CM In Depth

Gazing Into The Crystal Ball of Computing: Canadian Musician’s 2018 Hardware & Software Special

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.

By Eric Price

It has been three years since I wrote my last thrilling treatise on the tech side of the music industry. At that time, Windows 10 was on the cusp of being released and had yet to reveal all its wonders to us. Solid-state drives were starting to set the storage world alight. Thunderbolt and USB3 were beginning to roll out in earnest and Apple was about to unleash its macOS El Capitan update.

Now, these are just hazy images in the rear-view mirror, which means that it’s time to have a fresh look into the state of tech and to gaze into the crystal ball to see what the future has in store for you and the technology you use.

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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

It has been three years since I wrote my last thrilling treatise on the tech side of the music industry. At that time, Windows 10 was on the cusp of being released and had yet to reveal all its wonders to us. Solid-state drives were starting to set the storage world alight. Thunderbolt and USB3 were beginning to roll out in earnest and Apple was about to unleash its macOS El Capitan update. Now, these are just hazy images in the rear-view mirror, which means that it’s time to have a fresh look into the state of tech and to gaze into the crystal ball to see what the future has in store for you and the technology you use.

Just a cursory look at April’s update sees new features included such as Timeline, a new app that lets you go back and forth through time on multiple devices to see what you were working on at any given time and helping you to recall the steps you used in your work process. There are dozens of improvements to other apps. One example: the Photo app now allows you to add 3D images to your photos. There’s a new Focus setting for helping you to minimize distractions from social media while you are working. They did away with the Home Group, which is now called Nearby Sharing. They even added a Dictation app as well. Here, much like Apple, they are constantly improving their OS without replacing the whole thing.

This leads us to the topic of buying a new PC, as basically the only OS you can buy any longer is Windows 10. Windows 7 and 8.1 haven’t been available to buy for years and both are now out of mainstream support and into their extended support cycle, with all support for Windows 7 ending in January 2020 and Windows 8.1 ending in January 2023. Frankly, neither Windows 8 nor 8.1 ever really caught on, with both having very small market share compared to Windows 7 and 10. Adoption rates of Windows 8 were so poor that Microsoft long ago threw in the towel and ended support for it way back in January of 2016! Bottom line, Windows 10 is the only way to go.

Windows 10 still comes in two main iterations: the Home Edition for the average consumer and Professional Edition for pro or business use. The Home Edition will suffice for most situations but if you intend to access your computer remotely or you want some control over Microsoft’s forced update schedule, I recommend the Professional Edition.

Lastly, though you can still find 32-bit editions of Windows 10, there is no longer any reason for you to be going down that path. It’s 64-bit all the way now!

Reply Hazy. Try Again.

Apple is big in both the hardware and operating system arenas, and trying to predict where Apple is headed as of late has proven to be quite the challenge. With their snail’s pace releases in both new hardware and operating systems, Apple has been roundly criticized for seemingly abandoning its faithful followers. Many users complain that Apple seems to be concentrating their efforts on their lucrative iOS operating system and the devices that run it rather than their laptop and desktop division.

Since my 2015 article, Apple has only released three updates to macOS: El Capitan, Sierra, and High Sierra, though at the most recent Worldwide Developer’s Conference, they did announce a macOS update named Mojave that’s hopefully arriving later this year. None of the above OS updates have been what I would deem major overhauls, and with their current once-a-year upgrade schedule, these updates seem to be more in line with refining rather than totally revamping the OS. With this upcoming release, Apple at least appears to remain committed to keeping macOS alive and have vehemently denied any intentions of merging or replacing macOS with iOS anytime soon.

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Mojave is said to be addressing many of the security concerns Apple has been facing this year. Other changes mentioned include the addition of Dark Mode for working at night. Desktop Stacks help to reign in desktop clutter by automatically sorting through similar files and grouping them together, including new files you drop onto the desktop. The Finder update has a new Gallery View and some helpful action buttons. Gallery View now features a large preview window and an array of thumbnails along the bottom to help you see and scroll through images quicker. There is a new markup tool in Quick Look that will let you do quick edits to docs or pics and even let you add your signature. The App Store is getting a facelift and features a few new core apps such as Voice Memos and Apple News, plus others that were being touted. Once again, evolution, not revolution, is the word here.

