1176 and LA2A

Strange Logic

Or: how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ableton LIVE

This long time Apple user has written off Logic Pro X.

If you are reading this you probably know that Logic Pro has been Apple’s flagship DAW since they acquired eMagic in the early aughts and then kept the software and quickly killed the hardware. I’m still using my 2 long suffering end-of-life Unitors 8 but that is a story for a different day.

But first a bit of history is in order. Back in the cretaceous era when me and many other kids with mullets — in my case very long hair over my eyes (the front-mullet — where the party is not in the back)— started music college. In a first of its kind music technology class was offered as an elective supplement to the sound engineering track I was partially on.

All the way back at beginning of 1988 the class kit was very impressive: a Roland D50 with fresh LA synthesis y’all, an AKAI 950 sampler, an Apple Macintosh SE —fully loaded with a 20meg hard drive and 4 megs of RAM— running MOTU Performer, MacWrite, and one of my favorite programs of all time Hypercard. A JLCooper midi Commander and pair of Foxtex speakers rounded out what in then was a state of the art Midi studio.

I promise I’ll bring this very long tangent back around. The lab at school —which I suspect was somebody’s pet project— we had MOTU Performer. Performer was the best of breed midi sequencer in 1988 (DAWs wouldn’t show up until 3 years later) it did —and still does— the cutting, pasting, and divining of midi bits very very well — all of which could be done with the still new fangled point-and-clicky mousy user interface.

Much like Logic today (finally we are getting near the point) Performer was —and still is— a magnificent workhorse of a program. However what good is a horse if you can’t ride it. Not for lack of trying, I sooth myself by proclaiming my ignorance — is a complicated software with a steep learning curve give yourself time to learn — read the manual. The manual — have you seen them — both the manuals for Performer and Logic Pro are and always have been the size of a phone book (phonebooks were much larger then). To this day the manual for both programs are enormous — while not paper they are sprawling websites is like reading War and Peace just not as fun and turning the pages sucks. For as long as they are, the documentation assumed then as it does now that the reader (me) would understand what a dial called “knee” does.

In the late 80s it made some sense to base the new range of creation tools on their physical counterparts — this philosophy assumed prior knowledge of a recording studio. For reasons I don’t understand recording technology is —as it was then— stuck in the mid seventies. While the amazing sound from a 1176 or an LA-2A leveling amplifier has not really been improved upon — it not helpful if Apple or anyone else for that matter perfectly models one in software. In fact is less than helpful.  Great sound but at the cost of arcane interfaces that in some cases date back to WWII communications technology. Do you like turning a dial with a mouse? I sure don’t.

In 1989 as I was ready to buy MOTU Performer (as most of my friends had) Opcode released Vision. Vision was like a lighting bolt,  it stripped away most of the 1970s legacy and found some very innovative ways to use the computer not just as a replacement of multitrack tape but as creative device in its own right. Opcode was way ahead of its time the combination of Studio Vision + Galaxy + MAX, with OMS taking care of all the midi routing was a site to behold. The Opcode suite of products implemented really advanced features to tame studios with multiple instruments that much like Roman concrete or Greek Fire are yet to be duplicated and I for one sorely miss. I’m looking at you drag-and-drop sys-ex data — dragging a synth patch to the head of the track would make sure that your track always made the right noise. Why don’t we have this now? I’m waiting Apple.

Long story short Gibson buys Opcode in 1998 and instead of —you know— fixing it decided in 1999 to just shutter all in of it, including support for any and all existing users. Luckily MAX, which Opcode had licensed escaped.

So my search began anew. 

I tried Cubase, Nuendo, and even gave Performer another try. All of them very powerful with great features and a dedicated user base that I could lean on for help. I liked cubase quite a bit but in the 00s their Mac version was less than reliable — entirely their fault as the state of MacOS 9.x and the Macintosh ecosystem in general was a burning mess. In a bit of a lucky stroke after some horse trading I ended with a computer that had a copy of eMagic Logic Pro and I was intrigued by some very powerful features —like the MIDI environment — that were hidden behind an otherwise very sensible if not a bit boring interface. The drab battleship grey does take some getting used to.

Not long after Apple buys eMagic it and while it discontinued all the hardware it has kept the drivers updated to this day — still unknown whetter support will continue on the M1 platform. No prizes for guessing that install user base explodes after Windows support ends and the prize that was in close to a thousand dollars gets dropped to 199. After a handful of major and minor upgrades and updates Logic Pro is now a juggernaut and the defacto music making DAW on the Mac. It is a powerhouse. Feature for feature one would be hard press to find a better program or a better value.

