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Mac Virtual Instruments on a PC

The best of both worlds -- and it spreads the processing load By Frank Moldstad

Creating partitions in Boot Camp
Now that Apple has unveiled an officially sanctioned way for Macs to run Windows XP, its time I came clean with my own cross-platform scheme.

For those who missed it, a beta version of Apples new Boot Camp software was made available April 4 as a free download (Click here to read all about it). The software allows users of the new Intel-powered Macs to set up a dual-boot operation, launching either OS X or Windows XP. This is an exciting development for those who like the sleek Apple hardware but want access to applications available only on Windows.

But for the past couple of weeks, Ive been happily recording Mac-based audio applications on a PC. And while these applications are not actually hosted on the PC, thats actually better because it spreads the load around.

What Ive done is to route the audio outputs from a Mac to the audio inputs on a PC. Essentially, this enables the Mac to function as a super synth host. The setup frees up the PCs resources from bogging down with processor-intensive samplers and soft synths at the same time its being required to play back multiple tracks with various plugins inserted. With the PC chugging away on that stuff, the full resources of the Mac are devoted to high-level sound creation, sampling and sequencing tasks. Its a symbiotic division of labor.

Id prefer not restrict my audio toolset based on a computer platform. Even though many applications are now cross-platform, a significant number still are not. On the PC, Ive always liked Sound Forge for its editing prowess, ACID for its looping capabilities and SONAR for its robust DAW functionality.

Sculpture virtual synth
But on the Mac, I really like the virtual instruments in Logic Pro 7, which include the Sculpture ?string synth, the Ultrabeat drum synth, the EXS 24 sampler, the EVOC 20 Vocoder, and more than half a dozen other strong instruments included with the application. I also have Native Instruments Kontakt sampler installed on the Mac. This is another great virtual sampler that complements Logics EXS 24 with a huge range of different sample collections, among them the Vienna Symphonic library.

There are many routing possibilities for getting the audio output from the Mac into the PC, but its best to do it digitally to avoid a digital-to-analog conversion going out of the Mac, and then an analog-to-digital conversion going into the PC. Since G5s have optical digital outputs built in, they can be connected directly to the optical inputs on a PC audio interface. One such interface is RMEs Digiface, which includes a PCI card and an external breakout box with 24 channels of optical I/O. In the PC recording application, its easy to select the appropriate channel with the Macs audio input. Or, the link could be FireWire to FireWire, using an interface such as the PreSonus FireBox.

But, I've chosen an unusual routing path to get signal from the Mac to the PC, because I want everything to be digitally routed through my Mackie D8B mixer. Because all the optical inputs on the mixer and in my Digiface were already tied up, I got the bright idea to use an Apogee Mini-Me interface to route the signal from the Mac into the mixer via S/PDIF. The Mini-Me is one of the most versatile devices I own -- it has great A/D converters, high-quality mic pres, analog line-level inputs, and USB connectivity. So, I connected the Mini-Me to a USB port on the Mac, and then patched the Mini-Mes headphone outputs back into the Mini-Mes analog inputs. Then I ran a S/PDIF cable to the mixer; whatever mixer channels I choose for the L-R S/PDIF input is where the Macs audio signal appears.

Sculpture track recorded in SONAR 5
I have separate keyboards and mice for the two computers, but they are both connected to the same monitor, a Samsung LCD flat panel that has both analog and digital connections. The PC is connected to the monitor's analog input, while the Mac is connected to the digital input. A button on the monitor's front panel makes it possible to quickly switch between the two, which is essential for setting up and adjusting the virtual instruments on the Mac, and then monitoring the recording on the PC.

So far, my low-tech solution for integrating the two computer platforms is working well. Surprisingly, latency has not been an issue, no doubt because everything meets in the mixing board. And thanks to the Mini-Me's high-quality A/D conversion, the audio signal quality remains pristine on its circuitous path.

Another advantage of this setup is that while I am recording the audio outputs of the Macs virtual instruments, I am also recording MIDI files in Logic. That way, I retain the flexibility of MIDI, and the ability to change patches at will to try different voices later on. Also, if I want to, I can work completely in Logic Pro 7 on the Mac, without involving the PC -- and vice versa.

MIDI tracks are simultaneously recorded in Logic Pro 7 as audio is output
Ive heard of other people using a similar setup to run Tascams GigaStudio, although in that case, its the PC that hosts the sampled sound creation, and the Mac that serves as recording platform. I actually really like Logic as a DAW, but if I had to choose between its role as a recording platform and a virtual instrument host, the latter wins. Its unique instruments cannot be replaced by anything else, while a DAW platform can be. In this case, I chose SONAR 5 because of its straightforward recording and mixing environment, some great plugins such as the PerfectSpace impulse reverb, 64-bit internal processing  and VST plugin compatibility.

The benefits of this low-tech setup to me are, a) to use the tools of my choice, and b) to spread the processing load around. But it would be easy to construct a similar setup with any audio applications, such as Digital Performer to Audition, etc., etc. And of course, intra-computer routing is not really a Mac-PC thing. It could be done with two Macs or two PCs, depending on your specific needs.

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Related Keywords:Mac, Windows XP, OS X, Logic Pro 7, recording, SONAR 5, audio applications, cross-platform


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