Thursday rant time: It’s time to get over loops, stop generalizing about music technology, and find the record button.

Poor GarageBand. Loops can be a fantastic tool, a way of sketching out ideas, having virtual instrumentalists with which to practice your chops, or remixed into something truly original, and they’re useful to beginners and pros alike in those roles. They don’t replace live musicians, but that’s not the point; they’re useful for what they do well. They’re also the most misunderstood of modern music tech. Unfortunately, non-musician journalists like The New York Times’ Michael Walker keep trying to squeeze some deeper meaning about modern music-making out of loop-based software without understanding either music creation or technology. In Mr. Walker’s case, researching an article means piecing together random loops, failing to impress KCRW radio’s star DJ or the masses on MySpace, and then deciding the whole experience reveals something profound about digital music technology:

A computer had generated it. I had helped things along but was more of a spectator. Nevertheless, “Eventide” was something I had created, and like all creations was entitled to a measure of emotional exuberance from its creator.

Sure, the Times author set his expectations low, and is surprised when his track came out sounding decent. That’s the reaction of many people to GarageBand. But the assumption that the computer is somehow doing the work is awfully naive. The computer didn’t create anything. The results are nothing more magical than piecing together recordings of someone else’s playing, made easier by the software interface, but still the basic recorded music production process at heart. In fact, the fundamental nature of the process is producing a track, but without any interaction with the musicians — hence the relatively stale results. Look closely at some of the Apple Loops included with Apple’s software, and you’ll often see the names of the Apple developers who recorded the loops. (Others are licensed from a third-party developer.) They’re the ones who really created the track, with Mr. Walker as producer.

Despite that, the author takes this as an opportunity both to imagine a future of music freed of actual musical talent, all the while criticizing his own work as being overly dependent on the computer. Huh? Mightn’t the clear message instead be that you get out what you put in, and that faking musical ability with loops might sound slick, but it won’t sound real?

Failing to notice this wouldn’t be so bothersome, if KCRW’s Nic Harcourt and Walker alike didn’t try to establish a broader message about music. Does this really democratize music creation? In terms of establishing the musician at the center of the recording process instead of the studio, perhaps. But that’s nothing new. The tape recorder did that; accordingly, listen to a reissued Beatles demo tape, and it still sounds great. In fact, GarageBand changes nothing about the nature of recording, about musicianship, or about craft. But for some reasons music technology topics are license for mainstream newspapers to publish pieces with zero news, zero research, and strikingly little to actually say. Sounds like a blog entry to me.

Sadder to me, though, is that the technology itself gets the blame, rather than the musician. It’s not just the Times story that’s frustrating here, because we’ve heard this far too many times before. Who’s to say GarageBand has to be mechanical? Plug in a guitar, a vocal, a MIDI keyboard, and play live. Turn off the metronome, if you want. (How many journalists have missed the fact that GarageBand can record MIDI and audio?) The results might not sound good, but they will sound human. And that’s where the next hit will come from, if that’s really what you want. In fact, musical hits can come from novice musicians. Musical traditions around the world from folk to rock depend on untrained musicians, putting their heart and soul into a track. No technology is every likely to change that. But nothing’s stopping you from doing that with tools like GarageBand, either. Unless you can’t find the record button, that is.

I hope that laypeople will come to better understand the technology, and that means we need to do a better job explaining how it works to non-experts. But even more so, I hope journalists will start to pay more attention to musicians, and try a little harder to actually learn something. And that’s by no means an elitist position. On the contrary, the writing I’ve most enjoyed doing has been when I’ve gotten to talk to master musicians in a variety of genres and listen to what matters to them. I know what my own process is, and I know what my own music means, so I’m not nearly as interested in that as I am in other people. It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow, and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing — because it’s a chance to find out someone else’s story.

So get over the loops already, and make some actual music. Even if it means singing badly over your new backing track. Most of the world’s music is probably still made in the shower, anyway — and I bet some of it isn’t half bad.

  • markrushtonmusic

    I've been using Acid for over 5 years, so naturally I'm interested in GarageBand stories since I enjoy working with loops and arrangements.

    The story in the NY Times lost me when the reporter played it for Nic Harcourt.

    That's sort of like saying, "I bought a digital camcorder, Final Cut Pro, and then played my first 5 minute movie for Steven Spielberg."

    On the other hand, I think that anything that sparks creativity in the arts is a good thing. Even if the reporter is using obviously ready-made loops with simple arrangements and default tempo and key settings, that's OK. He'll either get bored and quit or he'll explore the additional possibilities that such programs offer.

