Digital Music and Solid-state Drives: A Grand Match

When it comes to creating high-quality music on digital platforms, developers and digital artists need the latest platforms and the fastest technology. One of those tools, the Ivory II–American Concert D engine, has the ability to faithfully reproduce a renowned 1951 New York Steinway Model D concert grand piano, which has been played by some of classical music’s leading pianists, including the idiosyncratic Glenn Gould and the intellectual Rudolf Serkin.

Of course, in order to get a sound that’s close to these prolific pianists, digital musicians need powerful technology. While Ivory is great at recreating the sounds, the engine requires super-fast storage and is perfect for mobile computing platforms, such as an Ultrabook with a solid-state drive. Here, we give an overview of the software and how to optimize it for digital musicians.

Inside the Technology
At a recent trade show, Jerry Kovarsky, a 30-year music industry veteran and jazz pianist, was hired to demo American Concert D, the newest member of the Ivory II family of virtual pianos by Synthogy.

“Ivory uses a great many samples -- digital recordings -- to achieve a level of realism that’s never been achieved before,” says Kovarsky. “The library includes samples of everything from the initial strike of each hammer to the sound of each string decaying or fading out to full silence, with up to 18 velocity levels for each of the piano’s 88 keys,” he adds. “Ivory gives you all the nuance and tonal variation of a real piano.”

Ivory combines its extensive array of samples with advanced sample interpolation technology for ultra-smooth velocity and note-blending. For instance, velocity correlates to volume; the harder and faster you strike a key, the louder it sounds. Note-blending makes the transition between samples seamless.

Digital signal processing algorithms are used to simulate string resonance, half pedaling (the sound of the sustain pedal being partially depressed), and even pedal noise. The software instrument can run on its own or be installed as a plug-in to popular digital audio workstations.

“Ivory streams its samples off the storage in your computer,” says Kovarsky. “As you play, samples are loaded in RAM so that the moment you play a note or chord, it’s ready to sound.”

Optimizing the Engine and Going Mobile
The delays between when you strike a key and when you hear it -- called latency -- disrupt the creation experience. This means that fast storage is essential.

Even using a 64-bit operating system and loading your system with as much RAM as it will hold won’t deliver the kind of experience Kovarsky described. For that, you’ll need a system equipped with a solid-state drive, which acts as a large, fast data cache, such as one of the new Ultrabook devices from Acer, ASUS, HP, Lenovo or Toshiba.

While setting up for the tradeshow, Kovarsky discovered what a difference an SSD makes. “It was the first time I used Ivory on a computer with an SSD in it,” he says. “When you play a real acoustic piano, if you hold the sustain peddle down, each note that you play continues sounding after you’ve played it. To recreate that digitally, you need software that’s capable of sounding a great many notes simultaneously.”

“At home, when I play Ivory on my laptop with a core i7 processor, 4 gigs of RAM and a fast FireWire hard drive, I can play up to about 50 voices at once,” he says. “Pianos have 88 keys, so you might think 50 voices would be more than enough. But I like to ride the sustain pedal, so I find myself having to pay attention to how many notes I’m playing.” With an SSD, Kavorsky says he “was able to set the polyphony up to 700 voices! The technology was far outperforming what I was asking it to do. I could play a lot of notes. I could sit on the sustain pedal and leave chords ringing. It was incredibly liberating.”

Mobile computing platforms with solid-state drives, such as Ultrabooks, are perfect for running tools such as Ivory. But they also offer other advantages to both casual and professional musicians. Since they’re so portable, they’re easy to take on a gig or set up in the family room, hook a MIDI keyboard controller to the USB connector, and start playing. The platform also offers extended battery life and built-in security technology that can be used to disable the system remotely should it be lost or stolen.

That’s Entertainment: 3D Leaps From Theater to Home

James Cameron propelled 3D entertainment into the mainstream by achieving extraordinary success on the big screen with Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time. Now he has his eye on a new frontier: home entertainment.

The next-generation technology propelling 3D films, television and video games is changing the landscape of entertainment from theater screen to laptop. One only needs to look at the global box office to see that 3D isn’t a fad like it was in the ’50s and ’70s.

Three-dimensional movies are on the exact trajectory that Cameron expected, as more 3D movie screens and more 3D movies are being released than ever before. In fact, of the 10 movies that have ever crossed the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office, six are 3D films, and one is getting a 3D makeover. Cameron holds the No. 1 and 2 slots with Avatar ($2.8 billion) and Titanic ($1.8 billion), the latter of which will be released in 3D on April 6. The newest addition is Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which was filmed using CAMERON | PACE Group’s latest 3D camera setup and rigs.

“You’re not going to put the toothpaste back in the tube at this point; it’s just a matter of people realizing this,” says Cameron. “There are more 3D films in the market in parallel with each other, and theaters are having trouble keeping up.”

