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Sounding Off: Brave New World?

John Savage By John Savage
Published March 2006

This reader ditched all his old synths and hardware in favour of a shiny new all-singing, all-dancing Music PC and soft synths. Does he now regret the decision? Read on...

Looking back, my old studio was a mess. I was forever tripping over pieces of kit, and if I forgot to switch on the air-conditioning, it became damnably hot in there. There were racks of equipment, numerous keyboards, a large analogue mixer, and dedicated hardware boxes such as effects and routers, as well as the inevitable miles of trailing cables. My creativity was at a standstill, and the studio itself was an impediment to the frictionless path between inspiration and adoration. I had to do something about it. So I did. I sold the lot.

Sounding Off: Brave New World?

That might sound extreme, but it wasn't. I had just bought a new 3GHz dual-Xeon PC, and I had started to experiment with software synths and effects. I realised that to achieve fame, fortune, and unlimited offers of guilt-free sex, all I needed was a couple of processors, a bucketful of RAM, a controller keyboard, and software. Smart!

The problems began after I sold my analogue synths. I purchased all the latest software emulations, and although each worked in isolation, they didn't like co-existing with one another. I was so surprised by this that I did something that no male likes to admit to. I read the manuals. I discovered that Softsynth #1 required all the power of my mega-computer, leaving nothing for Softsynth #2.

I called technical support. 'Why', I asked, 'does your synthesizer require enough computing power to run most of the world's financial institutions?' 'Ah...', they replied, 'the filter emulation is the thing. And the oscillator emulations. And the modulation busses. Especially when used polyphonically.'

Now, I'm not a programmer, but I remember when you could cram a decent flight simulator into 32KB of RAM and run it on an 8-bit processor. Nowadays, the same game requires the processing power of the Boeing 747 that it purports to emulate. With this in mind, I suggested to the disembodied voice that Softsynth #1 was bloatware.

I had expected a vehement denial, but I received an excuse instead. I am, apparently, a consumer. What's more, I'm very demanding. I want everything now, and I want to pay next-to-nothing for it. To achieve this, the manufacturer has to produce products as quickly and cheaply as possible. This leaves no time for software optimisation. So if Softsynth #1 needs a gigbyte of RAM in which to swim, and teraflops of processing power for sustenance... well, no matter. Moore's law ensures that, sometime in the next 18 months, the necessary PC will be available for under £1000 at the local computer emporium.

Unfortunately, I couldn't afford to wait a year and a half. In fact, I couldn't wait a week and a half. So I bought a second computer. The results were magic. Freed of the shackles of inadequate processing power and the conflicts of incompatible device drivers (whatever they might be), Softsynth #2 leapt into life in a way that had previously seemed improbable.

A few weeks later, a similar thing happened. I was running a suite of the latest plug-in effects when the studio was filled with a burst of noise that would have woken the dead, had there been any lying around at the time. On this occasion, I was told, the problem was something to do with a lack of processing power and 'running out of real time'. Fortunately, I had a powerful laptop and a 24-bit USB/audio interface to hand, so I installed the stand-alone version of the effects software on this. Again, the problems disappeared. OK, so this wasn't as handy as having everything in a single, integrated environment, but using the laptop eliminated software glitches and, with the addition of a small digital desk, I found that this configuration allowed me to route everything very flexibly.

Things continued to progress in this fashion, with additional computers installed to run power-hungry soft synths and samplers, but a turning came when I was trying to install the latest Deutscherübersynt onto one of the PCs in the studio. Its dedicated controller needed a spare USB socket, of which there were now dozens. Unfortunately, the synth wouldn't talk to any of them if other devices were plugged into the same PC, so I nipped out to buy a dedicated USB hub for it.

Returning to the studio, I opened the door, walked in... and tripped over a piece of kit. Picking myself up, I realised that I had left without switching on the air-conditioning, and that it was damnably hot in there. I looked at the racks of PCs, numerous monitors and keyboards, a large digital mixer, dedicated hardware units such as keyboards and MIDI controllers, as well as the inevitable miles of trailing cables. 'Oh Brave New World that has such equipment in it', I proclaimed. Then I cried.

About The Author

John Savage runs BNW Studios, where he lives with his lovely wife, Lenina.