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PAUL JOHNSON: Computers Vs Hardware

Sounding Off
Published May 1998

PAUL JOHNSON: Computers Vs Hardware

Paul Johnson has made up his mind; once in a while, he is resolved to spurn the seductive charms of his computer. And when it moans and refuses to work properly, he won't be putting up with any of its nonsense. Here's why...

I was struck by a revelation recently. For reasons I'll come back to later, I spurned my state‑of‑the‑art, PC‑based hard disk audio editor and turned instead to decades‑old technology to finish the routine editing job I was working on. With the job completed to an entirely satisfactory standard, it came to me. I felt liberated. I had made a stand (well, a completed master actually). I had given my PC the cold shoulder. Now, I haven't suddenly become a Luddite overnight — that's not the kind of revelation I mean. I'm not writing this by candlelight on a hamster‑powered manual typewriter, and I still intend to do most of my recording on my PC. I just think now that once in a while, it will be good to step out of computer‑aided recording, and get a fresh perspective.

Perhaps this new way of looking at things came to me more easily because of my background. I haven't always recorded on a computer; I left school in the mid‑'70s and worked with lighting and sound in the theatre, recording on Revox and Ferrograph reel‑to‑reels. Later, I bought a Sony TC377 and then a Ferrograph Super Seven for home use. It does say a lot for these reel‑to‑reels that they were virtually unbreakable; one of mine survived a drop down a flight of stairs with nothing more than a scratched case! It was also relatively easy to determine if something was wrong. If a fault developed, you could contact your supplier and say 'it's not working', be asked to press this or try that, and if it still didn't work, the machine usually needed to be repaired; something was very clearly wrong. But time (and recording gear) moved on, and I, like many others, bought a computer for MIDI sequencing, eventually working my way up to a system comprising a PC, Cubase Score and an ADAT. I had no problems locking the sequencer to the ADAT via a JL Cooper Datasync, but in retrospect, this is where things began to change. When I swapped the single ADAT for a couple of the newer XT models, I expected the same sort of trouble‑free upgrade I had enjoyed when I traded in my reel‑to‑reels, but it was not to be. Suddenly, the JL Cooper Datasync was no longer sending data to the sequencer that the latter understood, and my once‑working setup ground to a halt. As it turned out, this was not the fault of any individual item of equipment; eventually I discovered that ADAT XTs simply talk in a different dialect from the original ADAT (I am quite used to this sort of thing, because I live in Suffolk). I bought a DataSync 2, and the problem was solved. But a new era of equipment‑related difficulties had begun, with the common theme of incompatibility.

Item A might be fine, and so might items B and C — they just wouldn't talk to each other. And, as it wasn't a question of repairing a specific fault in either A, B, or C, suppliers now behaved differently, too. If you bought A, B or C at different times and/or from dealers A, B and C as well, then hard luck; item C could hardly be dealer A's problem, now could it?

I must confess that my next step didn't exactly improve the situation; after reading all the press on the subject, I decided you were no‑one if you didn't record to hard disk, and bought a soundcard, which came bundled with a basic MIDI + Audio sequencer (rather neatly, I thought at the time). I am not really into instructions, but, prudently mindful of potential difficulties, I followed the blurb on installation and recording word for word. Did it work? Like hell it did. Windows 95 kindly informed me the card was working, but the sequencer coolly refused to talk to it. A number of other bits of software did, but not the one supplied with the card. In the end, a plea on an Internet user group prompted a reply from a bloke in Australia who'd had exactly the same problem. He suggested (bizarrely, I thought) un‑installing and then re‑installing in a particular sequence; to my amazement it worked.

This story, of course, is typical; sadly, it seems entirely possible for separate computer‑related products to function happily on their own, but not when asked to co‑operate. But my point is this; we all seem to put up with silly problems like these on computer‑based equipment that we simply wouldn't tolerate from other types of gear. If we bought an expensive microphone and it didn't work when we plugged it into our mixer, we would probably complain sharpish and get a replacement, or our money back. But we're often prepared to spend hours on helplines or scouring FAQs on the Internet for the solution to our computer/hardware incompatibility problems, during which time, frequently, we will be unable to record a single note of music.

Of course, computers are capable of wonders when they do work; but that, I think, is exactly why we shrug off so many of their flaws when they don't. If we can prevent ourselves becoming too entranced by the bells and whistles they offer and keep our minds on what we're really trying to do — record music — I think we'll get much more done. So, anyway, there I was, with all this running around my head, and an editing job to finish quickly. Suddenly, my PC ran out of disk space and I didn't have the time to back anything up to another drive. So I dug out a reel of quarter‑inch tape, some splicing tape and a razor blade, and finished the job in no time on my 20‑year‑old Sony TC377. And it sounded great — so there!

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge CB3 8SQ.

Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address.