You’re finishing up a song and tapping your feet as volume meters dance in tempo with the beat. Reaching over to the mixing console, you tweak the volume levels of the piano track. That’s better. You rewind your multitrack recording deck, press the record button, and add a few chords from an ’80s-vintage analog synthesizer. Nice. Now there’s just one more thing: you patch in a reverberation-effects unit to give the vocal that rich concert-hall sound. Perfect. You’re ready to burn a CD and encode your efforts as MP3 files to post on the Web.
Think you’re in the control room of a million-dollar recording studio? No–you’re sitting in front of your trusty Mac.
The volume meters and mixing console are on screen, and you’re turning knobs and pressing buttons with your mouse. The multitrack deck and vintage synthesizer are actually pieces of software, and so is the reverb-effects unit. In fact, aside from a music keyboard, a special musical interface, and a pair of speakers, everything in this setup is a piece of software. Welcome to the virtual recording studio.
Outfitting even a modest studio used to mean spending thousands of dollars for recording decks, effects processors, music synthesizers, and other hardware devices. But thanks to the fast processor in the Power Mac G3 and G4, these days the Mac itself can handle most of what once required dedicated hardware. With the latest audio software, it’s easier and less expensive than ever to set up a professional-quality home recording studio–or to add versatile, economical audio tools to your existing pro studio.
The Ins and Outs of Desktop Audio
The MIDI controller
–usually a pianolike keyboard, but guitar, wind, and drum controllers also exist–transmits and receives note data through MIDI I/O jacks, connected to the MIDI interface
. This connects to your Mac
, usually via the USB port (see “Music in the Key of USB,” March 2000). You can attach the MIDI controller’s audio output to the audio input of a mixer
, which allows you to turn multiple audio inputs (vocals, MIDI, instruments) into one or two outputs. To hear and record what you are creating, connect the mixer back to the Mac’s mike jack and the Mac’s speaker jack to one of the mixer’s inputs. Then connect the mixer to speakers, a stereo system, or a pair of monitors designed for close-range audio work
To find the best music-production tools, I spent several noisy weeks testing more than a dozen software packages. I also created some MP3 audio files to help you hear the best features in action. (Go to
to hear my musical creations.)
So Happy Together
A virtual recording studio has many of the same components as a traditional studio, but it runs within the Mac’s friendly confines. Here’s what you’ll need to turn your Mac into a high-tech studio.
Jump in Line
A sequencer program, the most essential component of the virtual studio, turns the Mac into a multitrack recording deck. You can build complex arrangements by recording new tracks while existing ones play back. You can also use editing features to fix flubbed notes, transpose keys, and much more.
Sequencers offer huge advantages over conventional tape recording, starting with undo features no razor blade can approach. You also have instantaneous access to any point in a recording–no rewind or fast-forward delays.
Best of all, sequencers provide nondestructive processing: they don’t permanently apply your edits and effects to the audio tracks you’ve recorded unless that’s what you want. Nondestructive editing gives you infinite freedom to experiment with sounds and effects, and it’s made possible by the speed of today’s computers.
But a sequencer is nothing without sounds. With software synthesizers, the Mac can mimic anything from a vintage analog synthesizer to a grand piano to a cello. You generally play a software synth using an external music keyboard plugged into the Mac via some variety of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) hardware device for connecting electronic musical instruments to each other and to computers (see the illustration “The Ins and Outs of Desktop Audio”). Do you have to own a MIDI keyboard? No, you can create music by entering notes manually in a sequencer program. But it isn’t exactly efficient–more akin to typing a letter via hunt-and-peck with the mouse and the Mac’s Key Caps instead of simply using your keyboard.
Some software synthesizers are designed for creating dance and rhythm loops–repeating series of bass and drum lines. These programs can help you create infectious dance grooves that would make even Alan Greenspan get up and shake that thang.
Software synths are a great way to expand your studio’s sound palette. They cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars less than hardware synthesizers, and if you have a PowerBook or an iBook, they’re a lot more portable.
