The Digital Age

Sometimes being an artist who makes electronic music is more trouble than it's worth.  Sure, I usually have the wide world of sound at my fingertips with every tool imaginable no more than a few clicks away.  I could never do what I do without technology--I never had the discipline or dexterity to be good at a regular instrument.  I never wanted to take lessons.  I usually had trouble working with bands.  So the computer/synth studio has always been my only 'in' to the world of making music.  Without the technology, I'd probably be a painter.  But sometimes, like when the computer needs to be replaced, I wonder if it's all worth it.

I started making music in 1991 with a couple of drum machines and synth modules all connected with MIDI cables.  The closest thing we had to a computer was some kind of rack-mounted storage device that would record and save our patches and midi sequences.  By 1993 I was working with a DOS version of Cakewalk and I was amazed that the computer could actually record the sequences and play them back on the hardware.  That machine didn't even boot up into Windows, but it worked.

I used the first Windows-based version of Cakewalk from late 1993 until 2001 when I was writing the songs for Monster Music.  When it was time to mix, I took my sequences and my hardware down to a studio, plugged it all in and loaded up the MIDI files from a floppy disc and went to town.  Around that time I was toying around with the idea of a new sequencer, something that could take advantage of some of my newer computer's speed and power.  I settled on Cubase, but all the way through the recording of Fashion Victim, I still never used my computer for anything other than a MIDI sequencer.  I did all of the sample editing in a hardware sampler, and just like I had 10 years earlier, I saved all of my patches with the sequence data and initialized the hardware each time I pressed play.

While I was mixing Kelvin with Genetic at his home studio, he asked why I wasn't rendering the tracks down to audio.  Of course it had occurred to me to do this, but never until the mixing phase.  I always assumed I would have the most flexibility and control over the sound if I kept everything MIDI up until the time I was ready to lay it down.  This came from the older days of working with tape and not wanting to commit anything until it was completely ready--after all, you don't want to waste tape.  When I started working on new tracks after the Fashion Victim tour, I decided I would start playing around with  computer audio.

The first thing to go was the sampler--I replaced the Akai hardware sampler with Native Instruments' software equivalent, Kontakt.  It took a little getting used to but before long I realized how nice it was not to worry about how long a sample was, or how much memory it took up.  I didn't have to edit and trim and save everything with the cuts to save space--I could load a whole beat into Kontakt, virtually trim it down to a single snare drum, then copy the beat again and pull out a kick, without ever hacking the actual audio file down.  Nice!  I started looking for a way to replace my trusty synths next.

Each time I bought something new in the virtual instrument world, I would get rid of something on ebay in the real world.  The Emu Vintage Keys, Yamaha CS1x, TX81z, and the Novation A-Station were all replaced with software.  Before I knew it, I was looking at my 14 channel mixer and wondering why I needed something so big.  My hardware effects units were collecting dust and everything was just firing off in Cubase.  I didn't even use a MIDI controller much anymore--it was all point and click and virtual on-screen knobs.  But there were trade-offs, too.

For one thing, I used an Ensoniq EPS 16+ sampler keyboard for 12 years without a glitch but since I moved to the world of computer audio, I have gone through five different computers.  Each computer has had a different set up (live vs. studio) and every time I change of course there's a new operating system, new plugins and patches, new things to learn, and old things to reinstall.  Drivers, registration codes, unlock keys, challenge/response strings, service packs--it can all be a little maddening.  The old hardware wasn't too expandable and it didn't get a new set of features every couple of years, but it also didn't ever change.  I never had to update the firmware on a keyboard or install new drivers--I just flipped a switch and those things worked.  With software, even to get the same device to perform the same function on a different system, sometimes it requires a whole new set of patches and code.  Sometimes it won't work at all!

My latest computer upgrade was necessitated by the fact that all those fancy audio programs just wouldn't run smoothly anymore on my old beast of a desktop.  That machine still exceeds recommended qualifiactions for every piece of software that I use, but somehow when they all work together, they are just too much.  Years of internet browsing, defragging, photoshopping, and other non-music activities took their toll.  Since Microsoft has released two more major OS upgrades since the last time I bought a computer, and since I wasn't going to build my own machine this time, I finally hit a wall.

After several hours of futzing around with install discs and registration codes, I finally got most of my core products to work.  Cubase and the Native Instruments products all work and there's a noticable lack of processor strain on this new quad core machine.  Still, not everything is perfect.  The Antares Filter VST does not play with Vista and Antares is making too much money from AutoTune to be bothered to look into it.  They've simply stopped supporting Filter which is a real shame since it's a fantastic piece of software and it does something unique.  Pluggo needs a new authorization code so that means an email to Cycling 74 who are no longer selling Pluggo but claim to still support existing users (I hope!)   My trusty and 10+ year old sound card won't even fit in the new computer so I've resorted to using some Firewire breakout box that isn't quite as good and is going to need to be replaced.  I haven't used the new setup long enough to know if that's it, but I get the feeling that's NOT it. 

For all the ease and availability that this technology offers, it all comes with a price.  Sometimes that price is just a reboot and walkaway kind of thing, but other times, it's more like weeks and weeks of not doing anything because it's impossible to be productive when there are nagging software registrations and drivers and other shit to deal with.  Sometimes the price is too high, and I wish that I made music with a distortion pedal and a rock or something--but even then I'd still have to record it into something and I'm sure that just when I'd find that perfect tone, I'd look over to my computer screen and see a prompt to install a newer driver.