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Offline: making music and fighting my computer

Offline: making music and fighting my computer

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paul music
paul music

Computers are where music goes to die. Now, I frequently like to point out that my internet abstinence has nothing to do with a dislike of technology itself — gesturing toward the iPad I’m holding to illustrate the point — but with music, I find technology to be the very devil itself.

Perhaps it traces back to my folksy upbringing. My dad had his own bluegrass band while I was growing up, and many an evening the Millers would gather ‘round and jam out classic gospel tunes. I was typically on the “drums,” which is not a traditional bluegrass instrument (guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo, fiddle), and therefore I was often admonished for my volume and “untraditional” rhythms. But it was this very give-and-take between the players that made those times special — it was just as important to listen as it was to play.

My dislike of computers-in-music is not just about an analog Swiss Family Robinson romanticism

Obviously, I’m not the only old-timey music creation aficionado; the “return to analog” is a huge trope in the music industry. You can’t ignore the press releases: OMG, Jack White recorded that entire album in two days using an 8-track tape recorder! Oh wait, was it a 4-track? Did you hear the Foo Fighters recorded their new album to tape as well? The Kings of Leon do whole songs as live takes! How genuine.

But my dislike of computers in music is not just about an analog Swiss Family Robinson romanticism. I think it’s illustrated better by that other Miller family mainstay: the piano in the living room. With a piano in a living room, you can walk by, tinkle some keys, sit down, start to play, and then Miller Brother #2 or #4 or whomever will grab a guitar and start to play and sing along. The Garage Band / Fruity Loops / Pro Tools experience, in contrast, is one of isolation and withdrawal.

Not that it can’t be creatively fulfilling. In fact, most of my favorite modern music has been produced primarily with computers, by musicians who are clearly collaborative and innovative. I just haven’t figured out how to duplicate their success.

On again and off again, over the past few years, I’ve been in a “band.” This band has two members: myself, and my periodic roommate. He plays guitar, I’m on vox and keys. I’m sure you can guess that we’ve done more music while we’ve been roommates than when we’ve been apart. It’s the piano-in-the-living-room principle. If someone starts to play music in a 25sq foot apartment, it’s hard not to join in.

During this year with no internet, we started to play together in earnest. We even started to try and come up with names for our band. And then something terrible happened. Something really and truly horrible. I started to use a computer.

I had copies of Apple’s Logic and MainStage on my computer, which I’d experimented with over the year or so prior. Innumerable YouTube tutorials had not brought me any closer to understanding. But then something clicked. I don’t know how to describe it, I just got Logic all of a sudden. It has something to do with routing things to busses.

I started to write new songs, and take our old ones, and wrap them around the new beats

My roommate records street musicians with his iPhone, and I took his recordings and ingested them into Logic, then chopped and stretched and sculpted the sounds into beats. Put enough reverb and simulated amplifiers on top of the beats and they start to sound really great. Great enough, in fact, to pull me deeper into the computer. I started to write new songs, and take our old ones, and wrap them around the new beats. All by myself, elbows deep in bits and bytes, my roommate couldn’t protest when I upped the BPM of a song that he’d seen as a slow jam. Even his riffs were no longer sacred — a snip here, a reverse tape delay there, and bam, I had something beautiful and unplayable.

When Morpheus finally jacked me out of the Matrix and I slammed into reality, I found my roommate standing over me, like a bearded Trinity, arms crossed, unimpressed. But he tried, he really tried, to play along with the new songs. I tried as well. We sucked. And so I jacked back in.

As always, I was ignoring my experience and skills, and chasing my taste: I love Grimes and Tanlines and Panda Bear, which are heavily reliant on loops. Why couldn’t I be?

This time, it was me and MainStage. Like a classic addict, I was self-medicating with more computer. I would take my beats and sounds from Logic and put them into MainStage. I spent a few hundred dollars on MIDI gear to trigger various MainStage functions. Sweat dripped down my nose and onto my keyboard as I read through MainStage’s extensive documentation. When next I emerged, convinced I had it this time, my roommate had a new idea for a band name: Paul Miller.

Again, I tried to salvage this state of affairs with more computer. I bought the holy grail of beatmaking technology: Maschine. It was originally an object of my roommate’s affection, and therefore I figured he’d be pleased. With Maschine, you can make beats on the fly, and isn’t that what we all want? Interactivity? Unfortunately, to get Maschine out of demo mode, you have to activate it online. I sent a letter to the makers of Maschine, Native Instruments, asking for leniency, but got no response.

Unfortunately, to get Maschine out of demo mode, you have to activate it online

And so, once again, my music-creation attempts isolated me. I could use the Maschine’s demo mode in 30 minute increments, after which all progress would be wiped. So I’d create a beat in 30 minutes, record it, and then start over again with a blank slate. It was a remarkable creative process, and yielded more computerey songs that we couldn’t play.

This impasse remained for many moons. And then one day, right around Christmas, when I should’ve been buying gifts for others, I went on a music gear shopping spree. I bought a mixer, a speaker, a keyboard, and a loop pedal. More importantly, I bought zero computers.

Plugged all together, and with my beats downloaded as simple loops to the loop pedal, I finally had what we’d been missing all along: a literal piano in the living room. The gear, which takes up my entire kitchen table, is unavoidable. As my roommate and I began to play together again, the music became something different from the perfect computer incarnations. It became ours again. The search for a band name recommenced.