“The path to discovering and fixing technical problems in your studio is paved by process of elimination. This is the art within your troubleshooting technique.”


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Zen and the Art of Troubleshooting

A guide for the desktop musician, part 1

by Daniel Cates

So you want to be a musician, composer, arranger, producer and sound engineer. With today's technology you can easily and cheaply do this from the luxury of your own home. You step down the street to your local music retailer and the salesman sells you a complete package that includes a few synths, a computer, a MIDI and digital audio interface, mixer and software to pilot this equipment. After plowing through all the manuals you put everything together and, wow! Studio quality production right at home! You work on a few more projects. Your confidence builds as you pound your studio more and more. You're creative muse whispers the next big hit into your ear and BAM!!, everything stops working! What do you do?

Desktop musicians, those of us who use a personal or home studio, have all been there. We've spent late nights with a voice screaming in our head, "I'm a musician, not a technician!" Technical problems will always occur with a studio, no matter how big or small. Software and hardware for MIDI and audio production is not as rock solid as we'd like it to be. For this reason large budget studios often hire a full time tech for when problems arise. The truth is, manufacturers of this equipment cannot predict all of the variables of your connected hardware and software. Plus, even though the equipment is inexpensive and readily available, that does not mean it's easy to use. The focus of a desktop musician should be to learn well the instrument with which we create. We must become technicians to an extent, and even the most impulsive creative personality can do so.

System breakdown can disrupt the flow of creativity, and this makes us rightfully upset. However, you do not want to loose control of your ideas. ĘThe best way to approach using this technology as a creative tool is to maintain a balance between your creative needs and control of your equipment.  As wonderful as creativity is, it is a state of mind where we are the most egocentric. The best way to maintain control of your creative ideas is to always have a back up strategy. No one in their right mind would take a cross country road trip without a spare tire. You wouldn't place all of your faith on an inch of rubber against 2 tons of steel and thousands of miles of rough highway. Why would you place complete trust of your cherished ideas on some hard-drive?  When designing a personal studio, consider a setup that gives you that spare tire: the flexibility for alternative ways to get the job done. It doesn't have to be the most flexible setup with the best sound quality. Just something that can carry you to the point where the idea is in place so you don't feel cheated out of your creativity. If you still have that old 4 track around, don't sell it. If you're building the studio from scratch, consider a tape or hardware based MDM and a synth with a built in sequencer. If your budget simply doesn't allow a backup plan, write the idea down, record into a hand held recorder or some method document the creative idea before the moment is lost.

It takes extreme focus to dedicate the time to see a creative idea through. It is no different when troubleshooting. The balance between creativity and troubleshooting demands the same type of focus; you have to trade in one method of thinking for another. Once you've compiled your project with your backup system, or once the creative ideas are organized, leave them behind to focus on the task at hand. This may seem difficult when you're working on a bread-winning project. Schedules are tight and demanding deadline makers can add quite a bit of clutter to your creative environment. Most likely you have developed a focus technique to tune out this clutter when you are creating. You'll need to draw on this focus technique when you're troubleshooting as well.

Now, we move from focus to foundation. The path to discovering and fixing technical problems in your studio is paved by process of elimination. This is the art within your troubleshooting technique. In order to fix the one thing that is causing your stuff not to work, you have to eliminate the variables that are not related to the problem. This is more effective if you conceptually break down the overall assembly of your MIDI and Digital audio workstation into two simple categories: the software and hardware components of your workstation and the signal flow that allows them to communicate. As simplistic as this may seem, it is important to define these two elements so that you better understand how it works, so that you may make it work again. The opportunity to understand these two elements is the initial setup stage of your workstation. Make sure you set aside time to focus on your components and signal flow as you would the features of this gear and software that become your creative tools.

The components in your setup are your software and it's drivers and the hardware, such as your computer, MIDI interface, keyboards, effects, and audio hardware. Know where the components of your software are installed, and how your hardware is connected together. Spend some time to learn the basic function of these components. You should keep a list of software versions and driver versions that are installed, as well as a chart of where and how your devices are connected. Also, I find it useful to label the connecting cables between your computer, MIDI and audio hardware with some masking or colored tape, so that there's some order to the chaos of wires behind your desk.


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