On the hardware front, Apple has also been incredibly slow in releasing new, more powerful machines. With Apple no longer having full-size desktop models, you are relegated to choosing one of their all-in-one form factors. You have their iMac line, which as of late last year finally got a new model, the iMac Pro. The Pro at least is quite capable of being used for recording music but remains very expensive.

There is their ancient, cylinder-shaped Mac Pro Generation 2 computer, originally released in 2013 (five years ago!), which is finally going to get an overhaul. This model has been a big disappointment for Apple as they have had to admit that it couldn’t be easily updated due to heat issues related to its unique form factor design. If you’re prepared to shell out between $3,500 and $4,700, you can still buy the original 2013 model. Meanwhile, your wait for the new model is going to be a long one as the Mac Pro Generation 3 isn’t expected to arrive until late 2019!

The Mac Mini, their palm-sized form factor computer, which in my opinion is hardly a heavy-enough hitter for dedicated music work, is also languishing with the lineup having been last updated in 2014!

And last but not least, the virtually forsaken MacBook laptop line. Though they released a new MacBook Pro in 2017, it has been facing an array of quality and build issues that are very uncharacteristic of Apple’s normally high standards.

To add insult to injury, none of those models mentioned can take PCIe cards, and for the most part, you aren’t able to do much in the way of upgrading other than RAM or a hard drive!

Apple, known for catering to the creative types, seems to be in a spot of trouble here. It has been reported that Apple’s Mac Pro line represents only a single-digit percentage point of their sales and knowing that their entire Mac line is only about 10 per cent of their total sales, it becomes hard to imagine it being a major money maker for them. It’s not hard to see why Apple’s professional users are feeling left out of the party here and I am not so sure they want to lose that influential group of users, especially by forcing them to migrate over to a PC! Microsoft hasn’t been asleep here and has recently been making some big strides in appealing to the creative crowd.

All I’m saying is that if the powers that be in Cupertino care about their users, they’ll need to up their game real soon.

This brings us to iOS: iPads, iPhones, and iPods, Apple’s bread and butter. Though I don’t feel iPods and iPhones are very practical for serious music work, it seems that even the iPad has never really come to full realization, either. Though there are some good recording programs and lots of nifty synthesizer and instrument apps, for the most part, iPads seem to have mostly filled a niche in live playing environments by displaying lyrics while attached to a mic stand as witnessed at open mics and bar gigs everywhere! Personally, having used them for years, I often found them challenging to do any heavy lifting with. Between their small form factor, lack of keyboard, and less than impressive computing power, it has made them a poor contender when compared to working on a laptop or desktop. I assure you I am not trying to dismiss them as there are certainly some amazing tools available for them. I myself use OnSong for lyrics and have a SoundBrenner Pulse vibrating metronome with the accompanying app installed to control it.

Many of these apps have long since been ported over to the Android platform and there is no shortage of Android-based tablets available as well, though generally, all tablets seem to face the same restrictions when it comes to being used for serious work and often tend to be relegated to emails, books, and games.

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I Spy with My Little Eye…

In fairness, even in the PC world, full-size desktops are holding on for dear life with many of the new models now coming in the palm-sized, micro-form factors, too. Of course, this form factor kills any chance of adding in any PCIe expansion cards, though for what it’s worth, there are few of those types of soundcards left to install. Most are now external interfaces with either USB or Thunderbolt connections, freeing you from worrying about long-term compatibility issues and giving you the freedom to take the interface with you and plug it into any computer you are using. Even once exotic interfaces, with specs such as 24-bit/192 kHz sampling resolution, can now be had for well under $200. This once exclusive and expensive barrier to making music at home is no more.

