AF’s Weblog

November 17, 2010

Choosing a Laptop for Music Making: Part 1

Finding the right laptop for music production can be rather troublesome. In this, the first of two articles, we’re going to look at the reasons why laptops have problems and what can be done about it.

With a desktop computer you can select a few good components, screw the thing together, tweak Windows and you’re off making music. With a laptop there’s no real knowing what’s inside the box and you certainly couldn’t build one yourself. So, you have to make a choice, take a stab, and hope for the best.

The thing is that it really should just work. You should be able to buy a laptop, plug in a compatible interface, install some software and make some music – why would that be difficult? In many cases it’s not and often people do exactly that, but sometimes you can run into trouble with audio dropouts, glitching, clicks and pops or simply a refusal to work.

In this, the first of two articles, I’m going to be looking at the reasons why laptops have problems and what can be done about it. In the second article I’m going to be looking at whether there are some smart choices out there for music production and live performance and I’m going to be revealing the testing I did in trying to find the next model to use as the Rain UK Livebook.

The Apple MacBook Pro

Before we do, let’s get past the ubiquitous Apple MacBook Pro.

It’s everywhere, the glow of that white piece of fruit, throbbing annoyingly. Every electronic musician or DJ seems to have one. Every piece of marketing from a music manufacturer with a laptop product seems to feature one. It would be silly to do an article on audio laptops without mentioning it. The MacBook Pro is beautifully designed, elegant and ergonomic. The aluminium shell has a great quality to it, the backlit keyboard fantastic for live performance, it’s built with quality components and runs OSX which works wonderfully with Apple compatible products.

 

The biggest down side is the price. A 15” MacBook Pro starts at $1700, but that’s only the beginning. The standard 5400rpm drive really needs to be upgraded to a 7200rpm one for audio work which adds a further $200. Standard tech support is only for 90 days unless you purchase the AppleCare Protection Plan for an additional $349, so without even thinking about it you’re over two grand and that’s for the entry level machine. Apple do somehow manage to generate a kind of mystical energy field around their products which makes them appear head and shoulders above anything else. In reality they are simply good quality laptops which share many of the same pros and cons of other good quality laptops. They have a tendency to run hot and the fans can be noisy; the battery life can be poor (although the latest generation are much improved, many Mac users complain of poor battery life after a years use so we don’t yet know how the new ones will pan out); they only have a couple of USB slots and with the standard version described above there’s no ExpressCard slot.

On the up side they do have powered firewire which is a fabulous thing that’s sorely missing on PC laptops. As with all Apple products you have the security of knowing that whatever works with it will work very well – however, that also means that your options are limited when compared to the PC. You can also run Windows on a MacBook Pro, but then it becomes a very very expensive PC as many of the advantages are to be found in the smooth flowing proprietary nature of OSX.

I don’t think you’d ever be disappointed with a MacBook Pro, and at that price you’d hope that you never would be. Are there alternatives? I believe so yes. I believe the laptop you get free when signing up to Tesco (popular supermarket chain in the UK) broadband is capable of making music, however, if you want to do things a bit more properly and can aim for a quality laptop then they can be completely capable of doing the job just as well.

Now let’s take a look at some of the problems with laptops…

Firewire Bandwidth

This is increasingly an area of concern. With most professional audio interfaces favouring the firewire connection then you need to have a good, working firewire connection on your laptop. But these things are never straightforward. It seems that not all firewire connections are the same. The specification appears to allow for enormous variation in the quality of the chipset and the drivers. In most cases, for most devices, such as cameras and external hard drives, then it all works fine.

For real-time, multichannel, high definition audio it can be a different story. It’s become accepted now that the Texas Instrument (TI) firewire chipset is the best choice for audio interfaces. Very few, if any, laptops come with a TI chipset firewire socket, the chipset is usually by another manufacturer and would appear as a generic “OHCI IEEE1394 Firewire port” in Windows. The only way around this is to get an ExpressCard firewire card (like this one from Startech) which fits into the side of the laptop (assuming it has a slot for it). Unfortunately our troubles are not quite over. The Firewire card connects to the system via the PCIe bus. The PCIe bus has a finite amount of resources and has to share them with other devices attached to the system. Modern laptops tend to pack in components so you get modems, Bluetooth, fingerprint security, the inbuilt firewire port and the graphics engine all vying for the same resources and the same bandwidth. Firewire is designed to negotiate for what it needs, however, multichannel audio needs more bandwidth than any other firewire device and it may be that there simply isn’t the room with all the other junk connected.

The best solution is, of course, to use a USB audio interface! There’s a sense of frustration in the industry with firewire at the moment. The amount of problems people have and the subsequent technical support load it causes for the manufacturers are having an impact. USB 3 has just arrived giving much greater bandwidth and speed than firewire and I imagine that it won’t be long before we see professional interfaces with USB3 sockets on them.

