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August 4, 2011

Tech Gear Roulette

Filed under: Hardware, Software — Tags: , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 8:50 am

Live by these 7 rules if you want your budget to survive technological changes.

I met Billy Bumluck at a video store in the early 80s. We were both proud owners of new VCRs; he was browsing in the Beta section, I was looking at VHS. “You use VHS?” he asked. When I nodded, he said “Too bad, man. Beta is the only way to go — better picture, more reliable, and it has Sony behind it. Your VHS machine will be a doorstop next year, so enjoy it while you can!”

We talked a bit more, and I found out he was a guitarist and technology fan, so we kept in touch. A couple years later, I got a call. “Hey, you gotta check out this new Amiga computer! It has separate chips for graphics and audio, does sampling better than a Fairlight, and has some great games.” So I went over to his house, and sure enough, it ran circles around the Macs, Ataris, and PCs of its day. “No more Beta mistakes for me,” said Billy. “This baby’s made by Commodore, and considering they’ve sold 6 million Commodore-64s, I don’t think they’ll be going out of business any time soon.”

Well, after the Amiga died, Billy had enough. “Okay,” he said, “I’m getting a Mac. There’s a fantastic program called Vision, it’ll wipe the floor with your Master Tracks Pro. It will be the perfect complement to my Sequential Circuits and Oberheim synthesizers.” And for a while, it looked like Billy made the right choice, especially when Opcode added hard disk recording to MIDI sequencing. “Craig, nothing’s going to stop those Opcode guys. No one else is doing hard disk recording and MIDI, I’d buy stock in them if I could.”

 

Then Opcode was sucked into the BHDC (Black Hole of Dead Companies). Billy was pretty shaken this time, and had heard stories of Apple going through problems. So about a year ago, he decided to switch to a PC. “There’s a billion of ?em out there. This is one standard that won’t die on me.” I told him Apple wasn’t going anywhere, but he was adamant. “Nope, no more obsolete stuff for me, and no more little companies. I’m going out right now and getting Logic Windows!”

 

Billy never was the same after Emagic dropped Windows support. Last I heard, after his savings evaporated with the collap

se of Enron and Worldcom, he went to a back-to-nature commune in Montana, with no electricity or television. Oh yes, and with an acoustic guitar to replace his Yamaha G10 MIDI guitar.

There’s a little of the Billy Bumluck magic in all of us. My Commodore CDTV sits alongside some other ill-chosen relics of technology past, each one representing a costly mistake. But they seemed like such good ideas at the time…

 

With technology changing on a seemingly daily basis, you don’t just buy gear any more — you have to be a soothsayer. How can you protect yourself? How can you stay ahead of technology and bankruptcy court? Here’s the scoop.

 

Rule #1: You will Make Mistakes

Resign yourself to it. If huge companies can make mistakes after spending zillions of dollars on focus groups and product research, so can you. Maybe you got sucked in by the ads, maybe you just got taken by something that didn’t pan out. The object is to minimize these mistakes so they don’t devastate your checking account.

 

Some people end up with Purchasing Paralysis, where they won’t buy anything out of fear that something better is coming around the corner. Well, something is, so get used to it. The secret to avoid getting burned is not to lose money on an investment.

 

For example, suppose you bought an original, 16-bit Alesis ADAT for $4,000. As you sit mousing around with your shiny new DAW, that might have seemed like a mistake. But if you did projects on it that earned you $10,000, it was a wise investment indeed — you more than doubled your money (better than what you’d get from a bank, for sure).

 

Always consider return on investment (ROI). I was debating whether or not to buy a Minidisc when it first came out, because they were pretty expensive back then, and the survival of the format was in question. But I did, and wrote enough articles about MD and how to use it that I made money on the deal. MD could disappear tomorrow, and my buying it would not have been a mistake.

So the question is not “Am I buying something that will become obsolete?” because you know that you are. The correct question is “Can I amortize the value of this investment before it becomes obsolete?” If buying something will make you more money than not buying it, get out the checkbook. Simple as that.

Let’s take a look at the other rules to follow…

Rule #7: The best way to cope with technology is to put it in its place

I have a hammer that’s 20 years old. I’m sure that since then, the metals used in them have been improved, the handles have become easier to grip, and the weight is now distributed more ergonomically. But you know what? It drives nails just fine.

 

My main hardware synthesizer is 16 years old. My DAT deck is a TASCAM DA-30 (the original one). Then again, I have some fantastic soft synths, and two flat screen monitors. The point is, I don’t let technology rule me (“You have to buy a better DAT, you must go surround”). I rule technology: I pick and choose those things that are going to help my music.

