Things That Go Bump

For many years now, my slogan for music technology has been, “If this stuff was any more powerful, it wouldn’t work at all.” Malfunctions are as normal and inevitable as tumbleweeds tumbling across the desert. Some of the malfunctions are trivial and easily dealt with. Some, however, are anything but trivial.

I’d like to have a stable computer system for making music. Boy, wouldn’t that be swell? But achieving that goal is about on a par with gazing upon a tantalizing mirage in the desert and then actually reaching the mirage by trekking across the sand dunes.

Once in a while I start thinking I might like to put together an electronic music set for live performance. Of course I’d need to have a stable computer system in order to do that. I have lots of options, but none of them comes close to being ideal.

Probably the most stable music performance software around is Propellerhead Reason. I like Reason a lot, and not only is it rock-solid, it’s cross-platform. I could use it on either a PC or a Mac laptop — a big plus. But there are minuses too. Reason won’t host third-party VST plug-ins, which means that I would have to do without some of my favorite software instruments. Among them are the instruments I use to play microtonal music. Reason flat-out won’t do microtonal music, and that’s one of my major areas of interest.

As a side note, however, adding VST instrument tracks to Reason is not terribly difficult. Reason can run as a ReWire client within another recording app (take your pick). Just load the VSTi into the host, develop the track, and export it as audio. Then quit both programs, re-launch Reason by itself, and load the audio file(s). If you have to jump through this hoop over and over while working on the music, doing so would get tiresome. But once the other instruments have been converted to audio, you no longer need the host app. Reason becomes a stable, self-contained program again.

But is that the best solution? For one thing, it’s not the right way to do microtonal music. Reason would become a pointless encumbrance in that scenario.

I like Image-Line FL Studio a lot too. It hosts VST plug-ins, no problems there. It’s Windows-only, which means that if I decide I’d like to do a live set, I’d need to buy a new Windows laptop … and I really don’t want to mess with Windows 8. From the reports I’ve read, Windows 8 is a stinker. How much longer I’ll be able to find a new laptop that comes with Windows 7 is anybody’s guess.

FL Studio doesn’t like doing multiple time signatures. It will grudgingly allow you to create music in multiple time signatures, but FL itself will insist on pretending that your piece has only one time signature from beginning to end. I often need to use multiple time signatures, and it’s annoying when FL thinks the bar lines are 3/8 off from where they actually are. Mental arithmetic, anyone?

FL doesn’t export MIDI files properly — it refuses to include controller data in the exported file. Last year I needed to export a bunch of tracks and finish a piece in Cubase, because FL became very unhappy when trying to play the piece. This was most likely because the piece had multiple tempo changes. I use tempo changes less often, but I don’t want to have to go through that hassle again. Also, I’ve noticed that tech support at Image-Line tends to be a bit defensive. At times, they seem to take the attitude that there must be something wrong with your system, rather than considering the possibility that their software might be at fault.

So how about Steinberg Cubase 7? It’s cross-platform, it hosts VSTs, and it’s happy to do multiple time signatures. I like Cubase a lot too — been using it for 20 years, very nice program. But just now I tried launching Cubase and loading a sketch that I recorded last fall (using version 6.5). Cubase crashed. I tried twice, and it couldn’t load that sketch. I have no idea why.

If your creative activity involves working on one studio project at a time, finishing it, and then moving on to the next project, this type of malfunction won’t happen often, and it won’t sabotage you too deeply (unless it happens on a project for a paying client). At worst, you lose one project, and you can usually avoid that disaster by not upgrading your system while you’re in the middle of a project. Upgrade between projects, make sure the new system is stable, and only start a new project after you’re satisfied that everything is working.

But my creative work is not nearly that bolted down. I have lots of sketches lying around. Sometimes I open up a year-old sketch, notice that it has some potential, and decide to finish it. Sometimes I think I’ve finished a piece, but a year later I realize it has a few flaws that I want to fix. At that point I need to load it again and do some more work.

Oh, and in case it’s not obvious, I seldom use audio tracks. Most of the creative work is in the form of MIDI arrangements. Creating audio stems of MIDI tracks is a really good idea when a project is finished, but doing it every day while working on a project would be insane, so I have to be able to load older work and also load the VST plug-ins that play the tracks.

The back-and-forth creative process, reloading old material and reworking it, would be essential if I were serious about doing a live performance set. I have some older pieces that might be very suitable for a concert set. Re-recording them from scratch would be possible, but labor-intensive, so loading the existing files (if I can) would save a lot of time.

If I can’t reload and edit older work, putting together a set (whether it’s for performance or for a CD) is a prospect to be dreaded. Unless, of course, I decide to use Reason and forget all about microtonal tunings. (Grumble, grumble, grumble.)

What’s the solution? I have no idea.

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2 Responses to Things That Go Bump

  1. georgek says:

    I’m guessing it’s not as full-featured as its commercial cousins, but what about LMMS?

    • midiguru says:

      Interesting suggestion. I hadn’t heard of LMMS before. For better or worse, though, I’m spoiled. I did actually pay for Cubase (at a reduced price), but FL Studio and Reason are licensed because I’ve written reviews of and tutorials about them for magazines. The main reason I would go to a free program would be if it gave me features that the commercial programs don’t — a good example being Csound.

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