Taking the G5 Live!

Feb 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Kevin Becka

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Whenever Apple releases a new computer, it invariably makes audio folks drool with anticipation but ultimately begs the question: Does it offer the features, speed and compatibility to make it worth dumping my old system? Because the G5 is more of a ground-up redesign than a faster, prettier box, the hype surrounding it has created a lot more than the usual interest. So when Apple offered to send Mix a shiny new über-computer loaded with Logic Platinum 6.3 — an update of the first major version release since Apple took over Emagic and the first workstation to be fully optimized for the G5 — we were very interested.

We wanted this to be more than a test of Logic on the new platform so I talked to Robert Brock, head of the digital department at the Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences in Arizona, about creating a test that would be fresh and informative. Brock co-wrote the Apple Pro Training Series book Logic 6 Professional Music Creation and Audio Production for Peachpit Press. When I mentioned that I had access to a new G5, Brock's wheels started spinning and the outcome of the conversation was the G5 Live Project.

THE G5: A QUICK LOOK


The G5 is built for speed. Unlike its 32-bit predecessors, the G5 delivers the ability to address up to 8 GB of main memory and perform advanced 64-bit computation. For audio, this means that large sample libraries can be held in RAM, allowing faster access than off of the hard drive. During our test, the G5 was able to play back complex mixes while synching a QuickTime movie, changing screensets, changing settings on plug-ins and viewing multiple RTA displays on the channel equalizer. Even when we loaded up the session, there was no sluggishness or mouse slowdown as with past G Series computers.

The reason for the speed is a wider data path. To allow the processor faster access to data in memory, the frontside bus offers a clock frequency of up to 1 GHz. (On dual-processor systems, each processor gets its own dedicated frontside bus.) As a comparison, the G4's frontside bus maxed out at 167 MHz.

The SDRAM is equipped with a dual-channel interface that allows simultaneous read/writes. Each second, up to 6.4 GB of data can be exchanged between the main memory and processor.

The two serial ATA drive bays allow the installation of two 250GB hard drives, each having its own bus. Up to 55 MB per second of data can be written to the drive, while 54 MB per second can be read. OS X's integrated RAID software allows the two drives to be viewed as one or allows data from one drive to be mirrored to the second.

On the outside, the G5 offers two FireWire 400 ports, one FireWire 800 port, three USB 2.0 and two USB 1.1 connections, Gigabit Ethernet and an optical Toslink I/O (S/PDIF). There is a USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 jack on the front of the unit for those quick hookups. Clearly, the G5 is poised to be everyone's “everything” computer. Whether that was true for audio is what we set to find out.

AN EARLY HICCUP


With any new or next-generation gear, problems can come up. In our case, the problem was a low-level, but unacceptable, noise that emanated from the G5's optical output port. We encountered this early on in the project — before we acquired a MOTU FireWire interface and initial I/O was ported through the G5's optical I/O into a Tascam US-428. In the initial G5 test unit, the noise could be altered by moving windows on the desktop and seemed to be tied to changes on the video screen; this was odd, to say the least. The noise could also be physically heard coming out of the area of the power supply.

The noise wasn't isolated to just our unit, as the Web was alive with buzz relating to the problem. An entire Web page complete with audio files at Accelerate Your Mac (http://www.xlr8yourmac.com/systems.html) has been devoted to this issue. Apple was very helpful and interested in tracking this down and sent us another G5 immediately. Apple engineers offered that the problem was grounding-related, but the US-428 uses a wall wart, which usually helps, rather than hinders, noise problems. The second unit still had the noise but it was no longer related to the video. By this time, MOTU had shipped us an 896HD, and we discovered that the noise didn't exit the FireWire port. When I tested the FireWire output of another G5 that I had access to, it was quiet as well. Although I felt confident that we could carry on unhindered by noise, Apple sent us a third unit that was completely clear of the problem. Apple suggests that users who have this problem call AppleCare for assistance.

