November 1997

Hands on the Past

A History of Technology and Techniques Shapes the Present

by Paul D. Lehrman


I switched MIDI sequencers last week. It’s the first time in ten years I’ve done that. I’m not talking about the one I use in my studio–there, I’ve gone through any number of software and hardware sequencers as they’ve progressed and become more complex and wonderful. I’m talking about my college, and the software I use for the intermediate MIDI classes I teach there.

The sequencer I’ve been teaching with has been a terrific introduction to the art of making music with MIDI. It’s simple, intuitive, has a straightforward user interface and is based on concepts familiar to anyone who’s done recording. While it’s easy to understand right away, it has enough depth to keep the students occupied for at least a semester. And that’s how long I have them work on it–after that, those who survive the course and make it into my advanced seminar get to use a much more powerful sequencer, with a much more intimidating user interface, but with all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from professional software in the age of the 200MHz CPU.

It wasn’t easy to make this change. After all, I know the old program so well I could (and have occasionally been known to) teach it in my sleep. There are a lot of similarities between the old and new programs, but a lot of differences, too, in how features are implemented and where they are located. It took me several days to rewrite my curriculum around the new program.

Why am I bothering? For one thing, the students, coming into the course with an ever-increasing level of knowledge about electronic music (or at least having been exposed to a lot more hype and advertising), have of late been asking, "Can it do such-and-such?" referring to some esoteric feature. For a long time I was able to stave them off with a terse, "You don’t need that," but lately my response has more often been a slightly embarrassed "No."

A much bigger problem, however, is that the old program is buggy, and the bugs have started to really get in the way. You’d think a ten-year-old program would be pretty clean, but that’s only true if a certain amount of maintenance has been practiced, so as to keep up with the environment it has to run in. In recent years, the manufacturer tried to include in the program recognition for new MIDI commands like Bank Select and MIDI Machine Control, and compatibility with various system extensions that allow for multiport MIDI interfaces, but they never quite got it right. Then, before they could fix everything, they stopped development in order to concentrate on supposedly more lucrative markets, and the program lost the stability it once had. (No, I can’t go back to an older version, because I need the features they added, even if they’re flaky.)

I suffered with this for a few years and screamed at the developer (with whom I once had a close relationship), but I have been told in no uncertain terms that this was the end of the line for this program. So this year I bolted. The new program I’m using is not quite so simple, not quite so clean, has a few idiosyncrasies that may well drive me nuts, but it has a lot of features that the old one was missing, and, most important, the developer is committed to perfecting the product, which means in part (I hope) that they will listen to me when I tell them how to make it more usable in my classroom. It’s slick, it’s colorful, it’s cool.

Why Are We Here?

But I didn’t write this column to condemn an unnamed software company for being uncool. I’m writing it because a voice is telling me that by not teaching them the old software, I’m cutting my students off from a very important phase in the development of MIDI. They’ll see a sophisticated modern sequencer, dealing with looping, bank switching, SMPTE, system exclusive, and multiport interfaces with ease, but they don’t get to see how software designers struggled for years with the whole concept of sequencing, and what the various solutions have looked like as the art and science of electronic music production have progressed.

In education, in a technical field, this is always going to be an issue. And as the rate of progress continues to accelerate, it’s going to get worse. Whether we’re teaching a six-week crash course or a four-year degree program, we only have a finite amount of time to indoctrinate our students. As the technology gets more complicated, and we need to stuff more information into our students’ heads to keep them up to date, what are we losing out the back end? If the finish line–the state of the art today–keeps moving, and the length of the course doesn’t change, how do we maintain the same starting line?

The same dilemma is faced by grade-school history teachers every year. When I was in school, history stopped some time between World Wars I and II because that’s how far we had gotten in the textbook when the school year ended. The fact that we happened to be in midst of the Vietnam War didn’t account for much–everything after Hiroshima was considered "current events" and treated separately (and badly). That the same historical forces that blew Europe up twice were about to send some of us off to become cannon fodder didn’t seem to be important enough to tell us. It was more important that we learn about George Washington’s wooden teeth, the Boston Tea Party, and the principle of Manifest Destiny (without which this magazine might be located in Kansas City).

But students in an audio engineering program wouldn’t put up with this. If we stopped their education after the introduction of the 8-track tape deck simply because we ran out of time, they would be suing for their money back. We have no choice but to teach hard-disk editing, DSP, A-to-D conversion, MIDI, automation, word clock, and the rest of the new tools that are de rigueur in the modern studio. But what do we do about the old stuff?

Some say that we should abandon teaching the really old and outmoded technologies, that they are irrelevant to the challenges students will face today. True, most students venturing out into the real world will not have to deal with the exigencies of vinyl mastering and where to put the program breaks on an 8-track cartridge, but even though the solutions have evolved, the problems of the recording business–namely, how to get the best performance or production onto the recording medium, with the highest possible fidelity–have not changed at all.

