How to Do It

Got an email this morning from a fellow who is new to the world of digital recording and is looking for tutorials. Someone told him I had written a bunch of tutorials for Keyboard over the years, and he was hoping to find them online.

The archives on the Keyboard website are incomplete and poorly organized, and that is not a situation that’s likely to change. But there are some articles newcomers might find useful — maybe by me, maybe by Craig Anderton, Francis Preve, Peter Kirn, or other fine writers. You just have to be willing to poke around and click on likely links.

I also directed him to the websites run by Electronic Musician, Mix, and Sound On Sound, all of which have archives of old magazine articles. User forums are a great place to post specific questions. And YouTube has a surprising trove of video tutorials. Not all of them are good — some are garbage — but YouTube is a great place to look.

There are no easy answers, though. I couldn’t tell the guy, “Buy this book,” because there isn’t a book. Oh, there are books. A few years ago Peachpit published Real World Digital Audio, by Peter Kirn. (I edited it, so I happen to know about it.) But it rather ambitiously tried to cover the entire field, which would have taken a ten-volume encyclopedia, and by now it’s a bit out of date. Course Technology has many books on specific pieces of software, and I’m sure some of them are very good — but most of us use several different tools from different manufacturers. You won’t find all of the answers in a single book.

The technology is immensely complex — and the things that people want to do with it are incredibly varied. Maybe the guy who contacted me would be happy making beats with Renoise. Or maybe he’s an acoustic guitarist with symphonic ambitions, in which case Renoise would be very nearly useless. Maybe he’d like Propellerhead Reason … but if so, he’ll have to switch to Windows or a Mac, as Reason isn’t a Linux app. Or how about Csound? That runs on Linux, but it’s mainly for tweakheads, not for pop musicians. Does he have a MIDI keyboard? Would a MIDI keyboard help him?

It’s not hard to see why computer-based music-making is baffling to the newcomer. I wish I had a magic answer, but somebody would have to pay me an awful lot of money to write that book … and the publishing industry isn’t set up to shovel out hefty advances for music technology titles.

This year I’m probably going to write an introductory book on cello playing — I can do that for a $5,000 advance, thank you very much — but playing the cello is a piece of cake compared to computer music, if only because there’s a single, clearly understood way to do it. Actually doing it takes years of practice, but explaining how to do it is rather straightforward.

Want to become an expert at music technology? What you do is, you blunder around, make mistakes, get frustrated, ask lots of questions, get wrong answers, get right answers, waste money buying stuff that doesn’t do what you want, record a bunch of music, try to figure out what you’re doing wrong, ask more questions … it’s a never-ending process.

At the end of the day, you may be an expert on using the technology and still be producing third-rate music. Because in the end, it’s not about the technology. It’s about the music. And there are no books that tell you how to write great music. How to compose, yeah, I’m sure you could find a book or two on that. But greatness can’t be taught, it can only be nurtured. Nurturing doesn’t happen on the Internet, and it doesn’t happen through reading a book.

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