Rescue Operation

This is not — repeat, not — an anti-Yamaha rant. In my experience, the folks at Yamaha operate in a consistently ethical and reasonable manner. At the moment I’m wrestling with their gear and feeling quite frustrated, but the fact that it’s Yamaha is more or less a coincidence. It could be any manufacturer.

The saga began about three years ago. I had reviewed the Yamaha Motif XS for Keyboard, and was so impressed by it that I bought it. As I had sold my other hardware synthesizers during that same period, the Motif is the only hardware synth I own.

For many years, my main sequencer software was Steinberg Cubase. Because I worked at Keyboard, I almost never paid for any of the music software I used, and that was certainly true with Cubase. I had what’s called an NFR (not for resale) license.

At some point Steinberg was acquired by Yamaha. Among the effects of this acquisition was the possibility of tighter integration between Cubase and the Motif. This is handled via a Firewire connection, which Yamaha called mLAN. (mLAN itself is now obsolete, I believe.) When I bought the Motif, I also bought the optional mLAN board, so I could integrate it with Cubase. When working properly, this is a sweet setup. Cubase operates the Motif using Yamaha’s Studio Manager software, and the Motif also does the audio I/O chores. Audio from the Motif can be flown into a Cubase track at mixdown time with just a few mouse-clicks. If only all music production was so easy!

Using this gear, I did a bunch of arrangements of pop songs. I have the audio mixes of those songs, and I also have the original Cubase project files. Recently I decided I would like to edit the arrangements further, make them a little more provocative.

In the interim, I had purchased a new computer. Despite yeoman efforts on the part of Yamaha engineers, both in L.A. and Japan, we were never able to get the mLAN connection working properly in the new computer. I got intermittent but frequent data dropouts — audio glitches and missing MIDI notes. The system was unusable, so I was forced to give up on the idea of using the Motif/Cubase setup as an integrated workstation.

Not too long afterward, one of the managers at Yamaha/Steinberg decided the company had been doling out too many NFR licenses. A new policy was put in place: Your NFR license expires after 120 days. They’ll give you a new license — you only have to ask. But it’s a hassle. More important, as I explained to them, I was not willing to do any creative work in a software platform that would stop working at some point in the not too distant future. Given the vicissitudes of corporate policy and corporate well-being, I couldn’t trust that I would have ongoing access to my data. I would have to switch to different software — and the result would be that I would be less familiar with the features of Cubase. Because I write product reviews and other articles for music magazines, my migration away from Cubase could and probably would negatively impact Steinberg’s coverage in these magazines. I explained this to them. They were unmoved.

As Cubase is their property, they’re certainly within their rights to use whatever guidelines they feel are appropriate for NFR licenses. The fact that this policy puts them distinctly in the minority (I have permanent NFRs from Avid, Native Instruments, Spectrasonics, Propellerhead, and numerous other companies) is irrelevant.

Nevertheless, I switched to Image-Line FL Studio. It’s more than a bit quirky, but I’ve grown to love it. To be honest, I wouldn’t go back to Cubase now if Steinberg changed their policy and gave me a permanent license.

But now I want to redo that three-year-old music. Oh, dear.

Getting a new 120-day license from the new guy at Steinberg turned out not to be a problem. He emailed it to me, I launched the eLicenser software, and now Cubase will boot. The problem is, I can’t just edit the music in Cubase, because in a few months the license will expire, and then I’ll have uneditable data again. No, in order to be able to work on the music in the future, I need to extract the data from each Cubase song and import it into FL Studio.

There is no magic button you can press that will accomplish this. The process is a little more convoluted. Update: However, it’s less convoluted than the original version of this post indicated, because the Motif Editor software will run as a VSTi within any VST-compatible host, which is very convenient. The process works like this:

Launch Cubase and load the next song. Go to the Studio Manager/Motif Editor window and save the Mix data as a separate file. Clean up the project file by deleting muted parts and so on. Export the MIDI file (a one-click operation, thankfully).

Quit Cubase and launch FL Studio. Import the MIDI file. Instantiate the Motif Editor as a VSTi, and load the Mix file. For each Motif track in FL Studio, enter the volume and pan data into the MIDI Out Generator using the little knobs in the Generator panel. This step is necessary because FL Studio will transmit volume and pan when playback is started, thus overwriting any volume and pan settings that may have been saved in the Mix on the Motif.

At this point, the song will play. Hooray! Maybe a few details need to be cleaned up, but it’s there. One more step is needed, however. In FL Studio, the entire song is now one long pattern. Before I start to edit it to improve the music, I have to slice that pattern apart so as to end up with one pattern containing the intro, a second pattern containing the first verse, and so on. This takes only a couple of minutes, as FL Studio has a couple of very useful tools for just this purpose.

Even so, multiply this process by 25 songs and you’ll have some idea how happy I am this morning.

And of course, some of the projects I’m transferring use other instruments besides the Motif. Transferring that data turns into a sophisticated exercise in guesswork.

Looking down the road, one might ask, what will happen the next time I switch to a new computer? What if FL Studio has been discontinued? Then I’ll have orphan data again. I’ll have to power up the old computer, extract the data from FL Studio, copy it to a USB stick, load it into the new computer, and finagle it into whatever program I’m using at the time.

This is an important, though not always acknowledged, side effect of using new technology. Just about everything obsoletes at a rapid pace. This is why the Kindle doesn’t interest me, for instance. Using one might be convenient, but do I really want my book collection stored on a device that may break? Stored in a format that may not be compatible with some other reader hardware that I want to acquire in the future? No. My books are made of paper, and I like it that way. As long as there isn’t a fire or a flood, those books will still be readable in a hundred years, long after I’m gone.

The good news is, I’m enough of a tech-head to handle the details of transferring the songs to FL Studio, and the universality of the MIDI File standard is a total blessing. I’m looking forward to doing some new work on the material. Just as soon as I get done pushing this boulder up the mountain.

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