Everything’s Been Done Already – Time to Look for Something New…

Image Credit Lovingly put into the CC Zero/Public Domain Space and retrofitted by Yours Truly. 🙂

Sorry for the Clickbaity Title, but we need to talk. First though, a bit of housekeeping:

I posted the Featured Image over at the APITE Tumblr Spot. I pretty much have given up on the Tweet Machine® since the Current Incarnate of P.T. Barnum got involved. I do miss some of the people and info there, but after a few months I’d rather seek out their diatribes on better places with longer reads. I think all my Twaddle does these days in announce any postings from here.

Tumblr also allows me to put up ‘Random Nonsense’ quicker than one of the Screeds here, and I’ve found the community to be on the whole a lot nicer than other Social Medias. You can find us on The Tumble Machine® here.

In ‘The New Shiny-Shiny’ Land, Edsel and Josephine are still the workhorses as normal, except I am finding a few slowdowns in my DAW’s (and one of the reasons for this rant coming up) which I am hoping will be fixed with the latest MacOS coming up in the fall… The next post is a TNSS on this subject which I’m sure will be out by the time the new OS is out (I’m done giving excuses for lateness here – I’m just posting here when I feel it’s needed. Head to Tumblr for more habitual postings.)

Okay, about that Title.

For my Daily Hellscape over at EduCorp® I have to be fluent in like five Digital Audio Workstations (DAW’s):

I’ve been using Logic Pro since the late 90’s and am a Certified Pro, so I know it like the back of my hand.

I’ve poked around with Ableton Live since Version 3 so I know my way around, but would not call myself an ‘Expert’ by any means.

Slo Tools (sorry, Pro Tools) is an evil that thankfully the Company pays for, The latest version is the most stable I’ve use in a while, but it is *still* not Apple Silicon Native and has a tendency to show it. I’m not a fan of the Subscription Model they use, and I know there is much better value for your money in the market. Unfortunately way too many Very Important Companies have decided this is the standard so we have to teach it. I avoid it like the Current Heath Crisis if I can.

I’ve dabbled with Cubase over the years and admit that it’s a powerful program, but I find its interface and methodology overly complicated and tends to fill the screen with lots and lots of windows. I know a lot of Postproduction Kids use Nuendo (also by Steinberg) and rave about its capabilities. I’ll trust them with that since I can’t afford to even think about purchasing it… Also on the Steinberg Front I have used WaveLab a few times and it almost became by Grading DAW. It’s a highly regarded Mastering DAW, but I found it suffers from the same quirks that Cubase does, and is way overpriced for what it actually does in comparison to what I decided on using.

(For clarity, I also have UA’s Luna DAW, but it’s MIDI editing is worse than Slo Tools. Which is something I never thought I would say in my lifetime. I gave up on Digital Performer almost two decades ago since Logic did more and better IMO. I’ve used Reason off and on since its inception, but it’s always playing ‘catchup’ with the other Players in the space and just doesn’t fit in with my workflow).

I use Reaper as my Grading DAW. I’ve raved about it before and will here again in a future post, but I honestly think that it’s the best thing out there for a Digital Audio Workstation in today’s market. Stay tuned for more info here.

So – I have all of these on Josephine and save for one (Spoiler Alert – Reaper) I’ve noticed a few things:

1) They all copy the same features. This may take a Version or two between them to parity, but they pretty much all do the same things.

2) They fill your Hard Drive with crap you will probably never need or use – Samples, Loops, MIDI Files, etc.

3) ‘Style Over Substance’ – slick interfaces with skeuomorphic designs that harken back to an era of recording that only geezers like me remember (and really don’t want to see again) and younguns think are ‘legit’.

4) Silly expensive on their own and (for the most part) require additional Plugins to do modern audio production. 

5) They haven’t really innovated in years.

All of the above is easy to understand for people in the Music Creation Space and most current users stick with what they have been using forever because they know how to make it work for them. It takes a lot of time and effort into understanding your tools and how they work, and switching to a different system can be an uphill climb of trial and error to get them to do what you need them to do.

