Everything’s Stuck. Everybody’s Stuck

Ever wondered why Beethoven didn’t invent the blues? After all, he had sufficiently tragic motivations, he had a piano, knew how to play it well and had all the same notes available to him as Ray Charles. Why didn’t he write “Georgia” or some other blues classic? Such a tune may have been very cathartic and made him feel better. So, why no rhythm and blues? The reason is both prosaic and profound. It didn’t occur to him. He didn’t think of it.

What separated Beethoven from Blind Lemon Jefferson was not skills, resources, educational advantage, connections, privilege or opportunities. It was insight. Ideas. The innovation simply wasn’t thought of. I’ve come to believe that if you don’t invent something, there’s a good chance that nobody will. For all that Beethoven did create and innovate, he missed bringing forth the blues. This absence of insight (which is the pre-cursor to innovation) applies at all times in human history. We always had the ingredients for microprocessors. They were scattered all over the beaches of the world, in abundance, since pre-history. We just didn’t see how to create numerical processing machines with all that sand.

In this blog, I strive to provide creative ideas for starving artists, but lately, whenever I sit down to think about something useful for artists struggling to use their art in the service of humanity, or even just to give themselves pleasure, I hit a roadblock. Everything is stuck because of the fixed, rigid, wrong-headed ideas that we, as a species, cling to doggedly. We’re like blind faith zealots, spouting a religion based on false premises, like cult disciples brainwashed by charismatic leaders. What we fervently and mistakenly believe to be unassailable truths blinds us to more fruitful possibilities. Everybody is so consumed with making a buck and desperately trying to outrun ever-impending penury, that in our existential panic, we’ve lost sight of objective reality. We can’t even recognise that the suffering is self imposed – pure inventions of our own collective intellect – and that we could end the suffering at a stroke, simply by choosing to do so. We created poverty; it’s not a law of physics. It’s a game we play.

Meanwhile, we fill our days with virtue signalling displacement activities. Rather than addressing the root causes of our angst directly, we give up drinking for a month, or practice clean eating. Having comforted ourselves with these drop-in-the-ocean, hollow, self-centred gestures, we blithely re-elect people willing to robotically enact the current bad ideas that are the true source of our precarity. The thought that we should change he whole corrupted system is unthinkable. It’s just a matter of selecting the least bad version of a destructive regime. We uphold systems of thought that imperil us and make us miserable, while stepping over homeless rough sleepers in our streets, who are trying to withstand sub-zero temperatures, unaided, just to stay alive. The governments we support hose their tents down.

It doesn’t matter which issue I think about addressing. In the final analysis, what thwarts everything is the low quality of our collective thoughts. Like Beethoven, we have everything we need available to us. We just can’t invent the new ideas we need to break our intellectual logjams. We’re stuck.

It’s interesting to study anthropology, even from an armchair. What you find is that the prevailing mind set is far out of kilter with most of human history. Since antiquity, there has always been an acceptance of a need to protect people from the vicissitudes of whatever agreed system of economic activity and governance the community adopted. Debts were systematically forgiven. There were limits to state violence, at least in theory. What’s new and wrong about our epoch is that we now believe that it’s inevitable and right that some people will be crushed out of existence, so that a few can live lives of unfettered opulence.

We think that extreme inequality is a natural, inevitable, immutable law and that it’s right and proper to convert our claimed ownership of resources into the means to enslave other people, stripping them of everything, including their very dignity. The consequences of this belief system include dehumanisation, the justification of conquest through extreme levels of industrialised, mechanised, automated violence, the summary oppression of those that challenge the belief system and the single-minded obsession with preserving one’s income stream, even when it is factually proven that you are doing irreparable harm to others by doing so. It’s more fear than greed. To voluntary cease doing harm is to invite consigning oneself to oblivion, in a system that demands you continue to pay, just to exist.

The ancient Greeks faced many societal problems too, but their response was to invent ideas like democracy, stoicism, various new philosophies, geometry, scientific empiricism, a belief that mathematics could explain the mysteries of the universe and many more. These things hadn’t previously occurred to anybody, but it was useful to humanity to bring these innovations forward. In effect, the Greeks brought about a collective cognitive upgrade. Some of these innovations were so good, we still use them, millennia after they were first proposed.

I truly believe that a further cognitive upgrade is long past overdue. Our current ideas and beliefs are, rather than serving us well, consigning us to certain destruction. While we continue to believe that these ideas are the only ideas that can be, that these are the best ideas and that every possible idea has already been thought of, we’re stuck. We can’t make any progress in solving the very problems our current ideas are wholly responsible for creating. A willingness to face the possibility that these present solutions are not good solutions is all it will take. From that starting point, it becomes safe to ask what else we could do.

I say this fully aware that the very next person I respond to, on social media, will be speaking from the confines of a mind cage they refuse to vacate, even though the door is easily opened. They’ll argue with me from the assumption that their belief system is correct, sacred and unquestionable. There is no point in engaging with them, because alternative solutions have been rejected by them, a priori. The conversation will degenerate into a pointless slanging match, advancing nothing any further forward. At the conclusion of the conversation, they’ll convince themselves they’ve won and go back to their familiar existence, confined as it is to the boundaries of their self-imposed mind cage. These people have never had a new idea and probably never will have one.

As a species, we can do much better than this. I repeat – everything we need is available to us. All we lack is the will to rethink comfortable certainties. That’s just fear by another name. Our cognitive cowardice and intellectual dishonesty is all that’s killing us. Until we are willing to confront that, no progress is possible.

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A Story About Youthful Enthusiasm Thwarted

Whenever I learn of a new government initiative to incubate innovative businesses, I roll my eyes. Back in the day, I had some first-hand experience with this kind of agency, as a recently-graduated electrical, electronics and computer engineer, with eight years of accumulated work experience as a trainee electrical engineer. I lived in a country that had the wealth to support modern digital businesses. It was a rich, first-world country, with many advantages. They called it “the lucky country” and in many ways, it was. Its one massive disadvantage – its remoteness from the rest of the world – could be compensated for, by doing something sufficiently innovative. In fact, there is some (small) advantage in being isolated, because you can work below the radar for longer. Indeed, I was soon to work at one of the nation’s most advanced and innovative companies, leading the world in what it did.

My mentors, during my traineeship, had been people that were at the pioneering forefront in industrial electronics and microprocessors, when these things were still new and the United States and Japan had not yet established dominant market positions in these fields. My mentors spoke with bitter regret at the lost opportunities, as corporate and government policy had been anything but supportive of their nascent industries. Subsequently, their initial leads had been squandered and lost. What could have been world-beating industries were, instead, faded memories and some dusty reports sitting on Dexion shelves. I read many of those old reports. The intellectual property that was in those reports was simply, profligately wasted. Nobody benefited from the knowledge and what knowledge it was! I was astonished, reading the old lab reports and imagining what could have been. My mentors would acknowledge my reactions ruefully. They knew it too. Their disappointment was palpable.

