Back in the days when a tape machine, together with a mixer, equalled the best part of a studio, most engineers could walk into an unfamiliar facility and, after perhaps peering at an unfamiliar patchbay for a few minutes, start work feeling pretty much at home. You'd expect the situation to be almost as straightforward today. We may have a choice of DAWs, but most professionals settle on the same two or three, and they all do pretty much the same job. And though there may be more to learn to become intimately familiar with any individual DAW, most offer a similar visual paradigm and feature set, and we all know pretty much what they can do. We no longer have to scratch our heads when confronted with a badly labelled patchbay or track down faulty cables, as those things now exist only in the imagination of the host computer. Why is it, then, that I can sit in my own studio and feel fully in control of things, yet when I use a friend's system running exactly the same software, I end up feeling like I've been dumped in an unfamiliar part of town with no street map?
The answer is, of course, that most DAWs now allow the user to set up their own key commands, and using these quickly becomes second nature. So when you use someone else's ostensibly identical system, the chances are that your fingers will still try to do what works for your own system back at home. But when the unexpected happens on screen, your almost automatic relationship with the program is severed and you have to start thinking about your actions rather than thinking about the music.
So what's the answer? Make everyone use the same key commands? I don't think that idea would gain much traction, as everybody has their own way of working, and what might be an invaluable feature to one user may be completely irrelevant to another. There are only so many practical permutations of key commands, so you have to assign what you consider to be key functions to them. I think a better solution would be to allow individual users to carry around a key-commands preference file on a memory stick. Then if DAW companies were to include a button on the main screen for temporarily selecting 'Guest Key Commands', the DAW could look for a memory stick, find the magic key command file and switch the key-command set until instructed to revert to normal.
If that sounds like a simple but useful feature that DAW designers could add if they had the will, dare we dream of a repeat of the level of co‑operation that brought us MIDI? Only this time, the various DAW designers would agree on a 'General' set of common core functions that all DAWs have — transport keys, basic edit moves such as dividing regions and so on — and then support this with a standard-format preference file of the type I just suggested. I could then, for example, walk into a Cubase studio, insert the key command file I set up for my own Logic system and have Cubase respond to the same key commands for that five percent of the feature set that we all use 95 percent of the time. Is that really too much to ask?
Paul White Editor In Chief
Stop Press! Paul White and Hugh Robjohns will be hosting a guest Q&A session at SAE, 1293 Broadway, New York, at 6pm on 20th October. It's free to students and non‑students alike, and all are welcome to come and get answers on anything from Studio SOS, to DAWs, to careers in audio. Don't miss out on this unique opportunity!