Mac OS X for Musicians

Is OS X Ready for Prime time?
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If you're a Mac user, you've probably seen Mac OS X in action, but you may not know whether you can truly rely on it for ordinary tasks, much less your day-to-day music-production needs. If you use other operating systems, like Windows, you may be curious about what kind of wrench Apple has thrown into the gears in an attempt to reassert its dominance in the media-authoring platform war.

Mac OS X is definitely alive and kicking. It is already in its fourth maintenance release (10.0.4) as of this writing, and all signs point to a significant release by press time. Apple planned to release version 10.1 in October 2001 and claims that the new version will offer much greater speed and stability. To help sort fact from fancy, here's a look at where things stand now; what the future may hold; and most important, what Apple has done to support a new generation of music-production tools for the Mac.

HISTORY LESSON

Apple didn't make Mac OS X from scratch. Many EM readers know the history behind Apple's 1997 buyout of Steve Jobs's NeXT and how the NeXT OS became the basis of Apple's next-generation Mac OS, so it's not worth belaboring here. If you're not up to speed, plenty of background information is available from online resources such as the Macworld Web site (see the sidebar, “Mac OS X Resources”). If you prefer a bit more intrigue, check out Owen Linzmayer's Apple Confidential: The Real Story of Apple Computer, Inc. (No Starch Press).

Thanks to its underpinnings as a modern Unix operating system, Mac OS X offers most of what experienced computer jockeys expect from a modern operating system: protected memory so applications can't crash one another, preemptive multitasking so computing processes can get attention if they need it, and a more secure environment so users can insulate their data from malicious interlopers.

Stapling a Macintosh façade onto Unix was a lot of work, but it's the prettiest face Unix has ever worn; Apple's plastic surgeons have worked overtime to disguise the scars and install a nice, healthy complexion (see Fig. 1). Apple's Darwin project makes the kernel, networking, and other portions of the OS open source and lets Unix developers benefit from Apple's improvements and contribute to its development. Although Darwin doesn't open the source for the Finder (the Mac's file-management interface) or other aspects of the Mac's graphical user interface (GUI), audio and MIDI developers surely will be pleased with the amount of accessible source code that Apple supplies for the core media engines.

KICKING THE TIRES

Every machine that Apple has sold since May 2001 comes with Mac OS X installed, so finding a machine that runs the new operating system isn't much of a challenge. The real challenge comes in finding a machine that runs Mac OS X well, because Apple's meaty OS requires some hefty hardware.

In theory, any Macintosh with a G3 processor or better will do (except for the first PowerBook G3, which isn't officially supported). In practice, users have had mixed results, particularly on the beige G3 tower computers. Whichever model you use, be sure you have at least 128 MB of RAM — according to some, it's not even worth thinking about using Mac OS X unless you double that amount. Mac OS 8 or 9 may run smoothly on your current machine, but Mac OS X raises the bar; a 500 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 with 256 MB of RAM should feel ultrasnappy, but it doesn't. (Speed should improve significantly with Mac OS X version 10.1.) You may need to adjust your expectations accordingly.

Overall, your first Mac OS X experience shouldn't be overly jarring, although it won't be without a few speed bumps. Apple clearly made an admirable attempt to redefine the user experience on the desktop. Mac OS X seems remarkably different from earlier OS versions, yet it's reasonably easy to use after you get past the colorful widgets as well as things that blink, slither, and wriggle (see Fig. 2).

What may be less obvious at first is that Mac OS X probably won't run any standard Mac applications in your library, at least not in the ordinary sense. Apple provides a special compatibility mode called Classic for legacy applications; it essentially runs Mac OS 9.1 as a layer inside Mac OS X. (The included version of 9.1 is optimized for use with Mac OS X.) If you have used Connectix Virtual PC — which emulates, in software, a PC running Windows on a Mac — you're familiar with the principle. The Classic layer gets along reasonably well, though not perfectly, with native Mac OS X applications. The screen may occasionally redraw oddly, and the Classic layer occasionally hangs (or fails to start properly), but those kinds of problems have been a part of Mac OS life for years, and Mac OS X is still relatively new.

SOUND OF SILENCE

Everyone can live with a few glitches, but Mac OS X presents Mac musicians with a serious obstacle: hardly any music products work with it! Most of the usual combinations of applications and software drivers used to integrate audio cards and MIDI devices with applications don't run properly inside Mac OS X's Classic mode.

