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Where Now?

If you've read up on what was shown at NAMM earlier this year, you might wonder where there is for the industry to go next. As always there was a wealth of new products, but from what I saw it was almost all evolutionary with very little, if anything, in the way of revolutionary. In other words it was the usual mix of more features for the same or less money. From that follows the question, "What more do we actually need?”, but that's a tough one to answer because very often we don't know what we need until we're shown something that we never even considered before. There have been several such milestone technologies over the past three and half decades, including MIDI, tapeless digital recording, DAWs, automatic pitch-correction and spectral editing software. We take all of these for granted now, but when I first started out using multitrack analogue tape machines — a time when computer memory was measured in kilobytes, not gigabytes — it never crossed anyone's mind that one of those green-screened 'fancy typewriters' would eventually evolve to take the place of an entire recording studio, including its outboard racks.

It was the same with MIDI. We were shown that, by using a simple DIN cable, we could play on one keyboard and the synth across the room would play the same notes. Everyone's first instinct was to say 'So what?', but when it became clear that this same MIDI data could be recorded into a computer, edited and played back later using any sound source, the world of contemporary music changed forever. The MIDI sequencer's ability to edit and, perhaps more importantly, to quantise timing would cast its shadow over contemporary music until the present day. Inevitably, computers got faster and cheaper, so the addition of audio recording and sample playback came as no surprise, though Steinberg's introduction of the VST plug-in standard was a true landmark in DAW evolution.

Move on a few years and a new 1U rackmount box with Auto-Tune written on the front panel turned up on my desk for review promising automatic pitch-correction. Magically enough, it seemed to work, though you had to be careful with the settings otherwise this horrible robotic yodelling noise came out of it. Who'd have thought that as many careers would be built on exploiting the robotic yodelling as on the unit's ability to apply subtle pitch-correction?

Much of the latest generation of 'impossible magic' is based on spectral analysis, a mathematical tool that has given us audio restoration software capable of removing unwanted noises from performances, polyphonic guitar tuners, vocal processors that follow the guitar chords, and software such as CAPO that can 'listen' to a piece of mixed music and then write out the chords for you. Where this versatile branch of technology will take us next isn't certain, though as computing power increases, it is likely to get faster. Some things we can guess at, such as software that deconstructs mixes to allow things like easier automatic drum or instrument replacement, but my guess is that the next big thing will be something we don't even see coming. Meanwhile, a device to locate all those missing plectra would be nice.

Paul White Editor In Chief