What's next for music on the Mac?

7th Nov 2009 | 10:00

What's next for music on the Mac?

The latest Mac apps could change the way music is made

Music software pioneers

The Mac has played a major part in the development of music technology over the years. And now, musicians using the OS X platform have access to a variety of applications that would scarcely have been imaginable when the first software sequencers appeared back in the late 1980s.

Early versions of Logic and Cubase could only generate and process MIDI information – they had to be connected up to external synthesisers, samplers and drum machines in order to work. By the mid 1990s, sequencers added the ability to record and mix audio into their tracks and so 'virtual studios' were born.

As computers became faster and more powerful, music technology also evolved to include virtual instruments and effects. Now anyone can make professional sounding music with just a computer and no other instrument.

We have virtual synthesisers that sound as good as hardware instruments that cost thousands of pounds. We also have a full range of software samplers that can outperform their hardware equivalents.

Today, advanced sequencers such as Logic Pro, Cubase, Digital Performer and Pro Tools are giving professional composers control over their music, while GarageBand is providing access for beginners.

Innovations have always been happening in the music software world and many groundbreaking products have appeared over the past 15 years.

Software pioneers

Back in 1994, a program called Koan broke new ground by being able to create music all by itself. Well almost – the user had to specify a handful of parameters before hitting the play button.

In 1997, U&I Software unveiled MetaSynth, an original sound-design environment that can create 'soundscapes' and other sound textures. It introduced a number of unique features including an Image Synth that can extract musical information out of pictures.

MetaSynth

In 1999, Native Instruments introduced their modular synthesiser, Generator, to the Mac platform. Over the years it evolved and its name was changed to Reaktor. This software, for the first time, allowed large numbers of users to build their own instruments without having to program any code.

Now Reaktor is at Version 5 and there are more than 2,500 user creations online ranging from synthesisers, samplers, sequencers, drum machines and effects to a variety of strange soundmangling devices!

In 2001, Celemony launched Melodyne, a groundbreaking tool for correcting and modifying material. For the first time, musicians were able to open up audio files of monophonic solos or vocals and correct the intonation and timing of individual notes. Melodyne could also create harmonies and restructured melodies. Famous users included Peter Gabriel, Eminem, Massive Attack and Pete Townshend.

Melodyne

Also in 2001, Ableton unveiled Ableton Live, a loop-based music sequencer that allowed users to compose and arrange music on-the-fly during live performances. It was easy to use and was popular with performers and DJs.

Innovations also extend to the guitar world, with virtual software amps such as Guitar Rig and AmpliTube offering tones previously associated with expensive hardware amps. Guitarists can even plug straight into their computers.

Other innovative music software applications include tuning programs like Scala and L'il Miss Scale Oven.

While most music software is based upon the standard tunings used in our regular Western scale system, these apps allow us to create microtonal scales that sound out of this world. L'il Miss Scale Oven can even be used to retune Logic Pro… if you're that way inclined.

There are also programs that offer ways of removing hiss and crackles from vinyl and tape recordings. Bias' Soundsoap and iZotope's RX both do the job well.

So, as you can see, music software has already covered a lot of ground and provided solutions to a number of old audio problems. You could be forgiven for thinking that there isn't much else for music-app developers to do these days, but you'd be wrong – this is just the beginning...

The next generationof Mac music makers

A new generation of extraordinarily advanced music software programs is about to hit the streets. These include Prosoniq's sonicWORX Pro, a revolutionary Mac-only program that allows the user to 'reverse engineer' music audio files and extract individual components.

Its main users are likely to be Mac-equipped music studios that want to create instant hit remixes out of existing material.

sonicWORKS pro

sonicWORX Pro certainly takes audio-editing to the next level. It generates massive audio analysis files that show more details than ever before, and the extracted results are undeniably impressive.

Another new launch will be Celemony's Melodyne Editor, unveiling their DNA (Direct Note Access) technology that, for the first time, will allow users to edit notes within chords in audio recordings.

It should be ideal for editing individual notes in, for example, a complete acoustic guitar or piano piece. It would also make it possible for the user to rearrange the notes in a complete Mozart piano sonata recording while keeping the virtuosity of the performance intact.

Programs like sonicWORX Pro and Melodyne Editor clearly have extraordinary creative potential but they also raise a number of interesting legal questions.

How much credit should a remixer get for a new version of another musician's song and how much should the original artist get? What would happen if the original artist didn't want their material used in such a way? And what would happen if their material was used anyway, without their knowledge or permission?

The Performing Rights Society wasn't available to comment in time for our publication, but it would be tricky to police the abuse of audio manipulation software.

Other exciting new launches include U&I Software's MetaSynth 5, the latest and first Leopard compatible version of their sound environment program. It boasts a significant number of sophisticated new features and the audio demos we have heard are extraordinary.

Here today

Other state-of-the-art programs are already here. EastWest Symphonic Choirs is a virtual choir engine with a difference – you can play the male, female and boy choirs as normal with your keyboard, but you can also type English or Latin phrases into the program's Word Builder and get the choirs to sing them with authenticity.

Choirs

The generative music concept pioneered by Koan in the 1990s has been taken further with Noatikl and Nodal. Noatikl boasts a simpler and more powerful interface, while Nodal has a unique graphical interface developed by Monash University.

New versions of popular music notation programs, Sibelius and Finale, have appeared with more advanced features. Sibelius 6 claims to be able to create perfect scores as you write them.

Groove machines have also become more sophisticated. Stylus RMX, for example, can play 24bit drum loops, change their tuning, modify their rhythmic structure and even convert them into different time signatures in sync with your software sequencer.

Musical apps have also reached the iPhone. These include: Beatmaker, a digital audio workstation for creating music; Band, a collection of virtual instruments; Guitar Toolkit, a set of useful tools (tuner, chord finder and metronome) for a guitarist; Shazam, which recognises any song you play it; and Bloom, a generative music application from Brian Eno.

Meanwhile, Apple's flagship music app, Logic Pro has just reached Version 9, and GarageBand '09 is bigger and better than ever, offering beginners and consumers the chance to take their musical adventures to the next level.

Looking to the future

By the end of the year we'll have programs for analysing and editing audio files in ways that were previously impossible. We will also have access to new and improved applications that allow us to make music in more creative ways.

There will be something for everyone from hit-makers to home hobbyists. There's never been a better time for making music than now and the future looks even better with all the exciting new apps that are becoming available for you at home, in the studio, or even on the bus!

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First published in MacFormat Issue 213

Liked this? Then check out Can GarageBand really teach you an instrument?

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