Wednesday, April 30, 2014
PC MusicianTechnique : PC Musician
Do you use a software studio with plug-in effects but crave the effects quality that your favourite hardware processor used to provide? You can have the best of both worlds, as we explain.
"I've recently been asked by a number of computer musicians whether or not they can plumb external hardware effects into their computers, to get the best of both worlds. This is not a completely hassle-free scenario."
Despite the best efforts of software developers, some types of effect are still difficult to replicate properly inside a home computer. Examples include analogue EQ, preamps featuring valves and transformers, and some classic compressors. To mimic analogue circuitry, one must model it as a set of digital algorithms that exactly duplicate the interactions of the original components. This takes a lot of computation.
Even that staple studio effect, digital reverb, still leaves something to be desired when recreated in much of our current software. The best real-time reverbs still tend to be sold as rackmount boxes running advanced algorithms in dedicated DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chips. In theory, even the most expensive rackmount models could theoretically be recreated in native processing versions (using the processing power of the computer rather than dedicated DSP chips), but there are two practical obstacles.
The first is piracy. Few companies that have devoted many years to perfecting their top-end 'hardware' reverb algorithms would relish the prospect of an identical-sounding plug-in equivalent that they had developed being 'cracked' and passed around the world within a few days of its release. The second is processing power. In order to duplicate the smooth and dense reverb tails found on top hardware reverbs, you generally need a lot of processing power, and few musicians are nowadays prepared to devote 50 percent (or more) of their PC's CPU power to a single effect.
Beyond Software Effects
So to gain access to high-quality and/or exotic processing, it may be necessary to look beyond purely native software processing. We can do this in a couple of ways. The first is to consider investing in some sort of DSP assistance for your PC's processor — a soundcard or computer hardware add-on system that will provide or support dedicated DSP effects. Examples of such systems include Yamaha's DSP Factory card, Creamware's Pulsar system, and TC Electronics' Powercore DSP card, all of which (along with other alternatives) I'll be taking a look at in next month's PC Musician feature. This month, though, I want to concentrate on the other alternative for increasing the effects potential of your computer music studio: the good old-fashioned dedicated external effects processor, usually found in a rackmount case, that you can connect to your software studio via analogue or digital means.
Many thousands of musicians already have various 'outboard' effects that they still use regularly, probably in conjunction with an analogue mixer. Many others have abandoned hardware in favour of a totally software-based studio, which means that there are loads of hardware bargains to be had on the second-hand market. Also, as mentioned previously, despite the advances in computer-based effects, many of the 'creme de la creme' and vintage effects can only be bought in stand-alone hardware boxes.
Consequently, I've recently been asked by a number of computer musicians whether or not they can plumb external hardware effects into their computers, to get the best of both worlds. This is not a completely hassle-free scenario, since you get none of the internal routing and automatic latency compensation provided by computer-based DSP solutions. Such latency compensation depends on knowing buffer sizes and other plug-in delays, and hence the exact latencies involved. After plumbing in external hardware, while your PC may still compensate for the soundcard buffer delays, once your signals leave the computer any additional delay information can't be automatically determined.
Instead you have to connect external audio hardware using either analogue or digital cables (depending on what type of I/O is available on the outboard device), set up their routing by hand in your MIDI + Audio sequencer, and compensate by hand for whatever latency you find (although you can take some measurements to help you — see 'Measuring Real-World Effect Loop Latency' box).
Getting Down To Business
The first requirement for integrating hardware processing is a spare soundcard input and output to act as an effect send and return. It's normally easier to make these sends stereo, since that's the way most soundcard drivers operate (although in many cases a mono send will be sufficient, since so many hardware effects provide mono-in/stereo out capability). Those whose soundcards are surround-capable, but are only currently wired to stereo speakers, can use the rear soundcard outputs, although any line-level output will do. We'll start by running through the necessary analogue connections, before moving on to the procedure for those with digital interfacing on their effect box.
First, connect the output you're designating as effect send to the input of your hardware effect, and the effect output to your spare soundcard line-level input. This establishes your send/return loop.
You'll need a spare soundcard input and output to construct an effects loop for connecting a hardware processor. Models such as this Terratec DMX6 Fire are ideal, as their rear surround outs can be used for this purpose if they're not being used for surround.
Next, you need to make sure that this input and output pair are enabled in your MIDI + Audio application. For instance, in Cubase VST or SX 1.x, you need to launch the VST Outputs window, click on the Activate Bus switch for the stereo output you're going to use, and activate the input pair from the VST Inputs window. In Cubase SX 2.x you do the same by launching the VST Connections window and using the 'Add Bus' button on both the Inputs and Outputs pages. While you're there, rename the busses as something more obvious like 'Ext FX Snd' and 'Ext FX Rtn', as this will make later routing much easier to follow. The new output channels will automatically appear in the main Cubase SX 2.x mixer, but are only visible in the VST Outputs window in VST and SX 1.x.
Now we can use the input/output pair to create an external effect send, by re-routing the output of one of the VST Send Effects to this new buss. Again, in Cubase use the VST Send Effects window in VST and SX 1.x, or navigate to the right-hand end of the SX 2.x mixer to find the FX channels, and then choose the new 'Ext FX' buss in the routing box (you'll probably find that it currently reads Master or Bus 1).
SX 2.x will let you use the new routing without having a plug-in in the effect slot, but VST and SX 1.x make life slightly more complicated: in these cases we have to choose a plug-in as a 'dummy' for the slot, to enable the signal to be routed onwards. Make sure the one you choose has a bypass button or can be set to fully 'dry', so that the audio signals aren't altered in any way.
Another routing approach is to use a Group track as the effect send and route the output of this to the 'Ext FX Snd' output buss. The advantage of this method for Cubase VST and SX 1.x users is that the effect send is now in stereo (send effects in these older versions of Cubase are mono in/stereo out, a limitation that was removed in Cubase SX 2.x). A stereo send may prove useful to those with stereo in/stereo out hardware effects. However, even Cubase SX 2.x users benefit from a second advantage, which is that the Group channel fader acts as an extra master send level to your hardware effects.
If you want to use an insert effect (such as compression, distortion or EQ) on a particular track, rather than a send effect (such as reverb or chorus), just route the output of the appropriate audio track directly to the 'Ext FX Snd' bus, where it will be sent in stereo to your external hardware.
It's time to enable input monitoring so that you can hear the effect return. To do this, we first need to create a new audio track, label it 'FX Return', and make sure its output routing is set to Bus 1 (the Master analogue output of the soundcard), so that we don't end up creating any feedback loops to the 'Ext FX Snd' output, and its input routing to 'Ext FX Rtn'.
Now we need to enable the most appropriate type of input monitoring. On Cubase this is probably 'Manual', so you can turn the hardware effects mix contribution on or off using the Monitor button on the FX Return audio track. Tape Machine-style isn't appropriate, since the effects would disappear during playback, and using 'While Record Enabled' is complicated by the fact that the Record Enable button has a habit of switching itself back off in various circumstances.
Adding External Hardware Effects To Sonar
pcMusician Fig 3 SONAR Audio Dr
Enable the drivers that speak to your soundcard's I/O. If in doubt, just select them all, but be aware that de-selecting unused drivers frees up some of your computer's processing power.
pcMusician Fig 4 SONAR Set Up T
In this screen, Track 1 is the original drum track. Track 2 is a 'clone' of Track 1, but has a pre-fader send control that feeds the buss going to the external effect. Because this track will be shifted ahead in time to compensate for latency, its volume is turned down so you don't hear the track itself in the mix. In the buss pane, note the 'To Ext Effect' track, which is set to the ASIO driver that feeds the analogue output. Finally, Track 3 is the effect return track, with its input set to the ASIO driver that's patched to the analogue input, and therefore receives the external effect output.
In addition to Martin's general comments regarding the use of external hardware effects with software, here are some specifics on how to use this technique with Cakewalk's Sonar.
Sonar 3's new bussing structure makes it painless to add external processors. As you would expect, you need a card with additional ins and outs (digital and/or analogue, depending on what gear you want to connect) to interface with the hardware, but otherwise all routing can be done within Sonar.
First, make sure that any drivers feeding the external ins and outs are enabled. I use Creamware's PowerPulsar, so I've patched channel 8 (stereo) of the ASIO output module to the Creamware audio interface's stereo analogue out, whilst the card's stereo analogue in feeds channel 8 (also stereo) of the ASIO input module. To enable the drivers for these channels, go Options / Audio / Drivers; highlight the drivers that communicate with your audio interface's I/O.
Next, create a send buss. Right-click in the buss pane, select 'Insert Bus', then name it to avoid confusion (for example, 'To External Effect'). Assign the buss Output field to the driver that feeds the external analogue output.
If you want to send a track's signal to the external effect, right-click on a blank spot in the track (Tracks Pane or Console View) and select 'Insert Send', then choose the desired buss (in this case, 'To External Effect'). This creates a send control to the buss. To send some signal to the external effect, just turn up this control, as the buss out dumps directly to the effect input.
Our final step is to add an effects return. Probably the easiest approach is to create a dedicated FX Return track, so right-click on a blank space in the Tracks Pane or Console View and select 'Insert Audio Track'. Set the track's Input field to whatever input is being fed by the external audio input (in my setup mentioned above, it's ASIO channel 8), and make sure Input Echo is set to 'On'. Now all that's left is to compensate for any delays due to the signal going out of the audio interface, through an effect, then back into the system. There are a few ways to deal with this:
If the effect can blend dry and processed sound, turn down the volume of the original track(s) feeding the effect, set the Send to pre-fader, and listen only to the effects return. To compensate for the latency compared to the non-processed tracks, go Process / Slide and slide the track(s) being processed forward in time (to the left) by whatever amount compensates for the delay.
If the effect provides processed sound only, I usually 'clone' the tracks to be processed, feed the clones to the external effects buss using a pre-fader send, and turn down their volumes so they don't contribute anything to the mix. The original (non-cloned) tracks provide the dry sound; bring up the effects return level for the desired amount of effect, then slide the cloned tracks ahead in time to compensate for any delays.
A final option is to simply record the audio produced by the effect into the FX Return track, and slide that track ahead while mixing, to compensate for any delay. You may need to do this anyway if you want to use lots of external effects, but don't have enough I/O to handle them all in real time. Insert one effect at a time, record the results, then move on to the next effect. Craig Anderton
Lining Up External FX Returns
Once you've got your routing sorted out, it only remains to deal with whatever audio delays have accrued during the outward and return journeys. You can measure these delays accurately by using the guidelines in the latency measurement box I mentioned earlier.
pcMusician Figure 1
As described in the main text, this is how you can set up routing for external effects in an audio sequencer such as Cubase SX 2.0. Notice on the mixer the extra input channels set up as 'Ext FX Rtn', the extra pair of output channels set up as 'Ext FX Snd', in the Channel Settings window the send effect routed to 'Ext FX', which (as you can see in the main mixer) has its output routed to 'Ext FX Snd'. It may be initially confusing to set up, but once everything is in place you can use your external effects almost as easily as internal ones.
