By Dave Foxx
A couple of months ago, I posted an article online that said, “playing on the cutting edge means you’re in serious danger of getting cut…badly.” I then went on to describe my adventures in upgrading to Pro Tools 11 and how it was probably a bad step to upgrade so soon after a major release update. Having read the post, a friend of mine dropped by to commiserate a few days later. He has a pretty magnificent home studio, which he spends a LOT of cash on every year, keeping it right on the hairy edge of technology. While we were moaning and groaning about technology creep, another friend with a home studio called and she ended up joining the conversation.
The three of us know a producer who is exactly the opposite. This producer recently built a brand new studio with a rather extravagant budget, all centered around software that has long since been completely out of date. The company that released it went out of business over a decade ago! The three of us were aghast at this technology Neanderthal’s insistence on using cranky, old software that hasn’t been on a virtual software sales shelf for a long, long time. Its measly 32-bit architecture was all the rage back when many of today’s young stud producers were still in middle school. We weren’t even sure how this producer acquired a copy of the software.
After we all went back to work and I’d had a chance to think about how quickly technology advances in this field, I remembered a fellow demonstrating the Orban DAW at the NAB Spring show in Las Vegas back in the late 90s. At the time, I was doing demonstrations on Pro Tools for digidesign in another booth and he would come by and heckle whenever I was doing my presentation. He would call out that hard drive technology simply wasn’t fast enough to keep up on a really top-notch DAW, like his. Orban’s system was completely RAM based, which made it blindingly fast (in those days) compared to any of the HD based systems. That also meant that the longest piece of production you could ever do was 9 minutes of stereo, 18 minutes of mono. For most radio applications that was pretty OK, since we generally work in multiples of 30 seconds. However, if you were doing feature work, like an hour-long countdown or even a half-hour public service program, you were simply out of luck. When I asked about this shortcoming, he blew it off like it simply wasn’t important to the day-to-day radio producer.
Shortly after that, I clearly remember flying up to a client station in Boston to try out the Orban DAW. I wanted to spend some quality time on the system without having a paid huckster glossing over shortcomings and hyping the hype. After 3 hours, I came to the conclusion that he was partially right. The hard drive tech of the day needed some advancement. His system really was wicked fast, but there was no room for third party plug-ins, only a limited number of tracks and if you suffered a crash mid-session, you were totally screwed because crash=empty RAM. Unless you had just saved your session, you had to start over. (Oh, there was no auto-backup either…dumb design flaw.) The sure knowledge of 20/20 hindsight tells me that his system was short sighted. The day-to-day radio producer would benefit greatly with a chop and serve program, but there was really no thought given to the future.
I think the single biggest design flaw though was in the concept they were pitching. Orban’s assumption was that radio producers were, in the main, dumb and would never need the tech a studio producer needed. Orban designed a system that matched the present day needs of your average radio producer. Even the hardware, which was an integral part of the DAW, was designed around reel-to-reel designs of the day. The work surface had the standard REWIND/STOP/PLAY/FAST-FORWARD configured buttons, with a cute little scrub wheel on the right, so you could “rock the reels” as they used to say, to find the sweet edit point. They completely ignored the benefit of editing visually. And seriously, how many of you are still using reel-to-reel?
On the other hand, a truly dynamic system would have significant room to grow within it’s own framework. Hard drive technology has improved and storage solutions have evolved so much, that now you can actually work with virtual hard drive space; basically, do your work on a thumb drive, which has no moving parts at all! In a way, you could say that technology has come full circle, in that now Pro Tools can work in what amounts to external RAM. And yes, Virginia, that makes it lightning quick.
Last month, I published a letter to a studio owner wannabe, extolling the virtues of Pro Tools and said I got mine for $299. That was a slip-up on my part. That is the upgrade price. (My apologies to those of you who looked furiously through the Internet for that price.) If you want to migrate, it’s gonna set you back at least $699. But, even if it were more, it would SO be worth it, mainly because it’s still an open architecture. The future holds no technology terror for the Pro Tools user, certainly not for me.
Thinking about my friend who insisted on using really old tech in a new studio, I had to admit that this producer churns out some stellar work. This producer is NOT using an Orban system…I’m not even sure one could be found, but the technology is only one step beyond. But this goes back to the old argument about which is the best platform. There simply is no right answer for everybody. I have a LOT of friends who do amazing work on Vegas, MOTU and Adobe Audition. My producer friend who is in the 32-bit Stone Age is no different. Production from that studio is just as vibrant and shining as anything I’ve heard. It’s really not about the tools one uses.
By the way, I am certain that there are more than a few producers reading this who cut their teeth on the Orban DAW and might even rise up to defend the system, but the real question is: how many of them are STILL using one? It was a contender, to be sure, but once hard drive technology got better, it slowly sank into the bubbling abyss of old tech.
So, which camp should you be in? Some prefer to stay as close to the edge as they can, without stepping over. Other folks, like our friend with the expensive studio based on old technology, prefer to stick with stuff they know and trust. The more reasoned producers out there would probably be more conservative and slowly introduce new tech as it is proven reliable. Personally, I like driving a Ferrari. I would leave the Triumph TR6 to others. Yeah, we’d both get there. I just might get there faster and feel badass at the same time.
For my sound this month, I’m submitting an imaging piece that I particularly like, but before you listen, I must explain. I made a promo about Z100 afternoon personality J.J. Kincaid’s recent interview with Justin Timberlake and it perfectly captures J.J.’s personality. This promo would probably NOT be well received in other markets because J.J. comes off sounding like a bit of a dope. People who listen to J.J. all the time know him as a bit off-center. He has a rapid-fire delivery that he uses to ask seemingly non-sensical, non sequitur questions of just about everyone he talks to. If you ever get an email from J.J., you will see “Z100 Afternoon Fool” as a part of his sig. So, he was delighted when I played this promo for him. It fits his personality to a tee. I hope you enjoy it.