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The Plug-In Interview With Warren Sirota

The Future of Music Technology

This interview appeared in the premiere issue of Plug-In, the Italian magazine about computers and music from the publishers of Axe magazine.

by Fabrizio Dadō

(c) Copyright 1999, Edizioni Palomino, All Rights Reserved

Plug-In: The last January Namm Show in LA, as well as Italian Disma in May, showed an increasing market of hardware and software solutions for computer applied music, from arranging to scoring to hd recording and so on. Instead I noticed a certain slump for traditional instruments and equipment. Do you think this is an increasing trend for the next years to come?

Sirota: Technology will continue to have an ever-increasing involvement with the various processes involved in making, distributing and enjoying music. The Internet will undoubtedly revolutionize the ways in which we, both as musicians and as music consumers, relate to music in our daily lives. It's already happening. We can drop a device like the latest Rio into our shirt pockets, and it can hold something like 4 hours of near-CD-quality music and play for 10 hours on a pair of AA batteries. I as an artist will soon be able to sell my audio files in MP3 (or a variety of other formats) directly to the public, and collect an extra fee each time someone sends a copy to a friend. This is called "superdistribution", and it is at the core of the procedural/legal/financial innovations which are being driven by technology. In fact, the very concept of copyright is facing serious challenges in the face of the almost-free delivery medium provided by the Internet, and is certain to be dramatically different in 5 years from what it is today. Sirota: Technology will continue to have an ever-increasing involvement with the various processes involved in making, distributing and enjoying music. The Internet will undoubtedly revolutionize the ways in which we, both as musicians and as music consumers, relate to music in our daily lives. It's already happening. We can drop a device like the latest Rio into our shirt pockets, and it can hold something like 4 hours of near-CD-quality music and play for 10 hours on a pair of AA batteries. I as an artist will soon be able to sell my audio files in MP3 (or a variety of other formats) directly to the public, and collect an extra fee each time someone sends a copy to a friend. This is called "superdistribution", and it is at the core of the procedural/legal/financial innovations which are being driven by technology. In fact, the very concept of copyright is facing serious challenges in the face of the almost-free delivery medium provided by the Internet, and is certain to be dramatically different in 5 years from what it is today.

Of course, traditional musical production technology is also improving. The amazing continual price reductions in memory, storage and processors mean that we get better and more affordable digital recording cards, PCs, digital multitracks, effects processors, and cool toys. It even means that today's computers are fast enough to do some tricks that previously required dedicated hardware. It means that a home-based, studio-quality digital desktop recording recording studio is not only a reality, but is an affordable one.

Yet, at the core, what the great majority of people always want to hear is talented, dedicated people performing on voice and rich, resonant, warm-sounding instruments. These are almost invariably (i.e., those which contain vibrating materials: wood, bone, flesh, metal, or even heated-up analog components). So all this technology is generally used in the service of more or less traditional (I include most rock and roll in this category by this point in time) musical values. Listen to the radio. Most songs still feature vocals, acoustic guitars (or analog tube-distorted electric guitars), acoustic drums and acoustic pianos (although I confess it's often difficult to tell a good digital piano from an acoustic these days, especially in a dense mix). A few significant styles - rap, hip-hop and techno - rely mainly on digital instrumentation, but even these generally have vocals as a focus, and often feature the very analog and retro/transformative technology of the turntable to contrast with the digital drum tracks.

This, then, is the trend that is increasing: we will use more and more music technology to produce and enjoy music that will continue to be based mostly on acoustic "values" (in a general kind of way). So don't forget to keep practicing! And let us not forget that better technology also assists in the manufacture of acoustic instruments, which tends to make them more affordable and higher quality. This is evident in the flattop acoustic guitar market, for instance, where the best manufacturers deliver surprising quality for reasonable prices.

