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.

  • http://www.chrisschlarb.com schlarb

    I thought this article was going to zig one way then it zagged another. In an age of education through experience and not experiments, these words ring true for me. Thanks.

  • bliss

    God, that was beautiful! Right on point, and believe it or not, just the conclusion I've arrived at on my own just within the past week. I was thinking about how users are complaining about the new version of Logic Studio 8, about how old features are gone and new features, while exciting, doesn't replace the charm of the old features. And how that same Logic is really the [i]the same[/i] as its always been, which is not perfect. And some of these users are so good at what they do, know the program inside and out, and yet they have seemingly no enthusiasm for the product because it doesn't make them feel special anymore. Well, what about the music? Surely, that's more important, and surely, while not the same as it once was, it's still capable of what it's always been capable of. And then there's the row between those who use presets and those who roll their own patches… What a complete waste of time. Those discussions are more about gratifying one's ego than about music.

    Here is where Aiken won my heart: "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." And Woody Allen, a great jazz clarinetist in his own right, said this, "Better than to live on in the hearts and minds of the public is to live on in one’s apartment." Of course, there's something to be said for winning the hearts and minds of the public, though, what should be of paramount of importance? Life. Even if you're confined to your apartment. "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." That was said by Charlie Parker. Can't write magazine articles out of either of those statements. But the value of the information contained in those statements should be obvious. If you're making music, then that's what you should be making. Jim said that as well, "Play with passion and insight. Continue until the world ends. Then stop."

    Great article!

  • http://www.microrelease.com Todd Fletcher

    Yep, good advice. I often see topics on various forums about getting inspired, or motivated. I never understand these topics. Just play and enjoy yourself and let others enjoy too if that works. What else is music for?

  • Tony

    Hehe, I think I'm hearing echoes of what Elton John recently said in Jim's piece.

    I used to be a pretty decent writer, and in the past decade I've learned a lot about "digital music". But I couldn't even fool myself into thinking I could write Square One as clearly as Jim does. It takes a firm grasp of advanced ideas to write about the basics so clearly.

    We may be the luckiest musicians who ever lived, with all these wonderful new toys to play with. Often, my wonderful (YMMV) ideas got crippled or lost in a tangle of hardware, software and interface hassles. Sometimes the best results happened when I remembered that I was playing when this stuff was just a gleam in someone's eye.

    But then again, the gear gives me expressive potential that I never dreamed of back then. So while we do need to struggle for a balance, we can also enjoy the efforts of younger artists who seem to master Live just by looking at it.

    Finally, I want to fully agree with bliss about preset arguments. "Piano" is a preset. "Oboe" is a preset. Not everyone wants or needs to invent a new instrument. I can think of one or two musicians who played old instruments in new ways and somehow managed all right. I'm still feel musicianship a lot more than I feel novelty.

  • Greg

    This, I think, is why I enjoy using SuperCollider. Yes, there are tutorials and help texts, but there is still so much that needs to be discovered on your own. I imagine that there are thousands of ways to use the program and get interesting sounds, and dare I say, music.

    I think that creating a new sound or concept from scratch is a great start to making original music, but it is by no means to only way.

  • Jesse

    Not a magazine article in there? I think that read exactly like a lot of magazine articles that SHOULD be printed. (maybe the fear of pissing off advertisers prevents total honesty?) Either way – I'd buy more audio magazines, and glance at more of their advertisements if I came across more essays like that within the printed page.

  • Tyler

    "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"

    ASIO4all? lol.

  • Pingback: Stefan Goodchild » Blog Archive » Ableton Live Next?

  • http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/~lazzaro/ John Lazzaro

    When I read Sound on Sound every month,

    I am always impressed at the level of knowledge

    and experience of Paul White and Hugh

    Robjohns, and how sincerely they approach the

    education mission in their leadership of the magazine.

    The "Making a Living From Music for Picture" multi-part

    series was a great example of what a magazine can do

    when they take the educational mission seriously. I am

    sure that dozens of people will look back 10 years from now

    and say that those articles changed their career path.

    And in a different way, when I look at the

    tutorial PDFs posted on the UK Computer

    Music magazine website, I'm impressed with

    the level of work that goes into each one, and

    how hard they work at connecting to the beginner.

    If you've never read them, check them out here:

    http://www.computermusic.co.uk/page/computermusic

    The Latin Percussion tutorials are a good example.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Hi John,

    I've actually written a couple of feature tutorials for CM, though there aren't free PDFs available … CM donesn't have bylines. ;) But I absolutely agree, very worthy publications with terrific editors. Haven't gotten to work with Paul and SOS, but appreciate the magazine he's put together very much, and have really enjoyed working with the CM team.

    That said, I think Jim's been a leader himself in terms of an educational mission. But while it doesn't necessarily make me sad or tired (though I have been known to experience those feelings!), there are absolutely still ideas that don't fit into Keyboard, EM, Computer Music, or Sound on Sound. There are times to put down the magazine, just as there are times when us writers really need to get away from the QWERTY keyboard and back to the music keyboard (or cello, in Jim's case). And sometimes that gets lost, no question, no matter how worthy the publications are.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Tony: I don't think ASIO4ALL will help in this situation.

  • http://www.keithhandy.com Keith Handy

    <blockquote cite="Peter Kirn">There are times to put down the magazine, just as there are times when us writers really need to get away from the QWERTY keyboard and back to the music keyboard (or cello, in Jim’s case).

