Free The Slaves?

By • September 22, 2011

In he beginning, there was Audio and there was MIDI, and it was good. Back in the early ‘90s, your MIDI sounds came from samplers and synthesizers and you actually had more platforms to choose from (Macintosh, PC, Atari, Amiga) and a fair number of sequencers. Your choice was probably made based on features and price, not power. Power was not much of an issue then because MIDI did not require much and your audio recording was handled with tape recorders, one of them new-fangled ADAT digital tape machines, or if you were really forward thinking, the first generation of ProTools, which also did not require much power. In my case, I used Notator SL on an Atari Mega 2 because it was less expensive than a Mac, had built-in MIDI, and with Notator you could not only see notes on the screen, you could print out parts. I had several MIDI keyboards and tone modules and I recorded my audio on an Akai MG 1212. Later on, this morphed into Emagic’s Logic on a Mac and an Akai DR8 hard disk recorder. While then as now, there were workflow issues that had to be resolved, the power of the computer and the amount of RAM was never something I had to think that much about.

GigaSampler, later GigaStudio, was introduced in 1998 and everything changed. It was like the moment in “The Wizard of Oz” when it changes from black and white to color. Now you could have an entire recallable sampled orchestra at your fingertips without expensive hardware samplers. BUT….now for the first time the power of the computer and the amount of available RAM became issues. While it may seem hard to believe in these days of huge libraries with huge instrument patches, these were considered big at the time and for the first time, composers found they needed multiple computers, called “slaves.”

First of all if you were Mac based, you had to own at least 1 PC slave because GigaStudio was PC only. Running 2-4 PC slaves was quite common for working composers. If you were a really high-end guy perhaps you spent the big bucks for a Synclavier or Fairlight system but for most, GigaStudio was the beginning of this kind of workflow.

The advantages were obvious. The samples sounded pretty good and you loaded them up and you did not need to reload them when you switched to another project. They simply sat there waiting for you. But there were significant disadvantages as well. You had the expense of buying multiple computers and the time and effort necessary to keep them all running in good working order, lots of hard drives to defragment, updates to perform on all of them, and sometimes one or more machines would just go offline.

Personally, I avoided this, as Logic had introduced it’s EXS24, a a GigaStudio compatible software sampler, and eventually gave it the ability to access RAM outside of Logic. But I still could not reproduce an orchestra of the size that the guys running the GS setups could because on one machine I could only have up to 4 GB of RAM in those days.

People began to yearn for a simpler single computer workflow and as the computers got more powerful in speed and the amount of RAM they could hold, and with the appearance of legitimate competitors to GS, like Native Instrument’s Kontakt, Steinberg’s Halion, etc. it did indeed look like that was the way it was headed. But then the EXS24 and Kontakt 3.5 gave us the ability to use more RAM for samples in “memory servers” outside of the host and the ability to run stand alone versions of software samplers.

Well, nature abhors a vacuum and developers said to themselves “Wow, now I can REALLY make these things sound great if I use enough resources.”

And suddenly, we were back to where we were: if we wanted to run a lot of instrument patches from the latest and greatest sounding libraries without having to interrupt our creative process and freeze tracks or bounce to audio, even a very powerful computer with the maximum amount of RAM might not be enough.

If for instance, you want to run Audiobro’s popular Kontakt based LA Scoring Strings, while you can indeed run it on 1 computer, they say on their website ”However, as a safety dead-line precaution, we only recommend 2 computers for those “prime-time” professionals who would use LASS to the fullest with deep divisi writing on all string sections simultaneously and playback everything in real-time with no glitches at lower latencies.”

Audio Impressions tells you on their website that you will need a dedicated PC apart from the computer your host is on to run its 70 DVZ Strings.

EastWest has their Play 3 engine based Hollywood Strings, which sound really great with tons of articulations but perhaps the most RAM intensive of all. While it has lots of lighter patches that make it plausible to run it on one powerful computer with a lot of RAM, if you want to run their ”Powerful System” patches, you are not only going to want a second computer, you are probably going to want an SSD drive or two, which means you probably are going to want a PC, since at this point in time SSD performance on a Mac is simply not delivering the same boost that it does on PCs. (Hollywood Brass is considerably less taxing.) Mac users are hopeful that the introduction of Lion and Thunderbolt will eventually close the gap. Also, while Play 3 is now 64 bit on the Mac and runs well, it uses less RAM to accomplish the same tasks on a PC.