PROJECT SETUP


The purpose of the project was to load down the G5 with as many tasks as we could while recording a song during a live performance. The G5 and Logic were to handle everything; we only went outside the box when we had to. Certainly, pulling off an event such as this put a lot of responsibility on our test unit, but it was not unfair to do so. After all, our computer had dual 2GHz processors, 2 Gigabytes of RAM and two Serial ATA drives all running an audio application capable of tapping into the massive horsepower of the G5. The plan was to play back prerecorded, sequenced tracks using some CPU-hogging sample libraries and virtual instruments while triggering new events and recording live players — all while playing it back to an audience in quad.

The project started with Brock writing and sequencing a demo of the song that we were going to perform. I contacted a number of manufacturers of virtual instrument plug-ins and sample libraries who sent us their latest and greatest. What we got was the massive VSL sample library from ILIO; BFD drum library from FXpansion; the Trilogy, Atmosphere and Stylus VI plug-ins from Spectrasonics; and the Space Designer Reverb plug-in from Emagic. The stunning audio quality and advanced feature sets of these products come at a high DSP price, and we wanted to see how the G5 would handle it. To be able to store the large libraries and have the audio files on a different drive than Logic, Maxtor loaned us a 250GB, 7,200 rpm internal SATA drive. To be able to port the session to another platform, we had the Maxtor 250GB OneTouch FireWire drive.

SETUP OUTSIDE THE BOX


For the live performance, the song's MIDI tracks were going to be played back with a combination of live and triggered drums, two guitars, keyboards and three vocal mics. A band comprising Conservatory instructors, named “G5 and the Black Hats,” was assembled, with Bobby Frasier and myself on guitars and vocals, Tony Nunes on drums, and Brock on keys and lead vocal.

The first task was to set up the drums to trigger our sample library. Nunes brought in a full kit that would be used to drive the samples. To keep the drums from becoming overpowering onstage and in the mix, they were muted with a set of SoundOff drum set silencers. Trigger Perfect and other piezo-electric transducers were used on the snare, kick and toms, with an extra trigger added to a music stand to be used as a side stick trigger. These were sent to an Alesis DM5 to change the trigger pulses to MIDI events. The DM5's MIDI output was sent to a MOTU MIDI Express XT USB, which was sent via USB into the G5 and then to Logic running the BFD drum plug-in from FXpansion.

We used a MOTU 896HD FireWire interface for all of the audio ins and outs. Cymbals and hi-hat were recorded live through a pair of overhead condenser mics sent through the 896HD. The guitars, played through Line 6 Pods, and three vocal mics were sent to the 896HD FireWire'd to the G5, and tracks were assigned in Logic. We looked for a compatible amp-modeling plug-in that we could use for the guitars, but they hadn't yet hit the market. The 896HD's outputs fed both the quad mix to the house and the in-ear monitors used for the stage. The house mix was sent back to the FOH drive rack, where it was EQ'd and sent to crossovers before it went out to the house system. If there were such a thing as a crossover plug-in (hint, hint), we could have gone directly to the power amps from the 896HD.

To make things even more interesting, a separate MIDI track was used to send event changes to a MIDI-controlled lighting board. During the performance, Logic would be turning on and off combinations of lights on the pro lighting rig flown above the stage.

INTERNAL ROUTING
The main output setup in Logic is done from the Core Audio driver window. In our case, once the MOTU 896HD was selected as the go-to I/O box, then every audio track in Logic could be easily assigned to any of the outputs. This became our front-of-house left and right feeds. Setup in quad is just as easy. There is a page in Logic where you can customize interface outputs and assign them to specific speakers. In our setup, most of the tracks were left in their standard stereo mode, but a few of the synth sounds and pads were assigned to a quad panner and mixed into the rear channels.