My education was a combination of gritty, hands-on application, under real-world commercial pressures, and abstract university learning, where blowing stuff up was shrugged off as just part of the undergraduate lab experience. It was tough, I didn’t get much sleep and I worked my tail off, but it was an excellent way to learn. Sometimes, you just had to figure it out, no matter what. You couldn’t take insane risks, but you could do things that were clever and made for better results. The university I trained at was a world leader in automatic control systems and there were some inspiring lecturers, who really knew their onions in this field. They gave us great insight into feedback and stability and the limitations of both digital and analogue techniques. I was very lucky to study under these people.

Even as a naive, green engineer, I knew that the key to the future was to create high skill, high wage jobs, building ground-breaking technology for the world and that the idea of continuing to be a nation wholly dependent on mining, farming and financial speculation would, ultimately, not end well for the place of my birth. My training, in heavy industry, had made that obvious. I had seen the workforce at the plant I worked at shrink from 13,000 to just a few thousand in a few short years. Ultimately, the whole plant closed. There’s nothing there now. It’s vacant, empty ground.

As a young, newly hatched engineer, I was brimming with ideas, I had the skills and training to go forward with them, but I had no connections, no finance and few clues about business. What I needed was help.

To me, the idea of being a technology entrepreneur appealed immensely. I felt it would be a way to live a purposeful life, where my contribution could cause some good. Even as a young graduate, I was aware that technology could have a dark side, so my interests were in making technology in the service of the arts. I wanted to make tools for people to make music and pictures. I was biased, because I had been a musician since I was nine years old. I dabbled with recording and music technology, such as it was. My best buddy at university was also mad keen on making things to make music. His room was a hive of self-directed design and development, where he made mixing desks, analogue synthesisers, effects pedals, amplifiers, electronic drum kits, you name it. He was inspiring to be around. What often started off as a bag of dubious electronic components would, in the end, make wonderful noises. In my career, I would end up creating tools for professional audio and video production, but not in the way I envisaged. I wouldn’t, ultimately, bring those jobs to my home town or even my home state. Indeed, later in my career, when I tried to bring those things back to Australia, my intentions fell on stony, infertile soil. But, I’m jumping ahead of myself in this story.

I knew I didn’t want to supervise electrical contractors installing heavy machinery for the rest of my life, no matter how impressive some of those projects were. As a trainee, I got involved in some very interesting projects, with awe-inspiring, powerful machines controlled by computers, but I could see the writing on the wall, for the Australian steel industry, even then. Nobody took quality seriously enough and the management of the company that employed me were complacently under-investing in process improvement, so it was only a matter of time before they were beaten on price. It didn’t seem like much of a future and my instincts were right about that. All of the really cool plant that we installed was eventually torn out and sold to Chinese companies, in the bitter end. It’s probably still running today, somewhere in the industrial heartlands of the China.

My side hustle, back then, was planning something I called a “Digital Music Processor”. My idea was that you could use a standard PC to make music. In my imagination, it would have recording and signal processing capabilities, as well as digital synthesis modules. The whole thing, which I called “Starbase”, was meant to facilitate digitally-created audio, or at the very least, to accomplish digital supervision of the audio production process. This idea occurred to me long before you could produce music “in the box” (something that has become a commonplace, these days). While sampling and sequencing was relatively new, digital signal processing was still in its very infancy. The idea that you could do it all in a general purpose computer was science fiction, back then.

Indeed, sceptics of my ideas, at the time, were correct. The PCs that then existed had no chance of doing the work and wouldn’t have the sheer processing power or storage for quite some time. As an idea, it was, in 1985, infeasible. However, I saw into the future. It was going to be possible, because of Moore’s Law and because even a little bit of computer control over existing audio production technology was transformative. This much was evident from seeing what computer control of heavy machinery in industry could readily accomplish. I’d already experienced that. Consequently, I knew that a viable product roadmap could exist. Driven by this certainty, I began to write down my ideas and build a business plan. I wanted to pitch it to somebody.

The jury was still out, in Australia, about its industrial policy. The Whitlam government of the early 1970s had advocated for a domestic electronics and computing industry, but had gained little traction, having been thwarted by a US-backed coup, which removed this government from office, under dubious circumstances. Under the subsequent Liberal (meaning conservative) government, much of the potential had been traded away in secret sweetheart deals with Japan, which the Japanese were able to buy very cheaply. Our corrupt politicians were easily intimidated into bad bargaining positions, by those with bribes to spend. They didn’t understand technology either. In response to that wanton waste, the New South Wales state government, dominated by Labour politicians under the leadership of Neville Wran, had set up something called The Innovation Centre, in Sydney. It’s stated purpose was to help young would-be entrepreneurs to start innovative, technology businesses. It seemed like an ideal fit. I arranged a meeting and drove the hundred miles to show them what I was thinking.

My first impression of their offices was that, while located in the heart of Sydney, they were very small and there weren’t many people there. I couldn’t detect any vibrant buzz. Maybe I expected dozens of your would-be entrepreneurs to be trying to get started. That wasn’t at all evident. For all I knew, that was just what government departments did. Perhaps they simply turned exciting things and stimulating times in sclerotic bureaucracies. That might have been par for the course. I was used to engineering offices which, while not buzzing with activity, were at least humming with it. This seemed more deserted and moribund than that.

Nevertheless, I was received warmly and encouragingly. It might have felt patronising at the time, but the truth was I knew little. What I hadn’t predicted was that the government department in charge of innovation didn’t know much more about it than I did. It seemed to be populated by civil servants, not people that had succeeded in entrepreneurial activities. It also seemed as much a mystery to them, how things like that get done, as it did to me. Within a few weeks, though, I got a phone call from the Innovation Centre, asking me to drop everything and get down to the Siebel Townhouse right now. If I did, Jean Michel Jarre would spend an hour with me, listening to my ideas. This felt like an unbelievable opportunity, so I dropped everything and high-tailed it to King’s Cross.

True to their word, the meeting did take place. I spent one of the most enjoyable hours of my life with the renowned electronic music pioneer, both listening to his philosophy of making music and pitching my ideas to him. It helped enormously that I knew his work intimately and the equipment he had used to create it. Unfortunately, things didn’t go any further. Follow up letters were not acknowledged. Clearly, there was no real commitment to helping me out, beyond sharing insights (which, in hindsight, were exceptionally valuable). In fact, it was only quite recently that Jean Michel Jarre finally fully embraced production in the box, where practically everything was created by software, in the computer. He turned out to be a late adopter of what I was proposing. Though he seemed to be at the avant-garde, it was with a different philosophy of music technology. It just goes to show that you can never tell.

Things went a bit quiet after that. I didn’t know if the Innovation Centre had concluded I wasn’t worth providing any further help to, given my inability to adequately impress Jean Michel, or if they were out of ideas about what to do with me. It was clear that there was no innovation incubation fund to speak of. Getting financial or any other help was going to be largely impossible. Subsequently, I applied for and was offered a job with Fairlight Instruments – a company I had regarded as a competitor, in my business plan, only one with what I saw as a flawed product proposition. While this company encouraged me greatly, making me their Innovations Engineer, I never fully agreed with the product philosophy and was always trying to push the company in other directions. That must have been unwelcome, irritating and annoying, coming from a clueless, just-graduated engineer. It was a great job, though and I met wonderful people through it.

