Part 6: Extra power
There are, of course, three certainties in life: tax, death and the ever increasing need for more computer power. OK the latter is possibly not quite up there with death but it does seem that, no matter what processor you have under your bonnet, you’ll always want more oomph to run your applications and, of course, computer hardware companies will be more than happy to supply it for you!
Ten years ago computers simply didn’t have enough Hz to do computer music. In fact even eight years ago when I launched a magazine called Computer Music we were still a little uncertain as to what they would ultimately achieve. But, as ever, technology marches on and now, not only can they do the music thing, they can do it very well and many musicians and studios have a computer at the core of their music making set-ups.
But software developers will always push the latest machines, processors and RAM to their limits (some would say with lazy programming, but we won’t go there) so that the latest releases always seem to gobble up all the resources that you’ve just shelled out for.
So what does a computer musician do? Fall into the trap of upgrading their machines every few months? Well, with the apparent inflation busting pricing structure of today’s computer hardware, where you always get more bang for your buck than six months previous, you’d be forgiven for doing just that. But there really isn’t any need to go mad… not yet. Have a think about other options before you buy a shiny new computer and end up realising that transferring all of that music software from one to another (together with all of those audio files) is an absolute nightmare.
The first option is to upgrade bits of your computer. This is certainly feasible for PC owners and actually a lot more straightforward than you might initially think. Mac owners, too, have some degree of flexibility but really the most you’ll ever be wanting to do on either platform is upgrade the RAM (which I wholeheartedly recommend for music making) and perhaps adding more hard drive space in the form of an extra internal or external drive (and they are so cheap now I’d recommend that too!).
But when it comes to the actual speed of the computer, swapping processors can be a chore and is not something you’d like to be doing when there’s music to be made instead.
A better option, if you are finding your computer struggling with some of its musical tasks, could be to consider buying extra hardware power just for music number crunching. Such boxes work independently from your computer’s own processor to effectively take the strain away from it when dealing with more complex tasks, and to either free it up to do other stuff or simply give it time for a breather and a cupper.
These hardware boxes often come bundled with some exceptional software which, you’ve guessed it, in some cases is actually so good that it uses all of the additional power within the hardware! Still, these boxes are a good option for computer musicians and some of the software that is available on them was previously only available on Pro Tools, the industry standard ‘pro’ recording set-up, and itself a form of hardware accelerator. So you really are looking at pro quality products here but not, in most cases, pro level pricing.
The other advantage to having a hardware box running your music making business away from your computer is that, when you do eventually upgrade your computer, you don’t have to mess about with upgrading and transferring the software contained in the external box. Simply plug it into your new computer and play!
But aren’t we going round in circles?
So, hardware that processes software totally independently from your computer to make music? Haven’t we been here before? Isn’t that exactly the same as having a bunch of hardware musical instruments like synths and samplers outside of your computer environment? Well, yes. And no. You see the integration with the hardware accelerating box (I think we’ll called it Digital Signal Processing or DSP box from now on – it’s much sleeker) is what is key here. The external software will integrate seamlessly into your DAW or computer set-up so that it appears to be running as one with it. Well, that’s the theory anyway…
And there is one other small factor that means we’re very likely to have to get used to the hardware DSP box, or indeed a variation on it. Some companies are getting back into hardware simply because software piracy means that selling software alone will not pay the bills.
The dongle factor
Companies producing hardware DSP boxes to run their own or other people’s software are at an advantage simply because people need the hardware to run the software, so it effectively acts as a glorified dongle, albeit one with a bit more power than your average USB key! So in the gritty real world of music production, software developed, say, for a TC PowerCore is less likely to be pirated than software produced simply as a VST-no-hardware-required application. So it could be the way forward for everyone, whether we like it or not.
