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Surviving Technological Changes

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Tech Gear Roulette

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Live by these 7 rules if you want your budget to survive technological changes.

I met Billy Bumluck at a video store in the early 80s. We were both proud owners of new VCRs; he was browsing in the Beta section, I was looking at VHS. "You use VHS?" he asked. When I nodded, he said "Too bad, man. Beta is the only way to go -- better picture, more reliable, and it has Sony behind it. Your VHS machine will be a doorstop next year, so enjoy it while you can!"

We talked a bit more, and I found out he was a guitarist and technology fan, so we kept in touch. A couple years later, I got a call. "Hey, you gotta check out this new Amiga computer! It has separate chips for graphics and audio, does sampling better than a Fairlight, and has some great games." So I went over to his house, and sure enough, it ran circles around the Macs, Ataris, and PCs of its day. "No more Beta mistakes for me," said Billy. "This baby's made by Commodore, and considering they've sold 6 million Commodore-64s, I don't think they'll be going out of business any time soon."

Well, after the Amiga died, Billy had enough. "Okay," he said, "I'm getting a Mac. There's a fantastic program called Vision, it'll wipe the floor with your Master Tracks Pro. It will be the perfect complement to my Sequential Circuits and Oberheim synthesizers." And for a while, it looked like Billy made the right choice, especially when Opcode added hard disk recording to MIDI sequencing. "Craig, nothing's going to stop those Opcode guys. No one else is doing hard disk recording and MIDI, I'd buy stock in them if I could."

 

Then Opcode was sucked into the BHDC (Black Hole of Dead Companies). Billy was pretty shaken this time, and had heard stories of Apple going through problems. So about a year ago, he decided to switch to a PC. "There's a billion of ?em out there. This is one standard that won't die on me." I told him Apple wasn't going anywhere, but he was adamant. "Nope, no more obsolete stuff for me, and no more little companies. I'm going out right now and getting Logic Windows!"

 

Billy never was the same after Emagic dropped Windows support. Last I heard, after his savings evaporated with the collap

se of Enron and Worldcom, he went to a back-to-nature commune in Montana, with no electricity or television. Oh yes, and with an acoustic guitar to replace his Yamaha G10 MIDI guitar.

There's a little of the Billy Bumluck magic in all of us. My Commodore CDTV sits alongside some other ill-chosen relics of technology past, each one representing a costly mistake. But they seemed like such good ideas at the time...

 

With technology changing on a seemingly daily basis, you don't just buy gear any more -- you have to be a soothsayer. How can you protect yourself? How can you stay ahead of technology and bankruptcy court? Here's the scoop.

 

Rule #1: You will Make Mistakes

Resign yourself to it. If huge companies can make mistakes after spending zillions of dollars on focus groups and product research, so can you. Maybe you got sucked in by the ads, maybe you just got taken by something that didn't pan out. The object is to minimize these mistakes so they don't devastate your checking account.

 

Some people end up with Purchasing Paralysis, where they won't buy anything out of fear that something better is coming around the corner. Well, something is, so get used to it. The secret to avoid getting burned is not to lose money on an investment.

 

For example, suppose you bought an original, 16-bit Alesis ADAT for $4,000. As you sit mousing around with your shiny new DAW, that might have seemed like a mistake. But if you did projects on it that earned you $10,000, it was a wise investment indeed -- you more than doubled your money (better than what you'd get from a bank, for sure).

 

Always consider return on investment (ROI). I was debating whether or not to buy a Minidisc when it first came out, because they were pretty expensive back then, and the survival of the format was in question. But I did, and wrote enough articles about MD and how to use it that I made money on the deal. MD could disappear tomorrow, and my buying it would not have been a mistake.

So the question is not "Am I buying something that will become obsolete?" because you know that you are. The correct question is "Can I amortize the value of this investment before it becomes obsolete?" If buying something will make you more money than not buying it, get out the checkbook. Simple as that.

Rule #2: Run, don't walk away, from funny formats

Remember the Elcaset? DCC (Digital Compact Cassette)? The QuickDisk? The multitrack tape recorder (no, not ADAT) based on video cassettes that were used for black-and-white Japanese television production? Quad hi-fi systems? Ouch.

 

Look what happened to SACD and DVD-Audio: Nothing. While companies dithered about which format to support, consumers dithered about which one to buy. So they didn't buy any. And now there's a battle shaping up over the next high-density DVD format. Won't they ever learn?

 

Ultimately devices have to play back multiple formats, like DVD burners that can do DVD+R or DVD-R. But that can be tricky to pull off in a consumer product.

 

Will 5.1 be a funny format several years from now? Probably not, but no one really knows. Of the various memory card formats -- SD, SmartMedia, Compact Flash, Memory Stick, etc. -- some are already starting to fade. Of course, these options create a chicken-and-egg situation -- a format can't become established until people buy it -- but I think I'll let Billy Bumluck be the guinea pig, not me.

 

Bottom line: if at all possible, wait until a format is established before committing to it. If necessary, stick with an older format until you're sure the new one has legs.

