Column: Project5 and computer music
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Take my closet, for example. Taking up most of the space are half a dozen boxes that once formed my music studio (what I’d call my rig when trying to impress people). Among them: a drum, three synthesizers, an effects rack, a compressor box and a mixer. All of this must have cost me at least $2,500 in the early 1990s. Linking them all was a maze of cables producing enough hum to scare away bears. Now it’s all been replaced by a CD-ROM from a guy called Greg.
The CD-ROM in question is called Project5, launched this month by a United States-based company called Twelve Tone Systems, and Greg is Greg Hendershott, the unassuming genius who runs it. I don’t use the term “genius” lightly, but Hendershott is up there in my pantheon of heroes for once producing a program called Cakewalk, which allowed me to hook up all my musical equipment to my computer and do something called “sequencing” — playing them all at once. So, instead of laboriously recording a drum part onto tape before adding a keyboard part, Cakewalk used a standard called MIDI to store the raw data of what was played — which notes, how long you hold them for, how hard you hit them — onto a computer, and then allowed you to tweak it. Cakewalk revolutionized song-writing for people like me, who couldn’t afford to rent a studio or hire musicians, and, most importantly, tended to hit a lot of wrong notes.
Now Hendershott’s done it again. Project5 (about $400 from www.cakewalk.com) is a program that not only stores the raw data, it also provides the sounds, mimicking all your synthesizers and drum machines via an on-screen display that looks like a console on the Starship Enterprise. All you need is a MIDI keyboard to play, and the computer will create the sounds, as well as store, or sequence, them. Suddenly you can tweak the belchings of Shrek, or the timbre of a Javanese gamelan, or record your grand piano and play the whole thing from your PC (no Mac version is available).
Hendershott is not first to the table with Project5: Programs like Propellerhead Software’s Reason ($400 from www.propellerheads.se) are collections of “software synthesizers” that can be played using a MIDI keyboard, or a sequencing program like Cakewalk’s successor, Sonar.
Still, Project5 is definitely the future. It capitalizes on all the standards that have evolved within the computer sequencing world, so that you can easily plug any competing “softsynth” into it and start using it immediately. What’s great about all this is that whereas all my old synthesizers were mostly just banks of sounds — piano, string, thrush warble — that took a rocket-science degree and a weekend to tweak, all the parameters in new softsynths can be tweaked easily and extensively. That all this appears on your screen just like a bank of synthesizers on a rig, along with knobs, sliders, flashing lights, bits of discarded chewing gum, etc., makes me feel as if I’ve died and gone to a sort of synth heaven.
Of course, the computer/music revolution has already begun, and left me way behind. Amateur musicians all over the world have produced a catalogue of electronic dance music that dwarfs the musical output of the past few centuries combined. It is this crowd that Hendershott is aiming at — indeed, his work helped create much of the phenomenon. However, if the computer revolution is to fully realize its potential for musical creativity we need to see programs like Project5 developed for folk who couldn’t tell the difference between a synthesizer and a microwave. Then I think we’ll be hearing some seriously interesting music coming out. Just don’t expect me to create it: I’m too busy selling a cupboard full of cables.