The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Macintosh
Tech Talk | Douglas Adams
Matthew Vosburgh takes a conducted tour around software for the Apple Macintosh with the author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Douglas Adams, author of the world's best known cult sci-fi spoof series, 'The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', is also a musician whose enthusiasm for high technology has made him an expert on the Apple Macintosh computer and its music software.
Everyone, it seems, has their heroes. Favourite musicians, actors, photographers, writers... the list goes on. I've been lucky enough to meet a few of mine, and it's always an unnerving experience. One such hero is Douglas Adams, famous for writing 'The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', the hilarious sci-fi comedy that started as a radio series and then became a television series, a book, a record and a novelty beach towel.
But why an interview with an author in a musician's magazine? Because this one is currently working on several new projects, all of which involve the Apple Macintosh, while quite a few also involve MIDI, FM, and sampling keyboards.
Douglas Adams first got into real (as opposed to fictional) high technology when he bought a word-processor from ICL. This proved to be a disaster, not because there was anything wrong with the machine, but because ICL don't provide the best back-up in the world. At one point, Adams even considered writing a text adventure in which the aim would be to call up the ICL switchboard (fairly easy), try to get put through to the right department (much harder), and then try to get the information you need to make your system work properly (almost impossible).
'...Then I moved to Los Angeles for a while', he continues, 'and almost grudgingly went and got a computer there, which was a DEC Rainbow. That's an IBM type, but because DEC and IBM are old rivals, DEC didn't make it IBM-compatible. That meant I spent most of my time trying to find software that would run on it, and that drove me crazy.'
Luckily, help was just around the corner.
'When I got back to England I discovered the Apple Macintosh, and that was love at first sight. These days I've got huge amounts of Mac software of one kind or another, but the interesting thing about the music applications is this: each piece of other software that I've encountered enables you to do something better, more powerfully, more flexibly, or more quickly than you were able to do it before, but the music software actually enables you to do something you fundamentally couldn't do before. You see, although I can read music, I'm a really ham-fisted keyboard player; I can just about hack out 'Let It Be' and that's it.'
How good are you at notation?
'I can write music in much the same way that I can write French: very slowly, painfully and with a dictionary. I did sing in a choir and take music at school, so I'm fundamentally conversant with notation, but not fluent.
'I started using some software called Concertware Plus, and began to learn incredibly fast — much, much faster than you'd ever learn just by writing notation. If you're doing something in a complex rhythm, you may think that's the way it goes when you write it down, but you can't test it, because you're only going to play what you think you've written. But if you write something and you press a button and the computer plays it back to you, you can instantly see what's right and what's wrong. That was absolutely marvellous. I also found, for the first time, that it didn't matter if you could play an instrument or not; provided you could write the music, the computer would then play it for you.'
What did you have running with that first program?
'To begin with I just used the sound output from the Mac, which is sort of weedy and tinny. Then I decided to get some MIDI gear. I knew that there were one or two synthesisers that were multi-timbral, like the Casio CZ3000 and 5000; they seemed to have the spec I wanted, so I thought I'd go and get one of those.
'So I went to Rod Argent's and sat and played one for a bit. Then I heard somebody next to me playing a DX7, and I couldn't help but notice that there was a difference in the quality of sound. Everyone told me that the DX7 was very much the staple of the industry, but its MIDI spec is primitive, because it was one of the first out in the field. So the guy in the shop said: "Why don't you get a TX7 expander version and a Korg DW8000 to play it from? That way you get all the DX7's sounds, a very much better master keyboard, and the Korg's own sounds, all for very slightly more than the cost of a DX7." That turned out to be very sensible advice.'
Did the hardware additions force changes on the software side?
'Yes. Although Concertware Plus has been updated to run with MIDI, that package does have its limitations. In order to overcome those, I had to move up to another, more expensive sequencer, which I think is the best one I've come across: Performer, by Mark of the Unicorn. It's an extremely powerful, well thought-out, clean and precise program, that enables you to do an awful lot of stuff.
'For that, though, you have to be prepared to input from a MIDI keyboard, rather than writing the stuff out. It comes with a sister program called Professional Composer which supposedly allows you to write in musical notation and then transfer it to Performer, but that's the one part of their operation which so far isn't working that well — it's very difficult to use.'
Why do you find the notation side so important?
'I find that there are all sorts of things that you can think of to write, which don't necessarily occur to you to play, even were you able to play them. Not only that, but I find that actually seeing a piece of musical notation gives you ideas about the structure of the music that otherwise wouldn't occur to you. I sometimes go through a rather complicated process of writing something in one program, transferring it to the sequencer in the Emulator II, and then booting up the other program and transferring it back to the Macintosh.'
