The software revolution hits a snag.
The software revolution continues unabated. Or at least, there's more of it available now than there's ever been, as this issue's quota of reviews shows. Three programs, two of them entirely new packages from across the Atlantic, the other an updated version of an established British affair, come under the scrutiny of E&MM's reviewing team in November.
In the pages that follow, Simon Trask examines how the UMI 2B has been improved over its predecessor, the 1B; Ian Waugh revels in Passport's best scorewriting program yet; and Trish McGrath celebrates the arrival of an American Commodore-based package that offers some truly novel facilities — then finds herself regretting that the system, from the Syntech Corporation, isn't yet available this side of the pond.
To an extent, the proliferation of MIDI software packages - most of which are intended to take the place of a dedicated sequencer — is reflected in an increase in the number of computer systems used by today's musicians. The UMI system (the British package mentioned above) now numbers Tears for Fears, The Cars and Vince Clarke among its professional users. And the company that markets UMI, The London Rock Shop, has now sold over a hundred systems.
But when you bear in mind just how much more comprehensive so many computer programs are by comparison with their dedicated counterparts, their impact thus far has been fairly limited. Demand for dedicated machines is still buoyant, despite some huge price discrepancies, and the fact that almost all 'software-in-a-box' machines are less friendly to use than their competitors from the home computer world.
Part of the reason for this lies in the sheer logistic awkwardness of a computer-based package. If you're in a gigging band, or just someone who carries their gear about a lot, having to transport synths, software, computer, disk drive and monitor everywhere is a major hassle. You could get most of it onto a seat in the cab of the Transit, but the chances of it staying there over the first three bumps in the road are slim.
Then there's the fact that home computers, not being designed for life in the sedate surroundings of a recording studio, let alone the hurly-burly of a concert tour, have a well-deserved reputation for breaking down at awkward moments. That's also true of dedicated instruments that use similar technology (and these days, that's most of them). But somehow, it always seems easier to get a Yamaha sequencer fixed than it is to find someone to go troubleshooting inside a Commodore 64.
But if I had to give the single biggest reason for software's current failure to make big inroads into the sequencer market, I'd point the finger at the retail end of the chain.
Let's face it. If you work in a High Street retail shop and space and time are at a premium, the last thing you need is someone waltzing into the shop and asking for a demonstration of some sequencing software.
It's complex and time-consuming to set up, difficult to explain properly, and at best, only going to end up with a sale that's worth the shop perhaps £25 or £30 in pure profit.
That's a shame because, as I've said, software packages offer an awful lot in the way of useful facilities, whether you're a musician without enough hands to play what you want to play, or a composer without any playing ability in the first place.
I get the feeling that if software is to become as widely used as it deserves to be, the people who market it are going to have to build in even more facilities, make it even more straightforward to use, and give it a more professional (ie. higher) price-tag.
UMI's success proves that musicians will part with significant sums for their software, so long as the system they get in return does the job. And why not, when dedicated machines of similar power still cost four times as much, and when a small business (which is what a pro band is, after all) can part with ten times as much for a business software package?
In his appraisal of the UMI 2B, Simon Trask points to the fact that it's probably the last of the great eight-bit music software systems. It stretches its host computer (the erstwhile BBC B) to its limits, and much the same is true of similarly comprehensive packages based round similar micros like the Commodore 64 and the Apple.
Try to build in any more complexity, and you're looking at 16-bit micros like the Apple Macintosh — something a number of US software houses have already done with some success. When the new generation of affordable 16-bit computers — spearheaded by the Atari ST and Commodore's Amiga — become generally available, music software will get more convenient, more user-friendly, and more sophisticated than ever.
But don't be surprised if the new-generation software comes a little bit pricier than the current stuff. Because for it to be marketable, it'll need backup from an enthusiastic dealer network that knows its cut is going to be worthwhile. And because, despite the democracy-spreading price reductions of contemporary music hardware, a lot of musicians still equate pounds with performance.
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