Music in the Key of USB

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by Macworld's Editors

Top Deals On Great Products

Picked by Techconnect's Editors

Macs have always been accomplished musical accompanists. Connect a Mac to a synthesizer via MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), and you can build complex musical arrangements, edit flubbed notes, and even print sheet music. Connect an audio source such as a microphone or mixer to a Mac's audio-input jack, and you can add multiple tracks of acoustic instruments and vocals. Toss in some music-loop CDs–collections of recorded rhythms and riffs–and even an amateur musician can assemble polished tunes. (If you're new to computer music, see "Get to Know MIDI" for some background.)

With their spunky processors and fast hard drives, Apple's newest generation of Macs is well equipped to handle the demands of MIDI and digital-audio production. Unfortunately, their lack of floppy drives, serial ports, and SCSI interfaces means they don't always harmonize with the rest of your music and audio tools, leaving many MIDI musicians singing the blues: I'm sad and broke, my baby left me, and I couldn't use MIDI on my new G3 .

Well, this is one ballad with a happy ending. Whether you're outfitting a production studio from scratch or planning to upgrade from a beige Mac to something a bit more powerful and colorful, there are fixes and workarounds for every one of these problems.

In the past, MIDI interfaces (which enable you to hook up MIDI musical instruments to a Mac) have connected to Macs through serial ports–ports Apple has now abandoned in favor of USB. In addition to being faster, more flexible, and more reliable, USB offers some distinct advantages over its predecessors. For example, it lets you simultaneously connect multiple interfaces, even mixing and matching brands and models. Need additional MIDI inputs and outputs? Just hook up a second interface. And USB's fast transfer rates are ideal for complex MIDI systems comprising numerous synthesizers and sound modules.

But how are you supposed to make your audio tools play nice with USB? The answer depends on whether you're just starting out or upgrading from a non-USB Mac.

Starting from Scratch

If you're creating a new MIDI studio, your best bet is to buy one of the USB-equipped MIDI interfaces that are now available. I tested Midiman's ( ) $129 Midisport 2 x 2 and Mark of the Unicorn's ( ) $69 FastLane USB (which is available in all five iMac flavors). Both install in a flash and work beautifully. The Midisport interface even includes both Mac and Windows driver software, making it a good choice for cross-platform performers.


If you already have an inexpensive serial MIDI interface, buy a new USB interface–it will probably cost less than one of the adapters I'm about to discuss, and you'll get the aforementioned USB advantages as a bonus.

But if you have a high-end serial MIDI interface–for example, one that supports hundreds of MIDI channels and also handles synchronization–buying a serial-port adapter might make more financial sense. One option is to install a serial-port PCI card–such as MegaWolf's
( ) $249 Remus/2 or $349 Romulus/4, which provide two or four serial ports, respectively –in your new computer. Unlike some serial-port adapters, these support MIDI.

If you don't have a spare PCI slot but are willing to forgo an internal modem, consider Griffin Technology's ( ) $49 gPort for G3s and G4s, or GeeThree Technology's ( ) $49 Stealth Serial Port, which works on all USB desktop Macs. Both are MIDI compatible and install in the Mac's modem slot.

An alternative that doesn't require an expansion slot–listen up, iBook owners–is Keyspan's
( ) $79 USB Twin Serial Adapter, a tiny, translucent gizmo with two serial ports; it should be compatible with numerous Mark of the Unicorn MIDI interfaces. A list of compatible interfaces is available on Keyspan's Web site.

Be sure not to buy a serial adapter until you verify that it works with your specific MIDI interface. You may also need to download an updated version of your MIDI interface's driver software.

Music and audio software have long been two of the last bastions of copy protection. In the past, most software packages required floppy key disks for installation; others relied on hardware dongles that attached to the Mac's ADB port and restricted use to a single owner. Both approaches spell trouble for modern Macs, many of which lack ADB ports, and all of which lack floppy drives.

Fortunately, most software developers have discarded key disks in favor of challenge-response protection schemes: you contact the vendor via e-mail or phone, supply a serial number, and then receive a second serial number or phrase that you enter in a dialog box.

As for older packages or ones that haven't switched to challenge-response protection, these will require a little work.

