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The concept of computer farms is rather simple : “a collection of computers networked together to accomplish performance needs far beyond the capability of one machine”. This is, in many ways, not a new concept in the world of composer’s studios ; back to the days of hardware samplers, it was quite often necessary to buy more than one sampler to load more samples and get more polyphony.

Take for example a typical GigaStudio setup, in which the whole idea is to unload the sequencer from the task of processing the samples. As a result, and for performance and memory reasons, loading a full orchestra, with a certain number of articulations per instrument, usually requires to install two or three GigaStudio computers.

In the world of Apple computers, this concept has rarely been applied because, for many years and until the PowerMac Quad and the recent Intel Macs came out, the performance/cost ratio was most of the time in favor of their PC counterparts. Yes, there have been, and for some time now, very good examples of server farms made solely of Apple Xserves, but this was far beyond the scope of a modest composer’s studio.

A dedicated Apple user, John Frizzell (Alien Resurrection, Gods & Generals…) has been looking in this direction for a long time. As many composers, John found himself forced to use GigaStudio – even though he didn’t like using Windows. So he finally designed a system of three PowerMac G5, one host (the sequencer) and two slaves. On the host, he runs Logic, Rax, and Plogue Bidule. Each software allows him to load up to about 2.5GB of samples. Then, on each slaves, he loads another 2.5GB of samples in Rax. Memory and performances being the main limitation on today’s computers, this allows him to have all his samples always loaded in the background, like in a typical GigaStudio setup, but without ever using Windows (which, for some users, is not a small benefit).

Using PowerMacs to spread your samples is a great idea, but it has its downsides too. PowerMacs are bulky, take a lot of space, generate a lot of heat, and use up to 400W (this is not going to help your electricity bill!). They are also expensive, and require a rather complicated setup if you are using more than one host.

Here is another problem, this one specifically related to how Vienna Instruments handles memory. We already know that a 32-bit application can only use up to 2.5 GB of ram. This means that you can load up to 2.5GB of samples in Logic, 2.5GB of samples in Rax, 2.5GB of samples in Plogue Bidule (remember that this is a theoretical limit – in the real world, most apps hardly reach it). Basically, this allows you to have a PowerMac with 8GB of memory running three hosts.

But the Vienna Instruments loads its samples in a separate application, called “VSL Server”. You do not see this application – it simply runs in the background. Because it is a process separated from the host, it can go higher than the usual 2.5GB limit, up to 3.25GB (some users have reported going even higher than that.) However, if you are running two or three hosts on your computer, you will not be able to load more than a total of 3GB of VI samples on this computer, because they will point to the VSL Server process. Suddenly, the PowerMac is way less interesting – why bother buying such an expensive and powerful computer, to only use less than half of its capacities?

Well, that’s where the Mac Mini comes in. In terms of raw power, the new Intel Mac Minis are as powerful as a PowerMac Dual 2 Ghz (this is not too surprising, considering the fact that the processor inside the Minis, the Intel Core Duo, is also a dual-core processor, and runs at 1.6 or 1.8 Ghz), and they are also way smaller, generate little heat, and consume only 80W. You can load up to 2GB of memory on each of these little babies. And they come with optical S/PDIF (2-channel) I/O connectors.

They do come with one downside though : the internal, SATA hard drive only runs at 4200rpm. This can be a problem when working with samples, so it is highly recommended to add in a faster, external firewire drive, or to pop the Mac Mini open and replace its internal drive by a faster one. Firewire drive are IDE, not SATA, so the second solution is even better (however, since you open up the computer, you will lose the manufacturer’s warranty).

A Mac Mini will handle up to about 1.6 GB of VI samples loaded in memory (the rest is dedicated to running the OS and other regular tasks). As a comparison, a PowerMac or a Mac Pro with 4 GB of memory will allow you to load about 3 GB of samples. So, four Mac Mini will do the task of two PowerMacs / Mac Pros. Money wise, this comes down to $4000 for four 2GB, 1.8 Ghz Mac Minis (along with an external Firewire drive) against $6400 for the two 4GB, 2 Ghz Mac Pros. Nice savings, to be added to the other positive factors of buying a Mac Mini (space, heat, power consumption).

The cool thing with this solution is that you can buy Mac Mini’s at your own pace, as you would for the VI collections. For example, if you only have Strings I and Strings II, and you want to use all of the Level 1 articulations, then you won’t need more than two Mac Minis. If you later buy the Woodwinds I collection, then you can buy another Mac Mini and load it up.

Ultimately, if you want to use the full power of the Symphonic Cube package, you will probably need about 10 Mac Minis – one for each collection. But this will still be way cheaper than buying PowerMacs or Mac Pros.

Keep in mind that the whole concept of computer farms applied to the composer’s studio is only useful if you want to have your samples loaded at all time. It does not help you if you are more likely to load your instruments / samples on a project basis.