  • admin

    . . . but I agree. :)

    And absolutely, if this got his juices going, great. But the larger conclusions kind of miss the boat.

    Then again, this demonstrates something unique about music software. People do expect to play around with graphics software and video software, and even the GarageBands of the world can seem far more mystifying. On the other hand, I wouldn't expect to jump straight into Maya and do 3D modeling, and people's first Final Cut videos look as awful as those GarageBand tunes can sound, so . . . maybe there's really not any difference, after all.

  • alfonso.el.sabio

    It's funny…I've done 4 CDs, working from GarageBand and I stopped using their canned loops from Day Uno. Now as for loooping my OWN stuff…well, that's another story. And yeah, I use it to record audio and MIDI, too. I can't afford much else in the way of music software at this point, so GB is my software for laying down tracks and blending and mixing before I output it to an AIFF file(by way of iTunes) for final mastering with Amadeus II. One of these days I'll get ahold of some more sophisticated software and maybe remaster some of these tunes.

    Thanks for an insightful and critical piece that hopefully will remind some who need it that it's about the creation, not the tools.

  • shineman

    I have not problem with loops. I think they can be a good start and basis for a composition. Minimalists have been using them for decades. I think, what is missing in the case of Mr. Walker's experience is the key ingredient in making _good_ music: a good musician.


  • Kaden

    Has the often voiced contention that the Apple userbase is genetically predisposed towards superior creative ability manifested itself in the form of superior loop-based compositions?

    Really, we need an Acid vs Garageband Steel Cage Shovel Fight immediately.

  • Peter Kirn


    I'm going to have to go out on a limb here, though, and say that the creative Mac users really prefer Ableton Live. Mac laptops running Live just seem to be covering the face of the Earth. (And while there are plenty of PCs, too, there seems to be something about that Mac/Live combination.)

  • Paul P

    Mac user who swears by Logic and Reason here.

    I never got into Live. Perhaps once I get a new machine I'll think about being able to change stuff on the fly in a live setting. That would be nice, if even to just repeat a chorus one more time at the end without having to pre-program it.

  • Peter Kirn

    I love Logic and Reason, too. In fact, for a really crazy session, I'll ReWire both Reason and Live into Logic.

    You can do some interactive arrangement stuff, I *think*, within Logic . . . or you could just load into Reason which might be easier. The advantage of ReWire is that you take up the system resources of only one application, not both.

  • Paul P

    My poor old Dual 450 G4 doesn't handle ReWire very well any more, even with 2 GB RAM.

    I do all my backing tracks (bass, drums, keys, samples) in Reason, then export that as a stereo AIFF and drop it in a stereo track in Logic.

    I then record my guitar and vocal tracks, and bounce from there. This seems to be the only way I can work on songs that would have 40-50 tracks and still experiment all I want with effects. Hopefully I will be able to pick up a newer machine at some point and do it all with ReWire.

    On a side note, I think the influx of bloggers / tech people into the news sector has done wonders for journalistic integrity. We still have a long way to go before CNN no longer decides what a nation's opinion is, but things are looking up.

  • Sam B

    does it really matter if the mac usberbase is genetically predisposed twords creativty, Kaden? It doesn't make mac users any better than people whho use pc's running Acid. There are so many important things in life — why waste time advocating the contention between mac and pc? If it's because you havew too much time on your hands, I have a suggestion — go make a song on garageband (or Acid).

  • Nikki Ty-Tomkins

    Thank YOU. After years and years of serious study … including a degree from Juilliard … I was horrified and offended by Michael Walker’s foray into “Cyber Composing” … and even worse, his rush to press with it. I compose for piano in the neo-classical style … which means extremely careful craftsmanship and awareness of the basic forms which have evolved and maintained their validity for several hundred years. Not random chips and clips. Not a total ignorance of the relationships between modes and keys, modulations and development and a host of other details which distinguish an exceptional work from one slapped together by a ersatz “composer” many of whom don’t even actually “play” the instrument for which they assume they can compose. Look at the ridiculous tempi and stretches in some of the “piano” works … which are little more than an avalanche of arpeggios over a thinly conceived melody. Ear fluff suitable for relaxation in the dentist’s chair. Nothing which will survive beyond a few months on You Tube,

    Too many dabblers forget that even the great composers of popular music had extensive knowledge of their metier ..Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, Andrew Lloyd Weber and even the Beatles come immediately to mind,

    Hopefully in the future, these extraordinary tools will open a door to a
    menu of truly creative and innovative composing but for now it’s a limited
    choice. Junk food or something more substantial.