Computers, Music, Transitions

Both computers and electronic music are in the middle of a major transition, one that is pretty difficult to see while we are stuck in our coding and composing. Things move so fast these days that it’s easy to forget how new these worlds are.


The other day I was trying to explain to my Dad why he has problems communicating with a programmer he’s hired to build some cost management stuff for Access. He constantly tries to get the lucky programmer to explain how the company will be fine without him, and he never understands the programmer’s answers. My solution is to hire someone to work with the programmer that can asses the flexibility of the data storage with respect to well-accepted standards (xml, rel-db, etc…), and have a (very) quick look at the architecture of the application To make sure he isn’t writing spaghetti. Any decent coder should be able to do this in an hour or two, but why does my poor Dad not even know how to approach the problem?
It is my belief that the industry is just too young, and the benefits of deploying code now are obviously HUGE (games, iPhones, VCR’s, toasters, life). Software just has not matured to the point that it makes as much sense to the consumer public as an appliance like a TV or a car does, so that when it breaks you just call the guy that comes and fixes it for an hour or two at his flat $60/h rate. Shit, we’re even used to the idea of that costing 1.5 times as much as you expected, which is some confort. Software developers are more like R&D experts, since every couple of years there is a high likely hood that they will be dealing with a major architectural change – where their work *environment* has changed enough that they are not just sitting down and using their skills, but they are also adapting their old skills to match. Sorry mister C/Perl/MyLang coder, but we’re still just going to pay you for sitting down and using your skills. I want an estimate by Monday.

The goal of our project is to build a virtual instrument, but we spend all of our time on basic stuff like figuring out how to move controls and show messages, just like every other mundane application out there. The following is my current bug list:

-artf21115 : PLAY does not replace current instrument when changes not saved
-artf21125 : Replace Dialog box Not Present
-artf19771 : PLAY displays wrong amount of available RAM.. dialogue box no longer appears
-Strange error box (!) when validating AU… same box comes up when loading saved Cubase project to. picture attached to email
-Artifact artf17139 : No sound when “unfreezing” Play virtual instruments in Sonar 7 Producer… now results in “FATAL ERROR” when unfreezing
-Artifact artf15670 : No Audio Output in Sonar with Different Languages.
All of these bugs are regressions, which means they were working at one time, but are not working now. Every one of our regressions are caused by a poor name choice or incomplete design abstraction that lead to errors in our code caused by new features. This happens because we never had enough time to do it right in the first place. Sound familiar? That’s because being crunched under a tight deadline is nothing new, no matter what industry you are in. I think that the difference here is that the most basic design and development methodologies have not matured to a point where solutions can be read in a manual and reproduced under the deadline. We should be able to sit down with the task of adding a dialog box, make the change, and never look back.

I hate to always wrap this stuff into a “python is the answer” thing and I won’t do it this time, because while python helps a lot, it (actually!) isn’t the answer. Somewhere down the road this stuff will get better, even with C++ and other useless languages like Java. All the good toolkits make it easier, but ONE toolkit would make it great. If you need some windows and some buttons, there should only be one place to turn. If you need some sound, there should be ONE toolkit for that. Dig?

Along the same lines, music is going through the beginning of a similar young stage. While an avaid trance and progressive fan, I don’t believe that we will be listening to this stuff forever. Think of modern electro as part of a transition period where we are developing new tools and learning how to use them effectively for the next phase, whatever that is. Music is a way to communicate emotions, and express ideas that can’t be explained using words. A good musician is an artist who has also mastered the technical nature of a musical instrument, so when he or she wants to get dirty and do some expressing, they can devote their energy to that instead of how to get the instrument to work.

A lot of new songs appeal to listeners because they’ve got some killer sounds, and usually are produced so they get a lot of punch out of the speakers. Fact is that this appeal won’t last very long, and the songs that really last are the ones that are great songs, not great sounds. Go listen to *anything* techno from the early nineties, and you’ll see what I mean. Psychotrance is only 15 years old and I can’t stand to listen to it any more!

Where is this going? Who knows, but there are a few things that have never happened before. After PC’s got fast anough for pro audio, we have started going through an incomprehensible amount of new music. I listen to internet radio all day at work and never hear the same track twice. We are also nailing down the hardware interfaces and software workflow. Ableton live has contributed more to this than anything else, IMHO. Further, the amount of publically available audio code out there is astonishing. We are seeing loads of people playing with new ideas like algorithmic composition that will lay the foundation for the macro-concepts to come.

The reason that I think things will change is that music has temporarily lost its expression. This is a big deal because music *is* expression. If you want communicate to your listeners that your brain works like a computer and is recorded, automated, and predictable, then be my guest.

For example, when I sit down to put together a concept for a trance track, I slap together a 4×4 kick drum, a side-chaining compressor, and some sort of chord or bass. How much expression is involved in that? Almost none. The chord progression is done with a midi keyboard, and is quite effective for a traditional harmony, but that’s about it. Ideally, the entire peice would more closely mirror what was happening in my heart and body when I first wanted to sit down and start composing. While some of you may disagree, I don’t think that an absurdly robotic and inane representation of a rhytmic emotion is happening in my body. Confused? I know, I know, but a human heart beat is more acurately reproduced as a human-powered drum.

As we build and get more in touch with our tools the music will come back around to the traditional expressive stuff our parents grew up with. Maybe our brains will actually become absurd and robotic to match the music, who knows. What I do believe is that all this robotic music won’t be around forever, and it will be replaced by live music sporting incredible human and technology interaction. Remember the chamber quartet or the drum circle? Good story tellers and bad story tellers? Free interpretation? Music is expression and nothing else, so I don’t think we are supposed to go and get rid of all the boring recorded and automatically sequenced music. I think it will disappear on it’s own.


Anyway, considering I write software and produce electronic music, this is important stuff. In some ways I think we are walking in the dark, assuming that current software and current techno are the amazing finalizations of our incredible accomplishments. The truth is it isn’t the end – we aren’t there yet – it’s the start of something bigger.

I have zero insight for how music will evolve since the last five years have given us so much change, but software is another story. This industry is young, and we don’t know what we are doing yet. Can you ensure that your validation tool will function with 100% accuracy? When the productivity expectations of the customers and the producers are equal, we’ve made it. Until then, “Yeah, sure, we can make that deadline.”

By | 2008-09-19T00:09:00+00:00 September 19th, 2008|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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