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Doing It The Hard Way

One recurring theme in many of my Leader columns has revolved around the excessive complexity of software when compared to traditional recording hardware — by which I mean tape recorders, mixers and outboard gear you could connect using a patchbay. And over the last few years software has, if anything, further increased in complexity, although I've had to revise my hardware/software stance somewhat since we started our Studio SOS features. I think my past impressions were fair when comparing software to tape recorders and analogue mixers, but most of us don't live in that world any more and today's all-in-one recording/mixing/effecting workstations have evolved to become extremely sophisticated, even (or in some cases, especially) those available to entry-level users.

Paul White circa 2002.The level of sophistication these little machines have reached became evident when I encountered a selection of different workstations in the course of setting up the Studio SOS articles, discovering that I couldn't even get some of them into record mode without looking at the manual. It's not that any of them are particularly difficult to operate, but rather the fact they all work in a different way, meaning that familiarity with one model doesn't necessarily help when you come to use another. You only have to compare, say, Roland, Korg, Fostex, Zoom and Yamaha workstations to appreciate how different the operational approach is in each case.

While hardware manufacturers have been beavering away on their own interpretations of the ideal workstation operating system (which is often completely different for each model), the user interfaces of software sequencers have been converging over the past few years. And while they're not similar enough yet for users to make a completely painless transition from one to the other, it doesn't take long to figure out the basics. Commands such as holding down the Alt key and dragging an onscreen element for copying are the same in many music and graphical design programs, the track arrangement tends to be displayed in a similar way between sequencers, and the means of arming a track for recording isn't generally too different either. This convergence of user interface design has also benefited the virtual instrument market, and given the choice between editing sounds on a software synth/sampler or a rack module, I have to say I'd choose the software synth any time.

So what can we learn from this? Entry-level equipment has to have entry-level complexity if we're to get more people interested in recording, which certainly isn't the case at the moment — newcomers to music recording often complain that recording equipment is too complicated. While it's completely impractical to suggest that every audio workstation should have the same style of interface, perhaps there could at least be a consensus on how the fundamental features work, such as recording tracks and setting up a mix. It isn't doing anybody any favours if you have to consult a manual in order to configure a bank of multifunction track-select buttons to work as record-ready buttons. If entry-level equipment isn't designed to be far more approachable than it is right now, how long will it be before people start asking why recording hardware can't be made as simple to understand and use as music software?

Paul White Editor In Chief