New MacBook Pros are more desirable than ever. Just make sure to budget for enough RAM when you purchase – and get ready to embrace SSD internal storage and external drives for everything else. Image courtesy Apple. Also… wait… I suddenly have a desire to either go camping or eat sushi. This image is telling me something.
To the rest of the world, Apple’s event today was about new iPads.
To most people reading this site, it’s probably more along the lines of, “can I finally stop putting off buying the new MacBook I need?”
Answer: yes. But let’s quickly review what was announced that’s relative to music makers and live visualists:
A new GarageBand, in line with Logic Pro X, for iOS and OS X
MacBook Pro line that now has updated Intel graphics and chips, better performance and battery life (good) but completes the march to non-upgradeable memory, glossy displays, and SSD-only storage (bad, for some)
The US$2999 Mac Pro – for those looking for a studio workstation for video or audio, now you know the price.
New iPads, of course, and continued advances in mobile performance that will expand what they can do.
I’ve enjoyed Twitter and Facebook banter about the significance here perhaps more than usual – it was great to talk to people who use this stuff seriously in their work about what it means. (So, no, this isn’t about being a fanboy.) PC users, yes, you can still choose big machines at lower prices that have matte displays. (Though, if you want slim, light, and long battery life, you’re beginning to look at machines that resemble Apple’s in pricing, design, and functionality.)
For the Apple side, though, here are some reflections:
The Software Picture
1. Apple remains committed to their creative apps. On the Pro side, Aperture, Final Cut, and Logic got nods as the apps that couple with the Mac Pro hardware. Aperture and Final Cut were specifically described as recoded for the Mac Pro. Logic Pro X was not explicitly described as such, but Apple told CDM way back in summer that we could expect an update of Logic to take advantage of the new hardware. And GarageBand got a big center-stage demo from Xander Soren for the first time since 2011′s Back to the Mac event.
2. GarageBand being free is a big deal. GarageBand is now standard on iOS as well as the Mac. And it includes a lot of the same design cues and functionality (the automatic Drummer) that Logic does. That means for Apple-centric users, it will likely be the lingua franca in music making.
3. We’ll want to watch Mavericks compatibility. Music developers, fail to test Mavericks, the new OS X, at your own risk. Free upgrades mean that a whole lot of Mac users will be upgrading on day one. On the other hand, I think that agile developers could benefit from this in the long haul, as it will mean less need to support old OSes. And in particular, Apple is not only making upgrades free but offering them to lots of old OS versions. The bottom line: just as on iOS, Mac users are likely to largely be running the latest-and-greatest, and anyone not wanting support headaches will want to keep that in mind.
The Hardware Picture
4. The Mac Pro at US$2999 is an impressive workstation. Look, the Mac Pro isn’t for everyone. But for someone wanting a serious workstation or doing video editing, the Thunderbolt workflow and its mess of ports may actually appeal. It will continue to annoy those who prefer internal storage or who have an investment in internal expansion cards. But I think those who do have three grand burning a whole in their pocket may well take a hard look at this very high-end machine.
Of course, for the majority, the real focus will be on MacBook Pro…
5. For music, the MacBook Pro 13″ is a clear sweet spot. The good news is, Apple now includes the latest Intel chipsets across the whole line. Combined with OS X Mavericks, that means improvements to battery life and use of integrated graphics (for visual work and OpenCL computing) that come from both the OS and the hardware. And the prices seem not unreasonable for high-end features, a design lots of people really love, and an OS that for many is worth a premium.
6. But get the specs you need right away – and forget about conventional storage. The bad news is largely to do with upgradeability. Expect to splurge on the US$1499 model, for 256 GB internal SSDs and the full 8 GB of RAM. (If you can live with a small SSD, you can upgrade the entry level to 8 GB for a total of US$1399.)
The SSDs are a whole lot faster and more reliable than conventional drives. But it means you will need to tote around a USB drive for extra storage for things like sample libraries.
7. High-end visuals will cost you, too. The 15″ MacBook Pro starts at US$1999, but for dedicated NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics and 16 GB of RAM, you’ll need the US$2599 model. At that price, I imagine even some deep-pocketed users would consider spending their money on the Mac Pro instead, with much greater performance and connectivity.
8. It’s glossy Retinas or nothin’. Matte display options are, perhaps as expected, evidently a thing of the past – even on the high-end MacBook Pro. 15″ non-Retina is gone, too.
9. iPad will continue to dominate. I’ll leave it to someone else to cover tablets, but while there’s a lot of promise on the Windows side, iPad is for now still where the action is. It’s desirable, and it’s what consumers actually use. So not only does it have the back catalog of creative apps, but it will continue to get them.
And one more reflection on GarageBand…
10. Logic isn’t looking more like GarageBand. GarageBand is looking more like Logic.
SONAR, Cakewalk’s flagship Windows DAW, receives a significant update this month as SONAR X3. There are a number of improvements, but what may be the most significant is a deep integration of Celemony’s toolset for manipulating pitch and time.
DAW tastes will be forever personal, so you can be forgiven if you simply don’t like or have never used SONAR. But it’s worth noting that some things the software has accomplished have led the way for other tools. Cakewalk was the first, for instance, to embrace 64-bit audio processing and computation, and continues to (fairly) boast of its 64-bit “double precision” (that’s the same thing) mix engine. This includes advantages in certain audio tasks and in maximizing the computational performance of the latest hardware.