Cameron Continues to Shape 3D’s Future

Cameron is working on two Avatar sequels, which will hit theaters in December 2014 and December 2015, respectively. He’s also been busy working with longtime partner Vince Pace to help other filmmakers push 3D technology with their films. Cameron partnered with Pace in 2011 to form the CAMERON | PACE Group (CPG), the industry leader in 3D technologies and production services. The company leases the latest 3D equipment to filmmakers and broadcasters to bring 3D entertainment to the big screen and the home.

“The understanding of what constitutes 3D entertainment as opposed to

3D dimension is the difference filmmakers really need to understand to take advantage of the latest technology and tools that are out there,” says Pace.

“They have to be used properly, and I think there’s been a progression of understanding about what you need to do to create good 3D entertainment.”

Before Avatar came out, people didn’t think an audience would watch 3D for an extended period of time. But that’s not the case any longer.

“3D became a picture window into the world, and I think that both games and sports have to make that transition,” says Pace. “It becomes this viewing window for the public where these things -- whether it’s a movie, television show, sporting event, or video game -- are happening right there in front of you.”

3D Invades Homes

While much of the focus around 3D has been on the silver screen, both Cameron and Pace believe the future of 3D is in the home. According to Research and Markets, the global 3D TV market size is expected to exceed $100 billion by the end of 2014. A key driver of these sales is content, including video games for Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360 consoles such as Batman: Arkham City, Gears of War 3 and Resistance 3.

Hollywood is also offering more Blu-Ray 3D movies, such as Paramount Pictures’ Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, and Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment’s Cars 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Toy Story 3 and Tron: Legacy. But 3D programming, including sports -- such as soccer, college football and basketball -- is going to be crucial for the growth of 3D entertainment.

“What excites me is we’re taking the bookends of what we understand

3D to be contained to -- a sci-fi film or a horror film -- and removing them,” says Cameron. “When done correctly, it brings out more emotion, more character and more athleticism than any other medium out there.”

Another key area of 3D growth is the PC. A growing number of laptops and desktops support 3D movie playback and video gaming. And tablets are expected to enter the market featuring glasses-free 3D entertainment, as well as smartphones and portable gaming systems such as Nintendo 3DS.

“We’re talking about a complete revolution of the way we interact with screens,” says Cameron.

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Under the Hood: A Look Inside the Ultrabook

Mobile devices have been transforming the world of computing. Smartphones, tablets, e-readers and netbooks have revolutionized the way people communicate and interact with each other, buy things, shoot video, make music and play games. Perhaps most important, mobile devices are changing the way people work.

Consumers’ expectations have risen with this proliferation of mobile technologies. Fast, reliable access to the Internet and location-aware services on smartphones and tablets has upped the ante: People expect instant gratification without barriers. Who wants to wait for their mobile device to turn on, or spend a lot of time learning a complex user interface? Smooth computing experiences in 2012 require always-on connectivity and application responsiveness.

Combining Mobility and Power
Recognizing this sea of change, a new line of mobile devices -- Ultrabooks -- was unveiled last year at Computex in Taiwan. According to the announcement, Ultrabooks “would operate more like smartphones -- wake up in a flash, combine responsiveness with performance, offer a seamless and compelling experience and be sleek and less than an inch thick.

Ultrabook devices extend and enhance the practical applications of smartphones and tablets by combining portability with the technology that’s typically associated with high-performance laptops -- second-generation processors and a 64-bit OS. Toss in accelerometers, a gyroscope and other sensor technologies and wrap it all in a sleek, thin, lightweight case with an equally attractive price tag, and you’ve got a recipe for what manufacturers hope is the next big thing in mobile computing.

“Developers that were strictly building PC applications will now have a platform that’s more mobile than a typical laptop and have technologies and sensors they previously could not access,” says Tom Deckowski, a developer marketing manager for Intel [disclosure: Intel’s Visual Adrenaline magazine is the sponsor of this website]. “On the flip side, mobile app developers who were focused on creating apps for small-footprint devices that didn’t take a lot of CPU performance will now have access to CPU and graphics performance they never had before, without losing access to the sensors. There’s something new in the Ultrabook device for both PC and mobile app developers alike.”

The Details

Ultrabook devices have three primary technologies that help them perform responsively:

  • Fast start-up ensures that it will take less than seven seconds to get the system up and fully functioning from hibernation, saving time and battery charge. In some Ultrabook devices, a portion of the system’s hard drive is reserved for caching information about the operating system and application state, providing users with a mobile experience that’s highly responsive.
  • Fast response using a solid-state drive (SSD) or SSD-hybrid as a cache between a hard drive and its memory without the use of an additional drive partition, makes application launch times faster.
  • Continuous updates allow applications on some models to continue receiving data updates even while the system is in hibernate or sleep mode. This can be used for all kinds of things; for game developers, they can push game updates to MMORPG players while they’re away from their Ultrabook, instead of spending time downloading updates before they can continue playing the game.

