The Upgrade Cascade

Let me say this upfront:  Computer-based technology is the most powerful and flexible way to make music. The benefits and advantages of computer-based DAWs, and software effects and instruments are well-known and not lost on me.  I fully admit it.

But, to this day, I still haven't fully embraced the computer-based approach to music.  I have a computer in my studio, with a software DAW, several soft synths and effects, and a number of software music tools.  But my primary methods for making music lean toward the '90s state of the art, with a number of dedicated hardware devices.  And that's actually by choice.  I'm going to tell you about one of the reasons in this post.

I call it The Upgrade Cascade.

First, you should know I'm about the furthest thing from a Luddite that you could imagine.  As of the time of this writing, I will have been a professional in high tech for 22 years.  As a software engineer, a product manager, a product marketer, and an end-user, I've seen thousands of products and technologies come and go. I've conceived, designed, implemented, launched, and helped to cultivate multi-million dollar markets for dozens of them myself.  (And I'm not exaggerating about that.)  I understand the incredible enabling power of technology.  I really do get it.

But I've also seen the dark underbelly of what goes on to bring a technology product to market.  That underbelly is probably several blog posts by itself and I won't go into it now.  But here are 4 truths that I've observed and have been proven time and again.  They will probably be obvious to you if you've dealt with technology much, but they warrant enumeration in understanding The Upgrade Cascade:
  1. Technology products have a short production life.  They are replaced by more capable products within 2 or 3 years tops.  Software products may stick a around for many years, but they will go through dozens of versions during that time, introducing various levels of incompatibility between the versions.  So from the standpoint of compatibility, and the fact that you often have to pay additional money for them, software versions can often be considered different products.
  2. Technology products have a short support life.  When you're putting out that many products and that many versions of software, supporting all of them is too expensive for a company.  To reduce that expense companies put policies into place that limit the number of products/versions they will support at any given time.
  3. Even "supported" products can receive little/no investment.  Once a company introduces a new product or version, older products/versions that are still technically supported often receive little investment in terms of bug fixes, and no investment in terms of adding new capabilities.  The cost structures involved require that technology companies minimize investment on old products/versions.  Too many products, too few resources, too little revenue in it.  That's the sad truth of it.  (On the other hand, if companies did commit to supporting old products better, I can promise you that you'd have to pay a lot more for them!  So much more than you'd probably buy the cheaper, more poorly-supported competitive products.)
  4. Technology products are dependent on a number of underlying technologies.  These include the underlying computer, operating system version, software technology components and versions, and hardware device drivers.  Music computer technology products have further dependencies on the audio hardware, the drivers for that hardware, plug-in software versions, DAW versions, and many other things.
As a result of these 4 truths, a computer-based DAW with a number of plug-in effects and instruments is a very complicated set of interdependent technology components.  If you change any one of the components with an incompatible replacement, the stability and function of parts of, or the entire, system can come to a grinding halt.

How many times have you seen or read about a scenario like this?  You save your pennies to upgrade some aspect of your recording set-up, let's say your audio card.  You install it only to discover that the card's drivers don't support the version of operating system on your computer.  You upgrade the OS and discover that some of your VST plug-ins aren't compatible with the new OS version and must be upgraded, replaced, or abandoned.  Then you discover that one of your favorite VSTs doesn't work with the version of DAW software that you have, so now you got to upgrade that.  The new version of the DAW uses considerably more computing resources than your old version, so you need to purchase additional RAM.  Now your $300 upgrade has turned into an $800 upgrade, you've lost a few weeks in sorting all this out, and your system still isn't as reliable as it was before.  You may even consider yourself lucky that you didn't have to upgrade the computer itself!

Welcome to The Upgrade Cascade.

The 4 truths created this situation and they also ensure that the companies you do business with won't be able to help you out of it, other than to sell you their latest products and software versions.  Its simply too expensive for companies to ensure their older products work with the latest technology.

So that's one big reason I haven't totally gotten on board with a software studio -- its simply a lot more expensive to maintain than a hardware or (in my case) a hybrid one.  Computer-based recording is the future and one day I won't be able to avoid it, but I'm in no hurry.

I'll talk about some of things one can do to avoid or minimize The Upgrade Cascade in a future post.