"I can write music in much the same way that I can write French: very slowly, painfully and with a dictionary."
...Emulator II? Well, Douglas Adams has expanded his sound hardware well beyond the two keyboards already mentioned. Rut more of that later. It's typical of Adams' thoroughness that he's also checked out a rival program, Total Music, from Southworth Music Systems, whose MIDI interface he uses with Performer. What's the difference between the two?
'From my experience so far, I don't think Total Music is as clearly thought-out as Performer. It tries to do everything all at once, and it doesn't really do things as well. You always feel slightly at sea in it because nothing's ever quite precise. Performer has obviously tackled it stage by stage and done every bit absolutely right, and there will be other bits coming down the line. Total Music has tried too soon to be all things to all men.
'It does display notes on a stave, but in my experience, the program crashes if you try to use that part of it. That's the kind of program it is at the moment, but I don't want to do them down, because I know that it's in a fever of re-writing, and they keep on sending out newer and newer versions.
'Personally, I'm not sure that I approve of using paying customers as Beta test sites. You should actually get a program that does everything it's supposed to do, and does it well. Even if there are going to be later stages where new facilities are going to be added, they should get a version that actually works and doesn't crash, and sell that, and then start developing, rather than getting everything in the program working 75% of the time, and putting it out, hoping to raise the stability later.
'On the other hand, when I log on to PAN (the Performing Artists' Network — an American bulletin board accessed by modem), I read a lot of discussion about all the software that is available, and I have to report that although I'm not satisfied with Total Music, a lot of the people who call up PAN are wildly excited about it. The real fans of Total Music regard its many shortcomings and fudges as being all part of the excitement and the challenge of it. I've been through that with too many programs, so I particularly enjoy programs like Performer which just work.'
But just as more sophisticated hardware called for more powerful software, so the new software made Adams feel the need for more keyboards...
'Inevitably, the moment you start playing with this stuff, you realise that one of the great advantages of a MIDI setup is that you never have to commit yourself to tape. You can keep on editing and refining and putting in new layers and so on, but it means that you've actually got to have a few more sound sources if you want to hear it all at once.
Adams' unremitting love for all things FM made some of the hardware purchases obvious: three more TX7s. Then, to add a bit of analogue warmth, he got himself a Korg EX800 (the expander version of the Poly 800), and also added a Yamaha drum machine for percussion.
'I got the Yamaha RX15, but I should have got the RX11. At the time I thought a little extra money wouldn't make much difference, but what I didn't realise was that the MIDI implementation of the RX11 is much better. You can up-load and down-load pattern data over MIDI on that, which is something you can't do on the RX15 — you have to use the cassette interface instead.'
A Roland Octapad makes Adams' rhythm programming easier, while an Alesis MIDIverb provides ambience for everything else. The whole system goes into a big Seck mixer, ending up at a Fostex 260 four-track cassette machine.
'I shouldn't have got that one. I should have got the smaller XI5, because mine is so complicated it drives me spare. It's very good, but with this MIDI setup, I just need a machine that records and that's it. I don't need elaborate track-bouncing and all that. I do eventually intend to produce recordings using live instruments as well, but I've fought shy of doing that so far because I know it's just going to be a source of endless headaches.'
The one live instrument Adams particularly wants to incorporate is the guitar. It's the instrument with which he feels most at home; he has a Martin acoustic and a Strat, and has played guitar for quite a while. He also wants to bring the guitar into the electronic side of things.
"I got the Yamaha RX15, but I should have got the RX11. I thought the extra money wouldn't make much difference, but the MIDI implementation of the RX11 is much better."
'What I want is a proper guitar-to-MIDI interface. I've heard of all kinds of problems with the Roland system. I think it's the sort of thing you should be patient with and wait another year, and then most of the problems will be solved. One of the major problems is simply the delay in the signal processing. The thing I would most like is to be able to put a MIDI interface onto an acoustic guitar.'
At this point Adams picks up his beloved Martin (which has an Apple sticker on the scratchplate) and plays a few bars.
'One of the first things I did on this setup was transcribe things that I'd written on the guitar, using music notation. Actually, that's a very complicated thing to do, because the rhythmic patterns of what you play on guitar are extremely complex.'
That's why you can always tell a guitar synth on a record; a keyboard player just wouldn't play like that.
'Yes. The rhythms of fingerpicking style are very interesting when you put them onto other instruments. I transcribed this, for instance...'
(Adams fingerpicks a pretty, but rather ordinary, piece on the guitar.)
