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Sounding Off: Simon Langford

To Protect And Serve? By Simon Langford
Published May 2009

For the past two years, I have travelled between my two places of work taking only a Syncrosoft dongle and a portable hard drive with me. OK, it's not a true 'portable studio', because I actually have two Macs, but it makes the process of travelling between the two seamless. Or at least it did...

Sounding Off: To protect and serve?

A few days ago I packed up everything from the UK, got on the plane and, upon my arrival, copied my files over, plugged in the dongle and loaded up the song in Logic. As everything loaded, I was presented with a dialogue box informing me that there was a Syncrosoft "protection error”. I assumed that I simply hadn't plugged the key in fully, so I checked and it was fully inserted. I pulled the key out and tried it in every USB socket on the Mac and then on my PC laptop. Same thing. I downloaded the latest version of the License Control Centre software, for both PC and Mac, and it made no difference!

What then followed was a series of phone calls to the Tech Support departments of Arturia, Korg and Steinberg to see what I could do. I got mixed responses: Antoine at Arturia was an absolute legend and got back to me within an hour with new codes so that I could reactivate their products on my spare dongle. Korg (UK) said that they would do what they could but had to get in touch with the Head Office in Japan to get the OK to do so. I am still waiting. And Steinberg told me that they would happily issue me with new codes once they had the broken dongle.

It was a less than ideal solution. Unfortunately, the track that I was due to work on used plug‑ins from all three companies, so I wasn't able to work on it and subsequently ended up missing the deadline. But the greater issue here is the system as a whole. I understand completely that software companies need to protect their investment in developing the software, and I also understand that we, as consumers, want a system that is both flexible and reliable. But when the system does go wrong, there should be some kind of fail‑safe to prevent you having to wait a week or more to be able to use the software that you purchased.

So what are the alternatives? Well, the fallibility of the Syncrosoft (and iLok) system is clearly seen from my experience. The 'challenge/response' method is much more immediate in the case of an emergency but is much less secure for the software developer, as such systems can easily be cracked. The straightforward serial number system is almost a waste of time for the developer, as can be seen by the numerous serial numbers floating around the Internet. And the final solution is the Universal Audio one. This is probably very secure for the developer but is far from convenient for the user who has multiple machines. Taking out a PCI card and carrying it on a plane to another country is not something I would like to do!

iLok do actually offer a 'Zero Downtime' system designed for situations exactly like this one. It involves the purchase of a second iLok Key and an annual subscription charge of $30. In the event that an iLok key is lost or damaged, you can log on to their site and deposit temporary licenses onto your second key while you take other steps. If the original key was damaged, you have to send it to them to verify that it is, in fact, damaged, before they will re‑issue new permanent licenses. If it was lost or stolen, the process is more complex. But this is basically similar to what I am going through with my Syncrosoft dongle. Yes, it does provide some security, but at a cost. And given that I have already spent quite a lot on software, should I really have to pay to be able to use it in the event that somebody else's hardware fails? I'm not so sure...

So where does this leave us? With all of the technology that we have at our disposal, why is there not an alternative to these systems? Possibly the answer is that, rather than spend R&D budgets on developing a system that has no financial gain, most companies would rather be working on the next 'must have' toy for us tech‑heads. And we appreciate that, really we do — I have an array of vintage synthesizers on my Mac that would cost tens of thousands to own in real life. But sometimes convenience (and time) can be worth just as much to the working musician. So please can you put your heads together and create a new system — ONE new system — that protects your investment but means that I won't miss my deadline next time something like this happens...

About The Author

Simon Langford is a professional songwriter, producer and remixer who, as part of Soul Seekerz, has worked for some of the biggest names in pop music.