Being an electronic musician is insane. Oh how I envy the vocalists who merely have to show up and sing! Or any of the traditional musicians who need only to master a single instrument… a drum kit, a couple of guitars, a piano or some other finite set of musical tools. The hapless electronic musician confronts instruments that have literally infinite possibilities for musical or sonic expression. Now there are shortcuts, to be sure, and sane keyboardists settle in on a few select instruments to master. But the temptation is to do as I have done—move to software-based instruments that sound incredible and can be had for… dare I say it?… a song. And so it is that electronic musicians have become the poster children for a term of endearment known to most musicians… Electronic musicians are the ultimate gear sluts, even if most of their “gear” is found only on their computers (and now iPads).
In many respects, this is a far better world than during the days when a new synthesizer meant finding the money and a place for a new keyboard or electronics-packed steel box. A single “real” MiniMoog Voyager will set you back around $3,000, as an example. I installed a software version with all the same features that sounds almost as good for free. If I were to buy the actual original synthesizers that I own in software form (that have cost me around $600), I would have to invest at least $150,000 in that physical gear! Then, I would need a massive studio to house it all. Nowadays, you really only a need a single keyboard plugged into your computer instead of those multi-layered stands of instruments like what you see surrounding Paul Shaffer on the Letterman show. At least, you only need a single keyboard if you lay down tracks in the studio and do not have to play live on the road. My Kurzweil 88-key physical synth weighs in at 73 pounds, and my Yamaha Motif at 33 pounds. Not fun to move these monsters around without a roadie. But now, you can use a lightweight MIDI keyboard like the Axiom Pro that tips the scales at around 12 pounds or others that weigh even less. Nice. I have over 200 software synthesizers that add not one milligram of weight to my Macbook Pro. So, in terms of money, space, and weight, the biggest barriers to becoming a compulsive gear slut have been demolished. Now, it is just a question of parting with a paltry sum of money and, more importantly (as I am learning), one hell of a lot of time.
I have been a user of Native Instruments (NI) Komplete suite of software instruments and music production tools since 2009. That is only four years, but the passing of only a year or two produces momentous advances in the field of software-based music production! I had been using the antiquated 2009 version of Komplete until today. I upgraded to the latest version (version 9, for those who care) and just spent two days installing over 100 synthesizers and over 120 gigabytes of sampled sounds on my Mac-based system. Just the installation from the twelve dual-layered DVDs that came with it took almost 14 hours to complete. I logged all the electronic user’s and technical manuals into my personal library data base and found that the new version of Komplete came with almost 4,800 pages of instruction across 65 manuals! Fortunately, I already know quite a bit and will not have to read this mountain of reference material. But it struck me — how exactly did I learn this stuff and how much have I been missing? Like most people today (especially those on Macs), I count on the software being somewhat intuitive and I learn by simply diving in and trying things out. However, I know I am just scratching the surface of what this software and these instruments can do. It reminds me of the old days when I used maybe 30% of Microsoft’s Excel software features and was blissfully ignorant of the remaining 70% until such time as I needed something in there that I had not yet learned. Pivot tables come to mind.
Today, while perusing the NI Komplete PDF manuals, I had to actually open up a few of them because I didn’t even know about the features some of the manuals intended to cover. For example, the included sampler — Kontakt — is one of my go-to instruments. I use it all the time. But I never delved deep enough under the covers to start writing signal processing and MIDI transformation scripts or building custom controls. That requires a knowledge of KSP, the Kontakt scripting language which I barely knew existed. That was a rathole I never intended to go down. I started reading and playing with some of the custom scripts you can add to a sampled instrument. Specifically, I experimented with one intriguing script called “Delay Sequencer”. Well, I know about delays (think “echoes”) and I know about sequencers, but I had no idea you could actually create a sequence of delay impulses. You can. Just that one feature could be used musically and sonically to inspire all kinds of new compositions! So, I have absorbed about five pages of the 4,776, and I wonder what other marvels remain hidden from my inquiring mind. It would probably take the rest of my life to discover them all, and by then NI will have added another few thousand pages of documented features. Just the Kontakt sampler and its various libraries comes with over 1,100 pages of documentation in 25 manuals!