A little later, the civil servant that had seen me at the Innovation Centre asked to come to my parent’s house, where I was still living. That was quite a strange request, but I accepted the meeting. During that meeting, he attempted to pitch me on helping him with something innovative, which he thought had genuine legs. It was a passive, convection-driven, rotating air vent, designed to remove hot air from the roof spaces of suburban dwellings. I thought it was a good idea and had real application, but that it was strange that he was trying to recruit me into this venture. It also felt odd that he seemed to have a personal interest in its commercial success. The biggest blow to me, though, was that it involved none of my electronic, electrical or computer engineering training at all. In fact, it seemed rather low-tech. I passed on the offer, disappointed and never had further contact with the NSW Innovation Centre ever again. It had left a very bad taste in my mouth and I had moved on.

My cynicism about seemingly worthy government initiatives was seeded by this encounter. It seems to be, looking back, that the Innovation Centre was largely symbolic, so that the politicians sponsoring it could point to it and say, “See, we’re doing something about industrial competitiveness.” The truth, to me, was that it was a paper tiger, with no real resources and little meaningful commitment. That felt like a terrible thing to do to young, potential entrepreneurs, willing to work hard and take risks, to make something good. It felt abusive. We were effectively sacrificial lambs, so that a bunch of politicians could look like they were doing something and in touch with the modern world, but without having to do the hard work of actually seeing it through.

Even then, as relatively clueless as I was, it wasn’t all about me. I had more noble aspirations. I could see that my city was suffering and that jobs were being lost. I truly thought that I could do something, even if very little, to replace those lost jobs with new jobs well worth having. I was concerned that the prosperous town I grew up in not decay into something less salubrious. To be sure, my town survived quite well without me and my help, but there are no cutting edge technology jobs there either.

About 15 years after this (maybe closer to 20), I again tried my luck with an innovation incubator, this time attached to the University of Surrey in the UK. Sadly, I found it equally threadbare and bereft of resources. I ended up working for Amazon instead. Prior to this UK experience, I had started a company of my own, around 2000, on the Surrey Research Park, but we had a single customer that soon hit hard times. As a result of their distress, we were brought down too. While we had turned over around a million pounds in our first year, we hadn’t built a strong enough order book, or a diverse range of clients. We just didn’t get the time to do it and couldn’t move fast enough. After the failure of Imaginative Engineering, I returned to Australia, briefly, with a view to moving back home. Again, I engaged with the local development agencies, in my home town and found the same thing. There was no understanding of the need for broadband, or data centres for hosting, to take on the rapidly changing on-line e-commerce world. They also had few resources and tried to introduce me to local business mentors that had way less experience than I had. It was utterly hopeless.

So, in three separate, good-faith encounters with government-sponsored agencies, each set up using public money with the express purpose of creating innovative, technological businesses, I’ve had nothing but hindrance, distraction and disappointment. Every business model you are required to prepare is straight-jacketed into a short-termist template. Unless you can get big, quick and allow investors to exit rich, there is no seed funding available at all. Nobody believes in doing the long, boring, painstaking, patient work required to succeed in the long term, though this is really the only sustainable advantage you can build. The only companies I’ve owned have been built by myself. Just about every other company I’ve worked at has been, in the end, a branch office of various US corporations. Even companies that started in the UK, from nothing, either failed or were bought and then failed. The one company that didn’t fit this pattern had an owner didn’t agree with my product direction. It hasn’t been a happy experience.

I started out my career with a self-defined mission to use my engineering skills and imagination in the service of making better art. I’m still trying, but my youthful enthusiasm has been thwarted multiple times. These days, I’m trying to be smarter and to think my way around the usual obstacles. It isn’t easy. If anybody tells you there is committed help and resources available to help realise this kind of goal, thereby providing wider benefits to the community, don’t believe them. They’re lying. There is no help of any substance available, beyond posturing and platitudes. It’s all smoke. That has been my unhappy realisation.

Before you say that these experiences turned out badly because of me, you might be right. However, I don’t think I was any better or worse than any other potential entrepreneur that darkens these agencies’ doorsteps. I was just an engineer with some ideas, abilities and insights, trying to get something done. If that makes me a bad person, then I can’t argue with you. Your insight and experience may be superior to mine.

So that’s my story so far, but I’m still batting at the crease. I haven’t lost the determination or the passion, but I am cynical and distrusting of innovation quangos I’ve been burnt by them. Their track records are not spectacular. For all the money they’ve spent, they haven’t accomplished very much. Maybe one day…

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The Kind of Musician I Wanted to Be

Sitting in a favourite coffee shop, on Saturday morning, waiting for my daughter to finish her music lessons, I was reading about the human mind’s unique talent for finding patterns in nature and the ancient cognitive roots of our musical abilities. On the drive there, I had been listening to a remastered record that I hadn’t heard in maybe thirty years, via Spotify. The record was Mike Oldfield’s “Discovery”, recorded in his Swiss chalet while in tax exile, back in the mid 1980s.

It all came flooding back to me in spine-tingling waves. The production choices made on that record heavily influenced my own approach to music production. There’s a lot about the way that album sounds that has driven my own taste. I strive to make my own finished recordings sound similar. I like the way the instruments are treated and balanced. At the time it was released, I remember how much I wanted to learn how to make my own music sound like this. It was a burning ambition.

At the time of its release, my career in professional audio was still in the future. I wouldn’t lay my hands on an actual Fairlight CMI Series III, or a Quantec Room Simulator for another year, or so. All I had to record with was a Tascam Portastudio that used noisy cassette tape and some musical odds and ends, including a Yamaha CX5 music computer. I was very far from having the means to make music with anything like the sonic qualities of Mike Oldfield’s album. You had to be both wealthy and an extremely talented music producer to get the necessary gear together and use it well, back in those days. Mike Oldfield has accomplished both things.

Maybe it was the coffee, or the potent reverie, but sitting in that coffee shop, sipping creamy smooth cappuccino, I began to ponder whether or not I had become the kind of musician I had dreamed of becoming, all those decades ago. Self-indulgent, I know, but somehow also poignantly important to me. Did I get anywhere even close to realising my dearest wishes, as a young man, or had the years blown past, with me never getting any closer to doing what I had wanted to do most? Had life drawn me into side roads and diversions so removed from my heart’s passionate desire that I was hopelessly far from my original goal?

What came to mind was all the musicians that I had looked up to. I began taking notes on my iPad, which formed the outline of this post. In thinking about my musical influences, I concluded I had always been most inspired by musicians that experimented with sound and the tools they used to make those sounds. I liked sonic pioneers, who made sounds I hadn’t heard before, or even imagined were possible. The possibility of doing the same is what excited me. This was the kind of musician I wanted to be.

