Home Studio Housecleaning Heck and Terrible Tech Support

Since I’ve recently left my job as UX Practice Area Lead for Slalom Consulting, I decided to use some of the three or four hours I’m no longer spending driving back and forth to San Francisco every day toward more creative endeavors. Specifically, I decided it was well past time to revitalize the home recording studio I first built in the early 1990s, but which has seen precious little use as such in recent years.

The good news is that the drums, guitars, wires, and amps have weathered the test of time more or less unscathed. The real problem is that everything electronic has more or less gone obsolete in just a few short years since my last abortive effort to update things.

Some of this was to be expected: my proudly blinking rack of digital signal processing effects had already been consigned to back-up duties a decade earlier when digital signal processing software plugins became the norm. Likewise, the PCI-based Mac at the heart of my recording system was long ago replaced by a PC that was approximately 20 times its speed…only to have that in turn replaced by a lithe MacBook Pro. With those changes came hundreds of dollars of necessary upgrades to software, along with endless hours of driver installations, software activations, and more.

Where I stepped deep into the suck however, was with the expensive gear I’d bought just three years ago to run audio and MIDI signals. Both devices turned out to be complete lemons: and are now obsolete or malfunctioning, and the manufacturers seem determined to add to the damage with terrible technical support policies.

Most vexing of the two device was my M-Audio Fast Track Ultra, a device which is used to record and playback multiple channels of digital audio at once–the heart of a modern recording project. I’d used the device just a couple of times before on some podcast-style projects in my office, and was really looking forward to finally hooking it up to my downstairs recording setup. But no sooner was it racked up and powered on in my studio, than it started emitting a steady “pop-pop-pop-pop” and blinking all its console lights every half-second in a mad digital version of a grand mal seizure.

Sadly, this appears to be a known manufacturing defect with this device, as a notorious YouTube video and numerous exasperated support threads acknowledge. (To see how widespread the defects with this unit are, check out eBay’s listings for the device: there are far more broken ones for sale than working ones).

Almost as disappointing was the saga of the MidiMan MidiSport 8×8 controller I bought in 2007 to replace my aged Opcode Studio 5 MIDI Interface. Having suffered through the endless workarounds required to adapt the ancient serial standards and drivers for that older piece of gear, I’d been relieved that the new controller would use the familiar USB interface, thus ensuring a long life of compatibility for the undemanding task of spitting out MIDI note messages to my rack of vintage synths and samplers.

Unfortunately, that “long life of compatibility” was to be measured in hamster years. It turns out that the MidiSport interface I bought was incompatible with the USB 3.0 ports on my MacBook Pro. “Not to fear!” I thought, as I whipped out the USB 2.0 hub I’d used to solve a similar compatibility issue with guitars in Rocksmith recently. Only then did I also learn that the MidiSport is possibly the only USB device I’d ever heard of that is incompatible with the use of USB hubs(!). Oh yeah, and it’s incompatible with Mac OS 10.9 (“Mavericks”).

I later learned that MidiMan had been retired as a brand, and was actually owned by…M-Audio(!) M-Audio, in turn was sold in 2012 to InMusic, although some of the software (such as ProTools) and audio hardware (my forlorn Fast Track Ultra) were taken on by Avid.

“But heck, at least I’ll call tech support to ask them if they’re planning an update” I thought as I stared forlornly at my persistently blinking Fast Track Ultra and my never-to-blink-under-any-circumstances MidiSport 8×8. “I mean, they can’t just leave folks stranded, since these are mainstream prosumer interfaces bought by thousands of musicians–most of which use Macs, and most of those who’ve probably taken Apple up on their free upgrade to Mavericks. If they don’t have an upgrade out yet, it’s probably in the works…”

If only.

When you’ve blown several hundred dollars on hardware that’s gone obsolete or malfunctioning a very  few of years later, it turns out that there’s one trick that a truly determined company can use to make your life even more miserable than abandoning you with a useless product. That trick, my friends, is to refuse to pick up the phone or answer your emails unless you’ve paid an additional fee for the privilege of receiving technical support for your product.

Avid–who now owns the M-Audio sound hardware products including Fast Track Ultra, calls their tech support their “Customer Success Department”. This “Success Department” has a nearly impenetrable phone tree which screens away all who don’t have a “valid support subscription”, although they helpfully direct you to their online webstore where you can purchase a “one-time support code” to get a single question answered–for prices ranging from $14.95 to $79.95 depending on the product. Yes, to even ask if they knew why my interface was malfunctioning, they wanted me to pay an additional $14.95.

After an hour of hunting around and waiting, I did actually manage to contact the hardware repair department of Avid without paying extra for the privilege. It was little use, though, as they told me that the hardware repair to fix my defective unit would cost nearly was much as the original unit–with no guarantee that the underlying defect would be addressed.

Dejected, I tried one last desperate phone call to the folks who now owned the future of my MidiSport. They just call their technical support department the “technical support department”, but after another phone tree, I was told that if I wanted to actually talk to their technical support, I’d need…you guessed it… to buy a support incident or contract.

I hung up.

My obviously hardware-defective Fast Track Ultra is now in my office garbage can, since I can’t bring myself to inflict it on others–even for the sake selling it for parts.

My MidiSport 8×8 will be on eBay within the hour. I hope I manage to reclaim at least a few of the dollars from that lost investment selling it to a person with an older computer and a lot of MIDI gear.

And after a big dent to my credit card (and a lot of calls to confirm compatibility with the manufacturer), I’m going to try it all again with a new set of interfaces from MOTU. Wish me luck…

…I have a feeling I’ll need it.

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