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Paul White: Hard Disks, Transistors, Esoteric Software

Sounding Off By Paul White
Published September 1995

Paul White: Hard Disks, Transistors, Esoteric Software

In his inaugural speech to celebrate the opening of this new column, Paul White proves he can rant with the best of them...

As is immediately apparent (because I am most definitely not a celebrity record producer!), we are in the process of changing the format of our closing page. From now on, this page will take on the role of an open letter to product manufacturers or industry institutions, where professional producers, engineers, musicians and SOS readers can air their views on product design, services — or indeed just about anything connected with the music and recording business. To get the ball rolling on this column (whose working title, you may be interested to know, was The Ranter), I'll set out a few of my own pet whinges, just to get you into the mood.

By no means at the top of my list is the continuing insistence of some manufacturers to emboss the rear panel legend on equipment cases, rather than print it. It all started off as black on black, but I've also seen (and bought) examples of beige on beige, which isn't a great deal more legible. This reprehensible practice is particularly prevalent in the keyboard, computer and budget sound module market, where a lot of plastic gets used, and I find it quite unacceptable that I should have to use a halogen torch or a gynaecologist's illuminated headband just to find out which socket is MIDI In, and which is MIDI Thru.

So, what else irritates me — apart from the occasional considerationally‑challenged SOS reader who phones me up on Sunday night after I've gone to bed, and asks me which of two competing reverbs he should buy the next weekend? Well, I don't much care for computer manufacturers who tell me that a minor raster fault on my black and white monitor can only be fixed by replacing the entire circuit board, which costs — yes you've guessed it — almost as much as a new black and white monitor. And no, they won't let you buy a circuit diagram to fix it yourself. When you do finally manage to track down an engineer who's savvy enough to actually find the fault without any technical help other than a forked hazel twig and half a joss stick, the company in question refuse to sell you the replacement transistor! Far be it from me to mention any names, but the monitor in question is named after a fruit that I hear is very popular in cider making! If you buy something as basic as a monitor, you should have an automatic right to service information — and how 'green' can it be to chuck away the entire inside of a unit for the sake of a 50p transistor?

You may not be surprised to know that there are several other things that wind me up, and high up the list are software designers who continue stuffing new and esoteric (and memory gobbling) features into their products without paying any attention to those facilities that the user actually needs. For example, I use a well‑respected, and admittedly very good, hard disk recording system, but when I first used it to do a commercial job, three of the features I needed weren't included, even though they were so obvious that I never even dreamed that they wouldn't be in there somewhere. On calling the manufacturers, I was told that nobody else had asked for them — yet these things were so basic that anyone doing dialogue editing would expect them. This situation would surely be unthinkable in other industries — just picture the following unlikely telephone conversation:

"Excuse me, I've just bought a car — yes, the electric windows, CD player and air conditioning all work fine, but I can't seem to find the brakes or steering wheel in the manual — or a reverse gear come to that."

"Ahh, yes — we're thinking about putting a reverse gear in the next software upgrade, but frankly, there's no real demand for the other features you've mentioned."

The same hard disk recording package also sits happily pretending to record material for as long as you like, and after waiting an hour to input a client's album, you press the stop button, and up pops a dialogue box to tell you that you ran out of hard disk space 56 minutes ago, because the system defaults to your internal drive and you didn't remember to change it. (Parkinson's Law states that no matter how big an internal drive you have, there will only ever be 4.9Mb of free space on it.) Why couldn't it have given me that information an hour ago, when it ran out of space? Why does it have to wait until I've wasted an hour watching it? And why can't it warn me when a client slips me a 44.1kHz DAT tape with a couple of 48kHz tracks in the middle somewhere?

This time, I haven't named names, but I'm sure that future contributors to this page won't be so reticent to point the finger at the cause of their misery. Before I go, just one finale whinge; when the Apple keyboard was designed, who was the mindless loon that placed the Help key next to the backspace key? About every quarter of an hour, you go to delete something, hit the wrong key, and then have to sit gnashing your teeth as reams of uninvited Help text crawls down the screen at the pace of a slug with arthritis! I want that man found, and I want him bound, chained and subjected to a year of listening to readers' demos over particularly nasty loudspeakers. That'll teach him to mess up my life!