straight away (which is, of course, what I did).
The MIDI sequencer side of the program seems to be very similar to Master Tracks Pro, which I used quite regularly a couple of years back. Since then Passport have produced a budget version of MTP, called Trax, and AudioTrax uses this as its starting point for adding the audio capability. I don't want to spend time on the MIDI side of the program as it is all pretty standard stuff. But rest assured that it is as quick and easy to get music into as Passport's other sequencers.
In my haste to start recording audio, I used some standard MIDI files that I had lying about and these loaded without any noticeable alteration from their Performer source. This means that even if Passport's sequencer interface isn't your cup of tea (though I can't imagine why it wouldn't be), you can do all your clever iterative quantising and MIDI arranging in the sequencer of your choice, and then port a MIDI file across to AudioTrax to do the unique audio bit.
Of course, those of you who scrutinise these pages every month will now be protesting that the ability to combine audio and MIDI within the same program is not unique to AudioTrax, as Studio Vision has been performing this particular feat for over a year. And of course you're right. But what is unique about Audio Trax is that on the LC and IIsi, you need no additional hardware to pull it off (and the cost of a MacRecorder on the other IIs and the SE30 is hardly prohibitive) whereas Studio Vision requires hardware with a price tag several times that of the software. Studio Vision probably represents the finest achievement in digital audio for musicians, at any price. But for those of us (journalists in particular) whose resources are too limited for the necessary Macintosh to run it (let alone the other hardware costs), AudioTrax provides a perfect 'foot-in-the-door' to the magical world of adding audio to your MIDI sequences.
Recording audio is simplicity itself. There is an Audio Setup dialogue box that you call up from the Audio menu. This allows you to select the 22K or 11K record rate (the latter not available with MacRecorder — no great loss) and decide at which points in the sequence you want each audio track to start (obviously if you have a 16-bar instrumental intro you are not going to want to start taking up space on the hard disk for your audio from the top). This box also tells exactly how much record time you have at the current sample rate on the drive selected, and features an input level meter so that you can check that you have suitable levels coming into the Mac.
Once you've OK'd this box, all you have to do is designate which of the two audio tracks at the top of the screen you want to record to, by clicking in the Rec column, and then click on the Record Button in the Transport window. Once you have recorded a part, you can see the waveform by opening the Audio window.
I was amazed by the quality of the sound, considering the specs. The trouble is that we've been so spoiled with 16-bit 44.1 kHz gear that we think it's impossible to produce good results with anything less. It's actually not that long ago that 8-bit sampling at 22kHz was considered to be the last word in high-cost professional equipment (remember day-dreams of Fairlights and Emulators in the mid-80s?), and many perfectly good hit records were made using that level of technology.
The first thing I tried recording was my voice; using the designer mic supplied with the LC, the result coming back from the computer sounded just like any other sound coming out of the Mac. But plug a pair of headphones straight into the back of the LC and you suddenly realise that the principle villain in the appalling sound quality associated with personal computers is the nasty little speakers in most monitors/computers. Connecting the LC's stereo output (which leaves the computer via a stereo mini-jack socket) to a proper sound system, the results were more impressive. Of course, there was rumble and hiss in the background (though no more than on a lot of analogue tape machines), but the bandwidth didn't sound as limited as I knew it should be.
Clearly you wouldn't try to use AudioTrax to record a cappella vocals or solo classical guitar, but within the pop/rock idiom the background noise should be hidden by the other tracks — indeed, you could find AudioTrax gives you less hiss than a tape set-up, because of the limited bandwidth and the fact that you only have noise coming from two audio tracks, not all the tracks as it would be the case if you were using a multi-track.
Next up was my guitar, recorded via the Zoom 9002. Here I couldn't hear a great difference between the original signal and the recorded playback (and I did try several different patches). Next I decided to put a harmony guitar line with the first one, and this is where I ran into the first limitation of the LC. It is not fast enough to be able to monitor one track while the other is being recorded. So I had to remember what I played and try to fit with it. However, you can hear all the MIDI tracks when you record audio, so it's not like trying to play with no guide at all. But it might be awkward if you are trying to do a lot of vocal harmony work. Mac IIs on the other hand are fast enough to handle simultaneous recording and playback, so you might want to think about one of those if you need to monitor one track while recording the other.
"AudioTrax was so much fun I had to keep checking the packaging to make sure there wasn't a Government Health Warning."