In the case of insert effects such as exciters, exotic compression, distortion from stomp boxes and the like for guitar tracks, and high-quality analogue EQ, only the returning signal will be required, since the entire track signal should be sent direct to the 'Ext FX Snd' buss, as previously described. You can even send multiple audio tracks to the external insert effect if appropriate, as long as any other required plug-in effects are applied individually to each track first, so that the external insert is the final one in the chain. In your sequencer you'll have to drag the original track or tracks backwards by your measured delay in samples, so that the return arrives exactly in time with the rest of the track.
The most popular external hardware effect is likely to be reverb, and happily this presents the fewest problems re. latency, since in real life a pre-delay of 10ms or more is nearly always required to simulate the time it takes for the initial reflections to start arriving back at the listener's ears — and this could mask any latency effects. Once you know your loop delay, simply subtract this from the reverb's pre-delay parameter setting, or (in many cases) just ignore the extra delay, especially if you're working with individual buffer latencies of 6ms or less. However, if you ignore the extra delays, do make sure that the return signal is set to fully 'wet' so that you don't get a second dry signal that may be slightly out of sync with the original track.
Reliably getting dry and wet signals to remain in perfect, sample-accurate sync when one of them is being sent via a convoluted signal path like this is probably the most difficult thing to achieve, which makes using external send effects such as chorus more difficult. Unless you really do want to apply a send effect other than reverb to multiple tracks, the safest approach is to stick with insert routing, so that the dry and treated signals both have exactly the same path and therefore remain perfectly in sync.
By the way, if you want to apply the same hardware insert effect with different settings to multiple tracks, don't forget that you can 'print' an individual effects track with the desired mix of wet and dry signals as a new audio track, mute the original, and then re-route the effects to treat other tracks, one at a time.
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Measuring Real-World Effect Loop Latency
Back in SOS September 2002 I described a way to measure the real-world latency of your soundcard. Many musicians think that their audio latency is simply the value displayed in their MIDI + Audio sequencer application, solely due to the soundcard's buffer size and sample rate. For instance, with a 256-sample buffer running at 44.1kHz, the displayed latency would be 256/44100, or 5.8ms (commonly rounded up to 6ms for display purposes).
pcMusician Figure 2
Here's an example of compensating for an external delay loop: the original upper audio track contains a single 1ms-wide pulse, whose return signal after the effect loop in the lower track has been perfectly aligned in this example by applying a delay of -2.86ms in the Cubase Inspector.
However, this figure doesn't include the extra delays due to A-D (Analogue to Digital) and D-A (Digital to Analogue) conversion, which can typically be a millisecond each, plus any extra internal buffering or extra DSP processing that may take place on the soundcard, which may add a further 1ms in each direction on some soundcards (see PC Musician in SOS October 2002 for more details).
When you've also got a digital effects unit in your send/return loop, you must add its A-D and D-A delays to the equation, along with any other internal processing delays, but aside from this you can still use a similar method to measure the overall real-world latency.
Once you've set up your routing between software and hardware effects processor, as described in the main text, just create an audio file lasting a few seconds with a single 1ms-wide full-height pulse at the beginning of it, as shown in the accompanying screen, using the pencil tool in an audio editor (I described exactly how in PC Notes October 2002), and place this audio file in your original track. Then start recording from just before the pulse, in the audio track you've designated as 'FX Return', so that you capture it on the return journey after its loop through the converters and effects unit.
Your sequencer will most likely apply delay compensation to the recording, just as with any other input signal, so it won't matter what soundcard buffer setting you have, since this will be automatically accounted for. Only the extra 'path time' will show up in the 'FX Return' recording, as a delay between the original and return tracks. You can then enter a negative delay value by hand for the FX Return track, to exactly line up the pulse in the original and treated tracks. Your future recorded effects tracks should then remain in perfect sync, whatever soundcard buffer size you use.
Of course, you won't hear this sync while monitoring the effects in real time, since delay compensation can't be applied in this situation. In the case of an insert effect, the easiest way to combat this is to enter the appropriate negative delay for the original track, so that the return is heard exactly on cue while monitoring.
Digital Effects Loops
As an alternative to interfacing external effects boxes via analogue connections, you might find you can connect digitally, as many modern rack units also offer digital I/O as an option. In a fairly large studio where a central word clock generator is being used, this is pretty simple to set up, as the central generator is already designated as the master, but I suspect most readers of this feature will simply be wanting to plumb in one unit such as a Lexicon reverb, and will not have a central word clock generator. In this case it will be necessary to define which is to be the master device and which the slave.
First, enable an S/PDIF output and input on your soundcard, to use as 'Ext FX Snd' and 'Ext FX Rtn', as with the analogue approach. Stick with the usual 'Internal Clock' setting for your soundcard, so that it provides the clock signal for the external effect unit
Set the external effect to 'External Clock', to sync with the incoming signal from your soundcard.
Some musicians have tried the alternative approach of setting the effects unit to its internal clock setting, to act as master, and the soundcard to external clock, to act as slave, but although this works with some units (for instance, those from TC Electronic), Lexicon gear apparently expects an external clock as soon as you activate its digital input, so it can't act as the Master clock generator with these connections.
Using a digital connection will avoid passing the audio through two set of A-D and D-A converters, and their combined delays, but the soundcard buffers and other much smaller internal delays on the soundcard will still need to be compensated for, as described in the main text.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
PC MusicianTechnique : PC Musician
Just what can you expect in a PC system costing £600? Or £1500-plus? We round up the likely specs and the possible pitfalls.
At the moment there seem to be loads of musicians finally discarding their old multitrack cassette and Minidisc recorders in favour of a computer-based solution. If you're one of these people, you may already be fairly computer literate, and might even be familiar with sequencing software, from Atari ST days, for example. However, nothing quite prepares you for entry into today's world of PCs. There are simply so many new ideas to take on board. And for those wanting to buy a new PC, it can be difficult to know where to start, how much to spend, and who to trust. Some incredibly cheap systems are on offer from high-street shops and mail-order empires, but there's nothing more frustrating than buying a PC and then finding you've got a turkey. On the other hand there's no point in spending a lot more than you need to.
So this month I'm going to present some sample PC specifications at four different price points, and explain what you're likely to get for your money. By the end of this feature you should have a better idea of where most of your cash goes, and what to avoid.
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It's easy to become confused about what's included and what's not with a new computer, and this can make it more difficult to compare the price of one system with another. Many of the latest PC system prices may be quoted with or without monitors, keyboards, and mice, on the grounds that so many of us already have suitable ones to hand from a previous PC, and are only interested in buying a newer and faster model.
PC musician Inta.s
Whichever PC system you buy for making music, partnering it with options such as a flatscreen monitor and wireless keyboard and mouse will make your life easier.
When it comes to specialist music retailers, system prices also may or may not include a particular soundcard, as (once again) you may have one already, or one may be supplied with music software. Since these options can all make a huge difference to the overall price of the PC, in this feature I'll be comparing prices of the basic PC system case without a monitor, soundcard, or music software.
Another relevant issue in the UK is VAT, which increases prices by 17.5 percent. Most mainstream PC magazines quote review prices without VAT (although they may have the inclusive price in brackets), saying that many of their readers are business people who can reclaim the tax. SOS always quotes retail prices inclusive of any taxes, as the majority of musicians can't do this.
However, wherever in the world you live, it's not always clear on web sites whether or not local tax is already included in the quoted prices. Sometimes you only find out when attempting to make an on-line purchase, when you suddenly find that your carefully chosen and competitively priced PC is no longer in the running because it has become to expensive. If only all web sites would provide prices including and excluding tax, so that you know where you are from the start.
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Budget Systems Up To £499
While there are occasional bargains to be had, particularly when models have just been superseded and the old ones are being 'sold off', in general you should view any PC bargain as suspicious. Indeed, most of what I have to say about very cheap PCs amounts to an extended warning!
Some suppliers do have what they call 'Bare Bones' systems, consisting of a quality case and PSU, motherboard with RAM installed, graphics card, and some sort of optical drive. These are offered at very cheap prices (typically around the £399 mark), but you then choose a suitable CPU, hard drive, monitor, and operating system to partner them, bringing the overall price back up to a more realistic figure. However, in the case of a complete PC system for this kind of price, be careful: while there are ways to bring the final cost down to £499, virtually all of them will either degrade its performance, make it less reliable, or reduce its long-term usefulness to the musician. This isn't to say that such a system won't be suitable for someone wanting to obtain cheap Internet access, send emails and run office software, but for the musician (and the gamer, for that matter) who will want to push processing and real-time performance to the max, cheap rarely equates with cheerful.
To begin with the CPU, this is the most expensive component of most PCs. A bargain PC may thus be fitted with an entry-level Intel Celeron or AMD Duron processor, both of which provide significantly worse performance with most music applications than the higher-priced Pentium and Athlon ranges. You may also find that there is only 256MB of RAM, which is a bare minimum for a successful music PC.
Cheap PCs will almost certainly require upgrading fairly quickly to provide satisfactory performance with music software, and then you may find more fundamental limitations that prevent upgrading or make it difficult. Cases may be of non-standard sizes or in innovative shapes, making it impossible to upgrade the motherboard in the future, and with some of the compact cases expansion potential might be minimal. You could find very few PCI expansion slots, USB ports, and memory slots, and even in some cases have to upgrade with expensive proprietary rather than standard branded memory (Compaq have, for instance, been known to fit their own unique RAM sticks in some of their systems).
Even if you can subsequently upgrade to a faster processor and have enough room to fit an extra hard drive, there may be no provision to fit a case fan for additional cooling. Cheap systems also tend to fit the absolute minimum cooling components that they can get away with, so even as supplied the existing processor may be already running fairly hot, while cooling fans may be noisy.
Some larger OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) of PCs also produce their own motherboards, which can suffer from compatibility problems with certain expansion cards, may have on-board graphics chips that degrade performance by sharing the system RAM but can't be upgraded to a standard AGP graphics card with its own dedicated graphics RAM, and may come with an on-board soundchip that can't be disabled in the BIOS after you've replaced it with a good-quality soundcard. Moreover, the custom BIOS is notoriously limited in such machines, so if you need to disable other system options to achieve reliable performance with music software, you may find it impossible to do so.
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AMD Versus Intel
PC Musician AMD
PC musician pentium 4
When you're buying a complete PC system, the issue of which manufacturer's processor family to choose is not as important as you might think in the overall scheme of things. Whether you go for an AMD or Intel-based processor and compatible motherboard, the bulk of each system remains the same, and the overall cost will be fairly similar. Compatibility problems with a few early Athlon chipsets, such as the AMD 750 and Via KX133, are long gone, as are the cooling problems with Athlon processors that resulted in musicians having to resign themselves to noisier cooling fans. (Compatibility problems aren't unique to AMD, either — for instance, USB problems were eventually found with Intel's otherwise very stable and reliable 440BX chipset on motherboards with just two USB ports.)
For some time AMD Athlon-based PCs showed significant performance benefits with music applications, until Intel's 800MHz FSB Pentium 4 range, equipped with HyperThreading, appeared. Now that software is beginning to be optimised for this, the results seem to be evening up again. According to Steinberg's own results with Cubase SX 2.0, PCs based on AMD Athlon XP 3200+ and Intel 3.2GHz Pentium 4 HT processors can provide very similar performance, although in other tests the Intel offering has been measured at anything up to 15 percent faster.
