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Create your own music on the Mac

Industry Standard

July 12, 2000
Web posted at: 8:51 a.m. EDT (1251 GMT)

(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.

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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.

  • A sequencer program, the most essential component of the virtual studio, turns the Mac into a multitrack recording deck. You can build complex arrangements by recording new tracks while existing ones play back. You can also use editing features to fix flubbed notes, transpose keys, and much more.
    Sequencers offer huge advantages over conventional tape recording, starting with undo features no razor blade can approach. You also have instantaneous access to any point in a recording--no rewind or fast-forward delays.
    Best of all, sequencers provide nondestructive processing: they don't permanently apply your edits and effects to the audio tracks you've recorded unless that's what you want. Nondestructive editing gives you infinite freedom to experiment with sounds and effects, and it's made possible by the speed of today's computers.
  • But a sequencer is nothing without sounds. With software synthesizers, the Mac can mimic anything from a vintage analog synthesizer to a grand piano to a cello. You generally play a software synth using an external music keyboard plugged into the Mac via some variety of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) hardware device for connecting electronic musical instruments to each other and to computers. Do you have to own a MIDI keyboard? No, you can create music by entering notes manually in a sequencer program. But it isn't exactly efficient--more akin to typing a letter via hunt-and-peck with the mouse and the Mac's Key Caps instead of simply using your keyboard.
    Some software synthesizers are designed for creating dance and rhythm loops--repeating series of bass and drum lines. These programs can help you create infectious dance grooves that would make even Alan Greenspan get up and shake that thang.
    Software synths are a great way to expand your studio's sound palette. They cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars less than hardware synthesizers, and if you have a PowerBook or an iBook, they're a lot more portable.
  • Once you have your sounds, effects plug-ins let you add audio effects such as auditorium-like reverberation. These software effects are comparable in quality to those of dedicated effects hardware, which can be much more expensive. Effects plug-ins work within your sequencer program, and--as I'll explain shortly--several different plug-in formats exist. Your choice of a sequencer may very well depend on the plug-ins you want to use.

All You Need Is . . .

Handling huge audio files, generating real-time effects, and simultaneously communicating with external MIDI gear demands a fast computer with a fast hard drive and plenty of RAM. Still, you don't have to break (or even rob) the bank to set up a desktop recording studio.

Power Inside

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.

Radio Radio

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
July 3, 2000
Moving to OS X: A bridge made of Carbon
June 27, 2000
Taking a look at Mac OS X's new Finder
June 19, 2000
Microsoft unveils a new Office for Macintosh
June 19, 2000
Linux for Macintosh
June 16, 2000

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Listen to musical samples created using the steps above
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