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Advice for Beginners.

Mar 1, 2000 - by Gilogic
Here's a bit of advice which can help you get started.
Which computer to choose?
    Mac or PC ?

    This was a dilemma for me when I wanted to get rid of my old Atari several years ago. The Mac was used by musicians everywhere, but I was attracted to the sounds of "100% compatible" and to the tempting prices of the PCs.
    At the time (1993), in spite of its high price, I chose the Mac and I have never regretted it since.

    Today, PCs have caught up to the Mac, and the choice for a beginner is still a difficult one.
    Equivalent PCs are still less expensive, but their characteristics cannot always be compared to those of the Macs:

    - Processor speed: A Mac running at the same Mhz speed as a PC is often faster.
    My first Mac (Quadra 650) ran at 33 Mhz! I sold it to a friend who uses it to scan images, burn CDs, surf the Internet, read CD-ROMs, record audio with a card, and connect newer SCSI peripherals without any problems and a perfect stability. I also have a Powerbook 150 (68030/33Mhz with 8MB RAM) that I use to burn CDs using Jam (audio burning software), problem free. Imagine for a moment a PC running at 33Mhz doing all that with DOS or Windows 3.1 and recent software!

    - Installation of software and hardware on Macs is much simpler and less problematic to configure than on PCs. They are compatible with a larger base of software and configurations regardless of the system version. Note: starting in 1993, Macs started using the PowerPC processor, for which software had to be rewritten, but the majority of older applications continue to work on the new machines (thanks to an integrated emulator). Many programmers continued to develop versions compatible with the older, 68K models (such is the case with the latest version of Logic Audio 4.0, which includes a 68K version).

    - Mac products are often higher quality: there's no way to compare a large-screen PC monitor sold at 750 euros to the iMac's built in screen, for example.

    PCs have their advantages, too:

    - Lower prices on hardware and peripherals (even this is changing thanks to the PCI and USB standards). For example, Mac users unhappily pay 120 euros for an ADB keyboard whereas 15 euros will suffice for a PC user (but here again, note the quality). PC hardware often has better defined standards, more RAM, larger hard drives, DVD drives, screens, modems and printers included, etc.

    - More available software, although again, it's important to know one's needs: the best software is available for both Macs and PCs. You may want to use a particular word processor, DTP or special music program, but 99% of users run Word, Photoshop, or Cubase because they are the best available and they run on both platforms (even scaled-down versions).

    - In the game and popular multimedia domains, the PC has a large lead, but this rarely presents a problem for the music composer.

    - A larger selection of sound cards and peripherals? That's undeniable: 300 euros for a quality, general MIDI sampler card, DTDs with digital inputs/outputs and sample functions do not exist on the Mac. Macs have the big names like MOTU and DIGIDESIGN, but the prices are often higher. The compatibility of the PCI and USB standards is slowly erasing the gap when companies sell in bulk to Mac distributors at a fair price.

    In short, PCs and their peripherals are less expensive and their software selection much larger. Mac prices are justified due to their longer lifespan, better integration between hardware and software (less hardware needs to be tested by programmers), and simpler installation of hardware and software.


    New or used computer?

    Here too, it's best to define needs. Hardware and software vendors push faster, bigger, more powerful machines.

    Beginners should consider two cases:

    1 - First, the power of the newest machines is completely irrelevant to the synth driver (MIDI). A plain Atari bought for 75 euros at a used dealer will just as easily do the trick (although less comfortably). The determining factor in this case is the sound quality of your sampler. The only noticeable progress Mac and PC software has made over the Atari is a larger temporal resolution for MIDI recording. This is defined by the number of divisions (ticks) per note, real-time recording sequences by a more precisely rhythmic, and therefore more realistic, MIDI instrument. Everything else is a question of comfort: larger screens, more colors, more spacious hard drives, faster software (graphics, animation, multiple windows, etc.). That obviously counts for a lot, but between a well-outdated Quadra 800 at 450 euros and a G3/400 at 2300 euros, there's not a big difference concerning MIDI data processing.

    2 - Second, there are those who want to use the computer for multi-track audio recording, which is called DTD (direct to disk). Here the function is totally different. The computer records all the sound data (whereas MIDI is happy to save simple orders for activating sounds produced by the sampler).

    Several characteristics can be determined according to the functions of the software:

    - RAM. For all audio functions, RAM is indispensable in large quantities. Theoretically, 32MB RAM standard on some machines would rarely be enough. That never stopped me. A few years ago I had 24MB RAM in my Quadra while recording four-track audio (with a Digidesign card), and like I said before, burning audio CDs with just 8MB RAM in my Powerbook. The problem comes from the fact that the new machines come with system software (8.5/8.6 on Macs) which uses up to 30MB RAM itself! And the newer versions of audio software are just as greedy. On older computers, such as the first PowerPCs, it's often a cruel dilemma: profit from the stability and new functions of the newer software but invest in the RAM, or use older, less efficient software with the RAM you already have. If you buy a new computer and you use newer software, I'd advise you to have at least 128MB RAM since the price of RAM has fallen dramatically.

