Audiophiles worldwide were quick to jump online earlier this year, keen to see and hear the latest and greatest music instruments launched at key annual tradeshows.
MacWorld San Francisco got the ball rolling, quickly followed by the big annual Winter NAMM (International Music Products Association) show - where a huge range of products from top-flight companies were unveiled.
Here, we investigate some of the most interesting announcements and other products to keep an eye out for this year.
We'll kick things off with Open Labs' NeKo OpenSynth workstation (www.openlabs.com). This unique product (Pictured left) combines computer, 15in touch-screen LCD display, QWERTY keyboard, music keyboard, mixer and MIDI controller in a well built all-in-one unit that starts up in seconds.
The latest NeKo-GS model, equipped with a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor, DVD burner and Windows XP, was launched at NAMM. That brings the number of models in the OpenSynth family to four, including the flagship, which features an AMD Opteron 64-bit processor. Pricing for base models now starts at $US2295.
2005 should also be a great year for tech-savvy DJs. First up is Behringer's B-Control Deejay BCD200 (www.behringer.com.au), which is due for launch around the time you'll be reading this. On paper it appears similar to last year's Hercules DJ Console (www.hercules.com), only better.
The BCD200 is a USB 4-channel audio interface with scratch wheels, knobs and faders; plus cue, pitch bend and playback buttons, allowing you to play, mix and scratch MP3 and WAV files via software on your computer.
Reportedly, this should also be possible with audio input from CDs or vinyl. The device is an audio mixer with three-band kill EQ per channel, four user-assignable control buttons for an integrated effects section, and two built-in phono amplifiers. Local pricing should be around $299. Nice one.
Meanwhile, Stanton Magnetics' FinalScratch 2 is finally out. The package includes three new and improved time-coded vinyls and two time-coded CDs for your existing analog turntables or scratch/DJ CD players, respectively. This allows you to scratch any digital music file cued up in the bundled Traktor FS 2 software on your PC or Mac. But what's really new in the package is the ScratchAmp 2 - a FireWire interface for your PC delivering top-notch sound quality, low latency and new MIDI capabilities. The new FinalScratch 2 package is priced at $1349 and more information is available from Jands, the Australian distributor at www.jands.com.au.
Beam me up
I briefly looked at JazzMutant's Star Trek-esque Lemur MultiTouch Control Surface (www.jazzmutant.com) back in February's column. Now, a 12.1in LCD display model to control music software or outboard music hardware is available to anyone. Anyone that has $US2495 to spare, that is. Nevertheless, it's definitely a cool concept (see left). It comes with a library of on-screen controllers to customise your own setup for performance, music creation or anything in between. Interestingly, it uses an Ethernet connection and the emerging OpenSoundControl (OSC) protocol to talk to your PC. Supported software includes Native Instrument's Reaktor in addition to Pd and Cycling 74's (which has just been made the US distributor) Max/MSP environment.
Putting it all together
If you're going to make music using your computer, then you'll need sequencing software to construct your song: record, program, edit and arrange. And these days, there are lots of options.
Digidesign's Pro Tools 6 (www.protools.com) comes to mind, as does Cakewalk's Sonar 4 (www.cakewalk.com), Steinberg's Cubase SX 3 (www.steinberg.net) and for Mac-heads: Apple's Logic Pro 7 (www.apple.com.au). However, the unique approach used in Ableton Live (www.ableton.com) continues to convert users, as does Raw Material Software's Tracktion 2 software (www.rawmaterialsoftware.com). On the virtual software studio side of things, Propellerhead Software (www.propellerhead.se) has announced that the highly anticipated Reason 3.0 is just around the corner, whilst Cakewalk has debuted version 2 of its Project5 software workstation.
Lot's of competition, indeed - but Apple gets brownie points (mmmm, apple brownie...) this month. Not because it graced GarageBand 2 with 8-channel multi-track recording, but because GarageBand 2 is part of the iLife '05 suite which comes free with all new Macs (or costs $119).
PIXEL PUSHERS power audio effects
What the..? BionicFX (www.bionicfx.com) says it's developed a technique to use the graphics processors on NVIDIA graphics cards to process audio effects.
Helping out a PC's main processor with a dedicated chip for audio tasks is not a new idea, just look at TC Electronic's Powercore technology (www.tcelectronic.com). But what BionicFX is doing is truly revolutionary - using humble pixel pushers for something that was never intended. What's really cool is that most of us have pretty decent graphic cards these days and this will only get better with NVIDIA's new SLI graphics technology that, together with certain motherboards, enables two individual graphics cards to be linked together in the same system. Page 19 of this issue even shows how this principle has been applied to a single card. BionicFX is definitely an outfit to watch.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
If you're doing a music production course, or using sequencing software in a commercial music studio, then chances are you'll be using Pro Tools software in some shape or form to put your songs together.
It's the defacto industry standard software for the job, but requires hardware from Digidesign (www.digidesign.com) to run. Because so many studios work with Pro Tools, it's worth considering using it at home. Imagine saving your project/session created in your bedroom then re-opening it up at an expensive equipment-filled studio to continue where you left off.
The thing is, you'll need Digidesign hardware to run Pro Tools.
The cheapest way to get Pro Tools is with Digidesign's $870 Mbox portable studio product. The Mbox is a high quality external USB sound card interface (see top picture) that works directly with the bundled and latest Pro Tools LE 6.7 software (offering superior MIDI features over previous versions).
If you need a little more, Digidesign's $4390 Digi 002 FireWire interface/control surface (see bottom picture) is the ultimate for turning your PC into a home recording studio. Basically, you get complete eight touch-sensitive faders, eight analog inputs and outputs, multiple connections for headphones, monitors and microphones, and MIDI capabilities.
In addition to delivering top-notch sound quality, the 002 can control all 32 tracks supported by the bundled Pro Tools LE 6.7 software. A rack-mountable version of the 002 is also available for $2280.
Both the Mbox and 002 have improved Windows XP support and ship with a variety of full and cut-down software, plug-ins and effects, making either one ideal for beginners. To find out more, check out the Mbox video on this month's cover disc.