I’m not here to criticize your choice of technology, but I want to concentrate on #5 though – and how it might be holding you back from Moving Forward.

Essentially, all DAW’s do the same thing: record and edit (MIDI and Audio). They can cut/copy/paste bits around. They host Virtual Instruments and Audio Gizmos. They can stretch and mangle audio. They have basic video-syncing capabilities. They allow you to build music or audio structures and then render those to a deliverable format. That’s about it if you really think about it.

But what was the last truly amazing inclusion that supercharged your workflow, or sparked your creative abilities?

For me, Logic’s revamping of the venerable EXS24 into the Sampler and Simple Sampler instruments – but’s that’s not really ‘game changing’ is it? Before that was FlexTime and FlexPitch, or the ability to change tempo and pitch of an audio file to match the current Session. I don’t use they feature a lot these days, since I have Plugins that do it better. Before that (way back in 2003 as I recall) was the elimination of having to use the Environment to set everything before you could record anything. I love working with Logic, but looking back at the timeline I see a lot of change, but not a lot that shows me they are moving the ball forward in recent years. Logic is a very powerful DAW with a lot of included doodads that cover just about any type of of musical style or genre and I still use it quite a bit – but again those 3rd Party additions are what make it usable for me. Pro Tools, Cubase, and perhaps even Live do not include nearly as much relying on you to fill the void with additional expenditures on top of their already steep price tags. (I will say that Live did shift the paradigm for music creation, but it seems to be falling in line with everyone else since then – see Bitwig’s ’splintering’ off as an example here). 

With that in mind, let’s talk about those 3rd Party Plugins since they suffer from a lot of the same stagnation as the DAW’s do… I cut my teeth making music in the 80’s, so I loves me some analog goodness, but honestly how many Minimoog VST’s do we need in the space? How many Wavetable synths, FM synths, Samplers, and ‘Retro’ Drum Machines? How many 1176 Compressor clones or LA2A emulations, or Ancient Console-based Channel Strips? It’s staggering to me how many Devs are just factories for making digital copies of gear 99.9% of modern musicians have never seen, much less used. I have used quite a few of these toys in my day, and the software counterparts do sound identical, if not better that their hardware cousins. They are cheaper, recallable, portable (just bits and bytes and not massive metal contraptions), and you can probably add hundreds of them to every single session.

But I’ll tell you a secret – no one is going to give a shit about what you used on a recording. And no one can tell the difference between an EQ or a compressor that’s built-in to your DAW and the one you paid hundreds of dollars for. No one cares if the bass line was created on a real Oberheim or a software recreation. 

All they care about is do they like the song and does it bring out some emotion in them. Period. All this smoke and mirrors about this is best for that and that is best for this is a distraction from those two points. A song made with great players will need very little in the way of processing (if at all!) – but no amount of hardware or software can fix a lackluster song or a mediocre performance. 

Oh, and don’t get me started on Loops and Sample Packs of all the crusty old genres that are a part of the upcycling of today’s music because no one wants to admit that everything has been done already and it’s time to move on to something new. Yes, there are companies making great experimental sounds and effects – but they are the exception, not the norm, and they are sadly ignored by the masses in a vain attempt to ‘follow the leaders’ in whatever sound is the flavor of the day, week, or month. We have got to get away from this insanity…

(Yes, I understand that Libraries are a boon to creators who have to do a lot of ‘turnaround’ work for video and other media, but when this has become an excuse for ‘cheat coding’ songs across genres you know we’re doing something wrong here.)

Music Technology drives Musical Innovation. Hitting log drums with bones millennia ago, blowing into reed tubes, or mimicking bird and animal calls evolved with technology into the instruments and styles we have today. Next time you get a chance, take a good long look at a piano or a saxophone or even a guitar. Wonder at the technology that went into perfecting that instrument and how many countless hours and incredible failures went into making it. Think about at what point did that technology become ‘The Standard’ and was widely used and just stopped innovating any more. Why did that happen? Did it reach ‘perfection’? Or was it just a usable tool for a particular style that languished into commonality?

