62-Music software and hardware: obsolescence and longevity

How long will your compositions last?

Realistically, I’m probably the only person on the planet who cares whether the compositions I’ve produced since 1995 or so will be reproducible or editable either now or in the future. But just for argument, let’s say it does matter for some reason. (Do you have to justify it? Perhaps 10 years after I’m dead someone will discover the tracks and decide they’re genius. Not that I’m going to lose much sleep over that possibility.)

(Note added 2019–amazingly I still appear to be alive and have been pondering on the concept about revisiting old compositions and rearranging/remixing them…)

In the old days…

Originally, music was just played, listened to, and that was it. Like language, there wasn’t much in the way of motivation that it needed to be recorded in any way. But finally a canon of notation for music was developed in Europe which still serves us to this day.

There was an interesting dialog going on at createdigitalmusic.com about a subject I’ve thought a lot about in the past many years. That is: how do you save the original musical work you’ve done in order to re-create it in the future?


(Post still alive there when I visited it in July 2019) It started with a discussion about a new synth for the long-discontinued Apple II, but quickly branched out into a discussion about the longevity of the tools and files computer musicians used.

I’ve gone through this many times in the past years as I moved from MIDI+hardware synth production on Macintoshes to 100% software on PCs. So this page will be some of my thoughts about the issue.

Phase 1: Mac and MIDI

When I first started out in electronic music in the mid-1990s, home computers were not powerful enough to run digital audio, especially multi tracks. People basically used MIDI synths connected to the computer with MIDI interfaces. I started with a Roland SC-55 and Fatar keyboard controller connected to a Mac Plus. I started with a MIDI sequencing program called Master Tracks Pro. For quite a while I was really in bliss because, after dreaming about and wishing for the possibility for many years, I was finally able to create polyphonic music with rhythm, harmony and melody parts playing in synchronization.

I tried some different MIDI sequencers but settled on a program called Metro finally (written by Jeremy Sagan). This was briefly purchased by Cakewalk but I don’t think they ever did a thing with it.

I resisted programs with dongles or other onerous copy protection until finally a friend showed me Opcode’s Vision program. I loved it so much I help my breath and put up with the “floppy key disk authorization” hassle.

It was fantastic for a few years. Then Opcode sold the program to Gibson and that was the end of the support for that!

Phase 2: The transition to pure software: Propellerhead Reason

I think it’s pretty safe to say that Reason was a thoroughly revolutionary piece of computer music software.

After years and thousands of hours faffing about with hardware synths, MIDI interfaces and the host of problems all the interconnections entailed, I thought that the ideal solution would be software so powerful that everything could be done within a single computer. Pro Tools was beginning to get popular and a few companies were floating out some software solutions.

This all came together for the non-tech-head with Propellerhead Reason 1.0 in late 2000, released for both Mac and Windows. Finally you could actually create an entire software studio, infinitely reconfigurable, on a PC or Macintosh of average power. (There were other software composing/producing tools at this time, but Reason was the first relatively complete and well-integrated one.)

The tradeoff was that you couldn’t use your hardware synthesizers; all the synths were now in software. But the convenience of actually being able to compose an entire piece, complete with drums, percussion, bass, keyboards, and synths all within a single computer (even a laptop), requiring NO hardware was so appealing that people rushed to get Reason.

Phase 3: Manipulating Audio like MIDI

Early versions of Reason were limited in that you could not record instruments or vocals into it. That is, the only sound sources you could drive were those included with the program. On the plus side they were great software synths, and new ones kept getting introduced with upgrades to Reason, but you were pretty much in a “closed ecosystem”.

Then Ableton Live was released in late 2001 for both Mac OS and Windows. This program did NOT include any sound sources (except a simple software sampler called “Simpler”) but was designed for placing and moving audio “clips” of arbitrary length on a grid to create an arrangement. But where Reason was a more or less “closed” system, Live had a couple of features in its design that were very strategic and guaranteed its success:

  • VST support to allow use of software instruments from any vendor
  • ReWire support to allow audio integration, especially with Reason

Page #62 / last updated 2019-08-13