But when something different comes along that answers a musician’s needs in a unique way, that’s a different story. Rain Recording recently sent one of their new Event computers for review, and one way to describe it is as a sort of Mac Mini for Windows. But that’s just skimming the surface. For musicians, it bridges the gap between carrying around a desktop computer, with its attendant bulk but sturdy construction, and toting a fragile, anxiety-inducing laptop. Put a mouse, keyboard, and LCD monitor in a flight case, stash an Event in your carry-on baggage (or two if you want a redundant system — they’re small), and you’re good to go.
But of course, with something this small, the performance can’t be that great . . . right? Let’s find out.
WHAT’S INSIDE (AND OUTSIDE)
The Event has no slots, so forget about using your favorite PCI-based interface. However, with two USB 2.0 ports and one six-pin FireWire port, you can use any of the current crop of “outside the box” interfaces for getting audio in and out of the Event. There is an AC97 5.1 sound chip with line in, line out, mic in, and S/PDIF optical out, but while you could use it in a pinch, for serious musical applications I’d recommend an external interface. The only catch: The keyboard and mouse (supplied with the package) take up the two USB slots, so unless you’re using a FireWire interface and have no dongles, a USB hub is essential.
As to horsepower, the processor is an Intel Core 2 Duo; the internal drive is 100GB (Ultra 150 SATA with 8MB buffer). However, be aware it spins at 5400 RPM. This isn’t likely to be an issue if you’re using the Event as an “instrument” (e.g., running something like a guitar amp simulator or sampler) or doing light recording, but if you expect to record or stream dozens of tracks, consider an external 7200 RPM drive to supplement your setup.
One thing I really like about the Event is the CD/dual layer DVD burner, so you can back up what you do while you’re on the road. And, there’s an Ethernet port so you can do high-speed internet surfing back at the Holiday Inn.
But let’s get to applications; for more specs, check out www.rainrecording.com. However, one thing that’s perhaps not clear from the site is that the computer comes with a keyboard, mouse, digital video-to-VGA adapter, and breakout cable for the “TV” video out with S-video, composite, and RGB video.
APPLYING THE EVENT
You can’t help but notice it’s tiny: 6.5" W x 2" H x 6.5" D. It’s also light (3 lbs.), quiet, and rather cute with its shiny-metallic-meets-utilitarianism design. The AC adapter is small, too (it’s only 65W), and of course, there’s no power supply fan. So no worries about where to put it — I just hooked up the keyboard, mouse, and monitor, then plugged in.
The Event comes with some bundled software: Windows XP Pro, Sonar LE, PCDJ Be the DJ, Nero Express CD/DVD Creation Software, PowerDVD software DVD player, and Acronis True Image Backup/Recovery. It’s worth pointing out that Sonar LE is pretty advanced stuff, being basically Sonar of a few versions back. There are also 19 audio processing plug-ins from Cakewalk, a couple of soft synths, and some freebie VST plugs. While most users would likely want to install their host of choice, Sonar LE (like Cubase LE) is a lot more powerful than the “LE” tag might lead you to believe.
My first task for the Event was how well it would work as a virtual “guitar rack,” so I started off by installing Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig and used Mackie’s Onyx Satellite as the interface. However, I was quite disappointed that I couldn’t get latencies under 256 samples without nasty crackling. Thinking it might be the Satellite (hey, it’s a new product, and you know about drivers), I swapped it out for the PreSonus FireBox — yet it performed similarly.
Puzzled, I booted up Sonar LE, inserted Guitar Rig as a plug-in, and started recording. But I’d get about one second of recording, gapping, another second, gapping, and so on.
Something clearly wasn’t right — I use a Rain notebook, and its performance is excellent — so after checking the obvious things (priority was already given to background processes, as it should be, and the hard drive didn’t seem to be using DMA mode, which is not as it should be), I called Rain tech support. It was late in the day; when I got voicemail, I didn’t have much hope for an answer. But at 9pm East Coast time, where Rain is located, I got a call back and was walked through the process of basically blasting away some drivers in device manager, then re-booting and letting the computer “re-negotiate” with its peripherals. Problem solved (as this was one of the first production models, Rain gets some slack), and I returned to Guitar Rig.
THE VIRTUAL GUITAR RACK
With Guitar Rig in standalone mode and the FireBox providing the interface, I set the latency to a nice, safe 10ms and all was well. So I racheted it down to 6ms — still good to go. 4ms: Yup. Pleasantly surprised, I tried 2.5ms and it still worked perfectly. I gotta say, playing through an amp sim running with that little latency (and remember, there was a FireWire interface in the chain) was a revelation. The system didn’t give up until I set the latency to 2ms. Very impressive, to say the least.
I then opened up Sonar LE, inserted Guitar Rig as a plug-in, and did a little recording. After laying down a few tracks, I was shocked that although the CPU meter was showing about 23% load, the system still performed perfectly with 2.5ms of latency. I thought I’d have to bump up latency a bit, but that wasn’t the case.
Next, I gave the Onyx Satellite a second chance, setting its latency to 128 samples (the lowest possible). Once again, the results were perfect. And once again, there was the joy of playing through something with truly low latency.
The response with keyboard synths was also noteworthy. With that degree of latency (or lack thereof), software synths had a snappier response than digital synths of the late ’80s/early ’90s. The keyboard feel was like playing an old analog synth, before the days of scanned keyboards: tight and real.
The Event isn’t cheap, but there’s nothing like it for Windows. There’s much to love about it, and the only significant limitations come from its intended ultra-compact design.
What seemed at first like a clever toy has proven itself to be a high-class performer whose small size belies the fact that it’s a powerhouse. And if it’s any indication of the kind of performance we can expect from Core 2 Duo systems in the future, there are going to be a lot of happy studios in the years ahead.
Product type: Compact Windows computer.
Target market: Small studios, larger studios needing an auxiliary computer, live performance, portable recording and video editing.
Strengths: Quiet, small, and light. Extremely high performance thanks to Intel Core 2 Duo inside. Internal 5.1 audio capabilities. Multiple video output options. 6-pin FireWire port. One year limited warranty. Free tech support.
Limitations: Only two USB ports. Not designed for expansion.