Friday, May 21, 2021

Simplex

I was about fourteen or so when I wrote and recorded my first song. To be perfectly honest, I don't even remember what instrument I played it on, as this was before I even owned a guitar. The thing that I recall the most vividly was the process through which I recorded it. 

It must have been a very simple riff, because I really knew nothing about guitar at the time. I recall the instrument as having nylon strings. What would take me about ten minutes today took an entire day back then. Of course, I was recording on what was known as a "simplex" sound card that my brother and I installed on the computer that my parents owned. An IBM PS/2, it boasted an incredible 1 MB of RAM and a 20 MB internal hard drive, with a scorching 286 processor. Whereas pretty much all sound cards from the mid-1990s on were referred to as "full duplex," which meant that they could both play and record at the same time, this computer could only do one or the other. I think that this was around 1991. 




I recorded a simple guitar melody that probably consisted of no more than four or five notes in a loop. I was pretty proud of myself, but I wanted to do more with it. We had some program that came with the sound card that we installed, which allowed me to record multiple tracks, even though I couldn't actually hear them while I was recording. This presented somewhat of a dilemma, as well as a challenge. I find that these things commonly overlap. 

While recording, I kept time with my left foot. I did so many takes of that second track that my ankle was probably sore by the end of it. Eventually I got it right, where the notes were all lining up just like I wanted them to. That may have been the first time in my life that I ever saw myself as a musician of any kind, perhaps because even when I was done with it, I could still hear the music in my head. I have no idea what ever happened to that song. It probably exists on a 3 1/2 inch floppy disk in a box somewhere.

Incidentally, the second song that I ever recorded was about five years later. It resided on a Spanish cassette tape that I returned to the college bookstore along with the book that I had used the previous semester. So if there's somebody out there who was ever part way into the audio portion of chapter three, personal pronouns, sorry. I hope you liked my song. I didn't think that I would have to return the tape along with the book, and at the time that I needed it, it was the only cassette that I could find. 

I mention all of this because my current recording process has been reminding a lot of that first song that I ever recorded. 

These days, I record multiple tracks on an old version of GarageBand that came with my laptop, which is now nearly a decade old. This edition of the program has some features that they did away with in subsequent updates. Once I've got all of the basic tracks recorded and I start to add plug-ins for processing and effects, my computer just can't handle it. Disk too slow or system overload. As I get closer to the end of the process, I start to see this error message appear far too frequently. Over the past few weeks, I've seen it literally hundreds of times. No joke

My present solution is to export the mixed down GarageBand files to a stereo audio file, which I then process with a different program. Basically, I do all of the recording and mixing in GarageBand, and then I master the tracks with a program called SoundForge Pro. It also does not get along with my computer all that well, but at least it can play the songs without freezing every second or two, which, obviously, can get kind of annoying.

So in order for me to hear what still needs to be addressed in GarageBand, I need to export it to a different program, take detailed notes, and then go back to GarageBand and try to fix them without being able to play it back as I make these changes--because if I do, it just keeps freezing and giving me that error message. I just have to export it and hope that I did it right, which is why it reminds me of that first song that I ever wrote. That is to say that the trial-to-error ratio kind of sucks.

Obviously, one solution would be to invest in better equipment. I do that to a certain degree, but considering that I make approximately 1/5 of a cent every time that one of my songs plays on a streaming service, it's not like I can justify building a ten thousand dollar studio or something, even if I could afford it. When I do the math, it just doesn't add up. In order for me to make $10,000 as a musician, my songs would have to stream about five million times. So far, that has yet to happen.

Spotify is about the only one of these streaming service for which I see much in terms of metrics, and they tell me that my songs have now been played over 56,000 times. That truly amazes me. However, if you do the math, you might realize that I actually get paid considerably more as an adjunct instructor at a community college, which is really saying something. As much as I would love to have an unlimited budget when it comes to making music, I live in the real world. I have a family and other responsibilities that take priority. 

From my perspective, it seems that our culture sometimes puts value in the wrong places. How many brilliant works of art have been lost to the fact that the people who would have made them simply could not afford the luxury of creating art? Most musicians need day jobs. Most writers get paid shit. 

Allow me to digress even further for a moment. I once wrote an article for the website Cracked. I think I made fifty bucks on it, and they changed pretty much every word. In my opinion, this had the effect of rendering it considerably less funny. This was after I had submitted about twenty or so other pitches for articles, which I later published myself and then just kept going with it. In total, I had probably fifty hours into what amounted to this one article, which works out to about a dollar an hour. For my whole life, I had wanted nothing more than to get paid as a writer, and this is what I got. As you can surely imagine, it was a bit disheartening. 
 
The idea of the starving artist has become somewhat of a punchline in our society, but I don't think I get the joke (and I've even done advanced work in the study of comedy). When people look back at this time and place and wonder what it meant to be alive and what lessons they may glean from our experience, what will they see? What will they they learn from our existence?

Oh, they turned TV into movies and movies into TV, and then streaming services made the whole delineation even blurrier. Popular music? Most of it was made by rich, well-connected people and designed specifically for mass consumption. What about poetry and fine art? Can you name the top ten most popular poets and fine artists alive today? (Don't feel too bad. I can't either.)

Meanwhile, we pay athletes and coaches ridiculous salaries, but about 3/4 of college courses are taught by part-time and non-tenure track instructors. At least primary and secondary teachers tend to make more money and get benefits, but they should be more valued as well. What about social workers? School lunch attendants? Think about how much better off we would all be if we actually put value where it belonged: in the places where it stands to benefit the most people. Imagine if the level of one's income was based on how many people could potentially benefit from what they do. Instead, we have pretty much the opposite: a system that rewards greed and empty distractions.

Michael Jordan is a brilliant basketball player, arguably the best who has ever lived--but think for a moment what a strange and precise collection of genetic gifts and talents he possesses. When it comes down to it, he puts a ball through a hoop really well. Very few people would argue otherwise. But imagine if they made another Space Jam movie, and it took place ten thousand years in the future, when people have no interest in ancient sports and everyone is seven and a half feet tall. Now there's conflict.

My point is that it should be easier for artists to make a living by creating art and that it is we, the members of society-at-large, both today and in the future, who are missing out on all of the art that could have been--all because we assign value to the wrong places. I say this as someone who only vaguely knows what a Kardashian is, and who is so incredibly tired of superhero movies and other franchised garbage. It seems that we have traded the element of surprise, which is such a key component of art, for bland predictability. 

Art should show us what we think we already know in a way that proves us wrong. Often, this requires an unfamiliar perspective, which means that we should be looking for art in places other than where we are told to look by the people who have no interest in ever changing the status quo. That's my two cents, which you now know took ten streaming songs to generate.  

Happy Friday. Thanks for listening to my music and checking out my blog. You're the real rock stars, I'm just a guy who makes music and writes words (sometimes a lot of them). 

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