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On The Network

With so many musicians using computers, what is the role of computer networking? Does it have anything to offer the musician, and if so, why isn't it more commonplace?

IF YOU'RE A born computer hater, stop reading here. Not because I'm about to further extol the virtues of our electronic friends, but because we're going to discuss their unused potential.

Let's begin by looking at what our computer is, and what it's currently doing for (most of) us. Computers aren't smart, they just work very quickly. This feature alone allows them to perform a wide variety of complex tasks with apparent ease. The skill involved in getting a computer to do what you require of it lies in its programming. And that's why we spend so much money on other peoples' programs.

In music, these programs allow us to use computers as sequencers more than anything else. But once you've crashed your cash it makes sense to get the most out of a computer. And so we find our electronic buddies handling a variety of music-related jobs including patch and sample editing, patch librarianship, score transcriptions, and so on.

So, a self-contained computer/MIDI music setup is a powerful and, to many, attractive approach to making music - whether it's for your own entertainment or as a full-time occupation. But a computer's benefits don't end there...

Once you're using programs that are compatible with the programs that other musicians or facilities are using (one of the likely benefits of not writing your own software), you're able to interact with them. You might take your sequence disk into a recording studio instead of your computer, because there's an identical computer/software setup there. If the studio has some or all of the MIDI instruments you use, then you can take your patches with you on disk, and leave more of your gear behind. Similarly you can buy professionally-produced patches for your synthesisers on disk. It's all rather convenient, isn't it. And does it end there? Well, no - and yes.

It needn't end there because, instead of buying patch disks in a shop, or more likely, by mail order, you could just transfer them from the vendor's computer to your own over a telephone line. You can even download free software from some bulletin boards. And synth patches aren't the only kind of data that can usefully be passed from computer to computer. For example, exchanging sequencer files with a songwriting partner over a communications network would allow you to interact with each other (rather like the way in which cassette recordings have been exchanged for years - but without postal delays). Networking has been common business computer practice for years, but how do we make it a part of our working music environment and why hasn't it taken off already? All you need is a modem, some (more) software and a phone, but...

In the States, music networking has been off the ground for years, and networks such as GENie and PAN (the music-dedicated Performing Artists' Network) both have something to offer computer-equipped musicians. In fact they've both been used by MT in coordinating operations between the US and UK offices for the past four years. In the UK too, "networking" to other musicians is a reality. So why the low profile?

In America local phone calls are often free (and there's a higher general level of disposable income); in the UK. however, phone and network subscription fees may be too high for the returns. For those of you having already incurred parental displeasure for organising your love lives over the phone, it's sure to be a non-starter.

There's probably an image problem too - at present the whole idea of spending hours hooked into a computer network is more likely to be associated with the trivial pursuits of computer bores than musicians. It's hardly rock 'n' roll, is it?

Consequently, it seems likely that musical networking is to remain a minority interest for the foreseeable future. And that's a shame for us all, because there's musical potential there that's going unrealised.

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - May 1990

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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