Illustration: Kay Marshall
Here we are in that strange time between Thanksgiving and the Winter Solstice holiday, when our thoughts turn from what we have to be thankful for to what we ain't got yet. And from turkeys, cranberries, pilgrims and football to the superhumanly fast-moving oversized elf who we hope will leave all kinds of stuff for us underneath a rapidly dehydrating coniferous tree that somehow is taking up a large portion of our living space. Like I said, strange.
This year, I happen to have a lot to be thankful for. Besides managing to push some projects I'm pretty happy with out the door, I have lots of new toys to play with. There are new versions of my favorite MIDI and audio sequencers and of my favorite soft synth suite, all of which hold the promise of great new features that I and scores of other users have been clamoring for.
There are astonishingly good sample libraries coming from dozens of different manufacturers that give me access to instruments spanning the globe and the centuries. There are plug-ins by the hundreds that can enhance or destroy — accidentally or on purpose — my work in ways that were simply unimaginable just a couple of years ago. There are new control surfaces and input devices for music and for mixing that are getting cheaper by the minute (and smarter, too) as their manufacturers are communicating with each other — and with the makers of the platforms they hook up to — to an unprecedented degree. There are great microphones at low prices, and even greater ones at middling prices, offering a level of performance that previously cost five or 10 times as much. Large-screen LCDs have plummeted in price so I can now think about having three on my desk, and I'll still have more space for broken pencils and illegible scraps of paper than I did when I was chained to a 19-inch CRT.
And there are new computers — oh, what a brave new world that has such machines in it! I don't think I'm the only one who thinks that the one word that best sums up the new Intel Macs is “scary.” As I write this, I am working on a proposal for my school to acquire about two dozen of them, and those machines combined probably represent more computer muscle, storage and speed than you could have found on the entire floor of COMDEX a decade ago. As Apple continues to reposition itself as a multimedia company, we creators are the beneficiaries: All of that horsepower designed to deliver audio and video to consumers means much more juice for us who have the privilege of making the audio and video.
So what do I need from the big guy sliding down the chimney? Well, let me start by thinking of everything I've always wanted in the past, and see what's left.
Way, way back when I first started in this business, what I really wanted was my own studio, where I could work on projects, my own and my clients', without worrying about the money clock ticking. Well, now I have that. I can do everything at home: record, score, orchestrate, overdub, edit, mix, master and video layback. Sometimes when I need someone else's expertise — a mastering engineer or a TV sound mixer — I will visit his or her facility (which is often as not in that person's home), but in general, the only time I spend in a commercial studio is when I'm writing an article about it or giving my students a tour. So that's covered.
For the most part, for every holiday during the past 25 years or so, I have wanted tools that could make me more productive and/or more creative. I remember early in the MIDI era, I wanted electronic instruments that had more flexible and organic sounds than the FM and subtractive synths prevalent at the time. Along came samplers, L/A synthesis and physical modeling — okay! Then I wanted a MIDI sequencing program that could give me precise and intuitive control over continuous variables like controllers and tempo. To the rescue came Passport Designs, Opcode Systems, Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) and others on the PC side. I asked for a universal patch editor/librarian program that could keep track of all the synths I was collecting — in my stocking one year I found just that, courtesy of Opcode Systems and Dr. T's.
To handle all of the signals from those synths and all of the effects boxes that were finding their way into my studio, I wished for a small, high-quality mixer with expansion capabilities and plenty of routing flexibility. Greg Mackie was my St. Nick that year (he looks the part, too), and his CR-1604 (two of them, actually) took an honored place under my tree. With multitimbral modules becoming the norm, I needed to access a lot more than 16 or 32 MIDI channels — once again, MOTU and Opcode Systems came through with multiport interfaces. Because my studio was small, I couldn't handle big monitors, but the small monitors I wanted had to be ones I could rely on — and soon there were gifts galore from Event Electronics, Genelec and many more. I wanted a cheap, simple and reliable way to sync my computer to audio and video tape — the MIDI Manufacturers Association delivered MIDI Time Code and it was a very good night.
I wished to get rid of my analog audio decks, their wow and flutter, and their endless need for maintenance — PCM-F1 and then DAT showed up at just the right time. And when I wanted to edit nonlinearly, there was Digidesign coming down the chimney, first with a stereo hard disk system the company called Sound Tools, and just a couple of seasons later, its multitrack version, which made my, and a lot of others', very biggest wishes come true. And then I wanted a program that could work on MIDI and audio simultaneously and seamlessly — Opcode Systems' Vision was the first to circle around my tree, and many others have done the same since. I wished for higher track counts on my computer, but before that happened, modular digital multitrack tape decks arrived in the sleigh, and allowed me to do really complex mixes using three ADATs or, even better, three DA-88s. But then fast hard disks with SCSI2 arrived, and I didn't even need those any more. And when my first CD burner came along, I could take my DAT machine offline, too.
