The Computer Is Just Another Piece Of Equipment

Friday, February 5, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Recently, I realized I’d come to think of the computer as this monolithic entity — above it all or off to the side, but never in the thick of things. The computer often dominates the studio. You can write entire tracks inside the box, and even people with a lot of hardware often record to the computer.

This started to unravel for me a few weeks ago, when my computer (guess what?) flaked out. There’s something wrong with it, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out what. I’ve taken it apart and rebuilt it twice before, and when it flaked out this time, I was, to put it lightly, pissed off. Rather than try and debug it again in that sort of mood, I’ve just abandoned it for the moment. In a couple weeks, when I’ve forgotten I am angry at it, I will fix it…

Meanwhile, I’m confined to my laptop, which comes with its own set of problems. For ages, I was stuck in software limbo. It’s never run my DAW of choice (Cubase SX) properly, so I had to figure out something else. I tried a couple things — Reaper, Renoise, Ableton Live — but all they did was annoy me. I kept my music going by doing tracks entirely with hardware, recording to Sound Forge, but it wasn’t long before I was itching for the computer’s plasticity again.

Last Monday, I was staring at my gear and brooding over this. Working on a laptop is really a much different vibe from a desktop with dual LCDs. I’ve loved laptops since I was a little kid (yes, I am a nerd). They’re one of those things that give you the weird sense of having the future here in the present. I feel the same way about synths and grooveboxes.

In that hazy soup of vague ponderances about my almost sexual feelings for hi-tech devices, some wires got crossed. I feel the same about the aesthetics of laptops as I do about the aesthetics of synthesizers… why do they have to be separated in the studio? I realized that I needed the computer to be just another piece of equipment, like a synth or a sampler or a drum machine. Doing things any other way causes a clash at the seams. It makes the tech fight you, rather than free you.

It’s kind of a zen point, really, more an attitude difference than anything else: The computer is just another piece of equipment. The computer is just another piece of equipment. Say it over and over, and let it sink in.

The most common DAWs — Cubase, Reason, Ableton, whatever — are designed to replace the studio, rather than augment it. They’re akin to a Korg Triton — one of those “studio-in-a-keyboard” things you can write entire songs on. They’re very nice to work with on their own terms, but they’re walled gardens. They don’t integrate well. The synth voices, the FX might sound great, but you can’t use them outside the keyboard. How frustrating!

When I realized this, I immediately thought of Native Instruments Reaktor. I’d dicked around with Reaktor a bit before, but I’d never really gotten into it. I saw it as a plugin and noisemaker, not something to replace my beloved Cubase. You can’t even edit audio in it, in the multitrack nonlinear sense. Reaktor is not a DAW… but, that’s kind of the point.

Reaktor lets you use the computer like a modular — connecting widgets with wires. The computer’s functionality is reduced to pluggable, discrete widgets. Things are only as complicated as you need them to be — if all you need is a single filter, you create the widget, hook up the in’s and out’s, and that’s it. However, if you want, you can build your own sequencers, synthesizers, whatever. It is, in a word, very meta.

As soon as I got it fired up, I got excited. Giddy, even. I got a huge rush of ideas: I could create my own custom looper… strange MIDI arps… weird FX to put on the aux send… hack up a MIDI-controlled audio patchbay… It was like I’d taken a huge dump. It solved so many problems, and had so much potential. I’ve been absolutely glued to it since.

Eventually, I’ll fix my computer, and I’ll have Cubase back. It’s still the best** for audio editing, for detailed MIDI programming, and so on. Reaktor will never replace Cubase, or any other DAW… but if you’re the sort that’s constantly rewiring your studio, Reaktor makes a hell of a lot of sense. It lets you bust the computer open.

Computers are a potent symbol of unleashed creativity and unlimited potential… but it’s no good if you can’t get at that potential, and get at it quickly. The software you use determines what you can do, and how easily you can do it. If you’ve never thought about it — take a moment to do so. You might be surprised at how much the software is actually holding you back! It shouldn’t… and there’s no reason for you to continue letting it.

P.S. — As I’m sure many of you know, Reaktor is not the only piece of software like this. Max/MSP, Pure Data, and other software packages do similar things. I had a copy of Reaktor, so I went for that.

** For me! Replace “Cubase” with whatever DAW you prefer.

Categories: philosophy, software, studio

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