The headphone mixes were a bit trickier to set up. Four stereo mixes were needed for the musicians' headphone feeds, but we had already used four of the 896HD's 10 balanced XLR outputs for the quad FOH setup. This left us with only six outputs — two channels short. However, MOTU's FireWire Console control software allows the headphone jack on the front of the 896 to mirror any stereo pair of outputs or act as a completely separate assignable output. The fourth headphone feed was accomplished by plugging the Shure in-ear monitor straight into the headphone jack. The three other stereo pairs sent signal directly to the Shure wireless headphone transmitters.

We used an even more circuitous setup to get the bused tracks to the aux sends. It's very handy to send a number of tracks to one of Logic's 64 internal stereo buses and process them as a group. Unfortunately, a bus fader in Logic can only have its output assigned to one physical output at a time, and there are no aux sends on the bus tracks. You can, however, create aux tracks in Logic and receive signal from any of the buses. The aux tracks have the aux sends necessary to feed the VSL submix to the players' monitor mixes.

HEADPHONE AND REMOTE MIXING


Logic gave us a great amount of flexibility in providing for separate headphone mixes. This is attributed to Logic's ability to assign separate controllers to the auxiliaries, as well as control of the main mix faders, letting any number of individuals control the Logic mixer remotely and independently. We used three Motor Mixes from CM Labs as headphone mix controllers for the live players. Mackie supplied an upgraded Mackie Control as a main mix controller for the project. MIDI Express XT handled the two-way MIDI communication to the controllers. Because MIDI only uses three of the five pins on the DIN connector, MIDI-to-XLR connectors enabled the use of mic cables to extend the MIDI feeds across the stage.

Long-distance control of Logic was achieved by using a G4 laptop connected via Ethernet back to the FOH position. The laptop was running Apple's Remote Desktop, which allowed FOH engineer Keith Morris to view an image of Logic's mixer and make changes. If we were wireless, it would have been even simpler, albeit slower.

VIDEO, TOO


We decided to add video to the Logic/G5 task list, as well. Adding video to a Logic session is as simple as typing Apple-M or using the Import tab from the Options pulldown. Once the video is imported, it shows up in its own window and is synched directly to the audio. Positional feedback is offered at the bottom of the Video window in the form of Position (bar/beat in our case), SMPTE and Movie Start. The QuickTime movie's output is assignable from Logic's Song Settings/Video pulldown. Because we could get it out to the FireWire port, we wanted to see if the G5 could handle yet another task, but it wasn't meant to be.

Although the video itself did not pose any problems when running within the session, the process of trying to break out the video to its own projector screen didn't work. The proposed video setup was to have one screen go out to the 23-inch cinema display at the keyboard position and a second screen fed out to a projector and large screen onstage. The G5's twin video output ports made this easy. What didn't work was when we tried to take the QuickTime video out of the second FireWire port to a DV cam, then out to a second projector and screen onstage.

When doing so, we could get the video out to the DV camera, but once we played the song and all was in sync, it resulted in some serious dropouts. At the last minute, we toyed with the idea of using the FireWire 800 port in “dumbed down 400” mode to solve the problem. However, due to a lack of appropriate cabling and time, this was not attempted. We settled for having the video play in one of the Logic screen sets that would be sent to the main projector output via the traditional output.

REACHING THE LIMIT


The day before the tests began, setup started with Conservatory live sound instructor Morris using SIA Software's Smaart Live to tune the system and get our quad setup in place. It was handy to use the Spectrasonics Atmosphere plug-in's 1kHz test tones at 0 dB to set up the room. (It also offers 100 Hz, 10 kHz, a sweep tone and pink noise.) Next, the drums and triggers were tested and set up in Logic. The other audio feeds were tested and set up, which left Brock the task of getting the auxes and controller feeds going.

To keep the players from having to scroll through tracks on their Motor Mix controllers, four stereo aux sends were created, each going to the respective monitor mix output on eight tracks. These included each player's instrument or mic, the click track and a large submix labeled “everything else.”

This last submix comprised 25 stereo tracks that included other submixed buses with effects. All of this was sent to the quad front system and four stereo monitor mixes through one FireWire cable without any noticeable latency. Impressive.

