Surviving the Upgrade Path - EMusician

Surviving the Upgrade Path

Power PC 604 to G4 in one easy lesson. After my trusty Power Mac 8600 had provided me many years of faithful service, I reluctantly demoted it to the
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Power PC 604 to G4 in one easy lesson.After my trusty Power Mac 8600 had provided me many years of faithful service, I reluctantly demoted it to the role of homework computer for my daughter. I couldn't hold out any longer. When Apple released the new dual-processor G4, I decided the wait was over; I had to take the plunge.

I began the adventure by reading everything about the G4 that I could find in publications and on the Web. I prepared myself for what was surely going to be an easy transition. I knew what I needed, I knew what to expect, and I thought I was ready. I wasn't. The changeover still took more than a week to complete. Perhaps by sharing my experience, I can help some of you avoid the annoyance of navigating endless tech-support phone menus and listening to horrible music while on hold.

TALES OF THE UNEXPECTEDI already knew I'd need some adapters. I budgeted for gobs of RAM, and I also ordered a speedy FireWire CD burner and a second internal ATA hard drive for additional storage and recording. I planned to spend three or four days installing, learning, and experimenting with new software. A few things, however, I hadn't counted on.

Apple has made some pretty dramatic changes since the PPC 604 machines appeared on the market, but not all of them are immediately apparent. The switch from SCSI, serial, and ADB to USB and FireWire has been well documented for some time, but less known is that in 1997 Apple updated its PCI specification from version 2.0 to version 2.1. As a result, many PCI cards manufactured before then must be upgraded to function in the newer machines. In some instances, it's no big deal: for $85, Digidesign replaced the outdated chip on my SampleCell II card and sent it to me the same day. If you're using PCI cards manufactured before 1997, ask the manufacturer if they need to be upgraded.

I didn't realize that Digidesign's tried-and-true MasterList CD software requires a SCSI CD burner. I quickly found that my FireWire CD-R drive was useless, and I needed to fill a PCI slot with a SCSI card if I wanted to use MasterList CD. You may encounter a similar problem with older SCSI-dependent programs that have not been upgraded recently, and because the new Macs offer only three PCI slots, any such complication may come as an unpleasant surprise. If you want to use SCSI devices and you are willing to purchase your computer directly from the Apple Store (store.apple.com), you can get a customized G4 with a SCSI card and drive instead of the internal ATA drive.

Fortunately, there are solutions to the slot-shortage problem. One solution is an external PCI expansion chassis, a card cage that provides multiple PCI slots though it uses only one PCI slot in your Mac. One of the more popular expansion boxes is the Magma PCI Expansion System, which comes in portable, tower, and rack-mount versions that house 1 to 13 PCI cards (see Fig. 1). The 6-, 7-, and 13-slot models are approved by Digidesign for use with Pro Tools cards. However, expansion chassis are pricey; the 6-card Magma cage lists for $1,450 (though as of this writing, it is on sale for $1,195), and the Digidesign-approved 13-slot version lists for $1,995. (For a list of contacts for all companies named in this article, see the sidebar "Upgrade Tool Makers.")

My old friend MasterList CD threw me yet another curve when I realized that its copy-protection scheme requires a floppy drive for authorization. You may run into the same problem if you're still using older software. Digidesign recommends two drives: the Imation SuperDisk ($149), which works with regular 1.44 MB floppies or 120 MB SuperDisks, or the Newer Technology uDrive ($89), which only supports 1.44 MB floppies. I opted for the less-expensive uDrive (see Fig. 2) because it's unlikely that I'll ever need SuperDisks.

Of course, I could have avoided all those problems by simply switching to another CD-burning program. For example, Roxio's Jam doesn't require a floppy drive for authorization. It supports USB and FireWire CD burners and reads Sound Designer II regions and playlists. Check the company's Web site for a list of supported drives.