Cause and Effect
Once you have your sounds, effects plug-ins let you add audio effects such as auditorium-like reverberation. These software effects are comparable in quality to those of dedicated effects hardware, which can be much more expensive. Effects plug-ins work within your sequencer program, and–as I’ll explain shortly–several different plug-in formats exist. Your choice of a sequencer may very well depend on the plug-ins you want to use.
All You Need Is . . .
Handling huge audio files, generating real-time effects, and simultaneously communicating with external MIDI gear demands a fast computer with a fast hard drive and plenty of RAM. Still, you don’t have to break (or even rob) the bank to set up a desktop recording studio.
An iMac will take you a long way, and even an elderly 604-based Power Mac will run the sequencers I tested. But if you’re planning to use software synthesizers and real-time effects plug-ins, you’ll want a G3 or better with at least 128MB of memory. That’s because software synths can gobble up 50MB or more of RAM when you have lots of sounds installed. I used a 400MHz blue-and-white G3 with 128MB of RAM for my testing.
I also used Mac OS 8.6 because Apple was still tweaking Mac OS 9 to address some audio-related issues. The company was resolving these problems as I finished this article, but they underscore two important points: first, verify compatibility with your Mac model and system software before buying any audio software; second, avoid updating the system software until you’re sure your audio tools will run with the latest Mac OS.
Also, if my experience was any indication, getting a system to work properly can be a challenge. You’ll download update patches frequently as vendors release bug fixes. You’ll also become pals with the Mac’s Extension Manager control panel, because audio programs can bicker with one another and with other software. This is the bleeding edge, and hemorrhages happen.
Room to Grow
You’ll also need plenty of hard drive space, because CD-quality stereo files gobble about 10MB per minute. The hard drives that ship in today’s iMacs and G4s are big and fast enough to record and play back several simultaneous audio tracks. But the more tracks you want to play at a time, the faster the hard drive you need. That’s because each track is stored as a separate file, and playing back multiple tracks requires the hard drive to access each of those files in real time. Some audio professionals use a second, high-speed SCSI drive to store audio tracks (although an additional fast IDE drive would also do the trick), keeping their programs and System Folder on the Mac’s built-in hard drive. In either case, optimizing your drive (or drives) regularly will result in quicker access to your tracks.
All Power Macs are capable of stereo recording and playback, so to actually hear your efforts, all you need is a set of amplified speakers or some headphones. But for recording, an inexpensive mixer–a device that takes multiple audio inputs and merges them into one or two audio outputs–will greatly streamline your audio connections by providing multiple jacks into which you can plug microphones and instruments (see “The Ins and Outs of Desktop Audio”). You can also invest in third-party hardware that improves on the Mac’s built-in sound circuitry (see the sidebar “Beyond Miniplugs: Audio Hardware Options”).
I tested three popular audio/ MIDI sequencers: Emagic’s $799 Logic Audio Platinum 4.1, Mark of the Unicorn’s $795 Digital Performer 2.7, and Steinberg’s $799 Cubase VST/24 4.1. (For more information on all the software I tested, see the table “Magical Musical Software.”) There’s a fourth powerhouse sequencer–Opcode Systems’ $100 Studio Vision Pro–but its future remains hazy as Opcode rides out a rough transition to new ownership, and its customers meanwhile endure poor technical support and a dearth of upgrades. Studio Vision Pro is a fine program, but I won’t recommend it until the company’s future comes into sharper focus. (If you’re new to music on the Mac, check out Christopher Breen’s roundup of inexpensive sequencers, such as Steinberg’s Cubasis and Mark of the Unicorn’s FreeStyle, at
Which sequencer is best? Forests fall and battles rage over that question. The easy answer: they’re all awesome. But because all three have very similar features and include some effects plug-ins, I based my choice on how the sequencer works. Digital Performer’s elegant look-and-feel makes it my favorite; Mark of the Unicorn has sweated the design details to create a program that looks beautiful and is a pleasure to use (see “Auditioning Sequencers”). Even Digital Performer’s manuals and online help are superior–by contrast, Cubase doesn’t come with any printed material other than a “Getting Started” manual.
