I have just returned from yet another audio trade show, brimming with new and exciting recording equipment and software, and although there were several things that had me reaching for my credit card, I've come to realise that what I really value is simplicity and audio quality rather than yet more features. For example, the automatic OS software updaters that come as part of operating systems like Mac OS X and Windows XP make it easy to update software relating to the OS itself, but what I'd really welcome is a similar system that would check on all my music software, look on the corresponding web sites and then call up the appropriate updates automatically. Naturally this would require a certain degree of co-operation between companies to make it work, but perhaps the major 'dongle' companies such as iLok could act as nodes for sending out the update requests on behalf of their customers? If this is in any way feasible, then surely it would persuade more people to use iLoks, as the simplicity of updating would be a major attraction. After all, it can take up a significant part of your life checking around various vendors' web sites to see if there are new and relevant updates, so to replace this tedium with a single button called 'check my music stuff for updates now' or similar would be a real bonus.
Another area that I feel is crying out for streamlining is the sequencer, and though I wouldn't promote the removal of any features, I would venture to suggest that for anyone recording multiple audio tracks at one time, there is a very obvious page missing from all the major programs. All the mainstream sequencers have an arrange page, a mixer page, an event list and a piano-roll editor, and most offer score editing, but none that I know of offer a basic 'record page' of the type I feel is needed. By this I mean a page that offers the simplicity of a tape recorder for tracking and overdubbing, complete with meters, track arm buttons and auto-locate points. Each track's Level control should be visible on this page for setting up a basic monitor mix and a nice graphic of tape running around to show when the 'machine' is recording wouldn't go amiss either.
At the tracking stage, simpler is better, so designing this page to look and behave like the software equivalent of an ADAT with gapless drop-ins (both manual and auto), would be an ideal starting point. Not only would this make the program more accessible to those musicians who inherently mistrust computers, it would also benefit the rest of us. This simple paradigm could usefully be carried over to other entry-level recording packages, because although we already have simple programs such as GarageBand and Traktion, they still look like sequencers and not like the 'Portastudios' or tape machines that most musicians started out on. As it stands, if you're recording a band, you're probably still better off tracking on hardware and then porting the session over to the computer for mixing, but I really hope that will change.
Turning to the issue of recording quality, that is something that money can buy, and as with most other areas of recording, the cost is falling. If you're serious about making good-sounding music, then choosing really good audio converters is one of the best investments you can make alongside decent microphones, preamps and monitors. Basic acoustic treatment wouldn't go amiss in most home studios, either. You really have to hear the difference in quality between systems to appreciate it, but once you've heard the best, it's very difficult to make do with 'OK'. Most audio systems are sufficiently open-ended to be expanded in some way, especially those built around software, but at some point you need to take a long hard look at what you have, identify the weak links in the chain, then replace them with something better. Simply adding more bits to a mediocre system isn't going to do you any favours.
Paul White Editor In Chief