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February 08, 2006

Interview Peter Kirn of Create Digital Music

Peter KirnI had a chance to pick Peter Kirn's brain, the man/myth/legend behind Create Digital Music, about audio production, his blog, his book, his gear, and his sage wisdom.  (See yesterday's quick review of Real World Digital Audio if you missed it).  Writer, composer, professor, producer...Peter's all over the place, and a great guy to talk to about anything related to digital media production.  (funky pic taken by Willian Levin at MacBoy)

Let's dig right in:

GARAGESPIN:  The CreateDigitalMusic blog simply rocks.  When and how was it born?

Peter:  Thanks! Believe it or not, I think my original idea had been to create a site for the book, so now I've come full circle. I had written online before; I first got into online publishing on CompuServe in my early teens. But it's grown far beyond my expectations, partly because it immediately seemed to hit a nerve. Suddenly I found interest from all these fascinating readers, ranging from people in the pro audio business to people deeply immersed in vintage technology to people at the bleeding edge of experimenting with new interfaces for music. Now I have to keep pace with them, and with new contributors.

GARAGESPIN:  On the site, you mention a number of changes taking place in the near future.  What new features will be added to CDM?

CreateDigitalMusicPeter:  It's been completely redesigned from the ground up, with a new look, new underlying software, and a new forum. The main concern for me was to find a way to easily navigate the site; for me personally, CDM has become like a second brain. I have a terrific team that has put in work on it: Nathanael Jeanneret, the graphic designer, James Loveday, who has overseen a lot of the implementation and code in WordPress, and Joseph Hallahan, working on implementation. I'm here in Manhattan, and they're all in Australia, entirely by coincidence. Nat started that, by volunteering a logo he'd designed without asking almost a year ago. Now he's heading up the redesign -- I love his aesthetic, a great merging of online design with print sensibilities. So, hurrah for Australia!

And for anyone planning an online site, here's my advice: go with WordPress. And avoid Mambo (Joomla). It's been a total headache, so to tell help the Web community that's unfortunate enough to be using it, we'll post the script we developed for CDM for free. It's all thanks to the development efforts of Web guru (and Homeland Stupidity blogger) Michael Hampton. He's the one not in Australia.

GARAGESPIN:  It's trade show season…  What new CES, NAMM, or MIDEM hardware or software are you most excited about?   Did you sense any sort of universal theme or focus in the new products and services offered?

Peter:  I don't think there's any overarching theme, or any mind-blowing new products, which I know disappointed some people at these shows. But, much as I love new stuff, I'm also happy to see people making what they've got work better. That's why the fixes in Logic Pro 7.2 are welcome, for instance, or why it's so great that so many software developers at NAMM were having success porting to the new Intel Macs.  These things don't make headlines, but they do make our lives easier.

Some of the best new products are finding ways of making playing with a computer more musical. Native Instruments' KORE was by far the most promising. If it delivers what they're describing, it'll finally be easy to sit at a keyboard or other MIDI controller and call up the sounds you need instantly, layering and switching between them in performance, and even moving your whole performance setup between computers. That's possible now in software, but only with a creativity-killing amount of effort configuring everything. It'll be even easier than hardware synths, if they nail it. There are a lot of technical hurdles here, but I can't way to try it out.

GARAGESPIN:  Your new book, Real World Digital Audio, is quite a tome of digital music production goodness.  What motivated   you to write it, and who is it meant for?

Peter:  Thanks a lot! The "why" is the easier question. Books and learning are so important in this field: I don't know that I would have gotten into it had it not been for the first edition of Craig Anderton's MIDI for Musicians, or the writing of people like Jim Aikin (who was tech editor for my book). I really wanted a book that was up-to-date and covered the full gamut of computer-based music production. The computer is the hub not only for recording and all that entails, but also synthesis, arranging, notation, video  scoring, and even playing live. And the book I wanted didn't exist; there were great books on some of the individual topics, but not a really current book on the big picture. Originally, I wasn't even going to write it; I tried to convince a colleague at Macworld and he talked me into doing it myself! (I'm glad I did!)