Aside from the more common problems you might expect during an upgrade, be prepared for an occasional hardware glitch to slow down the transition. In my case, the new machine's DVD-RAM drive had intermittent problems and often refused to open. That meant spending an afternoon on the phone with Apple tech support while trying all sorts of software reinstalls. In the end, unplugging the drive's power cable and reseating it solved the problem.

PLUGS AND PORTSIf you're new to USB, you should expect to purchase a USB hub right away. The new Macs have two USB ports. One is normally used for the keyboard, mouse, and perhaps a copy-protection dongle. However, to add a scanner, printer, floppy drive, MIDI interface, CD burner, and a control surface, you'll need at least one USB hub with plenty of ports, and you are probably better off connecting a hub to each of the Mac's two USB ports.

Several inexpensive models are worth considering, including the $100 Belkin USB BusStation 7-port hub. The BusStation system is modular, and you can replace some of the USB modules with SCSI, serial, or ADB adapter modules, which allows you to use the hub as a USB-to-whatever converter. (Note that the USB-to-serial adapters will not work with externally clocked devices such as MIDI interfaces, and the USB-to-SCSI adapter operates at USB speed, which is slower than SCSI.)

If you want to continue using your existing serial MIDI interface, check out the GeeThree Stealth Serial Port ($49.95), a small card that replaces the Mac's internal modem and provides a single serial port. No other serial adapter I've found works with a serial MIDI interface. The Stealth works like a normal serial port because it uses the internal modem slot and is based on the same serial chip set used in earlier Power Macs. Installation is a bit trickier than snapping a PCI card into place, but if you have steady hands and can operate a screwdriver, you shouldn't have much trouble.

I didn't experience any performance lag with this setup, and I saved a few hundred dollars by installing the Stealth Serial Port and using my old MIDI interface. (If you buy your Mac from the Apple Store, you can save $100 by ordering it without the internal modem. If you need a modem, you can easily find an inexpensive external USB modem.) As my studio grows, I can always add a new USB MIDI interface and use both.

However, to use the computer's internal modem or multiple MIDI interfaces, you'll have to spring for a USB MIDI interface. If you also need another port for, say, your old serial printer, you'll have to get a USB-to-serial adapter. The $80 Keyspan USB Twin Serial Adapter works fine.

For my sequencer, I use Emagic's Logic Audio, which employs a hardware dongle for copy protection. As luck would have it, USB dongles were temporarily out of stock when I set up my new Mac. So to use my old ADB dongle, I had to get a USB-to-ADB adapter. At $39, the Griffin iMate USB-to-ADB adapter is an excellent choice (see Fig. 3), although I was stymied when I first tried to use it. Unlike most of the peripherals and adapters I installed, the iMate didn't come with driver software. Because the packaging had no mention of a driver and no disks were included, I assumed a driver was not necessary - wrong again. I couldn't figure out why Logic Audio wouldn't recognize the dongle and boot. After hours of hair pulling, a response from an Emagic newsgroup informed me that I had to go to the Griffin Web site and download the appropriate driver, which could be a problem in studios without Internet access.

THE MACHINEAs you've probably heard, the new G4s are wonderfully fast. Installations race by, applications boot in a matter of seconds, and Web pages load in a fraction of the time that it took with my old machine. Apple's newly redesigned keyboard with full-size function keys is a small improvement over its compact predecessor, but it still takes some getting used to when changing from a full-size ADB keyboard. Moreover, not everyone likes the feel of the new keyboard's key switches. Fortunately, several companies offer excellent replacement USB keyboards. Although keyboards are readily available through mail-order houses, buying one at a local dealer where you can compare the feel of several keyboards is best.

The standard ATA hard drives that come with the G4 should be big enough and fast enough to get you going. In fact, I haven't had any problems at all recording to the boot drive. You might want to add drives later, though, and doing so is easy and inexpensive.