'...I transcribed that, using musical notation, straight onto the keyboard. I'll play you the result.' The result, amazingly, was a beautiful piece of music, starting with a delightful music box/xylophone sound (a combination of at least one TX7 and the DW8000) playing the melody, with a touch of analogue strings in the background. Next came some FM tubular bells playing accompaniment, and gradually, the whole thing unfolded.
Encouraged by his success with this setup, Adams decided to move into sampling.
'Quite a long time ago, I got a letter from a guy at Syco who was a fan of 'Hitch-hiker'. He said: "Since you're obviously interested in sound, if you ever want to see any of our stuff, give me a call." So I went down there, and he showed me the Emulator II, and the Kurzweil and the Fairlight. I said: "Well, I'm interested to see this, but I don't really think that it's what I'm in the market for." It did niggle away at the hack of my mind though, after I'd seen what they could do. Suddenly I had a sort of brainstorm, and when the Mirage I'd intended to buy didn't come in, I wandered off and got an Emulator instead.
'It's very interesting, using the Emulator, because it becomes apparent that computerised appliances tend to lag some way behind the development of computers per se in sophistication. The disk operating system and everything on the Emulator is really very primitive. When you're used to using something like the Macintosh, it's really like digging back into the stone age. Obviously there are rational reasons for that, but I never thought I'd have to handle 5¼" disks again. Of course, all of that is made much easier by the Digidesign Sound Designer software for the Macintosh.'
Are you keeping your Emulator sounds on the Mac now that you have that software?
'Well yes, but not much so far, simply because I'm waiting to bring the big hard disk in the next room on line. This hard disk (Adams points at the 20Meg drive his Mac sits on) is all but full with everything else, and sound files take up huge amounts of space. I can't really use the 100 Megabyte hard disk next door until I get the hierarchical filing system for it, which Apple claim is in the post.
"Using the Emulator, it becomes apparent that computerised appliances lag some way behind computers per se in sophistication."
'Going back to the Emulator, there were one or two things that I found terribly hard to work out to begin with. Like the manual is quite entertainingly written, but there are certain limitations in the machine that it doesn't tell you about. That means you spend ages hunting around, trying to find a way of doing something that you think should be obvious, until eventually, by reading between the lines, you work out that you can't do it.
'For instance, an Emulator preset has to be set to respond to control wheel information from either its own keyboard, or from MIDI. You have to choose either one or the other. This means that if you record something onto an external sequencer using the Emulator's own keyboard and you want to use the wheels, when you play the MIDI data back, the wheel information is ignored. You have to set all the presets to expect to receive control information from MIDI sources, and control the Emulator from another keyboard in the first place.
'The point I'm making is that nowhere in the manual does it actually tell you any of that, so you spend a lot of time thinking that you're just being stupid and missing something obvious, and that there must be a way of getting it to work.'
For the most part, however, Adams is delighted with the Emulator II.
'It was playing around with the Emulator that made me begin to think it might be fun to go back and do more 'Hitch-hiker' on the radio.
'I've been thinking that if we'd had stuff like this, even remotely like this, when we did the radio series initially, the stuff we could have done would have been just amazing. The leap forward in technology that's occurred in the last six years is unbelievable.'
If you did another radio or TV series, would you do your own music this time around?
'Well, I'm hesitating to say so, but yes! The reason I'm hesitating is I don't know how Paddy will react.' By 'Paddy' Adams means Paddy Kingsland, the gifted BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer who did a lot of work on the music for 'The Hitch-hiker's Guide' originally. He's no longer with the Workshop these days, having left the BBC to set up his own studio.
But Kingsland and Adams remain great friends, and being an Emulator owner, the former was another factor to influence the latter's decision to buy one of E-mu's flagship keyboards.
Suddenly the phone rings, and it's Infocom calling about something else altogether. Infocom are the company who put together the Computer Adventure version of 'Hitch-hiker', and they want Adams to come to Boston to work on another one. At the moment, though, Adams is supposed to be working on another book. It won't be anything to do with 'Hitch-hiker', so what is it about?
'I described it to my publisher as a ghost, horror, detective, whodunnit, time-travel, romantic-comedy epic!'
Can't wait to read that one, and the sequel is already on the way. What about the long term?
'Well, what I'm dreaming vaguely of doing, and it's a very ill-formulated thought at the moment, is doing something for record. It'd be something combining words and music in some form — part drama, part music — but much more music-oriented than something like 'Hitch-hiker' was. If that works, then I can justify getting something like a Fairlight!'
Just then, Adams' secretary runs in and says urgently: 'It's Alan Kay on the phone from California! Can you take it in the kitchen?'
It's clear Adams is terribly excited by the news. 'I'm going to have to go and take this call from California', he says. 'Alan Kay is the guy who actually invented the Macintosh!'
So even Douglas Adams has his heroes.