Even Sound Manager, the basic audio component built into the system, proves to be too problematic for serious editing and recording. Time spent going through contortions to get it to work is probably better used making music in OS 9. So what's a Mac-based desktop musician to do?

Sticking with older Mac OS versions has its own hazards — it leaves users standing in the shadow of a Tower of Babel that has existed for more than a decade. Software and hardware developers have largely been on their own in making sure that sophisticated MIDI and audio peripherals work well on the Mac.

For MIDI, users formerly looked to Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) and Opcode to supply system software components that support MIDI interfaces and integrate MIDI instrument management in Mac OS applications. The risks of having developers alone manage that crucial task became all too real when Opcode shut its doors last year, taking active support of its Open Music System (OMS) software with it.

Audio support has arguably been even more confusing. Confronted with the Mac system's Sound Manager and its latency problems, lack of multichannel compatibility, and inability to handle full-duplex recording and playback, audio companies had to develop their own software interfaces. They did pretty well, creating low-latency audio systems such as ASIO and EASI to implement multichannel audio-card support without requiring a particular brand of hardware. (In fairness, however, ASIO and EASI exist to work around the limitations of Mac and Windows.) Other companies, including Digidesign, took a walled-garden approach that consisted of proprietary integrated hardware and software products for musicians who wanted an extra measure of performance and reliability.

Plug-ins for software effects were even more befuddling. Unlike Microsoft, with its DirectX format for Windows (leaving aside its particular pros and cons), Apple offered no systemwide software plug-in format. A sometimes bewildering array of mutually incompatible plug-in formats — including Steinberg VST, MOTU Audio System (MAS), and Digidesign Real Time AudioSuite (RTAS) — appeared to fill the vacuum. In general, they worked well, but many desktop musicians wondered why Apple didn't take a more active role.

At the risk of speaking too soon, those days may be over. Rather than make developers re-create the existing Tower of Babel, Apple added significant new MIDI and audio potential to the operating system, apparently taking time to listen to developers and to make smart choices.

ANTICIPATION

You can pick up some interesting clues about where Mac OS X is heading by exploring Apple's developer materials; you'll get the most out of the documents if you understand programming code. In addition, some materials are directly accessible on the Web (see Fig. 3), including a PDF called “Audio and MIDI on Mac OS X.”

Every CD copy of Mac OS X also includes optional developer materials, so you can open some source files, such as audio.h, and get a taste for what Apple now supports.

MIDI MUSTER

By now it's widely known that Apple hired the MIDI engineering guru behind Opcode's OMS and that Apple is busy wiring a sophisticated system to support multiple MIDI devices and handle interapplication communication. The MIDI support includes highly accurate timing with very low latency; Apple's goal is to get a MIDI event into and back out of the system in less than 1 ms and with less than 0.2 ms inconsistency (jitter).

Apple is also making each Mac OS X machine a high-quality software synth right out of the box. The soft synth is compatible with Downloadable Sounds (DLS2), so it acts more like a General MIDI keyboard or a sampler than a free-form synthesizer. It's no doubt less sophisticated than the high-quality products currently on the market, but it should sound much better than the QuickTime Music Architecture synth it replaces. It's a good sign that Apple is serious about professional audio.

I learned from several developers that Apple has created a simple application programming interface (API) for applications to use when communicating with external MIDI devices or software synthesizers in the system. It also has created a straightforward framework for hardware developers to use when writing a device driver. All drivers talk to a unified software layer, called the MIDI Server, which in turn talks to the applications, so in principle, you may be able to have several MIDI interfaces appear like one big one with no timing issues.

Connecting MIDI interfaces with no hassles is just one side of the coin — you also need an easy way to work with the instruments you have connected and to control the patch assignments. In the now-orphaned OMS, you used Studio Setup and the Name Manager to accomplish that.

Interestingly, Apple stops short of a promise in that area but drops some pretty big hints in describing the intent of Mac OS X's MIDI services. The developer materials state, “Another goal is to provide a single systemwide configuration, that is, knowing what devices are present, and being able to assign names to those devices, manufacturer names, and what MIDI channels they're receiving on, and so on.”

Does that mean Apple will fill the gap in some future release (10.1 perhaps) with a unified Studio Setup control panel for all MIDI applications to share? Time will tell, but Apple certainly has to realize that a unique feature such as that would offer Mac OS X users tremendous advantages.

