Music: the bare necessities

David Holloway
7 April, 2008
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I received a fascinating URL the other day for The Food Lifeboat . It’s a site that lists the basic food requirements you’ll need to live at home if a pandemic like bird flu hit Australia. Aside from my sometimes obsessive interest in contingency planning (yes, I filled my bath full of water just in case for Y2K), it got me thinking about music technology and surviving on the bare basics. Like most musicians who use their computer as a central part of the creative process, I’m damn effective at accumulating gear.

There’s a somewhat pleasant conundrum with gear accumulation — it gives you an ever-increasing palette of options from which to create your music, but it can paralyse you with intimidation.

Last weekend I got motivated to create some music, so I sat myself down in front of my iMac. Whilst it was booting up, I looked around at my hardware audio interface (a Digi002 Rack), my USB MIDI keyboard, my shelf of sample CDs, the two synths on their stand and the Roland DJ sound module I haven’t used in years. I just felt intimidated, and that’s before I even thought about the options I had on the iMac itself (Logic Studo, Soundtrack Pro 2, Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Steinberg Sequel and GarageBand).

I can already picture the rolling of eyes from those with less extensive gear collections and I’m the first to admit I’m lucky in that respect. That said, it’s a classic example of too many options stifling productivity. I spent ten minutes thinking through what I might use for the project and found that the fire of creativity had turned into a smoldering pile of wet leaves. If I’d only had GarageBand with a Jam Pack or two, I would have been much more likely to jump in and actually create something.

This has all led me to decide a rationalisation of my gear needs to occur, but even that isn’t a simple prospect. Do I get rid of my real instruments? Choosing between virtual and real instruments then determines your whole recording setup and I can’t bring myself to sell the synths I see as part of the family. If I don’t sell them, then I still need an audio interface with MIDI functionality. Suddenly, I’m back to square one.

There is a point to this lengthy whinge — the advent of the digital audio workstation hasn’t reduced the amount of equipment we tend to accumulate but those same pieces of software are starting to make amends. Take Logic Studio: if I didn’t have my sentimental attachment to my synths I could run a respectable home studio with just my Mac and a USB MIDI keyboard. If I need to record vocals, a USB microphone covers that base. It’s only if I need to do regular recording of analogue instruments that I’d need to purchase an audio interface, and they’re getting smaller and cheaper by the week. Laptop-based music production is a fully fleshed out reality now and is the perfect example of how a pared-down studio can still pack a big punch. Read this month’s print issue for a Pro File on Gotye — he epitomises the minimalist, computer-based approach.

The next time you see a picture of a musician sitting in their studio surrounded by gear, don’t be envious. Be satisfied that you’re one of the next generation of computer-based musicians who focuses on the music rather than collecting wall warts and black boxes. Even better you can use all the money you save to ensure your Food Lifeboat is well and truly stocked for when the bird flu hits.

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