Certainly, there are technologies from the past that students don’t need to spend time with, to learn so well that they can actually use them. We can tell students about Edison cylinders and 78 rpm shellac discs without forcing them to make recordings with them. We can discuss pre-SMPTE sync formats without making them link up devices with rubber bands, bicycle chains and chewing gum (although it’s fun to try). We can explain and demonstrate the principles of analog synthesis, but there’s no need to have them build sawtooth generators and ring modulators from scratch.

Knowing Your Ancestors

But if it’s being taught right, an important part of learning about technology is learning the why in addition to the how. What problems have the makers of recordings been faced with in the past, and how did they solve them? What new problems did the solutions create? Sometimes those lessons can’t be learned without hands-on experience. The relationship between tape speed and high-frequency response is an abstract notion until you try to record a ride cymbal at 3 3/4 ips. Wow and flutter, and why you need to avoid them, have a lot more meaning to a student once he or she has recorded a piano on analog cassette. Why someone would want a "plate" program in a digital reverb seems silly, until you experience what a real plate sounds like and see the kind of dimension it adds to a track.

Of course, in the "We-never-had-it-so-good-when-we-were-your-age" category, I don’t think any student can appreciate the glory of nondestructive digital editing until they’ve spent a week learning the difference between butt and angle splices, while picking their hair out of the splicing tape and trying to remember which side of the tape to keep their fingerprints off of. Yes, at my school we make them do this. Of course, like my late, lamented sequencer, the tape decks we use for this exercise require maintenance, and so a decent amount of our time is spent keeping these old war-horses up to snuff. That time is hardly wasted: we teach the students maintenance, too, and have them watch over our shoulders and sometimes even do the work themselves.

There’s another argument for teaching old technology, obvious to those of us scratching and clawing our way in the real world, but not so obvious to eager students with digital dreams dancing in their heads. Although the students may demand that an educational program teach them all the very latest gear, there’s a good chance that many of them, once they enter the job market, will find that they have to deal with older equipment. There are still plenty of studios doing perfectly good work with 20-year-old 2-inch decks, discrete-component consoles, single-knob compressors, and yes, even gold-foil reverbs. If your studio (or even just the "C" room out back) matches that description and a kid fresh out of school comes in saying, "Hey, dude, I only do digital workstations," you’ll escort him right out again.

But obviously we can’t teach everything we want to teach, no matter how much time we have. So how do we keep the past alive for our students without bogging them down in obsolete tools? One of the best ways is to make them listen, and to think long and hard about what they are hearing. If they understand clearly what a tool does, and how others use it, it can be almost as good as knowing how to use it themselves. Make them listen to the Beatles, Les Paul, The Who and Phil Spector, and figure out what’s going on.

Without a digital pitch shifter, how did Alvin the Chipmunk sing along with his two brothers? How did Pink Floyd shift aural spaces in an instant without a programmable reverb? Without a sampler and a digital editor, how did Frank Zappa get a vocal chorus to dissolve seamlessly into an electronic chord? How did Hendrix get those unearthly sounds on his studio albums (the ones he did when he was alive, that is) with nary a synthesizer in sight? On another level, why do CBS’ recordings of symphony orchestras in the late ’70s sound so totally different from Telarc’s? And why is the bass drum on all of Telarc’s records always dead center?

I just saw that VH-1 special on the making of the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun and American Beauty. It should be required viewing for any recording student–there’s a year’s worth of education in studio techniques (which the Dead were making up as they went along) right there. Watch the show, listen to the album, and watch the show again. And George Martin’s autobiography, All You Need Is Ears, is just as great a source of knowledge and inspiration as it was when it was published 20 years ago (even if the ruins of his then-brand-new Caribbean studio are now under four feet of ash). You don’t have to actually do things the way they did to understand how the engineers, producers and artists of the past 100 years solved their problems, but if you do understand them, you’ll be able to make sense of the problems you face today.

Education is our best chance to give those entering our profession an aesthetic for their chosen field. But that aesthetic, as in all technical fields, was created largely from the tools at hand, and in many cases simply doesn’t make sense without knowledge of those tools. Why do we have to deal with feet instead of seconds when scoring to film? Because once upon a time, the speed of film editors and projectors couldn’t be counted on to be accurate, but the physical length of a piece of film never changed. Why is MIDI so slow? Because if it was going to be accepted by many manufacturers, it needed to be dirt-cheap, and processors were slower 15 years ago. Why are there 29.97 frames of video in a second? Well, that’s another column.

By showing students the history of their field and the forces that brought us to where we are today, we lay the groundwork for the next generation of engineers to take our art further. By making them confront the problems of the past head-on, we make them appreciate the solutions of the present, and teach them how to think about solving problems in the future. If there are going to be significant advances in the art of audio production, they won’t come from people who’ve just mastered the technique of pushing buttons. They’ll come from those who know how those buttons got there, who’ve experienced first-hand how the old buttons worked and who dream about next year’s buttons.

Paul Lehrman this month celebrates the 10th anniversary of his joining the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the 20th anniversary of his first (paid) published article and of getting his First-Class FCC Radiotelephone license and the 30th anniversary of the release of After Bathing At Baxter’s. All of these events, to him, were highly educational.

These materials copyright ©1997 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing