Last month I wrote about the possibility of synth modules being built to properly integrate with a computer-based workstation, and this month I'd like to explore a similar avenue with regard to external effects processors. Despite all the wonderful plug-ins to which we have access, hardware still wins out in many areas, most noticeably dynamics control, synthetic reverb and mastering devices. If you have spare analogue or digital I/O on your system, then you can patch in an external device or two fairly easily as long as you pay attention to any latency or delay-related issues, and in the case of a reverb box, what's a millisecond or two of extra delay when added to 70ms of pre-delay anyway? However, this solution only works for small numbers of units, and there's still no on-screen control panel to edit the device in question.
What I'm proposing isn't that radical, as TC Electronic's Powercore system has long since established that plug-ins running on external hardware can be controlled and deployed in exactly the same way as native plug-ins. And it doesn't take too great a stretch of the imagination to figure out that what they've done for Powercore, they could also do for their own hardware digital processors in the future if they'd a mind to. However, this could only be a solution for those products designed to be part of such a system, and the number of Firewire ports on a typical computer is fairly limited.
Perhaps a better way would be for interested manufacturers to get together and agree upon or licence a suitable technology to develop a data transfer/control system and connection hub into which a realistic number of hardware devices can be plugged simultaneously. It wouldn't matter who the manufacturer of the hardware was as long as the standard audio/Firewire port had been included in their design. Digital equipment designed to integrate fully with the system would of course have plug-in-style displays and control panels just like 'real' plug-ins. Each new device would ship with a plug-in-like software front end that the user could interact with when accessing the device as a plug-in, enabling settings to be saved in the sequencer song.
Older analogue equipment could still be connected by means of additional analogue I/O port modules (analogue-to-Firewire digital?) and though its controls obviously couldn't be directly addressed via software, it should be possible to at least provide some sort of template display that appears when its particular audio port is called up as a plug-in and where the user can set virtual knobs to the same position as the actual hardware to act as a reminder for the settings.
Of course computer data protocols change every few years, so what happens when Firewire is replaced by something else? The reality is that Firewire will always be fast enough to send and receive a couple of channels of audio, no matter what silly bit rates and sample resolutions are inflicted upon us in years to come. It can even cope with surround and leave capacity to spare. All the real strain would be on the hub that deals with the computer, and if a better, faster interface came along, then you would simply develop a new hub (or interface port for the old one) that uses the new protocol for talking to the computer, yet still talks to your hardware via Firewire.
If this seems to demand a lot of co-operation, don't forget that MIDI did too, and at the time MIDI was introduced, manufacturers of hardware weren't being forced to the brink of extinction by software, as they are nowadays. If the manufacturers of studio hardware outboard equipment still want to be building it in significant numbers in five years' time, then a system similar to the one proposed is the only thing I can see that will keep them in the game.
Paul White Editor In Chief