Over the past decade, we have all witnessed a surge in independent music from just about every genre. My generation straddles an interesting technological line, because I can remember a childhood without the internet, or computers. Before every asshole DJ in a snapback had a MacBook, musicians on a budget were limited to resources like a hand-me-down guitar, a garage, old Casio keyboards, a microphone they stole from a church, and perhaps a Tascam 4 Track Recorder.
Technology and connectivity have made an immeasurable impact in how musicians create music, talk to their fans, promote events, and publicize new music. Fundamentally though, it all comes down to one thing: The music.
It doesn’t matter how fancy your parallax enabled WordPress website is if your music is sub par, or sounds like everyone else. You can get a “Verified” Twitter page, and it won’t make a difference unless the music you make moves people. Facebook “fans” only matter if they’re coming to you for new music, because they’re simply stuck on everything you do. I mean, let’s be honest here – the people who spend most of their time on Facebook are usually slightly overweight 35 year old ladies in accounts receivable with a hunky fireman calendar, and an Anne Geddes picture of a baby inside a pumpkin. No one cares about her anyway.
The essential reason independent musicians have been able to carve out a niche like no other time in music history, is personal computers have become powerful enough to run a DAW, within a reasonable price point. By “reasonable price point”, I also mean DAW software piracy has opened the doors for just about anyone slightly more intelligent than a shit-slinging simian.
If you’re unfamiliar with “DAW”, if means “Digital Audio Workstation”, and it’s how producers and DJ’s have dick measuring contests. For the past six or seven years, the DAW market has been dominated by a few names.
(Pre-DAW explosion: Telefon Tel Avid – Sound in a Dark Room – 2004)
Ableton Live: It’s good for most producers and DJ’s, because it offers a nice, creative session view, can easily freeze tracks, and it’s a terrific live performance interface for DJ’s. If I had to name one piece of software that transformed live DJ’ing, Ableton would be it. (No disrespect to Serato, but let’s just be real here – 95% guys today aren’t cutting decks like DJ AM did. Turntablism is its own art, and Serato junkies know that their specialized tool isn’t supposed to be what Ableton is. Now that you’ve read that, please blow up the comments section and pretend you didn’t read any of this.)
ProTools: Engineers can mix and master on ProTools like no other piece of software. If you’re laying down vocals or live instruments, ProTools really is the Ferrari of DAW’s. Here’s the rub though; unless you’re getting ProTools HD, you’re not getting all the functionality ProTools is built for. ProTools HD costs as much as a lightly used Toyota Prius, and it’s also just as complicated to understand. Similarly, like Prius drivers, ProTools HD buyers are insufferable assholes who feel the need to inject their “superior” preferences into any conversation.
Logic: Great for producers and musicians, but not so much for DJ’s. It comes with a full suite of instruments, and provides easy mixing options. Logic also boasts some exclusive control surfaces (CMC), which really make it ideal for manipulating live instruments.
I’m leaving out Reason because it can be plugged into any DAW above with Rewire, and I’m leaving out Cubase because it covers the same ground ProTools does. Sorry, but not sorry DAW-nerds – blow me.
Dave Grohl famously went on a tirade against electronic music at the 2012 Grammy’s, because he was one of those guys who used to record in a garage, with real instruments, and he tends to think electronic instruments are soulless electro-mechanical sounds – because they are. He later recanted his statement because he lacks a pair of strong, spherical sacks of semen between his legs. He also probably has a PR team who demanded damage control. Despite his retraction, his opinion isn’t uncommon, nor is it wrong. Music created on computers is limited to the microchips behind a glowing screen full of blocks.
The Moog Synthesizer was a piece of technology that revolutionized music when it was introduced in the 1960s. It used voltage regulation and other analog elements to create sounds you could control with knobs, switches and buttons. Now, that same piece of revolutionary technology can be replicated via a VST on just about any DAW with a piece of software called Mini Moog. It’s sort of a mind fuck in recursion, if you think about it; A revolutionary piece of technology designed to reproduce sound, being reproduced with an emulator on another piece of revolutionary technology, designed to emulate another sound. The sort of mindfuck that’s happening in my head right now is probably what the inventor of the Fleshlight went through… anyway, I digress…
If I’m standing in the same room with a Mini Moog VST and an actual, real live Moog Synthesizer, it’s easy to tell which one is the real McCoy. I don’t care how expensive your monitors are, or what you paid for your soundcard, or how much RAM you have – your computer cannot recreate the depth and warmth that a real Moog will. When Grohl was talking about electronic music, he was talking about a skill set that is removed from making music when VST’s are introduced. Playing a Moog means having at least a cursory knowledge of playing piano. Using a Mini Moog VST means arranging a series of colored blocks that are then automated into the desired musical sound. Is the VST inferior? Absolutely. Music is a human expression, and when the human element is removed, something intangible is lost.
