Thursday, February 9, 2012

Gotta Have It

Tonight, the local AES chapter presented Ableton certified trainer Thomas Faulds and Ableton Live 8. Like the fool that I am, I volunteered to be his foil to compare with other pieces of software (Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Sonar, Cubase, Audition, etc).

Honestly, I can't think of a reason in the world why I would use Ableton Live. If "beats" are your kind of music, it's a great tool. I can't help but feel the difference between a beat programmer and a kid playing Guitar Hero is too fine a distance for me to measure. It's fun, but it's not playing music. For that matter, it's only fun for a little while.

After the presentation, Mr. Faulds and I got into a discussion about what's happening in professional audio software. He argued that the newest version of Pro Tools (v10) represented a microscopic advance in technology. I suggested that the most significant improvements v10 offered might be ignored by the less-than-astute customer base the industry is creating. By the industry, I mean all of the schools teaching "audio engineering," the long list of drivel genres the Grammies and the Recording Academy recognizes, what's left of the music business, and the largely deaf generation of kids who grew up with 125dBSPL of deafening earbud noise glued to their heads. 65-bit buses and 32-bit internal audio handling is pretty pointless to a 128kbs MPG customer base. We agreed to disagree.

I mentioned that there was a vanishing reason to "upgrade" to the latest version of any software because of the minimal advantages or tools to be gained for the substantial investment required. Faulds disagreed, saying that Apple will force the upgrade issue, regardless of utility or need. When I questioned how they would manage that, he said "If you don't upgrade, you won't be able to keep up with plugins and OS changes."

"That's the point. If what I have now does the job, I don't need new tools. Nothing Lion, for example, does improves on what I can do with my Mac and Snow Leopard. Pro Tools 10 currently includes machines that run 10.6.8, but the first "fix" from Avid might blow off older generation Macs that won't run 10.7. With that threat in mind, I don't feel the need to leave PT9."

Faulds continued to argue that I'd, eventually, have to upgrade to stay "current," but I ended that circular line of debate by saying, "That's true for these kids, but I'm 64. I won't live long enough to worry about any other generations of software."

There is more to it than that, though. People did perfectly professional work on Sound Tools, the first 4-track version of Pro Tools, and the first serious multi-track version of Pro Tools (2.0) that produced the first Grammy winner for Digi. Marketing squirrels can yak about why we "need" whatever crap they're pedaling, but the fact is we don't. We've had all the tools we need to record good audio, digitally, for at least a decade. The latest, greatest thing is a microscopic improvement on the original thing and having that tool won't make great music. Unfortunately, Faulds demonstrated some of that concept by showing all of the cool things Ableton Live can do without producing thirty seconds of interesting music in a two hour presentation.

The "leap" Ableton and similar software made between MIDI sequencing and loop programming is less about music and more about allowing people to play at music without having to learn how to play music. I can't help but think that is more of  a sad development than a great programming achievement. The leap made by current DAW generations is almost raising the digital bar to the last generation of analog gear. Convenience is what allowed digital recording to obsolete analog and convenience is being overrun by constant "upgrades" to software, operating systems, and interfaces.

The fact is, many people are doing excellent work on Mac G3's and 4's, using all sorts of "obsolete" software and hardware. Another fact is, in spite of Apple's constant rearranging of the deck chairs on their computer Titanic, you can always find an old G3 or G4 in great condition for less than $125. You can find G5's for about that kind of money, too. Even the early Intel Macs are barely worth $250 loaded with memory, video cards, and, even, outdated Digi interfaces don't raise the price tag much. The chances are that someone committed to staying with an old version of everything can keep doing work well into the middle of the next decade; just by looting working parts of dirt cheap "obsolete" machines. If the work is the thing, this is obviously a smarter move than spending $4-6k on a new super-fast machine and pouring another pile of money in the latest-greatest software.Windows users have even less motivation to "upgrade." WinXP works, is faster than Win7, and is still supported by everyone.

At some point, living to install software and working overtime to pay for gear should make a real musical person question the point in the whole exercise. Sooner or later, you're going to have to make some music or move into IT where nobody ever does real work but they convince themselves they are running the world.

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.