Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Studio Unfolds, Part 1

I've bought a G4 Mac Mini on eBay. Low mileage, a 2005 model, still under AppleCare, just the specs I wanted - 1G of Apple-installed RAM, an 80G hard drive. I priced out all the options including doing my own RAM upgrade from a unit with 512 MB, and got the deal I wanted. Excellent!

Yes, it's a G4 -- not blindingly fast, and with a relatively slow hard drive. But it should still easily be fast enough to record a few tracks of audio -- and I won't have to throw out or upgrade my PowerPC applications. Sweetwater claims that using Digital Performer and a MOTU interface:

"With the compact and quiet Mac mini, I was able to record up to eighty 48kHz/24-bit inputs/tracks to the internal hard drive using four 828mkII or Traveler interfaces! It's no problem to hang Traveler, 828mkII, or 896HD interfaces off any of the Macs, in pretty much any combination...

...I could play 33 simultaneous tracks off the little iBook and a FireWire hard drive at 96kHz/24-bit resolution..."

80 tracks! That's why I feel that something is seriously wrong when my PowerBook couldn't reliably record even _one_ track from a USB microphone at 16-bit, 44.1 KHz to an external FireWire drive! Even a G3 or older machine should be able to do that. This failure indicates a serious driver problem, or a hardware limitation such as a shared interrupt.

It should feel considerably faster than my 400 MHz PowerBook G4, and the hard drive is eight times larger -- small by today's standards, but luxurious by comparison, and sufficient to record and edit many hours of audio.

I ordered a KVM switch -- a Tripp-Lite unit with built-in cables and USB support. I've never used any of these KVM solutions, and my fear is that they won't work, or will barely work, or will give me significantly degraded video. The reviews I'm seeing for various IOGear or Belkin or other units are not overwhelmingly positive.

If I can't get this one to work, I'd consider using a separate keyboard and mouse for the Mac Mini, and using a simple hardware switch for the VGA. These hardware switches are surprisingly hard to find, though! And they would need cables. I've had really bad luck with even expensive "gold" VGA cables -- fuzziness, ghost images. I chose the Tripp-Lite because it came with cables -- some of them don't, and then you're looking at purchasing several additional cables to get your setup working. I suspect this is going to be an ongoing pain.

I also think someone out there ought to be making a nice 2U rack tray for the Mac Mini. It would be very cool if I could rack it. A plain tray does not really seem adequate -- I'd like a tray that had some sturdy velcro tie-downs, a place to mount the power supply, holes for cables, with a design that lets me tuck them away neatly when the rack is closed up, and perhaps a quiet switched venting fan. I have seen some pages where people gutted a Mac Mini and mounted the innards on a rackable board, but i would prefer to leave it in its case. Do I have to build such a thing myself? I don't have much of a workshop, but perhaps I could come up with something.

Anyway, I should have the Mini later this week, and I look forward to finding that it works with my Snowball microphone and DSP Quattro recording software. I won't need it to record directly to an external drive, but just to backup to one. I want to install Tiger, put my old PowerBook into FireWire disk mode, migrate over a few applications and my relatively small home directory, and then give the PowerBook a well-deserved retirement.

The rest of my studio plans -- a MOTU or RME or other FireWire audio interface, a voice channel strip, a good broadcast-style microphone -- will have to be addressed bit-by-bit in the coming months, as finances allow. But maybe now I can continue my project with the reasonable expectation of getting a decent recording to disk!

I've been examining the capabilities of the Presonus FireBox interface. It might be adequate. I want to make sure that whatever interface I get supports MIDI well and also allows me to record a very clean signal from a consumer-grade casette deck. So far I haven't been able to determine whether the Presonus unit would let me explicitly switch an input pair to support consumer-level audio. However, maybe I'll forgo it; the reviews I've seen indicate pretty good sound quality, but poor manufacturing and a weird headphone output. I'll be (at least at first) doing most of my listening using headphones, so that's not a good sign. So far my dream interface is a FireFace 800, or maybe the new FireFace 400 (not out yet), or maybe a more obscure piece of Metric Halo gear. Stay tuned!

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