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Music on Mac – an early assessment

For all of the minor technical problems that I’ve had (which I think are universal for any computer), I need to step back and comment on some of the many positives of writing/recording with the MacBook Pro. These observations fall into two categories: Software (in this case Garageband) and Hardware (the combined touch/click pad with multi-finger interface).

SOFTWARE: While I’ve installed Cubase 4 LE and Reason, I wanted to give Garageband a chance as part of my overall Mac experience. GB comes standard on most Macs now, and it has created somewhat of a cult for itself among both amateur and professional musicians as a scratch pad for even quite sophisticated material.

Steve Schrum, one of my collaborators, has used Garageband to set many of his poems and stories to music. Steve’s not a musician, doesn’t have tons of gear, and really didn’t need anything overly complex. He’s found Garageband a revelation for constructing songs with minimal effort and without having to wait for his, um, collaborators to get around to making music for him.

Approached from the loop-based music creation process that Steve uses, GB is very similar to Sony Acid (formerly owned by Sonic Foundry). Though I have some philosophical problems with music based solely on loops, such composition is easily accomplished with Garageband. Loop libraries don’t impress me anymore because a) I have many, b) most programs come with great sounds these days anyway, and c) once you use a stock loop, you begin to sound like someone else who has access to the same loops. So the looping capabilities of GB are something I got over years ago while using Acid Pro and the looping features of Sonar. Still, the tasteful use of a loop here and there, particularly if it is one I created, is cool, and GB can handle it.

More important to me are audio recording capabilities and MIDI integration, and export features in case I want to take my music on to more advanced platforms. So far, in all of these areas, GB delivers an easy to use interface and performs very well.

HARDWARE: Recording through the built-in microphone or the onboard line input worked fine. I wouldn’t typically use those for more demanding purposes, but they work well enough. So for the majority of my tests I used the Edirol UA25 USB audio interface. This gives me two channels of ¼” or XLR input and phantom power if needed. I’ve used this setup on an HP laptop with good results, so the main difference in this comparison is how the software (GB) interacts with the interface.

For the most part, I did not see any major difference from my previous PC recording experiences with the Edirol. Recording in stereo (where both inputs are L & R respectively of a stereo signal) was no problem. Setting up for true multi-track recording (where the L & R of the Edirol are recorded on discrete mono tracks), made me jump though pretty much the same hoops as a PC would. This is more a characteristic of how the interface is recognized by the computer. You have three audio recording options:

Mono L
Mono R

PC users really do not have anything like Apple’s touch pad. I have not used a PC touchpad that even comes close. Perhaps this will spawn innovation, and I’m sure as more people use the iPhone and Blackberry Storm, they will expect more of this functionality on their computers.

The touchpad is probably the biggest advantage when recording audio on a Mac. It is extremely easy to perform a computer task, and then return to the guitar with both hands. All of the extra clicking and maneuvering that I would normally do with a mouse is immensely easier with the advanced movements of the touch pad. As previously mentioned, the keyboard is also very comfortable, so combined with the touch pad, I have never navigated so flawlessly.

Usually, when I am writing or learning cover songs, I’m also recording so I can go back later and review things or have stuff for the web. This process usually involves sitting at my PC desktop workstation with the guitar, in front of some mics. It also involves juggling the keyboard and mouse. The ergonomics of the touchpad just make sense for musicians since we need our
hands to be free as much as possible. When we do use a computer interface, we need it to be smooth and dynamic, efficient and effective. The touchpad on the MacBook is all of these. It really is a game changer.

Working with the MacBook to record music has made me aware of critical ergonomic issues with my PC desktop recording setup. The lack of a touchpad-type interface (I don’t know if I can go back to the old days), and the physical layout of my system as a whole need to be reviewed. In the past, recording on a laptop (PC or Mac) was not my preferred method because it just felt like I was not getting everything I needed. I’m rethinking that. PC or Mac, it is just so much more comfortable. It’s portable of course, which makes backups even more critical, but I already do those religiously.

So far, there was one problem though, which I have yet to explore. It may turn out to be a non-issue, but it is worth mentioning. On one song, with a mere 12 tracks (8 audio, 4 MIDI) I got a playback error.

After a shutdown, this occurred again, and then went away mysteriously, but returned later. Hmm…


By jjdeprisco

Sonic explorer, sound artist, guitarist in Fricknadorable, software designer.