Mac OS X

Since its MacWorld debut in January 2000, Apple’s OS X has generated a steady stream of hype and hoopla. The initial buzz surrounding this sexy Unix-based operating system was rivaled only by the Rolling Stones-led launch of Windows 95. After all, what’s not to love about a significantly better, faster, and more stable platform? But without killer audio apps to run on it, OS X was quickly reduced to a virtual doorstop. Mac music maniacs waited patiently for key developers to release OS X-compatible products — and they waited. Today, over three years later, the tree is finally bearing fruit, as dozens of serious OS X audio apps and plug-ins are entering the market: Cubase SX, Digital Performer, Live, Logic, Pro Tools, Reaktor, Reason, Sampletank, Unity Session, and the list goes on. So is now the time to upgrade? And, if so, what are the advantages and potential pitfalls one should expect when doing so?
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Advantages
Historically, changes in computer operating systems have been incremental and have had little impact on the way we create audio — but Mac OS X is a cat of a different color. First and foremost, OS X offers a “protected memory environment” for your apps. This means your applications don’t share your computer’s resources in an overlapping way. In contrast, Mac OS 9’s “shared memory” architecture is a house of cards. The benefit of protected memory is independence of process and stability. In the pre-OS X world, you’d never consider leaving your email application or web browser running in the background while working with your audio tools for fear of a glitch, hang, or crash. Under Mac OS X, this concern is (theoretically) eliminated. In practice, this pretty much performs as advertised. It’s essentially impossible for one app to crash another. It’s even less likely that any app could crash Mac OS X itself. Even when an app does crash or hang, don’t panic and don’t restart your machine. In the vast majority of cases you can simply restart your crashed app and get back to work in seconds — for real, seconds.

Another fundamental advantage of Mac OS X is the quality of its user interface. Apple calls it Aqua. It’s anti-aliased for maximum clarity at every size, and has the ability to create the illusion of a third dimension with transparency and drop shadows. For all of us who stare at our monitors for untold hours, this seemingly minor upgrade isn’t minor at all. Think of it as dithering for your eyes.

Also of note, OS X comes with a rich collection of Apple-authored applications, including iTunes, iChat, iCal, iPhoto, iMovie, Mail, Safari, Apple DVD Player, PDF Preview, and QuickTime.

So Mac OS X is solid, easy on the eyes, and bundled with a bunch of cool free apps, but where it really shines is in its performance and audio feature set. Most significant is that it supports high resolution, multi-channel audio natively at 24/96 (and higher). It also offers integrated MIDI services, eliminating the need for OMS, FreeMIDI, and the like.

Another important development is Core Audio, OS X’s link between applications and I/O devices — and a fast one at that. Apple touts throughput latencies as low as 1ms (see www.apple.com/macosx/ technologies/audio.html). It took some doing. Apple had to refine Core Audio several times to get performance up to a level that made it attractive to developers. More accurately, they had to refine Mac OS X itself to allow audio priority over other processes so you can enjoy glitch free audio. They did, and these services now perform as well, or better, than the developer solutions that compose the current pool of audio drivers, plug-in formats, and protocols: ASIO, Direct I/O, EASI, Direct Connect, ReWire, VST, RTAS, MAS, etc.

You’d think everyone would share the utopian vision of a clean, stable, uncluttered, universally compatible environment for digital audio. The last time developers suspended their saber-rattling to collaborate on connectivity was for MIDI, and all that did was create a gold rush of musicians eager to retool so they could combine technologies for an expanded palette of expressivity. Many developers have been quick to adopt parts of Core Audio, but host-application developers seem loath to phase out their proprietary solutions.

Core Audio I/O, however, has been well received. Digidesign, MOTU, M-Audio, RME, Universal Audio, Propogamma, ST Audio, ESI, Digigram, Echo, and Edirol have announced or delivered Core Audio drivers. Essentially all developers have embraced Core MIDI.

Audio Units are Mac OS X’s system-wide DSP and virtual instrument plug-ins. Mac OS X comes with a dozen or so Apple-authored DSP plug-ins and one DLS- and SoundFont2-compatible Virtual Instrument. We’ll explore those at another time.

Developer adoption of the Audio Units standard has been mixed. The first to jump onboard are the long-suffering shareware guys. Most mainstream plug-in developers have been waiting for AU-compatible host apps to come along. Emagic got there shortly after being purchased by Apple. Next came Sagan Technologies with Metro. This product, which had historically been semi-distributed by Cakewalk, is still the only MIDI/DAW on Mac OS X that’s compatible with both Audio Units and VSTX plug-ins. I was stunned when I opened the Metro6 effects window and saw my plug-in list run entirely off the page!

