I don’t finish music very often. This is probably because of the way I approach it: while I seem to be obsessed with music and the creation of it, I tend to come at it from a technical angle rather than an artistic one. I won’t call myself a “technologist” per se – I’ll leave that label for those who are more interested in labels – but the term isn’t entirely inappropriate. It certainly fits better than “artist.”
The first time I can really remember wanting to write music was when my dad’s friend gave me a 3.5″ floppy disc which contained, to my young ears, pure magic. I’ve never done drugs so this was the closest thing I’d ever heard. It was “Second Reality” by demoscene stars Future Crew, along with a copy of Scream Tracker 3 and a bunch of really neat s3m modules that I could listen to and take apart using the software. They were amazing – I had never heard this kind of electronic music before outside of computer games, and I found out that they were all made by individuals or small teams of people on their computers. Not signed artists or bands, but scrappy teenagers with a technology bend. Normal people.
Growing up in the 80s I tended to think that anything “produced” required faceless companies and huge budgets and couldn’t be made by ordinary citizens like me. That disk represented the first time I had found great music that wasn’t made in a huge studio somewhere. And if it had been, it wouldn’t have been the same.
And if these guys could do it, why couldn’t I?
Short answer: Because I Had No Idea What I Was Doing.
Music composition tools were starting to become more prevalent on personal computers at around that time, and there was enough of it available to me for me to have a go at it on my own. The great part about computer technology is that, with enough determination, you can really learn most of the technical concepts at home, no formal education necessary. Most software is at least somewhat self-explanatory, and if not, a bit of research and cleverness is usually enough to figure out what you’re trying to do, even if you aren’t doing it in the “best” way yet. Musical concepts are similar: they’re somewhat self evident if you stumble across them, and there’s no hole a bit of dedicated learning can’t patch. The important thing to remember is that I didn’t know this about music, and so after making a few recordings that sounded like a beginner violinist and a synthesizer being thrown down some stairs I decided it wasn’t something I could really do, much as I wanted to, and I didn’t sit down to learn any theory until almost ten years later when I’d graduated college.
My interest in music began with electronic tracks written by hackers that I listened to on a computer and then I went and studied for ten years, mostly math, and now I write and fix software for a living. My technological, analytical side has a far better idea what to do with anything than my artistic side does. I think this is why I’m so often trying to do something musical, yet so rarely finish any music. I know what I like, but I don’t know how to get there.
I’ve never put much faith into “tricking yourself into doing something” but we’ve already established that my evaluation of learning ability is suspect. A couple of months ago, I started doing technical studies by watching Youtube videos and trying to figure out how certain sounds and music worked, on the logic that if I wasn’t going to make music, I could at least build up my technique in case inspiration struck. I learned a bit about varying lowpass filters rhythmically, and pairing this up with other effects like distortion to make those “wobble bass” sounds that are pretty popular right now. I took a fairly standard sample set from a 606 drum machine and tried to make it sound like outer space. I tried taking samples and changing their timings to make new rhythms. I learned that a Korg Monotron can make one of the most annoying sounds in the world if you listen to it for half an hour don’t put some effects on it. Pretty soon, I had made myself a collection of related sounds that I kind of liked, so I started experimenting with putting them together.
And it worked! The track that came out of all of this is called Flight from Dubai. I won’t claim it’s “good” (that’s up to anybody who’s still reading this wall of text to decide) but I like it, and it’s gone over well with the people I’ve shown it to.
In fact last night it was used last night by the bellydancer Firefly as the opener to her set. Firefly is one of my favorite dancers so you can imagine how excited I was. She was amazing as usual, and now I can say that I’ve written something worth dancing to.
Time to study some more, and get ready for writing something else. But first, I think I might have a drink and celebrate my small success.