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Upgrade Fever: The great Computer Replacement Cycle of Late 2021

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Part 1: The background to a shocking story about why I decided to give my Metric Halo audio interface a brain transplant

This is a 2-parter [EDIT: No such luck. It’s currently at three parts.], with musings on the looming computer upgrade cycle – certainly Mac, and most likely PC to follow – and how an audio interface upgrade relates to that.

First, upgrade fever wasn’t always just a fever, it was almost a necessity. We musicians used to bring a 4-year-old computer to its knees, and that was before we ran tons of softsynths and sample libraries. So one computer year was about 20 man-years.

Sure, an 80-year-old is capable of a lot. I mean, Bob Dylan just turned 80 today (Happy Birthday!). But an 80-year-old man’s NBA career is probably over, unless he plays for this season’s Houston Rockets.

That started changing about a decade and a half ago. The Rockets had bigger guys then, and computers reached a level where they could run a *lot*. It wasn’t necessary to replace them every three years if you wanted to run the latest software.

And we musicians do demand very athletic computers. When sample-streaming first started, composers in particular employed several computers to run sampled orchestras.

Multiple-computer set-ups are still common, but memory access isn’t the precious resource it was when a single machine could only access at most 4GB of memory (realistically less). For those who aren’t up on this phenomenon yet, sample libraries are getting increasingly detailed, which translates to being large.

The programming is getting more complicated too, so sample libraries also use computer horsepower – as do software synths, in fact the line between samplers and synths that use samples as their “oscillators” has been blurry for years. But the main thing is that samplers need lots of memory to load lots of instruments so they’re cued up and ready to play.

Fortunately, computer years have become closer to dog-years (1 dog year = 7 man-years).

M1 and more. Now, you’ve undoubtedly heard that Apple has started moving the Mac platform to a new range of processors, starting with the current M1, and that means sooner than later all our music and audio software is likely to require them. A more positive way to say that: we can look forward to our music and audio software taking advantage of the big increase in power available in these new processors.

At the same time, it’s unlikely PCs are going to stand still. AMD and Intel don’t want Apple to eat their lunch.

Ergo it’s Upgrade Season, in which grown men and women break out with Upgrade Fever.

Now that our throats are clear, what does that mean?

For one, all newer software has been 64-bit for quite a while. (The technical explanation is unimportant here – the issue is just compatibility.) Apple has already abandoned 32-bit programs in its latest OSes – Catalina and Big Sur. And that doesn’t just mean 32-bit instrument and effects plug-ins, it means 32-bit programs. So older software that still works becomes incompatible.

About This Mac -> System Report -> click on Legacy Software for a view of 32-bit software that won’t run on the latest Mac OS versions

32-bit hardware drivers are also broken as of Catalina. Indeed, this story is being typed on a heavily upgraded 12-year-old Mac Pro that still runs very demanding music software and very big sample libraries. Were it not for my needing 32-bit support, this riveting 2-part series would have no personal impetus.

It’s true – if you have hardware that relies on 32-bit drivers, you either need to be rich enough to upgrade everything, buy many things you already own all over again, or – the choice of champions – you freeze your current machine and add another one when it’s time. The tradeoff to avoiding system upgrades is that you sacrifice compatibility with the latest software, for example the latest versions of Apple Logic Pro require Catalina.

So you’ll be using multiple computers, if you aren’t already.

Nice as they are, however, the first M1 Macs – the ones using the new processors – max out at 16GB of RAM. And whether that’s enough depends on what you’re doing.

These four instruments alone – a grand and a Rhodes piano from Spectrasonics Keyscape, and the classical guitar from EastWest Gypsy – take up about 7GB inside Apple Logic Pro. Imagine if your computer only had 8GB of RAM. You’d be done.

For a very rough random example, loading a (fabulous-sounding) grand piano and a (fabulous sounding) Rhodes into Spectrasonics Keyscape, plus a Spectrasonics Trilian acoustic bass, plus the fabulous classical guitar from EastWest’s venerable Gypsy library – all inside Apple Logic Pro – might use a little under 7GB. Add another 4GB for the operating system itself, and you’re thinking about whether you have enough memory for other instruments, never mind having a browser open to SynthAndSoftware.com.

If you’re running sample libraries, 64GB is more like it. In fact it’s not uncommon for especially macho men and women to have 128GB in their machines.

Meanwhile, rumors abound about new Macs that can be loaded with 64GB of RAM. We here would never comment on rumors, just because they happen to include a MacBook Pro that’s up to being a desktop replacement and a Mac Mini with similar specs.

So that’s why the next computer upgrade cycle may be closer than it seems for a lot of musicians. And this leads nicely to Part 2, about why This Reporter invested in the upgrade to his wonderful Metric Halo 2882 audio interface.

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