Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Are We There Yet? The Computer and Music Production

Over the past fifteen or twenty years the rise and development of the computer in the music production field is been quite remarkable. Any of the musicians out there reading this can pretty much attest to the fact that the computer these days can do just about anything in music production. I would even be willing to wager that if you are a musician like me, in their twenties, your probably started your production out in an all software environment, rather then working with hardware first.

Through much of this convergence of software as the preferred domain of music production there has always been this notion that the computer just isn't "there yet" in regards to processing power and capability to completely replace the studio. It seems however that about four or maybe five years ago we may have hit and just surpassed our mark of the computer being "there". Perhaps the important point is not that we have made it "there" in the processing field, but within the last two or three years we have made it “there” in the price field as well. The prevalence of the $400 desktop computer and the $600 laptop is pretty remarkable these days. Now, while these machines might be on the lower power end of many computer systems in the higher price range, they are remarkably powerful. The rate at which computing technology is progressing is so fast, that these $400 computer systems are just as powerful as the $2000 computer systems that were around just a couple of years ago. Just five years ago I was using an IBM 450Mhz computer doing music production quite happily. I know find myself sitting here with a 2.0 Ghz Core Duo laptop.

It seems then for all practical purposes, picking up a cheap Celeron processor computer at your local Best Buy can get you up and running these days to run a surprisingly hefty software studio environment. The question then begs us to consider, "Are we finally there?"

As I look at the music world today I really have trouble trying to come up with ways in which I can say we are not there. When even the most basic of computers can run Absynth, Vaz Modular and others how can we say we are not there? So lets just suppose for a moment that we are all in agreement that we are there. Sure there are the arguments out there that the computer cannot do everything, but for 99% of the musicians needs out there, even the most basic store bought computer can effectively get you making music.

Where exactly do we go from here? I don't plan to turn this into one of those will software replace hardware debates, because there are innumerable arguments out there for why hardware will remain to be relevant, but where do we go in the next five, ten or fifteen years for software development for computer music production? Do we just continue to make prettier looking software that runs on faster and faster machines? What levels of innovation and new standards can come out of the next generation of music software?

Based on my observations here are some of the thoughts that I have on where computer software can go in the next generation with respect to development.

1. Convergence: Convergence is one of those terms that has been floating around in the technology world for about ten years. Convergence is the combination of technologies into a single package. Cell phones and
cameras are a prime example of convergence success, but most attempts at convergence generally fail because the end product is not particularly good at either thing that it does. The Sony PSP rings a bell there. Convergence on the music production field has a lot to grow on in the next few years. In some ways we are beginning to see beginnings of convergence with the inclusion of video editing and playback in many of the software studios. Ableton Live appears to be developing nicely from a live performance tool to a full featured software studio that can do live performance. The idea of convergence however can really be expanded to a lot of other media forms in software production beyond what might be initially thought. Apple's Garageband implemented podcasting features extremely well and leaves some doors open for the possibilities of all sorts of new media production and publishing. The Web2.0 phenomenon is taking off and it would not surprise me if we begin to see publishing and collaboration tools begin to make their way into more and more software studios. One touch publishing/export of a track to a website or publisher would be exciting, and even more so would be the inclusion of networking capabilities in software allowing for people to remotely and jointly collaborate on tracks from miles apart.

2. New Methods of Synthesis: One of the areas that I think the new computer platforms can excel at in the next generation is new methods of synthesis. There will always be the strong staple of subtractive synthesizers out there, but I hope to see some really creative and new things beyond just hybrids come along. The use and popularity of granular synthesis has largely taken off because of computers, but how about something new that blows our minds? FM synthesis that uses more then just sine waves would be neat. How about something else that I can't even imagine, or for example develop something that is simply impossible to do on hardware? Csound on their website touts how you can make a 3,000 oscillator synthesizer with a 9,000 stage envelope if you wanted. That is great, but putting that into a usable environment that general musicians can use is something that would be great to see down the pipe line.

3. Freeware and Open-Source Platforms:
Perhaps the biggest winner in this entire software development platform is the musician. Never before have the tools to make music been more affordable and been as numerous. The past generation Windows really won I think offering more software then really anything else around. Not to mention on top of that, is that there were plenty of freeware production suites that got people up and making music. The increase of cheaper and cheaper computers I think will open up opportunities for new and younger software designers. Everyone's brain works a little differently, and it will be great to see some radically new and different ideas for the software studio in the next few years. In the past years software like Reason, Ableton Live, Aodix, and Bidule changed the way people made music. Along with the new forms of synthesis new ways of making music is important.

So now that we have reach the place where computing power has reached the pinnacle, where do you think it should go from here? How will increased processing power impact the way you make music and how would you like to see it impact the way you create music?

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