Musical Computers Again

The topic of computers and technology doesn’t ever really leave me alone. It’s what I do and as a result I tend to think about bit boxes and what they can and cannot do to make life easier. They figure in quite prominently in my musical growth and I can’t really discuss all of the things that I have done musically without a little more depth in my analysis.

When I was in graduate school at NYU, I was introduced to a piece of software called MAX. It’s named after Max Matthews and is an environment for musical software development. When I first met the software in 1995 it was still mainly MIDI. As chips got faster and Moore’s law continued to be the rule digital audio and DSP became a key component. But MAX required a Mac and money. I had neither.

And then Miller Puckette got a grant from Intel and made Pure Data. Dr. Puckette was MAX’s father. He’s a freakin’ genius and a huge influence on my thinking. Definitely a god in the pantheon of computer music. His new software ran on this weird Linux thing. So I turned my machine into a dual boot debacle with Red Hat. The pain was severe, so I switched to Debian. I fell in love with all of the things I could do!

There was so much great software. So many tools and utilities for making weird noises. Most of them didn’t work together very well. Almost all of them required different libraries or kernel modules. And all of them took time to learn and master. But I loved every minute of it. Problem solving is an addiction of mine and Free Software fed it. There was always another news group to follow. Another list to read. Another module to compile. So much fiddling and playing that felt like I was doing my work. The ideology of the Free Software community made it feel like what I was doing was really, really important. And it was.

After a while, I decided that I wanted a laptop. I settled on an Apple PowerBook because I knew what was in it. No guessing about commodity parts or weird chipsets. Besides, people had gotten Debian to run on them so I took the plunge. I made it a dual boot with OS X so that I could use things like the wifi chip that didn’t have open source drivers. That should have been a clue. I got everything running but then something happened that I didn’t expect: I couldn’t make it sleep. There was no support in the kernel for sleep. So I had to shut down my laptop every time I closed it or it would chew up battery. One day, I booted back into OS X so I could close the lid. 35 days later I checked my uptime. I’d been in OS X for 35 days.

35 days is a really long time.

It was enough time to learn something about myself. In those 35 days I produced more music than I had in the previous year. All of that work tuning my kernel and apt-getting this and ./configure -ing that hadn’t made any music. It was fun, but it wasn’t The Work. My entire world changed. I understood that the tool wasn’t the important part. The Work was the end.

Since then, I have added two kids to my life. I have added a painful commute. I have subtracted the time that I used to have available to me for fiddling. To balance the equation, I have substituted money for time. And my rule for tools is simpler. Here it is:

If it fails, it doesn’t stay.

This goes for hardware and software. If a piece of hardware fails, it simply goes away. I fired my MacBook after Logic crashed 3 times and lost a great recording (yes, I overloaded the poor beast and replaced it with a MacBook Pro immediately). My wife loves the hand-me-down, but it had to leave me. And the software I use gets fired regularly. If an app fails to launch on my iDevice? It just goes away. No, I won’t send the developer feedback. I paid for something that claims to work, not to be a tester. Does that make me a jerk? No. It makes me a customer. There is a difference.

My tool chain has no room for failure because I don’t have time for failure. There is no luxurious fiddling and messing around. I open a device, launch a program, and work.

It makes me sad that I had to leave the world I enjoyed so dearly. But ideology and money are not as important to me as time. It took me a long time to learn that, but boy am I glad I took the trip.

  1. Okay, do I get *zero* credit in your conversion to Good and the power of Mac? Really?

  2. Oh I think you probably get 99% of the credit for going to the Mac full-time. Tips and tricks from you made it obvious that it was the way to go.

Leave a Comment