A few weeks ago, Apple released the latest version of its flagship midi+audio sequencer, Logic Pro. A multitude of new features and functionality has been added including support for both ‘Garage Band’ and ‘Apple Loops’, but the most significant new feature has to be support for ‘nodes’.
Nodes are one or more additional computers (a minimum of G4s, but preferably G5s) networked (via Ethernet) to a main computer, which then seamlessly harnesses the collective processing power of these nodes for use by Logic and this is something to shout about from the rooftops…with or without accompaniment from a fiddler (just don’t shout too loud or you might end up with nodes). Why? Because it marks an important midpoint in the evolution of computer based digital audio production and also seems to make its and Apple’s future direction (both of which now seem to be inextricably linked) pretty damn clear…as I’ll explain, by way of a little history lesson.
Prior to the mid 80s, if you wanted a sequencer, you bought a piece of dedicated hardware, which by today’s standards did very little, cost more than a Mac would now and only worked with equipment made by the same manufacturer, because each company had their own proprietary system for connecting theirs and nobody else’s products together. Then along came MIDI and for the first time a Roland drum machine, could talk to a Yamaha keyboard and a Korg sequencer.
Things really kicked off when Atari released their legendary ST (mine is still going strong). Originally intended as a home computer, it was the first credible and affordable computer to offer built in MIDI ports and even more importantly, to have control of these MIDI ports built directly into its operating system. As a result, an entire computer music industry rapidly grew up around it, kicking off with Steinberg’s ‘Pro 24’ (later replaced by Cubase) and closely followed by C-Lab (who effectively became Emagic) with the far superior ‘Creator’ (which effectively became Logic). Whilst computing moved on, Atari sadly did not, instead ceasing to be and although manufacturers such as Steinberg and Emagic came up with a variety of solutions for Macs and PCs, none ever worked quite as well as the Atari ST.
Then, in a historic move, Apple decided that they would no longer be constrained by a court order preventing them from having anything to do with music (the result of a legal case brought by ex-Beatle George Harrison and his company Apple Corps) and decided to build MIDI directly into their new operating system ‘
OS X’. They also took Steinberg’s open standard VST plugin architecture and turned it into the ‘Audio Units (AU) plugin format.
This was a massive leap forward, because for the first time since the golden days of Ataridom, it was now possible to run both MIDI and audio (something else that Atari achieved first) at system level, meaning the ultra tight timing vital for music production finally existed on a modern platform. The only drawback was that while MIDI consumes comparatively few resources, audio is extremely processor intensive, so if you wanted to run more than a couple of plugins, you still had to shell out big bucks for a Digidesign ‘Pro Tools’ setup, which would offer you dedicated DSP (Digital Signal Processing) to handle your plugins etc. and a studio quality interface to get your analogue audio sources like vocals, decks, etc, in (and back out of) your computer.
Over the last couple of years, various manufacturers (notably
TC Electronics & Universal Audio) have released DSP solutions designed to do same job as Pro Tools for a fraction of the cost. However, for technical reasons that I won’t bore you with, their solutions can’t actually run Pro Tools plugins, many of which are now industry standard, so while there is a growing library of plugins for these alternative solutions, they don’t entirely solve the problem.
Naturally, Apple have tried to convince the world and its robotic dog to go AU and lots of AU plugins are now available, but Digidesign aren’t stupid. Until now, they’ve known perfectly well that if they were to ‘switch’, they’d very quickly loose their hold on the market. But now that Logic supports nodes, instead of shelling out eleven grand for a (exploitatively priced) Pro Tools card, you can just buy a couple of extra Macs, hook them up to your main computer and Bob’s your uncle (and Charlie will keep you going during the recording session). True not all Pro Tools plugins are available in AU, but with the arrival of ‘Nodal’ music, chances are, they will be soon (and if key companies don’t want to ‘switch’, Apple can always just buy them…) which means that Digidesign now have a choice between producing realistically priced hardware and remaining at the top of the game, or loosing substantial market share in the same way that their parent company Avid lost out massively when Apple released Final Cut Pro at a fraction of the price of Avid’s then (but no longer) industry standard video editing software.
