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Ten Computer Commandments

Barry Lewis supplies a light-hearted version of the Ten Commandments for computer users.

Many musicians buying a computer for the first time never think about their working routines, so I have invented the following 10 Computer Music Commandments as an aid to using a computer-based music system more effectively.

1. Honour Thy Computer And Monitor

Your equipment should be comfortable to use, which means finding somewhere you can keep it permanently set up. A fair-sized table should be good enough to accommodate your master keyboard and an expander, but the monitor is probably too bulky to sit alongside the musical gear. If it's too far away you might end up with back/eye-strain - so do place these items carefully. And don't forget, if you are using a mouse then you'll need some free space for it to scurry about in. Whatever solution you choose, honour thy computer and monitor - they demand pride of place alongside your D50, DX7II or whatever (and remember to regularly wipe the dust off the screen).

2. ...But Honour Thy Hands And Brain Too

So you've set up your gear. You are now the proud owner of two computers. The one on the table made of plastic and silicon is a feeble thing compared to the squelchy blob inside your skull. The human brain can plan, and learn from mistakes; it can exercise judgement, and intuition. But there are several things that microchips can do more efficiently than the brain. They can store vast amounts of information and retrieve it before you can say "Jack Robin..." Always try to get the best from both computers.

3. Thou Shalt Not Spend More Than 45 Minutes Working On The Computer Without A Break

If necessary, persuade your loved one to pull you away for a coffee every 45 minutes. A caffeine addiction is better than being addicted to 'the screen'. The screen lures you into a perfect world, and you'll feel reluctant to leave this ordered universe. Given the right software, you can pluck out the 82nd note of a vibraphone solo and alter the vibrato until it quivers just-so. But is this really necessary? You need to take regular breaks to put this kind of question into perspective, and to avoid making mistakes. The brain can only really concentrate in cycles of 45 minutes at a time. After that it becomes weary and less cautious, more likely to accidentally erase the vibraphone solo altogether when all you wanted to do was manicure a single note.

4. Thou Shalt Not Use Thy Computer In Vain

The most valuable 'desktop accessories' are pen and paper. Keep these by your side constantly and, before you boot up, spend 30 seconds or so writing down what you want to do. 'Bass solo for bridge', for instance. If you then spend the next 45 minutes merely selecting the appropriate bass sound from your synth, a quick glance at your notebook will show that you are wasting time. Dating each aim in your notebook will then give an instant diary, charting the growth of a song.

5. Thou Shalt Not Commit Adulteration

Clarifying your aims should help you avoid the common error of adulteration, which means 'making impure by addition'. Let's suppose you've completed the bridge bass solo. It has taken you about 40 minutes to get this far, and you feel it might benefit by the addition of some pitch bending. The sensible thing to do would be to go and drink that coffee mentioned earlier, and then return refreshed to try out the pitch bends. But because you have five minutes to spare, you decide to quickly make some changes. Unfortunately, in your haste, you neglect to take the precaution of copying the solo to a vacant track. And when you accidentally add modulation wheel data instead of the pitch bends, you find that the whole feel of the solo has been ruined. The best preventative cure for potential adulterators is to remain happily married to your original intentions.

6. Thou Shalt Not Sacrifice The Whole For The Part

The main thing is to learn the knack of subordinating the detail in favour of the overall picture. That way things get done, and the computer contributes to your ongoing musical activity. Of course, there are plenty of people who simply enjoy messing about with sequencing software in the same way that the next-door neighbour enjoys tinkering about with a car engine on a Sunday afternoon. If you fall into this latter category, then the next two commandments should appeal especially to you.

7. Thou Shalt Not Be Afraid To Experiment

Most software musical applications give you greater flexibility. You don't like that third verse? Transpose it. Change the sounds. Run it backwards. Something wrong with the piano chords? Try some inversions. Add a fifth. Chop out every second note and see what that's like. That perfect world on the screen really is your oyster. If you've input some basic chords or melody lines and are stuck for what else to do, try building the piece up using only notes you've already used; or imagine how The Beatles would have developed your chords or melody line if it had been a track from the White Album.

8. Thou Shalt Not Be Afraid To Steal

It doesn't really matter whether your starting point is a Beethoven chord sequence or a tune from Pinky and Perky, what you end up with after several hours of transformation is almost always uniquely your own. Try inputting a bass riff from one of your favourite songs. Now invent a lead line that goes with it. Add some improvising chords, then rewrite the bass line.

9. Thou Shalt Back Up Everything You Do

This commandment is the most widely known of them all, and is echoed in just about every owner's manual and article about computers you are ever likely to read. Yet it still bears repeating. For the sake of five minutes spent copying a file at the end of a session, you could save hundreds of hours of work from eternal oblivion. Remember - in the long run, rushing things always slows you down.

10. Thou Shalt Spread The Good News

And so to the tenth and final commandment: shout from the rooftops about the wonders of computer-based music. There is still a widespread fear of high technology, especially amongst musicians. By all means pass on any useful advice or programming tips to fellow computer buffs, but take care to promote the cause amongst non-believers. Go ye forth and evangelise!

Barry Lewis is a postgraduate student of American Literature at Sunderland Polytechnic. His latest musical project is a collaboration between live musicians and computer, and is based upon the word games of Lewis Carroll.

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Software Support

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Jul 1990

Opinion by Barry Lewis

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> Software Support

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