I loved the music of Les Paul, because he made his guitar sound like it was from another galaxy, somewhere in deep space, at a time when the atomic age and space race were in full flourish. The guitars were always crisp, flash and bubbly. He presented us with rich, smooth, intimate voices and impossible choirs. The very fabric of time seemed malleable, in his productions. The accompaniment and rhythm section sounded like they were playing with one musical mind, because they actually were the product of one musical mind. Mary Ford’s harmonies had a warm, loving, enveloping, joyful, yet melancholy quality to them. Two minds working together made music that couldn’t have existed before they made it.

Les Paul, of course, is now synonymous with the solid body electric guitar. The models marketed under his name are one of the most popular designs of all time (so far). My first electric guitar was a Les Paul model. They work so well because Les Paul had thought various aspects of the design through. His crowning achievement, the early seventies Les Paul Recording model, was far ahead of its time and strangely underrated. I have one. As far as I can tell, there is no other way to make the sound that these guitars make. It’s crystalline.

George Martin’s collaborations with the Beatles brought a solid musical education, with sonic experimentation and sheer technical finesse to an untamed, unkempt, dangerous genre of music – rock and roll. Coupled with the band’s youthful exuberance, their folksy naivety, their ear for a good melody and harmony and their courage to make unusual, exotic instrumental and arrangement choices and you have a team of sonic landscape explorers who taught us all how exciting and endearing popular music could sound, if you were prepared to take chances. As a pre-teen, I could think of nothing more enjoyable than being the Beatles in Abbey Road studios, writing and recording songs with George Martin and his ensemble of first rate engineers and session musicians. That’s where heaven was.

I was still in junior school when The Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd, was released. As a soundscape of genuine emotional affect, it was something we had never heard before and only confirmed my growing conviction that the recording studio was the very best place to spend your life. They used early synthesiser techniques with avant garde tape loops with found sounds. Layered over this were lush instrumental sounds, recorded in superb technical quality. On top of that, intimate vocals, towering gospel choirs and ambient reverberation. As music, it takes its time and seeps into every pore. You don’t listen to it as much as bathe in it. Like the Beatles, Pink Floyd was willing to explore new sonic territory and push the boundaries of what you could put into popular music. This is music I dearly wanted to be able to make. Much of my lead guitar playing owes its origin to literally days spent working out how to play David Gilmour style.

Brian May of Queen impressed me with his ability to create his own sonic universe with his home-made, self-designed guitar, his use of amplification and effects in ways their manufacturers never intended and his ability to conjure typically English ensembles from his guitar strings. Married to Freddie Mercury’s outstanding vocal abilities, those massive virtual choirs, created by overdubbing deeply and four distinctive, but stellar song writers, all overseen by Roy Thomas Baker, a producer willing to break the technical rules of recording, the overall package was fresh, innovative, amazing and ground-breaking. It thrilled me. Half the fun of a Queen record, to me, was trying to figure out how it was done.

As a young teenager, I was inspired by Brian May to start designing and building my own guitars. Not having the money to buy ready-made instruments was a motivation I had in common with Brian, as was a musical father, only too willing to teach a curious son. My dad had strong technical woodworking and electronic skills and a talent for improvising with whatever materials and tools we had to hand. You learn a lot about guitar necks, when you fashion a few using nothing but hand tools. Brian May went on to found a lasting guitar brand.

In my mid teens, the music of Tom Scholz’ Boston enchanted me. Here was an engineer, working almost alone in his DIY basement studio, with a superbly talented vocalist and whatever musical odds and ends he could muster. He modified his own guitars, designed and built his own amplifiers and effects and did whatever it took, in the studio, to get the sounds he wanted to hear. To me, it was raw rock and roll perfected. It sounded new and polished, yet with power and vigour. In many ways, he changed the way electric guitar was recorded and presented. Tom was a role model for me and gave me the idea that a professional engineer could be a superb music producer as well. Being able to make the means of creating the sounds you want to deliver seemed important. It still does. For a while, you could buy Scholz R&D products – mostly guitar signal processors with unique character – but sadly, no longer.

By the time I was a high school senior, Edward Van Halen was throwing his own hot-rodded guitars together, applying variacs to his amplifier’s power supply and generally tearing up the fretboard. Again, he was willing to do the previously unthinkable to develop his signature sound. In common with many of the musicians I most admire, he worked a lot in his home studio and enjoyed pushing sonic boundaries. His rock guitar sound became definitive and his experimental Frankenstrats spawned an enduring super-Strat industry. Interestingly, though, his approach to using synthesisers is also somewhat unique. A lot of people overlook that. His example encouraged me to take my playing in different directions and to be willing to modify my guitars. Like other musical influences of mine, EVH is now a brand of guitars, amplifiers and effects.

Synthesisers also greatly interested me, because of the unique musical timbres they were capable of producing. I admired musicians that could tame these ornery instruments and produce beautiful music with them. The music of Jean Michel Jarre, Mike Oldfield, Thomas Dolby and Ultravox, with producers Konny Plank and George Martin (him again), impress me to this day for their use of synthetic, experimental sounds and unusual approaches to composition and arrangement. I love synthesisers. That may be heretical for a guitar player to say, but to me, the kind of musician I always wanted to be was one that could place guitars and synthesisers together and get something refreshing.

I really love how contemporary textures blend with traditional, orchestral timbres. George Martin pioneered this, particularly, but other artists that impressed me for this ability include Rick Wakeman, Mario Millo and, of course, Mike Oldfield. There’s something greater than the sum of the parts, to me, when you blend acoustic or folk instruments with electric guitars and synthesisers. I adore the melange.

The way sounds are recorded, processed and balanced is also an important aspect in music production that inspired me. Alan Parsons stands out for the clean and precise way his records sound. They sounded as well-defined as a CD, when I was still listening on vinyl. Nobody wants hiss and mic spill to mask the purity of the playing. Technical quality matters, in music production, provided you don’t get too hysterical and fixated about it. To this end, Mike Oldfield also managed to create works, alone, in a series of home studios, that are peerless, from a recording techniques point of view. He shapes the atmosphere and ambience as carefully as the music. This is a music production skill that deeply impressed me and something I wanted to learn to do, to make my music sound as immersive as his.

When I think about sculpting recorded sound, I love sampling techniques and digital sound manipulation tools that can morph and stretch things. I like shaping sounds as if they are audio clay. This, I’m afraid, is the sort of music I make. I take all of the influences I’ve talked about above and blend them into my own peculiar approach. The type of musician I am is one that tries hard to apply all of these music production aspects in my own work. You can’t do them all at the same time, though. That would be too much.

The common thread that ties my musical influences together best are those artists that gave me musical epiphanies, through their unprecedented sonic breakthroughs. I always wanted to be the kind of musician who could work in this space. My desire was to take chances, blend every timbre I could find and break new ground with my use of musical instruments and tools.

I wanted to be the kind of musician that knew the music making tools so intimately well, I could create new ones. Astonishingly, this is actually something I’ve learned to do. I build, modify and design guitars. I design and build effects. I dream up and code new signal processors. I worked for musical and digital recording equipment manufacturers as an engineer. In a career that was biased toward engineering, I’ve actually created musical instruments and tools of my own. Wow! That’s a pleasing outcome. Maybe I’m closer to being the kind of musician I always wanted to be than I have previously acknowledged to myself.