The ‘Electronics Boom’ of the early 20th Century developed into the microphones, amplification, multi-track recorders, and electronic instruments we all take for granted today. The ‘Computer Revolution’ of the 1970’s onward accelerated this into what we have today. Digital Synthesizers, Samplers, Virtual Instrument, Effects, and DAW’s are the fruits of that revolution and drove the musical styles of the 80’s, 90’s, and early Aughts.

And that’s where we got stuck – endlessly reiterating the ‘Classics’ instead of pushing the proverbial envelopes. Anyone remember Roland’s tagline from the 80’s and 90’s? It was ‘We Design The Future’. That has now been coded into ’The Future-Redefined’ (which in my opinion is a lame, lazy, and just outright abomination of the original). For the past several Decades they have been churning out Behringer-esque copies of their Greatest Hits of the past with minimal effort put into new techniques and new processes. You can look at Korg, Yamaha, or pretty much any other Electronic Music Manufacturer and see the same trend. It’s really quite sad, and maddening to me since they could be making trends instead of chasing them.

Want to make your mark out there? Stop buying the retreads. Stop giving into the Marketing Machinery that’s taken over the Design Labs and Record Labels and Media. Seek out the new, the weird, the different, the ones trying to push things in another direction. These were the things that made music so interesting in my day (insert Old Man voice here, but I’ll bet you think the same thing when music and pop culture started becoming relevant in your life) was the fact that it felt, looked, and sounded different from the typical guitars and drums and voicing and style that were so prevalent in Popular Music at the time. It was new, exciting, and unexpected. It was that unique mythical creature that not everyone else was hip to… It demanded that I explore and create – not rehash and recycle.

The picture at the top of this post is true – that computer you have right this very moment is the best thing you own creatively. Someone out there has made some really interesting ways (Apps, Scripts, whatever) to make it do things you both want it to do and have never imagined, and if you really want to you can create (code) whatever you want – and there are a lot of people like you out there who can help. But you will not find this from the Major Players in the market – all they care about is Line Goes Up and they will cobble together anything lying around to make that happen. Ignore them.

And this is one of the beautiful things about Pop Culture – it’s always driven by the innovators until it becomes commonplace and a commodity and is then replaced by another iteration or mutation by a new batch of innovators. Be one of those innovators, because it’s the only way to Move Forward. 

Until next time!

The Secretive Genius (Redux)

In honor of the Scottworks Festival starting today in Los Angeles, I’m reposting this from my old Squarespace site. As a great admirer of Raymond Scott I really wish I could be out there for this, but just couldn’t find the time to break away. Hopefully can make the next one… 🙂

The Secretive Genius

Around 30 years ago, we did not have the Alexandrian Library that we call the Intertubes. Back then (aka The Stone Ages) we had to rely on face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and Trade Mags to collect and share information. As a young programmer and engineer I would spend pretty much all my downtime pouring through Mix, EQ, Electronic Musician, and Keyboard Magazine checking out the latest gear, deciphering DIY projects, and hyperexamining studio and stage setups for any tidbits I could apply to my work. Like Scotty reading technical manuals for relaxtion in the original Star Trek series, this was my decompression, my centering, my moments to breathe. I still do this today. 🙂

But I digress… One of the more interesting things to be found was Keyboard Mag’s Soundpages. These were Flexi-Disc records attached to the middle of the rag with excerpts of artists’ work or some product or effect processor demo tracks (nice listing here, and Peter Kirn talks about the Flexi-Discs here). They were a nice accompaniment to a featured article or a product review, and at least from me garnered a quick listen before being tossed into the dustbin. But one month changed my musical life significantly.

I knew about all of the big players in the Electronic Music Industry – Moog, Buchla, Oberheim, Smith, Linn, Palm, Rossum and Wedge, and a good bit about the musicians themselves – Walter/Wendy Carlos, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Stockhausen, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, as well as the modern wave of Rhodes, Clarke, Gore/Wilder, et. al., so I figured I had a pretty good handle on the ‘Scene’ so to speak. But with this particular Soundpage I was introduced to someone I had never heard of before. And I wasn’t alone.