Then, of course, we have the digital learning technologies, which are barely developed in the music area. My own product, SlowGold, is such a technology. It slows down music without changing the pitch, with a convenient interface geared towards letting people learn songs and solos from the original recordings. It's purpose is very clearly to use technology to help today's players obtain some of the skills and knowledge of the great artists, for use in the living room and on the bandstand in real-life musical situations. That's what real interactivity is to a musician - playing with other people!

Plug-In: How do you suggest to approach the new technologies for musicians that are not well acquainted with computers and electronics? Also, lots of products seem oriented towards a hobby to semi-professional use. How to distinguish among them? Is it better to start with professional tools? Plug-In: How do you suggest to approach the new technologies for musicians that are not well acquainted with computers and electronics? Also, lots of products seem oriented towards a hobby to semi-professional use. How to distinguish among them? Is it better to start with professional tools?

Sirota: You have to decide what your purpose is. If you want to play along with tunes and use the computer as a great practice buddy, get Band-In-A-Box and SlowGold, both easy-to-use programs that are very musical. Sirota: You have to decide what your purpose is. If you want to play along with tunes and use the computer as a great practice buddy, get Band-In-A-Box and SlowGold, both easy-to-use programs that are very musical.

If you want to create and arrange digital music on your computer, you will need a sequencer program, and you may want one with digital recording capabilities (so you can mix vocals and acoustic instruments with synthesized sounds). If you're just starting, I recommend getting the least-expensive version of the leading sequencer on your platform (on Windows this would be Cakewalk; on the Mac, I suppose Digital Performer or Opcode Studio). That way, if you do later need to upgrade, not only will you likely get a credit for your first purchase, but you won't have to learn to use a completely new product.

Many people will not need a program specifically for the purpose of producing notation. If the notation capabilities of your sequencer program or Band-In-A-Box are satisfactory, then you're home free. Unfortunately, it is often true that these notation modules within other programs, while surprisingly flexible, can lack key features necessary for the production of charts and lead sheets (like the ability to notate first and second endings and tags, for instance). In that case, a dedicated notation program may be the answer. If you're going to be doing heavy notation and it's within your budget, check out Sibelius (if you're a PC user). Finale, for both Mac and PC, is also a notation program that can do absolutely anything, but it is notoriously difficult to master. Autoscore, with it's built in pitch recognition and scoring features designed for ease of use, is also an alternative worth considering. And guitar players who want a notation program that can handle chord diagrams and tabs effortlessly should consider MusEdit, at www.musedit.com.

Plug-In: What is your opinion on the present situation in every respect between Macintosh and PC based systems? Plug-In: What is your opinion on the present situation in every respect between Macintosh and PC based systems?

Sirota: I'm a software developer, so, honestly, I wish there were just a single platform. I don't much care which it is - I'm pretty agnostic when it comes to computer religion. It looked like the Mac was nearly dead for a while, but the iMac has done a pretty good job of reviving it. Sirota: I'm a software developer, so, honestly, I wish there were just a single platform. I don't much care which it is - I'm pretty agnostic when it comes to computer religion. It looked like the Mac was nearly dead for a while, but the iMac has done a pretty good job of reviving it.

Most people will find that they can accomplish any musical production task with relatively equal ease on either platform. In my experience, the fanatical adherents to either camp have generally been ill-informed about the other platform.

The PC is obviously a more secure platform long-term, but the Mac is probably safe for another few years. If I were setting up a pro studio, I would get a Mac because of Pro Tools and the sophistication of the Mac music applications. If I were still a wild music experimenter doing algorithmic composition, I would get a Mac because of Opcode's Max. If I were a home hobbyist wanting a perfectly-suitable home studio computer that I'd probably use for many things, I'd get a PC because of the rich variety of software of every kind available for it and the various economies that the kind of volumes that PCs are sold in create. In fact, that's what I have. I have a digital I/O card to transfer mixes to and from my DAT recorder perfectly. I've created small and big CD-quality arrangements here, using Cakewalk and SAW, primarily. When I really need to sound great, I go to a small studio to record where they have those really expensive microphones and soundproofing. But I might take a track or mix home from the studio and tweak it at home on my computer.