The rich Celemony integration could be an even more significant accomplishment. Since audio first appeared alongside MIDI in digital editing, musicians have wanted to have the same fluidity of editing that other digital materials have. But our ears are sensitive instruments – even the untrained ear can transform the spectral soup of sound energies into polyphony, can recognize subtle timbres, and can immediately detect if something has been manipulated.
There’s no other way to say this: Celemony’s Melodyne line of products is just better than any other offering out there. The sonic results are more transparent, and the feature set – particularly if you’re willing to shell out some cash for high-end editions – is unmatched. Most competing tools can’t handle anything other than monophonic (single-part) musical lines, and they lack tools for fine-tuning pitch results. There’s a reason they call their technology “Direct Note Access”: it makes editing audio feel like editing MIDI (or, really, even more expressive). When I reviewed Logic Pro X over the summer, that’s why I described Apple’s integrated offerings as more basic. And this isn’t just about pitch correction with a lousy singer – the ability to treat sound as changeable opens up various creative options.
The problem is that the Melodyne products run as plug-ins. So, many workflows involve copying audio into the plug-in and back out again – workable, but not ideal.
To make Melodyne feel more like part of your DAW and less like a separate tool, Celemony introduced an SDK that re-conceives how a plug-in works. And, as usual, they have a name and an acronym for it: ARA (Audio Random Access). The “random” bit is to make editing in the plug-in non-linear in the way that it is in the DAW.
Cakewalk has done more with the SDK for ARA than any other host so far. (This replaces Roland’s V-Vocal, a decent tool, but not really something that would hold up to Celemony comparisons.)
With the integration, as seen in the video, you can edit audio, even in real-time, in the plug-in as though the plug-in were part of the DAW. And you can also pass parameters and region information bi-directionally. Under the hood, the tech is an extension of Steinberg’s VST3, though, well, I’ll let Cakewalk’s CTO Noel Borthwick explain:
… very little is done at the VST level besides streaming the plugin audio output back into the host engine signal flow graph. The bulk of the work is handled by the custom ARA interfaces. This is because unlike normal VST plugins, ARA requires random access lookahead to audio on the timeline, in response to the user re-sequencing, time stretch or otherwise mangling the audio data in the editor user interface. In a sense each ARA plugin works like a dedicated sequencer for its audio region!
And in SONAR, you get various other options: you can batch-process clips and regions via Region FX, for instance.
If you invest in Melodyne Editor, you can detect pitch in polyphonic materials – not just a single vocal line, but harmonies and piano lines. You can copy, paste, move, record, and re-sequence. You can make MIDI out of audio – something available in tools like Ableton Live, but here (cough) working much more accurately.
In other words, this isn’t pitch correction. It’s a massive, multi-dimensional set of remix tools that now exist inside the DAW. And until someone directly licenses Celemony tech or finds a way to come close to their algorithms and feature sets, whoever has the best Celemony integration wins.
In SONAR, you can do things like set loop points, or drag and drop audio into MIDI tracks. (Again, that’s like what Ableton Live does. But in Live 9, part of the charm of the feature is, to be diplomatic, the results are unpredictable. I actually have fun with that, but here you can have fun with results that are more likely to approach what you hear.)
SONAR X3, while a nice upgrade, otherwise suffers as nearly all DAW upgrades do – it’s nearly impossible to craft an upgrade that will convince loyal musicians to switch. (That’s why we love the music market, really; it’s a relief not to have a single vendor doing everything, as Adobe dominates the graphic market.)
But I would say that the level of integration of Celemony’s software is a reason to pay attention.
Also new in X3:
A new comping engine (see the video – and, yes, comping is a feature missing in Ableton Live, and implemented differently here than in some other hosts)
Rich VST3 support – interesting to see in a DAW not made by Steinberg
Cloud features, including YouTube and Gobbler. Gobbler is the most interesting, in that it makes backups and sharing uncommonly easy.
More analog, in a tape emulation and Blue Tube mixing effects, adding to a broad suite of other mastering and virtual analog features.
Tone2 filtering, in a multi-model filter unit.
Addictive Drums drum instrument, combining various kits and models. There are actually more kits here than in Ableton, though via a very different interface and with more conventional MIDI patterns (rather than the new adaptive model in Logic).
Bundled Lounge Lizard Session and guitar-strum instrument from AAS (whose products are also bundled in Ableton, though in a different form).
There are a number of other important improvements. And the included set of tools in SONAR X3 is getting almost absurdly-packed; even with big bundles in rivals, SONAR is an unusual amount of software bang-for-your-buck. I’ll let them do the laundry list, though.
Pricing runs from US$199 – 499, with upgrades $49 – $149.
Melodyne integration is available in the $199 (street) Studio edition, the mid-range edition – nice move there, and I could say for Windows users, you might consider spending a couple hundred bucks here if you’re investing in one of the higher-end Celemony packages, just to get that integration.
If you make use of this feature, of course, we’d love to hear from you – especially if you get more creative than just fixing your singer’s vocal chops. (Come to think of it, I haven’t been singing in a while. I’m glad I’m not going into the studio, Celemony or no! Creative remixing, it is!)
