Vintage Thanksgiving Day Postcard

Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers. I was thinking about technologies for which I’m particularly thankful, some non-obvious, some perhaps so obvious they might be easily be taken for granted. Each I hope represents some opportunities for others. At the risk of starting a Thanksgiving roast, in no particular order, here are the ones foremost in my mind in the waning days of 2010.

1. MIDI: MIDI gets kicked around a bit – it’s not a perfect protocol, commonly-used messages are low resolution, and the parts most people use really haven’t changed since the mid-80s. But don’t discount why we use it so much: it’s ubiquitous, cheap, and lightweight. Want something simple that works over WiFi and Bluetooth? Want to connect something from 1986 you found on eBay to your iPad and then use on a DIY synth with a $3 microcontroller? Want to connect an Xbox keytar without any hacking? MIDI may not be the right tool for every job, but as a lingua franca, it sure is darned useful.

2. Linux: Linux can still sometimes exhibit a punishing learning curve, and proprietary drivers for devices like video cards can cause issues. But in a world of wildly diverse hardware and painfully-quick obsolescence, Linux is a lifesaver. It can resurrect old machines, make netbooks usable, and the Linux kernel is fast becoming the solution for embedded gear from Android-powered devices to DIY projects. For music, that means an OS that can run on anything, and quickly wind up making noise with tools from Pd and Csound to Renoise and DJ app Mixxx. Suddenly, anything that runs on electricity and has a processor looks like fair game.

3. Music notation: Fun toys aside, what’s the real killer app in 2010? It might be the score. It’s still the fastest way to communicate a musical idea to someone else, or quickly play the Billy Joel tune your cousin wanted to sing along with. (Best karaoke machine in the world: your brain.) And this year, we saw improved ways to enter those scores, from ever-more-mature commercial packages to free tools like Lilypad. An iPad can be a fake book full of lead sheets; a browser can turn some quickly-typed notes into notation. All this using something that wouldn’t look entirely unfamiliar to someone who stepped through a wormhole from a few centuries ago.

4. Reaper: We face a challenge in music technology: we’ve actually got too many great options. So it’s a good thing that there’s at least one DAW that’s easy to recommend that you know people can afford, with pricing ranging from $40-150. Reaper runs on Mac, Windows, and (with WINE) Linux. It’s not bloated with features, has no DRM, is heavily extensible (with both custom plug-ins and scriptable MIDI). And if you’re trying to get a friend to try a DAW without (cough) pirating it, you can point them to Reaper’s free trial version. Add to that the fact that you can author Rock Band songs for the game platform – including full keyboard and guitar transcriptions in the near future with Rock Band 3 – and Reaper is a DAW worth keeping around.

5. Four-lettered Synth Makers That Remember the Past: Not one but two famous names from synths yesteryear, MOOG and KORG, have been on fire in 2010. Moog celebrated its Minimoog anniversary with an enormous XL edition. Practical? Not terribly. Something boys and girls could pin up to their walls? Yes. And Moog also had a bigger-than-ever Moogfest, proving its synths and effects weren’t just the domain of electronic music geeks, plus an affordable iPhone/iPod touch app that turns those handhelds into portable machines capable of recording anything and adding far-out effects. KORG, for their part, proves a big music tech name can remember their past, too, with the soul of their MS-20 appearing in iPad apps, wonderful, stocking stuffer-friendly hardware (Monotron), new bundles of software emulation (for those who prefer “real computers” to iPads), and, heck, even retro t-shirts. What these two companies have in common: understanding that their legacy matters to people, and finding ways to get that legacy in front of as large an audience as possible. Those are both ideas I hope catch on.,

6. Portable Recorders: Then: Marantz, Nagra, Tascam Portastudio. Today: go-anywhere field recorders from Tascam, Zoom, Roland, Korg, and many others. The ability to go out and actually record stuff remains one of the most essential needs in music tech. Today’s devices add nifty extras like pitch-independent tempo adjustment and built-in metronomes, making them as much a friend to musicians as they are sound designers. Odds are, if you’re reading this, some portable audio recorder is one of your most valuable possessions. Tascam DR-03 @ CDM

7. Pd: Pure Data, the open-source offspring of Max/MSP creator Miller Puckette and contributors around the world, is a free graphical patching tool that runs everywhere. You can use it on ancient iPods, or – via libpd – on bleeding-edge Android and iOS handhelds, in addition to (of course) desktop computers. It’s been incorporated in free and open source projects, and commercial and proprietary projects alike. Thanks to terrific free documentation and sample patches, you can also use it as a window into learning, with the aid of being able to see signal flow visually. (Even Max gurus can pick up tips for that environment with some of the online help.) The beauty of Pd – as with a number of tools – is that sometimes just making what you need is easier than making something someone else made do what you need., pd-everywhere @ noisepages

8. Bandcamp: The Web is littered with services catering to artists – not least being the chaotic mess that is the remains of MySpace. Bandcamp, in contrast, is simple, efficient, and functional, and for many of us has been a place to acquire music direct from artists as well as to publish it – no complicated jukebox/storefront middlemen needed. Some of my favorite listening this year came from Bandcamp.

9. Contact mics: A few dollars in parts and a soldering iron will make you a perfectly-functional device you can use to explore sound. Or, you can splurge on high-end devices. Either way, the surest antidote to endless choice in software synthesis or enormous sample banks is to go out and get a little closer to sonic vibrations. brokenpants DIY contact mic tutorial

10. The Internet: Distraction. Time suck. Scourge to privacy. A funny thing happened on the way to the Internet: you may have found a group of people who inspired you to make more, and share more, helped you solve problems and get back to music. On Twitter, on Facebook, on forums, on, yes, our fledgling Noisepages, everywhere I go, I find people who help me get tech working for me and remind me why I love music. So… thanks. Maybe there’s hope for us after all. (see… The Internet)

That’s my list. What are you thankful for? Let us know in comments.