To monitor all of this, the channels for all of the live inputs had to be record-enabled. As each track was enabled, you could see the DSP monitor crawl higher and higher. This was especially true for the vocal mics, each of which was running a separate DSP-hungry Space Designer reverb. By the time the three vocal mics, two guitars, two overhead mics and the BFD drums (many with accompanying plug-ins) were enabled, a little more than a quarter of the DSP was being used. And this didn't include playing back the 20-plus prerecorded sequence tracks, all using virtual instrument plug-ins. Getting everything going at once proved to be the proverbial straw.

“The limit” manifested itself as a core system overload at the bridge of the song, which had a slew of VSL and Spectrasonics tracks working simultaneously. The DSP monitor never completely filled up but was spiking at about 80 percent when the overload would occur. When the song ran without all of the live inputs, the system never flinched. The live variable was definitely the X factor.

The immediate solution was to use Logic's Freeze function to lower the processor's overhead. Freezing tracks prints a rendering of the audio generated by any virtual instrument and plug-in as a 32-bit audio file on the hard drive. Sonically, there is no change. Your hard drive has to work harder, but the computer's CPU doesn't have to compute the audio for that track. This means that you can't make any changes to the tracks unless you un-Freeze them. Fortunately, the Freeze happens prefader, so you can still make volume, panning and aux send changes to your track. Freezing a couple of the Spectrasonics tracks seemed to do the trick, and the computer was able to make it through the entire song.

However, once this hurdle was crossed, the session exhibited a more daunting problem. Even though there was plenty of room left on the DSP monitor, there were intermittent dropouts when playing some of the virtual instruments live. It seemed to happen more on some than others. This problem only showed itself after setting up the monitoring configuration. To relieve some of the strain on the system, all of the tracks were taken out of record-enable, except the ones that had the virtual instrument being played live. Doing this sent the DSP meter down to almost nothing, but the problem was still there. Strangely, there were never dropouts with the live mics or guitars, so the malfunction wasn't caused by a limitation in processing power. Also, OS X's system monitor utility indicated that we weren't using more than a quarter of the 2 gigabytes of memory installed on the G5, so RAM wasn't the issue. Even an 11th-hour install of Apple's new OS 10.3.2 upgrade with “enhanced FireWire performance for audio interfaces” was tried. Unfortunately, this seemed to make matters worse, so we took a difficult path back to OS 10.3.1. Subtracting tracks from the session helped, as did using the Freeze function, but neither completely resolved the problem. The BFD-triggered drums still had occasional dropouts even during the final show.

Finding the dastardly dropouts remained elusive, but after all, the point of the whole project was to see how far we could go with the latest technology. Keep in mind that no one in the past would ever consider monitoring an entire band with this kind of complex routing and effects setup using only a computer's internal CPU as a DSP chip. The bottom line is, unless you're planning on tracking a multipiece band simultaneously with multiple headphone mixes, lots of plug-ins, virtual instruments and CPU-hogging reverbs, then you needn't worry about this problem.

The next day, we called an early rehearsal and ran the tune down a number of times. Once everything was set, Brock did a long demo of the plug-ins and set up for the crowd before the Black Hats hit the stage.

As a final compatibility test, the session and individual tracks were saved to the Maxtor FireWire drive for import into Pro Tools. Logic's Freeze function (much like bouncing to disk but at faster-than-real-time speed) saves the files in .AIFF format, making it easy to export and import across DAWs.

LATENCY


Setting up the I/O buffer is critical to any DAW's ability to provide delay-free audio back to the players. For our session, the buffer was set to 128, which topped out at about 10 to 11 milliseconds of delay. This seemed to provide the best performance-to-latency solution. With the in-ear monitors in place, my guitar's response was very tight. In this live setting, the latency was workable; the other players concurred.

CONCLUSIONS


As with any project involving a complex setup, there were questions answered and questions raised. We found the limits of the G5, but at the same time, software tweaks, especially Logic's Freeze function, allowed us to raise the DSP ceiling. Latency was not a problem, which is always a possibility in the native environment.

