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Sounding Off: Hi-tech Disposables?

Jim Aikin By Jim Aikin
Published December 2003

We live in a throwaway culture. But should this extend to the hi-tech instruments we play?

Would you buy a disposable violin? Perhaps. More to the point, would you buy one and put thousands of hours into learning to produce a beautiful tone with it, knowing that when (not if) it's inadvertently stepped on or left in a taxi, you'll have to replace it with a disposable clarinet, because violins are no longer being made?

Sounding Off: Jim Aikin portrait.Don't answer too quickly. Assuming your studio includes any digital music-making equipment at all, that's exactly what you've been doing. It's what we've all been doing.

Musicians using Opcode Studio Vision (and that includes some very high-profile professionals) got a wake-up call a couple of years ago when Opcode abruptly shut its doors and laid off the programming staff. Studio Vision was orphaned — and along with it, years of painstaking creative work stored in the form of Studio Vision files. The files still existed, as did, at the time, computers and software capable of playing them. But Studio Vision will never be upgraded to work on newer Macs. Keeping a three-year-old computer in the closet in case you need access to your archives is one thing; keeping a 20-year-old computer around, assuming it still works, is enough to tax the patience of any studio owner.

While the Studio Vision debacle is the only major technological disaster that has struck musicians so far, it's not unique. I've read that NASA is no longer able to read some tapes containing data from the early Mars landings, because the programs used to interpret the data have been lost. Closer to home, Native Instruments inexplicably chose to cripple Reaktor v4's ability to read files created in earlier versions of the same program — the files can only be read if the earlier version of Reaktor is installed on the same drive. I haven't asked them why. I plan to, but in some sense their answer will be irrelevant. When Reaktor v4 users switch to a new computer operating system in which they can no longer install their old copy of Reaktor v3, any files they haven't had the foresight (or the free time) to convert will be lost forever. I'm aware that Native Instruments have offered to convert files for their customers. But what if they, like Opcode, were to shut their doors?

There are no perfect solutions to the problem, but there are some imperfect steps you can take. If your creative work relies primarily on notes rather than on sounds, you can print out scores. For most of us, that's not a viable option. Scores don't typically contain instructions like, 'raise aux send 2 to -11dB here'.

Some real progress has been made in developing a universal file format (AES31) for DAWs that contains information about the placement of audio clips, automation data, and so on. But I'm running the latest version of Cubase SX, and as there's no mention of AES31 in the File menu, I'd have to say support is still far from universal. In any case, what will happen when a mix relies on plug-ins that are no longer available?

Ideally, music software developers would come to their senses and join the Open Source movement. But don't expect that to happen any time soon. It would mean, if not economic suicide, then a fundamental restructuring that few businesses are eager to undertake. Eventually, Linux music software may (or may not) become mature enough that musicians will start crossing over in large numbers, but the longevity of their creative work is not usually uppermost in people's minds when choosing a platform. Access to great sounds is the sine qua non. (Look, I don't care if the neck is going to snap off next week. It's a Stradivarius!)

If you truly want to be able to go back to an electronic music score 20 years from now and tweak the filter parameters or the effects send levels before burning a new master, I can tell you how to do it. Csound supports a number of advanced forms of DSP, and the source code is widely available. The probability is high that, if computers exist in any form in 20 years, you'll still be able to load, run, and freely edit a Csound score file you create today. Unfortunately, both composing and developing synth voices in Csound require you to type reams of computer code, the very antithesis of a spontaneous, intuitive, user-friendly experience.

For better or worse, we live in a disposable culture. Musicians may not care very much that their inspiration and hard work will be available to future generations, if at all, only in the form of CD audio. For those who do care, score paper is still widely available. But I can't help feeling it devalues my creativity to know that if I should have a hard drive crash next year, the instrument I'm working so hard today to master may well be gone forever.

About The Author

Jim Aikin is earnestly attempting to enjoy living on this planet, in spite of the obvious difficulties that buzz like gnats around the process. He has written hundreds of product reviews and tutorials for a variety of magazines, mainly Keyboard and Electronic Musician. He is the author of several non-fiction books as well as fantasy stories/novels. Jim teaches cello privately in Livermore, California.

Published December 2003