Yet, I’m definitely not there yet. I still want to develop a deeper understanding of melody, harmony, modes, chords and composition. I think I belong to the tradition of Western and Slavic ethnic music, more than blues and rock. I like to blend these different musical traditions, but love long, immersive, instrumental pieces with rich textures. I gravitate toward dark, minor, emotional tonalities with simple, almost naive harmonies and mystical overtones, thanks to the Russian/Ukrainian/Baltic influences in my background.

I also love Latin rhythms for the way they make bodies move. I love to feel the music coursing through you, bodily and to dance with it. I love the sheer power of the electric guitar and the electronic synthesiser, but also love them when played quietly, where the beauty of the notes is exquisite, like a good chocolate. I love how synthetic, electronic tonalities blend with acoustic instruments and shaped noise. The difference between noise and enchanting music, it has been said, is in the hand of the musician. I haven’t realised all of these goals, in my musical imagination, but I’m still trying.

All things considered, though, it turns out that I’m pretty close to being the musician I always wanted to be, when I come to think about it analytically. I now have access to most of the tools I need and I know how to use them (though there is always so much more to learn). I’ve got something to say, musically and the wherewithal to say it. So, why haven’t I said it?

Where I differ from my musical influences is in output and distribution. I still suffer from Imposter Syndrome and feel intense frustration, when my music making tools fight me (because I’m acutely aware that they can be designed to help, rather than hinder). I got into Product Management, professionally, largely through thinking about how to improve music making equipment. It’s amazing how widely applicable that particular mind set can be. Music distribution, it has to be said, is badly broken. I’ve even got plans to try to improve that.

Today, I’m working on increasing my musical output, driven on by an existential ache. There’s all this music inside me, just waiting to get out, but the mechanics of realising it are still daunting. The hunger is painful, though. It’s a need, rather than a desire. I must find a way.

I have to say that the place I most readily lose myself and enter a trance-like, productive, creative flow is in the music studio. It’s just that my “studio”, cheekily named “Bearly Adequate Studios”, for its cave-like, hibernation-inviting, solitary feel, is very small and not dedicated to music making. There is set up and tear down involved, every session. My music making space lacks acoustic isolation too, which is a pain. Still, Jean Michel Jarre recorded Oxygene in his kitchen, using swept white noise as a masking virtue, rather than a detraction. Everything is possible.

It’s still hard to translate my musical imagination into performed, recorded, packaged reality. It’s mostly a logistics challenge, at this point.

So, am I the musician I have always wanted to be? I’m not there yet, but it feels tangibly close and possible. Closer than ever. That was some cappuccino!

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You’re Probably Already Doing the Right Things

The blogosphere is saturated with posts telling you what N things you need to do, right now, in order to succeed. The premise, in all of them, is that you’re a dolt, because if you had been doing what the author says, you’d already be a certified smash hit. What’s wrong with you? Are you terminally stupid, or indolent, or both? Does fear rule everything about your life and art?

Visit a bookstore (or browse an online selection) and the self-help section screams the same tired messages at you. You’re not doing enough, consistently enough and that’s why you’re a miserable failure, you loser. Suspiciously, the only successes that the authors can point to, of their own, are having written books or blogs telling everybody else what they’re doing wrong.

There’s a sneering quality about these writings, bordering on victim blaming. Rather than coming across as compassionate clues from a trusted mentor, they take on a harsh tone, berating you for whining and being so ineffectual. They tell you that the gap between where you are and your aspirations is all your own fault and that you must be unbelievably incompetent for being in this situation. Man up, or ship out seems to be their invitation.

Here’s the dirty little secret about success: you can do everything right and success may still elude you. The corollary is that you can do practically everything wrong, yet still be selling more art than you can make, to throngs of adoring followers. The fact is that what the population loves and takes to their heart is none of your business and there is precious little you can do to change anybody else’s mind about it. All you can do is show up, make and present your art. The rest isn’t up to you. Success either will or won’t come.

I see many artists absolutely killing themselves to succeed, paranoid about the one elusive, magic thing they’re somehow failing to do. These people already have passion, good work habits, always strive to learn and improve and are consistently putting in the hours to make things. Those that choose to do so, share their work and make it available. They do good work and they market that work to the best of their ability and financial constraints. They’re doing their best. They’re already doing all the right things.

You probably are too. Those self-help guides fail to acknowledge your many competencies, no matter how competent you are. If success followed a simple bullet-pointed formula, the author of that process would be a billionaire and everybody else who applied it would be guaranteed to follow in their footsteps. The world doesn’t work that way. There is no secret recipe or special sauce.

Posts that list the obvious, which you’re already doing, or else set a superhuman quality bar, which no actual human being could ever hope to meet (the author included), are a colossal waste of your time, which serve only to cause agitation and dissatisfaction. You’re better off spending your time on your art.

You’re not that stupid. Youre not lacking in motivation. You’re doing what you need to do. Let go of the goal and focus on the ride. There is existential joy in simply being an artist who enjoys making what they make. If you get lucky, success may find you. About all you can do to make your own luck is keep going. Don’t quit.

It’s an unreasonable expectation to insist you sacrifice every other important aspect of your life to accomplish the goal of artistic success. The broken debris you leave behind, the neglected relationships and collateral damage are emphatically not a price worth paying. If you achieve artistic success that way, it will be a hollow, empty, unsatisfying victory. The self-help authors rarely acknowledge or discuss this salient fact.

Sometimes, it’s worth listing all the things you’re doing right, on a piece of paper. It’s an interesting exercise. You often discover you’re not as clueless as the authors of those self-help guides would have you believe. You’ve gotten a lot of things together. All by yourself. That’s awesome.

By all means read the self-help literature, if it affirms you or serves to motivate you, but don’t let it erode your confidence, or introduce self doubt. If it makes you crazy, or brings you down, making you feel inadequate or guilty, in what sense is it helping you? Don’t feed some author’s bank account or ego by sacrificing your dignity and self-esteem. You’re better than that. You deserve better.

You’re probably already doing all the right things.

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When Two Worlds Collide

Increasingly, whenever I look into some creative project or other, I am immediately confronted with a collision of ideas. The two worlds, in stark opposition to each other, are those of predatory scarcity and generous, nurturing abundance. It’s increasingly clear to me that these two worlds cannot be reconciled and that they are on course to crash into each other violently.

When your society is fundamentally predatory and has a deep-rooted belief and vested interest in scarcity, the winners are the takers. They rob from others, swindling everybody else to enrich themselves. Everything is a winner-takes-all, fight-to-the-death competition and nobody cares about anybody else, for fear of being seen as weak and vulnerable. This is the world we largely inhabit. Every transaction is some sort of one-sided deal and nobody can afford to give anything away, because their very survival depends on hoarding. This world rewards ownership in preference to contribution or hard work. Rent-seeking is the winning strategy and maintenance of artificially-produced scarcity is the route to riches.

