Double Vision

Have you worn out your Alt and Tab keys switching between your sequencer and editor/librarian? Have you saved dozens of screen sets in your favorite DAW
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Have you worn out your Alt and Tab keys switching between your sequencer and editor/librarian? Have you saved dozens of screen sets in your favorite DAW

Have you worn out your Alt and Tab keys switching between your sequencer and editor/librarian? Have you saved dozens of screen sets in your favorite DAW program and memorized the hot keys to get from one to the other? Do you catch yourself wondering whether your kid's teeth will eventually straighten out by themselves, so you can buy a 21-inch monitor and finally see your Mixer, Track, and Controller views all at the same time? Well, my friend, what you need is a second monitor!

These days, both Macs and PCs support multiple video cards, enabling you to expand your desktop relatively easily and inexpensively. Adding a second 15-inch monitor and video card to your computer costs less than upgrading to a 21-inch monitor, and you actually end up with more total screen area. You'll also find that the total footprint of the two monitors is only slightly larger than that of the bigger monitor. For those of you whose minds aren't already reeling from the possibilities, let's first look at the advantages of a dual-monitor setup and then explore adding a second monitor to your system.

SIZE MATTERSIf you've ever programmed a synthesizer or sequencer from a two-line LCD, you'll find it hard to believe that you could ever complain about the limitations of a 17-inch computer monitor. (Next you'll be calling your 486 "too slow"!) Nevertheless, you must admit that when you launch your favorite software synthesizer or sampler along with your sequencer, you only have two options: run the programs full-screen and switch between them or try to squeeze them both onto your desktop.

As Fig. 1 shows, the "squeezing" approach is a losing proposition for a couple of reasons. First, if you set your display resolution to fit both programs comfortably, everything onscreen will probably be too small to read or manipulate. Second, most programs are designed to fit a standard display, so tiling the applications horizontally or vertically often distorts the user interface.

I constantly switch between my sequencer and my notation program, because I often compose in my sequencer and then import the resulting MIDI file into my score writer. If the translation isn't quite right, I have to edit the score by looking at the original sequence to see what I had intended and then switch back to the score to make corrections. It definitely helps to have each program on its own screen, so I can simply glance back and forth.

Displaying each application on a separate monitor is clearly a superior solution. Fig. 2 shows the same two programs as Fig. 1, but this time each is on its own screen. Everything necessary is now visible and within easy reach, unless of course you also want to see the sound card's mixer applet. Never fear-theoretically you can drive up to nine separate monitors on a Windows 98 machine, and your Mac will run out of PCI slots long before the operating system chokes from too many displays.

As you might have discovered, sometimes even a single program is too much for a lone monitor. In a typical digital audio sequencer, for example, once you have more than 12 tracks in your mixer view, the dreaded scrollbar appears. It's hard enough to mix with a mouse-now you have to scroll to reach all the faders.

A dual-display setup allows the user to stretch a single application across a greatly expanded desktop (see Fig. 3). This comes in handy for viewing longer tracks, squeezing more mixer channels onscreen, and displaying more subwindows, such as event lists, video displays, and piano-roll views. Although dual-monitor support is built into the operating system, stretching a program across multiple displays requires the cooperation of the application. According to Apple, any well-written Mac application will automatically spread itself across multiple displays, and the software makers with whom I spoke all claimed to offer support for multiple monitors on both platforms. Still, it's not a bad id ea to check the Web sites of your favorite programs' manufacturers to see if there are known problems.

THE RIGHT STUFFSo what exactly do you need to expand your desktop studio's view? Well, if you have your platform's latest operating system, you're halfway there. Mac OS has supported multiple displays since the introduction of the Mac II in 1989. Microsoft finally added multiple-monitor support with Windows 98. There are some aftermarket multiple-monitor solutions for earlier Windows versions, but I'll focus here on OS-level support.

Naturally, you'll need a second video card and a PCI slot in which to put it. For both Mac and Windows users, finding slots can be a challenge. A Mac G3 or G4 user with an audio interface and a SCSI accelerator can put the second video card in that last PCI slot, but no room is left for additional system expansion. You could attach a PCI expansion chassis to your computer, but that adds significant cost. If your PC has an AGP slot, you can add an AGP video card and keep your PCI slots available for other hardware.

PC users have a file in their Windows directory called Display.txt that allows you to set up your system for multiple monitors. The file lists cards and chip sets (and sometimes specific driver versions) that are known to work in a multiple-monitor configuration, and provides step-by-step instructions for installing and configuring two or more video cards. It also includes troubleshooting advice and points out that new video cards released after the file was written may support multidisplay setups. In fact, most of the video cards at my local computer superstore were newer cards not listed in the file. As always, you should check the manufacturer's Web site for the most current information o n compatibility issues.

Under Windows, one monitor is considered the primary display, and that's where the Windows startup logo, among other things, appears. Unfortunately, most PCs offer no system-level method for designating which card handles the primary display. Should the BIOS choose the wrong card for your primary display, simply change the order of the cards in the PCI slots. Once you've installed the second video card and the system has recognized it, all you have to do is right-click on your desktop, select Properties and then Settings, and check the box labeled "Extend my Windows desktop onto this monitor" (see Fig. 4). You can also get to the Display Properties window through the Control Panel folder.

The setup procedure for a Mac is virtually identical. Turn the computer off, install the second card, plug in the monitor, and power up again. The system should recognize the new display automatically. Open the Monitors & Sound control panel, click on the Arrange button, and drag the monitor icons into the arrangement you want (see Fig. 5).

DEJA VIEWUnder both platforms, the two monitors can theoretically have different resolutions, but some Windows users warn against it. Give it a try if you like; you'll probably have no trouble as long as you don't go below 256 colors. Should your system balk at the second monitor, try setting both monitors to the same resolution and see whether that helps. If you're really picky about your display, consider using matched monitors so that their refresh rates are the same.

The other potential snag in setting up a dual-monitor system under either platform is PCI bandwidth. Some video cards don't play nicely with other PCI devices. For those cards, the top priority is getting video information through the pipeline at all costs. This can wreak havoc on PCI audio interfaces, and a dual-monitor system will only make matters worse. Before you take the leap and add that second video card, check with the manufacturer of your audio hardware to see what issues, if any, the company has had with video cards.

You can also find one-card solutions for Macs and PCs. These cards not only save you slots and resources, but also provide additional features for configuring your expanded desktop. (For PC users they may also offer support for Windows 95 and NT.) At $179, the G400 from Matrox is a relatively inexpensive Windows card. Its DualHead technology lets you manage four display modes and eight combinations of display types, including analog flat panels. The card even allows you to use an NTSC/PAL television monitor for your secondary display. For $200 to $700 more, you can have an Appian Graphics card, which supports two or four monitors and features a sophisticated application called HydraVision. H ydraVision lets you specify items such as which monitor displays which program and where dialog boxes pop up.

With multiple-monitor support standard in both major operating systems and dirt-cheap 15- and 17-inch monitors readily available, adding a second (or third) display has become a fairly inexpensive way to make your virtual workplace more productive. Just be sure to look before you leap; compatibility hasn't become a nonissue quite yet. Once you've gotten used to long track views, side-by-side full-screen displays, and 24-channel mixers without scroll bars, you'll wonder how you ever got by with just one monitor. Enjoy the view.

Brian Smithers wonders whether applying this technology to clocks would result in more hours in a day. Share your thoughts with him through his Web site,