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Sounding Off: Software Instruments

Mark Wherry By Mark Wherry
Published December 2007

Software instruments are great, if you can set them up...

I recently found these great instruments. They load up instantly, seem quite reliable, are fairly easy to use and sound pretty good. Where can you get them from? Well, the truth is, you probably already owned them — about 20 years ago. I'm talking about hardware synths.

Mark Wherry.

In truth, I personally wouldn't want to return to what some might describe as yesterday's studio: plug-in instruments have provided more flexibility and general-purpose computer processors have afforded better quality. But the one thing about hardware instruments that's undeniably far easier than today's plug-ins is simply setting them up. Just take the synth out of the box, plug in and switch on — even ignore the registration card without fear of repercussions!

Now let's consider installing a commercial plug-in instrument. It comes in a box and might require a dongle to run, except usually there's no dongle in the box. Rather than supplying one, the manufacturer kindly invites me to buy my own, since I'm obviously going to want to buy more products from them in the future. How thoughtful of them to help me avoid ending up with all these extra dongles that I wouldn't need; after all, they never break and there's no reason I would need a spare.

So I install the software, and the copy-protection drivers — only the drivers I just installed are older than the versions of the same ones I already had on my computer for another product, so now some of my other instruments don't work any more. Not to worry; I'll simply download the appropriate new version from the copy-protection developer's web site — if I could only find the software. On the download page they seem to feel I'll be more interested in reading a white paper on their product than downloading it.

Just when I think I can finally play with my new plug-in, it's time to register — which is like playing Russian roulette. If I'm lucky, I'll get to spend half an hour creating an account (or trying to find my old account information), registering the product, and trying to prevent the program from creating a user forum identity for me and bombarding me with product news for the next 10 years. However, most of the time, before I get this far even the registration software requires an update; and then, when it's updated itself, chances are that the server will be down and I can't register anyway, which is when I find out the manufacturer didn't provide a grace period, and no, the product really must be registered before it will run.

While I've merged many experiences into my description, I'm willing to bet that none of these observations will be unfamiliar to you. Although there can be many problems once the plug-in is running, it's incredible how hard developers have made the process of just getting it to run in the first place. I'm not against copy protection — developers have a right to protect their intellectual property — but what's happened, particularly in the VST and Audio Unit worlds, is that every manufacturer feels compelled to solve the problem in their own way. This would be fine if the only products I used were from one company, but of course this isn't the case.

What I would love to do is get some host and plug-in developers together and force each one to purchase and install a hundred plug-ins chosen at random. After that, they would be invited to reorganise the plug-in folder by category instead of company (if we were using Cubase), before being asked to repeat the whole process on a laptop, since it's not uncommon for musicians to have a mobile rig as well. At this point I'm sure most of them would rather be giving an elephant an enema without the aid of rubber gloves, and yet as users we're expected to deal with this problem almost every time we buy a new product.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that there's no technical reason why the situation cannot be improved. There's nothing to stop manufacturers getting together and streamlining an approach to copy protection and upgrades, and providing a system that would store plug-in registrations and make it easy to re-install the software on my computer if it crashes, or I need to perform a second installation on my laptop. It's just that none of them want to. Or, as users, we'd rather accept the hassle than pay a bit more for each plug-in, so that such a system could be paid for. Still, I'm not willing to accept the blame as a user until the developers have at least made an effort!

About The Author

Mark Wherry was Davy Jones' organ double in Pirates Of The Caribbean, and found the extra tentacles particularly helpful when playing the Schuebler Chorales.