While efficiency is lauded as the virtuous result, we lose compassion, empathy, generosity and the ability to thrive, in the process. Nobody is in a position to maintain quality, because only the costs are counted; not the benefits. I can’t work at doing what I like to do most, because that might not pay and if I don’t get paid, I can’t exist, because everybody else insists I pay them. For everything. There are no free lunches, because there are no free anything. This is how we choose to live: enslaved and degraded; dishonoured and undignified. Instead of appealing to the best qualities of humanity, we wallow in the worst.

Open source software and distributed applications become an impossibility, unless you can find another way to get paid for creating and maintaining them. Those other ways are usually advertising (manipulating others into buying things they don’t really want or need), selling users’ private data (stripping them of their very identity) and crowd funding (also known as begging). You can try to hide rent charges, in the form of fees to access any gate you can establish and control, but somebody is always looking for a way to let people use their bypassing gate, more cheaply.

The logical conclusion of a world of predatory scarcity is that people – the vast majority of people – are harmed. If not physically, then their psyches are indelibly scarred. Eventually, all the wealth concentrates into too few hands and everybody else is syphoned dry, until they are no longer able to pay their way any more and hence cease to exist. Meanwhile, the prime hoarders can’t think of anything ridiculous and obscene enough to fritter away their disposable incomes on fast enough. Maybe you could build an indoor ski slope, with real snow, in the middle of an arid desert, or send your prototype roadster into space. For a lark. For shits and giggles. Ultimately, their corporations become worthless, for want of customers with money to spend and their piles of money are rendered valueless, for want of anybody to exchange their labour, attention or property, to give these paper or digital “promises to pay” any actual, tangible meaning in reality.

If the virtual slaves are working for next to nothing, how do you motivate them to work at all, other than through the application of extreme violence? Eventually, even the torturers and punishers give up, for want of any meaningful reward for doing so. That’s when they turn on their privileged masters. Even dogs turn on their masters, if mistreated for long enough.

If we lived in the other possible universe, of generous, nurturing abundance, you could make and do things of the utmost value and quality and simply donate them to humanity, because doing so would not jeopardise your very existence in any way. If you could know that your basic needs would be met unconditionally, then why wouldn’t you work your way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to the pinnacle – self transcendence? This could be accomplished by the simple expedient of issuing new money to people directly, without debt obligations attached. Some call it a universal basic income, but the idea is that everybody has value and that in recognising this unarguable fact with trading tokens, it enables everybody to do their best work, to the best of their abilities and interests, in the service of humanity.

There is no need to hoard and no need to cut anybody else’s throat. In fact, in the alternative universe, your purpose becomes one of adding to the richness and beauty, to the utility and comfort, to the stock of these things that humanity begins to accumulate. Sustainability begins to be viable. There are fewer economic externalities, because we aren’t fixated on creating them. Being all in it together, we seek to ensure that what we previously saw as an advantage over others, or the ecosystem, is correctly accounted for and taken into consideration. We clean up our own messes.

Without the necessity of competition, we’d seldom need to resort to violence, manipulation or subterfuge, because we’d have different aims – to spread well-being and create abundance, rather than deplete scarcity. Yes, there are resources that are non-renewable, but now there would be a genuine incentive to use renewables, instead. If I’m not a dog eating other dogs and there are no rats to race, then I can focus on higher achievements. It’s worth my while to help others achieve their highest potential, too. I’m not trying to milk them for tuition fees, clock up hours as a consultant or sell them expensive self-help and training, because I will continue to thrive without those tributes to my genius. Our politicians would tend not to be corrupted by money, because they won’t need any, to live in a fine-feathered nest. Excess is not useful.

Offered the choice of idle, opulent indolence, or a meaningful, purposeful life, spent challenging myself, learning, achieving and accomplishing something that contributes to the general good, the life of the virtual invalid begins to pale. I would have to hate humanity to opt out, like that. There certainly wouldn’t be handsome rewards for holding such misanthropic views.

The ridiculous aspect to this collision of two world views is that the entire catastrophe hinges on ideas that people hold in their heads. If, like the students finally drawing a line under the inaction of politicians that refuse to protect them from assault-weapon-wielding malcontents, we all decided to live in the nurturing, generous, abundant, sustainable world instead, we could do it in a very short time, simply by ceasing to believe in predatory scarcity. It’s really that simple. We just have to choose.

However, while some of humanity clings obstinately to the old, evidently discredited ideas, nobody else can make a move toward the positive. You can’t act generously in a world that acts selfishly. Eventually, they consume you. We’re therefore stuck in a mire of inaction. Either we all change, or none of us can.

To my way of thinking, choosing the alternative universe is not a very difficult choice. We only refuse to make it, because we are propagandised into doubting its viability, by people who mistakenly believe the current mind set and world order is beneficial to them. It isn’t. Their refusal to give up on that set of ideas is going to bring everything crashing down around their ears. They won’t survive it, whether or not they think they can flee to New Zealand or Mars. Today, their refusal to choose abundance is writing their own demise. It’s a long, drawn-out suicide, where everybody else is collateral damage. The maddening thing is this: it just doesn’t have to be this way.

Choose life instead.

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The Joy (and Terror) of Not Knowing

Sometimes your friends can be absolute pains. Here I am, late on a Sunday night, with a half-finished blog post, a glass of red wine in me and my twitter friend advising me to get my blog post finished. All right, already. Geez! 🙂

Thank goodness for friends like that.

There’s a term I recently encountered in the context of childrens’ education, but it’s a term I think has wider applicability. It’s JONK – the joy of not knowing. The idea is that not knowing something is not a reason to feel shame and defensiveness, as if exposing a weakness in your unassailable body of learning. You shouldn’t feel like a failure for being stumped or ignorant. Rather, it presents the much-relished prospect of embarking on an exciting research adventure. There is real satisfaction to be gained from not knowing and then trying to find out or learn what you don’t know. In fact, it’s the foundation of a growth mind set.

When we get to adulthood, though, where careers, reputations, livelihoods and contractual deadlines are at stake, you could be forgiven for reacting with both inner joy at not knowing something, because you get to follow your curiosity in a quest to find out, but also a sense of terror, because the world and it’s expectations are not configured for forgiveness if, at the end of your research and enquiries, you still don’t know. The fact that some things are hard to learn or, indeed, unknowable isn’t an acceptable explanation. No wonder we lose some of the joy of not knowing.

So, we resign ourselves to an unstable duality. Not knowing evokes emotional reactions that are at one and the same time both ecstatically happy and traumatically terrifying.

People hate being seen as not knowing. It induces fear and terror, because we know most people to be judgemental, seeking to use our perceived vulnerability to gain advantage over us. Whether subconsciously or not, our earliest experiences with formal education strongly reinforce the idea that if we don’t know the answer, so fail to put our hands up in class, we’re displeasing our teacher – an authority figure in our young lives.

Some teachers go as far as using public humiliation, calling out painful gaps in our as yet far from complete education in front of our peers, as a means of asserting classroom control. For their part, our little peer group follows teacher’s lead in heaping ridicule, derision and opprobrium on us for being so stupid. And we thought those kids were our friends! No wonder it’s so easy to become disillusioned, isolated, mistrustful of our erstwhile playmates and hence lonely. Not knowing is equated with betrayal. No wonder our enthusiasm for investigative play is curbed. The joy of not knowing can be fragile and easily lost.