Such considerations aside, the intense competition between Intel and AMD has benefited all PC users, because it constantly drives prices down. Recent aggressive price-cutting by both AMD and Intel has blurred the Athlon price advantage (as I write, this Intel have just lopped a third off the price of their currently most popular 3GHz P4 model, and pricing might have changed once again by the time you read this). Overall, this seems to suggest that AMD and Intel systems are becoming more evenly priced and offering more even performance.
So, as pricing and performance begin to draw closer together, it's worth revisiting other processor-related issues. The fact remains that some software and hardware developers still don't test with AMD systems before releasing products. So while you're unlikely to run into compatibility problems, it's still true that any soundcard you buy will have been thoroughly tested with a range of Intel-based PCs, but not necessarily with a range of AMD ones. Moreover, some music software is still developed solely on Intel PCs, although I understand AMD are keen to work with such developers to make sure there won't be any performance issues on AMD-based PCs.
While researching this feature I canvassed opinion from specialist music retailers on the 'AMD question', and it seems that most have tested out AMD systems with good results. A couple are actually selling them alongside Intel systems (Dawson's Music and Red Submarine). However, they say that you still can't guarantee an AMD system will work with every soundcard, since even they can't get this information from the soundcard manufacturers.
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Some Disadvantages Of Cheap Components
Most specialist music retailers fit well-known makes and models of motherboard that typically retail at £80 or more, while £499 PCs may use a motherboard that only costs £20 — and you can guess which one offers better and more reliable performance, more expansion potential and a wider range of ports. Even if you don't have problems with the motherboard, you may find it impossible to get hold of technical information such as Interrupt tables to help you find the most appropriate slot to install your soundcard in, so that it doesn't interfere with other motherboard components.
Another cost-cutting area is the PSU. Cheap power supplies are notorious for blowing up, as well as being noisy, and may damage the motherboard and CPU if they fail. While having just sufficient capacity to power the PC as originally supplied, they may also be unable to cope if you add another hard drive and soundcard. Most PCs come with power supplies with at least a 250W capacity, but I've come across at least one PC fitted with a 100W model.
You may well find cheap, unbranded RAM (which can cause intermittent crashing problems that are difficult to trace) installed in an ultra-budget PC, as well as anonymous 'own brand' optical drives of probably lacklustre performance. You might also find a software-based modem. These not only put a strain on the CPU but are also notorious for dropping Internet connections and being generally unreliable. Software-based network cards are a possibility too: these may present compatibility problems when you try to connect them to another computer.
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Lack Of Software And Support
Turning to the software side of our ultra-budget PC, 'recovery' CDs may be supplied instead of an official Windows CD-ROM (making it more difficult to upgrade), and technical support may be limited to hardware problems arising from the system as originally supplied, not covering software issues or any problems you may run into after fitting expansion cards or other updates. Remembering that proprietary parts with compatibility problems may be fitted, this may leave you with issues that can't be resolved at all.
Most of you will have noticed the number of reader complaints in mainstream PC magazines related to PCs that are partly or completely DOA (Dead On Arrival). Although a few of these can be blamed on rough handling by couriers, those with missing soundcards, CD-ROM drives, and peripherals that turn out never to have been connected internally point to another way to shave down system prices — a singular lack of testing.
Each particular make and model number of PC may have the contents of its hard drive imaged in bulk away from the final system, and then plugged in afterwards, while hardware testing may simply involve seeing if the power LED comes on when the power is applied, or may not even be done at all. After all, paying technical staff to carry out thorough bench testing is an expensive exercise. It's cheaper not to test them and accept a certain proportion of returns.
After this catalogue of warnings about very cheap PCs, I must mention one honourable exception from Digital Village that I came across during my research. Their PC LE system still has the same Intel 865PE-L chipset and motherboard of some of their more expensive models, stand-alone AGP rather than integrated graphics, a 7200rpm 80Gb hard drive, and 512Mb of DDR400 RAM, all for just £499. The catch is that it features a 2.4GHz Celeron processor, but despite the fact that this won't let you run as many plug-ins and soft synths as an Athlon or P4, the system is otherwise uncompromised, offering a cheap starter package that can still be upgraded to a 3GHz P4 processor later on if required.
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Entry Level £600-£700
At this price-point we arrive at what I'd call the real entry-level PC for musicians. Fitted with a well-known make and model of motherboard from the likes of Abit, Asus, or Intel, branded rather than generic RAM, and a well-known model of graphics card, a setup costing £600-700 should provide reliable and fairly quiet performance, as well as giving plenty of opportunity for further expansion if and when your requirements grow.
PC musician DigitalVillage.s
This Suntek case is used in a lot of entry-level music PCs because its acrylic sides muffle the noise from the hard drives and CPU fan without requiring the use of more expensive quiet components.
A typical spec at the £600 price-point is an AMD Athlon XP 2400+ or XP 2600+ with 266MHz FSB (Front Side Buss), or a 2.4GHz or 2.66GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor running an 533MHz FSB, along with 512MB of DDR266 (PC2100) RAM. Jumping to £700 generally results in you getting a motherboard and P4C processor that support Intel's faster 800MHz FSB, and 512MB of the faster DDR400 (PC3200) RAM, or a faster Athlon processor such as as an XP 2800+. For such a small price jump I'd personally go for the faster options, since if you do you're likely to manage higher polyphony with soft synths and be able to run more plug-ins for the same clock speed.
The AGP graphics card should come from a manufacturer such as ATI, Matrox or nVidia, and have 64MB or 128MB of on-board RAM. Music applications still don't use fancy 3D graphics, so 64MB will be quite enough, and you really don't want the fastest graphics card available: after all, you won't be taking advantage of its speed, and a fast card would probably have a noisy cooling fan on it.
Nearly all systems at this price-point also feature an 80GB 7200rpm hard drive (as it's proving increasingly difficult for system builders to source smaller ones), a 52-speed CD-ROM drive, and Windows XP Home. The hard drives used in decent entry-level music PCs not only have to be speedy, reliable and capacious, but also acoustically quiet. The most popular make must be Seagate. Their various Barracuda ranges have graced the majority of music PCs over the last few years.
These fairly fixed requirements aside, there's still a wide variety of system variations available, depending on how the money has been split between the various components. The most common entry-level case used is the budget Suntek Midi Tower, easily recognisable from its blue or silver colour options, with its acrylic outer shell damping case vibrations and reducing the transmission of internal noise from the hard drives and CPU fan. Generally, whether you opt for an Intel or an AMD system, you need to add about £100 to cover the cost of an up-market aluminium case from a company such as Lian-Li or Coolermaster, a quiet 300-watt power supply, and a Zalman or Nexus CPU fan, and you can find various specialist music retailers offering such systems for around £700. Some also offer special designs such as the Acousticase, which also incorporates an acoustic foam lining to further attenuate internal sounds. Such components will make your PC noticeably quieter than using an acrylic case alone, and far quieter than a mainstream system in a thin pressed-metal case that may rattle and certainly won't stop the internal sounds of the CPU fan and hard drives reaching the outside world.
Other options that bring the price up slightly include a wireless keyboard and mouse (an extra £30 or so), but these are well worth considering for musician who want to move about in the studio and have remote control of their sequencing software. Most entry-level systems will be supplied with Windows XP Home installed, and I don't think the majority of musicians really need to spend an additional £40 or so to get Windows XP Professional — the only real advantage to the musician is that this supports multiple processors (see later), so if your PC only has one processor it's wasted money.
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If you're buying a new PC setup and you have a choice of monitors, consider not just going for the cheapest option, which would be a 17-inch CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) models, starting at just over £100. A better choice is a 15-inch TFT (Thin Film Transistor) flatscreen monitor at about £150 more.
These have exactly the same active screen size (CRT models include the part of their tubes invisible underneath the bezel) but still occupy a smaller footprint on your desk, provide a significantly sharper picture (because they have perfect geometry and don't exhibit the slight picture distortions experienced by even the best quality CRT models), and don't distort if you place an unshielded loudspeaker next to them. Best of all, they don't cause electromagnetic interference, so you can play your guitar next to them without picking up hums and buzzes.
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By the time we reach this price-point, most aspects of the PC's performance have been improved. First of all, you're likely to get a faster CPU, which is usually the most expensive single component in any PC, and the one whose clock speed primarily determines how many plug-ins and soft-synth notes can be run simultaneously.
The fastest flagship model in all processor ranges is normally significantly more expensive than the rest, so unless money is no object it pays to look for the 'sweet spot' a few models down in the range, where you get best value for money. As I write this, the current 'sweet spot' for both AMD Athlon XP and Intel P4C ranges seems to be 3GHz, but it might have reached 3.2GHz by the time you read this, since prices seem to be revised every month or two.
If you're interested in a system based on AMD's Athlon XP 3200+, you may also be tempted by their new Athlon 64 3200+, which supports 64-bit operation, but requires a completely different motherboard. Both CPU/motherboard options cost about the same, although the 64-bit systems are generally more expensive because they are partnered with other components that are faster and larger.
PC musician RedSub.s
When you spend more money on a specialist music PC you're likely to get quieter cooling fans (such as the Zalman model shown here), a quieter power supply, and internal acoustic treatment. All aim to stop internal computer noises reaching the outside world and interfering with your microphone recordings.
AMD's 64-bit processor can't yet be run in pure 64-bit mode, because Microsoft's Windows XP 64 operating system isn't yet available to support it, but it can also be run with standard 32-bit software under Windows XP. Despite this current limitation, 64-bit processing is still creating lots of interest among musicians, because floating-point calculations — an important area for plug-in and soft synth performance — will benefit from it. Judging by today's results with music software, both the processors mentioned above will currently offer almost identical performance, but the Athlon 64 should pull ahead in the months to come, as software developers take account of it.
£1000 systems may well offer 1GB or more of RAM instead of 512MB. Only film composers running huge numbers of instruments are likely to need more. Some systems supporting dual-channel RAM will benefit from having two identical memory modules fitted rather than one large one, to achieve a larger memory bandwidth — for instance, I've got twin 512MB DDR400 sticks in my 1GB PC running an Intel P4C processor — but it's safest to confer with your supplier about the options, since these may depend on the motherboard being supplied.
You're likely to be offered SATA (Serial ATA) drives rather than the older PATA (Parallel ATA) models, and these should let you run significantly more simultaneous audio tracks at high sample rates if you need to. Large hard drives, such as 120GB, 160GB, and even 200GB models, are also more likely to be fitted at this price point, for those who work on huge projects. More important is that you're likely to be offered two hard drives rather than one, the first being used for Windows and your applications, and the second for data. (Placing your audio data on a separate drive can have various advantages, most notably that your any system file accesses on the first drive won't affect the performance of the second hard drive while it's recording or playing back audio.)
A dual-head graphics card is likely to be fitted as standard, so you can attach up to two screens instead of one. As you progress, being able to split your sequencing software display into an arrange page on one screen and its mixer (or a software synth or editor) on another makes music creation a lot more pleasurable. ATI's Radeon VE7000 or 9200SE are often suggested as suitable models, as are models from Matrox's Dualhead range. A new option is Matrox's P650 Triplehead model, which, as its name suggests, can support up to three screens. Two could be used to create a wide-screen arrange page while the third displays the mixer or real-time video (ideal for game or film composers).
