I’m sick of sitting on the sidelines, let’s make some choons

It’s been an interesting few weeks – I have been inspired to seriously do something about the dream that I have held onto since late high-school: to buy a keyboard and try and make my own music.

I have found myself at a bit of a loose end these last couple of months – I have managed to get my work/life balance to a point where I now pretty much only work the hours that I actually get paid for, with the occasional extra hours that I am now happy to do.  As a result I have had to struggle to fill the time with something of value; after years of long hours I have lost sight of myself and now need to decide what I really want.

I thought about working on my own online business or developing an iPhone app; after all I’m a programmer by trade and that is what I’m good at, but it seemed too much like hard work even if there was some extra cash potential.  Money has been tight with a new-born and all, but we are scraping by for the most part.

I tried to simply relax and enjoy time with the family, listen to music, read etc etc, but I still felt like a dumb consumer – if I’m not creating something what is the point?  I briefly considered getting back into my artwork as I used to have some skill at drawing, but I didn’t really have anything in my heart that I wanted to say.

Then one day I heard a demo by some guy of some psy-trance stuff that he had been writing for himself over the years.  As far as I know it was all software based, and was quite well produced and engineered, and hearing it played on a decent system gave me a vicarious sense of hearing your own music being played and enjoyed somewhere else by someone else.

Despite the potential it had, I couldn’t help thinking later, “surely I could do that”.  And that, as they say, is that.  As any motivational speaker will say, feelings precede actions, and that thought lodged in my head and quietly made plans.  Plus, I was reminded of Fran’s comment from Black Books:

I must be musical. I’ve got hundreds of CDs.

The next day I was in the local pawn shop looking for cheap Blu-rays and generally chilling out and saw a pair of Behringer MS-40 monitor speakers for $129.  I was quite taken by them for a number of reasons:

  • They were affordable, although until I did my obligatory google search for reviews I didn’t let that sway me too much
  • They were active speakers, which was very convenient for hooking up to the computer and ditching the 30 year Dual amp I was using, along with the crappy speakers from an old 80’s ‘all-in-one’ National system (it had a record player; that’s how old it was)
  • They had a coax and optical digital input as well as standard RCA and also a 3.5mm stereo jackplug
  • They did 24 bit/192 KHz digital-analogue conversion.  That was the exciting bit
  • There were a number of other nice features: headphone jack in the front, dual volume controls for digital and analogue inputs so you could effectively mix them together, bass and treble controls, and inbuilt power supply with detachable power cord (amazing how many companies insist on dangling crap off the back which you can’t disconnect)

There were also a pair of Krix bookshelf speakers which were pretty ancient, but after haggling with the guy I got for $11.  Turns out that one had a busted tweeter but I have sourced a new Peerless driver that is a direct replacement and I may even get two and replace them both and it is still a good deal.

Regarding the Behringers I figured, what they hey; I can use them for the computer, and if I ever make music they will be perfect monitors (funny that).  Also, they’ll be kick-arse for DJ monitoring, especially being active so much less mucking around with cables and amps.  They aren’t the most accurate or powerful speakers out there, but are a great starting point.

After getting them home and hooking them up via coax to the digital out of my Creative Audigy NX on the old Windows laptop and hearing the sweet, digital tones, I felt like I had broken some kind of barrier and stepped up a notch.

Memory fails me, but within 24 hours, maybe even that night, I found myself on the Ableton website looking at their Live! product and getting really exciting watching the demo with the guy using Live! and the AKAI APC40 controller.  It seemed a method of working that really struck a chord (no pun intended) with my way of thinking.

Also, I tied this in to the fact that I have a powerful Macbook Pro which isn’t doing a hell of a lot, yet is a near perfect music making machine.

24 hours later I was at a friend’s house showing him the same demo and me explaining how inspired I was, and could I borrow some books and magazines?  He had tried his hand at making music in the past but for whatever reason had ended up taking up fishing instead and devoting his life to that.  However, with the inevitable march of progress, I reckon he could be tempted to get back into it and swap his hardware samplers and sequencers for software.  Looks like I might have my first collaborator.

Armed with a bunch of (out of date but still interesting) material (lots of Future Music mags) I spent a few more hours looking into my options for starting out in music production with bugger-all money and without falling into the trap of convincing myself I need all this ‘stuff’ before I could make a track and using that as an excuse for not achieving anything – “I gave up because I just couldn’t get the right ‘whauuu chicka wau wau’ sound”.

I narrowed it down to the following:

  • Some ‘do-it-all’ software such as Ableton Live!
  • A MIDI controller – this was a must.  I have no musical training besides damn good taste, and need some way of being able to play around and get notes into the software with some sort of tactile feedback. Pecking out notes via the mouse would be a dead end as I just wouldn’t know what would come next.  I wanted something decent enough that I wouldn’t feel limited (velocity sensitivity was mandatory of course), but a full 88 weighted keys was laughably ambitious
  • Good headphones to keep the peace at home.  I didn’t skimp here as good headphones are always useful, even if I realise eventually that the music isn’t in me

I was keen on the AKAI APC40 (it looks so sweet), but figured I needed to focus on getting the music in before jumping the gun and thinking about live performances (nothing wrong with thinking big though).