Device security is provided via new identity protection tools that are embedded in the BIOS/firmware of the devices. While no system is immune to theft or loss, these identity protection measures can detect theft or loss and disable the system. When the Ultrabook is recovered, the software can reactivate it with no loss of data.

Another crucial feature is extended battery life. Ultrabook devices are based on low-voltage processors that offer a minimum battery life of five hours, and up to eight hours or more on some systems.

The first Utrabook devices, including the Acer Aspire S3, the ASUS ZENBOOK, HP Folio, Lenovo IdeaPad U300 and Toshiba Portege Z830 Series, are hitting shelves now. They all weigh in at 3 pounds or less, are paper thin and feature air-cooled keyboards, HDMI connectors for hooking up to a TV set and USB 3.0 connectors. Storage options include SSDs and hard drives of various sizes.

Photo: Getty Images

Crystal Ball: What’s the Future of Mobile?

We are computing in the past. Every chipset and microprocessor we use today is the product of five to 10 years of development and design. For a technology company to be successful, it must be able to not only deliver cutting-edge products, but also tailor those products for a marketplace and consumer demand that doesn’t yet necessarily exist. It’s enough to make you want to break out the crystal ball.

That’s where Brian David Johnson comes in.

Johnson’s job is to look 10 to 15 years into the future and develop a plan to create the technology we’ll want tomorrow. Developing such a vision is a complicated mix of sociology and research into how people interact with computation today, with the goal of anticipating how that will evolve over time. Here, Johnson talks about forecasting future technology trends, the human component of technology design and the new ultrabook form factor.

Can you tell us about your history in the industry?

B.D.J.: My first job ever, at age 10, was at the computer lab at the local university in Virginia. That was back when you had a printer room that had one printer in it, and that printer was in a soundproof box. And you then had an entire room of Wang word processing machines and a room full of mainframe terminals. I was there when they carted in the first personal computer. The joke was that it was called a personal computer because you could lift it by yourself.

So we have come a long way, then.

B.D.J.: Oh, yeah! I always laugh because the computers that I learned to program on --today we carry around more computational power in our pockets.

As a futurist, how do you go about projecting 10 to 15 years in the future?

B.D.J.: It starts with social science. We have, in our lab, ethnographers and anthropologists who go all over the world to study people and give us insight into human behavior -- how humans communicate with each other, how humans live, how people interact with their governments, how they buy things, what their cars are like.

You name it, they are looking at it.

That sort of gives us a basis. We have to remember that we are building this stuff for us, for people. Then, from there, I look at the computer science side of things: the people who are doing the hardware development, the software development and the really, really crazy innovative stuff that goes on.

Then we ask, “What is possible with technology?” We look back at those human insights and ask, “How do we make people’s lives better?”

Then I like to look at trends -- what I call the math of the future. That is where most people start, with gross domestic product. Most people start with population growth and the projections of where we are going. Although those are important to me, they aren’t as important as the first two steps -- social science and computer science -- because, again, we have to understand the people we are building for and then we have to understand the technology that we are building.

What kind of effect do you see smaller screens and portable form factors having on the industry going forward?

B.D.J.: Computation power has spread out. It has found its way into our living rooms and pockets, and it’s finding its way into our cars, our walls and our hospitals. For the longest time people asked, “Will the PC kill the TV?” Now you hear them ask, “Will the smartphone kill the laptop?” or “Will the tablet kill the laptop?”

What we have learned is it really isn’t one device that will rule them all; it’s whatever device people have handy. People really like choice. People will watch Inception, a big blockbuster movie, on their big-screen TV at home, but if they happen to be stuck in an airport or on a bus, they will watch it on their smartphone. If you’ve got that type of power on those small screens, it allows computation to fit much more elegantly into people’s lives.

So where do you see the new ultrabook device fitting in?

B.D.J.: You need to touch an ultrabook. It is a rush of innovation when you touch the form factor. Consumers love them, and what consumers begin to see them as is another really viable screen that lives in the device ecosystem, or this constellation of devices that consumers have in their lives. You have a smartphone, a tablet, an ultrabook, a television -- all these devices begin to fit quite nicely together. Then it becomes more about the consumer and their choice about the kind of screen they would like to interact with.

How do you see people outside of the tech and gaming industry using ultrabooks in their daily lives?

B.D.J.: People say that small business is the engine of our economy. The ultrabook device as a tool for work and a tool for small- and medium-size businesses begins to make a lot of sense. People need to be mobile -- they work at home, at cafes and in their offices. In that way, I think the form factor fits into how people live their lives; it’s not the people changing their lives.