 

Rule #3: For Windows, buy custom-integrated computers

 

Here's the absolute wrong way to buy a computer: Go to your local office supply store or electronics superstore and ask for their best price. When I tell this to people, they always say "But for $500 I can get a 2.4 GHz processor, a DVD drive, 512 MB of memory, and even a monitor!" Okay. But does it have the option to put in a graphics card that handles two monitors? Are there enough slots in the motherboard for a couple DSP cards like the TC PowerCore or Universal Audio UAD-1, along with a real sound card to replace the built-in sound functions? Is the USB 2.0 or 1.1? Are there FireWire ports, or will you need to add a card for that? And when components fail, are they expensive proprietary parts available only from the manufacturer, or off-the-shelf stuff you can pick up at Fry's or CompUSA?

 

That's not all. I can call my system integrator and get actual technical support; if you go for one of the systems specifically designed for use by musicians, you'll be way ahead of the pack. Sure, it will cost you more in terms of the initial price. But after 5 years, a couple of upgrades, and minimal downtime, you will be ahead by thousands of dollars in terms of value received.

Rule #4: There's not that much difference among software, so don't agonize over it

 

This is not to minimize the fact that software can have very different vibes. But every DAW can cut, paste, and copy, accept plug-ins, go to the beginning and end of the file, etc. Remember that music software is a few major features, and thousands of little ones. The main point is that you want to look at deal-breakers and deal-makers, not which keyboard equivalent you use for the MIDI transposition function. Zoom out and get the big picture of what software does, because ultimately, that's what you'll be depending on every day.

Rule #5: Be wary of buying things before you actually need them

 

One friend recently asked if he should upgrade to a system with a 96kHz sampling rate (he already does 24 bits). I asked if his delivery medium was CDs; yes. I asked if any clients had requested 96kHz recording; no. Was he happy with the current sound of his studio? Yes.

 

So why did he want to go to 96kHz? Because "Everyone's doing it, and I don't want to fall behind. Maybe I can attract more clients if I go for 96kHz."

 

The key word there is maybe. I told him to stay with what he had until a client said they needed 96kHz for their sessions, or he got gigs where the delivery mediumrequired 96kHz. That's when to take the plunge: when you can amortize the gear with actual income.

 

The advantages of waiting are that as the technology improves, prices become lower, and existing companies have a track record, so there's a better knowledge base of what to buy and what not to buy. It's almost never a good idea to buy a piece of technology "just in case." Wait until there's a demonstrable need.

Rule #6: No listener gives a damn what mic preamp you used

Or which software, computer, monitors, mic, etc. The only people who care are gear heads, and I assure you, gear heads do not make up the bulk of the music-buying public. I've used a lot of different DAWs, and you know what? My music sounds pretty much the same on all of them.

 

All the matters about music is its emotional impact. No one listens to mics; they listen to singers. No one listens to amps; they listen to guitarists. Remember this when you are tempted by hype to think that there is "magic" gear that will make your music better. Gear can make your sound better, but it rarely makes your musicbetter. (I treasure gear that is so wonderful to play that it indeed inspires me to play better.)

 

And before you get too worked up about sound, also remember this: most people wouldn't know good sound if it ran up behind them and said "boo." People think MP3s sound just fine. They didn't care if the Dolby switch was on or off on their cassette decks. They listen to car stereos that have almost nothing but low end. Get the picture? It may be heartbreaking, but all that effort we put into making the best possible sound is appreciated by a minuscule percentage of the listening audience.

 

Now, I'm not saying don't make great-sounding music. Always do the very best effort you can in anything you do. But in the context of buying gear, if it takes you 30 hours of work to earn the money to buy a brand-new whizbang microphone, your music might actually be better if you spent that money on books about harmony theory, took a course on screenplay writing to improve your lyrics, or just went on a vacation and collected some real-life experiences to fuel your muse. Then, maybe you'll have a real reason to pick up that whizbang mic.

Rule #7: The best way to cope with technology is to put it in its place

I have a hammer that's 20 years old. I'm sure that since then, the metals used in them have been improved, the handles have become easier to grip, and the weight is now distributed more ergonomically. But you know what? It drives nails just fine.

 

My main hardware synthesizer is 16 years old. My DAT deck is a TASCAM DA-30 (the original one). Then again, I have some fantastic soft synths, and two flat screen monitors. The point is, I don't let technology rule me ("You have to buy a better DAT, you must go surround"). I rule technology: I pick and choose those things that are going to help my music.

 

I also either jump in as an early adopter, pay the premium price, and milk something for all it's worth, or get in on the tail end of a technology when it's proven, reliable, and inexpensive. I bought one of the first Panasonic DA7 digital mixers, and now you can buy them on blowout at a fraction of what I paid. Do I mind? Not at all: I've gotten so much use out of it, and made so much off of projects done with it, that not buying it would have been a major mistake.

 

I'll leave you with this: when it comes to technology, you're the boss. Fulfilling your needs is all that should matter. Good luck making the right choices!

 


Originally published on Harmony Central.  Reprinted with permission.

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