TCS Daily


Changing the World, Below the Radar

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - February 13, 2002 12:00 AM

Polish software engineers are making me very happy. I know, I know: This sounds like some sort of punchline. But it's not.

My brother and I, along with another friend, have a small record label. It's not organized as a nonprofit, though it might as well be -- but we have fun, and we're able to release things that a bigger record company -- one whose shareholders actually cared about making money -- might not touch, from Nebraska tractor-punk to native Ugandan music.

I'm the main sound engineer, and one of my tasks is to "master" everything. That means performing a variety of transformations to the finished mixes before they're turned into CDs: adding compression, adjusting the stereo image, normalizing levels, applying frequency equalization, etc. Mastering is more of an art than a science. When it's done right, everything on the song sounds just like it did before, only more so. "As if somebody cleaned the wax out of your ears," is a standard definition.

Nowadays there's more to it than that, though. Digital recording can produce a sound that seems a bit cold and harsh. That's not really true, because analog tape recording actually distorts the sound in ways that people like. It adds even-numbered harmonics, smoothly rolling off extreme highs, and producing what's called "tape compression," all adding up to a feeling of warmth, fullness, and general ear-pleasing goodness. The harshness that people blame on digital technology actually comes from the absence of pleasant artifacts, not from any new quality that the digital recording process injects.

When mastering was done with rooms of equipment driven by racks of glowing vacuum tubes, printing to half-inch-wide magnetic tape, this wasn't an issue. But now that we master on computers it is, and all sorts of software has appeared to fill the gap by putting in the kind of warmth previously supplied by huge racks of vintage gear.

There's a lot of good software out there that does this, but my favorite is produced by a Polish company called PSP Audioware. The sound is great, it's very intuitive to use, and it's dirt cheap.

The last of these factors comes from the way PSP does business: It's two guys, in Poland, who write the software themselves and distribute it via downloads from their website. They also provide tech support themselves (at least they've answered the few questions I've had), and since they're also the guys who wrote the software, they do a better job than most computer users are used to.

This is a mode of doing business that would have been impossible until the past decade, and it's one that's wonderfully suited to countries like Poland (and India) that have lots of smart people but a shortage of investment capital and mediocre infrastructure. I'm sure that shipping the software, on disks, from Poland to the rest of the world would be a much bigger headache, and produce far fewer sales, but Internet downloads solve these problems.

What's news about this is that it isn't news. Ten years ago, or even five, the notion of quality software from Poland would have been a joke to most people, and the idea of selling it to consumers over the Internet would have seemed equally farfetched. Yet now such ventures are commonplace. In the audio software field alone, there are literally dozens of companies like this -- small shops, selling excellent software via download at very attractive prices, often from places not generally associated with computer leadership.

Twenty years ago, the guys at PSP would have been miserable drones in some horribly-run state software enterprise, if they were able to work in software at all. Ten years ago, they would have been wondering how to sell their skills to the West without emigrating. Now they're earning hard currency from buyers around the world, without having to manufacture or ship any tangible goods at all. And it's not even news.

Remember this when people tell you that the whole Internet thing was just a bubble.

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