With all that in mind the chances are that your choice of laptop will work fine! DPC latency can usually be tackled by disabling stuff, and the firewire bandwidth problem is not that common. But they are both worth checking out as soon as you get your laptop so you can return it within the 7 day cooling off period.

In part 2 I’ll be looking at getting a laptop from Audio PC companies and also how Rain UK came up with their new Livebook.

To read the full detailed article see:  Choosing a Laptop for Music Making Part 1

 

April 9, 2010

Music Making with a Computer (Part 1)

A computer to make music? Sounds great. Which computer should I get and with what specification? Good question. But first things first: what is a computer and how does it work?

Computers revolutionized the way we work, regardless of what you call work: music production, accounting, management. Can you imagine having to write your CV with a typewriter (carbon copy included) instead of a text editor? Of course you can’t. The same applies to music recording and producing: it’s hard to do it without a computer… You’ll certainly find vintage fundamentalists here and there, but we all have to resign to the fact that all songs released these days have been processed in one way or another with a computer before they hit the market – even if just because all formats are digital nowadays (CD, MP3; except for the DJ and Hi-Fi freak vinyl niche market).

It is indeed still possible to record an album with a good, old multitrack recorder, and to enjoy that special sound character a tape provides, but you have to admit that it requires a lot of time and money (service, tapes, etc.), and thus it is an expensive hobby for the rich. Unless you are Jack White or Lenny Kravitz or you have enough money to rent Abbey Road for three months to edit tapes with glue and scissors, you’ll have to make do with a computer to make your music – like 99% of home studio owners and sound engineers.

What’s the purpose? With a suitable interface and software, you can control all sorts of electronic MIDI instruments (synth, sampler, etc.) and virtual instruments, you can record and mix audio with all necessary effects… What’s more, you can save as many variations as you want, repair mistakes and enjoy the wonders of cutting, copying and pasting; live or in the studio. And all of that for a ridiculous price, considering what you had to pay to do the same 30 years ago.

In short: you need a computer! Ok, but which one? Mac? PC? With which processor? And what hard drive? How much RAM? But, most importantly, how can I choose from the options available if I don’t know what a CPU is or what does RAM do?

Don’t panic! We’ll help you get things straight…

Computer Parts

Regardless of whether you have a Mac or a PC, computers generally work the same, all the more ever since Apple started using Intel processors. The difference between these two platforms resides mainly in the operating system (Window, Mac OS X, Linux, etc.), their design and the software available. It doesn’t matter if you decide to assemble your own computer or buy a pre-assembled model by a given manufacturer, a quick overview of the different parts of a computer will be very useful in order to understand their roles…

CPU

The CPU (Central Processing Unit) or microprocessor, is often compared to the brain of the computer because it manages all calculations. Considering that all data passes through the CPU, its processing power is of utmost importance for the overall performance of the computer. When it comes to audio, for example, it processes a reverb effect while displaying the graphic user interface and manages all other computer instructions (data keyboard, etc.). To use a musical metaphor, you could say it’s the musical conductor of your computer

Basically, a CPU is a small silicon square on which several millions of transistors are assembled: over 60 million on a Pentium IV and more than 731 million on the Core i7 thanks to the continuous progress in miniaturization. More cells in the silicon brain provide more power, but the number of transistors is not the only factor: the processor design and its speed also come into consideration.

The faster the CPU, the more calculations it will be able to process in a given time. This speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz). When a CPU is clocked at 2 GHz, it means it can process two milliard cycles per second. But what is a cycle? Good question! To keep it short and simple, let’s say that a cycle is a basic calculation, like adding two numbers. Multiplying two numbers takes several cycles and dividing them even more. Why? Because a CPU is extremely limited compared to the human brain. But it is extremely fast and the user can’t really notice it, which gives the impression that the machine is more intelligent.

But keep in mind that this clocking frequency is only theoretical because, in real life, our processors rarely work at full capacity. Why? Because they are slowed down by other components like RAM (Random-Access Memory). Furthermore, increasing CPU frequency is not the only nor the simplest way to increase a computer’s power. In fact, the latest CPU generations have improved their architecture implementing multi-core processors.

A multi-core CPU is a chip including several processors connected in parallel. You can find dual-core (two cores), quad-core (four cores) and even octo-core CPUs (eight cores).

By using this technology, it is now possible to improve the processing power without increasing the CPU clock, thus avoiding heat generation problems due to higher speeds.

Nowadays, these types of CPUs (mainly dual-core and quad-core) are mounted in all computers on the market regardless of whether it is a Mac or a PC.

Now let’s take a look at some other parts…

Conclusion

Now that you have been educated on the basic parts of a computer and what they do, in the next article we will deal with the specific setup choices available to have a computer ready for making music. And you can trust us, there are plenty of choices…

To read the full detailed article see:  Making Music with a Computer

February 10, 2010

My iPhone is a Sequencer

iPhone/iPod Touch Sequencers Report

We’ll start with Xewton Music Studio, a pretty comprehensive MIDIMy iPhone is a sequencer sequencer if you consider that it runs on a mobile phone. It features 128 MIDI tracks, 4 FX sends (reverb, delay, EQ, amp simulation) and 21 instruments – more than enough to get you started… But even though the instruments will cover most of your needs and you can edit their volume envelope curve (in a somewhat rudimentary way), don’t expect too much from their sound (the quality is on the same level as an old wavetable Sound Blaster sound card, in other words cheap-sounding, but usable, Soundfonts).

