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A Producer That’s All Thumbs

So you wanna talk about desktop production? Heck, I've been doing that since 1986. A Mac, a couple of synths, a Sony PCM-F1 and a cheap VHS deck, and

So you wanna talk about desktop production? Heck, I’ve been doing that since 1986. A Mac, a couple of synths, a Sony PCM-F1 and a cheap VHS deck, and I could make an album in a week. And I did, too. Two of them, actually. And I’m still getting royalties on them, although as of late, my statements come with sentences like, “We don’t issue checks for less than $20,” and no checks.

These days, of course, we don’t need no steenking converter, tape deck or even synths. For the past couple of years, anyone with a laptop, a miniature keyboard and a little audio-to-USB (ugh) or Firewire doohickey could run an audio/MIDI sequencer and a software synth, mix the whole thing down and burn a CD master right inside the sucker.

No, desktop production is old, old, old. The new trend is handheld production. And I’m not even talking palm-top — more like fingertip. At least that’s what the makers of a very interesting new gadget would like you to think.

If you’ve ever thought about how much technology there is in a Game Boy or a cell phone, then you realize it’s probably more than what was in your entire studio 10 years ago. There’s a whole general MIDI synth with downloadable samples inside that phone, and that thumbnail-sized smart card in the game player holds 128 MB of RAM, which, at the beginning of the past decade, would have been the size of a vinyl LP and cost about $5,000. The disk storage in an iPod alone would have taken up a whole closet. Even the connectors have shrunk. Not long ago, recorders and reverbs required hooking up everything with pairs of XLRs, but today’s inputs and outputs are stereo minis and subminis. SCSI connectors have been replaced with USB, and AC cords — well, they’re hardly necessary when the whole shebang runs on batteries.

It was Yamaha that first developed the idea of palmtop music. In 1995, the company came out with the MU5, a 28-voice, 16-part general MIDI synth, which boasted a built-in serial port for direct connection to a PC, an internal sequencer and, best of all, a little two-octave “chiclet” keyboard that could be virtually stretched to 10 octaves by which you played and programmed the thing. It ate AA batteries — six at a gulp — but if you traveled with a bag full of Duracells and had really tiny fingers and a lot of patience, you could get quite a bit done with it during a transcontinental flight. Originally $300, these days on eBay, you can find people bidding $10 for them.

It was a niche item, of course, and the niche turned out to be awfully small, so the MU5 didn’t spawn any direct successors. But it did pave the way for a slew of groove boxes and small “studios”: little 4- and 8-track digital recorders from Korg, Zoom and Roland with drum machines and effects, and maybe a bass synth built in.

But even with those devices, you still need a certain amount of talent and knowledge to make decent-sounding music. Unless, of course, your idea of music is random noises and verbiage over a couple of relentless rhythmic loops, which, granted, is true for a certain percentage of the public.

Individual tastes in music notwithstanding, it was inevitable that someone would come out with a palm-top production studio that made real, original music and required nothing at all from the user. And that’s a pretty fair description of a new gadget from a company called MadWaves that is located in, of all places, France.

I don’t know if the folks from MAD magazine have any objections to the company’s name or naming its product the MadPlayer (the magazine doesn’t seem to mind that wonderful Alfred W. Bush caricature that’s going around, which I have proudly posted on my personal site), but I haven’t heard any objection yet. They’ve got PC/Mac software called MadWare, the documentation is the MadManual and its Internet community is, of course, MadWorld.

The MadPlayer bills itself as a “generactive digital music player.” It puts a lot of stuff into a package the size of a Game Boy with a game-like user interface: a 1×2-inch 1-bit LCD encircled by 10 buttons that act as mode and function controls; a four-way rocker switch that the company refers to as a “joystick,” which selects and edits data; a two-way rocker switch that controls volume; two “shift” buttons to select DSP control; and two tiny buttons to turn on the power and store the music. There are mini headphone and microphone jacks — the unit includes a pair of headphones with a tiny electret mic attached on a boom — and a proprietary USB jack with cable supplied. Two AA cells provide power. No wall wart operation is possible, but a charger and two rechargable Ni-MH batteries are included, and the player can also draw power off of the USB cable. Files are stored on a 32MB smart card that slides into the back.

To get the thing rolling, power up, go into “e-DJ” mode and choose one of 21 styles, which range from bossa to urban mix to garage. Immediately, it starts to play a complete arrangement — no encouragement needed. You have eight tracks to mess with: drums, bass, lead, riff, back, pad, sample and mic. The mic track controls volume and some rudimentary effects that you can apply to the mic input so you can rap or sing karaoke over the thing (yes, it will show you the words), and you can record the track if you are so inclined. The sample track, besides allowing you to record samples, lets you order them in memory for playback and fire them as either loops or one-shots.

The instrumental tracks are the interesting ones. If you don’t like what you’re hearing on any track, then you can tell the player to “recompose” it, which it does on the spot, creating a new two-bar segment with a new instrumental sound and different notes while staying in the same key and meter (i.e., 4/4). There are some very clever algorithms at work here. A lot of the recomposed riffs are quite good and, like snowflakes, it would seem that no two are ever the same. You can keep recomposing each part endlessly and the player will remember the last 16 patterns on each track.