An important midpoint, but not the end of the story because there’s still an important piece of the puzzle missing…interfaces. Pro Tools isn’t just a DSP solution, it also arguably offers the highest quality audio interface currently available…at a premium price of course and though there are a multitude of other audio interfaces currently available, nothing quite touches Pro Tools…apart from the interface that EMU have just released… at one tenth of the price…trouble is, it’s currently only available for the PC (and is likely to remain so), but if Emu can do this, what’s stopping Apple from doing the same thing? Absolutely nothing! They certainly have the technology to hand – Emagic used to produce (albeit lower spec) audio interfaces before Apple assimilated them and if recent rumours are to be believed Apple are on the verge of doing just this.
According to appleinsider and a bunch of other rumour sites Apple will shortly release a low end ‘breakout box’ codenamed either ‘Asteroid’ or ‘Q97’ (note to rumour sites, ‘breakout box’ may very well turn out to be an accurate description of what you are discussing, but that term is used by the video industry, not, as you have all suggested, by the pro audio industry, who call them interfaces….perhaps because people in the music industry like to do a lot of interfacing…). So what’s the big deal? Everybody and their dog now has an audio interface available??
Well what’s interesting is that when this story originally broke, there was an artists mock up of a mixing desk style interface with faders etc., that was later withdrawn on the basis that the suggested price of ‘Asteroid’ didn’t fit its rumoured price of $129. Question: when did Apple ever release just one of anything? Hmmm, lets see… four ipods…three G5s…two versions of Logic…another question: when did the rumour sites last get their wires crossed (do I really need to answer that one?). So do we think that ‘Asteroid’ and ‘Q97’ might just be two separate devices???
A little more history. Emagic used to sell an interface for Logic, which was designed with and built by pro audio specialists Mackie. This was not an audio interface, but a ‘control surface’ which for about a grand, gave musicians/engineers/producers exactly what they had spent years asking for – a tactile way of controlling Logic with knobs, buttons and faders (instead of a mouse and computer keyboard). Mackie went on to produce a strangely identical device that worked with not just Logic, but everybody else’s sequencers too (much to the annoyance of Emagic at the time). Then everybody else started producing similar control surfaces and eventually combing these control surfaces with audio interfaces. However, to date, nobody has come up with an ideal solution, at a price that’s accessible for the average musician/‘project studio’, leaving a gaping hole in the market for something that combines a high quality 24bit/192Khz audio interface, multiple analogue and digital input/output options, a control surface with knobs and buttons and (ideally) 24 channels of automated faders, all of which works seamlessly with one’s sequencer & plug ins of choice. Anyone delivering this at perhaps somewhere around the one grand mark (or something with say 10 faders for a much lower price), could own the market, especially now that Pro Tools’ days appear numbered
Whether or not it is Apple who produce such an interface is unknown. The Technofile is not a rumour site, nor is it trying to be and this is all pure speculation, but one thing’s for sure. If Apple don’t do it, someone else will and since someone else’s solution is bound to offer compatibility with all of the major sequencing packages, not just Logic, it would make sense for Apple to do it first.
Of course (and this is no longer speculation but wishful thinking) if Apple were to offer a solution that doubled up as a control surface (and breakout box) for Final Cut Pro, then this really would obliterate the competition, because (whether as a result of necessity or megalomania) more and more desktop creatives and small production companies are running the two packages side by side and since Final Cut Pro also supports nodes, such a device could form the centre of a ‘creative hub’ (copyright MC Rebbe).
Whatever the case, one thing is for sure, nodes are something to shout about, as not only do they offer potentially far more power for Logic and Final Cut Pro users, but also they make it sensible to upgrade on a regular basis, as when you do, instead of being caught in a dilemma between using your old Mac for a doorstop or selling it at a car boot sale for 50p, you’ll be able to keep it and use it as a node. Win Win!
If I were Apple, I would do two things. Firstly I’d make this message about these newfound benefits of upgrading a major part of my marketing strategy and secondly I’d send MC Rebbe a cheque for this advice…then I’d really have something to shout about!
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