The "for whom," simply put, is people making music, and specifically the independent musician. We had a lot of discussions about this while we were writing it. On one hand, you don't want to leave out beginners, which meant we couldn't assume anything and had to define terms. On the other, you know people are hungry for some advanced techniques, and you want to avoid oversimplification. I sure feel sympathetic to both categories, because it's impossible not to be a beginner at some of this stuff, the scope is so broad.

I just got someone emailing me asking what the sequel would be, or which book to read next. I do have some ideas about that -- though, for now, I'm taking a little break, and there are plenty of other books that could go alongside it on someone's bookshelf!

GARAGESPIN:  Where is it being sold, and what kind of feedback have you received so far?

Peter:  It's online, and I've heard it's just hitting bookstores -- haven't seen it at Barnes & Noble, but it's coming, and it is now on shelves at Borders. It's also getting out to colleges and the like.

Believe it or not, I'm already getting some feedback, which is really nice as an author. There's a community college teacher who emailed me to say he's already using it with his students, after just a few weeks on the market! And people who flip through it like it, for which I owe a great debt to my freelance artist Tova Friedman and to the production team. We actually got production to redesign the series look for this book.

I certainly welcome feedback, positive and critical. It's so incredibly solitary to look at Word for as much as 100 hours a week during the heat of the process.

The book will continue to expand in the online world over the coming weeks and months, too, at realworlddigitalaudio.com.

GARAGESPIN:  What new projects – music, blog, academic, or otherwise – do you have on the horizon?  Where can we go to hear a sample of your music?

Peter:  I'm doing lots of writing words and don't intend to stop, but I'm most excited about the new musical projects. I've got a commission to write new music for the fantastic early music group Lionheart for a dance by Christopher Williams premiering in the spring. He and I are also working on a new piece in residence at Dance Theater Workshop where I'm using live video input to generate interactive 3D visuals and digital sound. I've got a new electronic music duo called Rendu with Kamala Sankaram, who's, well, tough to describe as she's an avant-garde accordionist, accomplished sitar player, classical new music vocalist, and filmmaker. And I'll be doing more classical pieces, too, with some new ways of merging them with technology.

Now, the embarrassing bit. In the midst of all of this, I haven't updated my site at peterkirn.com -- now that CDM is hitting "2.0," I can redo that site in WordPress, as well! But if you can't hear this stuff live in New York, I promise to take it on the road, and to regularly post online sound. A lot of my music involves live players, so I'll be clearing things with them so the new site has lots of sound.

GARAGESPIN:  Describe your music studio hardware/software setup – we want details!!

Peter:  My home studio is pretty modest in terms of music hardware; everything is centered around the computers. So there aren't monster synth workstations or anything like that. For a while, I was running every music software app on Earth, especially while writing the book. Now I'm ruthlessly ditching anything I don't use daily. Ableton Live and Logic Pro remain my main production environments. I've got most of the Native Instruments soft synths and love them, Reaktor and Max/MSP/Jitter (I'm pretty good with Max, still learning Reaktor), Soundtrack Pro, the Applied Acoustics Modeling line, the Cakewalk stuff, and the TimewARP 2600. That keeps me pretty busy. Those are the ones I've been using regularly lately, anyway.

I've got a dual-2.7GHz Power Mac G5 and Cinema Display as my primary machine, plus two laptops: a Toshiba PC and a PowerBook G4. Everything lives in those, and then there's a regular rotation of controller hardware, especially with a few pieces coming through monthly for review. I've kept the Novation X-Station (though I just swapped that out in anticipation of the SL), an Alesis Photon X25 controller, an M-Audio Trigger Finger, a Frontier Tranzport for recording, the new Motion Dive VJ hardware controller. I love my Behringer FCB1010 foot pedal for hands-free triggering. (How often do you hear the words "Behringer" and "love" in the same sentence.)  I have an Alesis QS8 that I've kept around for its Fatar-built hammer action, too, though I've been eyeing it for replacement. But that keeps thing going, plus the parade of review units.