As for getting a new computer, between continuing advancements in technology and the ever-downward onslaught of price reductions, there is really no reason one should not be running an Intel i7 CPU with a minimum of 16 GB of RAM. You should also be using a solid-state drive for your operating system and programs. Though it may not be economical for you to be utilizing SSD technology for your data drives just yet, they continue to plummet in price and increase in size. With their ever-faster access speeds, they are certainly giving mechanical drives a run for their money.

Thunderbolt (USB-C) on Macs and USB 3.0 for the PC are the order of the day for speedy connectivity to the outside world. Monitor prices have dropped considerably as well and there is no reason for you not to consider running either one large monitor or a two- or even three-screen configuration for maximum screen real estate.

To sum up all this hardware talk, the leveling out of the computer hardware playing field is now wholly upon us – a place where major technological leaps are replaced with several minor and cost-friendly improvements. Though much faster processors are still not in the cards for now, more cores per processor are the order of the day and we are starting to see 18-, 24-, and 28-core CPUs. With most new computers, there is now more than enough raw power to run most applications with little of the fiddling and custom building that we used to have to do. Lastly, DVDs and CDs are in the rear-view mirror; it’s just a matter of time ‘til they are gone. (Long live the CD!)

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I See a Mysterious Man in Your Future

Consolidation and mergers continue in the computer industry and are even spilling over to the music business for both hardware and software. Guitar Center and Gibson’s recent financial woes have left many quaking in their boots. One of the larger casualties of all these troubles was Cakewalk’s venerable Sonar recording software as its plug was pulled when Gibson, its owner, first ran into financial trouble; however, it appears that Cakewalk has at least been given a reprieve as its assets have been purchased by Bandlab Technologies and “Cakewalk by BandLab” has been released as a free-to-download model with the plan of getting you to spend money for better versions and plug-ins. Looks like there may still be life there for Sonar users after all.

That keeps them in good company as other DAWs have been absorbed by other companies over the years – Steinberg being brought under Yamaha’s umbrella, ProTools now being part of Avid, and Logic being welcomed to the fold at Apple. Thankfully for these programs, with the aid of big money, they are still going strong.

At this point, many of the DAWs have caught up to each other feature-wise and share many of the same options and controls, making it harder for them to rise and stand above the crowd. Even with effects plug-ins, there are now dozens of creators with infinite effects choices. For example, it is not hard to find well over a dozen versions of the venerable LA1176 compressor plug-in. I see this as a problem for many a creator; I mean how many compressors or flangers does one person need? And how much time do we want to spend sorting through them and comparing them when we really should be spending more time crafting the songs? How many could or should one own of each of these plug-ins? It will certainly be interesting in the next few years to see how this all plays out and who and what are left standing after the dust settles!

You Will Win a Lot of Money

OK, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but what would one of my tech articles be without me talking about backups? In the last three years hackers have been even more aggressive than ever and ransomware, where your files are encrypted and held for ransom, has sadly become commonplace. I won’t even get into the privacy and data stealing issues.

As with every tech article I write, it bears repeating, please take the time to backup. There is no excuse anymore as there are plenty of automated backup options available and large-capacity hard drives that are abundant and inexpensive for storage. Most of those drives now even come with backup software on them. Apple has Time Machine included that works very well, as does Windows 10, which also has an easy-to-use backup utility that can be set to backup whichever folders or files you need covered and have it back them up hourly as well. Believe me, when the catastrophic happens, and it will, and you have a good backup, you will feel like you won the lottery!

You Are Going On a Vacation

I certainly don’t mean to be all doom and gloom here. On the upside, never before has so much power and flexibility been in the hands of musicians and music producers, especially at such affordable prices. There is little one cannot do anymore when creating music, and it can all be done in a bedroom, on an airplane, or even in the washroom!

So, go forth and create! My final prediction? I predict many great things for you once you do!

END

Eric Price is a big fan of Kreskin and is no way affiliated with any fortune-tellers guilds. He can be reached by telepathy or through old-fashioned email at eric@gepconsulting.ca.