Richard, seeing me have so much fun, wanted to get in on the act, and dug out his bass. Again the results were excellent, both direct and through the Zoom. Having recorded a few different audio sections into AudioTrax, it seemed time to try editing them. This is accomplished via standard Cut/Copy/Paste functions, and seems to work extremely well though there are a couple of limitations. You can only display one of the audio tracks at any time, so to copy the same measures on both tracks means performing the same operation twice. This means you have to zoom in a good way to get the necessary precision, or your tracks may end up slightly out of sync in the copied section.
The copied audio seems to be written to a new section on the hard disk, so unfortunately you do not get the saving of space that most systems offer for repeated sections of audio from hard disk. On the other hand, AudioTrax uses up much less space on disk then your standard 10MB per minute for a 16-bit, 44.1kHz stereo system. In fact, it uses one fifth as much, so you can afford to be a bit more liberal with it.
The other audio editing functions are Normalise, Gain Change and Noise Gate. All three are permanent (ie. destructive to original audio data) but useful none the less. Normalise is the most useful, increasing the level to the maximum dynamic range of the system. However it does increase the background noise as well, so it is worth trying to get a good level before you start recording, so that you keep it for emergencies.
Gain Change is more dangerous, as there is nothing to prevent you from increasing the gain past the dynamic range available and clipping the audio permanently. You should always make a back-up first. Again, the noise floor is also increased, so try for another take unless you really fluked an unrepeatable performance.
The Noise Gate produced variable results depending on the type of signal recorded. On short percussive sounds it works really well if you set the threshold well, but it is often merely destructive on sustained signals which fade gradually and are then suddenly reduced to zero by the gating. This is particularly true if you are recording something with reverb or other effect (as I was with the Zoom). However placing reverb on the output of the Mac can reduce the 'jarring' nature of this effect and actually make for a very useful feature especially on vocals.
At this point I was trying to separate my left and right outputs for separate processing. The audio window defaults to L+R assignment for both, so they are mixed in mono. I changed this to L for Track 1 and R for Track 2, and the latter promptly disappeared. As it turned out this was not a bug in the program. When I caught up with them at the San Francisco MacWorld show, the chaps from Passport explained that this is a limitation of the LC's audio output jack — the machine only outputs sound via its left channel, so you cannot separate tracks. This problem is unique to the LC, and the Mac IIs and SE30 should give you no problems.
Another problem I encountered was cleared up at MacWorld. When trying to use the 'Mix Audio From...' command to bounce two tracks together I found the file was not being altered. This was apparently a bug in Version 1.0, and the copy of version 1.01 I was given at the show fixed this, allowing proper 'sound-on-sound' editing (what better place to report such an achievement?). For example, I bounced together two guitar parts to leave room for a vocal on the other track. The noise increases noticeably after bouncing, although MIDI tracks may still obscure it. A second bounce, however, ensured that even the heaviest MIDI percussion was not sufficient to hide the increasing noise floor.
AudioTrax does not sync to external MIDI sources (presumably because the playback speed of the audio tracks cannot be altered, as on most hard disk recording systems under £100,000), but it does transmit MIDI Clock to slave other devices. It also responds to MIDI Start, Stop, Continue, and Song Position Pointers, so you can control its playback from another source (including HyperCard — see below).
The three separate manuals supplied were extremely impressive for such a cheap program. The first is a 'Getting Started' guide, and covers all the hooking up and 'instant gratification'. The Reference manual allows you to look up things as problems occur, and did the job nicely for me. But the most impressive is the Applications Guide, which covers the use of AudioTrax with HyperCard and MacroMind Director. As I didn't have a copy of Director I was unable to test the two working together, but the section on HyperCard had me writing MIDI scripts and triggering AudioTrax sequences from within stacks in no time. I remember trying to put speech in a HyperCard presentation a few years back, using a sampler with a Play While Load facility, and it took forever. With this system it was incredibly quick to achieve the same result — I only wish it had come along sooner. The only problem with this application is that if you run two tracks of audio then the speed of HyperCard is greatly affected, but you can get around this by mixing your two tracks together and playing them back as one track.
It is very encouraging that the multimedia capabilities of this product are outlined in the manual, rather than simply being nebulously referred to in the sales literature. With more of this kind of thing the multimedia applications of MIDI equipment will open up much more dramatically.
Overall AudioTrax was so much fun I had to keep checking the packaging to make sure there wasn't a Government Health Warning. Everything is so instant. It takes no time to get up and running, and in not very much longer you are actually adding acoustic tracks just as easily as everybody has been using MIDI for the last few years. And at this price, any limitations it does have can't really be held against it. Of course, those of us with a Plus, Classic or SE still have to wait for someone to make the same sort of facilities available to us, but anyone who owns an LC or higher should just buy it now and put some fun back into their music making.
£259.95 inc VAT.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
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Review by Paul Wiffen
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