So let’s see quite how good the technology really is…
Classic DSP producers
TC were one of the first companies to embrace the DSP add-on theory. PowerCore is the name given to the series of products, and the first of which we’ll deal with here is the PowerCore PCI MKII (£649) which has four processors and will slot very nicely into a standard PCI socket. The software plug-ins you get are many and varied including the 24/7 compressor, ClassicVerb reverb, Filtroid filter and about a dozen more. And, remember, we are talking top quality for these plugs. Powercore Unplugged (£419) is pretty much identical although you don’t get the software bundled with it, so you can assemble your own collection from scratch from TC or other companies that produce titles for the PowerCore platform, like Access and Sony Oxford. PowerCore Compact (£499) is a portable version of the PCI card aimed at laptop users (both Mac and PC) and connectable via FireWire. It features less in the way of DSP but a dozen effects. The Daddy of the TC PowerCore range is the FireWire (£799) with all the effects and extra power hosted within an elegant desktop solution. All of these will work almost invisibly with your computer set-up. In the FireWire’s case, all you get is a calming blue, glowing light…
Arguably the first company to really go for it DSP-wise were Creamware who, with their SCOPE system, produced the first proper computer music all-in-one environment back in 1998! (Or at least that’s when I had one!) The system is still around today and available in updated formats across a large range. SCOPE Project (£749) has six SHARC processors and over 60 plug-in instruments and effects. SCOPE Project Professional (£1,467) has 14 processors and all the software and connectors from the Project card and is something of a monster card all in all. Finally Creamware’s SCOPE Home (£349) is the entry level system which has three SHARCS and around 40 plug-in instruments and effects. The beauty of the Creamware system is that you get every component of the music studio in soft form, including synths, mixer, samplers and so on, all of which you can control virtually.
Universal’s UAD1 DSP cards have a great reputation. The entry-level card is the Project Pak (sic – £297) which is a PCI-based card with 14 plug-in effects included. Now we step up to the PCI Express Pak (£389) which offers the power and plugs for high speed PCI ports. The Flexi Pak (£599) has the hardware but you select the software (a voucher is included of $500 to do this). Neat idea! The Ultra Pak (£749) has 24 plug-ins and finally the Expert Pak (£799) has the power plus a $750 voucher to redeem for your choice of software.
As we’ve already seen in the software effects section of this series, Waves have a great reputation for producing quality plug-ins. The Waves APA32 (£1,199) and APA44-M (£1,799) are for the company’s more demanding users allowing owners to layer up multiple instances of the effects software without putting the extra strain on their computers.
New kids on the DSP block
Over the last couple of years a few other companies have got in on the hardware accelerating act. Muse are a new company but their first product was a bold one, in the form of the Receptor (£999). Essentially it’s a rack mount computer with a big hard drive to run any VST based instruments. The idea is that it has all the power and the glory of a PC but none of the mobility and stability issues. Another great idea!
Focusrite are well regarded for their hardware outboard gear which is found in pretty much every major studio around the world. The Liquid Mix (£495) delivers 32 channels of EQ and compression power with over 60 emulations modelled on some classic gear. The unit has garnered some great reviews and is now available for both Mac and PC platforms.
Last but definitely not least, SSL have just released Duende (£995) which is another power-packed hardware box, but this time with software that replicates the signal processing found in SSL consoles so offers their sound – a sound that costs tens of thousands of pounds by the way – for a shade under a grand. Nice!
So you can see when it comes to external DSP power, there is a huge amount on offer, and more, undoubtedly, to come. You might say that these boxes are an expensive option but the power they have and the quality of the effects and instruments on offer is up there (and in some cases actually better!) than the original hardware being emulated, and costs far less.
Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed this (rather more lengthy than we planned) guide to computer music. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to ask the guys as Dolphin or email me via this site.
Andy Jones, November 2006
The Dolphin Music Beginners Guide To Computer Music by Andy Jones
- Part 1, Sequencers and software studios.
- Part 2, Section 1: Virtual Acoustic Instruments
- Part 2, Section 2: Virtual Electronic Instruments
- Part 2, Section 3: Virtual effects
- Part 3, Section 1: MIDI Keyboards
- Part 3, Section 2: MIDI Controllers
- Part 4, Sound Cards & Audio Interfaces
- Part 5, Monitors
- Part 6, Extra Power