For musicians, one of the biggest advantages at this price-point is rather more mundane — a range of quiet components for PSU, CPU cooling, and any additional case fans, will be fitted as standard, and you'll have a more up-market selection of cases to choose from, including models from Acousticase, Coolermaster and Lian-Li, plus a range of rackmount options. With the faster processor, more RAM, two or more hard drives and a CD-R/W optical drive that might be part of the computer's spec at this price, bear in mind that you may also require a more powerful PSU (perhaps a 400W model, especially if you want the potential for further expansion at a later date.
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For those new to PCs for music, the jargon buster we printed in SOS February 2004 should define any unfamiliar terms, while the 'Right PC For The Job' feature in SOS June 2003 explains how your CPU, RAM, and hard drive affect the performance of Windows, music applications, audio tracks and plug-ins. You can read the latter feature on-line at www.soundonsound.com.
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Just as with the £999 price-point, jumping to £1500 and beyond generally results in yet more of everything, but your choices can become increasingly more specialised.
For example, I've said in these pages before that a single 7200rpm IDE hard drive can manage 48 simultaneous tracks of 24-bit/96kHz, but for those who want to go further, RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) offers higher performance, splitting the load between multiple hard drives. With a couple of today's Serial ATA hard drives set up as a RAID array it's possible to achieve 80 simultaneous tracks of 24-bit/96kHz audio, or to move to the rarefied levels of 192kHz sample rates, although you would really also need world-class converters and studio acoustics to benefit from this.
However, the main reason for a higher system price is a faster processor. Both Intel and AMD have recently brought out special processor models that aim to provide the ultimate performance with games. However, though both are a lot more expensive than the standard models, and do work very well with 3D games, unfortunately they fail to shine when tested with audio applications such as Steinberg's Nuendo, and therefore can't be recommended to musicians.
The P4 Extreme Edition at 3.2GHz has a huge 2MB L3 cache, but provides a negligible performance boost over the standard P4C 3.2GHz model in the tests I've seen, while AMD's Athlon FX51 does provide around eight percent faster performance with audio applications than its XP 3200+ stablemate, but still only equals the performance of an Intel P4C 3GHz processor in the same tests.
PC musician Carillon.s
More expensive PC systems will offer quieter and more exotic case options, such as the Carillon rackmount model shown here, with its precision die-cast aluminium front panel.
For those who still want significantly more processing power in a single box, the answer seems to be a completely different approach — dual processing, using a pair of Intel Xeon or AMD Opteron CPUs with a compatible motherboard. I discussed the benefits of multi-processing way back in SOS February 2001 while talking about Windows 2000, but in essence applications that have been written to run as multiple 'threads' can run these in parallel across several processors (with a compatible operating system such as Windows 2000 or XP Professional).
Multi-processing allows you to run more plug-ins and soft-synth notes, although not twice as many. It also keeps the system feeling responsive to user input, even when it's coming close to the limit of available processing power — unlike single-CPU systems that end up sluggish and may even appear to have crashed under similar conditions. Now that the main PC music applications, such as Cubase and Sonar 3.0, have been optimised to take advantage of dual processors, you may get a 40 to 60 percent improvement over a single processor of the same clock speed. However, a few applications still seem to have problems when running under a dual-processor system (NI's Kontakt is apparently one of them), so if you're thinking of buying such a system you should check carefully with the supplier on the latest compatibility information before taking the plunge.
I know of at least one musician who has put together a dual AMD Opteron system with good results, but only Intel-based systems using dual Xeon processors are currently available from specialist music retailers in the UK. You need very capable PSUs, of 450W or more, in powerful systems such as these, and the increased power dissipation also requires an extra CPU cooling fan, so acoustic noise may become an issue unless some care is taken. Windows XP Professional (or Windows 2000) also becomes mandatory to support the multiple processors.
I've spotted systems with dual 2.8GHz Xeon processors, 1GB of RAM, twin 80GB hard drives and quiet case and cooling components for about £1800. A dual 3.06GHz model with 2GB of RAM, larger twin drives and a CD/DVD optical drive jumps to around the £2300 mark. I'm about to get a dual 3GHz Xeon PC in for review, so watch these pages for my detailed findings on how such a system can benefit the musician.
Published in SOS May 2004
Monday, April 28, 2014
Firewire Audio & MIDI Interface
Reviews : Computer Recording System
Until recently, the benefits of the high-bandwidth IEEE 1394 interface were available only to musicians on a relatively generous budget, but now M Audio are making Firewire peripherals available at new low prices.
Firewire audio interfaces have, until recently, been specified and priced for the pro and semi-pro market, with names such as MOTU and Metric Halo at the forefront. M Audio, with their 410 (reviewed in Sound On Sound March 2004: subscribers can read the review on-line at www.soundonsound.com/sos/mar04/articles/maudio410.htm), have expanded the market downward and continue this trend with the introduction of the Firewire Audiophile, taking what is now a family name from their ever-popular PCI interface and its USB sibling. With an SRP of £229 including VAT, and already just under £200 'on the street', this interface breaks a psychological price barrier and competes with some of the higher-end USB interfaces such as the Tascam US122 and Emagic EMI 6
2 (and 2
6). Where it scores, of course, is in using the high-bandwidth Firewire protocol, which has been proved capable of supporting far more channels than this interface offers. The sense of 'will it work or won't it' engendered by the restrictions of USB, a connection originally intended for printers and scanners, and the resultant negative attitude towards it as a serious protocol for audio are not stigmas from which the Firewire Audiophile will suffer.
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In the box along with the Audiophile, M Audio supply two Firewire cables, one six-pin to six-pin and one four-pin to six-pin. Along with the power-supply unit and a CD containing drivers and manuals, they also include a software bundle comprising Ableton Live Delta, Arkaos VJ Lite, Propellerhead Reason Adapted, Dsound RT Player Express, IK Sampletank Free and Linplug's Free Alpha soft synth.
The unit itself has an elegant case intended for the desktop, measuring 184 x 140 x 42mm. It follows the design cues of the larger 410 and the USB Audiophile (albeit with more muted colours) with brushed-aluminium finish and silver-coloured control knobs. The front panel has a reassuring simplicity, with only two buttons and two rotary controls along with a headphone jack and a sprinkling of subtle LEDs.
maudio Mixer Tab
The Firewire Audiophile's driver software under Mac OS X. The unit's Assignable Level Controller can be switched to control four different signal levels (right).
Round the back there are two unbalanced analogue inputs using RCA sockets at -10dBV line level, four analogue unbalanced outputs with identical spec, co-axial RCA connectors for S/PDIF input and output, MIDI In and Out sockets, a power-supply connector and two six-pin Firewire 1394 sockets — the second is useful for connecting further Firewire devices if your host computer has only one port. The S/PDIF output should support pass-through of AC3 and DTS-encoded multi-channel digital audio for connection to a suitable decoder, although at the time of writing there was an issue with DTS awaiting a driver revision.
There are no mic preamps or associated phantom power options (as there are with the 410) but the software-assignable 'Level Controller' remains. By default it controls the monitor level of the analogue outputs, but it can also be assigned to any group of mixer output faders in the Audiophile's control panel. This selection comprises:
Software return — that is, the level of the three stereo pairs running from the host software to the virtual mixer.
Output levels of the three stereo pairs of outputs (two analogue pairs and one digital pair).
Input levels of the analogue input pair and digital input pair.
Auxiliary send buss level.
Next to the headphone socket is a switch that selects the monitor source (in conjunction with the Headphones source settings in the hardware page of the control panel). There are LEDs to indicate headphone source monitor status, S/PDIF input and output (in the presence of a valid signal) and power, where steady status indicates a valid connection to the host computer.
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Drivers And Utilities
Checking M Audio's web site for the latest drivers, I downloaded build number 1016 for Windows XP (the supplied CD had version 1011) and 1068 for Mac OS X (1064 on the CD). I'm undecided about this constant driver revision — of course it is reassuring to see that M Audio are committed to revising drivers that iron out bugs and conflicts, but one can't help worrying that early adopters might feel they are being used as unpaid beta testers.
Driver installation was completely painless on both XP and OS X, having taken heed of the warning not to have the Audiophile connected during the process. Along with the driver, a control panel is installed, accessible from an icon in the system tray on Windows, and in the Other subsection of System Preferences on the Mac. You could drag this to the dock to create a graphic shortcut similar to XP's System Tray icon.
maudio Output Tab
Amongst other options, you can choose which output feeds the headphone socket.
The control panel in both cases has the same four-pane design as that which comes with the 410, reflecting the commonality of functions, but displays fewer channels on each pane, in line with the reduced number of inputs and outputs.
The Mixer pane shows level faders for the six software return channels, arranged in stereo pairs. These are accompanied by output select switches that, by default, route these channels to their corresponding physical outputs, and give you the opportunity to set up your own routing if you wish. The two pairs of faders controlling input levels have similar monitoring options that are unselected as a default. All the faders can be linked in stereo pairs and each pair carries two auxiliary buss send level controls, one for each side of this extra stereo buss, which allows for the creation of a separate submix if desired. All input channels have pan position controls.
The Output pane has faders for the six physical outputs of the Audiophile, arranged in stereo pairs, and stereo channel faders for the auxiliary buss and headphone levels. The Hardware pane shows detected sample rate and allows for the setting of sync source, headphone source and the function of the front-panel momentary switch. This can be set to switch between the two possible headphone source settings (A or B), or to switch between Direct Monitoring Off or On. On this pane the XP version differs from OS X, in that samples per buffer (latency) is selected on this pane of the control panel. In OS X this is chosen in the driver configuration window of the host application.
Common to all panes are the Save and Load switches for mixer settings and the buttons for choosing the function of the Assignable Level Controller. Just below this is a graphic indicator of the number of Audiophiles connected, showing which one is being actively affected by the Control Panel. It should be noted that under Mac OS X multiple Audiophiles were not supported at the time of writing, but imminent change was expected with a future driver revision.
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With the provision of unbalanced inputs and outputs only, the Audiophile is always going to be susceptible to the rogue hums and buzzes that plague such equipment when connected to other devices in the studio. This can be avoided to some extent by the use of pseudo-balanced cables (see Frequently Asked Questions in Sound On Sound January 2002, amongst other articles).
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Pentium III 500MHz or higher.
Windows 2000 SP3 or Windows XP SP1.
Direct X 8.1.
Six-pin Firewire port or adaptor.
Mac (OS 9)
G3 500MHz or higher.
Mac OS 9.2.2.
Mac (OS X)
G4 500MHz or higher.
Mac OS 10.2.6 or greater.
As far as audio quality is concerned I found the unit to be on a par with that of the Tascam US122 I have been using recently for mobile recording and playback, although this latter device does benefit from the advantage of balanced inputs. Tests with Rightmark's Audio Analyser revealed a frequency response of +0.12, -0.87 dB for 20Hz to 20kHz at a sample rate of 44.1kHz. This improved to +0.04, -0.10 dB at 96kHz. Dynamic range improved from 95.6dBA for 16-bit operation to 101.3dBA for 24-bit operation, agreeing with M Audio's quoted figure for input 1/2 — the headline figure of 108dBA quoted on M Audio's web site is for the outputs only. Total harmonic distortion and noise for combined input and output was measured at 0.004 percent.
