Whenever I want to get a feel for how much things have changed in the hi-tech recording world, I flick back through Leader columns I wrote several years ago — and today I came across a very relevant one written almost exactly seven years ago. The sentiments expressed there were aimed at the vagaries of software-based recording systems, especially the fact that you never knew how many tracks you could use, because it depended on what else was stretching your computer's resources. And, of course, there was mention of computer and software reliability and stability. At the end of that piece, I concluded: "To make a good recording, you need an accurate, reliable recording/mixing system, a MIDI sequencer with a few well-chosen sound modules, a really good mic or two and a first-class reverb unit. Everything else is optional, and at the end of the day it's more productive to have a relatively simple system that works than a complex system that doesn't!"
It's surprising how true that sentiment holds today, because although track count is no longer a limitation with most computer-based systems, the issues of complexity, reliability and usability are still as pertinent as ever.
Part of the problem is that technology requires the attention of certain parts of the brain that are probably best left switched off when you're thinking about music — which, after all, works on an emotional rather than an analytical level. If you can afford a top-level professional studio where paid engineers and technical specialists do the thinking for you, the technology needn't get in the way of your music — other people can be analytical while you get emotional — but in the project studio where you have to do everything yourself, technology can become seriously intrusive. As a typical SOS reader's studio (if there is such a thing) is often very complex, managing the technology becomes a major issue.
I don't know that I've yet come up with an optimal solution for dealing with technology myself, because I'll often go into my studio with the intentions of working on a piece of music, then within minutes become sidetracked by some software issue. I try to set aside time for creating new synth patches, as this requires a somewhat different mental process to creating music, but in reality, unless you let a sound you've already created set the direction for the song you're working on, the sounds you have in your 'favourites' folder probably won't be right for the idea you have in your head. So you still have to put on your technical hat to do some tweaking.
Buying soft synths that come with thousands of easily tweakable patches is often a more promising approach but, as I'm sure you've already discovered, it's still not a complete solution, because the more sounds you have at your disposal, the harder it becomes to find the right one. Your intended recording session can so easily become a patch-auditioning session! In this respect, traditional classical composers have a better deal, because they know the whole range of instrument sounds they have to work with before they start, which means they can get on with the job of writing music straight away.
Perhaps orchestral instruments provide us with a clue as to where things go wrong with synths and samplers. Traditional instruments (or even electric guitars) work so well because players can coax such a huge range of timbres and expressions from each one. Keyboards, on the other hand, are probably the least expressive instruments devised by man since knocking two rocks together, so we come up with all these different sounds to try to gloss over this lack of expression. I know piano players will argue against this, but in reality even they have control over just two or three note parameters, the main ones being 'how loud' and 'when', with the sustain pedal coming a close third. Synth controller pedals and wheels just can't compete with the subtle interaction of fingers on strings or lips on reeds, and part of me can't help thinking that — at least in the case of music that needs a certain depth of feeling — the more we try to use technology to compensate for what are essentially physical limitations to emotional expression, the further we'll be progressing along a blind alley.
Paul White Editor In Chief