[Updated with graphic content courtesy of Propellerhead] Record companies love to mewl about listeners downloading and sharing digital music, and that has presented them with a challenge to their thinking and way of doing business that they deeply deserve. It’s an important topic for a later post, but what I see as the fundamental issue is that the large entertainment conglomerates have confused the medium with the message; they thought that they have been selling music, when what they have actually been trying to sell is CDs. Their business model has been based around a massive hit single, perhaps two, so a disc would have those few tracks which were competent from conception to execution and the musical equivalent of excelsior to fill out a running time of sufficient length for the company to justify charging $20. Listeners, interested in the music more than the package, were champing at the bit to be able to isolate the few songs they did want to hear from the insulting crap that they had been compelled to buy. If the record companies had been more interested in the music rather than the units, perhaps they would have been in position to reap the economic benefits of file sharing and iTunes. It still seems they’ll never figure it out – but again, much more on this to come in later posts.
Another aspect of the development of affordable digital technology which has wreaked perhaps as much havoc with the companies, but with a stiletto rather than a sledgehammer, has been the spread of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) technology. With a sufficiently powerful computer – a laptop nowadays – an interface that connects audio microphones to the computer and a software package, any musician can make a recording pretty much anywhere and do so with as professional a set of production values as the finest and most expensive studios. The most well-known of these packages is Pro Tools, and it’s accomplished competitors are Ableton Live, Apple’s Logic and Propellerhead Reason, and with them musicians have been able to liberate themselves from the record companies while consumers have simultaneously been liberating the music. The neo-sharecropper system of advancing a band cash against which to mark the entire cost of record production, especially studio time, has been effectively demolished. But it’s an ‘inside’ aspect of the business of making and selling music, so there’s been no popular coverage, and since it’s also a story of professionals taking possession of the fruits of their own skills and labor, it’s a change that the spreadsheet jockeys at the corporations have been helpless to even comprehend.
The power of these application is immense, and while there is overlap between them, each has characteristic architecture which sets it apart from the others. Pro Tools is perhaps the recording and record making application of choice for bands, but it until recently was limited by a proprietary structure that isolated its output from other platforms and uses, as well as a weak set of electronic instruments. Ableton has a loop-based structure which makes it ideal for experimentation and performance, but it does require some rethinking to make pop music with and also has a mixed bag of instruments. Logic, especially in the tremendous Studio package, is a do everything workhorse that comes closest to turning the computer into a top-of-the-line recording studio, but it doesn’t have the same creative flexibility as Live and is more difficult to master. Reason is a bit of a brilliant odd-ball, one that specifically limits itself to computer-based music production without any ability to record audio – which is what is done in a recording studio and which other DAWs support – and with a structural conception rooted in the seemingly ancient world of analog production. Reason’s interface is not only stunning and fascinating, it is the guiding principal behind how the application works. To make music, one selects devices such as synthesizers and signal processors and puts them into an image of the type of metal rack in which those magic boxes would installed in a recording studio. Flip around the rack, and the patch-cord connection between the devices is revealed and available for alteration. This analog approach flows through the devices, which emulate proven and wonderful studio instruments such as the Oberheim Matrix synthesizer (Reason’s incredible Thor instrument, arguably the finest software synthesizer available), vocoders, voltage control arpeggiators and distortion boxes. Reason looks great and sounds better. To further its idiosyncratic conception, Reason lacks support for plug-ins (third party sound producing or signal processing applications). Reason makes music its own, powerful way, but only its own, self-contained way.
Now, Propellerhead have produced a companion application dedicated to audio recording, and simply called Record (available as of September 9). Just as Reason is entirely dedicated to electronic music production, Record is dedicated to audio recording. For the musician, Record is designed to enable them to record and produce music, and for Propellerhead, it’s designed to sell competitively against other DAWs. These boil down to the same question, should musicians buy it?
For musicians who already use Reason and have been making do with porting their Reason production into another platform in which they can record audio, the answer is an immediate yes. The gain in workflow efficiency itself is reason enough, but what Record does that makes it especially essential for Reason users is integrate completely and seamlessly into Reason. If the applications are installed on the same computer they cannot be open simultaneously, but if Record ‘sees’ Reason once the former is launched, or if it is pointed to Reason at setup, every device, feature and command in Reason is available in Record (as a stand-alone, Record has Reason’s effects devices, but none of the synthesizers, replacing them with the ID8 sound module which is useful for sketching music and create place-holding parts but inadequate for any kind of finished recording). The package has a different name and icon, but working with Record is identical to working with Reason, except the user can record audio tracks as well. This also means that Reason users will be able to start using Record almost immediately, which is also a testament to how well-designed the package is.