Armed with my more musically experienced friend and a bunch of competitive prices from the internet (local Aussie stores only, although with the AU dollar being what it is now, the US is a good option), I went into my local music shop to ‘get ideas’.  The gentleman at McCanns was very helpful and after considering various options I walked out with an M-Audio Oxygen 49 MIDI controller and a pair of AKG K-141 MK II headphones, and an order for the boxed copy of Ableton Live! Intro (with the extra 7 Gb of samples you don’t get with the downloadable version).

Originally I thought I would get the M-Audio Axiom 61 keyboard for two reasons:

  • It had semi-weighted keys and aftertouch, which I figured would make anything I learnt more ‘useful’ in terms of applicability to a piano or other professional keyboard, and I liked the idea of the extra expressive possibilities of aftertouch.  Plus it had more keys
  • It had 8 assignable pads which seemed like a great way to create drum-patterns

I sensibly cut back to the Oxygen as I set myself a 6 month timeframe to see if this whole experiment was going to go somewhere, and if so I could justify an upgrade.  The Oxygen was pretty sweet though, as it had assignable faders and knobs to control parameters in the software in real-time.  Plus it was in stock, and patience isn’t one of my strong points, especially when I had already been waiting 20 years.

I should take a step back and say that originally my dream wasn’t so much to create music but to be a keyboard virtuoso.  Back in high school I wasn’t seized with the idea of being a composer as such.  I had discovered prog rock around that time, which inevitably meant encounters with luminaries like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, and let’s face it, those guys could play.  Being a shy teenager this seemed like a wonderful way to be ‘somebody’.  Of course, I did realise that the rest of the world wasn’t sophisticated enough to give a shit about how Keith could play his Hammond upside down while stabbing it, but I wasn’t willing to compromise and do something ‘popular’.

Fast-forwarding to 2011 (gosh!), I think I identify more with the laptop DJ/musician than the super-talented keyboardist who has been playing since the day he could crawl inside his parent’s Hammond organ.
But, one thing I hold dear is that I don’t want to play with other people’s loops, or churn out bland quantised tunes based on straight presets.  The ability to tweak the sound in real-time is vitally important so lots of knobs and sliders is essential.  After all, the TB-303 is pretty much my favourite instrument and where would Techno be without the ability to play a repeated series of notes but then vary the filters etc in an infinite variety of ways?

Plus, I was excited about being able to put my money where my mouth is so to speak, and produce some 24bit/96+KHz audio and release it to the world.  After all, someone has to do it, and I might end up being a pioneer in this space (which is a sad lookout for the industry really).

To achieve that I needed to figure out how to get high-definition audio out of the Macbook.  My first thought was that maybe Apple TV would be a great way to do it.  After all, it’s wireless so I don’t need to faff around with setting the laptop up in the lounge room with cables.  Plus I get the benefits of using the shitty iTunes interface to browse shows that I may be interested in downloading and watching.  Or not.

Well, it looks like Apple missed the mark yet again.  It seems like Apple TV will take a high-definition audio signal, but then kindly down-sample it before sending it via of its’ optical output.  See the discussion here for all the gory details of FAIL, complete with some comments from yours truly.

A quick search for further options revealed a pleasant surprise – the MacBook actually has optical output capabilities built-in.  Well, bugger me, how the fuck was I supposed to know that the headphone output was actually optical as well?  After popping down to Jaycar and buying a new TOSLINK cable and a 3.5mm adaptor, I can now plug directly into the amp (and my monitors) and get a full high def audio signal.  Okay, so I still need a cable, but the result sounds awesome.

The only high definition audio I have on the computer is a copy of the FLACs released by Mat Jarvis of his awesome ‘Gas‘ album (yes, I don’t own these yet, I’ll buy it in 3 days when my credit card rolls into its next period, but I do own the original low definition CD).  Firing these up through the Behringers was an inspiring experience, and gave a taste of what was possible.

So there you have it – the beginnings of yet another bedroom musician (thought I have a headstart in that I actually have a GARAGE.  Yeah!).  I’ve been playing around with a trial of Ableton Live! while I wait for my boxed version to arrive and I must admit it is a great piece of software.  I reckon that’s because the guys from Monolake are (heavily) involved.  From Robert Henke’s interview, when asked ‘What are your weaknesses as a musician?” he replied:

I cannot play an instrument. I cannot remember melodies. I cannot sing. I have bad timing. I know way too little about counterpoint. I am just someone who is addicted to sound and who under any circumstances wants to create music with electronic instruments. This is what has kept me doing it for almost 20 years.

What a fucking legend and complete inspiration.  Check out his interview in the ‘Berlin Digital‘ DVD too (and the segment on Ableton and Native Instruments).  Can’t believe there seems to be nothing on youtube from this DVD – if I knew how I’d rip my copy and upload it.

Wish I’d heard of him 20 years ago though …