It’s very destructive. It’s how inquisitive curiosity is crushed. You’re taught that you had better know everything, or at least be able to make a passable bluff at such an absurd claim. The reality, of course, is that nobody knows everything and our educations will never be complete for our whole lives. There’s always something new to learn.

Sadly, it’s enough to prevent you from finding answers, simply to avoid anybody deducing that the search for new information means you’re lost and clueless. We stick to stuff we already know and baselessly claim that everything else is not worth knowing. I believe this partially explains why art and creative pursuits are so denigrated. Those that haven’t yet learned how to do them would rather hold they aren’t things worth knowing than admit they’re at the very bottom of their personal learning curve. Better to say artists are stupid and a waste of space than admit to feeling foolish at not having learned how to create.

Our own fear of revealing our lack of learning in creative spheres is enough to put some off art for life, tragically. It’s why you hear so many people dismissively claiming they can’t draw to save themselves. Of course they can, but they’re going to have to put in a lot of hard work to get there. If they’ve lost their childhood joy of not knowing, they choose to deny themselves the considerable pleasure of being able to draw well, rather than lose face while it’s obvious they’re still learning. It’s all about shame.

But, as anybody who loves learning will tell you, curiosity is a great way to find answers. Playing with the very concept of not knowing is fun. A very effective way to learn is to thoroughly enjoy the exploration and discovery. There is genuine joy in finding things out and becoming marginally more enlightened than you so recently were.

It’s also daunting, though. You might not know where to start or have taken on such a monumental exploration, you wonder if you can sustain the enthusiasm of the enquiry until you reach your goal. Even if you love to climb the very highest mountains, it’s still daunting and an undertaking that demands great commitment. It’s not to be embarked upon lightly, but paradoxically, you need a certain levity in your approach, or you’ll be too weighed down by your own overthinking to make sufficient progress. Although finding out might matter a great deal, you have to approach the challenge as if any outcome will do. It’s ok not to reach the summit. You have to sincerely believe that.

If you invent things that didn’t exist before for a living, then not knowing how to create a viable solution is truly terrifying, especially when there are commercial deadlines, legally enforceable contractual obligations and many people’s livelihoods at stake. Then, the search for answers can descend into blind panic, if you aren’t careful. You have to hold to the truth that, so far, nobody knows the answers.

The fact that you’re trying to do something that has never been done before means you’re an outlier – a pioneer in potentially hostile territory. You should never allow your dependents to bully you. They don’t know anybody else that knows the answers and probably know very few that have a realistic chance of finding them either. It’s tempting for them to posture aggressively, as if learners like you are ten a penny, but it’s a lie.

Tension, stress, anxiety and insomnia all too often accompany the struggle involved in finding new knowledge (even if it’s only new to you). If your own curiosity causes you to let your project fully absorb you, it gets you in its grip and you could find that you can’t find a way to make it playful enough. Keeping your sense of playfulness is crucial to protect the joy of not knowing.

The key to preserving the joy of not knowing is to take one step at a time, starting from what you already know and to search methodically for the next step. You’ll get there eventually, even if your journey turns out to be longer than other people’s. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the progress.

Courage is required. Creating some safety netting helps with courage. Find ways to make it ok, even funny, to fail. Little by little, you’ll learn to fail better. Each failure will mark real progress. Laugh it off. Don’t take it all so seriously. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re a failure for not meeting their arbitrary standard of excellence. They may be raising the bar to guarantee you fail, just to make themselves feel better. It’s your learning, not theirs. Grow your own brain your own way.

Fear can be paralysing: Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of exposure. Fear of change. Fear of loss. Fear of peeing your pants.

Just hang on tightly to the joy of not knowing.

‘Life is an ongoing process of choosing between safety (out of fear and need for defense) and risk (for the sake of progress and growth). Make the growth choice a dozen times a day.’ ABRAHAM MASLOW, US PSYCHOLOGIST

‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.’ JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE

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Let’s Talk About Latency

This post is all about music production using computers and it’s going to get quite technical, so if this is not for you, thanks for reading this far, but catch you another time. If you care about music production at all, then you probably need to read this, though.

Modern music production relies on computers. There is no realistic alternative. Windows or Mac, you need one to make a record, these days. They’re mission-critical tools. Multi-track tape is all but obsolete (and becoming expensive and hard to find or service). Dedicated hardware devices for recording digital audio just don’t have enough going for them to do the job. They’re way too limited in their capabilities to meet the quality bar required of modern music production for release. Computers are really the only game in town.

Music production is a valuable creative industry and it’s growing. There is a measurably significant contribution to GDP that results from the activities of music producers. This is not the activity of hobbyists; this is serious business. I have a record company to launch. I’ve invested thousands of pounds in my tools. It’s a real enterprise.

To cover my bases, I have a very powerful desktop machine that runs Windows 10 and a MacBook Pro that’s a few years old. I primarily use Cubase Pro 9.5 on Windows and Logic Pro X on the Mac. These are professional programmes for the creation of digital audio and music. I am running them on (close to) best of breed hardware. My operating systems and the software I use are kept scrupulously up to date. I also have a brand new laptop that should easily run a DAW, but my measurements have revealed something shocking (more on this soon).

What’s the problem?

The process of making music requires shuffling vast amounts of audio data around the place, so that the resultant data stream to your speakers is a new “sample”, say 44100 times per second per speaker. Calculating what that sample value should be is something the computer has to do, given files of audio recorded to the Solid State Disk (SSD) and from sums that are done in the digital audio workstation (DAW) software and its plug ins. The essence of making this bit stream sound like music is for the computer to never miss sending out a sample. It’s one sample every 44,100th of a second per speaker, or you hear a drop out. The music stops. The beat is lost. Silence is heard, until the bit stream starts up again. To a musician, stopping the music is unacceptable. You cannot produce music if it’s riddled with holes, like Swiss cheese. Audio has to play continuously, or it’s game over.

Computers have a lot to do, because they have to draw to the screen, manage their hardware, read and write to hard drives, listen to network ports and so on. All of this activity goes on the whole time you’re trying to make music and you can’t do without it. It more or less has to be done. Because computers need to do all this work and make it look like everything was going smoothly the whole time, they slice up time and do different things in different time slots. If they get everything done quickly enough, without variance, then the design of the hardware masks the gaps in each separate task with a buffer and the user is none the wiser that some of what they were doing didn’t happen when they thought it did. Computers jump from task to task, getting tons of stuff done, so that you think the audio is smooth and uninterrupted (as are the graphics on your UI).

When software doesn’t play nicely, it will hog more time than its time slot allows, robbing time from other tasks, so those get lumpy. It’s what we call latency. Latency means you have to wait a lot longer for the computer to catch up with the tasks you want it to do (like making sound). When the latency is long, or varies a lot, the audio playback hardware literally runs out of data temporarily, while it waits for the CPU. That’s what makes the audio glitches.

