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Keeping It Simple

Published November 2012
By Paul White

Looking back over some very old leader columns, I came across some of my comments and suggestions for making aspects of music technology more friendly. I used the development of cameras as a benchmark and looked at the way manual cameras with separate light meters and plug-in, one-time flash bulbs had evolved into point-and-press devices capable of producing great results from an artistically astute but not necessarily technical user.

Way back in the 1980s, when cassette multitrackers roamed the Earth, I wondered why nobody had developed an auto gain trim based on the device 'listening' to a few moments of loud playing. But the majority of recording products remained stubbornly in the 'manual camera' era, with relatively little progress in user-friendliness to the present day.

Similarly with synths; basic analogue synths are pretty easy to understand, but some of the more sophisticated instruments have manuals the equivalent of a university degree course, so I wondered why we couldn't have an interim mode where a preset sound could be modified in a musically useful and intuitive way by the use of something like a joystick. It shouldn't be too difficult to come up with control vectors for different sound types to make them, for example, more stringy, more brassy, warmer, brighter and so on.

It was something of a surprise, then, to find these types of concepts appearing not in studio equipment, but in the Line 6 StageScape M20D digital live sound mixer, which I've reviewed in this issue. Its auto-gain learn feature is much as I'd imagined it in the 1980s, but it goes one better, in that if the levels creep up during performance, it can scale back the input gain and increase the output gain to avoid clipping, while keeping the level constant. They've also come up with a simple edit mode based on what is essentially a virtual joystick, in the form of a touchscreen where you drag your finger towards the corners to change the sound. When adjusting EQ, for example, you see specific terms for specific sound types, so if you're working on a kick drum, you might see terms such as thump, click and scoop, rather than frequency, gain and bandwidth. If the sound needs more click, you simply drag the cursor in the direction of the word 'click'.

While the Line 6 M20D is a live sound product, the nature of our industry is that when one company has a good idea and demonstrates that it can be applied in a practical way, other companies tend to build on it. You just need to look at how most competing DAWs evolved after Steinberg established the Cubase screen layout that defined the Arrange, Mix, Piano Roll paradigm. Hopefully, then, some of these 'modern camera'-style features will finally find their way into more music recording products and electronic instruments. Some will inevitably consider such developments as 'dumbing down', but we should never forget that the musician is at the heart of what we do, and it shouldn't really be necessary for a musician to have a deep technical understanding to make and record good music. After all, the more load we can remove from the organisational side of the brain, the more mental 'CPU' power we free up for the creative side.

Paul White Editor In Chief  

Published November 2012