OS X Audio & Music Worth Waiting For: Part I

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Date: Monday, November 19th, 2001, 11:28
Category: Archive

First in a series: Eight months after its release, Mac OS X still lacks software for one key Apple market sector: music and audio creation. However, finally there are some indications that, once the wait is over, OS X will make musicians from beginners to pros wonder how we ever lived with anything else.

First in a series:

Eight months after its release, Mac OS X still lacks software for one key Apple market sector: music and audio creation. However, finally there are some indications that, once the wait is over, OS X will make musicians from beginners to pros wonder how we ever lived with anything else.

“Mac OS 9 works just fine for me, why should I worry about anything else” is an oft-heard phrase. For now, that’s certainly the attitude to take: right now, there’s no better choice for music and audio than Mac OS 9, Windows included; it’s the OS of choice for much of the music you hear in schools, clubs, concert halls, stadiums, radio stations, TV, and movie theaters. The Mac is blessed with great machines, great drivers, great support, and unique Mac-only software.

However, Mac users also have some headaches that result from shortcomings in the OS, and when you rely on the Mac as a creative tool, or for your career, or both, those shortcomings become critical. The Mac suffers from:

High Latency. Built-in QuickTime Musical Instruments and the basic Mac audio drivers have high latency. USB Audio performance is often poor even with special drivers; USB’s bus is narrow, but lower latency should be possible.

Confusing Audio Technologies. To get around the limitations of the Mac’s built-in audio, third parties have developer their own audio engines. Each of them works reasonably well, and the Mac gives you an unprecedented level of compatibility: audio engines like Steinberg’s VST, Mark of the Unicorn’s increasingly popular MAS, and Digidesign’s low-end RTAS/AudioSuite and high-end TDM, drivers like Steinberg’s ASIO and Digidesign’s DAE, and technologies to make everything work together like VSTi virtual instruments, DirectConnect, and ReWire. Unfortunately, these different technologies don’t always play well together, they create a complex set of environments to support, and they’re often difficult to set up and troubleshoot. And because third parties are responsible for updating drivers, they don’t always support new Apple OS releases and hardware.

Problematic MIDI Support. Opcode’s Open Music System (OMS) MIDI drivers were once state-of-the-art, and for Mac musicians, they’re still getting the job done. OMS runs under the latest releases of Mac OS 9. OMS has a number of advantages: wide hardware compatibility, virtually universal software compatibility (which competing MOTU technology FreeMIDI still lacks even now), and the ability to set up a global studio setup for use with any application. But OMS is currently unsupported software which hasn’t been updated for years, since Gibson bought developer Opcode and killed the software. While FreeMIDI was built to handle now-standard USB MIDI interfaces, OMS won’t even recognize USB MIDI interfaces after sleep. OMS is still hard to troubleshoot and buggy under certain circumstances. And the Mac’s reliance on unsupported software is inexplicable and frustrating.

Inconsistent Reliability. Let’s face it: Mac OS 9 is dangerously crash-prone. Sure, you can often run reliably without a hitch for days or even weeks at a time. But lost time to crashes is simply not acceptable when you are a music pro, especially when one Mac OS crash can hose a hard drive. And those of us who love OS X enough that we are booting into X even despite the lack of music and audio software have discovered the truth: X really does fix all of this.

Mac OS X offers remedies for each of these problems. And keep in mind, these are not just Mac OS 9 problems: Windows shares many of the same shortcomings. Windows’ MIDI and audio drivers can be even more problematic, particularly since they inherit troubleshooting challenges from the Windows platform. Windows users lack the problem with unsupported OMS: they also lack software that has the functionality that OMS does!

OS X has built in, high-quality audio support, which for the first time will support multiple applications accessing audio at the same time. And latency, as Go2Mac has reported previously, appears to be lower than any other OS on the planet. Confusing multiple audio technologies will now be able to rally around a single standard, Apple’s Core Audio Services, though it now looks like you can still expect to see your favorite plug-in formats make the leap (more on that later). MIDI support is finally built directly into the OS, hopefully ending the headaches on Windows and Mac OS 9/OMS. Lastly, OS X is the most reliable, crash-resistant consumer OS I’ve ever seen, making it ideal for mission-critical applications like live music performance.

Before this fall, the answer from music developers has consistently been “it’s too soon to tell” whether the Mac would be a viable audio and music platform at all. With 10.1, those days are over. With the basic foundation in place, we now have some information on what life in X for music will be like. Next time, I’ll cover the details of what OS X’s new music and audio features look like, and talk about some of the software solutions that are already appearing.

Discuss Mac OS X on Go2Mac’s X message board. And, as always, let me know if I’ve missed anything or if you have any comments for the next article by dropping me a line.

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