View from the East: The Homemade Music Revolution

Greg Sandow

If you go to Apple’s site for GarageBand, the company’s new and wildly hyped music software, you’d think you’d encountered a revolution. All of us—without even a speck of musical training—now can make our own music.

Well, it’s been done before—check out Sonic Foundry’s ACID (well, now Sony Pictures’ ACID, now that Sony bought the parent company), and in any case the way the software functions has been around for quite a while. You put prerecorded chunks of music (“loops,” they’re called now) on a grid, and repeat them, layer them, configure them almost any way you like. I had my first introduction to this back in 1989, long before anybody talked about loop-based musicmaking, and of course before anybody made music with personal computers in any useful—let alone user-friendly or commercial—way.

What people talked about back then was sampling, which of course was in the news because of hip-hop. I was then a rock critic living in Los Angeles, and (for a Spin magazine feature on 24 hours in the life of rock) I went to watch a producer named Matt Dike work in his studio. Dike—and wow, does this ever take me back—had a record label called Delicious Vinyl with his partner Mike Ross, and for a while they exploded with pop/hip-hop hits, by people not so much remembered now, like Tone Loc and Young M.C. Dike also worked on the Beastie Boys’ album Paul’s Boutique.

As it turned out, Dike didn’t really work in a studio. He stayed home in bed, or that’s what his recording people told me, when I got to a studio where an album he was producing was being made. He stayed home, and in fact worked on several records at once, each in a different studio; Dike would just phone the studios and tell his people what to do.

The record in the studio I visited was the debut album (on Geffen Records, I think) from someone with the improbable name Apollo Smile. The vocals had already been recorded; in the studio, Dike’s team was finishing the backing tracks. Before the evening ended, we had a visit from a woman who, basically, wanted to murder Dike; when she left to track him down at home, someone called to warn him; he hung up abruptly, when the woman starting throwing something at his house; the last words I ever heard from him were, “I’m turning on the electric fence.”

But before all that I got a look at how a master worked with samples. All the tracks were partly mixed. All of them were built from samples. A chart showed all the samples that were used on all the tracks, looking more or less like this:

acid sample

Oops, wait—that’s an ACID project I fooled around with a while ago. But the principle is the same. The separate tracks in the mix are vertically stacked, extending horizontally through time. Where a rectangle shows up, there’s music. ACID doesn’t label the rectangles, but instead displays waveforms. The sounds I used here, from top to bottom, were: (1) a recording of my father’s voice, speeded up and repeated many times, to become a kind of rhythm track; (2) another, simpler rhythm, generated with a software synthesizer; (3) the roar of a bear; (4) a high D sung by the tenor Juan Diego Florez, ripped from a CD; (5) the same high D, but stretched out to last longer, and bouncing up and down in pitch, an effect I easily created by drawing the zigzag line at the lower right.

ACID, as you can guess, is lots of fun, just as GarageBand must be, since it works the same way. You can move the samples—oops, the loops—anywhere you want in time; controls, like the “Vol” sliders at the left, control the volume of each track, or its position left to right in space (along with many other things); you can add all kinds of digital effects. You don’t have to know a thing about music to do all this. You just play with prerecorded sounds until you’re satisfied with what you hear.

Matt Dike’s mix, drawn on the kind of big flip-chart paper you find at corporate conferences, had only labels in the rectangles: piano riff, drum beat, whatever. I don’t remember any of the words, which were far more interesting than the hapless simulacra I’ve come up with here.

But I do remember what happened when Dike called to see how things were going. His engineers played him the current version of the mix of one song, no doubt showing him the result of instructions he’d given earlier. He listened—on the phone (he said that would give him an idea how the music would sound on a cheap car radio)—and then told his people what to do next. “Look in the closet,” he said, or words to this effect, “on the third shelf, third tape reel from the left.” The closet was full of reels of tape, in clearly labeled boxes. “That’s going to be some chanting by Hungarian monks. Add it to the mix at one minute twenty-three seconds from the start.” The engineers did that, and it sounded fabulous. The whole song was assembled from samples like that. I guess Dike could have been putting on a show for me, but I’m confident that this is really how he worked—I think he really did know all the tapes in his closet, and could hear in his head where each one might fit.

Software only makes this easier. Dike, or his studio staff, would have to set the volume of each track on a mixer, moving sliders up and down. Effects (like reverb) would be added, too, with hardware. Programs like ACID or GarageBand (and of course all sorts of other, very different products) give you all of that on your computer, often at a price that more or less enables anyone to use them. ACID and GarageBand even give you loops to get you started, though you can buy more, or use any sound you get from any source (as I did, in my little ACID project). If you’re actually a musician, you can record music of your own, and use that, too. The software even fixes pesky little things like pitch and tempo, so loops you take from many sources all can blend together, even if you don’t know one chord from another.