Let’s not mince words: Serato’s DJ offerings had gotten confusing, and updates and compatibility lagged. This week, the company has changed the tune: there’s one Serato to support everything, and it’s coming soon.
For controller users, that means being ready to go in October, thanks to vastly-expanded hardware compatibility. For digital vinyl users, things are still going somewhat slowly, but a beta will be available later this year with stability afterwards and broader support for hardware early next year. That means controller users are likely to switch this fall, with Scratch Live users given a preview and (it seems) more likely to switch next year.
And upgrades will generally be free for those of you who have made an investment in Rane hardware or ITCH controllers, apart from entry-level Serato DJ Intro users. (Serato Video will also work without incident inside the new Serato DJ.)
From Three Products to One, Finally
Fairly recently, there were two versions of Serato from which to choose:
1. Serato Scratch Live: the digital vinyl solution, the one that uses records on a turntable to control software.
2. Serato ITCH: a solution for integrating controller hardware with the computer.
Then, Serato DJ came along to replace them, leaving… ah. Three products, at least in the minds of consumers — ITCH, Scratch, and DJ. Serato continued to support Serato DJ and Scratch Live. And hardware compatibility has been out of sync.
Until now. With Serato DJ 1.5.0, Serato Scratch Live is out of the picture. The software will be supported through 2015, but there will be no further updates (apart from bug fixes) to Scratch Live or SSL.
The good news is, this clears the way for a properly-supported Serato DJ. Now, one product will support both digital vinyl and controller users – and there’s only one product, one codebase, one flavor.
In fact, as far as out-of-the-box support, Serato DJ starts to look like one of the most versatile options out there, thanks to finally catching up with all the ITCH controllers. That includes popular options like the Vestax VCI-300 and 400, the Pioneer DDJ series, the Numark NS, and of course Novation’s own TWITCH. In December, you’ll get the last stragglers: the Numark Mixdeck Quad and V7, and the VCI-100 MK II.
These days, controllers are the focus for a growing number of digital DJs; it seems you see less digital control vinyl in the clubs than you once did. So having this much controller support is already critical.
On the vinyl side, Serato works with the new Rane Sixty-Four and Pioneer DJM-900SRT, plus the Rane Sixty-Eight, Sixty-Two, and Sixty-One mixers, with the SL2, SL3, and SL4 interfaces early in 2014.
So, that does mean vinyl users will see a gradual transition, much as ITCH users have.
Vinyl users will also see support for the Scratch Live Accessories CDJ-2000nexus, CDJ-2000, Novation Dicers and Denon DN-HC1000S.
In technology, I think there’s a direct line between how happy developers are and how happy users are. And sure enough, Serato are re-committing themselves to stability as their main priority, and promising a number of features in Serato DJ that really have to do with allowing their developers to do the things they want to do to deliver for users. Serato promises:
Single code base
The proof, of course, is in the product – and that simply remains to be seen.
The new Serato DJ Controller Accessory
The new mixers
From Rane, a four-channel club mixer with dual USB ports. Yeah, okay, that’s pretty tasty.
Yes, but what does it really mean? Martin Backes is our guest with a bass music mix, prior to a show with me tomorrow – but, true to this back-to-school season, we’ve got reading and reflection, too. Pencils down. Photo (CC-BY) Rodd Senna.
Against the sweeping tide of a term as meaningless as “EDM” – perhaps describing a commercial phenomenon more than a genre – or the historically-ambiguous “techno” or “electro,” there is “bass music.”
There’s no “treble music,” but there is “bass music,” and even a “bass music culture” to go along with it.
If the term is clumsy and foggy, though, the ideas behind it are potent, the latest blossoms in a deeply-rooted musical tree. And in its latest iteration, the music appeals to people well outside a demographic or commercial context or even continent.
It appeals to people like my friend Martin Backes, a German-born and Berlin-based media artist, composer and sound designer, and veteran DJ. Martin and I will DJ tomorrow at Platoon Kunsthalle Berlin, an imposing venue fashioned from disused shipping containers. (For another angle on dance and music, see my post on my LP of experimental music for modern dance and reflections on rhythm and movement. I’ll be remixing bits of that record tomorrow.)
We’ll move together from ambient and experimental sounds early on to things you can dance to, a reminder that nowadays, it’s the norm that electronic music academics are clubbers, too – and, for that matter, people far from ivory towers are often hacking together new inventions. Labs and academies and clubs need no physical distinctions.
Martin, while known these days for art installations and beatless sound environments and bleeding-edge sound designs (he’s co-founder of sound/media lab Aconica), has in fact been DJing since 1994. That trek has taken him from the roots of turntablism in Cage, Schaeffer, and musique concrete to scratch DJing, and later digital and controllerism. He’s made a mix just to demonstrate his dancefloor-friendly side. He describes it as featuring “current bass music culture with a touch of Afrofuturism.”
But his passion for bass music is important precisely because it’s so commonplace – it has spread across any boundaries. And Martin was an early adopter, hosting eclectic freestyle nights that included the first drum and bass parties in his hometown — even if Germany is typically not associated with the movement.
And now, we get this music back, through a new frame.
