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Computer Music

My last few weeks (aside from a stint making a new Heather Dale record, and then a week taking care of my brother’s farm) have been largely spent devouring everything I can learn about computer music. This has involved a couple of substantial tomes – the Computer Music Tutorial and The CSound Book, for starters – and more PDFs and inline/online tutorials and manuals than you can shake a stick at. In a way it feels like I’ve found an amazing toolbox and am now looking for a problem to solve with it…

As my faithful reader(s) know, I do a lot of my composition and production work using Ableton Live. In a number of ways it’s a gateway drug, since it opened my eyes to the possibilities afforded by Max/MSP, and thence PureData and CSound and a pile of other things. But of course it’s not all roses.

For one, Ableton & Max/MSP are commercial software. For the most part I have no problem with this – I certainly don’t object to paying real money for carefully written, well-maintained software, which Ableton and Max both are. My main concern with unfree software isn’t the price, it’s the end-of-life and planned-obsolescence situations. I’ve been burned by EOL’d and obsolescent music hardware and software often enough that I’m a bit gunshy. Also, I like OSS because I like to tinker and prod at things and find out how they work. I wouldn’t know nearly as much about fiddles and guitars and pianos and amplification if I hadn’t had the chance to take them apart and see what makes them go (sometimes they tick… sometimes they go back together with all the same pieces… sometimes, not so much). But “no user serviceable parts inside” or a closed code base just irritates me.

So here’s the dilemma: Do I keep working with Max/MSP, which is beautiful software and integrates exceptionally well into Ableton (via Max4Live), and accept that I’ll be paying for often only marginal improvements and dealing with closed source, but a big, healthy community, or do I put the time into learning PureData, which can do pretty much all the same things, but is less pretty, less tightly integrated, and which is open source? And either way, do I put the time in to figuring out the insanely récherché MSP objects, or just learn the (equally insane but possibly more flexible) CSound objects?

And why don’t I just use the perfectly good synths offered by Ableton and Reason, and my remaining physical synths, and get on with it? Well, the answer to that is obvious – I have to learn and explore or I just lose interest entirely. So that’s not even a real question.

The real question, though, is “what am I going to make at the end of all this?” And I still don’t know the answer to that, any more than I understood why I took apart my first Gibson two weeks after getting it, or my latest amp 3 hours after getting it. I just have to take things apart and see how they tick in order to have creative ideas about how to use them*.


*This does not, I remind myself, extend to date night 😉

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