Plug Me In
The third-party effects plug-ins and software synthesizers you want to run may influence your choice of a sequencer. Cubase, Logic Audio, and Studio Vision Pro support VST (Virtual Studio Technology), a standard developed by Steinberg. Digital Performer doesn’t support VST; instead, it provides its own standard, called MAS (MOTU Audio System).
Auditioning Sequencers Mark of the Unicorn’s Digital Performer provides a complete environment for recording, editing, and mixing both audio and MIDI tracks. The Transport window
offers tape deck- style functions; the Performance window
shows how much CPU capacity you’re using; the Markers window
lets you set markers for fast access to specific portions of tunes; the Tracks window
helps you create MIDI and audio tracks, assign instruments, and manage tracks; the Audio Waveform window
lets you edit audio tracks; and the Mixing Board
allows adjustment of tracks with sliders and knobs.
Third-party VST plug-ins outnumber MAS plug-ins, but most major developers now support both standards, and many also support the plug-in formats high-end audio hardware such as Digidesign’s Pro Tools use. What’s more, two available MAS plug-ins let you run VST plug-ins within Digital Performer: AudioEase’s $30 VST Wrapper for MAS 1.01 and Cycling74’s $74 Pluggo 2.0.8. My experience with both was mixed–I was able to run many VST effects within Digital Performer, but VST software synthesizers sometimes misbehaved or required workarounds.
Bottom line: don’t count on a VST adapter, particularly for software synthesizers. Even though Digital Performer’s design and interface are superior, you may prefer Logic Audio or Cubase if your projects demand a VST-format plug-in.
Effects plug-ins, which tap into a sequencer to modify the sound of the audio tracks you record or import, are usually sold in bundles of about four to six effects. You’ll now find software equivalents for all mainstream hardware effects devices, including reverb for adding room reverberation; compressors and limiters, which add punch to vocal tracks; equalizers for boosting or lowering certain frequencies; and flangers and phase shifters, used to add rich, swirling textures to instrumental tracks.
You can also find offbeat plug-ins that don’t necessarily have parallels in the hardware world. Waves’ MondoMod (part of the $450 Pro-FX Plus bundle) creates stereo effects ranging from a gentle vibrato to a rotating Leslie speaker to a 45-rpm record played off-center. And AudioEase’s $199 Rocket Science Bundle 1.0.2 includes both Roger, a plug-in that adds speechlike vowel sounds to audio tracks, and Orbit, which lets you move sound within a three-dimensional space. Then there’s the amazing Pluggo, which creates everything from reverb to robotic speech. Its low price belies its quality and usefulness–it’s got something for just about any project, and its ability to run VST plug-ins within Digital Performer (albeit imperfectly) is a bonus.
As I’ve previously mentioned, all the sequencers come with some plug-ins that provide basic reverb, compression, and other sound-processing functions. But in terms of audio quality, these bundled plug-ins fall short of the third-party effects I tested. If you’re after the best possible sound quality, check out the
$499 TC|Native Bundle 2.0, from TC|Works, or the $500 Native Power Pack, from Waves. I’m partial to the TC|Native Bundle’s interface, but both products provide superb reverb effects, powerful equalization plug-ins (which enable you to adjust specific frequency ranges–to boost bass and high frequencies, for example), and more.
Almost all of the plug-ins I tested are available in downloadable trial versions, so you can audition them yourself to find out how they work with your tunes.
If you’re like most musicians, you’re always on the prowl for new sounds–and software synthesizers deliver them. Instead of paying $1,000 or more for additional keyboards or sound modules (sound-producing circuitry you can attach to MIDI keyboards), for a few hundred dollars you can get a more flexible instrument. Once you’ve installed a software synthesizer, its name appears in your sequencer alongside your actual MIDI instruments, and you play it using the keys on your MIDI keyboard (see “MIDI Magic”). When everything is purring, it’s easy to forget that some of your instruments are actually just programs running on a Mac.
