Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The persistent sting of defeat

Oh, what a mesh you've made!
Up till now, I'd considered my expectations to be clearly in the bounds of reason. For example, it seemed reasonable to expect a $200-300 piece of equipment to perform what I think to be the most elementary of tasks: bringing two channels of audio into the same world. In my case, a keyboard and microphone.

From a historical perspective, this really isn't new. Ever since Tom Dowd put his mind to it, mixing together distinct sources of audio has been, well....trivial. It's feature #1 on practically any audio (mixing) device.

But for the producers of digital audio interfaces, this is apparently a Whole New World.

My experience with this began almost two(!) years ago, when I noticed a correlation between my audio interface losing digital sync and the throwing of a nearby lightswitch. Over that time (again, based on the assumption that the interface product was designed/functioning correctly, that my problems were mine alone...) I have replaced UPS units 3 times, replaced wall switches, fuses in the fusebox, purchased gold-tipped, insulated cabling, multiple stage power filtering, and finally, am working through a series of different brands of audio interface.

In each and every case, some minor design flaw (yes, flaws, Lexicon/M-Audio/EMU, et al) renders the unit essentially unusable in some capacity.

For the EMU, it's unusable because it's so sensitive to RF interference, it will drop sync when your neighbor turns on their dishwasher. Useless.

For the Lexicon OMEGA, it is incompatible with some models of HP laptops due to the underlying USB chipset. Useless.

1007091714a.jpgAnd now M-Audio's Firewire SOLO, who's updated drivers actually *remove* the most useful feature of the unit[1] (the ability to have both the mic input and SPDIF active AT THE SAME TIME!! [forehead]), will not sync SPDIF with an external unit when connected to a laptop. The reason they give? The laptop's firewire interface needs to have a Texas Instruments chipset to "function correctly."

Notice M-Audio's proposition: it's not their design - it's my laptop.

Bear in mind that all customer support is predicated on the assumption that the product (and associated parts) are functioning perfectly, and the end user is responsible for the proper functioning of peripherals, etc. Remember the Tier 1 Support mantra: update your drivers.

I'll concede that the design process for these devices are fraught with a million details, each one with their own consequences, and part of design is to determine the best possible set of circumstances (like chipsets, signal flow, etc, etc) for each product. But for users (like me), deferring the responsibility of researching and troubleshooting ("Please visit our support forums on our website for fast answers to the most common questions" chimes the unnaturally cheery voice for the umpteenth time...), and ultimately, the cost of finding out what devices are compatible with their individual setups, is a net time-sink, and ultimately, damaging to the manufacturer's brand.

Faders....fading?

It appears I'm finally at a point of resolution with my technology, but I'm sure this will be short lived. I fear sooner or later another "gotcha" will make itself apparent in some way, and I'll be back at troubleshooting and "figuring it out" instead of producing.

[1] This issue seems to have been resolved by either rebooting the interface module or clicking the 'reset' button on the software control panel. Either way, it's a crapshoot as to whether or not the device will sync on contact or not. Lame.

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