In 1959, George Eash and Vern Nolte introduced a user-controllable recording format called the Fidelipac, or NAB cartridge, or “cart” for short. From 1959 to the mid 1990s, this magnetic tape was the industry-standard tape cartridge widely used in radio and broadcast, allowing near instantaneous playback and synchronization of audio clips.

Fast-forward to today, and MiniDisc has come and gone, and sophisticated computerized audio playback is the norm. But what about when you really do want a cart-type setup or an instant replay machine by your side? Or what if you’ve been using iTunes to do audio playback in your low-budget operation and you’ve been burned one too many times?

Enter QCart, from those Qpeople at Figure 53. The recently introduced QCart is quite possibly the most basic playback system out there, but it’s professionally and slickly created, and for all that it does (and doesn’t) do, it’s incredibly powerful. More than a cart, it reminds me of 360 Systems Instant Replay 2, except it’s about a hundred times easier to use.

The interface for QCart is great. You launch the application, and a window opens with 20 squares. Simply drag any audio file into a square, and the title of that file appears. If you dragged it to square 1, the default “hot key” trigger is 1. Repeat this for as many sound files as you have, and if you have more than 20 files, or if you want to create different interface layers, you can create a new tab and start again. In Mac OS 10.7, QCart takes full advantage of the “full screen mode,” allowing the QCart window to take over the entire screen. This makes your computer truly a cart machine, dedicated to just this one task and free of other distractions that live in your dock.

For each square that contains an audio file, you have basic but powerful controls. You set the output level with a basic volume bar. (This is possibly a little too basic, as in reality, I’d love some kind of numerical value associated with my level.) In addition, you can see your audio files’ waveform in a window and easily drag a start point and end point. This makes on the fly cueing and edits a breeze. You also can easily set it to loop between your two points.

And then there are the effects. What really puts this little application over the top is that it can access any Audio Unit plug-ins you have on your computer. You click the “+” and a list of available plug-ins opens, and you can add any Audio Unit plug-in on your computer. Each file can be associated with a different plug-in (or multiple plug-ins), and each plug-ins’ parameters can be fully controlled within QCart. So for as basic as this program appears to be, you can EQ your recorded pre-show announcement on the fly.

Across the very bottom of the screen is basically a master output section, where you can see your left and right output meters, showing you a summation of any files that are playing. There’s also a “pause all” and “mute all” button and a master volume control. You also pick your output device in this area, and the list automatically shows you all of your options depending on your hardware configuration. At the minimum, it’s ready to use your onboard speakers or headphone jack. And the most, it can route to any stereo outputs of any hardware interface. Of note is that this routing is universal to your QCart session. You can’t route one file to one output and another to a different one. This is basic stereo playback at its best.

QCart loads any files in your cart into the computer RAM immediately, so each and every file is available for immediate playback at all times. This is true across tabbed workspaces as well. If it’s in QCart, and QCart is running, it’s ready. This is what makes this little program so powerful. Load it up with files, and you’re ready to go, always. Each file can be associated with a hot key and a MIDI trigger, in addition to being able to be triggered by clicking the play button in the file’s window. You can also color-code your squares to group files together visually.

What this program won’t do is sophisticated playback, like QLab, and I’d hazard a guess that that’s intentional. You can’t do fade-ins or fade-outs. You can’t do waits. You can’t route to multiple outputs. That’s all for applications like QLab and Stage Research SFX. QCart is for basic, but easy and dependable playback. I can see it being useful in small shows or dance concerts or for preshow music or pre-show announcements, when you don’t need a full system but want the ease of use and dependable control. I know some people who depend of iTunes or an iPod for some of these basic tasks, but QCart takes this same i-usability and puts it into the realm of professional audio.