Alas, everything doesn’t always purr. A software synthesizer can bring an otherwise fast Mac to its knees. One potential problem is latency–noticeable delays between when you press a key and when you actually hear its note. Generating high-quality sounds in real time is a processor-intensive job requiring almost as many calculations as Bill Gates’s home-improvement spreadsheet. Slower, pre-G3 Macs are particularly vulnerable to latency, but even a G3 can suffer from it if you’re running effects plug-ins at the same time (or are otherwise overtaxing the system).
And just as system extensions can bicker, software synthesizers (generally running as plug-ins within sequencers) can also conflict with one another or with other plug-ins, requiring you to pull one or more plug-ins from the sequencer’s plug-ins folder until your sequencer runs smoothly.
Boot Up and Get Down
Popular among musicians who create dance music, Propellerhead Software’s ReBirth digitally re-creates two classic drum and bass synthesizers from Roland Corporation. In one cool-looking window, you get two TB-303 bass synthesizers
(A and B)
, a TR-808 drum machine
, and a TR-909 drum machine
. You make dance tunes by creating note and rhythm patterns and then switching between them using the Pattern buttons along the left edge of the window, simultaneously twiddling each section’s knobs to change the sound’s characteristics.
I loved every software synthesizer I tested, so picking winners wasn’t easy. But Koblo’s $189 Stella9000 2.5, which combines rich retro sounds with an easy-to-use interface, is hard to beat. Visit Koblo’s site to download the free Vibra1000; it does only one note at a time (no chords), but gives you an idea of what a good synthesizer has to offer.
Dance to the Music
If dance music is your specialty, check out Propellerhead Software’s $199 ReBirth RB-338 2.0.1. Distributed by Steinberg, ReBirth faithfully re-creates the sounds of Roland’s revered but long-discontinued TB-303 Bass Line bass synthesizer and TR-808 Rhythm Composer drum machine (see “Boot Up and Get Down”). ReBirth is great for creating addictive dance beats that you can trigger from a sequencer or export to audio files for importing into a sampler or sequencer.
Another noteworthy program is BitHeadz’ $449 Unity DS-1 2.0. Technically speaking, this is a software sampler (that is, rather than synthesizing sound, it plays back recorded samples). You can expand its palette by sampling your own sounds or buying sample libraries such as BitHeadz’ $199 Black & Whites, which adds dozens of great piano and electric-piano samples (see Reviews, July 2000). BitHeadz also makes a software synthesizer, the $259 Retro AS-1 2.0.1.
During my testing, BitHeadz released major updates to Unity DS-1 and Retro AS-1–alas, both had problems. I had trouble getting them to run reliably, particularly with Digital Performer, and if the message headers on the BitHeadz e-mail discussion list are any indication, I’m not alone. If you’re interested in these very promising programs, you might want to download the trial versions to see if they behave with your system.
Software synth Pro-Five 1.0, a Native Instruments product distributed by Steinberg, re-creates the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, a classic analog synthesizer popular in ’70s and ’80s music. Like the original, Pro-Five provides two tone-generating oscillators
and a filter section
, which modifies the synth’s sound with harmonics and resonant sounds. And you can change sounds by twiddling its knobs.
|See Sidebar “Beyond Miniplugs: Audio Hardware Options”
Macworld’s Buying Advice
All these products are good, pro-strength tools. My top picks are Mark of the Unicorn’s Digital Performer, a powerful, easy-to-use sequencer; TC|Works’ TC|Native Bundle and Waves’ Native Power Pack for great mainstream effects; Cycling74’s Pluggo for unique effects and great value; and the Stella9000 and ReBirth RB-338 software synthesizers from Koblo and Propellerhead, respectively.