In later articles, I will talk more in depth about setting up your sequencer and MIDI gear to interact with the VI interface, spreading your samples over the whole Mac Mini farm, and the different options to get the sound out from your slaves, back to your host.

Related Article: Mac Minis as VSL Farms: Spreading Your Samples
Related Article: Mac Minis as VSL Farms: Audio Routing

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18 Responses to “Mac Minis as VSL Farms: An Overview”

  1. on 13 Dec 2006 at 9:23 am Saul

    Dear Jerome,

    I’m new to this site so am yet to have a real look around. Firstly I must thank you for all this wisdom and secondly say it’s left me spinning a bit!

    I’m a classical composer coming from a pencil and paper background, although I’ve done work with digital mixers and some stand alone hardware. Now is the first time I’m taking the plunge in to the world of scoring on computer, although I’ve spent the last couple of years reading up about stuff whilst saving money!

    I have heard of computer farms many times and been rather daunted at the need for such vast set ups, but understand the necessity. I’m not a technaphobe and understand everything you’ve written. I am looking to gradually build up on VSL/VI but will only start with Solo Strings for now whilst using other slghtly more affordable virtual orchestras. As I will be writing for other genres including the pop/dance industry, music theatre, the classical stage as well as TV/film, I am creating a random set up based around an intel Mac Pro 3.0GHz/Logic set up.

    My first real question is to do with RAM availability on a 32bit system. Obviously this is the main reason why farms have been so necessary – I’m also aware of CPU usage. Obviously, the hardware of the Mac is ready for 64bit working. With the launch of the Leopard operating system due next year, I’m told by Mac People, that this will increase the RAM availability, potentially four-fold. Does this sound right? I simply have not budgeted to invest in even one MacMini as I thought going Leopard would at least put this issue to sleep for a year while I attempt to make some money to expand! I’m expecting you to say that whilst Leopard will help, it wont remove the need to expand with other slaves. At least not next year.

    Am I talking nonsense or does this make some kind of sense? I would value your input. Meanwhile I’m going to continue looking around the site.

    Kind regards

    Saul

  2. on 13 Dec 2006 at 11:27 am Jerome

    Hi Saul,

    thanks for your kind comments regarding this website.

    To answer your main question, in theory 64-bit computing allows to address up to 16TB (terabyte) of memory. So, in theory, that should be quite enough :) .

    However, for 64-bit computing to be fully operational, every link of the chain has to be 64-bit. This means the hardware + the OS + the host + the plugin/player + all the required drivers.

    As a 32bit/64bit hybrid OS, Leopard will not automatically allow to use more than ±3GB of memory per application. Only very specificaly-built systems will. Furthermore, computing in a 64bit-only world is something new in most fields (music is one of them). Software developers and hardware manufacturers are just starting to release 64bit beta version of their products. My guess is that it will take some time before being fully operational in 64-bit, and as such being able to access all the memory installed in our computer.

    Once you can access all this memory, you also need to make sure that your computer will be able to handle it. I know the Mac Pros are *very* powerful, but I highly doubt they could run 16GB of VI samples without any problem. … so the CPU will quickly be an issue as well.

    And finally, ram price being what it is, 16 GB of memory will cost you today at least $3,600. You could invest in one Mac Pro or 4 Mac Minis for the same price.

    Even though the dream of one computer being able to handle everything will definitely come to reality in the near future, for now it seems slaves are a necessity in samples-heavy environments.

  3. on 03 Jan 2007 at 3:16 pm chris

    “Keep in mind that the whole concept of computer farms applied to the composer’s studio is only useful if you want to have your samples loaded at all time. It does not help you if you are more likely to load your instruments / samples on a project basis.”

    Hey jerome, great info. Thanks. Im wondering why you say the above statement. Is it because of the space issue of having to set up disply, mouse, and keyboard for the “farm”?

  4. on 07 Jan 2007 at 12:13 am Jerome

    Hey Chris,

    The farm idea is that you never access the remote computers. If you need to load project-specific samples a on regular basis, it gets very hard to manage pretty quickly.

    I recommend loading all your main samples in the farm, and – if you need to – having one remote computer as your “buffer” on which you would load all your project specific samples.

    This is how many composers are doing it with Gigastudio : they have two or three GS computers with all the samples they use all the time, which they never need to access; and on top of that, they have one more GS computer just for the project-specific samples.

    Then, they only have to load the project template on one remote computer. Imagine if you were using 8 or 10 slaves, and having to load a different template on each, everytime you switch project… That’d become a mess pretty quickly.

    Jerome

  5. on 06 Feb 2007 at 3:43 pm Peter

    Jerome,

    I’ve just ordered the first of (hopefully) many Minis to add to my VSL farm. Obviously, I’ll be upgrading the RAM to 2GB, and possibly the internal drive too.
    A question: The stock 80Gb drive is a 4200RPM SATA, right? Are there any 2.5″ SATA drives that run at 7200RPM? or am I stuck upgrading to 5400RPM?

    what’s in your minis? how have you found the playback performance? or are you running FireWire externally?

