In the last post, we discussed a framework for evaluating musical technology that centered around how well it facilitated artistic vision.  I have been thinking a lot about this because of a fluke rash of equipment issues in my studio.  Camel Audio decided not to keep the Alchemy synth software going, my box of knobs failed on a firmware update, and my Bowen synth no longer turns on.  In all cases, the manufactures have been helpful, but equipment or software that I use regularly suddenly became “unavailable”.  In no way does it stop me from making music, or being creative.  But it takes time and money to remedy or replace the lost capability.  My trombone doesn’t do this in the same way, or my classical guitar – though in fairness, both could easily be destroyed through careless handling.  The net result has been that I’ve been considering how I’ve invested into musical instruments and technology and have been thinking about how I want to position myself moving forward.

As I think about categories of investment I’ve made, I make several observations:

Software is the least permanent, whether synthesizers or DAWs, effects, etc.  Versions come and go.  Apple updates OSX every year, as Microsoft does with Windows.  Digital rot is real, and in most cases it is “upgrade or die” where file formats and software are concerned.  There is a real ongoing cost of doing this of time and money.  Yes, one can “freeze” a system at a moment in time and use it until the hardware dies, but it doesn’t change anything – that simply makes a full upgrade of all hardware and software at once inevitable.  I’d rather pay the tax gradually as tech is so disruptive when it is not working.  Software is basically worth it in terms of immediate and constant use.  Software things that are not going to see regular use just aren’t a good investment unless matched with cash flow from a project.  There is just too much drift and loss over time for this to be strategic for me.  I have mid-term investments into Cubase for my orchestral template and probably 150-200 hours of working on that.  DAWs won’t go away, but try telling a composer he or she has to move their templates….  Possible, but no fun, and a major interruption to productivity.

Computer based controllers need to be reasonably priced for this reason – they too are tied to operating systems and digital rot. It is unlikely that I will be using the same box of knobs and buttons in 15 years.  If I get 3-5 years of solid use, I’ll probably be glad, and I need to keep these things in check accordingly.  The Ableton Push is also in this bucket.  Useful if used, but it will not have a long shelf life relative to a piano or high-quality microphone.

Orchestral sample libraries are pretty stable, and do not soon go obsolete.  As time marches onward the programming and scripting improves and the state of the art moves forward.  The cost of buying a complete “virtual orchestra” at the state-of-the art is high, but promises 5-10 years of commercially viable capability.  In this world, continued availability and updates to Native Instrument’s Kontakt sampler is a critical part of the infrastructure, along with Vienna’s Ensemble Pro software that distributes load across my computers.  Those are dependencies for which no perfect alternative exists.   This whole industry is made of small players compared to the giant MI companies like Korg or Yamaha or Roland.  Again, there are maintenance costs, but beyond a certain point of having the necessary orchestral palette, having every possible flavor is not a strategic goal for me.  While some growth of my sample library is inevitable, I consider myself pretty well invested and there is a pretty high bar for me to consider adding additional things at this point.  Certainly, I am not significantly limited in what I can compose and turn out at a professional level.

Electronic instruments like my Bowen Solaris synthesizer are supposed to offer a stability and longevity that exceeds software.  By virtue of having a dedicated firmware that is stable, the idea is that this kind of gear leaves the factory in full working order and keeps working until physical failure or mechanical damage intervene.  Because there is not an operating system to upgrade or other software to conflict, hardware does tend to be much more stable and reliable.  Gear like this works just fine without ongoing updates.  It works the same every time.  That said, my Bowen is currently sick. It will be fixed – John is a great guy and very responsive.  But what about 10 years from now? It is doubtful that it will still be made new.  It is unlikely that there will be a parts depot for key parts.  Unless it is a simple power supply issue, the reality is that it will likely not be repairable.  So, I see both sides with hardware synths, and embedded systems like audio interfaces.  It is certain that USB has and will outlive whatever OS Microsoft and Apple make this year, but these are also not likely to be around in another ten years.  Even with hardware, many things that we take for granted are really just tools of the moment,and need to be justified by significant and immediate use.

I would tend to categorize the Seaboard in this category as well, except that it serves a different function for me.  It’s long term viability is unknown, though I wish Roli maximal success, as it has software dependency on OSX.  It cannot work without a computer.  That said, this is on my “R&D” list.  In order to be at the front of progress, one must be at the front of progress. There are lots of ways to be there in software and hardware.  None of us can try or own every product.  I want to be involved with this one and it fits my situation, so whether I am playing it in 10 years or not, I will have had an experience at the forefront of a new era of controllers and that is worth something to me, and it is worth being part of that dialog.  There is a fundamental shift happening in controllers, and it is important to electronic music and musicians that these develop and are adopted.

Other types of electronic hardware can be much more long lasting due to serviceable components and lack of digital components.  Microphones, monitor speakers, amplifiers, electric guitars and basses, analog recording equipment all fall into this category.  These items are rarely cheap, but are serviceable, most parts are available apart from the manufacturer, and much of this equipment can last for 20-30 years, even with very regular professional use.  Not all items in these categories have that much life in them, but the best items certainly do, and can last for the better part of a career.  My current monitor speakers are over 10 years old and still working very well. They have been a fantastic investment, and I would have to spend a lot to do better in my room.  It is definitely possible to make strategic investments in this category for tools that will see daily use.  At the same time, buying highly specialized microphones for infrequent use isn’t worth it.  Studio time is too easily rented where those pieces exist.

Acoustic instruments sit atop my chart for longevity expectation and strategic value.  Some instruments, like a grand piano, age at about the same rate as a human being and one or two instruments can last a lifetime.  Acoustic guitars and stringed instruments like violins and violas can last a very long time with proper care and repair.  Professional wind, and brass instruments are not as durable as these instruments mentioned so far due to mechanical complexity, but can certainly be expected to last 7-15 years under heavy professional use with appropriate maintenance.  Most professional players would purchase new instruments before 7 years, but this would be after many thousands of hours of demanding use, and at least in part due to changed requirements or tonal preference.  If the hours of use are reduced, many instruments can last for decades.

It turns out that in our technology driven era, choosing equipment has artistic implications and requires a variable investment profile with a mix of short and long-term investments.  Choosing one’s place on both artistic and investment dimensions is important.  Some will need to be on the cutting edge technicality, and their instruments and studios will be constantly shifting mix of software and hardware.  Archiving to WAV file will be very important for this group to avoid losing work to digital rot.  For others, playing and physicality are more important, and for them, the scale will tilt heavily towards more traditional interfaces and instruments, serviceable electronics, and longer-term investments – often at a larger cost per item.  I suspect that the absolute cost is similar.  For the $8,000 it takes to buy a fine professional oboe, one can buy and upgrade quite a lot of software, so it really is a matter of preference.  I have become more clear on my preferences by writing this.  How do you think about investing in musical instruments and equipment?