Beat Week: Infinite Loops — Assemble Your Portable Beat Station, pt. 1

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Date: Monday, June 17th, 2002, 10:57
Category: Archive

By now, you probably know the Mac has the power to be a versatile musical instrument, changing you into a one-man/woman band. iBooks and PowerBooks are ubiquitous at concerts and in the hands of DJs. Once used primarily in studios and for traditional music notation, originally laptops were primarily used by experimental academically-trained composers in live performance. Software synthesis changed all that, as reliable software samplers like Bitheadz got Macs gigs with Britney Spears and others. Now looping software allows you to compose music live and weave complex beats in realtime that were never possible before. So, you want to get wired up? Here’s a look at the software and hardware you’ll need to join the revolution. Click read more for the full story.


By now, you probably know the Mac has the power to be a versatile musical instrument, changing you into a one-man/woman band. iBooks and PowerBooks are ubiquitous at concerts and in the hands of DJs. Once used primarily in studios and for traditional music notation, originally laptops were primarily used by experimental academically-trained composers in live performance. Software synthesis changed all that, as reliable software samplers like Bitheadz got Macs gigs with Britney Spears and others. Now looping software allows you to compose music live and weave complex beats in realtime that were never possible before. So, you want to get wired up? Here’s a look at the software and hardware you’ll need to join the revolution.

The first hardware choice is easy: it’s gotta be a ‘Book. Sure, there are still many who retreat to their home studio to create music, and never venture outside with anything more than a CD. But there’s nothing like performing in front of a live audience. Choose either a recent-model iBook or any PowerBook G4 if you’re buying a new system, although if you have a reasonably fast Pismo or Lombard those machines remain in heavy circulation in music. Audio processing benefits heavily from Velocity Engine acceleration, especially under OS X, so G4 is the way to go if you can, but many musicians still swear by the smaller, more rugged, cheaper iBook. If you want to join Ti loyalists like me, don’t forget that those used G4s are almost as cheap as a loaded iBook.

Next up is a hardware interface. If you can afford it, the best choice by far is the MOTU 828 FireWire interface, available on the street for US$700-800. The 828 is rock-solid and the most versatile portable solution available, with a full 8 channels in and out, another 8×8 ADAT for hookup to Alesis DAT machines and keyboards and many digital mixers, stereo digital connections, and mic inputs. I carry an 828 in a 2-rack road case with a power conditioner; it’s light enough to lug on a subway and easily connects to mixers so I can individually control channels directly. A more basic, cheaper option is Midiman’s M-Audio Duo (MRSP US$349). It supports just 2 channels and works via USB, but sounds better than the built-in audio out on your `Book, and has 2 channel inputs with mic preamp. My favorite “best buy,” though, is Tascam’s US-224, which for just US$375 MSRP packs 2 channels of audio I/O, a MIDI interface, and four hardware faders and various buttons so you can control your software without scrambling around with a mouse. I tested the 224’s bigger brother, the US-428, and this is an excellent, reliable plug-and-play solution, with extensive support for various software packages. With the exception of the Midiman interface, you’ll have to wait for full OS X support from any of these devices, but support is promised in the near future.

If you have existing MIDI equipment, don’t forget to buy a MIDI interface. The choices are too numerous to list here (although if you buy the Tascam audio interface you’ll already have MIDI support). If you don’t have MIDI equipment, or if you want something lighter and more portable, you can’t go wrong with Midiman’s keyboard products. I’m using a USB Keystation 61 I got for under US$200. It’s so light and portable, it’s actually too small to fit a normal keyboard case, so I picked up a tripod case from B&H Photo (worth a visit to the landmark 34th street store if you’re in town for Macworld next month!). You can use the Keystation as a MIDI keyboard or plug in via USB with support for OS 9 and X.

Join me tomorrow for the conclusion to this feature as I introduce some software solutions to add to your hardware setup!

Assoc. Ed. Peter Kirn is a music technology instructor as well as a composer and musician working on a PhD at the City Univerity of New York. And yes, it is possible to write classical music AND dance music.

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