The ATA specification differs from SCSI in that it only allows two drives per bus. With fast 30 GB drives going for $170 or less and two ATA buses to connect them to, you can store a lot of audio without breaking the bank. (Keep in mind that ATA drives must spin at 7,200 rpm or faster and should have an average seek time of about 9 ms or less to record audio reliably.) FireWire boasts higher performance, but FireWire drives cost more. USB drives are simply not fast enough right now, and there is some question about whether Apple will implement USB 2.0, which offers greater bandwidth. (For more about hard drives and storage options, see "Desktop Musician: U Store It" in the February 2001 issue of EM.)

SOFTWARE SURPRISESIf you're upgrading from Mac OS 8, you won't see a huge difference in the OS 9 interface other than Sherlock 2.0 and some spiffy new desktop patterns. However, QuickTime 4 is very cool, with improved streaming-video and audio capabilities.

The Open Music System (OMS) extension, required for some MIDI programs, reportedly has some stability problems running under Mac OS 9.0.4, but I didn't encounter trouble with my setup. If you are using Digidesign gear or other hardware and software combinations that require OMS, you may experience problems. Check the manufacturer's Web site for compatibility issues and possible workarounds. When starting up Pro Tools LE, for example, I was forced to manually configure OMS to recognize my rig. It wasn't a big deal, though, and I've experienced no trouble since.

The new dual-processor G4 has great potential, but don't forget that the second processor offers no speed gain unless the software you are running is optimized to take advantage of it. (That will not be the case with programs written for Mac OS X, which is inherently multiprocessor-aware.) Emagic's Logic Audio Gold and Platinum 4.5.1 and Steinberg's Cubase VST 5.0 split the tasks of processing MIDI and audio information between the two chips. Steinberg estimates that with Cubase VST 5.0, you get a 50 to 60 percent increase in processing power over a standard single-processor machine.

I can state from personal experience that Logic Audio's dual-processor support really makes a difference. I can easily get 24 tracks going at once, along with tons of time-based plug-ins and virtual synths. Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer will support dual processors in the next revision, which probably will be available by the time you read this. Pro Tools 5.1 does not support dual processors as of this writing.

Some veteran Mac-based musicians are concerned about the demise of Digidesign's Sound Designer II. If you want to use that venerable program on a G4, you must have an Audiomedia III card installed. You will also need to purchase the $59 upgraded installer version 2.8.3 from Digidesign.

SHOULD YOU?If you want to greatly enhance your recording, mixing, and general computing experience, the upgrade process is certainly worth the possible headaches and extra expense. Although I managed for a long time to do a lot of interesting work on an old machine, having all this new power has changed the way I think and work. You can always go back to your old ways, but having a wider range of options at your command can be inspiring.

Many of the problems I faced stemmed from the fact that I was not only upgrading from an ancient Mac but also installing new audio hardware and software at the same time. If you don't have to upgrade your audio card right away, wait. Settle in with the new system and update other elements of your studio later. That will avoid an avalanche of confusion and enable you to focus on one problem at a time.

Life on the bleeding edge of technology can be dangerous. Brand-new hardware and operating systems often introduce new problems for the software that you use. Unfortunately, waiting around may not be the best policy because the upgrade path just gets steeper as new technologies continue to evolve. If you're still clinging to your tattered old computer, it's time to jump on the technology merry-go-round and hold on tight - you're entering yet another season of new product releases.

Belkin Componentstel. (800) 2 BELKINe-mail sales@belkin.comWeb www.belkin.com

GeeThreee-mail info@geethree.comWeb www.geethree.com

Griffin Technology, Inc.tel. (615) 255-0990e-mail sales@griffintechnology.comWeb www.griffintechnology.com

Imation Corp.tel. (888) 466-3456e-mail info@imation.comWeb www.imation.com

Keyspantel. (510) 222-0131e-mail info@keyspan.comWeb www.keyspan.com

Magmatel. (858) 530-2511e-mail sales@magma.comWeb www.magma.com

Newer Technology, Inc.tel. (877) 605-0010e-mail info@newertech.comWeb www.newertech.com

Roxio, Inc.tel. (408) 259-ROXIWeb www.roxio.com