For the rest who may want to produce music and who do not use Reason (and who may or may not use another DAW), the question of whether this is something worth buying is more complex. Record, like Reason, is a specifically dedicated application which plays with others through the protocol ReWire but which is designed as if it not only had no peers but also as if digital processing had never been invented. This is actually one of its great strengths. Propellerhead produces software based in the ways people have been making music for decades, so the interface is the best of any software product in existence – rather than reverse-engineering from an engineers code to a (barely) functional interface, the user sees transport controls similar to those of a multi-track analog tape recording, a rack very much like one they may have installed themselves, and a mixing board with controls and signal routing options that will be immediately identifiable to anyone who has ever used a multi-channel mixer. Getting started is as easy as plugging in a mic or a guitar, setting the time signature and tempo in the transport controls (odd numbered meters are supported, but there is no ability to tap a tempo and have the application ‘read’ the input), pressing record and playing. For simply getting tracks onto a hard drive out of the box, Record is unsurpassed. Musicians can also record multiple takes, or ‘lanes’, in the same instrumental track and edit them later into one master track.
Editing audio recordings, what the application calls ‘clips,’ is a necessity in any recording environment, and Record’s editing features deserve special attention. There is an edit mode for clips (MIDI as well as audio), and simple, functional ways to perform basic edits like fading a clip in and out, shortening a clip, selecting a portion of it, moving it back and forth on the time line, etc. What’s vital for the recording studio emulation is the ability to produce that one master track from edits. Record lays out multiple takes in a set of rows, and supports cross-fading from one row to another. There are standard editing tools for listening, selecting, moving, cutting segments, copying, pasting, adding silence, adjusting levels and spacing. This is the digital equivalent of splicing magnetic tape with a razor blade, and is up to snuff as in other applications. Serious, creative and/or experimental audio editing is not effectively supported by any DAW and is best done in dedicated applications likes Amadeus Pro. What DAWs do make possible that tape could never handle is stretching the time of an audio recording; running the clip at faster or slower speeds with no alteration in pitch or timbre. Record handles this easily as well, if not better, than any other DAW, although the actual recorded events on a clip may produce digital artifacts, for instance a clip that has been slowed may reveal a glitch that would have been hidden at its original tempo.
Where Record really shines is in its mixer, modeled after classic SSL models. The number of tracks supported is limited only by processing power, and there are ways to mix down multiple tracks to spare both power and hard drive space. Most important is the intuitive ease of use here, and anyone who has ever twirled knobs and pushed faders on a hardware mixing will need no instruction. The signal path on each channel is clear, and each channel features effective dynamics, EQ and compressor/limiter processing, sparing, if desired, use of those same devices as effects. Loading insert effects onto the channel is identical to opening a file in almost every other contemporary application, and pointing channel signals to effects that have been mounted in the application’s rack is just as simple. Whether recording live audio in real time or mixing previously recorded tracks, this is the easiest mixer in any DAW.
The strengths of the application seem to flow directly from the design concept, where everything appears to the eye in a way that indicates what it does and how it’s used, and for getting music down and together Record is productive at a very high level right out of the box. It’s easier to use than even Garageband, and is far more powerful and it performs its goals superbly. Sound quality is flawless, ergonomic operation is sure and the beta-testing package was more stable than most retail releases; it crashed once and exhibited a few minor flows, nothing more. Record does not have the features of Logic or Live, but it’s output can be routed to those applications via ReWire for further processing. Of course, it’s not free, and value is an important consideration along with capability. For Reason users, this is a $149 cross-grade and is self-recommending at that price. Without the companion software, Record has a $299 price-tag, neither cheap nor expensive. For musicians with home recording studios and venues making live recordings, the application is ideal and well worth the price; the power and ease mean that no recording engineer is needed to make excellent recordings. But those who need more electronic processing, or who are mainly producing electronic music and have only a small need for audio will probably not find value in Record (limited versions of other DAWs, which combine recording and electronics, include Logic Express for $199, Ableton Live LE at $119 downloaded, and Pro Tools LE for $149). For those who are new to both and want a Reason/Record bundle, Propellerhead is offering that for $629, a 22% discount. That’s a decision which requires a musician to have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish and what tools they will need, as the Reason package is so unique; if the most important thing is recording audio, Record is superior to any other DAW, but if one would like a mix of audio and electronic production, the choice is more complex and is determined by the goal; if the main use is for performance, Ableton is preferable, Logic is ideal for large-scale, commercial production, a band wanting to make and record music should take a long look at Record and Reason. For anyone interested, the applications can be downloaded and run on a demo basis, although caution may be in order, as they are both a joy to use, with Record being a special ease, and may be totally addicting.