Getting comfortable with a piece of gear is often key to composing. As long as I can remember, some new instrument or equipment has given rise to a new body of work. An upright piano, a Sequential Circuits Pro-One analog monophonic synthesizer and a primitive studio consisting of two identical Technics cassette decks I used to create loops led to the production of my first two albums, Piano Works and Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory.
At NYU the Fairlight CMI – despite its one-inch thick operation manual and “MCL” programming language – became my all-around beast of burden, as it could do all three “S”s: Sequence, Sample and Synthesize. My work with the Fairlight lead to completion of The Death of Don Juan, my first multimedia/electronic opera.
After NYU, I bought a MacPlus running Finale and at that point, unlike many others for whom the computerization of music notation was a hurdle, I began feeling much more comfortable with traditional notation once it was made available on the computer, and started relying on it instead of jazz charts and visual scores which I had been using. Later on, the MacPlus was replaced by a Mac Performa which I hooked up to a midi keyboard (an EMU Proteus); this led to the scoring of Variations on the Orange Cycle for solo piano, a long improvisational piece which I managed to score in midi without losing the initial spontaneity – a technical challenge if ever – the score is almost too accurate, which makes it rather difficult to read but if you are a good reader as was Lois Svard who interpreted it for the Lovely Music release, you can work with it. I also had a Dat machine which was necessary but somewhat unpredictable and a Fostex 4-track which I used along with the Proteus to create the basic tracks for the CD Tronik Involutions, my first nationally released product.
Then everything changed again. I switched to PC around the millennium because with the Intel chip it actually was faster than the Mac – now both Macs and PCs use Intel. I learned the basics of web production. I discovered Reason, a real breakthrough software: you could actually mix the midi tracks and take advantage of an entire library of virtual sounds and virtual synthesizers that could even go vintage. With this set-up I composed a one-act opera, Orfreo – I wrote the score in Finale and exported the midi files into Reason then mixed. A couple of years later, Finale improved its interface: it now comes with an excellent built-in sound library from Garritan; that was a time-saving shortcut for me and I used it to program a lot of sketches for orchestral and chamber music. It was also a very helpful tool in teaching composition to my students at NYU.
Still, I wanted a “real” recorder – I mean, separate from the computer, as recording can be such a drain on computer memory that it slows down the entire machine’s performance, and if you’re going to have to get many external drives for recording, then why not get a recorder that already has the gigabytes you need – and I found the Korg D888, an affordable 8-track digital recorder and mixer with the look and feel of an analog. It was not very hard to learn; I used it to record sketches for The Two-Cents Opera. I also use a Superscope CD recorder – a “no-brainer” machine that records at the push of a button, and I cannot beging to stress how helpful that is to me, the one-button machine, when I am improvising on the synthesizer, as I find that it blocks me creatively to have to “switch heads” between the performance and the recording when I engineer my own music.
As far as synthesizers, I am currently using KORG synths because of their tuning capabilities and sound quality as well as their smooth keyboard action. For speakers I use two sets: a couple of inexpensive Fostex powered speakers and small Bose computer speakers that I absolutely love. I also have an antique German upright from the 1920s, but I have to use a mute on it because my room is so small. My entire studio is located under a loft bed – I used to sleep in it but now I use it mostly for sound padding. For a microphone I found the Rode, which has this amazing noise reduction capability – it doesn’t pick up much of the ambient noise, which makes the old-fashioned wall and window soundproofing moot. I still get a bit of a room hum but the wave editor in Nero 7 has this great “dehum” feature and the tracks come out practically clean.
I have to admit that new gear has always provided me with a welcome motivation to compose, but it is not the only motivation: hopefully, a higher calling presides of the creation of music to be shared with all, not for pride, not for money.