The Audiophile can be buss-powered, although on many laptops the Firewire buss is not able to supply enough power. These are recognisable by their four-pin socket (often called iLink), where a fully powered buss sports the larger six-pin variety. Confusingly, PCMCIA Firewire cards often carry six-pin sockets but despite this they also lack sufficient power. In both these cases it is necessary to connect the supplied mains adaptor. The test iBook seemed perfectly at ease powering both the Audiophile and a Lacie Pocket Drive daisy-chained from its single Firewire port (M Audio recommend the Audiophile to be last in the chain) although battery life was considerably foreshortened in this situation. It already tires too quickly for my liking, although as a side note, upgrading to OS X 10.3.3 just before this review went to press seemed to have quite a beneficial effect on battery life, a more thorough test of which will hopefully appear in a future article.
On both platforms the audio drivers worked flawlessly down to the smallest buffer size of 64 samples, recording at the maximum resolution of 24-bit and 96kHz sample rate, giving an impressively (almost) negligible 1.5ms of latency. However, where everything worked like a charm in the XP environment, functionality in OS X on the iBook was hindered by a few annoying niggles. Initially, while audio worked without a problem, MIDI communication was notable by its absence; after several launches and quits, attempting to load Cubase or Logic with the Audiophile connected caused the computer to restart.
Initially I suspected a MIDI driver conflict, having recently run into problems on another machine connected to a Digi 002 Rack and Midiman 8x8, where the simultaneous presence of both MIDI drivers in the folder System/Library/Audio/MIDI Drivers stopped the 002 from being available to hosts other than Pro Tools. Simply moving the 002 MIDI driver outside the Drivers folder had allowed Logic and Cubase to use the 002 as an audio interface (without MIDI, of course). An obscure forum posting concerning driver conflicts between Digidesign and Tascam had led me to the above 'solution', and the test machine for this review had Tascam drivers installed, so I tried removing both of the other MIDI drivers in the iBook's driver folder (Emagic's MIDI driver as installed by Logic, and the one for the Tascam US122) and retested.
Like many USB interfaces, the Firewire Audiophile is equipped only with unbalanced audio I/O.
Initially I thought I'd cracked it, as removing both these drivers and leaving only the Audiophile MIDI driver allowed the MIDI In and Out to work on the device. Just to make sure, I then put them back expecting the problem to return, which it didn't. So much for my hunch (as Jean de Florette once famously remarked).
My suspicions then turned to Disk Permissions. When odd things happen that don't conform to a pattern it often indicates a problem 'under the hood' of OS X that can be cured by repairing Disk Permissions on the System disk in Disk Utility. Realising I hadn't repaired disk permissions for quite some time, I went to Disk Utility and pressed the magic button. Since when I have not had a problem with the Audiophile's MIDI I/O.
However, the story did not end there. Whenever my iBook went to sleep a valid connection to the Audiophile was naturally lost, but it was not re-established on waking up. The only way of doing so was to restart the machine (turning the Audiophile on and off was not enough, nor was disconnecting and reconnecting the Firewire cable). I encountered the same difficulty on a dual G5, and checking M Audio's web site revealed that this is a known problem with OS X, and also suggests that the latest driver revision goes some way to curing it. What I did discover was that this is only a problem when an application (such as Logic or Cubase) is open. With no application open, connecting to the Audiophile is re-established on waking up. How often do you close an application before putting a computer to sleep? Still, it's good to know that M Audio are aware of the problem and, even as I write, are beavering away to provide a solution. Windows XP and 2000 users are unaffected by this anomaly.
The market positioning of the Audiophile is intriguing. It offers four-in, six-out operation (albeit that two each of those are digital) and MIDI, along with highly competitive audio quality for the price, flexible software control and the bandwidth headroom and general cachet of Firewire, for the price of a higher-end USB interface. Firewire still has a premium attached to its name, and the extra overhead it affords allows this device to gain an appreciable advantage over its USB stablemate, in terms of simultaneous channels of operation and the ability to carry an independent submix. With unbalanced connections and no preamps or phantom power, its role as the hub of a laptop-based audio recording workstation has a few limitations. M Audio maintain that the Audiophile was created with live performers and DJs in mind, and this device would make an excellent choice for laptop users requiring multiple outputs and some MIDI control in a live situation, with the added flexibility of surround-encoded digital output. And this is just a suggestion, but how about a version that has two pairs of analogue inputs, one pair of analogue outputs and a mix fader (along with software emulation of the RIAA EQ curve) — that really would be a laptop DJ solution
Published in SOS May 2004
Saturday, April 26, 2014
PC MusicianTechnique : PC Musician
Increasing numbers of musicians want to gig with their computers — but home PCs are fragile and laptops may not always be powerful or adaptable enough. What are your alternatives, and what measures can you take to protect the centrepiece of your live set?
A rackmounting case like these ones used by (top to bottom) NuSystems, Red Submarine and Millennium Music will protect your PC far better than any desktop or tower case when on the road, and they have lockable front panels to prevent tampering while they're on stage.
Given the amount of great music that's emerging from PC-based project studios, it's hardly surprising that musicians want to take their computers on stage too. Gone are the days when we had to rely on DAT or Minidisc backing and play live guitars or keyboards over the top; nowadays many musicians want to perform more creatively on stage with a PC, either mixing a bank of sequenced loops in real time, playing back sequenced songs to be treated while they're triggering soft synth lines from MIDI keyboards, or performing with live-performance software instruments.
So far, so good, but as Craig Anderton pointed out in SOS January 2004, having your live performance totally dependent on a computer is not a secure feeling.
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No doubt a few of you do take a desktop or tower PC to occasional gigs, but these really must be treated with kid gloves, as they're not robust enough to survive rough handling. Whether your PC is being taken to a gig in a car, put in a van for longer journeys, or subjected to courier delivery, the two big problems during transit are individual shocks and vibration. For the occasional short car journey, my desktop and tower computers have always been quite safe strapped into a car seat, but for longer journeys (especially when moving house), return them to their original boxes with their properly engineered foam inserts to absorb vibration and shocks.
After a long journey, I still remove the side panel of my computers and have a quick check that the PCI cards, RAM sticks, cables and so on are still firmly in place before I switch the computer on. However, you simply can't do this kind of checking every time you arrive at a gig, so I'd strongly advise against regular gigging with a standard desktop or tower PC.
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Some Practical Tips
See clearly: Everyone has their own way of using software when performing live, but the last thing most people will want to be thinking about is navigating through menus and launching new dialogue windows when strobe lights and dry ice may be involved! Instead, you ideally want to have every window you need on screen all the time, and preferably split across multiple screens to make everything as clear as possible.
Take a shortcut: I daresay some brave souls use a mouse live, but you want to minimise the chances of clicking in the wrong place, so keyboard shortcuts seem far safer to me. The best solution must be performing with one or more external MIDI controllers having dedicated switches, knobs, and faders — plus, of course, a normal MIDI keyboard.
Latency Live: While we're on the subject of safe use live, don't be tempted to run your audio peripheral at anything lower than a rock-solid buffer size — it might be tempting to set a lower latency to make your software feel more responsive, but if your soundcard starts clicking and popping through the PA you'll wish you hadn't, and if your sequencer stops altogether due to a CPU 'maxout' the stage lights should ensure that the audience sees your red face!
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So if it's inadvisable to take a standard PC on the road, how about buying or building a PC in a 19-inch rack case, and bolting it into a rack, with hardware synths, effect units, and so on?
pc muscician 2.s
Fitting your hard drives into removable 'caddies', as seen in this system from Red Submarine, means that you can remove these most fragile PC components from your PC before taking it on the road.
Many musicians do this, and most of the specialist music retailers, including Academy Of Sound, Carillon, Digital Systems, Digital Village, Millennium, and Red Submarine, offer a 4U- or 5U-high rackmounting system option with their PCs. Compared with most floor- or desk-mounting PC cases, industrial rackmount cases have various things in their favour. They tend to be far more rugged, generally with 2mm-thick steel bodywork that will withstand accidental impacts from other objects (the Carillon rack PC's front panel is particularly sturdy, being die-cast in aluminium alloy), and they also tend to have reinforcing bars to prevent PCI cards becoming dislodged in transit. If your PC is bolted into a heavy rack with other gear, it's also far more difficult for a casual thief to walk off with, especially if you use security bolts. Do bear in mind, though, that the final weight of a rackmount PC will exceed that of most power amplifiers, so not only will its front panel need bolting to the rack, it will require further support at the rear.
Most rack cases have front fans, with dust filters to prevent cigarette smoke causing internal damage (another bonus in a live situation), and many have lockable front doors to prevent stealing. In some cases you won't even be able to switch the PC on or off without opening the door, which is ideal for gig security, although for the same reason you should keep the keys in a very safe place, and never leave them inserted when the PC is unattended — that's just asking for trouble!
The cons for the typical rack case are higher cost (a moulded PC case costs about £30, an aluminimum MIDI tower about £70 and a rackmount case £150-200), and slightly less expansion potential for further drives than in a MIDI tower or desktop case — rackmount case dimensions tend to be smaller. Moreover, for the live user a rackmount case doesn't automatically guarantee greater robustness. Yes, the case itself is stronger, and your PCI cards may be strapped down more securely, but the other internal components are still prone to shocks and vibration. (The Carillon's rack ears are backed with vibration-absorbing rubber gaskets, which will certainly help.) The PC components inside a rackmount simply aren't all that robust, and may not survive the shock of being accidentally dropped a few feet by a roadie, whereas I've known racks of MIDI synths and hardware effects happily carry on even after being dropped down a flight of stairs. Nevertheless, the dealers I spoke to confirmed that many customers do gig with their rackmount PCs, for convenience and security, but admitted that they're not ideal for regular touring unless enclosed in a dedicated flightcase with a foam lining designed to absorb knocks. Unfortunately, such cases aren't cheap, especially custom-built ones, so many musicians cross their fingers and carry on without.
Having given all these warnings, there are ways to protect the most sensitive PC components, so let's look at some DIY solutions to safeguard the mobile PC.
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The most vulnerable parts of any PC are its hard drives, which can be damaged by excessive vibration and sudden mechanical shock. This can result in them developing bad sectors that can't be read or written to — then these need to be specially marked as such by a utility such as Windows 98's Scandisk or Windows XP's Check Disk, to avoid these sectors being used again. After a bad shock the drive may not even spin up again at all.
pc muscician 3.s
Always fit a good-quality power supply to any PC that's on the move — cheap models are notoriously unreliable. This high quality SilenX PSU has had its capacitors treated to prevent vibration problems.
Drives can withstand much larger shocks when inactive than when powered up, as shown in the 'Environmental' section of spec sheets. A typical figure for 'non-operating' shock is 350G for 2ms, whereas operating shock might be just 60G for 2ms, equivalent to a drop of just a few inches onto a hard surface. Vibration levels of around 1G RMS can often be tolerated when the computer is powered down, but only around 0.6G when spinning.