So what’s the revolution here? Where GarageBand is concerned, it’s price. You can buy the program for just $49, as part of a larger package called iLife, comprising GarageBand, iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and iDVD, some of them (like iPhoto) in updated versions, improvements, supposedly, over what might have already come with your Mac for free. These programs turn your Mac into a digital production studio: You can make music, make movies…you know what I mean. I’m not going to rewrite Apple’s hype. If you’re a student or a teacher, you can get the whole thing for the rock-bottom academic price of $29.

ACID, by comparison, costs either more or less. Less, because there’s a free version, ACID Xpress, without many features. Or more, because the flagship ACID, ACID Pro, costs $399 (on Sony’s website; the list price is $499), and the consumer version, Screenblast ACID, goes for $69. These programs only work with Windows. I’m not going to detail the differences between them, or between them and Apple’s imitation. It’s annoying, to digress for just a moment, to see how dishonest Apple is. They never credit Sonic Foundry, never even mention that GarageBand is nothing new. To read their propaganda, you’d think that they’d invented the sun and the moon. Sony, meanwhile, never mentions Apple, though they at least have the reasonable excuse that GarargeBand is very new. They offer comparisons between various ACID versions and other products (here and here), GarageBand not among them.

I’d say that GarageBand is the better buy, since it apparently has features (I don’t have a Mac, so I can’t try it out) that aren’t in the low-priced ACIDs. But ACID has been around a lot longer, and certainly has left a longer trail in other products (many of which allow you to import ACID loops) and on the web. One of its websites, ACIDPlanet, archives around 10,000 songs that people have uploaded, all made with ACID, and offering (at least the ones I listened to) very striking advertisements for what software of this kind can do. (Anyone interested in comparisons should read the “Discussions” page on the GarageBand site, where people praise GarageBand to the skies, disparage it, and also, in at least one case, note that “GarageBand IS ACID. Before SonicFoundry went under, Apple hired some of their main crew to work on GarageBand.” Of course I can’t vouch for the truth of that, though it certainly makes sense.)

So let me ask again—but now with a wider view—what’s the revolution here? And again I’ll answer that now anyone, without any musical training, can spend not many dollars and start making music. I once demonstrated that, when I was music editor of a home theater magazine, The Perfect Vision. I got Sonic Foundry to send ACID to a graphic designer, a smart and most of all imaginative guy, who’d never created a bar of music in his life and never thought of doing it. He wrote an article for me; ACID, he said, made him a composer. He seriously thought that he could use it, if he had to, to score a film. (Though to be fair, he was fairly whimsical about this, and for my part, I can’t say how right he was, because I never heard the music that he made.)

The truth, though, is that this revolution—as my Matt Dike story illustrates—is hardly new. In fact, it stretches back before the sampling era; it goes straight back to rock ‘n’ roll, and the very words “garage band” tell us one of the ways it started. Thanks to rock, kids all over the country got guitars and drums, and started bands. Nobody had to teach them music. Punk intensified that; it even just about became a badge of honor, after punk hit, not to know what you were doing.

But the roots of this go back even further, to doowop, just for instance. Kids (typically black or, later, Italian) gathered on the street and harmonized. No one taught them what to do, as is pretty clear when you hear some of the classic doowop records, like “Gloria,” by the Cadillacs, a fabulous document of a great occasion, when the Cadillacs (kids who barely knew how to sing) got in the studio with some backup musicians—a pianist and an organist, along with a bass player (hastily recruited, I bet)—who don’t have the slightest clue how to accompany them. They made a haunting record, and in part that’s because of everything that, to any trained musician, makes it tentative; it’s powerfully genuine.

Some doowop records show a lot of skill, of course. Think of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The Teenagers, singing backup, were jazz fans who learned their complex singing style from jazz vocal groups like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. And when the group made its first record—“Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” of course—the musicians who backed it were a slick combo lead by saxophonist Jimmy Wright, whose solos show that he wasn’t exactly a beginner. It’s sweet, in fact, to hear how, when the sax solo explodes in “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” the music changes style, from rock to something close to jazz; the bass player even launches a jazz-like walking bass line. But in the ‘50s, being slick mattered only if you wanted to get on the pop charts; you could make doowop history without being slick at all, a development which, in turn, made musical history.

You could trace this all the way back to Delta blues, I’m sure. But back around the 1930s, nobody thought Delta blues was homemade; I’m not sure that category even existed. You’d think of it as primitive, as some kind of folk music. It wasn’t till the ‘50s, I think, that homemade music really arrived, and the sampling era, which began with hip-hop, took that revolution further. The Cadillacs, making doowop history, did have to sing; kids in garage and punk bands had to play their instruments. But Dr. Dre, producing records for N.W.A, could just sit in the studio and mix samples together. All he needed—apart, of course, from studio equipment—was his ears. (Though live hip-hop, in the very early days, was a very different story. Sounds were taken directly off LP records, by DJs who’d mix them live. That took a kind of turntable virtuosity just as remarkable as anything anybody ever did with a piano or guitar.)