On the other hand, the sequencing functions are pretty comprehensive including a dual, virtual MIDI keyboard for real time control of two instruments, a piano roll view, an arranger window, velocity management, and all necessary sequencing functions like cut, copy, paste, transpose, etc. It goes without saying that you can set the volume and pan for each track and, more importantly, you can export your work as a WAV or MIDI file. In conclusion, it is definitely a must-have for the iPhone and well worth the $19.99 the developer asks for it.

Now let’s look at some several other sequencers…

Loop the Loop

To wrap up this non-exhaustive iPhone sequencer overview let’s My iPhone is a sequencertake a look at loop-based production tools inspired by Acid/Garageband. With a brilliant design, IK Multimedia’s Groovemaker is available for different music styles at $7.99, but you cannot import your own loops, which is a major drawback. That’s why we prefer Looptastic’s Producer version ($9.99), because it allows you to import your own WAV, AIFF and OGC files. It can synchronize up to 20 files at the same time and allows you to export your mix.

My iPhone is a sequencerIt’s a pity that you cannot record! That’s the whole point of loopers and loop samplers! They come in very handy to record song ideas on the spot and loop the loop with our previous report about iPhone audio recorders. Anyway, we will only mention the nice StompVox, which lacks an export function, and take a nearer look at the excellent iSample which has been praised by Roger Linn himself and Jordan Rudess. This app provides six 30-second samplers, a mixer, a loop editor, delay and reverb effects, and a 12-pattern sequencer. Everything for only $9.99.

On the other side, some of you will appreciate the simplicity of My iPhone is a sequencerEveryday Looper! The oddness about this 4-track looper is the GUI with no buttons: you can slide both ways using 1, 2 or 3 fingers to start or stop the recording, toggle between different tracks, and export the result of your work via WiFi. This app is very ergonomic and costs only $3.99.

To read the full detailed report see: iPhone Sequencers

October 16, 2009

Apple iPhone: My iPhone is an 8-Track Recorder

Filed under: Recording reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 8:39 am

Could the iPhone be the best portable recorder?

The iPhone is a great little piece of machinery.  It can do anything!  What’s the weather going to be like in Chicago tomorrow? At what time does Police Academy 17 run again?  7:20pm.  A Bomberman game? No problem-o.  Lady Gaga’s latest hit?  You got it.  We’re just missing some useful tools for musicians… You think? They are already here.

The iPhone’s first advantage is that it’s a phone, so it spends most of the time in your pocket, being accessible at any time. Its main asset is that its OS is open to third-party applications. In other words, you can download small programs–made by independent developers or by big companies– for lots and lots of possible applications. It’s quite impressive to see what these developers have to offer: an ultrasonic mosquito killer, a spirit level, a software that uses the sound print of a song to recognize it… In short, for every taste and every need, there are currently about 80,000 free or paid applications registered at http://appshopper.com/.

For audio heads like us, this has become quite interesting: the music category boasts over 2,400 very-poorly-sorted applications (when will we get filters and subcategories in the AppStore?). You’ll find the best and the worst you can think of: lots of applications which promote artists or radio stations, and even some which only display animations, song lyrics or artist info when a MP3 file is played. The finest of all is Shazam, an application that recognizes music on the basis of an audio sample (convenient to get the title of a great song playing on the radio). When it comes to applications developed to create music, there are six main categories:

  • Virtual instruments (guitar, piano, drums, synth, etc.)
  • Tools (meters, tuners, chord dictionaries)
  • MIDI control surfaces
  • Sequencers (most of them including a sound generator or a sample player)
  • DJ applications (that allow you to mix and synchronize two tracks)
  • Digital audio recorders

We could actually write a whole article about each of the categories, but given that AudioFanzine is about “Audio,” we thought we’d focus on the recording tools–specially considering that the iPhone could become a must have for on-location recording.

Now let’s take a closer look at how to do just that…

Conclusion

With very affordable applications and some hardware enhancements, the iPhone can surely become a multi-track recorder for anyone (journalist or musician) willing to give up some audio features (transducer quality, simultaneous four-track recording, connectivity) to enjoy its excellent usability and the advantages of an all-in-one solution you can carry in your pocket. Just as the digital camera market is waning due to mobile phones, the portable audio recording market could also face strong competition from the iPhone.  This means that dedicated products will have to introduce technological improvements, like color touch screens, if they want to survive in the future. We’ll have to just keep an eye on it.

To read the full detailed article see:  Apple iPhone as an 8-track Recorder

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