Two months with a MacBook Air for audio

A while back I was writing about whether or not to introduce a computer to our setup. Now that I’ve had my MacBook Air for close to two months I wanted to write a follow-up on my experience so far.

So, was it a good idea? I’m still not sure, actually. I have some frustrating technical issues that I need to solve somehow. But when things behave, I am really, really pleased with the results I am getting. One minute I am having tons of fun playing and exploring all the new possibilities, the next I’m distracted by something I “have” to fix and google unix syntax for how to change process priorities or some very un-musical nonsense like that.

OS X failed to make a good first impression right out of the gate. It wouldn’t even start up properly and I had to go online on another computer to figure out how to even get through the initial setup. I took this as an omen of what I had coming, and sure enough, the next weeks were spent trying to solve a seemingly endless series of technical problems. Most have been ironed out by now, however, and since the main task of the MacBook is as a companion for the Eigenharp, some of the quirky issues (like the fact that it for some reason is the only device in our household unable to download larger files from the web?!) are just minor niggles I haven’t bothered to look into.

The main task I had in mind for the Mac was to run EigenD (the software for the Eigenharp), route audio and midi from that to soft synths hosted by MainStage 3 and then send audio from that to our Steinberg MR816 firewire sound card. However, I can not get a reliable audio stream from EigenD, even with ridiculously large audio buffers. From what I understand, EigenD uses the JUCE library for handling audio, so perhaps I can solve this by compiling EigenD with the latest version of JUCE? I might look into that at some point, but it really isn’t that big a deal. I wanted the physically modelled EigenD cello sound, but because of the soft synth Sculpture (more on that later on) I don’t really miss it. So I’ve removed audio out from my EigenD setup and have left it at that for the time being.

A much more serious issue is that the Mac seems to freeze for half a second once in a while for no apparent reason. What happens is that, say, a steady midi stream of notes just suddenly stop playing for a short while. Then the notes play in quick succession to “catch up” the lost time. What is worse, the firewire audio drops out completely during these hiccups, and when it gets back it is usually nasty and loud for a good five or six seconds before it starts sounding OK again. As a work-around, I have the sound card running without being connected to a computer and then connect the headphone outs on the Mac to analog inputs on the sound card. The hiccups are still there, but the headphone audio doesn’t drop out. Sound quality suffers, obviously, and the latency isn’t great, but it will have to do for now.

I’ve done all the tweaks and OS configurations for optimal audio performance I could find on reliable online resources. But I still can’t get things working properly. I’m pretty sure El Capitan is the main culprit. Apparently OS X 10.11 is causing a lot of problems for musicians. By the looks of things I just happened to get a Mac at the worst possible time to do so. So hopefully a bit of patience and some new OS and/or driver updates is all that is needed to get things sorted. If not, I should probably consider downgrading to OS X 10.10 instead.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 15.08.55
Physical modelling synth “Sculpture”, bundled with Logic and MainStage

But enough about the bad stuff, there are good sides to this, too! I own Cubase, but since that seemed like overkill just for hosting VSTs, I installed MainStage 3 instead. I knew the sample based ROMpler Alchemy was bundled with MainStage and that it recently had received MPE support (and therefore would work well with my Eigenharp). But Alchemy was all but forgotten the moment I discovered another bundled MPE synth called Sculpture. Sculpture features a combination of physical modelling and classic synth elements and has turned out to be an amazing sound source for the Eigenharp. The two as a team produce some wonderfully expressive, acoustic sounds. Not necessarily emulating real instruments, but at least sounding like something that could exist in the real world. The MPE implementation seems to be slightly buggy, but still, creating patches in Sculpture and playing them from the Eigenharp is great fun and suits our kind of music.

 

A week ago I finally took a proper look at Aalto, as well. This is a 4-voice semi-modular virtual analog synth with a very distinct sound. The interface for Aalto is brilliantly conceived, which means creating sounds is quick and easy. What makes Aalto particularly interesting to me is that as an alternative to MPE Midi it can use OSC with a protocol for expressive note data called T3D. Since EigenD also supports T3D, the Eigenharp can control Aalto without having to go via the archaic midi standard at all. The result is a superior playing experience. Now, the placebo effect might very well play tricks on me, sure, but knowing that Aalto receives high resolution time-stamped data from the Eigenharp feels responsive and nice. Obviously, the minor MPE issues in Sculpture is not present, either.

Aalto
The brilliant user interface of Madrona Labs Aalto.

3TD/OSC is not the only reason I have already taken quite a liking to Aalto. As it happens, it is very similar both in features and sound to my Pittsburgh Modular eurorack. Even if I’m new to Aalto it instantly felt familiar and I knew what kind of sounds I could expect to get from it. It IS a synth that encourages experimentation and that has some cool, less than obvious tricks up its sleeves. But I suspect I have already explored most of them on my modular, which in this case I consider a good thing. Sometimes it is nice to know a synth intimately and be able to quickly get the results one want. For uncharted sonic territory, Aalto’s younger sibling Kaivo would probably be more suited. I don’t own Kaivo and aren’t even close to growing tired of Aalto and Sculpture yet. So Kaivo will have to wait for now. Still, it is nice to know there is even more great software in wait for my Eigenharp!

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One thought on “Two months with a MacBook Air for audio

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  1. Interesting to read this right after the “outdoors” post. Sounds like you were eventually able to get a reliable setup which allows for musicking with a free mind. Not really at that stage, yet, but there’s hope. The fiddly stuff can really get in the way. Sometimes, it feels like it’d be nice to have a technical person on hand to handle these things while we focus on the playing.

    Interesting comment about MPE in MainStage. Have yet to find a way to make it work properly with internal instruments. It actually does work well with ROLI’s Equator Player, the plugin bundled with ROLI Blocks. If you’re getting the Seaboard Block, you might want to give Equator Player a try. It’s a bit limited, but it does work well with the Eigenharp.

    Thanks for the headsup about T3D in Madrona Labs synths. Had heard of it but didn’t figure what it was. Experimented a bit with OSC in the past, including using TouchOSC to drive some things in Pure Data, Sonic Pi, or Processing. But some kind of specification for expression could help a whole lot. Tried Aalto briefly, but setting it up in T3D would probably make a difference.

    Thanks again for sharing! And, again, congratulations on your EP release!

    À bientôt!

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