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If It Ain’t Broke…

Steve LaCerra • February 2020On the Digital Edge • February 9, 2020

The Ups and Downs of Firmware Updates

firmware — noun

firm·​ware | ”furm•where”

Software that is programmed onto a hardware device, providing control for that device.

Firmware is like an operating system that controls the hardware of a specific device; it cannot be installed onto a different device or a computer. It’s hard to find an electronic device these days that doesn’t use firmware. Everything from phones to cars, washing machines to digital mixing consoles and even some coffee machines require firmware to operate. If you have a digital system processor, it uses firmware. Your analog outboard compressor, however, does not.

Although firmware is a type of software, it differs from application software, which tells a computer how to perform a specific task (such as the word processing software I’m using to write this). Application software can be added to or taken away from a device and the device will still operate. For example, if you remove a traffic app from your phone or if I remove the spreadsheet software from my laptop, those devices continue to operate. If you remove the firmware from a device or if the firmware is somehow damaged, the device will not work.

Firmware is usually stored in “flash ROM,” which is kind of an oxymoron because ROM means “Read Only Memory,” but flash ROM can be re-programmed. That’s why we can do firmware updates on audio devices like keyboards, system processors and consoles. Sometimes firmware is updated to fix bugs, and sometimes to add functionality to a device. Sometimes it’s updated to make the user interface look nicer. ROM is non-volatile, meaning that it will hold firmware even when power to the device is turned off.

Software manufacturers release updates on a frequent basis and those updates can (usually) be easily installed by the user. Firmware updates tend to be released less frequently (sometimes never). Many devices allow a user to perform a firmware update, but devices such as hard drives don’t ever provide user-access to the firmware. That’s probably a good thing, because if a user screws up a firmware update, they could find themselves with a device that doesn’t work.

Now that we’re firmly planted in the digital age of mixing consoles, firmware is a big deal. A firmware update can add cool features to a mixer such as new plug-ins or enhancements to the routing capabilities, and that can extend the useful life of the device. Such an update is worth the price of admission, especially in light of the fact that most manufacturers provide firmware updates for free.

‡‡         The DAW Side

This is a stark contrast to updates (or lack thereof) for our DAW software. Some software manufacturers have introduced “subscription pricing,” whereby you pay monthly or annually for a license (though some manufacturers treat this more like a privilege). In return for your hard-earned bucks, you are allowed to access support services and software updates as they become available. Other manufacturers offer a “perpetual license” for a premium price. Call me a cynic, but I’m skeptical of that because it’s only “perpetual” until the manufacturer decides it’s not, at which point they have you at gunpoint: pay up, lose the license or go elsewhere.

Imagine if manufacturers did this with our digital consoles. “You can use this mixer until December 31, 2020. After that, you’ll have to pay for updated firmware that will enable you to use the mixer for another year.” Would you buy a product with those constraints? Probably not. I’d be inclined to tell the manufacturer where to go and how to get there.

I much prefer the model where you pay for a major software (or firmware) update and the manufacturer gives you the subsequent minor updates at no charge until the next major ‘rev is ready. That’s one of the reasons I don’t mind forking over bucks to MOTU when they announce a new version of Digital Performer.

‡‡         The Bleeding Edge of Technology

It’s important to recognize that — simply because a manufacturer offers a firmware update — doesn’t mean that you should install it. A few months ago, I had an interesting encounter with a digital console and a stage box from the same manufacturer. The mixer was connected to the stage box using a digital snake (AES50). At sound check, all of the input signals from the stage required the channel gain settings to be maxed out, just to achieve barely useable input levels. The gain structure was just plain wrong. I also noticed that some of the console’s network settings looked weird: for example, the console showed sync with the stage box but did not identify it in the peripherals menu. We tried all of the usual troubleshooting such as re-booting the devices, changing sample rate, swapping out the digital snake, etc. — but none of those worked.

It so happened that we had another, smaller version of the same console on-site, so in a last-ditch attempt we swapped it for the original one. Mixer #2 connected to the stage box and produced the correct gain structure. It also identified the stage box as a peripheral, and showed the proper word clock indications. It turns out that the firmware in the first console didn’t play nicely with the newer firmware version in the stage box. When we updated the console firmware to a newer version, all was well.

The process of updating firmware on a device such as a digital mixer or stage box isn’t complicated. Typically, you download the firmware update and put it onto a

USB drive. The manufacturer will tell you how to format the drive and whether or not the firmware update file should be placed in a folder (usually not) or at the root directory of the drive. It’s important that there are no other files on the drive while you’re doing this. Once you’ve prepared the USB drive, it’s usually a process of shutting down the device, inserting the drive, and restarting while holding down a specific combination of keys. You’ll get a prompt on the screen asking if you want to update the firmware, to which you reply “yes,” hold your breath, and pray that the local power company doesn’t have any issues for the next ten minutes. If power is interrupted while the firmware is being updated, you could find yourself with a big paperweight — so make sure there are no small furry animals running around your shop that could accidentally knock out the mixer’s power cable.

‡‡         Rules of Engagement

Doing a firmware update in the field is a bad idea. Instead, do this at the shop, on a day off, when you have access to a phone — as opposed to being in the middle of a field in say… Racine, WI, where there’s no cell phone service. You might be tempted to install a firmware update as soon as it’s released so you can access new features, but that’s not a great idea either, because sometimes a firmware update can introduce new bugs. Updating the firmware while on a tour is an absolute no-no. Unless you have access to tech support (and possibly replacement gear), you’re playing with fire. If your gear is all talking nicely at the start of a tour, leave it alone until the tour is over. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Steve “Woody” La Cerra is the tour manager and front of house engineer for Blue Öyster Cult.

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