In Windows machines, there is competition for the CPU from the operating system itself (i.e. Windows). It has work it must do too. If, however, the software in your operating system takes too long, then you cannot use your computer to make smooth, uninterrupted audio at all. You can’t make recordings, because they will lose synchronisation with any music you’re playing against. It’s a music production disaster.

Update Armageddon

Since Windows 10 was introduced, music producers have been reporting that a component of the Windows 10 operating system, called wdf01000.sys, which controls kernel mode drivers (i.e. the very guts of the interface between your operating system and the hardware it runs on), is producing massive latencies, sufficient to stop audio work on the computer. That’s it. Game over. All audio is contaminated, because this component hogs the processor too long, doing it’s (necessary) stuff. Microsoft, in their arrogance, installed a piece of software in one of their “free” updates which has, in effect, put music producers out of business. Since the Sceptre and Meltdown security issues were discovered, vendors like Intel and Microsoft have crippled the processors even more. The net result is that Windows computers no longer have the capability to play or record audio without destroying it.

Nobody appears to be fixing it, either. While they are absorbed with the security issues, DAW vendors, hardware vendors, Microsoft and anybody else you call on to help you are collectively shrugging and saying, “it’s not my problem”. Music producers are stuck with “updated” operating system software which has rendered their music production tools pretty much inoperable.

I have been a maker of digital audio workstations. We got audio to work flawlessly, unconditionally, on late 1980s 80286 processors. An up-to-date Intel i7 is orders of magnitude faster and much more capable than those old computers were. Indeed, a humble Intel Celeron CPU, which is fitted to my ageing backup laptop, bought new circa 2009, has measured latencies that are one fifth of what I am getting on Intel processors running Windows 10 today. I wisely left that backup laptop on Windows 7. It’s not great for audio production, because the Celeron is woefully under-powered, but it works better with audio than all of my up-to-date machines. How can that be an acceptable situation?

It appears that nobody in my software supply chain bothered to measure and test the latency for music production, with any professional music production tools, before releasing their mandatory operating system updates. They simply imposed these “updates” on everybody, threatening that failure to keep up to date would render you helpless in the face of hackers and indemnify them from liability for consequent damage and loss. There was no opt out. Nobody appeared to care about audio. Nobody appears to care still.

Just buy a new machine

Well, that’s what I did. I bought a brand new i7 laptop a few months ago. This is the Windows 10 machine that, despite kicking the old laptop’s specifications to the curb, has deferred procedure call latencies (the thing that causes audio drop outs) that are five times worse than a machine that is nearly a decade old. It doesn’t matter which computer you buy, how new it is, which digital audio tools you install and what other things you tweak, optimise or turn off. This problem is down to an operating system component that isn’t playing nicely. You can’t fix it either, because the source code is proprietary to Microsoft. They assert their monopoly on wisdom, in this matter, even though they have demonstrably dropped the ball.

Just use your MacBook Pro

If you know how to use Logic Pro X on your MacBook Pro, why not just use that? Yes, you’ll have to move a ton of third party plug-in software licenses, but at least it will work, right? Not so fast. MacBook Pros with retina displays are susceptible to an issue known as the “GPU panic”. In this scenario, the whole machine crashes, unpredictably, whenever the graphics processing unit (GPU) feels the urge. It can happen at any time, but tends to be related to the user interface performing animations (which you can’t turn off). If you are in the middle of a recording, a crash results in the loss of a take. Forever. If you are in full music production flow, you lose all your work since your last save. It’s for this reason I’ve started to save like I have a Tourette’s syndrome nervous tick. Clearly, this obsessive compulsive behaviour is not conducive to creating beautiful melodies.

Apple tried to resolve this GPU crashing problem with a logic board swap. Unfortunately, that doesn’t fix it. Some people, having missed the free recall programme (like me), which ended in December 2016, are being asked to pay £400 or more for a replacement board. The point is, the problem comes back. Apple evidently don’t know why. Even if you buy a £2700 top-of-the-range, brand-new MacBook Pro, you’ll find that the same problem could and probably will recur.

There are workarounds that seem to help, but each operating system update that you install overwrites the settings and you have to do them again. These hacks work by switching off the suspect chip. Consequently, you also lose graphics performance, if you rely on the integrated graphics, because you are turning the second, high-powered graphics processing unit off, treating it like useless, dead weight. In effect, you’ve got a graphics processing unit you can’t use and you can see that in a degraded user experience.

The independent repair community, which loves to pour scorn on Apple’s “Geniuses”, appear to have found the root cause of the issue. A single 330 microfarad tantalum capacitor, worth pennies, which regulates the slightly more than one volt power supply to much of the graphics subsystem, becomes intermittent. When it’s warm; it (mostly) works – until it fails completely. If it gets cold; the capacitor doesn’t charge properly, so the voltage drops to around 0.3 volts, and the graphics subsystem unexpectedly shuts down. There are videos on YouTube where independent technicians replace this rogue capacitor with an electrolytic film capacitor of the same value. Unsurprisingly, the machine springs to life and works flawlessly indefinitely.

Here’s the point: Apple don’t recognise the issue or the fix. They won’t perform it. The new logic boards that they put into your machine have the same prone-to-failure tantalum capacitor in circuit. They haven’t addressed or solved the root cause of the issue.

In Summary

So, the current situation in my studio is that I have north of £8000 pounds worth of computing hardware that cannot make music.

On Windows, Microsoft made the problem and won’t acknowledge or fix it. Evidently, they didn’t test their software against audio latency.

On my Apple machine, I have a logic board hardware fault that Apple don’t acknowledge or correctly fix.

In both cases, the software and hardware is proprietary and closed off from other people making better diagnoses, performing better fault finding and eliminating the root causes. We’re locked out. Any attempt to tamper gives them all the excuse they need to stop listening to you at all.

Not that either Microsoft or Apple are listening. They evidently don’t care about music production. In Apple’s case, there is an added irony in this, since they make enormous profits on the back of their distribution of musical artists’ work through iTunes. How is that music going to get made?

Trying to fight these gargantuan corporations, to get them to take your issues seriously, is all but futile. There are forums, but you wind up talking to other powerless people, outside the privileged circle of engineers that can actually effect change to their products. These sacred engineers are protected from the public, engineering busily in their ivory towers, blissfully unaware of the loss, pain and suffering that their engineering blunders are causing. If it were nothing else, it’s atrocious product management (something else I know quite a lot about, through decades of professional experience in the field).

I know all this to be true, because as well as being a music producer, I have over 30 years’ experience as an electrical, electronics and computer engineer, making digital audio products. I was making these things long before most of the current crop of engineers in charge were actually born. I know what I’m looking at, but I am disempowered. I can’t fix the problems because of proprietary control over access to information (not that I should have to – I’d rather be making music). It’s a scandalous state of affairs in which these companies continue to take your money, but provide software and hardware that is not fit for its advertised purposes. Meanwhile, your (my) creative work grinds to a halt and your (my) creative enterprise is stopped in its business. Paralysis, distraction and frustration. Exactly the inspiration you need to write and record a happy tune, isn’t it?

What’s a music producer to do?

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