The real monster in Komplete is Reaktor — 2,359 pages of documentation! That’s not surprising given what Reaktor is—a synthesizer development platform. It comes bundled with over 70 pre-built synthesizers and effects, but you can also start from scratch and build your own synthesizer or audio processing effects. Just for giggles, I built a synthesizer once. Four days gone just to build a little synth that creates some interesting soundscapes where aspects of the sound change randomly over time. You don’t “play” that synth; you just turn it on and see what it does. Then, I spent another two days adding controls that allowed me to change various qualities of the sound and the way the sound transformers randomly morph the sound over time. Compared to the major synths that come bundled with Reaktor, mine is just a toy that took six days to build.
Further, with just one pre-built synth, you can spend inordinate amounts of time designing sounds and patches. Some people make a living doing nothing more than that. You often hear the results of their efforts whenever you listen to a track of music or go see a movie. Hans Zimmer is famous for hiring teams of sound designers to labor over their oscillators, envelopes and such to produce the perfect sound for Batman or some other silver screen scenario. I, on the other hand, just hunt for a sound that is close to what I want and use it as-is. Often I will tweak the parameters here and there, and even tweaking a sound can take hours. No… custom sound design is for people without lives to live.
So, as the headline teases, electronic music is a time-consuming game of numbers. I started out with a Yamaha Electronic Keyboard with eight voices (or patches). Then I broke down and bought a Kurzweil that had a paltry 268 patches, but it seemed like a miracle to have so many sound choices at the time. To that I added six more physical synths to bring my choice of sounds (other than the few sounds that I programmed myself) to around 500. That was more choice than I needed in the 1980s and 1990s, and I probably actually used only a couple dozen of them with any frequency. Besides, I was working full-time in IT and didn’t have time to really mess with music that much. But then came a day when I was no longer working full-time. 500 sounds didn’t seem like near enough in 2008, so I sprung for a fabulous music workstation (a physical keyboard, synthesizer, sampler and song recording all-in-one device) called the Yamaha Motif (XS6). That quadrupled my choice of sounds to around 2,000, and I had around 2,600 audio samples to play with beyond that. That is a lot of choosing to do! But I found out that computer software-based synthesizers had finally come of age. I purchased Apple’s Logic Pro “recording” software and was delighted to find it came with 15 perfectly serviceable software synths (and a ton of pre-recorded loops, as well). ”Soft Synths” were much more affordable and could be made to sound damn good, so I quickly added over 200 synthesizers to my collection. Today I estimate I have a choice from among 30,000 patches. I have progressed from owning a Yamaha electronic piano with eight voices in 1984 to owning over 200 instruments with more than 30,000 voices thirty years later! Like I said… electronic music is insane.
My musical friends often point me to new instruments they think I might like. Of course, I would like nearly all of them. After all, I am a gear slut. But I have finally stopped looking at new gear. Even though I could afford much of what is available, and no additional physical space is required to set it up, I resist for the simple reason that, despite lacking a challenging schedule, I am flat out of time! I have finally reached the point where the thought of a new instrument turns my blood cold at the mere thought of having to learn it. Instead, I will focus on learning the unlimited and as-yet undiscovered capabilities of the instruments I already own. So, I will keep what I have up-to-date, but I will not be adding to my library. My number is up, and it appears to be somewhere around 30,000.
I marvel at those who choose to make producing this kind of music their living. Well, I marvel that anyone can actually make a living in any kind of music these days. In fact, very few do. But once bitten by the love of making music, the numbers take a backseat to the compulsions of the heart. I can’t find a number that quantifies the musician’s passion. Whatever the metric might be, I suspect it is a very large number indeed!