 

I also either jump in as an early adopter, pay the premium price, and milk something for all it’s worth, or get in on the tail end of a technology when it’s proven, reliable, and inexpensive. I bought one of the first Panasonic DA7 digital mixers, and now you can buy them on blowout at a fraction of what I paid. Do I mind? Not at all: I’ve gotten so much use out of it, and made so much off of projects done with it, that not buying it would have been a major mistake.

 

I’ll leave you with this: when it comes to technology, you’re the boss. Fulfilling your needs is all that should matter. Good luck making the right choices!

To read the full article see: Tech Gear Roulette

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April 9, 2010

Music Making with a Computer (Part 1)

A computer to make music? Sounds great. Which computer should I get and with what specification? Good question. But first things first: what is a computer and how does it work?

Computers revolutionized the way we work, regardless of what you call work: music production, accounting, management. Can you imagine having to write your CV with a typewriter (carbon copy included) instead of a text editor? Of course you can’t. The same applies to music recording and producing: it’s hard to do it without a computer… You’ll certainly find vintage fundamentalists here and there, but we all have to resign to the fact that all songs released these days have been processed in one way or another with a computer before they hit the market – even if just because all formats are digital nowadays (CD, MP3; except for the DJ and Hi-Fi freak vinyl niche market).

It is indeed still possible to record an album with a good, old multitrack recorder, and to enjoy that special sound character a tape provides, but you have to admit that it requires a lot of time and money (service, tapes, etc.), and thus it is an expensive hobby for the rich. Unless you are Jack White or Lenny Kravitz or you have enough money to rent Abbey Road for three months to edit tapes with glue and scissors, you’ll have to make do with a computer to make your music – like 99% of home studio owners and sound engineers.

What’s the purpose? With a suitable interface and software, you can control all sorts of electronic MIDI instruments (synth, sampler, etc.) and virtual instruments, you can record and mix audio with all necessary effects… What’s more, you can save as many variations as you want, repair mistakes and enjoy the wonders of cutting, copying and pasting; live or in the studio. And all of that for a ridiculous price, considering what you had to pay to do the same 30 years ago.

In short: you need a computer! Ok, but which one? Mac? PC? With which processor? And what hard drive? How much RAM? But, most importantly, how can I choose from the options available if I don’t know what a CPU is or what does RAM do?

Don’t panic! We’ll help you get things straight…

Computer Parts

Regardless of whether you have a Mac or a PC, computers generally work the same, all the more ever since Apple started using Intel processors. The difference between these two platforms resides mainly in the operating system (Window, Mac OS X, Linux, etc.), their design and the software available. It doesn’t matter if you decide to assemble your own computer or buy a pre-assembled model by a given manufacturer, a quick overview of the different parts of a computer will be very useful in order to understand their roles…

CPU

The CPU (Central Processing Unit) or microprocessor, is often compared to the brain of the computer because it manages all calculations. Considering that all data passes through the CPU, its processing power is of utmost importance for the overall performance of the computer. When it comes to audio, for example, it processes a reverb effect while displaying the graphic user interface and manages all other computer instructions (data keyboard, etc.). To use a musical metaphor, you could say it’s the musical conductor of your computer

Basically, a CPU is a small silicon square on which several millions of transistors are assembled: over 60 million on a Pentium IV and more than 731 million on the Core i7 thanks to the continuous progress in miniaturization. More cells in the silicon brain provide more power, but the number of transistors is not the only factor: the processor design and its speed also come into consideration.

The faster the CPU, the more calculations it will be able to process in a given time. This speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz). When a CPU is clocked at 2 GHz, it means it can process two milliard cycles per second. But what is a cycle? Good question! To keep it short and simple, let’s say that a cycle is a basic calculation, like adding two numbers. Multiplying two numbers takes several cycles and dividing them even more. Why? Because a CPU is extremely limited compared to the human brain. But it is extremely fast and the user can’t really notice it, which gives the impression that the machine is more intelligent.

But keep in mind that this clocking frequency is only theoretical because, in real life, our processors rarely work at full capacity. Why? Because they are slowed down by other components like RAM (Random-Access Memory). Furthermore, increasing CPU frequency is not the only nor the simplest way to increase a computer’s power. In fact, the latest CPU generations have improved their architecture implementing multi-core processors.

A multi-core CPU is a chip including several processors connected in parallel. You can find dual-core (two cores), quad-core (four cores) and even octo-core CPUs (eight cores).

By using this technology, it is now possible to improve the processing power without increasing the CPU clock, thus avoiding heat generation problems due to higher speeds.

Nowadays, these types of CPUs (mainly dual-core and quad-core) are mounted in all computers on the market regardless of whether it is a Mac or a PC.

Now let’s take a look at some other parts…

Conclusion

Now that you have been educated on the basic parts of a computer and what they do, in the next article we will deal with the specific setup choices available to have a computer ready for making music. And you can trust us, there are plenty of choices…

To read the full detailed article see:  Making Music with a Computer

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