So what’s ahead for desktop audio? More capabilities, for starters. As processor speeds continue to climb, look for increasingly versatile software synthesizers and effects plug-ins. BitHeadz has already added support for the G4’s Velocity Engine to boost to 128 the number of simultaneous voices in its Retro AS-1 and Unity DS-1.
Also look for the Internet to play a larger role in music production. Rocket Network (
) is setting up Internet recording studios–virtual studios where musicians can collaborate remotely. No, you won’t jam in real time with musicians worldwide. Rather, Rocket Network’s servers keep track of a project’s MIDI sequences and audio files; when you sign in to a virtual studio, your copy of the project updates to the latest version. The Cubase VST and Logic Audio sequencers already support the service.
The best thing about the new generation of audio software is that it’s for everybody. If you’re a newbie, these tools can open new doors to creative expression, making it possible to realize the music you hear in your head–or at least have fun trying. And professional musicians and audio engineers will love these economical alternatives to expensive studio gear–and studio time.
Contributing Editor JIM HEID (
) grew up in his father’s recording studio. He’s been using and writing about Mac sound tools since the first MacRecorder appeared in 1985 and has produced audio for CDs, CD-ROMs, FM radio, and the Web.
Beyond Miniplugs: Audio Hardware Options
Even though the Mac’s built-in audio ciRcuitry sounds great, for audio professionals it falls short. For starters, it’s limited to a maximum sampling rate of 44.1kHz and a sampling resolution of 16 bits. (Sampling rate refers to how many digital “snapshots” of a sound a device takes per second; generally, the higher the sampling rate, the better the ability to capture high-frequency sounds. Sampling resolution refers to how many bits describe each sample–more bits per sample result in a more accurate representation of the original sound.)
The 44.1kHz, 16-bit standard for compact discs sounds excellent. But to get the very best quality, pro-level audio gear typically uses a sampling rate of at least 48kHz and a sampling resolution of 24 bits.
Another limitation of the Mac is that it lacks digital audio inputs and outputs. To get your final efforts out of a Mac and onto digital audiotape (DAT) for subsequent mastering–the final process of preparing audio tracks for mass duplication–you’ll need to connect your Mac’s speaker jack to the DAT recorder’s audio-input jacks. This forces your music through additional digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital conversions, which introduce very small (but perceptible) amounts of distortion. To prevent this degradation, it’s always better to keep an audio signal in the digital domain when transferring it between devices.
The Hardware Way
Although audio hardware that overcomes these limitations has been available for years, it has tended to be expensive. No longer. I tested two sub-$1,000 products: the $995 Digi 001, from Digidesign (800/333-2137,
), and the $849 SoloEX, from SeaSound (415/485-3900,
). Both offer pro-quality sound, have multiple audio inputs (eliminating the need for an external mixer), and act as MIDI interfaces.
Each of these products consists of a PCI expansion card that provides higher-quality audio circuitry than the Mac’s, and an external box for connecting music keyboards, microphones, and other noisemaking devices. (PCI-only digital sound cards cost less, but you’ll lose most of the connections you’d get with the external box.) Both provide digital inputs and outputs in the form of S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format) connectors, common on DAT recorders and other digital gear.
Both also include software. The Digi 001 comes with Pro Tools LE, a scaled-down version of the Pro Tools software that accompanies Digidesign’s high-end computer audio gear. Like the sequencers I tested, Pro Tools LE provides MIDI and digital audio recording, playback, and editing. The SoloEX includes Steinberg’s Cubasis, a “lite” version of Cubase VST that doesn’t support effects plug-ins or software synthesizers. You’ll probably want to invest in one of the sequencers reviewed here if you’re going this route.
The Digi 001 and SoloEX are terrific products, packing features that not long ago cost a lot more. The SoloEX has the edge, though, because its hardware is more flexible, providing inputs for musical instruments such as electric guitars and basses. (To use these with the Digi 001, you must connect a separate preamplifier.) The SoloEX’s breakout box is also packed with knobs for adjusting levels, and it sports a large volume meter. By comparison, the Digi 001’s box is much more spartan.