And software, finally, extends the revolution yet again, eliminating any need for studios. This really hit home with the dance music of the ‘90s, which might be the most impressive homemade style of all. Here we have instrumental tracks, often complicated, made by people who, to judge from their results, we ought to call real composers, but who may not have any musical training, and who do it all at home, putting sounds together aurally. What they do is totally professional, measured both by its sound and by its status. And this, if you ask me, is the most important revolution. Not what people do for fun, wonderful though that is, but what they now can do professionally. You can become a professional musician—a professional composer—without knowing anything.

Though here I’d better stop myself, because that’s exactly the wrong way to put it. Read magazines like Keyboard or Electronic Musician (and I’m sure there are more in-group dance-music publications I don’t know about), and see what’s involved in making dance music, the tiny, detailed, fantastically imaginative ways that sound gets manipulated. This isn’t kid’s stuff. Elliott Carter couldn’t do it. I can’t do it. To accomplish it, you have to know a lot—but what you have to know isn’t what you’d learn in music school.

Dance music, of course, is loop-based, made from sounds that repeat a lot, as you can hear—to cite the example that maybe has crossed the most into the official composer world—on any track by Aphex Twin. And here there’s obviously a connection to this official composition world of ours, because minimalism works more or less the same way. I’d guess that, at least in principle, Steve Reich could put a piece together using ACID Pro, and so could Philip Glass. Certainly their early music could have been composed that way. It doesn’t matter who came first, though I think it was the minimalists. What matters, at least to me, is the light that this connection sheds on dance music, a musical style that, from a trained composer’s point of view, might seem limited.

It might seem limited because the techniques used to make it are geared mainly toward repetition. Think of those chunks of music in my ACID project. ACID shows them to me as inviolate wholes, not as collections of details that I might want to play with. So the natural way to use them, inside the software, is as complete units. I might repeat them, by placing many copies end to end along a track; I might change their pitch, or their speed, using a simple control on ACID’s main screen. I can pit my loops against themselves, out of phase, to make complicated rhythms; I can distort their sound with digital effects.

But I’m not as readily going to change the notes inside them each time they repeat, or, even less likely, build a piece from many independent units, none of which repeat at all. I could do those things, but the software doesn’t easily suggest it. Compare music notation, which draws my attention to the details of any musical passage, instead of to the whole. To be complete, I should add that ACID Pro and GarageBand have ways to change individual notes (at least in segments that will be played on synthesizers, which the computer can control). But you can’t do that on any of the screens you most often look at when you use those programs. So if you do start tweaking individual notes, I’d guess that you’re already the kind of composer who does that, and that you didn’t learn to do it from this software.

But so what? As the connection with minimalism ought to show, what I’ve just described isn’t a limitation; it’s the definition of a style, a way of working that goes beyond dance music, and takes its place as a phenomenon of our time. GarageBand and ACID, looked at this way, aren’t just composing toys; they’re extensions of our zeitgeist. Both because they let people work in what I think is now the dominant musical style, worldwide, and of course because they continue a long evolution, giving people more and more power to make music on their own.

What should we think of this? I remember arguing about that at the end of the ‘80s, when I was a rock critic. I knew a poet, whose views were very formal. He thought you had to be a trained and educated member of the artist priesthood before he’d say that you made art. We’d argue about hip-hop. The poet kept calling it “demotic,” meaning that it was popular, used vernacular music, and came from, God help us, ordinary people; thus it couldn’t be artistic. I’d stubbornly play an early Eazy-E track, point out a tasty cowbell in it, and say that Eazy-E had to decide where the cowbell played. How was that different from the decisions any trained composer made?

I didn’t know then that Eazy-E wasn’t even a homemade musician, and, if I can believe what Ice Cube later told me, couldn’t even rap without a lot of help. The music on his records was made by Dr. Dre. But that just changes the name of the artist I was praising. And of course I’d still stick to my position. A composing decision is a composing decision; what counts is the result, not who makes the decisions that lead to it, or how those decisions are made. (Do we know how Bach or Mozart made them? Do I know how I myself do it?)

So therefore we—the formally trained composers—should welcome all these newcomers (generations of them, by now) into our ranks, and not just because we’d be justifiably thrilled if we made music as compelling as some of theirs. What matters most, to me, is that what they do expands our own significance, because (invoking John Donne) we’re involved with humankind. How are we worse off if more people make music? People buy GarageBand; they put their first mix together; aren’t they now more developed listeners, and thus—at least in principle—more able to appreciate everything that we do?

I hope it works that way. And if it doesn’t, that’s not GarageBand’s fault. Shouldn’t we want to reach toward these new composers, and find ways to tell them why they might try listening to us?