Is the G5 the end-all, be-all answer for audio production? It certainly looks strong out of the gate. And as more software and hardware is brought to market that can take advantage of the G5's 64-bit-wide data path and the FireWire 800 port, it will certainly make it a worthy investment. For that matter, even older software would be given new legs on this platform. For our test, the G5/Logic combination worked incredibly well, handling almost everything we threw at it.

KUDOS


I'd like to thank all of the manufacturers involved in supplying the hardware and software. Big props go to Brock for developing the concept and making it all come off in grand style. Conservatory instructors and guitar and drum talents Frasier and Nunes put in some long hours and were invaluable in making it all happen. Thanks to Conservatory live sound instructor Morris for tuning the system, helping with lighting and making us “live.” Finally, I'd like to thank Kirt Hamm of the Conservatory for giving us such a great venue in which to make it all happen.


Kevin Becka is Mix's technical editor.

AT A GLANCE: OUR SOFTWARE


Emagic's EVB-3:

Logic's own virtual instrument, the EVB-3, is a great-sounding Hammond B-3 emulator. It is not a sample, but a virtual model of a B-3, giving the user the ability to tweak every last detail from the volume of the key clicks to the amount of draw bar leakage.

Emagic's Space Designer: Unlike most other convolution reverbs, Space Designer can synthetically generate a virtual acoustic space and give you all kinds of ways to adjust it to your liking. It contains not only rooms, but impulse responses of popular high-end processors. The reverb tails were lush, long and realistic. It is a DSP hog, but the G5 had no problems providing for the needs of this versatile plug.

Spectrasonics Trilogy: Trilogy is all things bass whether it is electric, electronic or acoustic. The detail is incredible. For example, the acoustic upright plucked bass is complete with release samples containing fingerboard noise. Most of the sounds have a feature called “True Staccato,” which lays out the same pitches on two different areas on the keyboard. The lower area has the sustained notes and the upper area has the same pitches, but with samples of a real bass player playing staccato muted notes.

Spectrasonics Stylus: Stylus contains a vast number of beats organized by tempo in a very easy-to-use structure. If the tempo doesn't match your groove, a groove control system allows the tempo to be modified without changing pitch.

Spectrasonics Atmosphere: Atmosphere is all about sonic texturing. Our mix ended with using six Atmosphere plug-ins, providing a lot of ear candy.

Fxpansion B.F.D.: This 9GB sample library lets you pick from a multitude of different models for every drum in the kit. Each is recorded at 30 to 40 velocity layers, with direct mics, overheads, room mics and even PZMs on the floor.

Vienna Symphonic Library VSL Orchestra: One of the best features of the 100GB VSL library is the Performance tool. This is a system written into the code of Logic specifically for VSL that analyzes the MIDI data generated by your performance and automatically triggers various samples to create more realistic articulations.

G5 Live Gear and Software

Hardware:

Apple G5 (twin 2GHz processors,
2 Gigs of RAM) running OS X (10.2.1)
MOTU MIDI Express XT USB
MOTU Audio 896HD FireWire Interface
Maxtor 250GB 7,200 rpm SATA Drive
Maxtor OneTouch 250GB 7,200 rpm
FireWire Drive
3x CM Labs Motor Mix
Mackie Control (upgraded)
Alesis DM5
3x Shure PSM600

Software:

Logic 6.3
Spectrasonics Stylus, Atmosphere and Trilogy Virtual Instruments Plug-ins
Vienna Symphonic Library
Fxpansion BFD sampled drums
Emagic Space Designer Reverb plug-in

Logic/Apple Web Resources

As with any upgrade or purchase, do your homework. The Web provides a number of resources from manufacturers or audio geek Websites and when all else fails, help is just a Google, Dogpile or Yahoo group away.

Helpful Internet Links:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/logic-users/
www.xlr8yourmac.com/systems.html
www.apple.com/usergroups/
www.gearslutz.com
www.logicuser.net






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