I asked Martin as a guest on CDM to look at just what this phenomenon is today – and to give us some reading to provoke some more reflection on what the term might mean, whether it’s useful, and why it gets our musical hearts beating faster.
Consider this a starting place from someone outside the scene producing the music, providing a window to look in.
“Bass music” began as an umbrella term describing various styles of electronic dance music out of the UK — namely jungle, drum and bass, bassline, dubstep, and UK garage, among others. But that was just the beginning, and doesn’t give us a clear a idea of what bass music really is now. Bass music has become a worldwide movement, which is really hard to define when it comes to labels, genre, or tempo. And this is what it makes it really exciting and inspirational to me personally. I’d suggest some reading that examines the question of what bass music is, where it comes from, and where it could go.
Martin selects some articles on the topic worth considering. It starts with Computer Music in the UK, considering pragmatically why we stick with genres – even if they’re crude – and what to make of the trajectory of bass music.
“Forget about this Skrillex guy on the top — the end of the article explains it pretty well from my point of view.”
And this is where we find ourselves in 2013. In the space of three very short years, bass music has spread way beyond its dubstep roots, incorporating countless sounds, tempos, attitudes and artists. But are we any closer to answering the question, ‘What is bass music?’
And to address Afrofuturism, I would suggest the book More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction by Kodwo Eshun. Eshun takes on various musics of the black diaspora, from American hip-hop and funk to British jungle, from Detroit techno to German proto-electronics, and provides a useful guide for those wishing to connect the dots between their Roots and Phutures.
And Martin points to Kode9`s idea of “collective rhythm cultures” – as Kore9 puts it, “I’m just fascinated by rhythmic collectivity, whether it’s pleasurable or not – just people moving together, differently, in time.”: Kode9: Unedited Transcript [The Wire]
Augmenting keyboards with additional expression is a tradition that goes back nearly a century. Inventors have tried keys that bend and wiggle, add-ons from pulleys to ribbons, wheels and pressure sensors, and more – anything to extend the piano and organ beyond their on/off playing methods.
But now, the Web has accelerated the ability to communicate and develop these ideas. Crowd-funded invention is becoming widespread. And that means we’ve actually seen several polyphonic touch expression schemes this year. Rather than just presenting papers at conferences, instrumental experimenters are going to musicians and trying to fund real products.
American-born, London-based composer, educator, and inventor Andrew McPherson has the latest idea. We’re a bit late to this story, but part of what strikes me about it is that readers keep sending it in — it’s not something where the novelty wore off; the idea really seems to stick.
Well, stick – so to speak. Whereas lots of recent keyboard creations have required that you buy a whole new keyboard, TouchKeys adds a multi-touch, expressive surface to any keyboard you already own. You self-install overlays, and get X and Y sensing across the whole surface.
TouchKeys does two things other systems can’t. First, it accepts multiple touches on the key surface. Second, it works with any keyboard you have – meaning a classic synth can be retrofitted, for instance. Photo courtesy the developer.
The system isn’t terribly cheap. You can back the project for as little as 1 Pound Sterling, but it costs GBP650 to get four octaves of keys. (Early bird specials are available.) So, the ability to add these to your existing keyboard is really more about flexibility than it is about economizing. (You can also buy a custom-built keyboard if you prefer.)
That’s a non-trivial advantage for some, because it means that you can retrofit anything – even a classic Yamaha CS-80, as seen in a video McPherson has produced. (Via Synthtopia)
What you get in exchange, though, apart from the ability to keep your favorite keyboard, is very sophisticated sensing. The sensors not only track touch across X and Y axis, but can sense up to three points at once. They even map to pinch and slide gestures. That affords a broad range of additional expression across the key surface that other instruments generally don’t offer.
To pair with the physical touch surface, the TouchKeys will work with open source software that analyzes the sensor data on Mac, Windows, and Linux, connected via USB. (Or, it will be open source – nothing is available yet.)
vibrato by shaking the hand side-to-side
pitch bends up and down the key, with an optional feature to snap the bend into the nearest note so you always stay in tune
MIDI control changes, used for changing volume and timbre, based on absolute or relative finger position or finger contact area
multi-touch pinch and slide mappings
triggering extra sounds by tapping with two or more fingers
Andrew points us to this video, which shows more of what this means in playing technique:
The inventor, in his studio: Andrew McPherson.
For his part, Andrew McPherson has a rich background in researching and composing for alternative instrument designs. He’s now, Lecturer in Digital Media at the Centre for Digital Music, Queen Mary, University of London. We actually saw some of his research two years ago when he first began developing it; you can check out his research at http://andrewmcpherson.org/
McPherson is a veteran of terrific programs at Drexel (where he was a post-doc with Youngmoo E. Kim), University of Pennsylvania (where he did his PhD), and MIT (a student of the likes of Peter Child and John Harbison in composition, and Barry Vercoe’s prominent program in tech).
And speaking of Classically-influenced applications, Andrew notes to CDM that you can use a piano – here we have, exclusive to CDM, images of the system on a Yamaha acoustic grand. I’d love to see this in combination with a Disklavier. (Even if that instrument needs a new name.)
