Gino Robair is former editor of EM

Why Is This So Complicated?

Winter NAMM show

If you read the gear mags or follow music technology online, you’re probably aware that the Winter NAMM show begins today in Anaheim, Calif. Winter NAMM is the most important annual trade show (though, not the biggest) of the “music products industry,? and it’s where manufacturers from all over the world announce new stuff, look for distribution, and talk to the media. Its also great for people watching, thanks to the city’s fair weather and close proximity to Hollywood.

NAMM also means announcements of software upgrades. Rather than repeat myself, you can read my thoughts on the longevity of electronic musical instruments versus the recurring upgrade paradigm here. The upgrades are usually announced with great fanfare, and in many cases it’s warranted—such as the last Pro Tools rev, which was sorely needed to make the product competitive in terms of notation, MIDI, and beat production. Some announcements, however, just seem to pile sexy new features onto an older product while core issues remain unsolved.

Late last month, Ableton CEO and founder, Gerhard Behles, announced on the company’s forum that he was suspending further product development in order to fix the bugs in Live 8. (The product was unveiled at last year’s NAMM show, along with the Cycling ’74 collaboration Max for Live, and the first controller created for the system, the Akai APC40).

The topic was picked up by Peter Kirn on his excellent Create Digital Music (CDM) blog, where he gave it context and opened up the topic to comments. Two days later, CDM noted that Ableton’s update Live 8.1.1 “begins squashing bugs.?

If you have a few minutes to scan what a handful of vociferous Live users have to say, I’d recommend wading through the comments for both posts. In particular, the staggering “changelog? that takes up the majority of the first post is worth a read, because it gives you an insight into how complex it is to go after bugs—not just in Ableton’s case, but with any complex application. And Live is considered by many to be one of the most stable music apps.

My point here, however, is not to bash Ableton, nor is it to rant about the bugs in Live 8. Rather, I want to talk about honesty in the software biz, gaining the trust of your users, and the mad dash that our industry is in to release new products, come hell or high water.

While most of us applaud Behles’s candor about Live 8’s issues (and hope that other companies will follow suit), it’s disappointing that major products are often released with so many problems. Kirn notes that “all software has bugs.? Perhaps. But wouldn’t it be great if developers came clean and told us what the issues were when their products were released? Better still, wouldn’t it be a win-win situation if manufacturer’s didn’t make promises that they couldn’t keep about features, but only announced things that are fully functional, perhaps adding extra features in .x updates. Imagine if a developer announced and delivered a bulletproof version of their new audio app, then named five state-of-the-art features that would be added incrementally over the next few months in free updates to registered users (perhaps after they were bug-fixed using public betas).

You might be asking yourself What would keep the consumer from waiting for those five features to be added before buying the software, thus making the developer miss their Q1 and Q2 projections? Well, why would a company risk putting out buggy software and incurring the wrath of their users just to shortsightedly show profit for a quarter or two? That’s what happens every year in this industry, often from the biggest players who have the most at stake, but who rely on being an Industry Standard to carry them through problematic software revs.

One commenter on CDM mentioned that he always waits for the “.1? upgrade to appear before jumping into any new piece of software or OS, and, of course, he’s not the only one. Unfortunately, the industry is training an entire generation of users to wait for the first update before upgrading their apps. Sure there are plenty of early adopters out there who have the stomach for blue screens and spinning beach balls. But those of us who have to get work done would rather wait for stability than be able to boast of being the first geek on the block with the latest OS or DAW rev.

Looking at it from the developer’s viewpoint, there are numerous system configurations, and it’s impossible to address them all. As CDM’s comments demonstrate, and many of us know anecdotally, each person has a different user experience with a software product in terms of performance. Some of us don’t get crashes, while others do. This can be blamed on system differences (e.g., which chip is in your computer), the components (interface, drive, etc), or the ways the application is being used. And with limited resources, a company has to prioritize which bugs are addressed first. So, of course, when a new OS is released with little or no warning, there’s a mad scramble to get the app to function with it, and the bug list is set under the coffee mug once again.

Ableton has an advantage over many companies in that it has someone in charge who can make something happen right this minute. During our meeting at Musikmesse in Frankfurt a few years ago, Behles was interrupted by a phone call about an issue with the newly announced reverb effect. He excused himself, opened his laptop, and typed for a minute. When he finished, he apologized for the intrusion but he felt that he just had to fix the bug that he had just heard about. Few companies at that level can do that, although I’m sure fixing bugs in Live is a little more challenging these days.

So after an exhausting week of high-tech promises being made at NAMM, once again I’ll find myself marveling at the number of pros (including folks in the media who often have access to free copies of any software they want) who would rather do critical work in no-frills, freeware/shareware apps like Audacity than learn to tame yet another monster update of their preferred big-name DAW.

I want to briefly address a topic that came up on the CDM forum: that reviewers are soft on manufacturers either because reviewers receive NFR (Not For Resale) free copies or because of a conflict of interest due to ad sales in the targeted publication. While I can’t speak to how every magazine treats the church-and-state separation of the advertising and editorial departments, I can say that with EM, that the reviewers were never influenced by either freebies or advertising pressure. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the vast majority of the writers in the MI world that I know personally—including those that write for Keyboard, EQ, and SOS—routinely give products a fair shake in their reviews, and would rather not review a buggy piece of software just because it’s free. Suffice it to say that the writers who have been around the longest are some of the meanest people when it comes to new products because they’ve seen it all. Literally.

The point I made earlier about each user’s experience being different certainly applies to reviewers. What readers don’t realize, and probably wouldn’t believe, is that the reviewers are often tougher on products than most users. And it wasn’t uncommon during my 11 year tenure at EM that our reviewer found issues in an application that the manufacturer hadn’t seen before fact check. On many occasions, these problems were corrected, or at least added to a “promise to fix? list, based on our findings. No doubt other magazines have had similar experiences.

It’s also worth pointing out that reviews that appear the day that any product is released should be eyed suspiciously. Why? First, it means the reviewer was working with a beta version (e.g., non-production version), which will not provide the same user experience that you, the consumer, will have. Second, it also means that the reviewer didn’t use the same version that you will use for very long.

EM’s reviewers customarily get a month to work with the gear they review, and that provides plenty of time to uncover issues that would be found in normal usage. Ever wonder why EM posts its reviews months after a product is released? It’s because they want to give the shipping version a run for its money. And the review might well have been held up because they were waiting for a .1 rev to appear, based on issues the editors (or the users) were having: It’s no use printing a review of the .0 version of a product when an update is on the immediate horizon.

I bring this up not to trumpet EM’s achievements, but to give a little more context to what goes into covering the music making tools we use. Sure, a review may not have caught the bug in your favorite DAW that makes you want to jump ship to a new vendor. But there are many reasons why it may not have come up—differences in user experience, word count versus covering an exotic feature, and so forth.

No one said it would be easy. But wouldn’t it be fun if it was this year!

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