Raymond Scott was a composer and bandleader who had quite a bit of success from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, and most likely would have been relegated to subchapters of the history books for just that if it weren’t for one tiny little other thing: he was creating and implementing electronics for music creation as far back as the mid 1940’s. I can’t even begin to dig into Raymond’s incredible life in this Post, so go check the official source and poke around if you want a lot more information. There is a lot of it.
This particular Keyboard Soundpage was showing off one of Scott’s most impressive creations, The Electronium (that’s it in the picture at the top – gorgeous, isn’t it?) The Electronium was not just some ‘bloop and bleep’ noisemaker as was common for electronic instruments at the time – it was an automated composition station as well. Take a moment and think about that for a bit. Scott had dreamed up and was developing – in 1959 – what our Industry took for granted just 30 years later with our MIDI modules and sequencers and still utilize with computers and DAW’s today. This alone is just completely mind-blowing, and when the article went on to talk about the many, many other inventions he had developed, I was hooked. Who was this guy and why am I finding out about this now? It wasn’t just the sounds that came off that Soundpage that beguiled me, but his musical style did too. I had to know more, but back then there wasn’t much to find.

Thanks to Jeff, Irwin, and Gert-Jan over at the Raymond Scott Archives, his music and history have become much more known to the masses thanks to their website and tireless devotion to all things Raymond Scott (thanks for all you do kids), but with all of the information and recordings and patents and writings that they have uncovered throughout these many years, there is still one big unanswered question to me: Why there was someone actively forging the future of music, and yet it took until after his death for any of this to come to light? Why was Raymond Scott such the Secretive Genius?

Although Scott himself expressed regret about this in his writings (he admitted that he was probably ‘too secretive’ and ‘worried about people stealing his ideas’), I personally believe that he was so enamored by the technology of it all – the ‘what-if’s’, the tinkering, the endless possibilities, that the very idea of finishing something and getting it out there just wasn’t as exciting to him. 

I think a lot of Artists have the same issues.

Just imagine what might have been if Scott had put The Electronuim on the market. Or the Clavivox (which he advertised for sale, but I don’t think any were actually sold), Or the Fascination Series (2018 Update: Rebel Technologies is making one! Give to Daddy!). Or his Circle Machine Sequencer. Would Electronic Music have been as commonplace in the 1960’s as it is today? What would his ideas have spawned in the minds of creators like Dave Smith or Ikutaro Kakehashi? (Raymond worked with Bob Moog, so we can safely assume that some of his ideas found their way there, however miniscule they might have been.) What we create and listen to today might be radically different, yet surprisingly familiar.

Nice thought experiment, and well worth thinking about this regarding your own work. Are you a Secretive Genius too? Are you too worried about others ‘stealing your ideas’ or too caught up in the tinkering that getting things out is the last thing in your mind? I know I’m guilty…

Yes, there’s always the possibility that after you slip off This Mortal Coil that your archives will be heralded as the work of ‘forward-thinking brilliance’ just as much as it could be panned as ‘run-of-the-mill insipidness’. Neither of which would matter, as you are neither there to bask in the adulation nor defend your body of work. 
As I’ve said before, you are currently in the perfect time to be an Artist. Stop being so clever and just get it out there – your audience is waiting. Would Raymond Scott agree? From the regret he expressed in his later years, I believe he would.

This Post was inspired by the release of Raymond Scott’s Three Willow Park on June 30th (2017) on CD, Vinyl (!?!) and most Streaming Services. 3WP (like its predecessor Manhattan Research, Inc.) is absolute joy to listen to not only for the achievements of Raymond’s engineering and musical prowess, but for how much he predicted the electronic music that would follow. Again, keep in mind that it’s very likely that nobody heard what Scott was doing (other than a few 50s/60s era commercials or Warner Brothers cartoon adaptations by Carl Stalling), so if you hear a bit of Devo, or Metamatic-era John Foxx, or early Techno, then just smile and think of what could have been… 🙂