Molex SilentDrive sleeves from QuietPC (www.quietpc.com) are primarily designed to absorb acoustic noise, but their thin decoupling foam lining is also quite effective as a shockmount, and absorbs external vibration during transit. They are widely used by specialist music retailers for silencing, installing into a 5.25-inch drive bay. You then mount your 3.5-inch hard drive inside them. However, some drives run too hot to be enclosed in this way, and the sleeves don't suit the new SATA (Serial ATA) drives. Another solution might be the similarly-priced NoVibes cages from NoiseMagic (available in the UK from www.chillblast.co.uk), which can be even more effective at absorbing vibration. Again, they mount in a 5.25-inch drive bay, but suspend the hard drive in a cradle of three high-tension rubber bands. You won't be concerned about your drives overheating in one of these cages, but I (and various dealers I've spoken to) have always been a little wary of drives jumping out of the cradle altogether during transit.
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Using Laptops Live
Plenty of musicians seem to be taking rackmount PCs on the road, so that they can benefit from the fastest processors and multiple large hard drives, and the ability to rackmount their audio breakout boxes, MIDI synths and hardware effects alongside the PC. However, many others have already found a somewhat more obvious solution for the smaller gig: using a PC laptop.
pc muscician 5
If you're thinking of using your PC laptop live, make sure you invest in a security cable like the one advertised here, to lock it to a heavy stand.
You may not be able to buy a laptop as fast as the fastest standard PCs, but for most purposes they are perfectly adequate for live use, as well as being far easier to transport. You can take them as hand luggage on a tour (even abroad) and a suitable padded case is far less expensive than buying a flightcase for a standard PC.
Desktop-replacement laptops are popular live because the fastest models offer more power than Centrinos, as well as having larger 17-inch screens that are easier to see on stage. And, of course, the noise of their cooling fans won't worry you in a live environment. However, a Centrino model will be perfectly adequate for many gigs, if you don't want to run loads of plug-ins and soft synths simultaneously.
Because laptops are routinely moved about, the design of their hard drives may already have benefited from extra attention paid to shock and vibration protection. For instance, the 40Gb Seagate Momentus drive in my Centrino laptop is not only extremely quiet, but also incorporates G-Force Protection for non-operating shock protection and 'QuietStep ramp load technology' for operating shock protection. Together they provide operating protection against shocks of up to 225G for 2ms (typical 3.5-inch hard drives only offer around 50G to 60G) and a staggering 800G for 2ms when switched off.
Still more reassuring is that laptops are fairly immune to mains problems, since even if there's a complete blackout they will automatically carry on with their integral battery power for perhaps an hour in the case of a desktop replacement model and several in the case of a Centrino. Do make sure you've chosen 'Always On' for your Windows power scheme, though, to avoid a sudden drop in CPU performance when the battery kicks in.
Placing your laptop on a foam pad is still a wise move to avoid vibration problems, and a dedicated and rugged stand should help it last the course, too. For security reasons it's also well worth investigating some form of anti-theft device — nearly all laptops feature a Security Cable Connector on their back panel to thwart opportunists, and to this you can connect a galvanised steel cable that you loop around a heavy and preferably immovable object and then lock with a key or combination. Some models can also be used to protect external drives at the same time, while other devices can fix your laptop directly to a stand or desk.
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The ultimate solution to the problem of drive protection during transit has to be removable caddies, also known as drive drawers or racks. You bolt the outer docking station into a 5.25-inch drive bay, just like a CD-ROM drive, plug your PC's internal IDE and PSU cables into its rear connectors, then mount your drive into the caddy itself and connect its IDE and PSU connectors to the internal caddy cables. The caddy is then pushed into the docking bay, and you turn the supplied key in the caddy's lock before switching on your PC.
Quite a few musicians now use these caddies, primarily as a way to easily move from one audio project to another, by unplugging one drive and replacing it with another. Buying multiple drives and using a new one per project is also an ideal way for studio owners to cope with clients returning to remix some tracks, especially now that drives are relatively cheap.
For live use, caddies mean that after powering down your PC you can simply remove its most vulnerable components before transportation and place them in a well-padded case. At the gig, as long as you keep your drives with you until the soundcheck, you have the reassurance that if your PC gets stolen your data is still intact (although, as always, you should still have it backed up elsewhere for safety).
You can already buy PC systems featuring drive caddies from specialist music retailers, including Carillon, Philip Rees and Red Submarine. It's also possible to purchase caddies to fit to other PCs. It's well worth buying a high-quality caddy. The cheaper ones are made of ABS plastic and generally support IDE drives up to 7200rpm spin speed and ATA133 standard, while more expensive aluminium ones are stronger and designed for drives up to 15,000rpm. The majority are for parallel IDE drives, but you can now buy models suitable for SATA drives as well. Prices range from around £30 to £45.
Incidentally, anyone who has tried in the past to buy one docking station but multiple caddies to use with it (they are nearly always sold as a pair, so you end up having to pay more for parts you don't want) will be pleased to hear that as a result of my enquiries Red Submarine are now offering this option for Lian-Li's RH-32 model. By the time you read this you'll be able to buy the complete unit from them for £27.95, and extra caddies for £17.95 each.
Since you're (in effect) placing a hard drive in a sleeve, again beware of overheating. Some caddies have cooling fans for this reason, and that might make them less suitable in the studio where you want minimum noise. This won't matter for live use, of course.
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Avoiding Power Problems
We all know that, despite the great improvements in the launch speed of Windows XP compared with its predecessors, it still takes a couple of minutes to boot up a PC from cold. Then there's the time it takes to launch the music applications themselves, and load up the required song plus plug-ins, soft synths, and so on.
One way to avoid some of this delay during your soundcheck is to use the Hibernate feature of modern PCs to save the entire contents of your system RAM onto your hard drive, so that when you return to the desktop it will be exactly as you left it, complete with all running applications. Unfortunately, some PCs don't recover properly from Hibernation, and some soundcards also seem to have problems with it, so you should thoroughly test out this idea before relying on it live — if anything goes wrong, you'll have to reboot anyway.
Having to reboot the PC is the most dreaded scenario for a live musician, as the audience is unlikely to be very impressed with minutes of silence while you reload everything — and, of course, unless you're a really laid-back performer, a computer crash could seriously unnerve you.
Obviously, you should make sure your PC is as reliable in everyday use as possible, by installing latest driver versions and generally keeping it 'clean' and virus free. Even if you do this, though, there's another potential cause of problems on stage. If you get a mains 'brown-out' (a drop in mains voltage normally signalled by the lights dimming) or a blackout (when the power disappears altogether, either momentarily or for a longer period), your rackmount PC may crash, either locking it up and requiring you to reboot, or causing it to spontaneously reboot.
Unless you really like living dangerously, the answer is to buy a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply), which can filter out mains spikes and even survive several minutes of complete mains blackout. Essentially, a UPS contains batteries that are normally trickle-charged by the mains supply, and when the mains fails they kick in to power an 'inverter' circuit that generates the normal AC mains voltage for as long as the battery power lasts. In most cases, the UPS will only need to supply a few hundred watts for a couple of minutes.
Some UPS units run their inverters continuously, to generate a clean interference-free 'mains' signal. In a live situation, this will also provide greater protection from incoming spikes, such as those caused by some stage lighting systems. However, most PC power supplies do have some interference filtering built-in, although it may be worth adding a filtered distribution board to provide a little more protection.
Finally, one of the most annoying power problems has to be unexpected hum or background noises from your CPU/mouse/drive/graphics card suddenly being heard in the PA. Even if your PC audio sounds perfect in the studio it's worth buying a DI (Direct Injection) box to cure such ground-loop problems live. Suitable stereo models, such as Behringer's DI20, are available for around £20.
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Having dealt with the PC's most shock-prone components, let's turn to the smaller details and see what else can prevent transit damage. During regular journeys, vibration may eventually cause normal screws to work loose. The most potentially troublesome components are PCI and AGP expansion cards: if these become unseated the result may be obscure problems ranging from intermittent crashes to an inability to boot up at all. However, hard drives, cooling fans, PSUs and even the motherboard will most likely be held in place by screws. Even if your PC rackmount case has a reinforcing bar to hold expansion cards in place it may be worth adding anti-vibration measures if the PC goes on regular journeys.
The simplest and cheapest measure is a dab of paint between the screw and whatever it's securing, which should stop it rotating. Alternatively, it may be worth trying the rubber grommets sold for fan and drive mounting. Be a little careful using these with fixed hard drives, however: they may reduce the amount of vibrational noise from the drive that enters the rest of the chassis, but they may also allow the drive to bounce about more during transit, increasing its quota of shocks.
I/O connectors can also come loose during transit, but this can largely be prevented by careful attention to wiring up the loom with ties to various points on the chassis to prevent the cables from pulling on the connectors. You should also tie down any unused PSU connectors, to prevent their exposed pins accidentally touching other components. Other large internal components, such as FanMate controllers, should also be tied down to the chassis if possible. RAM sticks can't be tied down, but you could try putting rubber bands around their clips to prevent them popping out of place.
Modern motherboards don't tend to have large unsupported components (such as capacitors and inductors) on them, but power supplies do, and cheap ones are notorious for breaking down anyway, even before one considers problems due to vibration fatigue of component leads. When I recently reviewed a new SilenX PSU I was pleased to see that its internal components had been immobilised with rubber or potting compound, or glued to other components nearby. These measures not only made it quieter, but will also ensure that it's less prone to 'travel sickness'.
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Even if your computer is rackmounted, once it's in position on stage it's worth trying to prevent vibration — from a PA, nearby drumkit, over-active vocalist or dancer — from causing problems. As explained previously, this can permanently damage hard drives. If you find yourself on a 'bouncy' stage, try to choose a setup position that minimises the problem, even if this means you're not centre stage! Again, having your PC mounted in a properly-designed flightcase will help.
It may pay you to set up two drives in a RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) configuration, not to 'stripe' them for faster performance, but to mirror your data so that if one drive fails the other can carry on. Also, avoid placing your PC near to any large speaker cabinets that contain strong magnets. Hard drives and magnets don't mix!
By the way, don't rule out taking a Minidisc or CD player with you as a backup: if the worst happens and you need to reboot your PC in the middle of a set, at least the music can carry on while you sort out the problem. Some musicians find Minidisc players more reliable than CD players on stage, as they tend to have larger buffers that will survive longer periods of vibration without the audio stream being interrupted. Both CD and Minidisc players will benefit from being placed on a foam pad to isolate them from vibration.
Friday, April 25, 2014
PC MusicianTechnique : PC Musician
Thanks to the Internet and the generosity of talented programmers all over the world, it's possible to assemble a PC music software suite for no money at all. We round up some of the best download sites and freebie programs.
With sometimes stunning graphics and a huge range of possibilities, these are a few of my favourite stand-alone freeware VST plug-ins and instruments created using Jeff Mclintock's excellent SynthEdit.
There's an amazing selection of PC software available for free download, but with so much to choose from, and the fact that many musicians trying it don't have the chance to compare it with commercial packages, it's sometimes hard to tell what's good and what's not. Moreover, I've noticed a lot of snobbery about, of both varieties — some professional musicians look down their noses at freeware, dismissing it all as rubbish, while on the other hand there are beginners who use freeware downloads almost exclusively to get started, and who think the vast majority of commercial releases are not worth the money.
As always, the truth falls somewhere in between these two extremes. Certainly, while there are some freeware 'my first plug-ins' to be found that are likely to be quickly discarded by most people, there are also some absolute gems in the freeware world. So this feature will be a roundup of free PC software that doesn't quite merit a full stand-alone SOS review and doesn't fall neatly into Plug-in Folder, but deserves more than a quick mention in PC Notes.
