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ATPM 7.02
February 2001


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Beyond the Barline

by David Ozab,

A Tale of Two Trade Shows

When Steve Jobs introduced iTunes at last month’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco, he billed it as the impetus behind a desktop music revolution comparable to the desktop video revolution supposedly started last year by iMovie. The software he introduced has a great deal of potential for home entertainment, combining MP3 encoding, Internet radio, and CD burning (only with built in CD-RWs so far, though workarounds are springing up). In fact, it might be the perfect application for John Cusack’s character in the film High Fidelity, whose ultimate goal in life (when he wasn’t compiling “Top Five” lists) was to create the perfect pop music compilation. The comparison to iMovie, however, doesn’t quite hold up.

The promise of iMovie is to allow any Mac user to easily turn their computer into a digital video studio through a combination of hardware (a digital camcorder) and software (iMovie, or, the parallel professional application, Final Cut Pro). The promise to turn a Mac into a digital audio studio began sixteen years ago, however, at another industry trade show held annually by the National Association of Music Manufacturers (NAMM). The 1985 NAMM show featured first appearances by Mark of the Unicorn, Passport Designs, and Digidesign. Among other attendees were David Oppenheim, who would later co-found Opcode; and David Ziccarelli, who would develop the first DX7 software editor, port MAX to the Macintosh while at Opcode, and found his own company, Cycling ’74.

At this year’s NAMM show, held about a week after Macworld a few hundred miles further south in Anaheim, Apple and Yamaha teamed up and demoed a system much closer to the iMovie model. I foresaw this demo in my last Macworld column, after the August 2000 New York Expo, when I said the following:

Yamaha is presently developing the mLan (or “music LAN”), a system that transmits both digital audio and MIDI over FireWire. In another year, we may see a fully functional digital studio rig built around a small and silent G4 Cube.

I only missed out on the timing. This very setup, G4 Cube and all, was displayed at a small booth just off the show floor. This was Apple’s first appearance at NAMM in several years, which is encouraging despite their rather minor presence. I wish that Apple had made as big a splash with their mLan collaboration as they did with iTunes.

Why FireWire?

As far as digital video is concerned, the main distinctions between the iMac and Cube systems and the G4 desktops are power and possible dual monitor support. Apart from those differences a FireWire based video setup is identical on all Macs, allowing a range of users on a range of budgets to set up digital video studios that differ only in power between professional and consumer levels. FireWire also levels the field for laptops.

A serious digital studio, however, is limited to the G4 desktop line due to legacy issues surrounding PCI sound cards (the standard interface for hardware/software Digital Audio Workstations, or DAWs) and SCSI controllers (the standard for digital audio data transfer). USB has successfully replaced the Mac serial port for the purpose of MIDI applications, but its limited bandwidth makes it an inadequate standard for digital audio. Even USB 2.0—a protocol which greatly increases data transfer speeds—lacks the sustained throughput level of FireWire, and it is sustained throughput (i.e. a constant rate of data as opposed to intermittent bursts) that makes FireWire the ideal protocol for time-dependent data like digital video and multi-track digital audio.

What Should Apple Do?

The promise to start a desktop music revolution comes sixteen years too late. Instead, Apple should do everything in its power to support the continued third-party development of hardware and software that centers around their computers in order to keep the support from musicians that they still enjoy. In part, this means continued support of PCI-based solutions through the G4 desktop (the addition of a fourth PCI slot was an important step), but it also means continued encouragement of third party FireWire developers (like Yamaha) to transform products from vaporware to hardware. mLan is much further along than it was at last year’s NAMM or Audio Engineering Society conventions, but it is still in development.

Musicians are a natural market for a silent computer like the G4 Cube, but they are held back by the lack of a viable FireWire DAW. A fully functioning mLan system combined with an upgraded G4 Cube would be a very appealing professional audio system. Apple and Yamaha both know that, which is why they demoed a Cube/mLan setup at NAMM. Will the Cube survive long enough however to see the commercial release of mLan?

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