by Andy Capp
In my Father’s hometown I was considered a City Boy, even though Brookings is a “city” of 20 thousand or less, depending on whether South Dakota State University is in session. Of course, Bruce IS considerably smaller than that Metropolis some 8 miles southeast that I grew up in. Like the bulk of communities in South Dakota, Bruce is an Ag town, its few services aimed directly at area farmers. The circle is small; an outsider is pegged on sight. Not that any lynchings have ever occurred, but there is a mild suspicion of anyone new, especially of someone from the Mecca down the road.
Whenever I visited my Grandparents farm, a trip to Bruce meant that I would be quickly introduced as “Bobbie’s boy,” a son of an area son (one who had been lured away by the bright lights, but an area son nonetheless). I was a City Slicker, but I was also Bobbie’s boy. This was my green card, my passport to the Clover Farm grocery for penny candy, the local bar/lunch counter for a grape soda, and to Shorty Hackett’s barber shop for the specialty of the house, the crew cut.
Being Bobbie’s boy even got me passage into several inner sanctums of the community. Case in point, Bobbie (Robert or Bob to the rest of the world, Dad to me) has a wonderful singing voice, and was often called home to serenade a wedding or funeral crowd. On those occasions his accompanist was Shorty’s wife Beulah, and several times I got to tag along to their home in Bruce for rehearsals. Beulah was one of those old school pianists, with a precise, bold attack of the keys and a bold piano to match, one of those huge, ornately carved uprights. I remember sitting beside Beulah’s neat stacks of sheet music, listening to the harmonious duet of the strong young baritone voice and the well aged instrument possessed by the energetic spirit of its player.
It’s not my earliest memory of music (I can’t even tell you one song they performed), but I’m fairly certain that one of those evenings in Shorty and Beulah Hackett’s living room in Bruce, SD struck a chord deep inside of me (D minor, I think). I knew at that moment that I would make music too. I didn’t know when or how, but it would happen!
Funny thing about my personal musical journey, it seemed to be filled with more rests than notes. I didn’t get past the first few bars of trumpet lessons (I really wanted to be a drummer, but there was a full quota and the trumpet was in the family). The piano lessons were put on hold by several extended illnesses (I’ll spare you the gory details). The guitar became an on again/off again love, on again mostly when looking for love in college (again, I’ll spare you the gory details). I did do a lot of singing, even did a few gigs with a guitarist friend at some local bars, although I’m afraid that my version of my Father’s baritone was probably more monotone than anything.
Over and over the music would begin. Then the song in the key of my life would hit some sour note, or I’d discover another of my many goofy interests and that would be the day the music died, or at least slip into a coma for a time. Still, the lyrics kept haunting me, “I’ve got the music in me! I’ve got the music in me!!! I’VE GOT THE MUSIC IN MEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!
I had a migraine that day. It felt like the hamsters were out of the wheel in my head and trying to pound their way out with the claw end of their little rodent hammers. So I was grateful that my wife took our then 3 year old daughter to the mall that afternoon. Doubly grateful, because when my family returned, not only had the varmints decided to only use the flat end, but my wife had gotten me the first issue of a magazine that would strike up my own personal band again, Electronic Musician.
I discovered a whole new musical world in that magazine, a world filled with keyboards and drum machines and something called MIDI that let a person harness all of their instruments at once, becoming the Jetsons equivalent of a one man band. It was a world where the tunes in my head could come out and be made real, even though my technical playing skills were limited. It was a world where I might become the musician I always wanted to be.
Hamsters be damned, I read that magazine from cover to cover, and later that year exposed the world to my own kind of music!
Despite what some musicians will tell you, it is possible to make music without years of lessons and composition classes. I know, because I’ve done it. I’ve done a handful of jingles for local clients (a couple of them Addy winners) and a few image beds for our stations. I’ve also produced several demos of full length songs I’ve written over the years.
I’m not saying that it’s easy. I’m not saying that the first attempts will be good at all. But if you have a song inside, it’s a fact that a lot of desire, a little technology, and a certain amount of work can set it free.
I love technology. I’m kind of an audio gearhead in fact, but for some reason I hate to write anything too technical (perhaps I don’t want to completely embarrass myself in front of those who know what’s really going on). Because of this, and because specific answers vary greatly from machine to machine and software to software, I’m going to be somewhat basic about what you need to start your own musical production journey (a note to those who are already there, you may want to skip the next few paragraphs, or get a good laugh out of them; it’s your quarter). If I kindle any fires in you at all, be sure to talk to everyone at your local music store and read every music production magazine and book you can get your hands on. This will not only help you learn more about the process, but will help you decide on the setup that’s right for you.
The three absolutes you need (assuming you already have a mixing board and the usual audio production gear) is a sound source (keyboard, drum machine, sampler, sound module), a computer, and software that lets the first two communicate. That conversation will take place via the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI for short. Nearly all electronic instruments today have MIDI ports where you can plug in cables that go to the MIDI ports on your computer and other sound sources. (The majority of computer sound cards today have a way to “port up” MIDI. Check the help screen on your computer.) Through MIDI, your computer can record the performance of a song and play it back exactly the same way through your sound source (this is called sequencing). Example: you set the computer to record, play “Chopsticks” on your keyboard, then when you hit playback on the computer, and hear the keyboard play your version of the tune. Look Ma, no hands!!!!
That’s just the first note of an entire symphony of possibilities with MIDI. If you goofed up any note(s) of your song, you can go in the software and fix it. You can speed up the song or slow it down (both good features if your playing is iffy), make it louder or softer, fix uneven playing to the beat, change the instrument sounds (called patches), or stack up several sounds for that wall of sound (the horn section from hell). I’ve even heard of someone who put a MIDI port on their computer so they could fire up the pot from their keyboard (advanced, but handy for morning show Producers). I could go on, but the list is huge and keeps growing. It comes down to this, like digital audio, MIDI lets you record and edit your musical performance. Oh, and most audio and MIDI programs can synch together these days, so your real world audio will play together with the voices from MIDI-land.
The most basic MIDI systems give you 16 channels to work with (read: 16 different musical parts), the systems that many music producers work with control an entire orchestra of keyboards, drum machines, samplers and sound modules, often all from one master keyboard and computer.
There are also programs that will help you compose the parts of a song, pre-programmed drum and bass parts you can add to your own composition, and many times pre-programmed drum parts and sequences built-into your sound sources.
If you’ve never touched any of this stuff, you’re probably thinking, “Wow! Cool! All the possibilities!!! I’ll never understand all of this!!!” Start simple. I started with a Commodore 64 and a decent sequencing program. (If you don’t have a computer, it’s a great place to start! Check out garage sales and the classifieds of music magazines--still a lot of power in a system like that, a great learning tool, and darned cheap!) I also had a cheap Casio synth and a drum machine. I plugged it all together, and manual in hand, I started experimenting. The first effort that was heard by the public was a version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” that I used on a day care spot--nothing fancy, but the response was positive, and it kept me experimenting and growing.
“Real” musicians hate it when somebody like me pipes up and says anyone is capable of making music. If you’re offended by my statements, I apologize. If your offended by the crappy jingles some local musician has been making for your clients and think you could do better, give it a try! You bring a dimension to music production that many musicians don’t seem to have, an ear for well mixed sound. Besides, I’m not talking about knocking heads with the real music production houses. I’m talking about a new creative outlet, maybe a way to enhance a spot or do a song parody for the morning show, maybe put together a nice little music image for a client who can’t afford the big guys.
The music side of production in your town may regard your attempts with mild suspicion. Don’t worry about it. Just tell them Bobbie’s boy sent you!