AUDIO OPPORTUNITIES

Mac OS X's built-in audio functionality is even more extensive. Convenient frameworks are provided for implementing low-latency multichannel audio-hardware drivers (in professional formats such as 24-bit, 96 kHz audio), connecting them to applications in the system, and connecting applications to form signal chains.

By low latency, Apple means input-to-output latency of less than 10 ms in the system (in addition to latency that might be added by the hardware itself). Apple has more or less realized that goal already, and as it fine-tunes the system and shakes out the bugs, the latency specs can go much lower. The “hardware abstraction layer” also makes it possible for many applications to simultaneously share low-latency access to the audio hardware, something that current proprietary systems don't allow.

The same system that lets applications talk to the hardware lets them talk to each other, essentially solving the problem of how applications might work with plug-ins. In the system, each application or plug-in is an AudioUnit. Apple provides a way of linking those together in complex signal chains and lets developers organize the chains.

AudioUnits have a system for describing the parameters they need (sliders, button toggles, and so forth), so the rudiments of an entire plug-in system exist in Mac OS X's development kits. However, Apple could go even further in helping plug-in developers establish a common GUI implementation for AudioUnit plug-ins.

How each developer will implement its applications in Mac OS X remains to be seen, but it's possible that you may finally see the Holy Grail of a single software plug-in format establishing itself on the platform.

IN FOR THE LONG HAUL

Many basic developer materials have been in the hands of the most important Mac developers for some time, and that's beginning to bear fruit; music software and hardware developers are showing consistent appreciation for the increased attention that Apple has given them lately. Apple's recent efforts to put together the IOKit (the package of developer tools that manufacturers will use to make hardware drivers) is a significant step forward and removes a major roadblock to progress on Mac OS X. You can be sure that developers in the Mac market are taking a close look at Mac OS X and its built-in capabilities, with some staking an early claim.

Emagic reports that Logic Audio 5, long in development, will be shipping for Mac OS X about the time this issue hits the newsstands, with Mac OS X native hardware support to go with it. Public demonstrations at trade shows such as Summer NAMM have already begun. MOTU reports that it is “definitely porting Digital Performer to OS X.” BIAS expects to ship Mac OS X native versions of Peak and Deck by the time you read this.

That leaves out other significant developers, such as Steinberg and Digidesign, though they may be making announcements soon.

At the very least, the enthusiasm some developers express is bound to be contagious. Apple may come out of the Mac OS X drought stronger than ever.

Jim Rippieis a Boston-area technology consultant with a bad habit of working for music software and quixotic operating-system companies. Thanks to Steve Berkley and Doug Wright from BIAS; Markus Fritze from Emagic; Jim Cooper from MOTU; Ryan Demlow from Coda; and others, who shall regrettably remain nameless, for their gracious help.

MAC OS X RESOURCES

GENERAL

http://vertigo.hsrl.rutgers.edu/ug/unix_history.html
This site provides “A Brief History of Unix,” an article written by Charles Severance with Unix neophytes in mind.

www.macintouch.com
For a daily heads-up, visit this site for general Macintosh news with respectable attention to audio and MIDI issues.

www.mackido.com/History/AppleTimeline.html
This site offers a mostly accurate account of the business twists and turns that resulted in Apple's purchase of NeXT and Steve Jobs's return.

www.macworld.com
Macworld's site provides a good, searchable archive of reviews and features, including the history of Apple and NeXT.

INFORMATION FROM DEVELOPERS

http://connect.apple.com/WWDC2000/vid_175.html;
http://connect.apple.com/WWDC2000/vid_176.html
These sites offer slightly outdated but still interesting streaming video of the 2000 Worldwide Developers Conference, with Apple engineers commenting about what they're attempting to do and offering a few demonstrations of working code.

http://developer.apple.com/audio/index.html
This clearinghouse page provides links to recent enhancements in QuickTime and Mac OS X Core Audio.

http://developer.apple.com/audio/pdf/coreaudio.pdf
Download this PDF for an overview of all the underlying OS goodies.

www.freebsd.org;
www.netbsd.org
Within these two sites, you'll find everything you want to know about BSD Unix, Mac OS X's progenitor.

SNEAKY UTILITIES

http://eshop.macsales.com/OSCXenter
Here you will find information about Unsupported UtilityX, freeware that allows you to install Mac OS X on machines that Apple does not officially support.