Saturday, 20 June 2015

Navigating the Asteroid Belt

More music, with Logic Express 9 running on a 2008 MacBook Pro. On the left is a ThinkPad X61 running the wonderful M-Tron Mellotron simulation, and towards the middle is a strong cup of tea. Here's the result (the tea was the most important thing):

A while back I bought an old G4 PowerBook, just to see what OS X was like in the early years of this century. I also wanted to check out Logic, which is the standard Macintosh sequencer. Logic was developed in the 1980s for the Atari ST, and was eventually ported to Windows; for a while it was available for Windows and OS X, but eventually Apple latched on to it and brought it inside the company's walled garden. Now it is an OS X exclusive.

Perhaps because of this it tends to be pooh-poohed by the cognoscenti. The latest version is Logic Pro X, and word on the street is that Apple has tried to dumb it down for the app market as part of a general shift away from the professional market. I don't know. I like Logic; on a conceptual level it's similar to Cubase and Pro Tools, and it has a few irritating quirks, but I don't have a problem with it and it runs well on my MacBook.

My old, circa 2002 G4 PowerBook is very limited, so I decided to try an experiment. My ThinkPad X61 is a traditional PC laptop, but it can be turned into a "hackintosh", and with an afternoon's worth of work I had OS X 10.7 running on it. Logic Express 8 worked fine but the whole experience felt a bit wonky, so I bit the bullet and bought a 2008 MacBook Pro instead. Why not simply buy Cubase for my Windows PC, and cut out the Macintosh entirely? Why indeed.

On the used market, 2008 MacBook Pros are an interesting proposition. The 1440x900 screen is still better than most entry-level modern PC laptops, which seem to have setted on 1366x768. The reliability problems that bedevilled the G4 PowerBooks had been mostly solved, although there are still issues with the aluminium case attracting dents and the internals overheating. Performance-wise modern laptops are undeniably more capable, but over the last few years there has been an emphasis on power-saving and miniaturisation as well, and so the six years of progress since 2008 are not as apparent as the six years separating 2002 from 2008. The 2008 MacBooks have two graphics processors (an on-chip card and a separate unit which kicks in for games) but poor games performance is one thing that definitely separates 2008 from the modern era.

The 2008 MacBooks are easy to work on. I've swapped my MacBook's original hard drive for a cheap SSD, taken out the DVD superdrive, and inserted a second drive bay. Reason being that Logic Express is flakey with OS X 10.10 Yosemite. It runs, but becomes unresponsive for seconds at a time, seemingly whenever I plug in my keyboard. So I bought a copy of OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and installed that on the second drive.

Snow Leopard is the Macintosh analogue of Windows XP - old and sturdy - if Windows XP had been built on UNIX, and part of me wonders if Apple reached a peak with its Macintosh range circa 2008-2011 and has been regressing since then. Perhaps the company no longer cares much for its computers. I often wonder if the failure of the XServe range finally convinced Apple that it did not have a future as a computer company. Still, a 2008 MacBook with Snow Leopard is fast, reliable, and relatively easy to fix if it breaks; the post-2008 MacBook Pros had a non-replaceable battery, and later models progressively became sealed units with everything glued-and-soldered to the motherboard. I have seen nothing in OS X Yosemite that I prefer over Snow Leopard, or indeed OS X 10.4 Tiger.

Ah, I hear you say, but what about the music? Why are you waffling on about laptops and hard drives, why not tell us what was going through your soul as you poured raw emotion from your musical heart? I like to think that good art has a core of humanity underneath it, but in practice the act of creation involves a tonne of hard, uninteresting work. Whenever films show an artist in the act of creation, they imply that it just happens, but someone has to sharpen the pencils, put ink into the typewriter and load the film etc. You have to be quite far up the chain before you have minions to do that kind of thing, at which point you have to master a new set of skills. Until you are the King, at which point you just have to look good in robes.