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Monday, November 3, 2008

My Journey Through Music

How did I get to where I am now? What cosmic sculptor shaped my life to get me from a dork who knew nothing about music to one who is writing articles about composing and engineering? How does one get from a layman to a master? Okay, I can't answer that one, since the distance between my skills and 'master' is about equal to distance between me and Saturn. But I can at least tell you how I got to where I am, which is a pretty good place to be, let me tell you. What follows is a brief autobiographical account of my musical history. If you're like me, and I know I am, you'll be able to extrapolate some of this information to apply to your own life.

When I was a kid I didn't show much interest in music. Music on the radio tended to bore me. I can't even begin to describe how little popular music moved me at the time. Now I can look back and appreciate a lot of it, but it sure didn't affect me then. As I got older, and other kids were listening to snore-fests (at least to me) Nirvana and Green Day, I discovered an obscure branch of music that actually did hold my interest: videogame soundtracks. While the popular grunge movement generally stuck with a couple of chords per song, games like Chrono Trigger, The Dig and EarthBound were showing an absolute stunning variety in musical styles. My emotions were finally being manipulated.

I had a mini tape recorder, the kind used for dictation, and I would hold it up in front of my TV or computer and record the soundtracks of King's Quest or Castlevania. I would play Mega Man to get to a certain level, then pause it just to listen to the song. I was hooked, though I didn't understand the full implications of what was happening.

At the same time, I was learning to play trumpet in the school band. I was not particularly good at it, and the only real information I retained from that was reading music from a scale. I eventually quit the band in high school. But around the same time I started gaining an interest in making my own music. I had this image of myself in a room full of blinking machines, building an entire song from scratch. Rich, multilayered compositions would come straight from my brain, through the electronics and onto a CD. It all seemed very romantic and incredible, and I felt like it would be a worthy use of my time and energy. Of course, I had absolutely no idea where to start.

How does one even make music electronically? I knew there were musicians out there who made whole songs and entire albums by themselves, but how did they do it? It was a mystery to me. Did they have special machines? Computers? My family didn't have a computer more modern than a Commodore 64 until I was much older, and I didn't quite understand the role of the PC in music making at the time. My sister encouraged me to get turntables, because after all, her favorite DJ's like Bad Boy Bill and Tiesto spun records, and it all sounded electronc-y, right? I didn't know, but I was pretty sure that wasn't it and held off.

Even by the time we got a computer, 'the internet', that great modern tool for getting information, at the time was nothing more than a curious novelty for rich people, so our machine was offline. I didn't know anyone who made music, so it seemed like this dream of being a great music maker, admired by all, would not be fulfilled.

Then one day I was looking through one of those massive computer catalogs that occasionally came in the mail, (remember those?) ogling over the amazingly advanced laptops: Several-color monitor? Less than 15 pounds? CD-ROM?? Anyway I found something in the software section that caught my eye: Sonic Foundry ACID. It was billed as a "loop-based music production tool." The concept of stringing loops together to make music was a concept that I could grasp, and it was only a hundred bucks. My journey had started.

I ordered it (by mail; who does that anymore?) waited a painstakingly long time for it to arrive, then immediately installed it when it came. It was, in fact, pretty easy to use, and I was stringing together all sorts of loops that came with the program. It was fun, and I learned a lot about putting together music on a computer. I never quite felt truly proud of what I was making, however. These were, after all, just ready-made loops, composed by someone else, and then included with every single copy of ACID. I wanted to write my own music.

I didn't know a thing about composing, but I went to Best Buy and bought one of those home keyboards and plugged it into my computer through the microphone jack (I know, I know) and started playing little melodies along with the loops that I put together. I started to feel a little better about what I was doing.

Around the same time I was thinking about what I wanted to do for my college career. When the time came to talk to my career counselor, I told him 'sound engineer'. Composing music just didn't seem to have career potential at the time, but someone who recorded and made sound effects did. As long as I could be in that room full of machines and blinking lights. This unusual request kind of surprised him, but after a moment's thought he shuffled over to a filing cabinet and dug up an ancient brochure from a New England School of Broadcasting in Bangor, Maine, which had an Audio Engineering program, supposedly one of the finest on the east coast. I was a little wary because this pamphlet looked like it was from 1975, and in fact the school had changed its name from Broadcasting to Communications since then, but I learned more about it and eventually ended up going there.

Though in my classes I learned to record other people, like actors or a band, I utilized the knowledge I gained for myself. By the time I was finished, I had a complete understanding of how to make music using computers and recording equipment. Actually getting the money to acquire this equipment was a different story, but it was empowering to finally have this knowledge. I now understood that making music as a career was a possibility. There was just one problem.

I still did not understand music theory, so at this point I could on
ly make bad music with technical excellence. (This is at least better than bad music with technical sloppiness.) During the next few years I moved and got a job at a major tech company somehow, gradually building a nice studio and making music occasionally. Because of my lack of knowledge I was never quite confident that I could make valuable music, however. Then one day, feeling unfulfilled, I quit my job and decided to work for myself.

Since then I've made it a personal quest to teach myself music theory. I picked up the banjo while in college and started formally teaching myself piano a couple years ago. I've been leveraging the internet to it's fullest potential to assist in my learning and have gotten at least good enough for people to want to pay me to make music for their games. This, of course, was the goal the whole time, though maybe I didn't always know it.

The journey so far has happened over the course of roughly ten years and I am far from finished. I still only perceive it as beginning, and I'm excited for what is to come. Come back in another ten years and I'll tell you where I've gone.