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Where To Look
One of the biggest problems with freeware is knowing where to look for it on the Internet. With millions of web sites worldwide and the majority of freeware tucked away on its creator's personal pages, it's hardly surprising that many excellent releases go almost unnoticed. However, there are, fortunately, some Internet portals — web sites acting as themed gateways to many others — that can help us.
One of the best for soft synths and plug-ins is K-v-R (www.kvr-vst.com), which posts regular information about new commercial, shareware, and freeware music software releases of all types, and maintains a database of instruments, effects, and their host applications, with an advanced search engine to find specific types — so you can, for instance, choose 'synth (wavetable)' or 'Exciter/Enhancer' to narrow your findings. It also hosts about three dozen forums supporting the users of products from a wide selection of the smaller developers.
If you're specifically looking for freeware, the best site I've come across in my travels is one called Database Audio (www.databaseaudio.co.uk), which not only covers Mac and PC Windows offerings, but also Linux. There are plenty of plug-ins and soft synths to explore here, and you can also find some intriguing stand-alone applications. I personally like its list format, with a few sentences plus one tiny image of each release, which often leads you to finds that you might not otherwise have made. The main page shows a list of the latest additions, while buttons across the top lead you to the full lists of plug-ins (including soft synths), applications, and online instruments (in formats such as Flash, Java, and Shockwave). A user chart shows the top 20 most popular downloads of the moment.
If your interest lies in multimedia players, MPEGX (www.mpegx.com) is a useful port of call, as it has lists of audio and video rippers, encoders, players, recorders, editors, CD and DVD burners, and utilities, as well as links to full versions of related applications, such as Ahead's Nero.
A more general-purpose site is HitSquad's Shareware Music Machine (www.hitsquad.com/smm), which has a huge categorised list of software ranging from audio editors to wavetable emulators for a variety of platforms, not only including Mac and Windows, but also BeOS, Linux, OS/2, and Atari. However, I always find this site frustratingly slow to use, partly because its policy of including lots of time-limited and restricted demos of commercial software makes searching for freeware very time consuming, and partly because of the number of pop-up ads that slow your progress. Nevertheless, since there are a vast number of items to download, you'll probably find things here that you wouldn't elsewhere.
Yet another one to try is The Sonic Spot (www.sonicspot.com). This site has a far smaller collection of plug-ins and soft synths, but a good range of older software such as hardware synth patch editing and stand-alone utilities. It's also quick to use, with clearly displayed file sizes and software status (demo, shareware or freeware).
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There are now various commercial DIY soft synth creator packages available, including the very popular Reaktor from Native Instruments and Tassman from AAS. Users of both of these can download lots of additional instruments and effects from a variety of web sites, designed by both their developers and other users, but of course you do need to buy the package in the first place to take advantage of these, and to run it as a host before loading in your modules.
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Database Audio is one of the best gateways to a whole new world of new Mac, PC Windows and Linux audio freeware, providing links to many unusual items that I've not spotted elsewhere.
A rather different approach is taken by Jeff Mclintock's SynthEdit (www.synthedit.com), which is a very reasonably priced ($20) shareware package for designing your own soft synths and VST effects, playing them live via MIDI, and recording, playing back and treating live audio. It's primarily aimed at advanced users and is available in two versions to suit Windows 98/ME or Windows XP, NT and 2000. The 2.1MB download file contains a tutorial to help you get started. There's also an optional SDK (Software Development Kit) for those who want to go the whole hog and create additional low-level SynthEdit modules to perform new functions. Over 50 of these have been contributed to the web site by talented users. There's a thriving SynthEdit Yahoo newsgroup, a dedicated SynthEdit community, and a K-v-R users' forum.
So far, SynthEdit is similar in concept to Reaktor and Tassman. The big difference is that its designs run without SynthEdit being present, so its users can distribute them as freeware, donationware (where those who want to show their appreciation of the work that's gone into the end product can make an optional donation to the author via Paypal), or as full commercial products, like Boomedia's Studio Weapons, reviewed in SOS August 2003.
Moreover, since the host application and its various toolbars isn't required, the user interface can be as conventional or radical as your graphic skills permit. Users have already made knob-creation tools, a 'skin' assembler and font editors to help others with the design process, and the results speak for themselves. Of particular merit are the stunning freeware designs by Spanish developer group Elogoxa (www.elogoxa.net), including a virtual recreation of Bob Fripp's 'Frippertronics' delay using two Revox B77 tape machines running a continuous tape loop. Elottronix XL looks wonderful (see the screen at the start of this article) and offers up to 80 seconds of delay, plus LFO pan, Biquad X filtering and a tape-noise generator. Other offerings include the highly unusual distortion and feedback synth effects offered by 'The Devil Inside', a mastering X-Cita inspired by BBE's Sonic Maximiser, and the vintage style Baxxpander to add warmth and saturation effects. However, for me the highlight is Sun Ra, a free-running or keyboard-controlled VST Instrument that creates complex ambient textures from samples originating from real solar sources. Wonderful!
At the other end of the scale, but nevertheless extremely useful, is Wally Cescato's MIDI Data Monitor (www.freewebs.com/wallyaudio), which loads as a VSTi and displays incoming MIDI note, aftertouch, pitch-bend and controller data on four 'LEDs', as well as providing a scrolling data display in text form. This is ideal when you're trying to sort out why there's no sound coming from your VSTis in Cubase, for instance, or for examining incoming MIDI controller data to see why it's not altering the synth parameter you expected.
In all, there must be well over a hundred freeware offerings from a wide variety of SynthEdit developers, and I must mention those of SOS reader and forum contributor Oli Larkin, who first brought the SynthEdit range to my attention. He has 14 on his web site (www.oli.adbe.org). My favourite is the complex yet subtle Dronebox, with six tuned resonators and sub-oscillator that can turn a guitar into a sitar or a drum track into chordal Eastern trance.
Overall, apart from the slightly greater CPU overhead inevitable with all modular designs compared to hard-wired creations, SynthEdit designs can and do look and sound wonderful. Jeff Mclintock doesn't even demand a credit alongside products created with it, although he does appreciate one. Consider it done, Jeff!
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SIR Convolution Reverb
Most musicians will, by now, have heard about convolution reverb, the technique that captures the sound of a real acoustic space as an impulse response (IR) file and then uses it as a digital audio effect, either in hardware or plug-in form. This results in significantly more realistic reverbs than those created using an algorithmic model, albeit normally at the expense of rather more processing power. This same technology is also now routinely used to capture the particular non-linearities of preamps, microphones, compressors, speakers and their cabinets, and even the sound of software-designed virtual spaces.
However, while the 'big boys' release extremely clever but expensive plug-ins that can modify the initial impulse files in various ways, the maths for straightforward impulse reverb playback is well known, and many users are beginning to find that the quality of the original impulse responses is arguably more important than the playback engine. In other words, a significant part of the cost of commercial convolution reverbs is down to the huge effort involved in creating IRs from world-class acoustic spaces for the bundled library.
With this in mind, PC users are lucky to have a freeware VST plug-in available for IR playback. After over a year in Beta form, during which time it gained an enthusiastic following, Christian Knufinke's SIR (Super Impulse Response) has recently jumped to version 1.005. You can download it from the author's web site at www.knufinke.de/sir.
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SIR provides PC owners with a free convolution reverb player that they can use with lots of high-quality impulse responses downloaded from around the world.
Using SIR is simplicity itself. You just click the Open File button on the right-hand side to load in an impulse file in standard 16-, 24-, or 32-bit WAV format. Its waveform then appears in the graphic window and you can start auditioning it. Beneath the window is a set of sliders. These control pre-delay, apply a basic graphic envelope to the impulse response (to remove part of its Attack for a smoother effect), add Envelope decay characteristics to simulate a smaller space, or change the Length of the impulse using gating, either to minimise CPU overhead or for special effects.
Further versatility is provided by the Stretch control. This alters the original sample's length, and hence the effective room size, between 50 percent and 150 percent. There are also width controls for both the input signal and IR output, and a Reverse button for those backwards effects. There's even a free-form eight-point graphic filter at the bottom to let you draw in your own EQ for the wet signal.
Mixing is handled by a pair of Dry and Wet sliders with peak-reading meters alongside, whose caps flash if you run into clipping. There's also an Auto Gain option and a 12dB boost to cope with low-level impulse files. Very handy Reset buttons are provided for the IR and EQ sections, to return all their controls to the default positions.
After downloading some impulse files to accompany SIR (see next section), I was most impressed by the results. Like all convolution reverbs, it's incredibly versatile — if you don't like what you hear you just try another impulse, and keep trying until you find the one that's most suitable for your track. I find the Stretch control effective, within limits, for fine-tuning the apparent size of the space, although metallic and lumpy artifacts can kick in at more extreme settings. Used carefully, the Attack control also proves handy for reducing early reflections, while the Envelope effectively shortens the Decay Time. The Length control must be used carefully to avoid artificial-sounding truncated tails, but it's perfect for gated reverb effects that make drums sound huge without swamping them in reverb.
For straightforward playback of IR reverbs, SIR sounds very good to me, and the CPU overhead on my P4 2.8GHz PC was also modest, rarely exceeding six percent with 16-bit/44.1kHz impulses, compared with about four and half percent for the Waves Rverb and up to nine percent for PSP's EasyVerb. If your PC is much slower than this, SIR has a Dynamic CPU Consumption mode that seems to reduce overhead once the reverb tail has dropped to silence and calculations are therefore no longer required, without audible degradation. If you still find the CPU overhead too taxing on your PC, you can always use the 'freeze track' function of your sequencer to capture audio tracks complete with reverb.
The only limitation is that SIR imposes a fixed 8960-sample latency, which equates to 203ms at 44.1kHz. While this is huge, multitrack applications such as Cubase SX 2.0 compensate for it automatically, and latency won't normally worry anyone running a mastering application such as Wavelab. Only those whose applications are without automatic compensation should find this latency a problem, and even then it's possible to tackle it with a utility such as the AnalogX Sample Slide, as I described in SOS April 2004. However, SIR is not suitable for use as an effect during the recording process, and a few users have also apparently found instability problems while using it, although you can always remove it from your VST Plug-ins folder if this happens.
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Useful Music Utilities
AnalogX (www.analogx.com) provides a wide range of really handy utilities including DXMan for managing DirectX plug-ins, BitPolice for analysing what a DX plug-in is doing to your audio stream, MIDI Mouse Mod for mouse control of up to four simultaneous MIDI controllers, and DriveTime, which sits on your taskbar providing a read-out of remaining hard disk space in hours and minutes at a particular sample rate and bit depth.
Anvil Studio (www.anvilstudio.com) from Willow Software is a sequencer offering comprehensive MIDI support, with staff, lyric, piano roll, drum and event editors, plus limited stereo audio support, although an optional $19 add-on extends this to eight audio tracks. It runs on all Windows versions right back to Win 95.
Converter, from urr Sound Technologies Inc (www.urr.ca), is a DOS-only application designed as a system for sophisticated real-time MIDI performances, with an advanced MIDI input processor, audio to MIDI converter, gameport or joystick to MIDI converter, and mouse or touchpad to MIDI converter. You can use it with most elderly PCs, from an absolute minimum of a 486DX 33MHz, with the addition of an MPU401 interface or a soundcard such as a SoundBlaster or Gravis Ultrasound.