    I’m sure this is one of several queries I’ll have for you – sorry – but thanks for leading the charge in this mini revolution!

    Peter

  6. on 11 Feb 2007 at 11:13 am Jerome

    Hi Peter,

    yes, the internal hard drive is 4200RPM SATA. Sometimes you’re lucky in get a 5200RPM instead… but don’t count on it!

    You can get a 2.5″ SATA drive in 7200RPM pretty easily. Toshiba and Seagate are manufacturing some. (up to 100GB I believe).

    The performance are much better with an internal SATA drive @ 7200RPM than with a regular Firewire drive. They’re not “bad” with a Firewire drive – they’re just “better” with the internal drive.

    Jerome

  7. on 30 May 2007 at 9:57 am Dejan

    Hey Jerome!!

    We used to go to Berklee at the same time and I think we even had a few classes together in the begining semesters….anyway man nice site you’ve set up here!!

    Just want to ask you regarding the mini mac farm that I’m about to set up with Vienna Instruments.

    How do you use the vienna instruments on every mini mac since in stand alone mode VI provides only one midi chanel, are you using any VST hosts on each mini mac or what?

    Since I’m a DP user and I know that in Logic you can assign midi chanels or instrument chanels to a processors of the slave computers but is there a way around that in DP? Or what do you suggest? Or does the secret lie in the Logic networking.

    Thanx Man and Best wishes!!

    Dejan

  8. on 26 Jun 2007 at 10:06 am Dan

    Hi – great site!
    I followed the link to RAX and apparently it is not available any more. Do you have any alternate suggestions? Also, how are you routing midi and audio from the mac minis? It sound like you are sending the audio through the optical – if so, how are you getting 8 optical lines into your host?

    Thanks in advance!
    Dan

  9. on 26 Jun 2007 at 10:26 am Jerome

    Hi Dejan,

    Yes, we are using one host on each Mac Mini (Plogue Bidule). Each host usually has about 10 instances of Vienna Instruments loaded (one per instrument, containing multiple articulations).

    With DP, you control each “instance” with an actual midi out port, like any regular external midi gear; you will then switch between articulations with keyswitches or midi controllers.

  10. on 26 Jun 2007 at 10:32 am Jerome

    Hi Dan,

    Unfortunately, RAX has indeed been discontinued. It appears Plasq is in the process of selling it to another company. No one knows when development and/or distribution will resume.

    My suggestion is to use Plogue Bidule as a host. I actually found it to be more powerful than RAX and very easy to use once you get the concept.

    For audio routing, check out the following article: http://www.createfilmscores.net/?page_id=29

    Jerome

  11. on 14 Sep 2007 at 6:12 am thomas

    Hi Jerome,

    I come across from vsl-forum to your site and its good looking and informative website you have here. We evaluate to go with minis as a vsl-farm.

    Is there a big difference to note between a Intel Core 2 Duo 1,83 and 2.0 GHz, I think RAM is more important than GHz?

    Thanks for your reply
    Tom Hanke

  12. on 05 Dec 2007 at 8:49 am Jerome

    Hi Thomas,

    yes, RAM is more important than Ghz in our case, however if your budget allows, I would buy the fastest Mac Mini as possible. These 170Mhz might well give you the ability to load one or two more instances of VI.

    Jerome

  13. on 20 Dec 2007 at 1:37 am Maximus

    I would like to see a continuation of the topic

  14. on 20 Dec 2007 at 4:49 pm Jerome

    What do you mean?

  15. on 16 Feb 2008 at 2:07 pm Harlan

    Jerome
    Do you know if the Symphonic Cube is compatible with the newest G5 dual quads?

  16. on 21 Feb 2008 at 10:08 am Jerome

    The “Symphonic Cube” works both on Windows and Mac OS X. It is compatible with PowerPC as well as Intel Macs.

  17. on 25 Feb 2009 at 8:33 pm heem

    You mentioned the Xserve as a possibility albeit and expensive one. Assuming cost is not an issue would this be a good way to go in 2009? I like the idea of a rack mountable computer (in a soundproofed cooled rack or machine room) and I am unwilling to work with PCs at this point. Also just seems cleaner somehow to have a couple of Xserves racked as opposed to multiple minis on your desk. I suppose 10 minis would give you more performance than 2 Xserves for about the same money. Thoughts?

    I am curious if you know of any problem with running these music apps (logic. protools and vienna Ensemble 3) on an Xserve running OSX server. Or does one simply reformat the box to OS X client if this is even possible. What are the ramifications?

    Thanks so much for your time and for this informative discussion.

  18. on 14 Apr 2009 at 2:34 pm Vince Delmonte

    Hey, nice tips. Perhaps I’ll buy a bottle of beer to the person from that chat who told me to visit your site :)

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