Because I was still working a lot in the analog domain, I wished for an automated mixer with moving faders. For years, visions of NECAMs and SSLs danced in my head, but then Yamaha started coming out with inexpensive mixers like the DMP-7. Though they weren't exactly what I had in mind, they were an interesting idea, and they led to the 01V, which not only did just what I needed, but it sounded good.
I needed a keyboard I could take on gigs, but that would also interface with my studio with the best quality possible. Santa brought me a Kurzweil K2000, which had digital I/O and great sound, and was flexible and powerful enough to handle all the stuff I needed it to do, whether I was playing in a bar or at an avant-garde music festival. Then I thought maybe I could ask for a computer that could also travel easily, and handle audio and MIDI. My G3 iBook with USB and FireWire appeared under the tree five years ago, and it is still handling everything when I'm lecturing, performing or doing weird sonic installations.
As computer power grew and plug-ins became more ambitious, I started to hanker for something almost impossible to achieve in hardware: a limiter that could look ahead and really tamp down those overloads. And I also wanted a reverb plug-in that sounded as good as a hardware reverb, and was completely programmable and automatable. Wouldn't you know it — soon I had dozens of both of these from which to choose. And then I found myself pining for a way to mix and match plug-ins from many manufacturers on multiple platforms — and along came Audio Units and VST Wrapper.
I never liked looping samples and longed for the day when I could somehow play full-length piano and string notes from an electronic keyboard. But how could sounds like this exist without an infinite amount of RAM, not to mention who would be patient (and foolish) enough to create them in the first place? “Ho-ho-ho,” said GigaSampler as it streamed samples from disk in real time. Now everyone's doing it and the libraries are getting more humongous every day. And because this holiday season you can pick up a 250-gig hard disk for less than a cheap seat at Radio City Music Hall, who cares?
I yearned for a way to be able to digitize any videotape or DVD anyone might send me so I could work with picture right within my computer and forget about all the awful sync problems of the past. Canopus replied by stuffing an ADVC-100 FireWire bridge in my stocking. But then I wanted to layback my finished audio to a video file. QuickTime, Pro Tools and Digital Performer arrived tied up with ribbons. I wished for a way to send video and audio to collaborators and clients thousands of miles away without blowing my budget on FedEx — and once again, QuickTime, along with MP3 and www.yousendit.com, made that wish come true. And then I thought about being able to edit video to give me more flexibility in putting together my soundtracks, and those elves in Cupertino, Calif., came up with QuickTime Pro and iMovie. And when that company introduced its SuperDrive (the optical one, not the old one that could handle 1.4-meg floppies), I could even spend Christmas morning burning my own DVDs.
And all along, ever since I was old enough to hold a guitar, I have been writing the jolly fellow at the North Pole asking for a way to sell my music that didn't require me to get on my hands and knees and beg some huge international media conglomerate for a record contract. And he responded with CD Baby, Amazon, PayPal and e-mail so that I can let thousands of people know when I've got something new to offer — for free.
Today I have the studio I've always wanted. I have 400 MIDI channels, 20 analog and 32 digital gazintas and gazoutas, six high-end and 16 pretty-good mics (even though I almost never record more than one instrument or vocalist at a time), four computers, three keyboards, percussion, wind and breath controllers, four Gigabytes of RAM, two terabytes of online storage, five LCD monitors, four CD/DVD burners and the latest and greatest software hosts and plug-ins. So what's left to ask Santa for this year?
Only one thing: time.
Time to absorb and create. Time to think about the music I want to make, instead of how to maintain and upgrade my stuff (or, as happened while I was writing this column, waste two days repairing my system drive). Time to work on the sound to get it really, really right, not just good enough to meet the next deadline.
Time to get out of the studio and listen to other people's music, stage shows and films, the sounds of the world, conversation and silence.
Time to learn all of the amazing tools I have. It's almost criminal how much power and creative capacity I have in my studio that I have never had a chance to explore or exploit. I spend a whole year teaching Digital Performer and Reason to students, and yet I am probably really proficient with less than a third of either of those programs' capabilities. I have software instruments and studio gadgets sitting in boxes that have been waiting for me to install them for months. I have other instruments and plug-ins that have made it onto my computer, but when it comes to understanding all they can do, I have just scratched the surface. I even — no kidding — have an entire Pro Tools system that I bought last spring that I haven't yet had time to hook up.
My updates aren't up-to-date and my software library is a mess. My hard disks are full of junk and badly need backups. There are CDs and DVDs falling off my shelves and hanging out of file cabinets. And yet I must plow ahead, doing what I can with what I know how to use.
I love this job, and I love this business, and I love all the cool stuff we all get to use. But please, Santa, or Le Père Noël, or SiÔn Corn, or Qor Bobo, or whoever is your favorite giver of gifts during this dark but hopeful time of year: Give me a break. Just this once, stop bringing me all this stuff and let me get back to the reason why we bothered to create all of these wonderful things in the first place: to make music. And let me spend more time with my family and my friends, and appreciate what life has to offer outside of the silicon simulations we're all surrounded by. Next year, you can bring me a new operating system.
Paul D. Lehrman has plugged his new book in the past few months, but in case you missed it, get the details at