He explains to CDM:
I worked on a project this summer in Lugano, Switzerland (a collaboration with Jennifer MacRitchie at Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana) where we recorded 4 professional pianists playing a variety of classical and jazz repertoire. We used the TouchKeys alongside video motion tracking to research physical gestures at the piano, studying how pianists orient and move their hands on the keyboard in performance. It’s a different application from the controller aspects that are the Kickstarter focus, but might be an interesting side note. I’m also hoping that the data I get from the research project will lead to new and better mappings in the future.
All of this leaves two major rivals at the moment for the TouchKeys.
NDVR’s developers tried touch on the surface, too, in their Endeavour keyboards. But for this outing, they chose instead to use physical swing for sensing.
The NDVR has a number of features to recommend it over the TouchKeys, potentially. First, it has a fraction of the cost: assuming the creators can reach their funding goal, 49 keys can be yours for a paltry US$349. That’d get you just one octave of the TouchKeys overlay – and you still have to install them on your keyboard.
Second, having tried touch-on-a-keyboard schemes before, I’m intrigued by NDVR’s physical “swing” movement. It means added tactile feedback, and for some, could integrate more easily with existing playing methods – all while causing fewer accidental expressive moves that you might get with a touch system. I have also been impressed with the built quality of this maker before. All bets are off until you try these in person, though; at least with the NDVR, that should happen soon.
But we do have to see whether NDVR makes it to its funding goal and happens at all, and that same “swing” mechanism that appeals to some may be less attractive to others. TouchKeys easily represents the maximum of what you can do right now with the surface of the keyboard, and the ability to use multiple fingers and gestures is unparalleled.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out the QuNexus again. It uses a much simpler touch scheme, but unlike the rest of these, you can buy one now – and it’s very inexpensive indeed.
That said, I’d buy the QuNexus mainly for its mobility, with added expression a bonus.
Still, there’s nothing quite like TouchKeys out there. And it’s extraordinary to see these ideas start to turn into widely-available products for the first time, with the aid of crowd funding. (That allowed the QuNexus to get off the ground, too; we’ll have to see if these other ideas are successful.)
To see if you’re ready to take the risk, there are extensive details of how the system works, what different funding levels get you, and how installation and playing pans out in practice, on the Kickstarter site:
And with just over two weeks to go, they’re about halfway to the funding goal. We’ll see what the CDM bump does on this one.
The TouchKeys are a new musical instrument that transforms the piano-style keyboard into an expressive multi-touch control surface. The TouchKeys are touch sensors that can be added to the surface of any keyboard, measuring the location of the musician’s fingers on the keys during performance.
Traditionally on the keyboard, it has been difficult for the player to shape the sound of a note after it is played. On the TouchKeys, techniques like vibrato, pitch bends, timbre and volume changes are as simple as shaking the wrist back and forth or moving the finger up and down on the key. The TouchKeys work with any synthesizer and are especially well-suited to playing wind and string sounds, which have long been a challenge to emulate from the keyboard.
A unique aspect of the TouchKeys project is that the sensors install on any existing keyboard, from the smallest portable keyboards to full grand piano sizes. This means that the TouchKeys retain the familiar feel of the keyboard while adding many new expressive techniques. Do-it-yourself kits will be available for musicians to hack their own keyboards, as well as a limited number of prebuilt instruments. The project is launching on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, with the goal of raising £30k to fund the production of TouchKeys sets and get them into the hands of musicians.
Andrew McPherson, creator of the TouchKeys, is a composer and engineer and a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary, University of London. He was previously a postdoc in the Music Entertainment Technology Laboratory (MET-lab) at Drexel University. His previous project, the magnetic resonator piano (electronically-augmented acoustic piano), has been used in dozens of performances worldwide over the past 4 years, most recently by the London Chamber Orchestra and the band These New Puritans.
House of mirrors? Every variety of tablet/laptop combination imaginable showed up – inside the Asus booth at Computex, staggering choice, but a couple of standouts that hint at what musicians might actually want to use.
What if your computer could do what tablets do – without having to kludge together multiple devices? That question probably doesn’t keep ordinary people up at night. But with music makers unusually ravenous users of touch software, they might just be at the vanguard of new convergences of creative computing.
Picture this scenario. Your computer behaves the way it always has – with the usual complement of software and the same comfortable form factor and editing tools. You have the precision of the keyboard and pointer. Then, when you need it, that computer can also be a tablet. You pick up a soft synth and use your fingers to draw sounds, then strum a virtual keyboard or fretboard to assemble melodies. You set up your notation software next to your instrument and tap in notes as you write a song. Or you go onstage to play or DJ. Rather than hunching over the screen squinting at the UI, or hiding the machine in a corner, you instead have a fat-finger-friendly mixer or performance layout you can easily play alongside physical instruments and controllers.
But what you don’t have to do in this story is switch between the tablet and laptop. That means you don’t have to worry about buggy wireless connections or whether you’ve synced files when connecting the two. It means you don’t have the dawbacks of tablets – running out of horsepower, not getting to run software you rely on, or running out of ports for hardware you need. But it does mean you could get touch on your conventional laptop. And it means you’re not buying – and carrying around – two pieces of hardware that do essentially the same job.
Not everyone needs or wants this kind of convergence. But for those who have felt left out by the divide between laptops and tablets, it seems a logical solution.
