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ATPM 7.05
May 2001




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Beyond the Barline

by David Ozab,

Why I’m Waiting To Upgrade

As I write this column, it’s been exactly one month since the official release of Mac OS X. During that month, I’ve been pondering what exactly to write about it from a musician’s point of view. The present lack of support for MIDI and audio applications is quite possibly the worst kept secret on the Internet. Despite the self-conscious silence on the part of both Apple and all major third-party developers, the issues are numerous and appear unlikely to be solved anytime soon. To illustrate my point, I will first list the MIDI and Audio applications supported by OS X: Felt Tip Sound Studio.

In contrast, here are a few of the unsupported applications that will only run in Classic mode: Peak, Deck, Metasynth, Metatrack, Xx, Unity DS- 1, Retro AS- 1, Finale, MAX/MSP, Pro Tools, CuebaseVST, Logic Audio, Digital Performer, and Reaktor.

Two stumbling blocks on the path to carbonization (that is the modification of existing software to run in OS X) specific to audio and MIDI applications respectively make a significant change in this situation unlikely in the short term.

The Problem With Virtual Memory

Virtual Memory (or VM) is the method by which computers add headroom to existing RAM through blocks of free hard drive space. In previous versions of the Mac OS (beginning with System 7), this option is provided as a cheap alternative to buying extra RAM. Beginning with OS X, however, it is activated automatically whenever the software exceeds physical RAM. Most users already leave VM on (in its default setting), but those with sequencers or digital audio applications usually see some variation of the following message:


The Virtual Memory warning in Digidesign’s Pro Tools

Then the program quits, and grumbling, or audible profanity, follows. This incompatibility is intentional, though, since disk memory is considerably slower than RAM. The difference is usually negligible, except when precise timing is required, say to stream a steady word clock in sync with multiple audio tracks.

Of course, if you never exceed your physical RAM (I’m up to 512 MB), virtual memory never kicks in, and the problem should be avoided. The lack of a quick fix to this problem (i.e. disabling the check which causes the software to fail) leads me to suspect that the problem is deeper. I wish I knew more. The lack of clear information is frustrating.

The End of OMS

It’s been about two years since the purchase of Opcode Systems by Gibson Musical Instruments Inc. Shortly thereafter, the fate of Opcode, OMS, and Vision were sealed. The problem was that while Vision was just one of several competing sequencing/digital audio hybrids (others include CuebaseVST, Logic Audio, and Digital Performer), OMS had become the industry standard software-based MIDI environment. The last version (2.38) works fine under OS 9, but since it runs as a system extension, OS X breaks it by default. Had Opcode survived, or had OMS been open-sourced, this problem would have been avoided. Instead Gibson, for reasons only known by their board of directors, let OMS die. So until a new standard arises, MIDI applications will only run in Classic mode.

What To Do?

First off, as Douglas Adams said, “Don’t Panic.” The music industry is rooted in the Mac platform. History and a strong user base are both on our side, and the companies in question would be stupid to abandon the platform that made their greatest successes possible. The problem with virtual memory will be solved, and a new MIDI standard will replace OMS, perhaps MOTU’s Free MIDI, with long-overdue improvements, or a new solution from Steinberg, who have already provided VST and ASIO standards. In the mean-time, we’ll keep making music on OS 9, and let the braver (or less musically inclined) souls work out the bugs. By next year, we will all inherit a far more stable OS. To quote a fabled sage: “Patience, Grasshopper.”

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Reader Comments (2)

David Ozab (ATPM Staff) · May 3, 2001 - 13:02 EST #1
I just received an email which answers some of my nagging questions and also shows the problem is worse than I'd thought. Note: this is unsubstantiated, but it makes sense: "To my knowledge, the reality of the situation is grimmer than this. Many of these key applications (Cubase, Pro Tools, Logic, etc.) won't even run in classic mode. You should let your readers know this . . . The real issue is that all the low level MIDI and audio code in these aps is written in machine language, and is written to talk directly to hardware. OSX doesn't let anything talk directly to hardware except the kernel and the drivers. This a big part of where the stability comes from. Because of this, all the underlying MIDI and audio code . . . will have to be rewritten from scratch. Unfortunately, there was never any way around this . . . We'll have to wait for a lot of work to be done before any of these apps are X compatible. The good news is, a rewrite from scratch generally leads to big improvements. We can count on some dramatic performance boosts if these companies write their new code as cocoa objects. I just wish the companies would give us some kind of time frame." Or any information whatsoever!
Paul J. Tetreault, Jr. · June 3, 2001 - 18:07 EST #2
Thanks for a very informative article. I had a sense of impending doom about OS X and finally traded in my 8500 on 450 dual, figuring I'd take advantage of the last machine with built-in audio input, but I did not know there were so many hurdles yet to be overcome for audio aps in OS X. Up to now I've just been doing audio recording, but want to expand into midi and am trying to choose a multitrack/sequencing program. Sure is a lot to learn!

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