Sunday, January 16, 2011

Music Technology and the Red Queen's Race

The Red Queen's Race was never more true.

I remember getting started in computer music. Software was hard to come by, and peculiar. Samplers were pricey, and the best sounds for the buck were in synthesis. So you had to sit down and learn; how to connect up all this gear, how to get decent sounds without breaking the bank, what the bargains were in used gear and what keyboards or modules were better avoided.

And you learned to use it. Writing Sysex messages (and calculating hexadecimal checksums by hand!) to get access to hidden but useful parameters like reverb type. Learning to program ADSR envelops and how to get the sound you were after with that strange beast that was FM synthesis.

At some point, though, it became more about trying to set up your studio and get the pallet organized and, basically, about trying to get DONE with all this technology; to try to get it out of the way so you could get back to writing music.

Some day, you told yourself. A few more patches to copy down by hand on graph paper, a few more floppies to load up with the samples you used most often, a few more tweaks of the patch name and library functions so when you sat down to write you could dial up "french horn" instead of looking through a manual and entering "bank 01, patch 122."

Except you never got there. The technology advanced on you. You were still organizing floppies when a hard disk came within your price range. You were still setting up tracks in MusicShop when another computer upgrade made Vision possible to run.

And the process accelerated.

Now here I sit. I have a rack of gear -- rack-mount samplers, reverb boxes, compressors. I just got back the mixer I'd loaned out, and I _could_ reconnect everything and patch through my Opcode interface to the one computer in the apartment that still has an old-style serial port.

On the other hand, I have CuBase loaded on the desktop -- which I'm just starting to learn -- which puts me firmly into the world of VST instruments, virtual synthesizers, sampler libraries on DVD-ROM. All I have to do is purchase several more instruments, add more RAM until I can play them, work out how to organize and label the library so when I am composing I can just dial up "french horn" instead of looking through .pdf files for "Garritan Personal Orchestra, 2nd instance, channel 3, section instruments..."

So when does the Red Queen get winded? When do I actually get to do music?

Time to put the mouse down and get in another hour on the alto recorder. It only has two joints. I can assemble it in a minute -- and be back to playing music.

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