With all of the tricked-out multitrack DAWs, plug-ins, hardware modelers, soft synths and just about every other music-creation tool available nowadays, it's easy to forget about the real nuts and bolts of this virtual wonderland: the computer itself. With this in mind, a new company out of New Jersey, Rain Recording, is determined to create computers that are custom-tailored to the intense demands of serious audio production. The company's design philosophy is all about overall performance marked by balance and stability. Rain leaves the fancy colors and CPU speed wars up to other manufacturers. If stability and performance are the goals of one of Rain's trademark pieces, the LiveBook notebook computer, then Rain has definitely done its homework.
The LiveBook I tested runs Windows XP Professional 2002 Service Pack 2 on an Intel Pentium M/1.72GHz processor with 1 GB of 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM installed — total RAM on the LiveBook is expandable to 2 GB. The installed hard disk is a 60GB, 5,400 rpm IDE drive with an 8MB buffer, and the optical drive is a 24x CD-RW/DVD-ROM. The unit includes a sharp 15.4-inch display that is capable of a maximum 1,280×1,024 resolution with 16.7 million colors. The LiveBook sports three rear-mounted and one side-mounted backward-compatible USB 2.0 ports. The left side also features one IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port, a five-in-one — type memory-card reader, one Type II PC Card slot, one IrDA infrared port, one ⅛-inch headphone jack and a mini microphone jack. The LiveBook's rear panel sports one Port Replicator (parallel) interface, a power-adapter port, one RJ-45 standard LAN port, one RJ-11 port (for a telephone line to the internal modem), one 15-pin external monitor port, one S-Video Out port and the three USB ports. The right panel houses the optical drive and a Kensington lock slot (very handy at gigs). The front panel holds the internal stereo speakers, and the top panel features a full-size keyboard, a large sensitive touch pad that has page scrolling on the right side, and two firm left- and right-click buttons. The navigation controls are excellent, especially the scroll controls, though the left and right buttons are a little too firm for my taste. Above the keyboard lives the power button and buttons to launch e-mail, a Web browser and the built-in wireless network. Audio people will be happy to know that, at the time of this writing, LiveBooks were shipping with a copy of Cakewalk Sonar 4 LE preinstalled, as well as Nero for CD-burning purposes.
ROCKET IN THE POCKET
The package that I received also included Rain's StormDrive Pocket ($499), an external 100MB capacity, 5,400 rpm FireWire and USB 2.0 — based modular storage drive; a small-to-large — type FireWire adapter; and an O'toLink brand 2-port FireWire PC Card — all of which were incorporated into this review. Also, because most audio folks tend to use an external audio/MIDI interface with their laptops (and the LiveBook is likely to be no exception to this rule), I also used an Edirol UA-25. For test purposes, I concentrated primarily on the LiveBook's abilities with audio applications. I installed copies of Cakewalk Sonar 5 Producer Edition, Propellerhead Reason 3.0, Ableton Live 5 and Native Instruments B4 and went to work. My methodology for this review was as follows: I installed all applications in their typical default locations on the C drive. If sound libraries were involved, I put them in their default locations, as well, and I used the external StormDrive Pocket for all audio and project files. This gave me the chance to test the StormDrive while also testing the laptop's FireWire throughput via two interfaces, the built-in 1394 interface (with the adapter) and the PC Card.
Connecting the various peripherals to the Rain was a cinch. The StormDrive is native and therefore plug-and-play. It can connect via USB or a FireWire port, and I had no issues with either interface, including the built-in FireWire port and the optional FireWire PC Card. Next, I connected the UA-25 interface, which requires drivers; as expected, the Found New Hardware Wizard showed up and installed the proper drivers without a hitch.
BUILT FOR BATTLE
The LiveBook feels well-built throughout — it is not, after all, a low-cost computer. In fact, the LiveBook is closer in price to the typical high-end Mac than a Windows machine. All of the slots are snug, the keys and buttons felt strong, and the unit is not especially lightweight (which, in my experience, typically indicates higher-quality components and chassis). The keyboard is nice and large, though I found certain keys, such as the Function key, in places I'm not accustomed to. Several times, I tried to use hotkeys unsuccessfully until I got used to this. Also, the placement of the FireWire port on the left side was a bit cumbersome, but that's a relatively small price to pay for having the crucial extra USB connectivity, which I (and most audio producers) absolutely require. The oversized screen on the LiveBook is a delight to work on, and it is sharp and bright.
One of the beautiful things about the LiveBook is that it boots (and shuts down) very quickly. In several tests, the unit reached the desktop in about 30 seconds, and from there, it was ready to roll (no hourglass displayed as the cursor) in less than 10 seconds. The unit shuts down in half that time.