Floppy Foibles

If you need to install key-disk-protected programs, your best bet may be to buy a USB floppy drive, such as Imation's ( ) $149 SuperDisk or NewerTech's
( ) $99 uDrive. You'll also need a free extension, USB Floppy Enabler, from Pace Anti-Piracy ( ), the developers of the key-disk-protection scheme. (Midiman reports that USB Floppy Enabler conflicts with Midiman's Midisport USB MIDI interface; users will need to disable the extension after installing protected software.)

Dealing with Dongles

Minitower G3 and G4 Macs have ADB ports and therefore don't present any dongle dramas. For other USB Macs, Griffin Technology's $39 iMate is a USB-to-ADB converter that works with most dongles.

Recording and playing back multiple tracks of digital audio demands a fast hard drive, and today's Macs are generally up to the challenge. But for handling demanding audio tasks–for example, playing back dozens of tracks simultaneously–your stock drive might not be fast enough. If your digital-audio software is displaying error messages, it may be time to beef up your Mac's entire storage system.

For USB Macs with PCI expansion slots, the solution is to install an Ultra SCSI adapter, such as Adaptec's ( ) $449 PowerDomain 2940, and then to connect a fast SCSI hard drive to it.

You can also work around the problem by combining–or bouncing , as it's called in the recording world–multiple audio tracks in one track. Bouncing lightens the load on the hard drive dramatically by reducing the number of files it must access simultaneously. (Your original tracks are unchanged, so you can always rebounce them if you decide to make changes.) In Mark of the Unicorn's $795 Digital Performer, for example, you can use the Bounce To Disk command; most multitrack-audio programs have similar commands.

No matter what kind of hard drive you use, to squeeze the most out of your machine, follow the usual rules for optimizing performance: turn off file sharing and virtual memory, run with only those system extensions necessary for your MIDI and audio setup, and consider defragmenting your hard drive now and then.

After some transitional pains, MIDI and digital audio are alive and well on today's Macs. And the future sounds even better–for example, Mark of the Unicorn is adding support for the G4 Macs' Velocity Engine to Digital Performer. This will dramatically boost performance during processor-intensive tasks such as applying audio effects.

For musicians who cut their recording teeth using analog gear, desktop digital-music production is a dream come true. And today's tools make the sequencers I used ten years ago seem almost as primitive as reel-to-reel recorders. I can't wait to see what the next decade brings.


March 2000 page: 107

Control Playback   Buttons like those on a tape recorder start and stop playback and rewind, pause, and record.

Build a Symphony   You can build complex arrangements one track at a time, using different instrument settings, from a single MIDI keyboard. The timeline display at the right side of the window enables you to scroll through a sequence and select individual passages for modification--transposing, cutting and pasting, and much more.

Take Notes   You can view each track as a standard musical score and edit notes by dragging and dropping them.

Edit Precisely   For precise control over the volume and duration of notes, you can also view tracks as event notation, which numerically depicts which notes you played and how loudly you played them.

To set up a desktop recording studio, you need one or more musical instruments (usually keyboards) equipped with MIDI input and output jacks. These instruments connect to a MIDI interface that is, in turn, connected to the Mac.

MIDI instruments transmit MIDI data when you play them. This data isn't digital audio; it's simply information about (among other things) which keys you pressed, how hard you pressed them, and for how long. MIDI sequencer software stores this data, enabling you to record, save, edit, and play back your performances.

Shown here is Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer, popular for its combination of power and interface elegance. Other popular MIDI sequencers include Emagic's ( ) Logic Audio line, Opcode's ( ) Studio Vision family, and Steinberg's
( ) CuBase line. Each has its own operating style, but all provide features similar to the ones described here.

Like most of today's MIDI sequencers, Digital Performer can digitally record and play back audio, such as vocals and acoustic instruments. Connect microphones to a mixing board, and then connect the mixing board's output to your Mac's microphone jack or to a high-end audio card installed in your Mac.

Large collections of prerecorded music loops--drumbeats, bass-guitar lines, guitar riffs--are available from companies such as Sounds Online ( ). By importing these professionally recorded building blocks, you can create hot rhythm tracks and then add your own MIDI-based accompaniments.

Mix It Up   With the on-screen mixing console, you can adjust a track's volume levels by moving the sliders. The circular "knobs" control a track's left-right location in the stereo field.


Build Tunes   You can record multiple sequences within a single file and then arrange them within a window to play back in a specific order.



Digital Waves   You can view and edit an audio track's waveform.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
Shop Tech Products at Amazon