When your studio just won't co‑operate and there's no‑one to turn to, the pool of knowledge and expertise offered by fellow web users can be a life saver. Chris Carter investigates troubleshooting on the open‑all‑hours Internet.
We've all been there. You've been recording all day without a hitch, but now your gear's going wacky, your MIDI's muddy and your sequencer's all icky. And to make matters worse your favourite 'tech support' line has gone home and your knowitall geeky mate is down the pub, all things technical just a hazy memory.
Well, apart from hi‑tech Voodoo (sadly, not always guaranteed to work), probably your only way out of trouble is via the tangled web that is the Net. But where do you begin? You could always type 'MIDI problem', or some such phrase, into your search engine and stand back while hundreds of totally irrelevant references scroll past... Or you could take a more methodical approach to finding help on the web. To that end, I'm going to explain a few possible options and point you in the right direction for some DIY troubleshooting.
Common areas where problems arise are communications between MIDI hardware instruments and software sequencers, conflicts between software and sound cards, and that general computer malaise, 'known bugs'.
These issues can be more than just an inconvenience if your livelihood hangs on your sampler refusing to sample, or your PC deciding it's had enough for the day. Take even the briefest look at most discussion forums and you'll see the scale of the problems in these areas. But it's not all bad news, as there's often someone, somewhere with a solution or workaround you've not thought of.
The first port of call if your problem is specific to a particular software program is the manufacturer's web site. Many manufacturers have very extensive sites, often with helpful pages on troubleshooting, also offering FAQs and software and driver updates. Some have links to related sites that may provide further support. It's also worth visiting manufacturers' sites in other countries, not just the UK, as occasionally sites of a manufacturer's overseas arm or distributor (say, in the USA, Germany or Japan) may have more up‑to‑date information and software. Most of these official sites have email links, so visitors can contact the company with queries — but don't hold your breath waiting for a reply.
If your problem is platform specific, and you baulk at the thought of paying anything between 50p and £1 per minute for the premium rate helpline support that some well‑known PC manufacturers charge, troubleshooting the DIY way is an obvious and cost‑effective solution.
Unlike Macs, PCs are made by more than one manufacturer, and tracking down the necessary information to tackle a particular troublesome PC can be fairly time consuming. A good starting point would obviously be the manufacturer's web site, but independent help sites such as www.windows‑help.net and www.helponthe.net have useful forums and extensive, searchable archives of Windows and PC hardware problems.
For Mac users, probably the biggest and best independent site for hardware and software problems is www.macfixit.com. It includes daily news updates and bug reports, discussion forums, information archives, and a library of useful utilities. The Apple site (www.apple.com) also has an extensive technical library and a very useful discussion forum, and is constantly posting system software updates and bug fixes.
If you are encountering problems with, or need advice on, obsolete or vintage (a term which now seems to include both pre‑MIDI and early MIDI gear) equipment, there are a few good specialist sites to look at. Until recently, one of the best was www.synthfool.com, but this has, sadly, shut up shop. www.vintagesynth.com, with masses of useful information regarding specifications, interfacing and troubleshooting, is now probably the one most worth visiting.
For more general music‑ and recording‑related problem‑solving and advice, a good starting point is our very own revamped SOS Discussion Forum (www.sound‑on‑sound2.infopop.net). This is a web‑based forum for posting questions and answers and is an excellent source of shared information, covering such topics as Recording, Music Technology, Music Software, MIDI, making music with computers, Digital Audio, Sequencing, Hard Disk Recorders, Microphones, Monitors, Mixing, and many other subjects regularly covered by this magazine. As with all discussion lists, if your problem isn't covered just post a message asking for specific advice.
The Yahoo‑owned eGroups (www.egroups.com, formerly called OneList) has hundreds of dedicated music‑related discussion groups covering everything from individual (and specific) synthesizer lists to home recording and MIDI. Admittedly, some groups are quite small, with only a few members and little activity, but some of the larger and more dynamic lists boast hundreds of members and are an invaluable source of information, troubleshooting tips and general good advice.
Users of popular programs (such as Logic and Cubase VST on both platforms) and instruments (from companies such as Korg, Roland, and Yamaha) are well catered for on eGroups, and some lists even include a few industry and insider figures as contributors and members. This occasionally means that opinions and issues that have arisen in discussions about bugs and 'features' actually get back to the people who write the programs.
