When Computers Go Bad

This week my main music production software, Image-Line FL Studio, has started crashing. It crashes (sometimes, but not always) when I try to load the piece I’m working on, and usually takes the computer down with it. Twice this week I’ve seen the Blue Screen of Death.

Before you Macintosh hotshots start taking potshots, I should perhaps explain that FL Studio is a Windows-only program. It’s also extremely powerful. Not free of quirks, to be sure, but over the past two or three years I’ve gotten very comfortable using it. I would rather not switch to a different program.

Not only would I have to learn a different user interface, I’d have to port my current project over to the new program. This would mean launching the project several times until it succeeds in loading, then exporting about 100 short MIDI files, then importing them one by one into the new program, parking each of them on the bar line where it belongs, and also recreating a few automation moves that aren’t in the form of MIDI data, and so can’t be exported.

Sound like fun? No, that does not sound like fun. And having tried it briefly, I’m saddened to report that when FL Studio exports the content of a single track within a multi-track pattern as a MIDI file, it fails to save the blank measures at the beginning of the track. This makes the process of reassembling your work in another program, even if you’ve made meticulous notes as I did, needlessly difficult. This snag arises from the fact that the developers never actually think about what you’re going to want to do after you export the file. My goodness, why would you want to extract the data from our wonderful program and import it into our competitors’ program? Perish the thought!

We’re all at the mercy of our creative tools, but some tools are more susceptible to collapse than others. If you’re directing plays, you’re at the mercy of actors who don’t show up for rehearsals or forget their lines. A painting is fragile not so much when it’s made as afterward, when a careless mover can punch a hole in it by turning a corner. A novel is far less fragile, as long as you make backup copies, because the data is portable and doesn’t place any strenuous demands on a computer.

Maybe I should go back to writing novels.

It’s possible that tech support will be able to iron out the problem with FL Studio. I sure hope so. But over the long haul, I’m not awfully sanguine about the viability of this type of creative tool. For one thing, you’re at the mercy of the software industry as a whole. If Image-Line suffered the kind of clueless pillaging currently under way at Sibelius (which is owned by and is now apparently being destroyed by Avid), FL Studio probably would never be updated to work with the next version of Windows.

For now, Image-Line appears to be robustly healthy. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to diagnose what’s going on in my computer. Software manufacturers can’t possibly test all of the possible configurations users may employ. This piece is using three instances of Native Instruments Battery 3, each of which loads a mess of audio samples. Possibly Windows is having memory management issues with those samples, even though there’s still plenty of free RAM. The problem may, in other words, be coming from a Native Instruments program, not from FL Studio at all. In that case, porting the project to a different production program might not fix the problem, because I’d still be using three instances of Battery.

I used to use Steinberg Cubase. Maybe I ought to go back to it. I downloaded the 30-day trial version, started importing the MIDI files from FL Studio into it … and within an hour or two encountered an edit window (the front panel for Spectrasonics Stylus RMX) that was blank. I closed and opened it again. Still blank. After I saved the file, quit Cubase, and then restarted it, the edit window opened up the way it’s supposed to, but how can you trust a creative tool that gives you a blank edit window at all, ever, let alone within two hours after you start using it?

Oh, and you’ll love this. Figuring maybe Cubase failed to load the graphics for the edit window due to a memory allocation problem, I did a little research. A 32-bit program can address only 2GB of physical memory, which means that some of my 6GB of RAM is going to waste. So I installed the 64-bit version of Cubase 6.5 … and it refused to run almost all of my plug-in synthesizers. In fact, it crashed when I asked it to register them. No backward compatibility there. The product specialist suggested that I update the plug-ins, but of course some of them may not be available in 64-bit versions at all. And why should I spend hours updating software in order to deal with a problem that the Steinberg software engineers should jolly well have fixed before they released their 64-bit version? Don’t ask me, ask them.

I’ve looked at switching to PreSonus Studio One as well. When I open up a piano-roll edit window on a MIDI part in Studio One and hit Ctrl-A, about 90% of the time the program fails to select all of the MIDI notes. Even after I click in the edit window to make it the active window, the command fails. Do I want to fight with the software to make it select all, when I’m in the throes of having an inspiration No, I do not. I mentioned this issue to the PreSonus product specialist today, and he tells me he has never encountered or heard of the problem.

It’s not that I think he’s lying. I’m sure he’s telling the truth! His software does not operate in my computer in a way that he has ever encountered, and he’s a full-time expert. That’s the underlying issue, and I don’t think it’s resolvable. I find myself suffering pangs of nostalgia for Dr. T’s KCS, running on the Atari ST. The Atari was one platform, not dozens of them, and it only ran one process at a time, with nothing chugging along in the background. KCS ran no third-party plug-ins — it was entirely written by Emile Tobenfeld. I’m sure there were a few bugs, but when you turned on the computer, you knew what you were going to get in the way of functionality.

That was then. This is now.

Maybe I’m having issues because the OS in my PC is more than two years old. Maybe if I uninstall and reinstall everything (a job that would take days), the system will run smoothly for another two years. Maybe. Do I want to spend several days engaged in this hideous task in order to find out whether I’ve fixed the problem? No, I do not.

Maybe I should buy a new PC, install all of my production software in the new PC, test everything, and then lock it down. Never update any of my programs to a new version, never connect the computer to the internet, never use the machine for reviewing software products for magazines. That might be the smart move. But if I’m going to do it, I’d better do it soon, because Windows 8 is about to ship. When a new OS ships, software vendors have to spend months ironing out compatibility problems.

Hell, the compatibility problems in my existing system have never been entirely ironed out. The M-Audio Axiom 61 (another fine product from Avid) drops eight notes out of the first sixteen every time I turn on the computer. M-Audio’s driver software has never been updated, AFAIK, to fix this.

I can live with it, though. There are minor problems, and then there are fatal flaws. If your music production software crashes the computer three times out of four when you try to load your new, unfinished piece, what are you supposed to do? As an artist, I mean. You have a creative idea, and you just plain can’t work on it because your tools have gone south. I could record a new bass line today and then maybe I wouldn’t be able to play it back tomorrow. This uncertainty is not conducive to a creative state of mind.

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