Despite current economic woes, this year's NAMM show was extremely upbeat. (Visit emusician.com for video highlights from the show floor.) The manufacturers had an overall positive attitude, and there was a dizzying amount of new products. Sure, many of these companies have to release something new, if only to boost sales enough to survive these troubling times. But there were plenty of hits at the show.
EM's editors are like kids in a candy store at NAMM. Between meetings and press conferences, we spent our time texting each other with pictures of cool stuff, and then preparing blog and newsletter material. Once we returned, there were videos to edit, convert to Flash, and upload. Today's technological marvels help us get the job done quicker than ever before. Yet for me as a musician, each NAMM show brings up existential issues about computers, software upgrades, and music making. Let me explain.
I have a theremin from the '60s, a Fender Stratocaster from the '70s, and analog synths from the past 40 years. I know them inside and out. Yet I don't use a single software instrument, effect, or sequencer that is more than a decade old. Of course, I use a rev of a few applications that have been around at least that long, but the original versions are still on one of the many legacy computers parked in my garage, few of which will actually boot up anymore.
As much of a hassle as upgrades are, ostensibly they let us get more out of a software product, whether it be higher-resolution audio, more voices, or deeper editing features. We accept upgrades as a fact of life. Why?
With a hardware instrument, you have to replace strings, heads, reeds, cables, or whatever as these parts wear out. But in the computer-music world, the entire system gets replaced with alarming regularity. It seems like we're just renting the software for two to five years at a time, at best. If that's the case, let's do it the right way when technology allows, with something akin to the Software as a Service (SaaS) cloud-computing paradigm, like Google Apps.
Before the personal-computer revolution, we bought an instrument or processor and used it for decades. Now, we feel blessed when the soft synth we've been using for five years (if our computer lasts that long) is supported in the next OS or, conversely, when the new version runs on our old computer. In fact, it's a lucky day when a major DAW rev happens around the same time that a new OS becomes available and when we already have the computer horsepower to handle both.
About every five years, all three line up against me and not only do I have to purchase a new computer and my core apps, but I also have to spend hours loading and registering them. (That's time away from music making.) Then I cross my fingers and hope that the update plays well with the USB dongle for my soft synths. I'd almost rather go through another week of tax preparation. Will someone just hand me a guitar?
Now that I think about it, I have as many guitars as I do legacy computers. The difference is that I can still use each of the guitars.
Don't get me wrong — I enjoy using music technology. But I also want to make music. I don't want to constantly debug my system, nor do I want to learn a new software interface with each upgrade: time spent hunting down an important feature hidden under a new pull-down menu is wasted creative time.
I respect the hard work done by programmers over the last quarter century; we've come a long way in a short amount of time. But I'm looking for a musical instrument in the most basic sense — one that I can spend the rest of my life playing, not reconfiguring.
In a nutshell, I'd like the next generation of software music tools to be inspiring and to stay completely out of the way of the creative process. I want them to be intuitive, conflict-free, hassle-free, and, most important, plug-and-play. And I want to be able to pass them down to my children, just like my Strat. Is that too much to ask?
I look forward to hearing your comments.