    This is why the internet is better than old school mass media — on the internet, you're allowed to say "get off the internet for a while", whereas on TV (for example) you're not allowed to say "stop watching TV".

    Sorry for the semi-off-topic tangent, but once it popped into my head, I couldn't not say it. :)

  • http://www.musicwords.net Jim Aikin

    Thanks for the support, guys. I'm never entirely sure whether I'm on the right track or just wandering around in the woods.

    –JA

  • Machines

    Nice read and I agree with Bliss. Less talk, more rock as they used to say back in the day ;) I was on the Logic Pro Help forum a few days ago getting the lowdown on BFD's multi issue with Logic 8 and was surprised at how much talk there was about nothing that seemed important. The thread that caught my eye was a 3-pager at the time about whether or not Logic 8 sounded better than Logic 7. Great debate ensued inside as to whether or not "revamping" the audio engine was = to "rebuilding" the engine and people suggesting phase tests with songs from Logic 7 and all sorts of other nonsense. I couldn't help but thinking while reading it, 'don't these people want to MAKE music with their new software?'

    I think while the Internet is a great tool and resource, a lot of times people just get sucked into a whole lot of nonsense and allow themselves to just forget about the whole point in the first place. I say this because I've been guilty of it in the past. I'll sit down to work on some drum parts and get side-tracked reading a Battery 3 forum or some stupid shit and never actually get to working on the drum part.

    And it seems like everyone wants to be an expert at these programs yet no one wants to make any actual music with them that is worth listening to because it isn't original, isn't thought out and is more worried about being technically sound than writing something that you can just tap your foot to and have a good time.

    Everyone's looking for the magic tip, the magic tool, the end-all-be-all synth or controller that is going to produce their #1 record. The forum posting by Rick Rubin that will present you with the keys to unlock the gates of musical badassness and all will be completed for you. Sit down, turn off your Airport Card and write some music.

    Me? I'm going to bed.

    :)

  • http://www.myspace.ceom/noou (noou)

    Hi Jim,

    I totally agree with you. I'm a long time fan of you and reader of Keyboard magazine, and I'm facing the very same issue, even if I'm "just" 29.

    Playing and composing music is what makes my personal life worth it, however I often get flooded by a "techy mood" that distracts me, even for months. You know, I try hundreds of freebies, I fix my Windows, I check cables, I learn how to "do everything" with Live. Then I find that I missed what I really love: making music.

    Thanks for your thoughts: it's always heartening when other people, especially if you respect them, experience and deal with the same things you live. That's the magic of life.

    Stefano

  • Joel Abbott

    Jim, it's nice to hear your voice coming through so strongly in this writing. I wonder if what the magazines need is a bit more personality and attitude like this.

    When I became serious about learning about synthesizers and electronic music, I looked for resources and discovered that the best places to find what I sought were the magazines, and your articles. I read Keyboard, EM, EQ, Recording, and Remix. Over the years, those magazines became my textbook, my university.

    By reading so many music magazines, the articles and the reviews, the how-tos and the artist profiles, I learned many concepts that I would not have learned otherwise. Seeing the types of items experienced reviewers chose to highlight in their reviews made me more able to judge which gear would be useful to me, and how to coax new sounds and new techniques out of equipment that I already owned.

    Back when I was first trying to learn how to play jazz, I realized that I couldn't just start playing jazz, but instead, to be authentic in my playing, I'd have to learn the history of jazz, from Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, through be-bop, and all the way through contemporary jazz. I feel the same way about electronic music–that to be truly proficient you must have a deep understanding of its history from first unfiltered oscillators, to PCM, through vintage analogue synths and modulars, up to the most current digital gear, software, and techniques.

    So, I am very happy that the monthly magazines turn a loving eye to the past. I feel very lucky to have been reading publications that hire writers and reviewers who have a long history in the field, instead of focusing only on the "latest stuff" or who are constantly looking into the future, rather than respecting the past.

    As for gear-lust and constantly acquiring and testing out the latest magic soundboxes and software applications, I do agree with Jim that it's all about the playing. I get disappointed with people who rely on technological shortcuts in place of skill and legitimate practice. A similar problem arises from young musicians who substitute lots of notes (shredding) for more prosaic talents like listening, creating melody, and developing theme.

  • http://chollyhoss.blogspot.com/ pete

    Jim, This is one of the best articles I have read in many moons. I'm all for keeping my focus on the music and not on my tools, and I have been turning down a lot of busy-work stuff so I can focus on making music, … but I have one point of contention: The Ableton Live manual is horrid! Forget the "how-to book": I wish the Abes would pay you handsomely to re-write that abomination.

    Thanks for making my day… now get back to the cello ;)

  • Pingback: VortexHost WordPress Hosting Demo » Blog Archive » Test post

  • velocipede

    Jim and Peter are two of my favorite music tech writers (both first encountered in the pages of KB). Regarding the recycling of material, I think you should do it when you can ad it makes sense! No need to reinvent the wheel every time, but it would be nice to indicate where the article originally came from. Either keep up the good educational work that helps others get started in making music.

  • KenFused

    Thanks Jim, for acknowledging the elephant in the room. There will always be those who wanna geek out on gear and read detailed technical articles and product reviews, but I'm with you – much more satisfying to the soul to sit down at the DAW or what have you and actually commit some creative output to hard drive space than it is to tinker and evaluate and try things out and pretend I'm making music,or to spend time "preparing" to make music.