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Rax 2.0

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Rax 2.0, a music utility from plasq, the creators of Comic Life, brings the same kind of easy access to virtual musical instruments and effects plug-ins that Apple’s Front Row provides for music, videos, and photos. With a virtual mixer, a facility for creating custom songs and sets, and a full-screen OnStage mode with support for live visualizers, this radically redesigned new version makes playing live music with your Mac easier than ever before, for both the casual musician and the gigging professional. It acts as a digital hub for instruments, effects, and visuals in the studio and on stage.

Managing instruments and effects

The primary screen in Rax is a virtual mixer, into which you can easily add Audio Unit (AU)-format instrument and effects plug-ins, like Native Instruments Kontakt or iZotope Trash. That means, unfortunately, that Rax won’t work with the instruments built into software like GarageBand 3 (   ), Logic Pro 7 (   ), and Ableton Live 4 (   ), though you can use MIDI synchronization via MIDI clock messages to run Rax alongside those programs. (The MIDI protocol includes timing messages that can be used for synchronization with software and hardware that implement receiving/sending those messages.)

Rax’s strong suit is its ability to manage and switch between combinations of plug-ins. You can set up sets of songs in advance, which might include layered and split synthesizer plug-ins for a keyboardist, or different sets of software effects for a guitarist or vocalist. Each song can include text notations (like “don’t forget the bridge”), prerecorded MIDI files, and presets. The one thing you can’t do is record MIDI, meaning you’ll still need to use a program like GarageBand for sequencing.

Going OnStage

Musicians have been reluctant to take laptops on stage because it’s a difficult place to use a mouse. Rax’s solution is OnStage, a full-screen mode with visual feedback you can see at a glance (it gives you a simplified interface that can be manipulated in a variety of ways), and the ability to easily switch between your song settings via mouse, keyboard, a MIDI controller, or your Apple Remote.

That alone might make Rax useful, but for the adventurous, the software can also accompany your playing with real-time, interactive 3-D visuals. You can use the variety of included visuals, or build your own in Quartz Composer, Apple’s free developer tool. The visuals are accelerated on any Core Image-capable graphics card so that most recent Macs can run audio and visuals at the same time.

Macworld’s buying advice

If you’re looking for easy access to music plug-ins without a lot of distractions, or need a way to quickly select virtual instruments and effects on stage, plasq’s Rax 2.0 is a must-buy. Its major drawback is that you can’t use it if you rely only on features like the live loop playback of Ableton Live or the extensive set of instruments and effects in Logic Pro. But if you have a lot of third-party plug-ins and want to access them without these high-end programs, or are interested in using Quartz Composer for live visuals, Rax could be an essential part of your musical toolkit.

[ Peter Kirn is a composer and musician and the author of Real World Digital Audio (Peachpit Press; 2005.) ]

Rax’s full-screen mode is designed with large, high-contrast interface elements so you can read them from a distance while you play. You can switch between songs using MIDI messages from a keyboard, a MIDI foot pedal, or your Apple Remote. Set 3-D Quartz Composer visuals to an external projector, and you can display eye candy behind you on stage.
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