My journey began with a passion for all things music and music production. I play the guitar, piano and sing having played in many bands. I loved learning how to play and eventually master the techniques needed to play. I treated each new lesson as a problem that needed solving and slowly increased my skills. As I learned how to use music software, I was increasingly drawn to producing dance music using various DAWS (digital audio workstation) and external synthesisers. This appealed to my problem-solving skills because in order to teach myself the software I needed to do lots of research and basically teach myself how to learn independently.
This is a vital skill in many aspects of life but especially for tech based tasks. Learning music production techniques opened a whole new world of tech exploration and experimentation. It inspired me to want to fully understand how a computer works so I could find ways to ben the rules and achieve the unique, slightly glitchy sound I was after. I soon found that I had an excellent grasp of how to set up and maintain a computer which still supports my work today. I was never happy just using the synths and effects that come pre-loaded in music software. I wanted to create my own effects and sound generators so when people heard my music they wouldn’t recognise any of the sounds giving me a unique edge.
I initially turned to a piece of software called Max-MSP although I think it goes by a slightly different name now. Max was exactly what I needed. It enables a user to create any input/output computer operation only limited by your imagination. It provides an environment in which you can virtually connect up various consoles that control the computer in different ways. Using Max, I taught myself how to build a tone synthesiser and began implementing this into my music.
This taught me the fundamentals of synthesis and with this knowledge I was able to break my synthesisers. Now please don’t take my desire to break things as a sign of a destructive nature. Breaking things apart has always fascinated me as it let me peer inside at all the “gubbins” within a device or component. I still believe the best way to understand how something works is to (carefully) open it up to reveal the secrets inside. Max let me do things that wouldn’t be possible using hardware because it might overload or destroy the equipment but having a virtual environment meant that any experimentation happened in a manageable way.
For this same purpose I came to love Reason music software because it simulates a studio environment in which you can flip the virtual rack around and hook up the synths and effects using voltage control and many other parameters depending on the particular synth. If you want how to rig a studio up I recommend Reason – you won’t be disappointed. Max was brilliant as a learning aid but it was also limiting due to the amount of time it took to create a module.
I also wanted to work with external hardware, so embarked on collecting as many old (cheap) synths and even toy keyboards or literally anything that generates a tone of some kind. I used these along with my guitar to make my own music to perform live. It was necessary to be creative and think outside of the box to enable this old and toy equipment to work together. Also, working to a small budget meant that I needed cheap solutions for otherwise expensive bits of equipment. Again I love the problem solving element to this and felt a real sense of achievement whenever I achieved a goal.
Around this time I discovered the Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer designed to be cheap but effective. I am still besotted by this tiny piece of kit. There is no end to projects out there that you can follow to turn your Pi into something really useful in the real world. Plus it can run the RetoPi emulator to play old computer games from the Sega, Nintendo, SNES, Megadrive and many more. I am currently building a box to mount the Raspberry Pi on including a computer fan that lights up in blue to keep it all cool. If I can reproduce it cheap enough I would like to consider manufacturing them to sell commercially. If you want to play with old systems like this or the original AppleMac I would get involved!
This also led on to learning about the BBC Microbit, similar to the Pi but features an array of LED lights that can be used for a display. Using the inventors pack I turned my Microbit into several devices making use of various sensors and motors including in the pack. I really enjoyed this despite the inventors pack being aimed at children. It was a nice introduction into the world of writing code that then controls some hardware.
Mike at STEAMSHIP pointed me towards the Atari Punk circuit that can be created on a breadboard to generate the same tone used by the old Atari games console (also available on the Raspberry Pi). This is perfect for me as my previous experimentation with Max-MSP and music software taught me what goes into a synthesiser but now I can actually build it using real electrical components. My upcoming plan is to create the Atari Punk circuit synth and deploy this into my live music set-up completing my desire to build my own synth from the ground up. I love the fact that this will help my music to sound unique while also offering a techy spectacle for the crowd to see and wonder about. Creating a good show relies on hooking the crowd which this will definitely do.
Having worked as a music teacher my new found love of tech and IT enticed me to re-train. I now work in IT support and love fixing things or finding solutions to work around a problem. I could not do my job now if it wasn’t for the experimentation using Max-MSP, music software and then the Raspberry Pi. This formed the basis of my knowledge that now allows me to think creatively while working in the logical world of computers and tech. The Maker movement and the STEAMShip represent what I see as a vital skill set that should be part of education in all subjects not just related to tech. The Maker philosophy encourages a mindset that helps you to get behind the software or device to better understand how to manipulate it. This can help in all subjects especially where new ideas are needed.
The most important thing for me is not to be reliant on the user interface and to know what makes the interface work. In todays world where tech and software is ubiquitous too many people only know how to use the software. Problem is when the software goes wrong they don’t know how to get it back up and running. I want to define the software not have it define how I work!
Are you interested in writing for the STEAMShip? Do you have an interesting project you are working on? Do you have a background in education, making or any of the associated disciplines such as Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths?
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