To be clear: You’ll always sound better if you play an actual instrument. The boom of bedroom producers over the past half a decade are a testament to this essential fact of music. Are some of these young men and women musically talented? Absolutely. I’m continually blown away by the music created by people who have no prior ability to play music on a physical instrument. The doors that DAW’s opened up released the floodgates for even a bedroom amateur to dabble without sounding completely horrible. For better or worse, that won’t change.
Furthermore, I don’t think anyone is saying producers or live DJ’s will ever displace what live bands can create, no matter how advanced computers get. Virtuosos turntablists are amazing, without a doubt – but there’s something missing in the disconnect between people and machines that no computer can ever replicate. I was reminded of this fact a few short months ago when I saw Gary Clark Jr. perform in Nashville. He was bathed in light, perfectly modulating the strings on the neck of his guitar, sweating, and softly moaning into the mic, before belting out a rousing rendition of “Numb”. Shiba moment: So passion. Very music. Much wow.
The crossroads music technology is situated at is currently about to diverge, once again. As strange as it is to say, amateur musicians and professional musicians now have access to roughly all the same tools, at the same price points. A respectable home studio (excluding the cost of a computer and software) can be purchased for under $1,000. A really impressive home studio can be had for under $5,000. Just a decade ago, those numbers would have been impossible. Music has never been a race to the bottom though, and we’re about to see another leap in music technology, much like the one we saw a decade ago.
It all starts with Bitwig. (Bitwhat?)
Bitwig was released to the public on March 26th. Early reviews have music professionals comparing it favorably to Ableton, albeit a much more complex, nuanced version. If you’re a DAW nerd, you can use Google and check out all the specs and features. I won’t be doing that here because most of my readers will be varying levels of high or intoxicated when they read this.
Principally, I’m interested in what Bitwig represents: The first major DAW to make a foray into Linux. Before Bitwig, no major DAW was Linux compatible out of the box. This meant you had two options when choosing your computer: Windows, or Mac.
If you chose a Mac, you were stuck with whatever the Apple store would sell you. You couldn’t upgrade it, and it’s also a pricey option. Mac Pro’s get well into “Hey, that’s a nice used Miata!” territory. With that said, a Mac Pro is a brilliant option, and has enough computing power to satisfy just about anyone.
If you chose Windows, you could build whatever you wanted, but you’d still be stuck with Microsoft. I’m not saying Windows computers are bad, but if I had to choose between using Windows 8 on a daily basis or rubbing my penis vigorously with sandpaper, and then having unprotected sex with a terminally ill AIDS patient in sub-Saharan Africa… well, I’d choose Windows 8. But it would be a monumentally tough decision choosing Windows 8 over AIDS.
This is where Linux, and more specifically, Ubuntu 12.04 LTS comes into the equation. Full disclosure, I use Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, so I’m biased, but just barely. Linux doesn’t enjoy the same onslaught of marketing that Apple and Windows computers enjoy. Ubuntu is a free operating system, and most of the software is also free. If you’re an Apple user, allow me to translate a bit. “Free” is a word that you’re probably not familiar with. It means you don’t have to get your credit card out in order to get the software you need. Wait… hey… hold on. Are you okay? Hey, are you breathing…?
Moving on, shall we?
Despite their admittedly nerd-culture nature, Linux computers have enjoyed a resurgence lately due to distributions like Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora, and Debian. Because of their increasing market share, Linux is getting a version of Bitwig – and it will be the catalyst that eventually reshapes how we understand producing music.
Why didn’t Linux have a DAW before? Well, it’s tough for a software developer to justify the cost of developing a program that fewer than 1% of buyers will purchase. It’d be the equivalent of Trojan manufacturing a line of “Extra Small Condoms – For Small Dicks Only!” Are there people out there with small dicks? Sure. Do they talk about it? Nope. Do you think you’d be the asshole who goes to the counter of the 7-11 and says, “I need the small dick condoms, please…”? No. You’re not going to do that. Plus, if your dick is that small, you’re probably not even worried about sex anyway – you’re too busy talking about how cool Linux us. (Ooh! Burn! … wait, fuck. I burned myself. Goddamnit. I always…)
The time frame from 2003-2013 was “The Quantity Era”. During The Quantity Era, we saw the price of super powerful personal computers drop, the rapid development of user friendly DAW’s, and a significant decrease in peripheral items like monitors, condenser microphones, and controllers.
Moving forward, 2014 into the foreseeable future will be “The Quality Era”. DAW’s have moved into Linux territory, and this marks a sea change for electronic music production.
Linux computers are better at pure computing. Period. They are faster, more customizable, more secure, and infinitely more stable. 99% of the world’s supercomputers run Linux, and there is a reason for that: If you want to build a beastly rig that can compute or render anything faster than Deion Sanders circa 1995, you run Linux.
Linux computers solve problems that Windows and Mac users just take on as the cost of doing business. Producers will know the frustration of being in the middle of a session, and having their computer freeze. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Windows or a Mac, or how much RAM you have – eventually, it will freeze. Whatever you were doing is gone, and you will cry like a little bitch.