Plug-In: Don't you think the development of more and more powerful computers in the PC/Windows dominion has been led by new games demanding great graphics, sound and memory? Plug-In: Don't you think the development of more and more powerful computers in the PC/Windows dominion has been led by new games demanding great graphics, sound and memory?

Sirota: It's mainly been about the graphics, less about the audio. But it hasn't been driven solely by games by any means. Speeding up business application software performance, Internet servers, and Internet browsers is what drives the purchase, and hence the manufacture, of the vast majority of these machines. All software is becoming ever-more-comprehensive and more deeply layered (objects calling objects calling objects calling objects until finally, 30 layers down, some code that actually does the work is called). It takes a fast computer to dig down that deep. Sirota: It's mainly been about the graphics, less about the audio. But it hasn't been driven solely by games by any means. Speeding up business application software performance, Internet servers, and Internet browsers is what drives the purchase, and hence the manufacture, of the vast majority of these machines. All software is becoming ever-more-comprehensive and more deeply layered (objects calling objects calling objects calling objects until finally, 30 layers down, some code that actually does the work is called). It takes a fast computer to dig down that deep.

Plug-In: Do you think that the present PC music equipment explosion has been caused by market possibilities and not by musicians' needs? Plug-In: Do you think that the present PC music equipment explosion has been caused by market possibilities and not by musicians' needs?

There is no eternal set of things called "musician's needs". Think about answering machines. When the first ones made their way into the public, they were a scary annoyance to many who would get too nervous and flustered to leave a message. Then they became desirable. Now they're necessary - not only for the general population, but also clearly a specific "musician's need" for anyone who wants to get gig calls!

That said, many products are floated in the markets. Sometimes those products meet existing needs, sometimes they meet new needs that musicians haven't even discovered yet. Sometimes the developers of those products have great personal vision and commitment to the needs of musicians, but their own idiosyncratic vision is not in tune with the market. Sometimes they just call it wrong. It all goes on.

Plug-In: A lot of the software on the market really helps to understand and transcribe music, record a song, correcting mistakes, often arranging simply by pitchshifting a few recorded measures. And this could be great. But don't you think there's the risk for loosing musicianship, the ability and the pleasure of playing/recording together with fellow musicians, interacting and finding solutions to human and artistic questions, studying and practicing, instead of staying securely closed in one's room only surrounded by "digital monsters"? I remember you wrote something regard this item on GP magazine, perhaps in '88. What's now your point of view? Plug-In: A lot of the software on the market really helps to understand and transcribe music, record a song, correcting mistakes, often arranging simply by pitchshifting a few recorded measures. And this could be great. But don't you think there's the risk for loosing musicianship, the ability and the pleasure of playing/recording together with fellow musicians, interacting and finding solutions to human and artistic questions, studying and practicing, instead of staying securely closed in one's room only surrounded by "digital monsters"? I remember you wrote something regard this item on GP magazine, perhaps in '88. What's now your point of view?

Sirota: I think I dealt with this one pretty decisively before. If you want to sit in your cave and create alone, be my guest. Everyone should do that for a while, or even periodically. But, for me, the joy of music comes from playing with other people. Sirota: I think I dealt with this one pretty decisively before. If you want to sit in your cave and create alone, be my guest. Everyone should do that for a while, or even periodically. But, for me, the joy of music comes from playing with other people.

Plug-In: In which direction is music programming going? What is the challenge for the next years in general and for your company particularly? Plug-In: In which direction is music programming going? What is the challenge for the next years in general and for your company particularly?

