Music technology sucks. In the story I’m about to tell, I want to make it clear that I’m not blaming any particular company or software development team. The problems I’m having today are symptomatic, rather, of the entire state of the industry, which seems to be shambling off into a blood-tinged and smoky sunset.
At the moment, I’m attempting to run Steinberg Cubase 5.1.1 in a Windows 7 computer using an M-Audio Fast Track Pro USB audio interface. What I’m finding is that this setup works fairly well — okay, there are little audio hiccups, but nothing I can’t live with — until I try activating more than one stereo output pair from a VST plug-in synthesizer. When I do that, Cubase’s audio output turns into a grinding mess.
Increasing the interface’s buffer size to 1,024 samples (which is far more than should be required with a fast processor) doesn’t help. It’s a software problem — something in how Cubase is attempting to address the buffer of the audio interface driver.
Needless to say, this is not something I can fix. (Footnote: A few days later, the problem has disappeared as magically as it appeared. Cubase is happy to run multi-output plug-ins now. This ought to be reassuring, but it’s not.)
My experience getting a response from Steinberg’s technical support has, of late, been abysmal. They don’t answer the phone, and they don’t answer emails either. But as I said, it’s not just Steinberg. While attempting to set up Cubase to do this project (an attempt that may be foredoomed, and God I’d be mad if I had paid good money for this software), I had occasion to phone the tech support line at Spectrasonics. A voicemail informed me that they were experiencing a high call volume; would I please leave a message, and they’d get back to me within three business days. (Footnote: I left the message on Friday. Today is Wednesday; they haven’t called.)
Three business days for tech support??? What the fuck is up with that? Here again, if I had paid hundreds of dollars for Spectrasonics software, instead of getting it for free, which happens because I write about this stuff for magazines, would I be pissed at having to wait three days? Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment.
I can think of three reasons why tech support may be overloaded and not able to respond in a timely manner. First, their software may be selling like hotcakes, and they may not yet have added enough staff to handle the new workload. Given the state of the economy, that seems unlikely. Second, they may have laid off most (or all) of their tech support staff because sales are slooowww, and they don’t want to fire their software development staff because if they do that, they’ll never be able to reassemble it and develop any new products. That’s a far more likely scenario. Third, they may be getting a high volume of calls because their latest software releases are full of really nasty, hard-to-fix bugs.
Based on my own recent experience, I’d say that’s a fairly likely scenario as well.
Right now, Cubase doesn’t want to host plug-ins with multiple outputs, Ableton Live persistently doesn’t want to admit that any of my third-party plug-ins are authorized, the M-Audio Axiom won’t run in Windows 7 at all, the Yamaha mLAN driver won’t work with a Firewire port that uses the extremely common VIA chipset … oh, and Apple Quicktime is not yet compatible with Windows 7, which means the control bar at the bottom of a Quicktime Player window in the browser shows up as solid black.
And of course the PCI Express card I ordered from Amazon, which may solve several of these problems, hasn’t arrived yet. My experience at the Livermore Post Office is that they sometimes hand packages to the wrong person — on one occasion the clerk handed me a package addressed to an entirely different P.O. box — so I’m hoping the card will show up Monday. (Footnote: The card did arrive. It didn’t solve the problem it was supposed to solve, however.)
When (if…) I get these problems ironed out and have a smoothly functioning system, I’m tempted to lock it down. Just tell all of the magazines I write for, “You want me to write a product review? Okay, send out an intern with a pre-built system, an intern who can stay here during the entire review process in case I need a hand with anything. And while you’re at it, you can pay me ten times as much so I can afford to rent a house with a big enough studio to house the pre-built system you’ll be providing.”
In other words, just stop writing product reviews at all. It’s hard enough to do any creative musical work when I’m just wrestling with my own internal emotional process. When I also have to contend with grinding noises, stuck notes, browsers that can’t find the files I’ve saved, and tech support personnel who, when answering questions at all, make blind stabs about what I ought to do, forcing me to jump through one hoop after another without resolving anything — it’s just too much. It’s just too damn much.