Convertibles: the Way to Go?
Best way to drive: convertible. By which, of course, we mean laptops that mutate into tablets. Photo (CC-BY) emdot.
Just adding touch to the display doesn’t really work; in fact, it amplifies the problem. It puts your hands and arms in an uncomfortable position – that same hinge that worked so well for keep the screen handy while typing is now a detriment.
That’s why it seems convertibles – form factors that transform between laptop and tablet – seem to hold the most promise.
Windows software would need to be updated to take advantage of touch capabilities, since widgets like knobs are all sized for the mouse and designed to respond to only one pointer at a time.
So, hardware becomes a very important ingredient in a chicken and egg problem. Given past touch laptops and tablets, that will also require touch as a mainstream commodity, not a niche market. (Remember the stylus-based Windows tablets? They were sometimes actually fairly cool, but limited market success meant few developers targeted them.)
Having seen the landscape of the PC market, and the strategic direction taken by Intel and Microsoft, this time seems different. It may actually get hard to buy thin ultrabooks without touch shortly. And Windows 8 is an OS clearly designed to target touch as a core feature.
The market is responding, too. Some tablet advocates used slowed sales growth in 2012 as a sign that the world was switching to the iPad, or some other extreme scenario. It’d be safer to say that the tastes within the PC market are shifting. Big winners: the Acer Aspire S7 I covered earlier this week is not surprisingly earning lots of love, thanks to a lovely industrial design. So, too, is the Yoga:
The leading machines, the ones you can’t keep in stock, both support touch; that’s no accident.
So, the machines are coming. Whether developers and users invest time in them, though, is still dependent on whether they’re any good.
Just forget for a moment early efforts you may have seen. The first convertible tablets were, admittedly, terrible. Some were even based on underpowered netbooks, with the lackluster performance to match. Others were thick and heavy. The displays were poor. The touch on the screen often had only basic support for even two-fingered multi-touch. Touch was inaccurate, laggy, buggy, required extra finger pressure – or all of these.
Getting a laptop that’s both worse and costs more is clearly not a recipe for success.
Times have changed. PC makers still take a “kitchen sink” approach, trying endless strange varieties to see what sticks. But some things actually are sticking. Lenovo led the industry in growth at the end of last year, particularly in the United States, driven in part by the success of its Yoga ultrabook. Fold the hinge of the Yoga, and keep folding, and keep folding, and like a contortionist, the laptop’s display folds all the way to turn it into a tablet.
Reviews: The Verge, video above, and a great article from Tom’s Hardware:
As a first-generation device, some details on the Yoga weren’t quite right; the Yoga lacked some of the nicer performance and hardware design features of its brethren. But 2013 is likely to be the first year we see a mature generation of convertibles, paired with Windows 8 (make that 8.1). Could a survivor emerge from all these evolutionary oddities? That’s the question I began to answer in Taipei earlier this month, during the Computex show.
Night Markets and Two-in-ones
Night market, Taipei. Here, the tyranny of choice bothers no one – myself included.
I’m now wandering from food vendor to food vendor, studying menus that are entirely indecipherable. Go shopping for anything in Taipei – electronics or street food – and you’re aware that you’re in an environment were techno-maximalism and the tyranny of choice frighten no one. In a place where something as simple as a fruit tea or an ice cream is accompanied by endless menus, it’s perhaps not surprising that computer vendors would happily saturate retailers with numerous variation.
In the end, buying the street food was easy – I had some friends as guides, and I chose things that looked tasty, and ate things that smelled smelly to find some stuff that was delicious. I’m not sure the computer side of things is nearly as easy. And here, the comparison fits: it would not be in all way strange to imagine a night market full of convertible tablet/laptop contraptions, unsure of which is usable.
Intel was pushing the “two-in-one” idea throughout Computex. They had rounded up a bunch of ultrabook convertibles that did dual duty to get your hands on. And Acer and Asus were on-hand with their offerings, two rival flagship Taiwanese vendors. (Mainland Chinese, Japanese, and American vendors generally made themselves scarce.)
Two in one was Intel’s watchcry at Computex, and they had a round-up of machines to show off. The problem was, more in this case wasn’t necessarily more.
We can classify all these offerings in two regards. First, operating system:
2. Windows RT
3. “Full” Windows
Second, form factor:
1. Conventional laptops with touch
2. Laptops that convert into tablets
3. Laptops with detachable keyboards
4. Tablets (that may or may not have some kind of keyboard attachment cover)
On operating system, for music making I’d have to consider anything but the full Windows OS a non-starter – and so far it seems the mainstream computer market is feeling the same way, partly as they’re looking for something differentiated from the iPad. (It’s touch to imagine picking a Windows RT or Android tablet over an iPad, certainly not without a steep discount, even if you weren’t a musician.)
There are other problems with Windows RT, too. The good news is, audio latency has been vastly improved, and we’re seeing an OS that, in theory, at least, supports the kind of low-latency operation we’ve had for years on Windows desktops. But just as we saw earlier this week with Android, Windows RT applications are unable to handle MIDI hardware. That means ARM Windows RT tablets are completely left out and any “Metro-style” modern Windows app in the Windows Store is shut out, too.