Linux doesn’t freeze. Ahem… hold on. Linux doesn’t freeze like normal computers. In the three years I have used Ubuntu, my computer has frozen once. In the event your Linux computer does freeze, you go through a process called “Raising the Elephant”, which helps you find out what’s causing your computer to freeze, and then allows you to recover whatever you were working on. For musicians, this is an incredible leap forward, because everyone (and I do mean, every swinging dick) forgets to save as often as they should.
Earlier, I mentioned how if I was standing next to a computer emulating a Mini Moog, versus a person playing a real Moog, I’d know the difference immediately. The reason the Mini Moog can’t come close to the actual instrument is because personal computers really aren’t designed with the express purpose of recreating musical instruments. They simply run out of memory and processing power, and can’t capture all the nuances and warmth of a physical instrument.
Linux computers are unlike Mac or Windows computers in that software uses “dependencies”. Dependency files are easy enough to understand. They’re shared files that any program can use. Dependency files are analogous to building a house – dependency files are the tools that any program can use. A roofer might use a nail gun, but the guy doing the framing can also use the same nail gun. With a Windows or Mac computer, everyone has to use their own nail gun, and there is only one power outlet for everyone to share. No matter what happens, it’s going to end like an 89th minute Chivas loss – lots of Jalisco-fresh Mexicans getting pissed off and possibly starting a riot with some nail guns.
(“That was SO racist!” – “Probably.”)
Let’s say you’re a music professional, and you want to create the highest quality sound you can. Logically, you’d want to have the most stable, and powerful computer possible. This isn’t for playing on Facebook, or looking at internet porn (although the screams/ball-slapping-noises would be reproduced with astonishing accuracy) – no sir, this is for making awesome music with.
In order to keep things simple, I’m going to streamline how DAW’s interact with computer memory. Once again, if you’re a producer, feel free to flame the comments. I’ve got a roll of tinfoil leftover from my 9/11 conspiracy tinfoil hat kit. I’m so fucking ready.
DAW’s use two main memory drainers: VST’s and plugins. Your computer has a limited amount of memory, so the more stuff you’re using, the slower things get. Eventually, even your $4,999 Mac Pro will run out of gas – and it doesn’t even take much to get there. VST’s and plugins get more memory intensive every day, and computers aren’t being built to accommodate these advances. This is because the previously mentioned lady in accounts receivable with the hunky fireman calendar only uses her computer to send you banal Facebook game requests, and there are 200 million of her. There are an exponentially smaller number of professional musicians.
Linux-based music production supercomputers are on the way, and they will be expensive. “Expensive” is what separates the men from the boys wearing snapbacks and fist pumping their way through a trap set. Any clown with a part time job can purchase a MacBook and a couple Rokit monitors. It’s going to take a professional musician with deep pockets and a commitment to quality sound to invest in a $10,000 music production computer. If you’re spending “lightly used Honda Accord money” on a computer, chances are you’ve graduated beyond making trap remixes of Miguel anyway.
We’re about to reach that point where I don’t know the difference between a synthesizer, and the real thing. Computers will soon have the processing power to convincingly recreate fingers sliding across the fine ridges of E, A and D on a guitar. We’ll hear the subtle differences between light strumming, or heavy, speed guitar slashing. Or perhaps you want to plug a real guitar into your computer, and then run a plugin that replicates the lite finger popping of a cello? Those ideas that were crude in old DAW’s will now be a possibility.
When I was a kid, my dad was a Computer Science professor at Georgia Tech, and he used to explain human factors to me. That was his specialty – and really, human factors are what define technology. (Thanks for teaching me about this shit, Dad.) Computers and software by themselves can be as powerful and visually stunning as you can possibly imagine, but power and design don’t always equate to success.
Bitwig as a piece of software isn’t revolutionary by itself. Bitwig is simply the catalyst that will create a new chasm between consumer music technology, and professional music technology. This line was blurred during The Quantity Era, because the descending line of hardware cost met the increasing line of computer literate consumers. The Quantity Era was also multiplied by the emergence of streaming publishing platforms like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, along with the rise of Facebook pages, events, and Twitter. It was a perfect storm – and it definitely shows how a technology explosion can create its own market.
The next generation of Linux-based DAW’s could not have happened without the millions of bedroom producers on Ableton, Logic and ProTools, ready and willing to learn music production, even if their music usually finds my ears as overwhelmingly sophomoric and amateur. The point is, they tried, and because they tried, software developers had the numbers to put into their business models that justified the cost of creating a hyper-advanced, Linux based DAW.
Progress sometimes comes in the most unexpected forms. As much as I love to lambaste the aspirant and amateurish dubstep/trap/deep-house/hashtag DJ’s and producers, the greater music community owes them a debt of gratitude for being what amounts to early adopters.
I never thought I’d say this, but… thank God for dubstep. Without dubstep, it would have been years before DAW’s advanced this far. Dubstep saved music. Now we can move forward, and listen to the highest quality music we have ever heard. The future has arrived.
A word to the wise: If you have the pockets to do it, now is the time to jump on board the Linux and Bitwig train. Keep your laptop for performing live, sure – but build a fierce rig for your home studio. You'll thank me later.