There's also a closet full of toys, from toy pianos to electronic toy sax, sensor hardware, webcams for video control (which I'm slowly modifying to do infrared), and more audio and MIDI interfaces than I can count. The MOTU 828 holds down the fort for audio I/O.

I should add that all of this is in the living room of my apartment off Wall Street! So I've kept all of the above very compact. If I had more money, space, or time, there would probably be more cool vintage stuff, but I've been lucky to beg and borrow fairly successfully.

And being mobile is truly a pleasure; I have more fun finding than hoarding. One of the best instruments I ever found was a broken 19th-century keyboard at an artists' colony last January.

GARAGESPIN:  What gear would you recommend to someone assembling their first home recording studio with a budget of $1000?

Peter:  That's a great question. I wound up spending a whole chapter (plus probably some bits elsewhere) on this topic in the book. It's never easy, because it's all specific to what you're doing, and it gets outdated. Hint: it's chapter 2. But you can fit all kinds of great stuff into a budget like this:

1. For a live laptop + keyboard setup -- Novation X-Station (or another keyboard you love with a built-in audio interface) and a full copy of Ableton Live. That way you've got a keyboard that's fun to play, audio input for recording, and software that will grow with you.  (You can get a "Lite" version of Live with a lot of gear, but you'll enjoy the full version more -- and it comes with some playable soft synths.) If you can, save up for one more soft synth you want to get in deep with.

2. An audio interface with Mackie Tracktion included (like, say, the Mackie Spike) and the best mics you can buy with the remaining cash. You'll get a simple but quite capable and reliable software tool, and you'll be able to buy good mics. Some of the new M-Audio mics look very promising; Shure could be a good way to go, too. Which ones you get depends on what you're recording, but the fail-safe would be a couple of matched condensers for stereo recording, plus a vocal/percussion dynamic mic.

. . . among many other similar variations. My strategy is to focus on one thing and splurge, and to not get locked into dumping a whole lot of money in exclusion of other things you need. I've seen too many people spend a grand on Logic Pro and forget to get a mic or keyboard.

Of course, I'm cheating here, because I didn't say anything about monitors, headphones, and the like. (Tapco and M-Audio have great deals on monitors, and half a dozen makers have inexpensive headphones, so you're not sunk.)

I'm sure glad some stuff is cheap, or even free -- try cheap software like Audio Damage, who make some great plugs, or free synths like Crystal (included on the DVD with my book . . . or readily available on Google!)

And, hey, I've gotten interesting field recordings using cheap portable recorders and mics; I've even intentionally used cheap built-in electret condenser mics on a portable tape machine to get a certain grungy sound.

GARAGESPIN:  Any other advice for digital-music-producer- enthusiasts-to-be?

Peter:  I can share the lesson my colleagues and I keep learning over and over again. To keep ourselves creative, we need to do two things:

1. Keep your working environment in order. I sure benefit from having instant access to sounds, keyboards plugged in and ready to go, software booted, etc. (See why I like KORE above.) Not to knock my book, but a lot of us will probably benefit more from cleaning, recabling, and reorganizing our studio from an afternoon then we will from a manual. Then we can sit down with the manual and our heads clear!

2. Focus on specific tools. I love combining tools in ways that take advantage of each, but first you have to master one tool at a time.  Maybe it's even one audio effect, or one instrument. And, I keep having to remind myself, this also goes for musical ideas. Despite my laundry list above, I really do like to focus on individual instruments.

The great thing about it is how much fun it is playing with sound and music. It's stunning to me how people are still looking for magical rules and magical tools, when it really is so wide open. That's why it helps so much to learn the technical specifics and the craft -- because then it's so much easier to concentrate on playing.

Now, I'm off to apply that advice to myself!

GARAGESPIN:  Thanks so much, Peter.  Good luck with the book launch!

February 8, 2006 12:01 PM

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