This is very much a year of anniversaries: A hundred years since the start of The Great War, 90 years since the first broadcast of the Greenwich Time Signal, 70 years since the D-Day landings of WWII, 70 years since the first programmable electronic computer, Colossus Mark 1, became operational at Bletchley Park in the UK, 60 years since Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black invented rock ‘n’ roll with their up-tempo version of Arthur Crudup’s "That’s All Right," 50 years since The Beatles took the USA by storm, 40 years since John Lennon finally signed the document that officially dissolved The Beatles while he was on holiday at Disneyland, and 30 years since I met my wife.
Oh, wait a minute. Something else fairly important happened in 1984. Let’s see: Los Angeles Olympics? No, that wasn’t it. My sound designs for Cyrano de Bergerac and Much Ado About Nothing arriving on Broadway? Significant, but no, that wasn’t it either. Oh yes, I remember now. Apple announced The Macintosh Computer with that famous 1984 Super Bowl commercial. That was it: The computer for the rest of us, the machine that was going to change the way we all worked and, to be fair, it pretty much did just that.
In 1994, while in New York for the opening of Medea, I bought my first portable Mac, the delightfully tiny and lightweight Duo 230, typically for me, shortly before it was discontinued. The Duo was a stripped down, lightweight laptop that fit in a shoulder bag, could be carted around without crippling you, and was expanded using either a small docking station that attached to the rear of the machine or the much larger, but much more versatile, DuoDock that had a motorized sled that grabbed the Duo and dragged it into a front-loading slot, giving you access to a proper monitor and a couple of half-sized expansion card slots.
In the days when ProTools bundled Powermix, a cut-down version of its software, along with the grown-up program, I could mix and edit using the Duo on the train or the plane, and when I slotted the Duo into its dock, I had the full PT with all its bells and whistles that was perfectly happy to open my session and let me carry on working with a nice big screen and the AudioMedia II card installed in one of the internal NuBus slots. The Duo was the machine that started the sea change in the way that I worked and how quickly I could respond to a director’s requests without having to go back to the studio or to lug a desktop machine around with me. I used it and its more powerful and colorful successor, the Duo 2300c, until a very large stagehand sat on the poor thing in a darkened theatre and crushed the life out of it. But by then, I was carrying around a mini dock, a separate floppy drive, a SCSI CD-ROM drive, a SCSI hard-drive, and a plethora of adapters and cables, and I decided that it was time to bite the bullet and graduate to the big, chunky, black all-in-one PowerBook, which I duly did.
Twenty years on, I’ve been through most of the PowerBook and MacBook range, and at the beginning of this year, I decided that it was time to retire my aging MacBook Pro and trade up to something a bit faster and more powerful. For the first time in my Mac laptop history, I bought a second-hand machine. Why? Well, I listed my needs and compared them with the top of the range MacBook Pro on the Apple Store site: hi-res anti-glare screen, not available; 750GB hard drive, not available; FireWire 800 port, not available; Ethernet connector, not available; optical drive, not available; Kensington lock-slot, not available.
Sure, I could buy an add-on SuperDrive, an add-on Ethernet connector, and an add-on Thunderbolt to FireWire converter, although that doesn’t provide enough bus-power to run my Metric Halo 2882 interface, so I’d need a separate battery for that. "But," said the nice man in the Apple Store when I explained my predicament, "your main machine is super-light and thin, and when you don’t want all those other bits and pieces, you can just leave them at home." He didn’t realize that he was talking to someone with at least four Apple AC adapters precisely because I’d left them at home by mistake just before travelling to foreign parts. I could have, for instance, pointed you to the main Apple supplier in Seoul, Hong Kong, Hamburg, and New York, in the days long before the Apple Store became ubiquitous. Mind you, whenever I’m in New York, I still make a beeline for Tekserve on West 23rd, if for nothing else but the amazing collection of old radios that line the walls and the five-cent bottles of Coca-Cola from the clunky old machine next to the service area. But I digress.
I have enough bits and pieces in my bag when working on shows without adding another bunch of expensive add-ons just so that I can do my work. As it is, my production desk resembles nothing so much as a display board for portable hard-drives, multifunction card-readers, and USB hubs, to say nothing of the brightly colored array of LEDs gleaming from within the depths of assorted dongles and memory sticks. It’s true that I can access a lot of what I need from what we now have to call The Cloud, but when I attempted to let iTunes Match store all my music files in The Cloud, the 25,000-track weakling cowered at the might of the 35,000 tracks on one of my portable drives and ran away gibbering to hide in a corner. And no, I don’t have time to decide which particular 10,000 tracks I won’t need when I’m away from base, which seems to be the only effective workaround.
Now, I realize that I may not be a typical user. My audio work is hard drive-intensive, and I do a lot of it at 96K and 24-bit, and that takes up a lot of hard drive real estate. In my little home studio, the MacPro has five internal hard-drives (thanks to OWC’s Multi-Mount) and an optical drive, and then there are another five external drives that hold the music collection, the photograph collection, the current archive, the video archive, and the rolling backup. I use bare drives and a caddy to make progressive archive backups, and I have a shelf full of storage-cased 3.5" drives, all cataloged so that I can find material going back about 15 years. A SCSI-to-FireWire adapter helps out with the older material, and then everything important is backed up again to second set of discs, just in case.
Now, pretty soon, I’m going to have to upgrade my MacPro. True, it’s big, it’s quite noisy, and it heats up the room nicely on cold winter days, but it contains almost everything I need to get working quickly and efficiently. Much as I love the enlarged coffee-grinder look of the new MacPro, its small footprint, quiet operation, and efficient heat dispersion are going to be offset by the massive fan-cooled Just-A-Bunch-Of-Discs rack that I’m going to need in order to have the same functionality as I have now.
So what shall I do? Thankfully, that question won’t have to be answered for a few years. My new/used MacBook Pro has all the oomph that I need, along with all the ports that I need, along with an optical drive, and has a beautiful high-definition matte screen. The MacPro, also purchased used from a graphic designer who was more concerned with form than function, has buckets-full of RAM, the aforementioned five internal drives, and a high-end graphics card that will do fine for the time being. Eventually, when really fast Internet connections are generally available instead of just being "up to" high-speed, I may truly embrace The Cloud, and I may well find a compact portable solution that allows me to connect everything to my super-light minimalistic MacBook via a simple docking station. Oh, wait. What does that remind me of? Ah yes, that little PowerBook Duo I bought all those years ago. Happy Anniversary.
John Leonard is an award-winning designer who has been working in theatre sound for 40 years. In his spare time, he records anything that makes an interesting noise in high-definition surround sound. His two libraries, The Voice Of Poseidon and The Sounds Of Flight, are available online at www.johnleonard.co.uk/immersive.html. Live Design readers receive a 30% discount with the code LDM30.