MIDI is, perhaps, an arcane format to ask Microsoft to support. But on the other hand, it’s an extremely simple API to support. Compare the cost of, say, hiring the world’s richest DJ to promote your product – you could just add these weird MIDI features and let the musicians come to you. Ahem. And we’re not just talking about connecting your Windows tablet to your Jupiter 8 (though, hey, some of us love MIDI on synths). We’re also talking about critical input devices almost all musicians use at one point or another.
Anyway, the good news from Computex is a lot of PC makers are going great guns on conventional Windows. Add up countless other markets with their own weird application and hardware requirements, and you have, well, the PC market that has propelled Microsoft and PC OEMs all these years. It’s easier to make a case for Windows with touch here against things like the iPad, because you get a no-compromise OS that does everything.
On to form factor: it’s impossible in a few moments to do a proper review, but I found the machines largely unsatisfying when they had strange systems for folding the display up or had detachable keyboards. While Acer had devised a clever magnetic system, many of the keyboards felt like they were going to break when you detached them; the docks just didn’t make a strong case for buying a 2-in-1 hybrid. (PC makers, if you want to send me some hardware to prove otherwise, I’m game.)
Over and over again, the three makers that for me stood out were Acer, Asus, and Lenovo, in build quality and smart design.
A tour around the Asus booth was downright dizzying. A rep for the company showed me the baffling 3-in-1 Transformer Book Trio, for example. It’s a Windows notebook, but then you detach it and it’s an Android tablet (stay with me), but then there’s a dock that turns it into a desktop, but then your kid might use it to play Angry Birds on Android again, but then you can plug it into a TV, and… augh.
Trust me: if there’s an idea you could try, theoretically, some PC maker is trying it.
I think this image more or less sums up how confusing the Asus Transformer Book Trio is. Keep looking at that picture. Yes, that’s a keyboard that’s a dock hooked up to a TV and an Android logo dancing around with Windows 8… whoa.
Asus also had one of the best ideas I’ve seen to counter the Yoga, though. Dubbed, hilariously, the TAICHI, it one-ups Lenovo by skipping the hinge and simply building a second display into the lid of the laptop.
So, open the laptop, and it’s a conventional machine. Then close the laptop, and the lid becomes a touchscreen.
Instead of more hinge tricks, Asus just added another touchscreen display on the lid. Surprisingly, the results are slim and light and testing it hands-on, the display is good. Shame about the 4G memory limit, though. Cough. Image courtesy Asus.
That sounds about perfect for live music. What you want to do onstage is to be able to just close your laptop. If that lid then became a display, well, that’d work out pretty nicely. (What you do miss from Acer’s clever R7 Ezel hinge or the “tent mode” on Lenovo’s Yoga is the ability to elevate the display, however.)
I await the Tae Bo and Pilates, and then this competition will really be on.
And many musicians will no doubt be interested in the massive touch displays appearing on the market. Some of these have incredibly precise ten-touch modes and low latency. And because they’re big, you can experiment with new touch interfaces in the studio, or even collaborative touch interfaces that more than one user can try at a time. (That was a feature often demonstrated on music tables developed in research contexts in the last few years – the idea that a UI can be used by more than one person at a time.)
Some time on the trip back from Taiwan – maybe it was while I was comfortably using my (cough) iPad – it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually seen any laptop I’d want to bring back with me. So, my optimism may sound strange here.
But I think the PC market is this sort of grand experiment in evolution. This is a market that acts like a whole ecosystem, that learns from its failures. Those of us who have been in it for a long time remember this cycle from many years ago.
What ought to be significant to music developers at the moment is this: touch is coming on everything. And partly because the market has been lukewarm on Windows RT, it’s coming to machines that run “real” Windows. That means when Propellerhead releases Thor for iPad, they might consider how usable Reason is on one of these laptops. When Ableton sees its customers using lots of tablets as remote controls for Live, they might try using it with their fingers – and those “remote control” apps might think about running on Windows and not just iOS. When Native Instruments adds new ways of manipulating waveforms to Traktor on iOS, they should wonder why they can’t do the same thing on Windows laptops that now work with fingers and not only mice or trackpads.
It’s too early to recommend any of this stuff now. But remember there was a time when PCs weren’t guaranteed to have trackpads or mice, when software had to list “joystick” as a requirement in boxes full of floppies. (Disclaimer: I’m … old. Well, in computer technology terms, anyway.)
I hope to get hands on one of these machines so we can try some of these features; maybe we have a little simple test app that people can try out on all these computers. Anyone interested, do get in touch.
I look forward to the days of replacing “dude, were you checking your email?” with “dude, why were you massaging the lid of your laptop?” in live sets. ¡Viva la Revolución!
Say cheese! The end of Macs with storage and expansion slots is proving very unsettling to some. If it’s not unsettling to everyone, well, blame how much better at making music laptops and cheaper desktops have gotten. Photo (CC-BY) Paul Hudson.
For all this debate over the new Mac Pro, you really need to know only two things:
1. The current Mac Pro is not a good value at the moment.
2. We have no idea how much the new Mac Pro will cost.
And so, everything else (minis, iMacs, MacBooks, and yes, even PCs) rule the roost. That’s good for music, because (as a couple of commenters observed), they’re all working just fine. The Mac Pro I thought was newsworthy last week in that it demonstrated that more internal horsepower is coming to high-end desktops, and that those machines can (whether you like it or not) rely on external devices – meaning Apple can make them really small.
