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Studio Sense: On ‘Essential’ Software

Is the software that makes making music easier a "monkey's paw?"

Sure, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without Pro Tools for recording and mixing; Peak to batch convert WAV files into mp3s; Dreamweaver to post them to a custom website I create for the artist; and Mac Mail to let them know the mixes are posted. And iChat quickly connects me to a missing session file, sends out a mix, or circumvents FTP altogether. I use Toast to compile the mastered mixes and create a Red Book CD, and the iTunes to check the burn. The iTunes Store provides unlimited sonic references in 30-second chunks.

But get ready for a cliché: The most important piece of software operates between your ears. Think about this elementary example: We were born with the same ears we have now, yet those ears learn over time to make totally different decisions than they would have years before. I’m not just talking about mix decisions.

During a recent tracking session at Odds On Recording in Las Vegas [for PAR’s inaugural “Facility Review” in our upcoming November issue — Ed.] I walked in on what I thought was a familiar “analog vs digital” debate. But Sean O’Dwyer, a house engineer with a deep discography, altered the slant.

To paraphrase Sean, the problem with digital has nothing to do with inherent sound quality, but that it is easier; everybody’s gotten lazy. All the records I like, the ones that stand the test of time, were made decades ago when there were no quick fixes — no grid, no elastic time, no Auto-Tune — all techniques which create musical blandness. A producer/engineer was forced to engage the artist and their music on some personal, intimate level and learn what he or she needed to perform and make it a memorable piece of work that someone somewhere will love and hopefully buy. In short, pre-DAW technical and musical problem-solving created superior outcomes.

Is the software that makes making music easier a “monkey’s paw?” Like anything, software is a neutral tool. When the ready availability of all tools virtual make even swiveling in one’s chair superfluous, we are in danger of laziness. My mixes turn out better when I take the time to reference other people’s great mixes, when I listen on various systems, and when I mix the first day as if it’s the only day. Software, like anything else, can be used for the purposes of good or evil.

Software is limited only by what we can dream up. More software is doing more things. Are we feature-saturated? What more can software do for us? I’m sure the product-developers, with help from end-users, will dream up something to get us closer. Less recording latency will allow performers to respond to the instant of their own performance. Integrated social networking features within a DAW will keep music collaborative even at a distance. DAW manufacturers should make it easier to share sessions across any platform; why can’t I plug in my iLok and instantly use all my software on any capable machine? The mouse is 29 years old, yet still the number-one computer interface; it’s time to incorporate touch screens and other more intuitive interfaces—think Minority Report.

The iPhone is my favorite new interface, and I anticipate its everyday integration in audio production. Standardized audio track metadata could allow for a host of features designed to ease setup and maximize workflow. Though the term, “workflow,” hits below the jargon belt, it implies clearing the way for creativity — amen. And, last but not least, it’s essential that software serving as the very platform for our businesses should never crash.

Software is infinitely flexible compared to hardware — I have dreamt up recording chains that make digital all but the transducer — yet so far, is nothing without hardware to run on. Just when I think I can’t live without my CLA76 or Vintage Warmer, I make a great mix on somebody else’s rig using only the factory plug-ins, or I cut a record live through a Neve 5088 using the DAW as no more than a tape machine while using my head to capture only what’s essential: the moment of creativity.

Alex Oana is an award-winning producer/engineer in Los