Jim Aikin remains one of my heroes in music technology journalism. As a magazine writer, book author, and editor (including a long stint on staff at Keyboard), he’s contributed an immeasurable amount of the writing about evolving music tech over the past decades. I’ve also gotten to appreciate his craft and insight as a reader having had him as technical editor on my book. But the real reason I respect Jim is that he always speaks his mind, and he thinks beyond the regular stream of writing to the bigger picture — meaning actual music making. So I’m happy to give him a guest spot here on CDM to remind us about the importance of matters that don’t necessarily fit into magazine articles. -PK
Reading Peter Kirn’s articles on mix automation and microphone types in the new Electronic Musician Personal Studio Buyer’s Guide left me feeling a bit sad and tired. Don’t misunderstand: They’re very good articles, and I’m always glad to see younger colleagues getting their byline out there. That wasn’t where the sadness came from.
Part of my reaction, as it turned out, arose from the fact that these pieces are reprinted excerpts from Peter’s Real World Digital Audio, a book project for which I was the editor. So I was subliminally aware that the material was not fresh because I had actually seen it before.
But there’s a bigger issue here: I think I’ve written too many how-to and what-is-it articles over the last 30 years. Been there, done that, bought the coffee mug. A few years back I was looking for technical material on near-field monitors. I found a cover story on this precise topic in an old issue of Keyboard — and then realized I had written the cover story. I had no memory of having done so.
I know there’s still a need for features that introduce musicians to the concepts, because new musicians are always coming along. But at this point in my life, I mainly want to play music. With writers like Peter on the job, there’s no need for me to write another word. (I will make an exception when Reason 4.0 arrives on my doorstep next week. That’s one product review I’m itching to write.)
Most of the technological challenges I deal with today are not the sort that can be turned into magazine articles. I just bought a pair of JBL Eon G2 powered speakers, for instance, from Sweetwater — and I’m sending them back in exchange for some passive JBL speakers with smaller woofers. Two reasons: The Eons’ massive size (I’m getting too old to lift them without risk of injury), but more importantly their massive bass response. If you’re doing dance music, you’d probably love the Eons. But in order to pump my backing tracks through them at a gig, I would have to remix everything to dial back the overwhelming bass.
The process of educating myself about the frequency response of monitors was laborious, and made worse by the profound shortage of reliable specs. Most of the so-called “specs” on loudspeaker frequency response that I found on the Web are pure marketing fluff. That’s not a suitable topic for a magazine article, though. For one thing, it would alienate advertisers. For another, there’s very little helpful information I could pass on to readers, other than, “Do some listening tests.”
And please don’t tell anyone that I sweet-talked Sweetwater into taking back the Eons after I had auditioned them. I’m sure they don’t want to be in the rent-a-loudspeaker-for-a-week-for-free business. The Internet is a great place for low prices, but if you need to do hands-on or ears-on comparison shopping, PLEASE buy from your local retailer. Don’t use the floor stock and then buy online. It may cost a little more, but you’re making an investment in that store so that it won’t have closed its doors the next time you need to check out some gear.
Here’s another example: I bought a new laptop (also for gigging), and an M-Audio Ozone keyboard-plus-audio-interface to turn the laptop into a studio-in-a-backpack. Way cool! I already had an M-Audio Fast Track Pro, which is a better quality interface and would be more useful in clubs, where I certainly don’t need the Ozone’s spongy two-octave keyboard. Trouble is, only one M-Audio USB ASIO interface can exist in Windows at a time. When both the Ozone and Fast Track Pro drivers are installed, the Ozone can’t use ASIO, though it can still use high-latency DirectSound.
I don’t know whether this is a Windows problem or an M-Audio problem. Either way, uninstalling and reinstalling drivers over and over isn’t impossible, it’s just annoying. But try turning that inconvenient fact into a magazine article. As they say in Texas, “That dog won’t hunt.”
A few weeks ago, I turned down an offer from a major publisher to write a how-to book on the soon-to-be-released next version of Ableton Live. It wasn’t a very good offer, but the real reason I gave it a pass was because, you know, Live comes with a manual. Why would anybody want to buy a separate book about it? That makes very little sense to me.
If you buy a copy of Live (and it’s a terrific piece of software), here’s what you should do: Make music. Make music all day and far into the night. Don’t worry about mix automation until you need mix automation. When you need it, read the manual. If you don’t understand the manual, and if clicking on a bunch of stuff on-screen doesn’t help, post a few messages on a user forum and learn from other musicians. Then go back to making music.
At 10:00 tonight, after three hours working on a synth arrangement in the computer, I pulled out the cello and started improvising over my new track. That’s purely enjoyable. I tried a few fancy licks, but mainly I just played the tune. You might think it’s a pretty good tune (or not), but I think it’s terrific, because I recorded exactly what I wanted to hear.
One reason it’s enjoyable is because I’ve put a LOT of hours into learning to play the cello, and a lot more hours into thinking about chords and melodies. I know how to produce the sounds that I want, in real time, using a bow.
Is there a magazine article in that? No. The message is way too short and sweet: Play music. Don’t get distracted — life is too short for distractions. Just play music, that’s all. Do exactly what you like musically, and stay focussed, and work hard at it, and get better. Become amazing. If you can find other people to play with, you’ll have more fun, and you’ll learn some people skills on the side. If you can’t find anyone who is into what you’re into, do it all yourself.
Find some people who want to listen, and play your music for them. Watch their faces while you play. Learn a new instrument, or re-learn an old instrument. Care about tone. Care about rhythm. Care about chords and intonation and technique. Play with passion and insight. Continue until the world ends. Then stop.