Ramblings on computers, hardware and creativity

I’ve been using computers for music most of my life. My teenage years were spent in front of ProTracker on the Amiga. Good times. As I now remember the experience, things just worked. I hit the power switch on the Amiga, and a couple of weird floppy drive noises later ProTracker was there. Composing tunes were done with the keyboard, not by clicking on a screen with a mouse. Instant response, instant gratification, and most importantly, no distractions or hassle. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the years whizzed by since then probably trick me into romanticising those early years of computer based music. However, the long list of tracks I made during that period still stands as a testimony to the fact that things got done. And that I had fun doing them.

Eventually, the Amiga got replaced with a PC running Cubase, and with it the revolution that was VST technology. The possibilities now appeared to be endless, and I was more than happy to be tempted to a solid serving of this remarkable new frontier of music technology. At the time, I regrettably didn’t notice the pointy red tail protruding from the shadows. Nor the faint scent of sulphur. Over the ten next years, making music degenerated into driver issues, software updates, IRQ conflicts, progress bars and blue screens of death. Even when things actually worked, I was wiggling virtual knobs with a mouse, wading through endless lists of presets in endless lists of plugins. I rarely actually made anything at all, and after a while, creating music simply stopped being fun. The weak scent had turned into a nauseating stench and I didn’t sit down in front of my DAW unless I absolutely had to. I thought I had lost interest in music altogether.

Years later, my wife took an interest in electronic music and started exploring various ipad apps. I soon joined her with the only hardware synth I still owned, and we had a great time. So we kept at it. As ambitions grew, so did our setup, and we now use physical gear that allows for a fast, hassle-free workflow.

Irene playing the Electribe MX.
Irene playing the Electribe MX. We also play around with other synths, guitars and iPad-apps like Thumbjam and SoundPrism.

We jam until we feel we have something interesting going on, and then do a multitrack recording to an ipad. Usually we have to record a couple of times before we are happy with the result. Sometimes we spend several days to get things right, but more often than not, our track is recorded and uploaded to Soundcloud while the idea still feels fresh to us. The process does not feel like a chore at all.

There are obvious downsides to this way of working. Our setup allows us to work fast, but it is not flexible. If doing something means breaking up the creative flow we’re in, we make do without it. There are times when an idea with potential withers because we didn’t allow ourselves to nurture it into what it could have been. In these cases, working systematically with that idea in a DAW would have been good for the end result. But then again, without our self-imposed restrictions some of our best ideas would not have seen the light of day at all. Creativity in limitations and all that. More important than anything else is enjoying what we’re doing. An evening spent jamming a track into shape while comfortably seated in the couch with instruments and a bottle of wine is quality time. Two office chairs, a mouse and a computer screen significantly less so.

Kai plays the guitar
Nowadays we are using a Korg ElectribeMX, an Octatrack, an A4, a Pittsburgh modular synth, an Eigenharp and VoiceLive Touch 2 on most of our tracks.

I’m writing about this now because there have been an annoying debate inside my head whether to introduce a MacBook Air to our setup or not. The idea is not to use it as a DAW, but for softsynths and a tool to simplify our setup. We have our gear connected to sound cards running in stand alone-mode. With a laptop connected to one of the cards we can use the sound card mixer software to change what goes where without physically having to re-cable anything. Also, Madrona Labs Aalto/Kaivo are likely to be excellent software synths for the Eigenharp. As we just sold our old hardware rompler, a nice-sounding software replacement that can be sequenced from the Octatrack have potential to be a really nice bonus.

I finally ordered the Mac, but I am still uncertain if this is a road we should go down or not. I can easily imagine it becoming a distraction and an unreliable trouble maker. I can also imagine it being an extremely useful addition. With a couple of weeks to wait for it to arrive, we won’t know just yet. Fingers crossed.

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