Friday, April 22, 2011

The Zound of Music

Deep down, I’m a Luddite. For those of you who may not know the term, it means I am generally opposed to rampaging new technology. In the past few decades, it seems as if incoming expertise does not have the time to make itself (or me) comfortable before something grander, faster and more
complex (to me) comes along to replace it.

The original Luddites were textile workers in 19th century England who resisted the mechanization of their trade. They occasionally destroyed the automated looms that could be operated by unskilled labor and cost the artisans their jobs.  The movement crested in 1812 when Luddites burned factories and machinery, clashed with the British army, and eventually were dragged through mass trials that resulted in the executions of many and penal transportation to Australia of even more.

Luddites seldom win. We are the buggy whip-makers of society, the guys who stick to cars with carburetors when fuel-injection is the thing, the ones with lace up sneakers in a Velcro world. I, personally, am a recording Luddite. I believe in tape, in real sounds generated by real instruments played by the real hands of real people. I will tell you that the Beatles recorded their first songs on a four-track cassette deck with one microphone hanging from the ceiling and that all the new technology of compact discs, virtual recording studios and sampling (taking the music of one composer and inserting bits and pieces into the music of another) is complicated nonsense.

But… Recently, I’ve become acquainted and fascinated with a computer program called Sonar.

Let me back up. I’ve been writing songs for decades, and for several years played with a band that recorded a CD and sold it (a remarkably low number, I should add) on iTunes. The band broke up some time ago and since then I’ve wanted to record the stuff of mine that didn’t make it on the
original. Trouble is, it’s hard to find musicians who’ll play what I like and have the time to devote to a project that make take months, if not years, to put together, and holds no promise of fame and fortune.

Enter Sonar. Sonar will allow me to become a one-man band.  If, that is, I can master it. For a low price, my home computer has acquired a sound studio that is so complex I’ve signed up for two on-line courses so I can start understanding what I am dealing with. Dithering. MIDI (musical
instrument digital interface). Sequencers. Matrix views.  Loops, events, vertical and horizontal zooms.
The how-to book put out by Cakewalk, the creators of Sonar, runs to more than 1800 pages. So far, I have recorded one highly repetitive guitar track, tried to ‘import’ a set of MIDI drums (and failed), and been faced with a myriad of pop-up screens asking me if I want to clip-lock, clip-mute, insert effects,
show trimming, or bounce this to that in order to create the other.

To be honest, it’s fascinating. The trouble is I do not have an engineer’s mind, and what may be entirely logical to another’s brain defies my thinking. I make very small breakthroughs and am amazed to know that kids a third my age can do this stuff in their sleep.

Here’s the thing, though: I have, potentially, the means of recording symphonies in which, thanks to modern technology, my electric guitar can be made to emulate every instrument from harp to French horn.  Yesterday, late into the night, I discovered I could make tuba sounds. I did so for 45 minutes. I sang some lyrics and made a choir of myself, sopranos, altos and baritones joyfully chanting with me. I compressed, equalized, reverbed, phased, synthesized and boosted until I had a sound that had never been heard before in the history of the world. Then, realizing the difference between music and cacophony, I erased everything.

I suspect that at this stage, I am doing the musical version of finger-painting. I expect to get better, and I’m in no hurry. This is fun, a great outlet since I am presently stymied finding a plot for my next book. 

I’m sure I will write more about this as I develop my skills. In the meantime, ta ta. I am off to play my bassoon.

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