LIVEBOOK LITMUS TEST
I began my software testing by running the laptop through some pretty hefty paces with Sonar 5 Producer Edition. At my peak, I was running 29 tracks of 24-bit, 44.1kHz audio (including two tracks of vocals with V-Vocal applied, which is similar to a robust plug-in); one Pentagon I soft synth played in real time; and four separate instances of a TC Electronic TC Native Reverb plug-in. Although more CPU-intensive projects are certainly possible, this was nonetheless pretty heavy, and the Rain swallowed it whole. At the song's crescendos, the CPU meter hovered around 38 to 40 percent while the disk meter clocked in at a fairly cool 28 to 30 percent. With a four-oscillator soft synth and four hefty reverbs going along with all the audio, that's not bad — especially for a 5,400 rpm disk drive. Both the computer and the StormDrive were warm but far from hot to the touch, which is a testament to their efficient cooling mechanisms. In fact, the StormDrive is self-cooling without a fan, so it is, for all practical purposes, silent; I found the LiveBook to operate rather quietly, as well.
Just to give the LiveBook a run for its money, I inserted six additional TC Native Reverbs, all with long decays, on various tracks. Right out of the gate, the CPU and disk were obviously taxed more, but the Rain kept its cool and played the track all the way through; I watched the CPU top out at 57 percent usage.
Although I expected the Sonar run to be the most taxing of all my tests, I went ahead and launched Reason and called up every demo song available, several of which are pretty loaded and will not play through on my Dell laptop (which, in all fairness, is not the hot-rodded-for-audio laptop that the Rain is). None of Reason's sample songs were a challenge for the LiveBook, so I threw a few of my own highly developed Reason tracks at it, and it was simply a delight to be able to play them through without worrying about choppy sound or loss of CPU juice.
After my Sonar and Reason successes, I fully expected Live 5 to not be a problem, as it is already a notoriously stable and processor-friendly program. Indeed, Live ran without so much as tapping the LiveBook's resources. To truly show how much throughput muscle the Rain possessed, I tried running loops in Live right from a sample-library disk. The Rain and Live easily handled several tracks' worth of clips from a single DVD, though Live does cache each loop the first time it is played. I tried the same experiment by loading several REX files from the disk into Reason each into their own Dr.Rex player, and the LiveBook, along with Reason, performed admirably on this, too.
Finally, I launched my copy of NI B4 and took it for a spin. Although this soft synth is not a particularly heavy drain on the CPU, it was a good test of backward compatibility, as the copy I loaded into the Rain was the first version from several years ago. The MIDI and audio worked as expected, though I got better performance from the Edirol ASIO drivers; when I played B4 through the built-in soundcard's MME drivers, there was a noticeable amount of latency. This difference is to be expected, however; this is one of the main reasons why people purchase separate audio interfaces for their laptops.
For my final test, I tried burning a couple of CDs with the installed Nero application. Nero is very straightforward; it can create a multitude of standard data and CD-audio CDs. Options include bootable CDs; audio/data combination CDs, MP3 and WMA CDs; video CDs; backups; and more. With the installed optical drive, I could choose any of six different write speeds ranging from 4x to 24x. For audio masters, I prefer to burn at slower speeds, so I tried a data disk at maximum write speed and an audio CD at the minimum. Nero's user interface is clear and performed without a hitch. The only exception was that Nero will not perform automatic bit-depth conversions from incompatible files such as 24-bit WAVs when creating standard audio CDs. Also included in the installed package is a copy of Nero Cover Designer, which provides the templates and basic tools with which to create CD or DVD cover art for a variety of standard media cases. Unfortunately, the installed copy of the software lacked SoundTrax, Nero's professional CD-mastering and production-layout program. I guess you can't have everything for free.
THE VERDICT: INNOCENT ON ALL COUNTS
The LiveBook's entire system, along with the peripherals that came with it, performed beautifully with all of the audio tests I threw at it, including several software installs, audio reading and writing through the various portals and heavy processor use. Not only was it efficient and comfortable to work on, throughout my testing, it did not crash once, nor did I have to force-quit any applications. Everything performed as expected, and both the laptop and the StormDrive were remarkably cool and quiet throughout the entire process. Rain boasts that several manufacturers — including heavy hitters such as Cakewalk, Edirol and PreSonus — are running their software demos on Rain systems at major music-industry trade shows. After running the LiveBook through my own paces, I can see why.
LIVEBOOK > $2,699.95
Pros: Rugged build. Full-size keyboard. Large LCD. Excellent variety of peripheral connection ports. Stable and efficient. Quiet, cool operation. Cakewalk Sonar 4 LE included.