You can also change volume and reverb levels on each track, adjust resonance and center frequency of a simple bandpass filter, and change pitch and tempo globally. Each track has its own set of instruments with about 510 different sounds in all, and you can scroll through the instrument sounds on a track without recomposing it. While you are playing with the sounds, the MadPlayer “composes” an entire song — creating an intro, verses, choruses and an ending — using a predetermined formula that is different for each style. When it gets to the end, if you like how it came out, you can save it as a song file. Song files are essentially MIDI files and can be downloaded to a computer, edited in a sequencer and loaded back into the MadPlayer. Samples and mic tracks can also be offloaded for editing as .WAV or .AIFF files, although some conversion has to be done in both directions. Everything is handled at full 44.1kHz, 16-bit bandwidth (although you have the option to save the songs as MP3s), so the results — except when you use the reverb, which is surprisingly crummy — can sound pretty darn good.

If you’re with me this far, you’ll see that the MadPlayer could potentially be a rather powerful MIDI peripheral. However, the sounds can’t be edited, and because I couldn’t get the feature to work (probably my fault), I don’t know whether a sequencer would be able to retrieve patch names from the device. A list of the patches is available for download from the Website, And did I mention there’s a radio? Yes, a built-in FM tuner so you can check out what’s hot on the airwaves and even sample it and incorporate the samples into your own songs.

There are a lot more features that I haven’t mentioned because either there isn’t space or I haven’t made my way through the rather squirrelly user interface to confirm that they’re really there. But you get the gist. The amount of technology under the hood of this little sucker is enough to replace an alarming percentage of the stuff in your studio — although it’s hardly set up to do that — and it’s a cool enough toy to distract you from getting any work done for weeks.

What does all of this cost? List price is $299, but it’s been available in various places on- and offline for less, sometimes a lot less. The company’s VP of sales (who’s in the U.S.) says that MadWaves is trying hard to get the gadgets into the hands of the “right” people so that word of mouth can get around. One way they’ve done this is to bring them to this year’s “Project Bar-B-Q,” the annual high-level gathering of interactive music developers in Austin, Texas, where they were reportedly the hit of the event.

The marketing slogan behind the MadPlayer is, “Create your own music!” and it sort of fulfills that promise, especially for people who have no musical training or chops. But there’s another part of the company’s strategy that it hopes will get very big: content. Right now, you can exchange MIDI files and samples with other users on MadWaves’ Website, but in the future, the company plans to have big-name artists’ hits available in Mad format and sell them online. Remember when pundits used to talk about multitrack home audio as giving listeners the ability to remix the Rolling Stones? Well, that idea fizzled. But in the world of dance music, because everyone’s remixing everybody else all of the time anyway, why not make that capability available to consumers? The kids can play producer at home, and even get up onstage, plug their little MadPlayers into overpowered sound systems and boogie all night. It’s almost impossible to do something that sounds really bad, and no doubt some of them will come up with interesting stuff. They certainly couldn’t do any worse than many of the folks who now get big money for doing the same thing.

“Empowerment” is a word that gets bandied about a lot when it comes to bringing complex technologies down to an affordable level, and that seems to be the point of the MadPlayer. Rather than simply sitting back and listening to music, users become more or less active participants in the process by choosing parameters and mixing and matching parts and layers. But this is a far cry from actually “creating” music.

Although it has all of those “styles” available, there really is only one: dance music. Everything’s in 4/4 in predefined blocks, tempo changes are subtle if there are any at all, key changes are an afterthought, and even chord changes are minimal and not user-controllable. Compare this with the wonderful old software Band-in-a-Box from PG Music, which works great for jazz, blues, rock, folk and Broadway-style music, as well as dance tracks, and lets you customize tracks to a tremendous degree, all the while making sure that what comes out will sound good. And Band-in-a-Box encourages and rewards musical literacy, whereas MadPlayer considers it irrelevant.

MadPlayer’s palette of sounds is big, but you can’t customize or do anything at all to them in real time as you can with even the simplest MIDI controller. There is no provision for real-time instrumental or expressive input at all, unless you use a separate MIDI sequencer and do a lot of file swapping. All of the physicality involved in making music is removed — even a pair of turntables and a mixer give more tactile response than a ring of thumb-operated buttons — and the MadPlayer divorces the act of musical creation even further from the need for any physical effort, dexterity or even engagement. Don’t like what you hear? Poof, it’s gone and something else takes its place. It’s sort of the musical equivalent of channel surfing a satellite dish with endless meaningless choices.

Worst of all, the MadPlayer promotes the idea that music making is not about learning how to “get what we like” — because it gives us so little say over what it is that we do get — but instead relies on us to be passive and “like what we get.” I suppose it’s a perfect metaphor for an age where no experience is unmediated and nothing is “real” unless it’s on television. But if this is all kids think they need to have and do in order to call themselves musicians, then the next generation of pop music promises to be, if possible, even more insipid and soulless. Once the machine can do all of the work and the result is indistinguishable from what humans can do, why even bother to stick around?

No doubt about it, MadPlayer is a great toy, but I would say the only “creating” going on is the machine’s. And that’s not my idea of what music is about.

Paul D. Lehrman is still looking for that machine that will do half of his work for him so he can buy two of them.