Wishing we could be young again…

When I was a teen, I used to dream about producing music. I kind of missed the boat on the first wave of dance, rave and techno that happened in the late 80′s and early 90′s, on account of only being about 11 years old at the time, but I loved the music that came out of the whole period and it massively influenced me. I loved the British indie bands too; James, The Charlatans, The Cure, Ride and all of the others.

I had a computer that was pretty good at the time for making music, a Commodore Amiga, and I had a cheap midi port, a cheap keyboard, and some very basic free software. It was enough to make some basic tunes, but back then you needed some serious hardware to make real music. You needed a mixing desk, ‘outboard gear’ for effects, mics, amps, speaker cabs, pedals, synthesizers. Only studios had this stuff, so you hired them out for a few hundred quid per day. A few hundred quid to me back then might as well have been a million pounds, and even if I could have afforded it, I wouldn’t have known what to do with all that stuff in a studio anyway. I knew nothing about music.

I guess a real musician, somebody really talented, would have been able to make excellent music with my limited resources. I’ve only just learned how chords are made up now, 20 years later. Back then I knew nothing. I did have a friend who was a really great piano player. One regret is that I didn’t work with him, because maybe with his knowledge of music and my knowledge of technology, we could have made something half decent. Maybe. One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that working with other people is the key to creating great things. Back then I probably just wanted to lock myself in my room and get on with it. In fact, that’s exactly how I still work today :)

Things are certainly a bit different now, equipment wise. For example, every Apple Mac comes with a program called GarageBand. GarageBand is a seriously fine piece of software. It has a whole load of built in sounds that make great backing tracks, and it’s so easy to record your voice or guitar in to it. It’s a multi-track studio that anybody can learn to use. Stepping up from GarageBand, Logic Pro is ‘only’ £140 in the App Store, and MainStage — effectively Logic without the recording, sequencing or arranging stuff (for live performances) — is £25. Reason and Ableton are between £300 and £500 depending on the version, and enterprising teens could probably find them cheaper elsewhere, if they were so inclined.

This changes everything. A regular desktop PC is capable of processing at least 8 tracks of sound at once, probably more on the latest Core i5 chips, and these apps all come with a whole collection of effects and samples all thrown in. One track per voice, one per instrument, and you’ve got a complete recording studio. Recording stuff can still get expensive — if you want to record several instruments simultaneously, for example, you need a sound card that can do that (£500 maybe) and a collection of mics (£100 each for the basic pro stuff). You can do it on the cheap though — a £20 cable from Maplin gets your guitar connected to your USB port — and all of a sudden you have every kind of guitar pedal ever made at the ready. It’s incredible. Budget stuff will never sound pro, but it sounds pretty damn good if you’re just messing about.

So, with a £50 second-hand Squire strat, a £20 cable and GarageBand, you can start recording:

OK, I know it’s crap, and no, you’ll never get that 1 minute 22 back, but I like to image ‘What If’. What if I’d been able to make sounds like that in the early 90′s — who knows where it’d have lead me? I guess my point is that back then, that sound simply wasn’t available to me at all — there is no way I could have recorded that because it required at least three pedals costing £100 each, and real recording gear. All I had to record on to was a tape deck (my Amiga, for all its musical prowess, had no built in recording facilities, and the sampler I bought only recorded 20 or seconds before it ran out of memory). To record multi-track required DAT, mixing desks — serious money.

I hope kids these days appreciate what they have available to them. Digital music, digital film and digital art is democratizing stuff that, 10 years ago, was utterly out of reach for most people. The internet, of course, is the biggest democratizer of them all. Once you’ve recorded your 1m22 of crap, you can click a button and post it to SoundCloud. If you do have talent, and you make stuff that’s worth selling, you can post it to BandCamp. I know every generation of children get something that the previous generation didn’t — our generation got computers for example, and I loved it — but I can’t help but feel a little bit jealous.