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CHRIS MADDEN: Beta Testing

Sounding Off
Published March 1997

Ever fancied a job as a beta tester of the latest products? Chris Madden's turning it down, thanks...

Every 10 minutes or so a new piece of ground‑breaking audio equipment appears in the marketplace, boasting ever‑increasing features, quality and functionality. The turnaround of product is so fast that some items seem to be out of date before they become readily available. Two questions spring to mind. "Where does it all come from?" and, much more importantly, "Who makes sure, before we all rush out armed with the necessary funds, that the prospective purchase works properly?" I've been a professional studio engineer for 14 years and in that time have seen equipment come and go, but over the last few years I have noticed a very worrying trend.

During the late '80s I became involved with various projects which involved using hard disk recording and editing systems, firstly for editing masters of projects I had worked on, and then later for recording parts of the project itself. The vast majority of this work I carried out on a well‑known system based around a very productive personal computer. These systems — in both 2‑track and, later, in multitrack configurations — worked quite well in my experience, making some tasks much quicker and easier.

Then in 1992, immediately before starting work on five tracks for Lulu's album Independence, I was asked by the production company to take a look at a new 8‑track hard disk recorder — manufactured by a company famous for their keyboards and drum machines — with a view to its being used on this project. This I did; and I was, and still am, very impressed with its audio handling, editing capabilities and overall specification. After checking all the manufacturer's literature and being personally assured by the company that it was fitted with all the necessary equipment to enable it to lock to a tape machine via SMPTE, I agreed that it would be an asset to the project. With that, a machine was purchased by the production company.

The project ran smoothly until one day while recording lead vocals at a major London studio directly into the hard disk system, we encountered major and incurable timing problems, caused by the hard disk and the tape machine running at their own internal speeds — a most embarrassing situation for all involved, especially me. After further investigation it became obvious that the machine was not and would never be internally equipped with all it needed to chase synchronise. After much discussion we were supplied with a Band Aid solution, an Audio Kinetics ES buss which has solved the problem to this day.

More recently I got involved in some activities outside music involving IBM‑based PCs, and as my interest grew I began to consider their possible music applications. I decided, after much consideration, that I'd put together a system to compile and master albums, possibly with some pre‑production capabilities. I began by purchasing my computer, then acquired a CD writer, and then, in late October 1996, bought a PCI‑based Windows‑compatible soundcard with S/PDIF digital interface so that I could import audio directly from my DAT player. I had the supplier install the card in my machine to make sure that it functioned. It never did. At about the same time two friends of mine, both producers, purchased the same soundcard, although they were both more interested in multitrack work and therefore their systems were ultra‑wide SCSI for faster hard disk access time. Their two cards don't work either. The three of us have spent endless hours on the telephone to the supplier, the manufacturer, and each other, not to mention the time we've spent fighting with these infernal cards trying to make them function — but they continued to produce random clicking and popping noises while recording and when playing back. At the end of January 1997, I returned my card for a full refund, explaining that I believed this was not a problem with my computer but that the card did not work. But my two friends are valiantly continuing the struggle, and I believe that the manufacturer is at worst much clearer about the types of problems to be expected and at best much nearer solving them at someone else's expense due to our involvement.

Both of the above examples show, in my opinion, that some manufacturers are knowingly releasing products into the marketplace that are not fit for their purpose. Using customers as beta test sites for their equipment results in massive savings in Research & Development costs, and so manufacturers see financial returns sooner than they should. What better than to let the people who are going to use your equipment to its full potential do it in their own time and at their own expense, rather than the old‑fashioned way of giving it to them to test and then, once all the problems have been ironed out, letting them keep it for their troubles?

I believe that manufacturers and dealers need to be far more careful about issuing new models — one bad experience means that I will never buy from that manufacturer again, and this attitude can't be an uncommon one. Furthermore, in the situation involving the soundcard, consider what could have happened if I'd purchased yet another Windows‑compatible add‑on card of any type which was in the same state as the first. All hell might have broken loose due to one or both cards not liking the presence in the same machine of the other — and who would be to blame? Both manufacturers would undoubtedly lay the blame with the other and the person who ended up footing the bill would quite probably be the customer.

Looking back, I could possibly have been more diligent in my investigations into these two purchases — although, in my defence, both items were issued by reputable companies and carried advertising literature that not only painted an unattainable picture of smooth running but in some cases told downright lies about their capabilities.

My only advice to potential purchasers, including myself, is to look very hard before considering a small leap.

Chris Madden has been a studio engineer since the early '80s. His work has included projects for Bobby Womack, Take That, the Stranglers, the Troggs, and Jaki Graham plus many big‑band recordings, and lately he has branched out into PC‑based recording and FOlive sound. He also demonstrates the Harrison Series 12 console in the UK.