The other side is the maker in us. I think you can look at a smartphone or tablet as a way of connecting, finding your way and being entertained. But I also think there is something very specific around the ultrabook device where people are using it to create. In that way, it allows for not only an incredible amount of processing power and that really cool technology inside, but it is also giving people the freedom to make things wherever they want to.

Photo: Getty Images

Harnessing Digital Creative Power: Digital Composing

If there’s one breed of super-user that has truly benefited from the computer revolution, it’s the digital artist. Improvements in multicore CPU technology haven’t just spurred artistic creativity among digital content creators; they’ve unleashed their very souls.

Digital art files routinely reach over a gigabyte in size, putting tremendous pressure on CPUs and RAM. Today, netbooks with multicore technology serve as a readily available conduit to creativity, from capturing reverb in European cathedrals to recording crashing waves on California beaches. Ideas that might have been scribbled on a bar napkin can now be captured safely.

For digital musician Justin Lassen, the impact of technology boils down to three key assists for digital artists: speed, creativity and power.

Need for Speed
Lassen points to a subtle way that speed can help a digital artist. “Currently, even with a fast mechanical drive, when I load a project, I want to load up the 70-piece orchestra. Normally, that would take four to six minutes before I can start composing. That’s plenty of time to lose the idea completely,” says Lassen. “Or, say I wake up from a deep sleep and I want to get an idea down. So I go over to the computer and I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to wait till this thing loads.’ By that time, my inspiration has dulled or has been tainted. But with SSDs, they’ve cut the load time down to 45 seconds, max. It gives my idea a fighting chance to get recorded.

“The best stuff that I make is usually created on the spot. It’s about being able to instantly create without waiting. SSDs are taking us closer to that dream.”

Mobile Creation
The second empowering aspect of computational muscle is the idea that artists can capture creative moments without losing the spark. Sometimes, creativity is like a fire hose, and ideas just pour out. You don’t want to be tethered to your monster machine back in the office.

Lassen points to the ability to use netbooks when traveling. “Inspiration happens anywhere, and now I can chronicle that and then take it back and do post-work on it,” he says. “You want to be ready for that idea. Otherwise, when you drive back to the house, you won’t have the same idea.”

“I have a famous remix called “Faint.” I did it for Linkin Park, and it got millions of listens on YouTube. But, I did two remixes. One, I spent two-and-a-half weeks slaving away to make it awesome, and it was popular. But the one that actually got famous was the one that I spent five hours on. I was in that mode of creating, and I didn’t feel like I did a great job on it, but I was going with the flow, feeling that spark of inspiration. So it’s funny how that works out.”

Harness the Power
Better technology will always benefit power-hungry customers. But what, exactly, is the significance of that connection?

Lassen believes part of the magic is how software vendors continue to upgrade tools to take advantage of the newest processors. “Studio One Pro is optimized for multicore CPUs,” he notes. “For a while, SONAR was the only software truly optimized for multicore, but Studio One Pro now does it. And more products are starting to come around. They’re getting ready for the future.”

The Tools in the Toolbox
Meeting the computing needs of digital content creators requires a deep understanding of the complex interdependencies between the hardware components and software applications. PCAudioLabs and Cakewalk SONAR X1 Essentials are on the forefront for digital music creation.

PCAudioLabs has been addressing the needs of professional musicians and producers for 10 years, with clientele including the U.S. Air Force, the Grand Ole Opry, Stevie Wonder, DJ Shorty, Hollywood Undead and many other notable musicians, producers and enterprises. This diverse group places high demands and even higher expectations on their digital audio and music tools.

“We call our systems MCs -- Music Computers -- not PCs,” says Greg Butler, managing director of PCAudioLabs. “A general-purpose PC can handle a lot of tasks very well, such as running spreadsheets, using email or browsing the Internet. However, they’re not built from the ground up to handle the special needs of musicians and producers.”

The PCAudioLabs Custom Shop specializes in building MCs tailored and optimized for the needs of its more discerning clients. The RokBox line of MCs is a prebuilt turnkey solution that has been tuned to specific music and audio applications.

At the same time, Cakewalk is one of the leading providers of award-winning digital audio recording software. The company’s flagship product, SONAR Producer, is one of the most advanced 64-bit digital audio workstations (DAWs) available. SONAR Essentials builds on Producer’s professional feature set, making creating music faster and easier than ever.

“SONAR Essentials features the same redesigned user interface as SONAR Producer and gives users access to more audio tracks than DAWs costing twice as much,” says Michael Hoover, Cakewalk’s executive VP of products. “With its powerful collection of effects and instruments, SONAR Essentials has everything an enthusiast needs to start creating music with ease.”

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