Sirota: The sequencer category appears to be pretty mature - the leaders are well-established and likely to remain there, and the interfaces and ways that people work with these programs won't change much. The notation category is more chaotic, because no-one has yet designed, to my knowledge, a truly efficient interface for either entering notation or analyzing a performance and notating it properly (and this is true ten times over if you're not a keyboard player). Sequencers can capture, quantize and notate certain kinds of keyboard performances quite well, but their range is still limited and the amount of cleanup required can be substantial. Sirota: The sequencer category appears to be pretty mature - the leaders are well-established and likely to remain there, and the interfaces and ways that people work with these programs won't change much. The notation category is more chaotic, because no-one has yet designed, to my knowledge, a truly efficient interface for either entering notation or analyzing a performance and notating it properly (and this is true ten times over if you're not a keyboard player). Sequencers can capture, quantize and notate certain kinds of keyboard performances quite well, but their range is still limited and the amount of cleanup required can be substantial.

In my own category, which I would consider to be musical skills improvement tools (hence the name of our company, the World Wide Woodshed), there is vast room for innovation. The ways in which computers can make us better players and listeners have barely begun to be explored. The main challenge for us is in making people aware enough of the value of these kinds of tools so that they will take the time from their busy lives and schedules to give our programs a try. We understand the value of time. That's one reason why we try to make programs that not only are great fun to use, but also multiply the effectiveness of practice time.

The other challenge that I have, as the Woodshed's head of R&D, is finding the time and resources to make products or product features out of the best of the ideas that I come up with and that are sent in to us by our users. We're constantly incorporating new features into SlowGold, but the new products will have to wait until we're done launching the SlowGold family. That includes the entry-level product SlowBlast (with the same top-quality slowdown algorithm as SlowGold) and one or more Macintosh products.

Plug-In: On "Axe" January issue we reviewed Slowgold. How has it been improved the new release? Plug-In: On "Axe" January issue we reviewed Slowgold. How has it been improved the new release?

Sirota: There have been dramatic changes - so dramatic that the product isn't even called SlowGold anymore, but is now called SlowGold. The most important change is the sound quality - we can now slow down material with extremely high fidelity while preserving the original pitch. We've also added a graphic view of the waveform being slowed down, to aid in the precise placement of loops. We've refined and added a host of other features, including direct digital recording of loops or entire tracks from the CD to the hard disk. Our latest version includes a built-in recorder to enable you to record anything from cassette, LP or microphone to hard disk. By early fall we'll be including pitch shifting and real-time playback (no waiting for the slowdown conversion) in a free upgrade. Sirota: There have been dramatic changes - so dramatic that the product isn't even called SlowGold anymore, but is now called SlowGold. The most important change is the sound quality - we can now slow down material with extremely high fidelity while preserving the original pitch. We've also added a graphic view of the waveform being slowed down, to aid in the precise placement of loops. We've refined and added a host of other features, including direct digital recording of loops or entire tracks from the CD to the hard disk. Our latest version includes a built-in recorder to enable you to record anything from cassette, LP or microphone to hard disk. By early fall we'll be including pitch shifting and real-time playback (no waiting for the slowdown conversion) in a free upgrade.

Not only have we added all these features, but we've lowered our list price to $49.95 US so that everyone can afford one.

Plug-In: Add what you think our readers should know about your present work and projects. Plug-In: Add what you think our readers should know about your present work and projects.

Sirota: No matter how much programming I do, I still get out and play with other people in front of audiences every week. Of all the things that you can do for your playing, that is the best. I can't say anything more about the secret plans of the World Wide Woodshed. If you want to try out a demo the latest version of any of our products, visit www.slowgold.com. If you'd like to hear a track or two from my jazz duo CD with pianist Dave Swan, *94 Strings, 4 Hands*, surf on over to http://www.wsdesigns.com/94strings.htm. Sirota: No matter how much programming I do, I still get out and play with other people in front of audiences every week. Of all the things that you can do for your playing, that is the best. I can't say anything more about the secret plans of the World Wide Woodshed. If you want to try out a demo the latest version of any of our products, visit www.slowgold.com. If you'd like to hear a track or two from my jazz duo CD with pianist Dave Swan, *94 Strings, 4 Hands*, surf on over to http://www.wsdesigns.com/94strings.htm.

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