Driver, Putter, Wedge

Since almost nobody actually reads my blog, I figured I’d tell the whole story without too much tiptoeing through the tulips. The story is, I’ve been asked to write a review of the new Steinberg/Yamaha music production suite for Keyboard, and I’ve spent the last two days trying in vain to get the driver software to produce a steady stream of audio output from the computer. Hours of wasted effort; no results.

I want to emphasize that I believe the Steinberg/Yamaha team when they tell me they have hundreds of users using this set of hardware and software, and nobody else has encountered this particular problem.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Jim Aikin had unique experiences of the music technology kind. Sometimes the experiences are the result of user error. I could tell you a few truly embarrassing stories. Other times I’m just trying stuff that none of the beta-testers thought of trying, and I’m finding real bugs. Still other times — and here we get closer to the nub of the present case — there’s something about my computer system that causes mysterious malfunctions to dance around like little red gremlins waving pitchforks.

I’m reviewing Cubase 5, Steinberg’s flagship audio/MIDI workstation software. I’ve been a Cubase user for 20 years, and I like it a lot. Some of the new features are just awesomely magnificent. (Pick up a copy of the July issue of Keyboard and find out.) But as part of the review, Steve Fortner asked me to write sidebars on two new hardware add-ons, the MR 816csx audio interface and the CC121 control surface, which are designed to integrate with Cubase.

Having been down this road a few times with hardware/software reviews, I should have known better. But, you know, I like Steve, and I like keeping my name visible in the music magazines, and I can use a few extra bucks. So I said, “Sure.”

The MR 816 has, I would have to say, a very nice feature profile. Eight mic pre’s, zero-latency monitoring, and hardware effects that show up in Cubase as VST plug-ins. I was hoping to just hook it up and start recording.

Whenever a piece of hardware is plugged into a computer, some sort of device driver has to be installed. I have the impression that the Mac is better than Windows about providing nice clean drivers as part of its system. For better or worse, I’m using a Windows XP machine for my music computing needs. It’s a swell machine — fast Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, XP Home SP3, hardly ever gives me a speck of trouble.

Except that I’m getting these huge audio dropouts every two seconds when I listen to the music through the MR 816’s audio outputs.

To repeat: Nobody else is having this type of problem with the MR 816. The folks at Yamaha/Steinberg tell me that, and I believe them.

I download and install the latest driver updates. No luck. I download the firmware update program for the hardware and run that. No luck.

One Steinberg tech tells me the problem is that I have the MR hooked up to a 4-pin Firewire jack on the laptop. He tells me I need to use a 6-pin jack. The Steinberg product manager later says that’s not true — he’s running an MR 816 through a 4-pin jack without problems. He, in turn, suggests to me that the problem is that I’ve installed Cubase on an external USB drive. He speculates that the system is having trouble shuffling back and forth between the Firewire audio driver and the USB path to Cubase. So I spend half an hour juggling files so I can uninstall Cubase and install it again on an internal partition. Shortly after which, yet another Steinberg guy tells me he has run an MR 816 with 48 tracks of audio streaming off of an external USB drive, so that can’t very well be the problem.

Besides, I get dropouts when I ask Windows Media Player to play an mp3 through the MR 816, with the external USB drives turned off. No, it isn’t where Cubase is installed, and it isn’t that the USB devices are hogging system resources.

We’ve checked to make sure my wireless connection is turned off. We’ve looked in Device Manager to find out what IEEE 1394 chipset is in the computer. One of the Steinberg guys took over my computer by remote control to try to diagnose the problem. No luck.

I have a Cardbus card that’s supposed to provide three 6-pin Firewire ports. Trouble is, I can’t get it to work. When I plug the MR 816 in through that card, the system can’t see it at all. But since, in theory, the 4-pin jack should be okay, I’m not going to put a lot of time into trying to diagnose that particular problem.

Meanwhile, the CC121 is still in its box. I’ll be darned if I’m going to touch it until we get this mess sorted out.

I’ve got some incredible music software on this computer — synthesizers like Omnisphere, Alchemy, Zebra2, and Reaktor. Oh, and let’s not forget Thor, which is part of Reason. At the moment, I can’t listen to any of them, because the audio output bus is spitting up.

The point of having great software tools is that they’re supposed to inspire creativity. When I find myself getting furious at my computer, something is very wrong. Wrong not just technologically but spiritually. Life is just too short for anybody to put themselves through this kind of wringer.

Thanks for listening.

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2 Responses to Driver, Putter, Wedge

  1. Nadia says:

    I don’t know whether this is good news or bad news, but I read your blog pretty regularly.

  2. Maus says:

    After almost 6 months use with no problems whatsoever, I am experiencing the same as you. Bottom line is, there is something in the make up of your laptop that screws up the realtime audio for the steinberg. I am seriously considering change to a FF800 since no solution is available.

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