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ATPM 8.02
February 2002






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Beyond the Barline

by David Ozab,

Expos, From a Distance

Once again, the University of Oregon’s academic calendar has conspired to keep me from attending Macworld Expo San Francisco. Steve, why did you schedule the keynote on the same day as my first class of the term? Yeah, I know we’ve all had professors who’ve given their first week of classes to a teaching assistant while they return from some major conference or whatever. Not an option, though, for a lowly adjunct such as myself. So, for another year, I spent the time I would have taken to prowl the Expo floor, and prowled the Net instead.

Think Divergent.

I’m sure you’ve all seen or heard from the keynote by now. This time, Steve’s intended “one last thing” (until Time Canada inadvertently made it the first thing) was the new iMac. My first reaction (late Sunday night) was, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It seems so obvious in hindsight, yet only by breaking out of the preconception of what a computer (and specifically an all-in-one like the iMac) should look like, did Apple come up with such an innovative design solution. After seeing the keynote, I felt something I had never felt before: the desire to own an iMac.

As the week went on, I browsed the net to collect other reactions to the new design. The most common one was the rather unimaginative “It looks like a lamp.” My reaction to this observation progressed from subtle groaning to tearing my hair out (have to be careful, not much left on top as is), to a sudden and startling revelation. Yes, it does look like a lamp, but why does a lamp look like that in the first place?

Lamps didn’t always look like that. At some point, someone had the idea to attach a light bulb to the end of an adjustable arm to make a lamp that let you redirect the light more easily. I’m sure that when the first such “desk lamp” was made, the last thing people said was that it looked like a lamp, because lamps didn’t look like that before. “It looks like a giraffe,” maybe, or “it looks like a flamingo;” but not “like a lamp.”

Business types call it “thinking outside the box,” while psychologists call it “divergent thinking.” No matter what it’s called, it’s the way of looking at something commonplace (Steve claims a sunflower was his inspiration), and seeing it in a slightly different way. It’s the root of creativity, and of originality. It’s part of what makes us human.

A few days later, I saw the movie Il Postino which, if you haven’t seen it, is a wonderful Italian movie about the friendship between Pablo Neruda and his postman. A common theme of the movie is metaphor: the postman wishes to be a poet, in order to win the love of a beautiful woman, and asks Neruda how to make a metaphor.

That got me thinking again. “The new iMac looks like a lamp” is a comparison, based entirely on physical appearance. “The new iMac is like a lamp” is a simile. “The new iMac is a lamp” is a metaphor. What is a lamp? It is something that illuminates areas previously cloaked in darkness. “The new iMac is a lamp.” A much more astute comment and high praise indeed.

The Other Keynote

Once Steve was finished with his semi-annual dog and pony show, he handed the stage over to Avie Tevanian and Phil Schiller for their far more tech-centric keynote. They stepped through the various features of OS X, with an emphasis on what’s going on “under the hood” (their cliché, not mine). My interest peaked when they overviewed the Core Audio Architecture.

The basic features are now common knowledge, but I will review them here for those of you who haven’t been introduced to them yet: 32-bit floating point resolution for plenty of processing headroom, multi-channel capabilities allowing for stereo as well as various surround mixes (5.1, 6.1, 8.1, etc.), ultra-low latency, full MIDI services, and Audio Units (the building blocks for DSP plug-ins).

Doug Wyatt, Apple’s Core MIDI Engineer and “father of OMS” during his days at Opcode, was the featured guest for this portion of the program—a demonstration of OS X’s “MIDI out of the box,” which is essentially the equivalent of OMS, the QuickTime Synth, a basic sequencer, and Sound Manager on OS 9. (A side note: it was great to see Doug back after the OMS/Gibson debacle.)

In a variation of the OS X demo we’ve all seen far too many times by now, Wyatt played a MIDI keyboard (connected directly through USB) in time with a pre-recorded sequence, while Schiller launched Internet Explorer—are they contractually obligated to use IE, even if the demo is unrelated to Microsoft or the Internet?—and a QuickTime movie. The Web page loaded just fine, and the movie played with no skips or drags. Unfortunately, someone forgot to turn down the QuickTime audio (or better still, strip the audio from the QuickTime file). As a result, it was impossible even for Wyatt himself to hear what he was playing. Had they put a little more planning into the demo, they could have had Wyatt play along with the prerecorded MIDI track and the QuickTime Video. Kind of an old-fashioned silent movie accompaniment with new-fangled technology. Schiller could have checked his Hotmail too.

Sadly, though there was no similar audio demo. A multi-threaded Unix system with a USB interface sporting a 5 Mbps throughput had better be able to handle the 31,250 bps bandwidth of MIDI without latency. If not, something is seriously wrong. Show me the same demo with digital audio, and I’ll be convinced.

Then, One Week Later…

It sure isn’t San Francisco, but January also brings the semi-annual NAMM show back to Anaheim. Apple itself wasn’t there (one trade show a month is enough for any company), but many third party developers were. Most of the software and hardware demonstrations were on OS 9, but there were also a few OS X demos, and I can now add a few more applications to last month’s OS X “watch list.” Thanks go to Dennis Leishman of MacCentral and for the following information.

Propellerhead is bringing its entire line of software-based instruments (Reason, Rebirth, and Recycle), along with their industry standard ReWire technology, to OS X, making them the second software synth manufacturer, after Bitheadz, to announce their upcoming jump to the new OS. Now I’m waiting on Native Instruments’ Reaktor to complete the set of “Re-applications” for OS X.

Arturia, a German company new to me, demonstrated their Storm Music Studio for OS X, which they plan to release in mid-March. Since I was unfamiliar with the application, I downloaded a demo. It’s a set of software instruments—synths with simple built-in sequencers, drum machines, and even a pair of virtual turntables—and effects that are combined in a “studio” window to make unique compositions. The software is definitely geared toward dance music, but could also be twisted in interesting ways.

Albeton’s Live is another application due out for OS X. The demo I downloaded from their Web site is a flash animation, rather than a feature-limited version of the program itself, so my impressions are limited to what I can gain from a directed presentation. It appears to be an audio-clip sequencer, with synchronization capabilities, so that samples will stay in time with each other and with the overall tempo of the sequence.

So the list is slowly growing, and a little encouragement from time to time is all I need to stay patient. After all, the promise of OS X and mLan together and fully functional is so great that the wait is worthwhile.

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Reader Comments (1)

David Ozab (ATPM Staff) · May 29, 2002 - 02:04 EST #1
Don't let it be said that I won't admit when I make a mistake. David Poncet, Director of Marketing for Arturia recently pointed out to me that the company is based in France, not Germany, a fact readily apparent to anyone visiting their website. My apologies to Arturia.

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