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Sounding Off

Pollution

Martin Russ worries about software pollution and wonders if we can look forward to 'green' software.


I am not very fond of sequencers. For someone who has written several reviews of them and is a committed software-based sequencer user, that sounds pretty damning! Let me explain. As I see it, most software packages intended to do sequencing are designed from the viewpoint of the recording engineer, rather than the composer or performer. Tape machine analogies are all very well if you think in those terms, but I tend to be much more concerned about the music. Take, for instance, the wrong note I just played on that solo - was it in the third chorus or was it at 022:02:01? Depending upon which answer immediately struck you as the most obvious, you are either a musician or a technician respectively.

This is more important than you might think. Look at the number of people who still use the very successful Roland MC500 hardware sequencer to help produce their music. When you ask them, they often say that they prefer using it because it is a 'musical' tool, not just a piece of fashionable and desirable high technology. The currently available software sequencers are powerful and easy to use, but are they musical? What features make something 'musical'? Here are a few of my thoughts...

Trackman uses track-based sequences of tape recorder type groups to provide a drum machine based phrase approach, but uses real-time control over the volumes of the tracks with a mixer-like approach to give a very usable interactive user interface. Iconix can use the MIDI Controllers on your master keyboard to control frequently used actions, like playing the sequence or stopping it. Creator and Notator let you say to an imaginary second bass player: "Play the same as the first bass player, but an octave up and slightly later," by employing 'ghost' tracks to re-use some of the information already recorded in a slightly different form, and even lets you save a song to disk whilst still playing it. Each of these actions has one thing in common - they all happen in real time. The nod which you give to the drummer to tell him that the solo is coming to an end is another example.

The real world operates in real time - obvious but worth deliberating upon for a moment. Anything which gets in the way of something happening straight away is a delay, an interruption to the creative flow. If no sound came out of a guitar until about 10 minutes after you touched a string, you probably would not use it. Many pieces of software keep popping little boxes onto the screen which ask you if you are sure you want to do something, and will not allow you to do anything else until you tell them! Many synthesizer workstations, like the Yamaha V50 for example, shut down everything in the audio section whenever you access the disk drive. It can take a couple of minutes to load a complete song off the disk, whilst you patiently wait - silently tapping the dead keys in frustration no doubt!

Many of these irritations exist because the software is designed to make things easy for the person who wrote the program, not the user. The problems that arise as a result of this are the software equivalent of pollution - it is much easier to dump chemicals into streams than it is to dispose of them safely, just as it is easier to let the program stop the sequence playback whilst the disk drive is accessed. The Green party is popular in the current political climate - but when are we going to see people demanding that the manufacturers clean up their software and its associated hardware?

Where software pollution meets musicality is decided when you try to determine who is the boss. If the software makes you wait when it accesses the disk, or says 'Are you sure?' and waits for an answer, it certainly seems to be the computer that is in charge. In everyday life, one expects the musician to be in control of his instrument, and not the other way around - we all laugh at the 'insurance claim' stories where people report that "a tree suddenly appeared in front of the car," because we all know that it was not the tree that was moving but the driver and his car!

When something is musical, it often seems to be in harmony with the user. Part of the fascination of watching a live musical performance is the interplay between the musician and his instrument. Good, 'green'(!) software should be just the same — it should become an extension of you, instead of a demanding tyrant. In most cases where you find software pollution, it could easily be solved, but this would cost time and money to put right - which is why we see such a proliferation of 'toxic' software. Be warned: now that you are aware of this pollution you will probably find many examples in your own equipment - so be prepared to write to the manufacturers and tell them to clean up their act! Who do you want to be in charge - yourself or the software?

So why choose 'sequencers' in particular as the subject of this article? Most people have used a sequencer and so are familiar with the sort of examples I have given. But much more importantly, the sequencer is probably the single most-used piece of software in any MIDI-based studio, with perhaps patch editors next in popularity. When you become familiar with something over a long period of time, you will either warm to the benefits of good design or you will begin to hate the poor aspects of the design. Because I have searched for some time for a sequencer which meets my own criteria for ease-of-use, flexibility and intuitive use, I am particularly sensitive to the large number of polluted pieces of sequencing software - but I am happy to say that at least one manufacturer (Intelligent Music) is coming close to what I really want. Perhaps I may get a 'green' sequencer after all!

Technology is beginning to show us some of its true power. But unless this is tempered with an understanding of what the user really wants, then we may see a world where software pollution will really hamper further progress. In the software and hardware we are using now we may be prepared to put up with the problems; but as the complexity increases, we may reach the stage where only a small and dwindling group of people can actually cope with the demands of the software. When I say 'demands', it sounds as if the computer is in charge - well, it may be, unless you do something to stop it...



Martin Russ used to fix broken ARP synths for a living but now has a 'real' day job working for British Telecom Research Laboratories. By night he is a prolific contributor to this magazine.

If YOU have something you wish to get off your chest that concerns the hi-tech music/recording world, then write it down and send it off to us. (1300 words maximum please, and include a photo if possible.)



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The Music Network


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Aug 1989

Opinion by Martin Russ

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> The Music Network


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