The response to last week’s editorial, though, revealed just how divisive this machine can be. Boy, did readers complain – shouting at me, shouting at each other. It’s also like a walk down memory lane. Mac users and Windows users are fighting again. People are complaining that a new computer from Apple will completely destroy professional workflows because of an absence of expandability, that Apple doesn’t understand the pro market. Ah, memories.
Take note: upsides include fast internal storage, dual Ethernet, loads of Thunderbolt ports, lots of I/O bandwidth, 4K displays. Likely a quiet studio machine. Loads of power. The downside: we don’t know how much it will cost or exactly when it will be available. (It’s really, really tough to overstate how important that is.)
To be fair, if you’re heavily invested in internal hardware, this is still really bad news. And Mac users may feel the situation is out of their control, because unlike Windows users, Apple is their only vendor. (That’s true of some of you, anyway; some of you are happily building Hackintosh machines.)
But what I think is missing from the online debates (on CDM and elsewhere) is one cold, harsh reality: the current Mac Pro seems a waste of money, 2010 technology at premium prices: On the US Apple Store, the base model will set you back US$2500. To get the higher-end Intel chip, you need to shell out $3800.
That’d all be find if you got performance to match. But have a look at Macworld’s Speedmark scores. The 12-core Mac Pro (the one that costs as much as a used car) isn’t only outrun by a fancy new Retina MacBook Pro. It’s also slower than an iMac, or even the top-of-the-range Mac mini.
Switching to Thunderbolt and USB might well be pricey if you have a big investment in internal hardware. And buying one internal hard drive is definitely cheaper than buying one in a case with a cable.
But you simply can’t say the current Mac Pro status quo is a good value situation. It’s an expensive, slow machine.
And economizing by buying internal hardware is not always an advantage in an age when more and more pro users run laptops (or minis, or iMacs). Yes, external hardware generally costs more. It’s also easier to move and easier to swap with other computers, which can ultimately be a better value.
Also, it seems a small Mac Pro could be useful to audio users, who often move machines for everything from audio installations to stage setups. It’ll also be great news if this machine is quieter. We’ll know more later this year; it’s just too soon to say for sure.
Upgradeable, yes. But the cost of the machine itself is very high – and GPU and CPU upgrade options often aren’t the best buys for a Mac tower, either. Photo (CC-BY) Glenn Batuyong.
What is uncertain about the new Mac Pro
I think there are other concerns here that have more weight, though.
1. We don’t have any idea how much this will cost. (Fairly large issue here. Speculation is on the expensive end, but no one really knows.)
2. Internal PCIe flash storage here should be faster. But we don’t know what capacity it will have.
3. We don’t know what will happen with Pro Tools hardware.
4. The future of USB3 and Thunderbolt accessories is unclear. As I said before, I think the Mac Pro could be a push for both the Mac and PC sides. But vendors are cagey about talking about all their concerns as this involves future designs. We just don’t know what will happen. (USB2 and FireWire, by contrast, are safe bets.)
Despite concerns 3-4, though, I’m generally optimistic about the potential for external hardware, and vendors are generally telling me the same. They’re saying their stuff will work. In fact, they’re typically saying this is all more bandwidth than they need. (That’s a good thing.)
Back to the current Mac Pro pricing, the problem here is that the new Mac Pro isn’t just competing with the old Mac Pro. It’s competing with the Mac mini, iMac, and MacBook Pro – all of which are well loved. It’s safe to say that competition for the old Mac Pro has been going very badly.
The New Mac Pro is also competing with Windows PCs with conventional expandability. Here, though, there are some twists. The PC ecosystem isn’t delivering on the advantages of Thunderbolt yet. Those same Windows towers also have to compete with the aforementioned, well-liked Mac machines that deliver loads of performance and (cabled) expandability on the cheap. And there are some potential advantages for graphics users on the OpenGL side.
The bottom line for me is this: cost and value, not the absence of slots or storage bays, will determine the fate of the Mac Pro, and perhaps all desktops like it. Video users, those biggest consumers of storage bandwidth, often get by with external arrays.
The real question marks are what will happen with Pro Tools hardware that relies on PCI slots, and what this will cost. But if this isn’t creating the same angst in everyone, it’s because, increasingly, small desktops, all-in-ones, and laptops are happily fulfilling the performance needs of people doing production. Desktops can still be a better buy for certain users on the PC side, but the time when that was true on the Mac has already past.
Now, the jury is out on whether the Mac Pro will again give high-end users a reason to invest in high-end hardware. And anyone who claims to know the answer to that while lacking the price tag and most of the pieces of the hardware compatibility – whether they’re a skeptic or a believer – is taking a big gamble.
A historical note
To be fair, the Mac Pro is the biggest disruption to the top-of-the-line Mac desktop since the switch from PowerPC to Intel. By comparison, the Power Mac G4 was well liked, even with the switch to AGP for video, had a range of slots for I/O hardware and graphics. (Just don’t overstate upgradeability. You can still run OS X 10.4 on the 1999-vintage machine, but in the entire time since its launch, GPU options have been few.)