NAMM Report: OS X audio coming of age

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The NAMM tradeshow held last week in Anaheim, CA, let distributors, retailers and manufacturers of musical instruments and products, showcase the products they'll roll out and sell through the first half of 2003. It also provided a comprehensive look at the major tools and technologies that will enable Mac musicians finally to move fulltime to Mac OS X this year.

Main axes

Although the show features seventy aisles of wares from accordions to zithers, the heaviest crowds were in the guitar/drum areas and the seven aisles of digital music products -- the latter were as crowded as the new PowerBook section at Apple's Macworld Expo booth. The four leading Mac music production sequencer applications were on view within a hundred-foot radius, and they were all running on OS X.

Version 6 of Digidesign's Pro Tools, the mainstay of professional music studios, features a new, more accessible interface and simplified file-management, and the program's MIDI tools have been strengthened with the additions of CoreMIDI support and MIDI Time Stamping, which enable low latency. The full feature set is available at Digidesign's site, but it's important to note that the app is OS X-only and multiprocessor-ready. It's scheduled to ship in early February in both TDM and LE versions (with a free version to follow later), and will support most of the company's hardware out-of-the-box, with the notable exception of the Digi002, still to come.

Emagic's Logic is also moving to version 6, and was on preview at a number of workstations in the company's blond, spacious booth. New features include "Freeze," a tool that enables users to offline-bounce multiple effects and tracks to a stereo pair, greatly reducing the load on the CPU; more efficient use of multi-processors; and a video thumbnail track that smooths working with audio and video. Most striking, though, is Logic 6's interface: It doesn't look like Final Cut Pro, but there's more than a hint of Apple's sensibilities of form and function, such as with the addition of easy access to a Channel Strip in the Arrange -- not earthshaking, but highly welcome. (Unfortunately, Logic 6 retains the small type/buttons against a colored background that the app has recently developed.) It's scheduled for mid-February release.

Steinberg 's Cubase SX and MOTU's Digital Performer, still in beta and likely still a half-year off, were both on display. The biggest news on this front is that MOTU's demo included the announcement that it will support both MAS (MOTU Audio System) and Audio Unit plug-ins under OS X.

One more note on sequencers: Ableton introduced Live 2, and what started out as a live time-stretching, beat management app is growing into a unique 21st century sequencer. From the addition of a tape-style recording interface, to a host of function and navigation key-commands, to its new "Elastic Audio" technology for selectable modes of audio stretching, this is an interesting application.

Software

Apple's Audio Unit technology seems to be making strong inroads, and soft synths, samplers and plug-ins are on the way. Native Instruments 's Reaktor 4 sound design tool can run as a standalone operation with ASIO and Core Audio; or be used as a plug-in for VST 2.0 under OS 9 and OS X, or in Audio Units under OS X. The company also issued less-complex versions of Reaktor and its Kontakt sampler tool -- Reaktor Session and Kompact, respectively -- that serve more as sound engines than heavy editing tools, in the same formats.

Akai introduced the VZ8, a software-based sampler, as an Audio Unit for OS X. It lets the user layer up to 128 sounds/instruments across 16 MIDI channels, 24-bit/96kHz performance, 16 virtual audio outputs, and it can trigger samples from RAM or stream direct from disk.

Waves announced that it will begin shipping plug-ins for OS X in February; the first bundle will support VST, TDM, RTAS and AudioSuite, and a version for MAS and Audio Units will follow. The Surround Reverb that was on display at Waves' booth sounded great and looks to offer a lot of power in a clean interface.

Cycling '74 will add OS X support to its idiosyncratic "pluggo" effects with version 3.1; it will run as under either VST or RTAS. And the company also introduced Max/MSP 4.2 for OS X, an application that's tough to define, but can be used to create and control a world of video, audio and related tasks.

And, as if to show how well the world of Mac OS X audio is progressing, AudioEase was showing its excellent AltiVerb plug-in at the Digidesign booth, running on Pro Tools 6, even as it was also evident right next door at Emagic, running on Logic 6 as an Audio Unit. The former should ship soon, the latter will follow anon.

One final software note: Propellerhead, maker of Reason 2.0, and Digidesign announced a "strategic relationship" that will include the development of ReWire2 for Pro Tools systems, enabling the transfer of both MIDI and audio between Reason and ReBirth and Pro Tools.

Hardware

The most intriguing piece of hardware was J.L. Cooper's CS-32 MiniDesk console, which is small but surprisingly rugged; the faders moved easily with no hint of wobble. There wasn't enough time to know how its look and feel would wear in a desktop environment, but its form and functionality -- including USB and and MIDI connections -- make it a sure winner for remote recording, and it works with a wide variety of applications.

A couple other hardware units -- a digital microphone from Neumann that handles its own analog-to-digital conversion, and Evolution's U-Control series of USB rotary and fader controllers -- were interesting, too, but software was the real focus of the show. And, although I understand why many users are slow to move their music production to OS X, I think a broad range of services and applications will be at work by the beginning of summer.

This story, "NAMM Report: OS X audio coming of age" was originally published by PCWorld.

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