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Create your own music on the Mac
(IDG) -- You're finishing up a song and tapping your feet as volume meters dance in tempo with the beat. Reaching over to the mixing console, you tweak the volume levels of the piano track. That's better. You rewind your multitrack recording deck, press the record button, and add a few chords from an '80s-vintage analog synthesizer. Nice. Now there's just one more thing: you patch in a reverberation-effects unit to give the vocal that rich concert-hall sound. Perfect. You're ready to burn a CD and encode your efforts as MP3 files to post on the Web.
Think you're in the control room of a million-dollar recording studio? No--you're sitting in front of your trusty Mac.
The volume meters and mixing console are on screen, and you're turning knobs and pressing buttons with your mouse. The multitrack deck and vintage synthesizer are actually pieces of software, and so is the reverb-effects unit. In fact, aside from a music keyboard, a special musical interface, and a pair of speakers, everything in this setup is a piece of software. Welcome to the virtual recording studio.
Outfitting even a modest studio used to mean spending thousands of dollars for recording decks, effects processors, music synthesizers, and other hardware devices. But thanks to the fast processor in the Power Mac G3 and G4, these days the Mac itself can handle most of what once required dedicated hardware. With the latest audio software, it's easier and less expensive than ever to set up a professional-quality home recording studio--or to add versatile, economical audio tools to your existing pro studio.
To find the best music-production tools, I spent several noisy weeks testing more than a dozen software packages. I also created some MP3 audio files to help you hear the best features in action.
So Happy Together
A virtual recording studio has many of the same components as a traditional studio, but it runs within the Mac's friendly confines. Here's what you'll need to turn your Mac into a high-tech studio.
All You Need Is . . .
Handling huge audio files, generating real-time effects, and simultaneously communicating with external MIDI gear demands a fast computer with a fast hard drive and plenty of RAM. Still, you don't have to break (or even rob) the bank to set up a desktop recording studio.
An iMac will take you a long way, and even an elderly 604-based Power Mac will run the sequencers I tested. But if you're planning to use software synthesizers and real-time effects plug-ins, you'll want a G3 or better with at least 128MB of memory. That's because software synths can gobble up 50MB or more of RAM when you have lots of sounds installed. I used a 400MHz blue-and-white G3 with 128MB of RAM for my testing.
I also used Mac OS 8.6 because Apple was still tweaking Mac OS 9 to address some audio-related issues. The company was resolving these problems as I finished this article, but they underscore two important points: first, verify compatibility with your Mac model and system software before buying any audio software; second, avoid updating the system software until you're sure your audio tools will run with the latest Mac OS.
Also, if my experience was any indication, getting a system to work properly can be a challenge. You'll download update patches frequently as vendors release bug fixes. You'll also become pals with the Mac's Extension Manager control panel, because audio programs can bicker with one another and with other software. This is the bleeding edge, and hemorrhages happen.
Room to Grow
You'll also need plenty of hard drive space, because CD-quality stereo files gobble about 10MB per minute. The hard drives that ship in today's iMacs and G4s are big and fast enough to record and play back several simultaneous audio tracks. But the more tracks you want to play at a time, the faster the hard drive you need. That's because each track is stored as a separate file, and playing back multiple tracks requires the hard drive to access each of those files in real time. Some audio professionals use a second, high-speed SCSI drive to store audio tracks (although an additional fast IDE drive would also do the trick), keeping their programs and System Folder on the Mac's built-in hard drive. In either case, optimizing your drive (or drives) regularly will result in quicker access to your tracks.
All Power Macs are capable of stereo recording and playback, so to actually hear your efforts, all you need is a set of amplified speakers or some headphones. But for recording, an inexpensive mixer--a device that takes multiple audio inputs and merges them into one or two audio outputs--will greatly streamline your audio connections by providing multiple jacks into which you can plug microphones and instruments. You can also invest in third-party hardware that improves on the Mac's built-in sound circuitry.
Review: G3 Upgrades
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Read the complete, illustrated article here
Listen to musical samples created using the steps above
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