Joining an email‑based discussion group is useful if you often encounter technical problems or need advice outside normal 'technical support' working hours. These groups have been around for a few years now and were first covered in depth in SOS September 1999. Their recent growth, particularly eGroups, has been huge and there are now thousands, covering everything from firearms to flower arranging. Recording, MIDI and computerbased music are particularly well supported, and many popular software and hardware products are often covered by more than one group.
It's very straightforward to join a discussion group or list, and no special programs are needed. All that's required is access to the Internet, a browser to get you signed up, and email facilities. Once you've subscribed to the chosen group or groups, you can usually opt to receive email messages from the list as they are posted by other subscribers, or as a daily digest consisting of one large email containing all the day's messages. Alternatively, you can choose to only read the messages on‑line using your browser.
When you send a message to the group list, it is automatically sent to all the other subscribers on that list, sometimes via a moderator, usually the person who started the list. The moderator, if there is one, will check for things such as abusive or inflammatory remarks and unnecessary attachments, which are all frowned upon. Your message will usually appear on the list within an hour or so, often much sooner, and it can be surprising how fast you get a response (depending on the complexity of the question, of course). I've had worthwhile responses to fairly obscure technical questions within a couple of hours — a lot quicker than some of the major manufacturers' support lines have ever got back to me.
The vast majority of responses appear in the group list for everyone to read, but some individual subscribers may wish to ask or tell you something not directly connected with your original message (this is sometimes called off‑topic, or OT) and may reply directly to your email address, bypassing the list altogether.
It's worth bearing in mind when sending a message to a group that it's going to be placed in the public domain, and could be read by hundreds (or even thousands) of people. It's good practice not to include your postal address or your phone number, unless you are prepared for the possible consequences — uninvited visitors, or calls in the middle of the night from chatty Americans. I speak from experience!
If you get some useful replies to a post and manage to fix your problem or get the advice you were looking for, it makes sense (and is good manners) to send a message to the list or individuals thanking them for their help. And once you're subscribed to a discussion group, pass on any hints or tips of your own to other users experiencing problems — share your knowledge.
The Net can, at times, seem like an almost bottomless pit of trivia, but with a little measured resourcefulness you can find someone who has the information you need to get your gear working as it should. Having said that, if all else fails... what was that Voodoo chant for resurrecting a dead hard drive again?
Help with music production problems.
www.egroups.com/group/atari‑midi All things MIDI on the Atari ST and Falcon.
For Cakewalk MIDI + Audio recording software.
Dedicated to Cubase VST on the Mac.
www.egroups.com/group/CubaseVSTG... Cubase VST troubleshooting.
www.egroups.com/group/logic‑usersEmagic Logic, cross platform.
All things Roland.
Roland DR5 rhythm unit.
Yamaha O1V mixer.
www.egroups.com/group/akaidps12 Akai DPS12 HD recorder.
Analogue synths in general.
Vintage synth repair advice.
All Korg N‑series Synths.
Korg MS2000 analogue modelling synth.
Korg D8 HD recorder.
Emu ESI and Emulator samplers.
Dedicated to software synthesizers
One of the best multiple‑topic music–related forums.
A vast catalogue of electronic music mailing lists, covering subjects ranging from Brian Eno to DIY synth building.
Very active Emagic Logic forum.
The official Cubase VST forum.
Mega site covering most synths and samplers. Offers extensive links, a bulletin board and an archived discussion forum.
Clearly laid‑out newsgroup with a searchable index of postings. A basic search came back with 6000 pages of MIDI references.
Useful forums covering mainly Yamaha equipment.
Forums for Yamaha A‑Series samplers.
Some useful links to various music‑related mailing lists including: Alesis QS‑series synths, Christian MIDI music, 4‑track Newbies, Roland HD recorders, and more.
Probably the most comprehensive vintage synth site on the Net. Includes extensive links to other related sites and copies of original instrument instruction manuals.
The best Apple Mac troubleshooting site ever.
The number one site for keeping up to date with the latest Mac software.
The place to go for help with Windows 95, 98 and 2000.
Free PC online support and forums.