    - The hard drive. One minute of music (CD quality) uses 5MB of HD space, 10MB in stereo, 20MB for four tracks, etc.
    It's easy to then calculate the capacity of your hard drive in recording time. For example, 1GB (1000MB) = 1:40 hours in stereo. But that's not the only important characteristic of the hard drive: the writing speed and the transfer rate are very important for those who wish to work with large numbers of audio tracks simultaneously (RAM is equally important for this). Standards exist (AV, fast SCSI, Ultra SCSI, etc.), which each work best for certain functions.

    - The processor speed is essential to the real-time calculations, such as adding software (plug-ins) effects (reverb, chorus, etc.) to the audio tracks. With less than 150Mhz, it's difficult to use 2 or 3 quality plug-ins. A minimum of 200Mhz seems better to me. The processor model counts too (PowerPC 604/604e minimum for Macs before G3s).
Software: MIDI & Audio Sequencers
    On the Mac, four excellent programs (two of which are available on the PC) share a large part of the market and leave only crumbs to others:


    - Digital Performer (Motu)
    - Cubase (Steinberg)
    - Logic (Emagic)
    - Studio Vision (Opcode)

    I won't hide from you that I use Logic, but in spite of that, I'll try to give you the strengths and weaknesses of these four programs.
    Don't hesitate to get information from competent salespeople or from other users in order to determine your actual needs because the time-money investment one spends on a program without writing a note of music is sometimes enormous.

    Digital Performer:
    This program profits from the best reviews by professionals. It has functionality beyond the norm. An audio interface from a dream, high-quality audio plug-ins, a samples database, a very functional mixing table with plug-ins that can be applied to MIDI tracks (in fact, these are MIDI signal placement algorithms), and extremely stable.
    Less attractive are the MIDI editing windows, which have an older look to them, no efficient score, and no development on the PC.

    Cubase:
    It's the least respected by the public (there was a precursor on the Atari). It has no lack of strengths, a beautiful interface, legendary, MIDI-editing windows (drums edit), a very powerful score (special version), and a dynamism on a large-scale level (VST, ReWire), plus a PC version.
    Although the interface is certainly attractive, it proved to be difficult to use, there are less than practical and usable audio functions, there's a lack of compatibility with other solutions outside of the Digidesign scale (which continues to be a standard in the professional world), and finally, its stability is often criticized.

    Logic:
    It's the newest of the group and therefore has inherited all the functionality of its rivals and added a fast, coherent, and well-conceived interface for audio and extraordinary, real-time MIDI tools. Its famous MIDI environment transforms the smallest MIDI keyboard into a powerful, real-time recording station. Its score comes from the famous and very powerful Notator program on the Atari, which interprets better than any other music program returning in real-time. Numerous, powerful audio tools, excellent compatibility with hardware (audio cards, MIDI interfaces, etc.), very stable, and an equally powerful PC version.
    On the other side of the coin: The great flexibility of its interface gives it allusions of a "chameleon." The numerous measurement possibilities can become disconcerting for the beginner (for example, finding why there's no MIDI sounds in Logic can be a true headache if the user has not mastered a minimum concept of OMS). A complex configuration created by a user can be a nightmare for another because even the smallest configuration controls are saved. File importation from other programs (MIDI files) is a bit too complex for my taste, as well.

    Studio Vision:
    This program profits from good experience in the audio world because it was a pioneer on the Mac. It has a simple and coherent interface and an OMS comparable to Logic (the other programs are now compatible with OMS). It was also the first on the Mac to successfully resolve the problems of external synchronization and MIDI/audio synchronization. Studio Vision is very stable.
    However, the interface is rather old, it's less on top of innovation than it was in the beginning, the score function is inefficient, and finally, it seems its development in the short term has been abandoned!
And the most important in all of this...
    I would like to discuss considerations often neglected by the beginner.
    Save for the questions of personal creativity, taste, musical and technical knowledge, the computer isn't everything in a musical creation. I would even say that it's the least important!

    In effect, one has a better chance of producing a better demo with an Atari and a K2500 than with a G3 equipped with a sampler.
    You get better quality audio on an old Mac equipped with an Audiomedia III card, a true, multi-effect Lexicon, a Neumann microphone, and a good mixing table than with a G4/500 without a card, even with the entire VST plug-ins library (in any case, if you exchange your Eventide rack for the VST plug-ins, call me, I'm interested).

    All of this seems evident, but it's often a trap for the beginner.
    With a limited budget for a home studio, it would be better to look at used and refurbished sound hardware (sampler, microphone, table, audio card, quality, real effects) rather than invest everything in the latest computer.
    Well, unless you just fool around at home and later record in a studio, but that's another story and another budget all the same.



    There, I hope this little article will help some of you to see things a bit more clearly. Comments and suggestions are welcome.


    Gilles REA

    To find this text as well as other information, visit my page:
    http://mapage.noos.fr/gilrea



    Translated by Matt Washchuk
About the author: Gilogic
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