MusicGraph, by Paul Nelson, (http://gigue.peabody.jhu.edu/~pnelson/welcome.html) is a visual tool for exploring the content of modern compositions. It takes a MIDI file and produces coloured graphs of interval content, total volume, notes per second, intensity and dissonance.
Nero's CD-DVD Speed (www.cdspeed2000.com) is a handy 471K benchmark utility that tests the most important features of your CD or DVD drive. Various other related freeware utilities are also available on the same download page.
Steem (http://steem.atari.st) is a freeware Atari STE Emulator that's claimed to run the vast majority of ST software without problems, including games and MIDI music applications.
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Impulse files themselves are also freely available for download at various web sites, the most notable being the Noise Vault (www.noisevault.com). This now has hundreds of offerings from lots of different contributors. Understandably, given that it's far easier to get access to old hardware than to set up mics and speakers in halls, studios and churches, these largely consist of impulses captured from reverbs and other devices from the likes of Alesis, EMT, Eventide, Kurzweil, Lexicon, Quantec, Roland, TC Electronic and Yamaha, plus a small range of real spaces, mics, preamps and speaker cabinets.
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With thousands of original sample-based songs already available for free download, easy-to-use editors such as MadTracker 2, shown here, or simpler playback-only applications like the ModPlug Player (lower right), the tracker format is still popular with lots of musicians.
The downloads are generally packs of several 16-bit/44.1kHz IRs totaling several Megabytes in size. They vary in quality considerably, with some being clean and clear while others are noisy. As might be expected, there are more Lexicons than anything else, but gems from other manufacturers can also be found in the collection.
Noise Vault also has active forums, with lots of helpful information on capturing your own impulses, as well as how to convert other formats to the standard WAV used by SIR, among others. This data will be particularly useful to users of Sonic Foundry's (now Sony Media Software) Acoustic Mirror tool, who already have a good library of impulse files in SFI format but often experience much higher CPU overheads when using Acoustic Mirror than they do using SIR as a plug-in in their chosen MIDI + Audio sequencer.
Other packs of impulses are available free from various web sites, including Echo Chamber's German-only site (www.echochamber.ch). There's a large library from Prosoniq (www.prosoniq.com) in HQX format for Mac users (although the free Stuffit Expander utility, downloadable from www.stuffit.com, will happily expand these files for PC users); the complete set of Acoustic Mirror Impulses from Sony Media Software (http://mediasoftware. sonypictures.com); and four banks from Voxengo (www.voxengo.com), this time of virtual (imaginary) spaces created with the Impulse Modeler application that I first mentioned in PC Notes October 2002.
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For the last 17 years, various Tracker applications have helped generate hundreds of original sample-based songs in a compact file format, and PC users can now access them free of charge, as well as creating their own. Way back in 1987, Karsten Obarski came up with his SoundTracker software for Commodore's Amiga platform, which provided hardware support for playing back up to four samples simultaneously at differing sample rates.
By today's standards, SoundTracker was a fairly basic step sequencer with four channels. New samples could be triggered at any step on each of the channels, with data displayed in a four-column format and entered using the computer keyboard. The resulting four-channel Patterns were then chained together via a master list to form songs in MOD (module) format, consisting of the song data plus the various samples that had been used.
Despite these limitations, complex drum tracks could still be built up by interleaving samples in the same channel, leaving the other three channels for bass, melody line, and other accompaniment. For much music this proved perfectly adequate, although many musicians resorted to sampling a selection of chords to fill the sound out. Many other special commands were also available to enter into a step position in addition to the note data, such as tempo changes, volume changes and pitch bends, to provide more expressive capabilities.
This step-editing process might sound tedious, but a huge number of Amiga musicians rose to the challenge of making the most of this 4-voice polyphonic sampler package to add music to demos and computer games, in the process perfecting techniques for incorporating effects such as echo and gating.
When PCs first came of age for music making in the mid '90s, ScreamTracker (www.hitsquad.com/smm/programs/Scream_Tracker) was one of the first music software packages to appear with sample support, followed by the still popular Fast Tracker 2 (www.gwinternet.com/music/ft2), Impulse Tracker (www.noisemusic.org/it), and MadTracker (www.madtracker.org).
Fortunately, by this stage MIDI support had been added to most trackers, so you could play in your tunes in 'real time' from a music keyboard rather than entering them as step data from the computer keyboard, while the four-track limit was removed in PC trackers; a greater number of tracks could be mixed down to stereo using a software re-sampling engine. ScreamTracker supports up to 16 channels and sample sizes up to 64K, while FastTracker offers 32 channels and Impulse Tracker offers 64, as well as supporting much larger sample files, of up to 2MB. Other new features also appeared, such as software reverb and surround sound effects, although using them will make your songs sound different when played back on other trackers.
Despite the number of loop-based sequencers available today — Acid and Live, for example — trackers are still immensely popular, because they are compact and easy to learn and use. They're also often free to download, and there are many existing MOD files with relatively small file sizes available for free download (it's possible to create melodies from one single-note sample and complex songs using just a few hundred kilobytes of samples).
MOD files can be downloaded from quite a few sites. One of the largest must be the Mod Archive (www.modarchive.com), which houses nearly 12GB of files, as well as hosting various tracker-related forums. Music can be found in a huge variety of styles, although electronica abounds. I found a nice collection of modern dance, trance, rave house, and synth pop music by 'Otis' at www.xs4all.nl/~perseus during my travels, but you are never likely to run out of MOD files to download — a Google search for 'mod file downloads' turned up over a million links.
If you're specifically interested in soundtracks ripped from computer games, Game Music Base (www.mirsoft.info/gmb) has a huge collection in many different formats, including MOD, although some of the earlier Amiga ones don't sound quite the same on the PC, to my ears at least. If you just want to play back these archive songs, you don't even need a full tracker — MOD Players such as the 334K MODPlug (www.modplug.com) are perfectly adequate for this task (you can download yet more MOD files at this web site), while the popular WinAmp player (www.winamp.com) will also play back MOD files, as well as other formats. MOD Players are also generally more stable than trackers, in my experience.
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Freebies From Commercial Developers
If you're concerned about installing freeware plug-ins and soft synths from unknown developers, in case they have any effect on the stability of your PC, remember that those in VST format can simply be deleted from your VST plug-ins folder if they cause any trouble. However, one way to ensure that you don't have any such problems is to download the 'freebies' kindly provided by some commercial developers. Here are a few that I've found useful:
IK Multimedia (www.sampletank.com): SampleTank Free 1.1 plus 20 free instrument files.
Native Instruments (www.native-instruments.net): SoundForum soft synth, Traktor DJ Player.
OtsZone (http://otslabs.com): Ots CD Scratch 1200, Ots Turntables Free.
PSP (www.pspaudioware.com): PianoVerb, VintageMeter.
Sony Media Software (http://mediasoftware.sonypictures.com): ACID XPress
Voxengo (www.voxengo.com): OldSkoolVerb, EssEQ, Tempo Delay, Tube Amp VST.
Yamaha (www.yamahasynth.com/download/twe.html): TWE Wave Editor v2.31.
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Although there are some wonderful commercial stereo audio editors and mastering packages available for PC users, not everyone needs their vast arsenal of functions; nor can they afford their price tags.
Enter Audacity (http://audacity. sourceforge.net), a free audio editor for Windows, Mac OS9/X and Linux users. Originally started in 1999 by Dominic Mazzoni while he was still at college, its code is now open-source freeware and several dozen developers around the world collaborate to add new features.
Audacity is only a tiny 2.6MB download, but despite this it has lots of features and offers a choice of 20 languages for its menu text. The program can import and export WAV, AIFF, AU, Ogg Vorbis and MP3 files, and supports 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit float formats at up to 96kHz. It provides a familiar graphic editing environment, with a main waveform display and a set of toolbars across the top, although these can be floated if you prefer.
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Audacity offers support for various audio formats, a fully-featured graphic editing environment and lots of integral effects — in short, it's a totally free audio editor.
The Control Toolbar contains attractive transport controls, plus a set of tools that includes the usual Selection, Draw and Zoom tools, plus a well-coded Envelope tool for changing volume over time, TimeShift for moving tracks left or right, and a clever Multi tool that lets you access any of these, depending on the location of the mouse and the keys you hold down.
The Edit toolbar has 11 buttons, all with familiar functions. The unlimited Undo/Redo functions, in particular, are welcome. The Mixer toolbar lets you set playback level, along with input source and recording level if your soundcard uses the standard Windows mixer.
So far, so good. But when you really start examining the various menus, you realise just how much Audacity has to offer. Loop enthusiasts will appreciate the way the Zero Crossings function modifies the start and end points of a selection to avoid clicks, as well as the variable-threshold Beatfinder, while the Effect menu is a revelation, with several dozen treatments on offer, including compressor, EQ and FFT filtering with click-and drag graphic interface, pitch, speed, and tempo changing, plus many others with a simpler slider-only interface.
There's even a Noise Reduction treatment that uses a noise profile. While this produced fairly obvious chirpy artifacts with the samples I tried, it proved to be a wonderful effect at extreme settings! As with Sound Forge, you can preview each effect before applying it off-line.
In a similar way to Wavelab's Montage functions, Audacity's Project menu lets you import, record and play back multiple audio tracks for subsequent mixdown into a single stereo stream. You can even import raw data, add or import text labels and load in and display MIDI files, although MIDI playback, recording and editing are still destined for a future release of the software. The Generate menu can create 30-second files containing test tones, white noise, silence and a handy audio click-track at any bpm rate.
I was extremely impressed with Audacity, but it has a few limitations worth mentioning. Firstly, it doesn't import audio tracks from audio CDs, although there are various other freeware utilities that can do this if it's something you need to do, and to export MP3 files you'll need a suitable encoder, such as the freeware LAME, which can be found via links from www.mp3-converter. com/encoders/lame_encoder2.htm.
For most musicians it will also be frustrating not to be able to use any of their DirectX or VST effect plug-ins, although there is a partial workaround — the optional VST Enabler plug-in for use with Audacity isn't built in, for licensing reasons, but it can be downloaded separately and dragged into Audacity's own Plug-Ins folder, along with any VST plug-ins you want to use. It certainly works, but the current version of the Enabler ignores the graphic interface from each plug-in, instead replacing it with a generic 'slider and text box' window. Simple plug-ins are still usable under these circumstances, but for more complex ones it's mighty frustrating. Let's hope the promised upgrade with full graphic plug-in support will appear soon.
Although I was fully expecting to report plenty of interesting free downloads when I first started working on this feature, I was still amazed at some of the things I found in my travels. I hope this roundup has whetted your appetite, as well as proving that free software can sometimes be surprisingly capable. I'm certain much of the software here could actually be sold on a commercial basis if its developers so wished, and given the huge amount of time it takes to develop (I know — I used to be a software author myself in a former existence) it would be great if users would support them, where appropriate, with a donation.
Since I deliberately restricted myself to freeware on this occasion, there's still a whole world of excellent low-cost PC shareware out there that I haven't yet mentioned, and I hope to cover some of the best in a future feature.