Boost the confinement beam!

Posted January 17, 2011

Ignore faster-than-light travel. Forget all alien creatures looking like Southern Californians with a big lump of cookie dough stuck on their forehead. Today's Star Trek myth is as follows: random crewmember beams onto alien ship, walks up to mysterious contraption they have never seen before, taps a few times on the obligatory touch screen, and then concludes "the system's pretty much fried, but I can reroute the main conduits through the auxiliary manifold shunts, and reconfigure the emitters to..." Yea, right. Buzz off, buddy. And by "buzz" I definitely mean something else.

I don't really have any gripe with imaginary space-technicians. I have a gripe with electronic music - or more precisely, with the maddening configuration kabuki that modern gear seems to require. The recent establishment of the Echo Observatory Ancillary Auxiliary Annex Facility Part II: the Grudge (my new basement in Portland), has had me playing matchmaker between several new pieces of gear, and admiring the elegant simplicity of the harmonica.

Yesterday, my wife returned from several weeks in Rajasthan, and as I've been watching video of musicians there, I'm struck by the straightforwardness of the musical pursuit in their hands. Even the maintenance of the instruments, like replacing drumheads or strings, places the player into a closer relationship with the sounds the instrument produces. In contrast, my experience has been that hours and days of music time slip away in a process that at its essence has nothing to do with the development or experience of musical ideas or sounds. The popular effects suite manufactured by Waves, works in Vista, works in 64-bit OS, but not in 64-bit Vista. Oh that gives me a great idea for a song, yea? Don't even get me started on Cubase 5. Why exactly does Steinberg think that some of the files necessary to get virtual instruments and effects to work should be (get this) hidden? I don't want my sequencer keeping secrets from me.

I realize that rigidly direct comparisons aren't fair, as those of us who use modern electronic instrumentation are privileged to have a palette of sounds vastly larger than any traditional instrument could produce, and that complexity underlies this capacity. However, I think part of why it's difficult for me to accept that it has to be this way is that I remember the days of plugging the old Atari 1040 directly into a module and sound coming out. The sound you expected. Yes, I gave away that old machine while fleeing Ann Arbor several months ago (Goodwill wouldn't even take it). I did so because I like the power of the new machines; they are in a completely different league from the ancient Atari. But am I really supposed to believe that we can't have modern power without this level of troubleshooting? It's disproportionate, and I think the biggest contributor is that every manufacturer is in a bubble, trying to create and advance proprietary standards.

It's time to remember one of the most important advances that allowed electronic music to blossom into what it is now: MIDI. The power of MIDI wasn't its high throughput, it was its universality. You will not often find me arguing for conformity. Generally I'm effusing on the gospel of open-source and the unimaginable power that lies in the human population's aggregated creativity. But all this only works if we have a language that allows us to communicate together. Likewise, there is a need for common denominators that will allow musical technologies to work together. I want to make music, not wade through the guts of my computer's OS. Boost the confinement beam, already.

Thus ends today's rant.

John Phipps

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