And of course, you may want to write for other sections of the orchestra :)

So let us say, you are now committed to the idea of buying a second computer and running some of your libraries in a secondary host on it, like Vienna Ensemble Pro or Plogue Bidule. If you use a PC already and run a host like Cubase or Sonar, then you are probably already quite comfortable with PCs and Windows, and know how to keep your computers running well. Powerful PCs can be built for less money than a powerful Mac but you have to know what you are doing. Unlike the Mac, where the components are carefully chosen and designed to work with the Mac OS seamlessly, with PCs you have a myriad of component choices, and sometimes the kids simply do not play nicely together. Also, some computer manufacturers tweak Windows and the computer settings to benefit their average users in a way that is not good for pro audio work.

For this reason, many turn to a company like VisionDAW, PCaudiolabs, or EastWest recommended Avadirect to build them a PC. It costs considerably more money than a do–it-yourself-er but it gives you the security of knowing that it has been built by experts to do exactly the kind of work you want to do with it. And it will still be somewhat cheaper than a comparable Mac and is available with faster processors than any Mac Pro currently offers, although that is expected to change soon with an announcement of new and more powerful Mac Pros.

If you are a Mac user, then the choices perhaps become a little more daunting. Although Windows 7 looks and works more like the Mac OS than any previous version, they are still quite different and a PC can seem very alien to someone who has only been Mac based. I have friends who have worked with Mac/PC setups who say they will never again buy a PC, but I know just as many who say that as long as it is properly configured and kept virus free by using it mostly just for work, it is as trouble free as any Mac rig.

You could buy a second Mac of course, but then you will pay more and as I said, SSD performance and also Play 3 performance is better on a PC.

Which brings us to a third option, the so-called Hackintosh. Hackintoshes are PCs that are modified to use the Mac OS. It has some benefits and some problems. The firs question is, “is it legal?” Yes, in the sense it is not a crime. No one will lock you in jail for doing this. However, when you install the OS, you will see that you ARE agreeing to run it on an Apple branded machine so theoretically you could be liable for civil action. Personally, I think it highly unlikely that would ever happen, although I would not go around with high visibility on forums bragging about it.

Your Hackintosh will cost you considerably less than a comparable Mac and may be more powerful. You will have better SSD performance. However, upgradability to new versions of the OS, Apple software, etc. may turn out to be problematic as you are after all tricking the system. While I have seen anecdotal reports that they are quite stable, it is hard for me to believe that they can be quite as stable as a machine and an OS that were designed from scratch to work together. Either way, unless you are very technologically minded you will need someone who really knows what he is doing to build you one of these and because of the potential contract violation liability, you will not see companies advertising that they will do this for you. There was a company called PsyStar that was doing so but they have now declared bankruptcy and are out of business, presumably because Apple did indeed go after them.

Here is an interesting article on this:

Just to be perfectly clear, I am not, nor is Film Music Magazine recommending that you go this route. Personally, I would not.

So, use one computer or multiple computers? Pick your poison.


By Joseph Poch on September 23rd, 2011 at 9:51 am

I mix all in one box now! and its great… If there is a fact I have learned from using multiple computers… its that 3 computers equals 9x the problems. One computer is simple to set up and with all the power available now it is easy to do and still get some decent music out.

By Chris Alpiar on September 23rd, 2011 at 11:09 am

Its just same as it ever was IMO. I have used a Mac as main DAW (G3, G4, now Mac Pro) and farmed PCs for samples (now up to 3 in a rack on a Linkskey KVM switch). Yea it used to be Gigastudio and now its VE Pro hosting stuff. I dont really think only using one computer, even an uber schtoober Mac Pro 12 core with 64 gigs of ram, because before you can actualize fully all those cores and ram you will bottleneck someplace. And yea we get to use more and more ram, more and faster cores, but the samples are made without the streamlining they used to do. Lots of extra slop left in many samples (especially stuff programmed for kontakt by smaller indie companies it seems) and so to have the flexibility of having a great selection of samples and soft synths, you still need the power of multiple computers. Its nice that VE Pro is a 3 license system and that it’s intelligent enough to save changes from the host DAW. And I just dont see how its really viable (on a pro level) to get away using just one mac without the sample farm and not be constantly hating life. Nice article Jay, thanks!

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