There’s been no official declaration as of this writing from Steinberg, though they have announced that a future product will support AU. MOTU has announced they too will support AU, but they’ll initially ship with MAS support. BIAS and TC Electronic have announced support in their next releases. Bitshift Audio has embraced Audio Units to the exclusion of all other Mac OS X protocols. Digidesign, who has a long history of using proprietary-only formats, seems to be softening a bit with their adoption of Propellerhead’s ReWire protocol. Most recently Apple weighed in again with Audio Units support in Final Cut Pro 4 and their new audio-for-video tool: SoundTrack.

As of this writing, the biggest news for Mac OS X audio is that Waves and Native Instruments are well on their way. Waves has already released Waves V4 with VSTX support, and they promise to deliver Audio Units support shortly. Native Instruments has posted a complete schedule of their intended release dates for Mac OS X support, including standalone and Audio Units. So even the politically charged arena of Audio Units has made progress. In time it’s entirely possible that these platform standards will subsume their proprietary counterparts. Not soon, but it could happen.

Regardless of whether these tools conform to the new Mac OS X standards or to one of the developer protocols brought up on OS X, such as VSTX, RTAS, MAS, Direct I/O, etc., we can still work with them. Universal compatibility can come later.

Upgrade Considerations
If you’re ready to try Mac OS X, but are wondering where to start, here are some solutions to suit a variety of needs and budgets.

A second Mac: If you’re a professional working on mission-critical systems and deadline-intensive projects, you can’t afford to muck up your working system. Don’t! You’re a prime candidate for a second machine. Unless every single software and hardware component you use in your existing configuration is available for Mac OS X, you’ll find that your existing projects will be frustrating to bring up. You’ll have to reassign plug-ins and I/O devices, and, in many cases, you’ll have to significantly modify your projects to such a degree that they won’t easily go back to your main configuration. I do not suggest that you do this. Rather, use your Mac OS X machine for new projects and work within the confines of the available tools. It’s actually quite refreshing to take a new look at what your skills allow you to generate. It’s also nice to have a Mac OS 9 machine around to run all the stuff that’s either not out yet for Mac OS X or that you have yet to upgrade.

Dual boot systems: A more cost-conscious way of experimenting with Mac OS X is to configure your Mac with multiple partitions for Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X. You can only do this with a freshly reformatted hard drive, so it can be a huge undertaking. If you don’t have a brand new machine or hard drive, you’ll need to back up your work and confirm that you have all of the installers for your Mac OS 9 configuration. Then you’ll need to partition your drive. I suggest three partitions: one for 9, one for X, and one for your files. This way you’ll have a partition that you can drag and drop to a backup volume on a regular basis to preserve your work. This is a great solution, except it only allows you to work with Mac OS 9 or X, not both at once.

A portable boot drive: Another slick solution is to use a portable FireWire drive as a Mac OS X boot drive. This is pretty darn cool in that it allows you to take your total work environment from machine to machine. Unfortunately some copy protection schemes don’t dig this strategy. That’s because they authorize the use of your software with a particular machine. You’ll want to experiment with this before you assume it’ll work with your tools.

Resources: To find out more, I recommend the following two websites, www.osxaudio.com and www. audio-units.com. And of course, keep an eye on EQ for the latest OS X info!

Where it’s All Going
What’s exciting about Mac OS X is its promise for the future. Apple has made a deep commitment with their built-in applications: iTunes, iChat, iMovie, and other ongoing developments optimized for Mac OS X. The future of these titles will include some terrific surprises in keeping with the Apple tradition of innovation. Clearly music is on Apple’s radar. Less than a year ago they acquired Emagic, and now we’re hearing rumblings of a new venture into the world of online music distribution. Stay tuned.

Though it’s already rich, Core Audio isn’t a finished work. Apple still has plenty of room for enhancements. As it stands, Core Audio has already raised the bar for operating system services with its features and performance. As Core Audio gains ground, it could eventually deliver the utopian vision of universal compatibility. Imagine a future where all of your audio and MIDI I/O devices work with all of your apps along with all of your plug-ins. With Mac OS X, this possibility is real. Now, if we can just convince the MIDI/DAW developers to stop competing with their functionally redundant and mutually incompatible protocols, we might realize this utopia.

Dan Brown was with Roland when MIDI was invented, with Apple when Mac OS X was invented, and now he shamelessly speculates about what it all means in an attempt to influence the evolution of digital audio creation tools.