Skip to main content

Offline: experts

Offline: experts


Paul Miller continues his offline travels and considers the value of experts, YouTube, and the pain of buying music gear offline.

Share this story

paul offline
paul offline

I was raised by Tim "The Toolman" Taylor to believe Real Men don't ask for directions; and then they get lost in the wilderness and get berated by their wife. Such is the way of things. But, like a precocious young JTT, I've decided to blaze my own path and stray from Tim's example: I love asking for directions.

Before I left the internet, I did it as a sort of thought exercise. I don't need help from this salesperson, but maybe they'll prove their worth — if they're bluffing, it will only take a couple Google searches to find out. Sure, I could order the thing on the menu that sounds good to me and that I can pronounce, but maybe the waiter is really good at pronouncing things, and has a personal favorite? Of course, nobody goes anywhere without Google Maps to guide them, but if I ask a local for their preferred train route, I might get an enlightening, helpful answer. Asking was a way of broadening my mind, a flexibility exercise like yoga. It was a luxury.

Now it's my only hope.

Most of all, I need help getting places. You can fudge your way through a lot of things, "improvising" is what I call it, but going somewhere specific is really difficult without at least a couple cross streets and a general cardinal direction. Things are further complicated by the fact that the currency of location these days isn't landmarks or optimal routes, it's machine-readable street addresses.

And so I ask, pitifully, "uh... how do you get there?"

I've started to rate my friends on their direction-giving abilities. Key talents include:

  • Knowing street names, or the approximations of street names ("I think it's a president, I forget which, but he's pre-Lincoln")
  • Knowing unique, recognizable landmarks
  • Knowing their left hand from their right hand
  • Picking up the phone thirty minutes later when I forget the second half of their instructions

The least helpful directions are like "uh, take a left, then go two blocks, then take a right, and then there are some trees, go past the trees, and then you're there! We're the third house on the right."

But even more dangerous than faulty directions is my own brazenness, which has me leaving my apartment with only a vague concept where I'm going, and hoping luck will guide me to my destination. When I feel like I'm getting close, I ask locals if I'm in the ballpark, and lean on them for my final instructions. Or I just circle a while on my bike, looking forlorn, and then stop at a convenient coffeeshop and get a snack.

I actually have begun to think of "asking" as my superpower

Here's the other thing I've learned about getting places: if you're not picky about your destination, it's easier to get there. Like, for eating out, I've been using some of the tricks I learned in a recent New York Times article on "The Economics of Food". I go into places based on an aesthetic, neighboring stores, vibe, and 12-sided dice rolls. But most of all, I rely on word of mouth.

I actually have begun to think of "asking" as my superpower. It's hard not to be smug when I beat someone to a Shazam by just asking the playlist-tender. I pity friends who are lied to by Google Maps. I get excited when there's something I don't know, because when I finally find someone who does know, they'll be able to tell it to me in a way that a list of blue links could never do.

My powers of poll-the-experts have finally failed me, though: I'm trying to buy some music gear.

I'm guessing you're familiar with the affliction of the amateur musician. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem describes it succinctly in his song, "Losing My Edge":

"I heard, that you and your band, sold your guitars and bought turntables
I heard, that you and your band, sold your turntables and bought guitars"I'm in one of those latter situations, where I'm tired of doing music with all MIDI and computers, and want to do music live with feeling. People like me are the reason Guitar Center exists. For every James Murphy in the world, there are ten thousand Paul Millers that assume spending $300 (or $3,000) on another piece of gear, or an entirely opposite set of gear, will really "complete their sound," or "finally click" or "unleash their creativity."

People like me are the reason Guitar Center exists

In Manhattan, I have a number of brick and mortar music stores, even my local Best Buy has a large music section. But what I'm short on is experts. There are plenty of guitar nerds, "pro recording" nerds ("pro recording" is what you call amateur recording gear that costs a lot of money), and drum nerds (the worst), but I can't find a single person who knows anything about samplers, my turntable-for-guitar gear switch of choice.

I'm not saying these people don't exist. I know exactly where they exist: YouTube. And sales reps don't try and deny it.

"That's a good question," he'll say, after I ask a clueless, bad question about samplers. He'll shout across the room: "Dave, do you know if this does vocoding?" Dave shrugs. He turns back to me. "Yeah, I don't know... I mean, it should..." Like I'm about to drop $700 on a "should," or like I know if I even need vocoding, or what vocoding is.

Most reps just start comparison shopping for me on their own website, reading off spec sheets available there while I try to plug my ears. One guy was especially belligerent, as I explained to him that I'm not using the internet at all right now, and that I came to a physical store to check things out in person.

"Look," he said, "I understan... I appreciate your philosophy of life or whatever. But you have to use the internet to find this stuff out. That's what we all do."

"But you have to use the internet to find this stuff out. That's what we all do."

At this point I would've settled for a glossy brochure with bullet points.

"YouTube," he said. "Check out the guys using it on there. That's all I can tell you."

For a while my best lead was from a glossy ad on the back cover of a UK music gear mag that I tracked down at a local magazine shop. Unfortunately, the product is around $1500, and not in any stores I know of. My next hot tip came while I was buying a Maschine drum machine (which is entirely reliant on a computer) at Guitar Center. I started talking with the guy behind the counter who said "everybody" (except him, of course) was using the KaossPad for sampling and looping. But Guitar Center didn't have any KaossPads in stock to play with, so I'd have to order it sight unseen.

And then the guys from Teenage Engineering came into the office the other day to show off the new stuff they're doing with the OP-1. It's amazing. I bugged this chill Swedish guy for half an hour about samples, loops, chopping, vocoding, and everything else I could think of. I'd finally found an expert, at least in one product. The OP-1 seems to be exactly what I want, what I need. It might complete my sound!

But what if the tide turns, and it's guitars-for-turntables again, and I miss out on my chance to "make it in the biz"?

I guess expert opinions and YouTube videos are a lot like Tim Taylor's next door, fence-obscured, Delphic neighbor Wilson. They can offer us advice on life, love, family, and samplers, but, ultimately, the only true wisdom comes from getting lost in the wilderness and then berated by your wife.

Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.