iMusic: Apple?s Next Big Thing?

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Date: Monday, February 1st, 1999, 00:00
Category: Archive


Among Steve Jobs various hinted-at plans for the Mac in 2001 is something a bit intriguing: following up on the success of iMovie with more applications that take advantage of the Mac?s power and ease of use.

Now, your guess is as good as mine as to what Steve means, or whether we?ll ever actually see this reach fruition. This is, after all, the same Steve Jobs who tried to redirect Pixar and NeXT toward providing 3D animation tools for consumers, and even pitched the concept (unsuccessfully) to honchos at Disney, according to Alan Deutschman?s book The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. (Speaking as someone who could never master the original paint program on the Mac, I can?t quite imagine what all of us would do with i3D!)

However, I believe Apple does have an opportunity to capitalize on the platform?s often-overlooked strengths in music and audio, and even an entry-level iMusic is not out of the question. And just as Apple created a hit Internet computer by eliminating its floppy drive, I believe Apple?s recent scorning of analog audio in ports could be considered, in Jobsian logic, truly strategic.

Macintosh computers were the first to add audio capabilities, and some have mistakenly viewed the elimination of the analog audio in port on the iMac, iBook, Cube, and presumably the forthcoming PowerBook G4 as Apple abandoning audio. Now, don?t get me wrong, analog audio outs are useful for people who don?t want to throw away decent speakers, which is probably why Apple put the out jack back on the new iBooks. As anyone actually involved in pro-quality audio can tell you, however, computer minijack analog ins are basically useless for even the most basic work. They?re too noisy because of their proximity to the computer?s innards, and are generally low-quality in the first place. To convert audio to digital with any level of quality, you need the analog-digital conversion to be done elsewhere, either on a PCI card, PCMCIA card, or USB device.

Herein lies the opportunity for audio and music to follow iMovie?s lead: Mac audio can finally go truly digital via the USB port. As many have pointed out, USB microphones are available for voice recognition and recording. But that?s just the beginning. Devices like Roland/Edirol?s UA-30, which I discussed last summer and plan to review later this month, allow both high-quality analog and digital ins and outs. Plug in a record player and convert your vinyl to digital. Plug in minidisc or CD players and move audio around digitally without ever converting to analog, eliminating quality loss.

If you want to make music and not just listen to it, there are even more exciting options. Keyboards which once relied on archaic 70s-era serial cables for MIDI can now plug directly into your computer via USB. Powerful software synths from companies like Bitheadz let you do all sound making right on your Mac, from outdoing $4000 samplers to reproducing the sound of old room-filling analog synths. USB gets especially cool even for pro users when you plug in $500-1000 control surfaces for your digital audio editing workstation, such as Cubase, Logic, or Digital Performer. These boxes, in addition to providing digital and analog in and out and sometimes MIDI, give you automated control of effects, faders, and more in your software. Suddenly, with just $1000 or so of hardware and software, your Mac is a self-contained music studio easy enough for beginners to use.

That flimsy audio in jack seems a little less exciting now, huh?

With audio and music in the picture, Apple?s product line takes on a new dimension. When I finally got to play with a Cube for a while, it absolutely mystified me why Apple didn?t market it as a killer audio machine. Encode MP3s with the speed of a G4 — especially handy with Velocity Engine-enhanced programs like SoundJam. Hook up great-sounding digital USB speakers specifically designed for the Cube, or upgrade to the SoundSticks to add deeper bass via a subwoofer. By adding on a USB audio box or MIDI adapter or USB keyboard, start making your own music. Burn it to CD with the speed of FireWire by plugging in a burner. The slick, compact looks of the Cube seem suited to an audiophile, too.

Obviously, there is a lot more Apple can do to make the Mac a leading audio and music platform.

On the software side, Apple has already taken the first critical step: planning built-in audio and MIDI support in OS X. If Apple gets this right, the Mac will be the undiputed champ for audio and music, and the only platform to incorporate audio and MIDI support right into the OS. Imagine never having to worry about incompatibilities with new OS versions, or trying to make various drivers from vendors compatible. This ease of use will benefit newcomers who just want to plug in devices and start making music, as well as us pros who don?t want the headaches any more than the newbies do!

I?m a little disturbed, though, that Apple has failed to put this support in OS X beta and seems to be failing to evangelize music developers like MOTU, Emagic, and Steinberg. So far, only Digidesign seems to have committed to OS X, despite the fact that it looks like OS X may benefit music and audio users more than any other Mac group.

That?s where iMusic comes in. The Mac has for years lacked a really good entry-level program for mixing audio and writing music. We have fantastic high-end programs; a Mac-only program like Digital Performer is an obvious candidate for the Final Cut Pro of music and audio. But we could really use a pretty Aqua-packaged program for MIDI sequencing and audio mixing. The benefits for Apple in the educational and consumer markets would easily justify the development effort. Combine this with the out-of-the-box audio experience in OS X, and Apple can blow away Wintel in this key segment.

I can see it now: an iMovie interface for music, running under OS X. You?d have a basic mixer. A few basic audio effects (reverb, etc.), volume, pan. MIDI support, with basic entry and editing, quantization. (Notation is better left to entry-level versions of Finale or Sibelius, among others.) Any of you budding artists who have been creating all those mock-ups of imagined Apple laptops and handhelds for go2Mac, if you want to create an artist?s rendering of iMusic, I?d love that!

Even without iMusic, Apple can make a real difference by evangelizing music developers and making the audio/music/USB experience seamless. Many of us were skeptical that Apple?s gamble that consumers would want to make their own movies on their Mac would pay off. While it didn?t exactly start a sales revolution, retailers reported that this was a major selling point for the people who DID buy Macs these last few quarters. Making and playing music is a much safer bet, in contrast. So, Apple, think music, and pump up the volume on the Mac to 11!

Composer and music technology consultant Peter Kirn contributes to Go2Mac and is waiting for Apple to introduce a PowerBook G4 to upgrade his portable music and audio studio. As always, he welcomes comments on audio and music on the Mac.

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