So here I am using Logic some 20 years on happy as a clam right?
Well not so fast. I still have the same friction with decades of software legacy that was groundbreaking 35 years ago and now are part of many peoples workflows and muscle memory; to make matters worse I still don’t know wtf the “knee” knob does —sure I know is my fault, I understand that I— Logic Pro is caught in the gravity of software legacy and skeuomorphism of mid 70s audio gear. Powerful and capable —yes very. But what good is a horse that I dread to ride?

History doesn’t repeat — but some times it very much rimes. Much like in 1989 I found myself sticking with Logic Pro as I had with Performer because a peers and marketing told me that if I just spend more time with it, or get more familiar, or learn it better, my sources of friction would eventually disappear. They haven’t.

Trying to see the greener grass on the other side and in need of bit of change I bought a copy of Ableton Live 11. I’be dammed — I wish I’d done much much earlier. Live has been a revelation for me. Gone is most if not all the baggage that keeps Logic with a foot tied to the 1980s, and an arm tied to the 1970s. No recreations of gear with knobs and VU meters, no insane bussing scheme (I used to have to recall a real SSL G+ it was terrible), no more insane formula bases midi transform, or obtuse step entry. 13 different tools to edit midi data with the mouse; powerful and very granular: yes — insanely complex to the point one needs a eidetic memory: also yes. To be fair if I had not used Adobe Photoshop since version 1.03 I would feel the same way about it.

The good people at Ableton; much like the ones at Opcode in the before times, made the conscious decision to get away from the skeuomorphic trap and take advantage of modern UX design to let the perennial “musical but not very technical” person like me have a go and feel free creating instead of trapped in a house of mirrors. In LIVE almost every slider you push makes your track sound better. Logic Pro demands much more — more talent than I have.

With its simple to grasp and striped two window for almost everything interface I may have finally found the long lost (for me) successor to Vision. LIVE is far from perfect and it does plenty of annoying quirks. But also MAX is back in my life and I for one approve.

 


ON A SIDE NOTE | WHY A MAC

A computer with 4 megs of RAMs was almost science fiction in 1989 and a 20 meg hard drive was considered a fools purchase — when I got my Mac SE a year later every single computery person asked in a mocking tone “…what the hell are you going to do with all that space?” To be fair the contemporary IBM PC compatible came with a maximum 640K; after one upgraded the usual 512K. Yes Kilobytes!

Since I could not get along with drummers, a few months later I started building a similar studio to what I had at college. So I could do everything myself. 30 years on it remains a work in progress. Early in 1989 I started searching for a computer. I looked at all the choices — and back then there were many to choose from. First on the list a generic PC compatible beige box that the office equipment rep to the company my dad worked for showed me as a favor to dad. Always looking for the hidden flaw I asked if it came with a mouse and he looked at me as strangely as if I had asked for the weight of all the moon rocks that NASA brought back to earth. His answer convinced me — and I quote: “I guess you can buy one, but what would you use it for?” GUI it is! Oh yeah — Bill Gates hadn’t bother to invent Windows yet! DOS and a monochrome black on green  screen? No thank you.

I looked at the Amiga 500/1000s next. They were very exciting with full 16 or 64 color support (no 64 bit color yet), graphical interface, and lots of games and productivity software — just not very much in the way of music software. Same story with the Commodore C64 and the with Apple IIGS — long list of software of the former and beautiful color of the later notwithstanding — neither offered much in the way of music production. The last 2 on the list were the mighty Atari 1040ST and, the Mac SE FDHD. No prizes for guessing which I ended with — I will say that it was a very tough choice for my smooth still adolescent brain. The Atari had built in MIDI and it ran Cubase (yes that Cubase) and Logic Notator from eMagic, both were full feature stable midi environments that to their credit are still in use to this very day.

However Apple’s new Macintosh II line was different — it was special — the combination of Postscript graphics and smoother and precise mouse travel made it tomorrows computer and all the other by comparison were instantly dated. While I still feel that the Atari ST was the one that got away, the Mac SE even at more than double the price of everything else was the one that followed me home.

18 year old me impulsively bought the Mac SE and an ImageWriter II — in the process spending 2995 dollars when I was planing to spend 300 to 500. Add a couple of software titles and 6.5% sales tax and the til rang to the tune of of 3829 dollars —thanks mom for letting me use your credit card! Oh and those were 1990 dollars — for reference I bought a car the next year; a new GTI with new-car smell, 4 tires, 4 seats, 4 cylinders, and 12 valves — all in, my computer was 1/3 of the price of the car.

In case you don’t believe in chaos theory or the butterfly effect I will tell you that the impulsive decision 18 year old me to made to buy a Mac SE and an ImageWriter II made such a ripple in my life that to this day I can attribute almost every job I’ve ever had directly to that purchase!

Oh yeah — in case you weren’t counting — there were 6 different operating systems with fully supported ecosystems available to consumers. Plus quite a few more workstation level boxes for high performance computing all of which ran their own flavor of UNIX.

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