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Take-home technology

Now musicians can be their own producers

In the olden days (the mid-1990s, for example), Perry Morris would have shelled out maybe fifty grand to produce his album of "LDS contemporary" music. But these are the heady days of take-home technology, when anyone can make not only music, but a CD.

Every night after the kids are in bed Morris heads down to his basement to work on "The Eleventh Hour," which he hopes to finish producing, mastering and duplicating in time for the LDS spring conference. Morris, who has a day job at a shop that installs oversize tires on pickup trucks, is one of a growing number of professional and amateur musicians who have set up "digital audio workstations" (DAW) in their homes.

The marriage of music and new software such as Cubase and ProTools means that musicians can become their own record producers — and computer users who don't even know how to play an instrument can create their own music.

"It opens the door for people who wouldn't otherwise do it," says Salt Lake musician Jerry Floor.

While you could certainly argue that not all the music that will be recorded will be worth listening to, the new technology also is providing a venue for promising talent that can't attract the attention of established record labels.

"Here's the neat thing," says Matt Hepworth. "It's conceivable now."

Hepworth is a musician and also what one client dubs the DAWctor, a musician/computer consultant who makes house calls to musicians who are struggling to understand the ins and outs of digital recording. "It's a lot like learning a new musical instrument," says Hepworth.

His clients include songwriters, a deejay, actual musicians and a man who does 70 impersonations ranging from Elvis to Snow White.

Jason Hewlett, 23, has been a mimic since he was 8, when he first realized he could be a convincing Michael Jackson. Before he bought a digital audio workstation he either had to perform a cappella or hire a band that was versatile enough to jump back and forth between, say, the music of Ricky Martin and the Chipmunks. Now, says Hewlett, he's creating his own back-up band via the computer.

He listens to a CD of "Hound Dog," for example, figures out what the guitar, bass and drum parts are, then plays these in a rudimentary fashion on his keyboard, which translates them into guitar, trumpet and drum sounds. He edits those sounds until he gets a version of "Hound Dog" he likes.

At one level, music is, after all, just a bunch of sound waves. Play a bass line into the computer, as Perry Morris did the other night, and there it appears on the computer screen, a small mountain range of wave forms. If Morris hits a note too soon, "I isolate the audio wave, clip it, nudge it over, and now it sounds like I played it perfectly. It took 15 seconds."

In the past, says Hepworth, musician/songwriters often were overwhelmed by complicated, expensive 24-track consoles necessary to produce a recording at home, and they might have been too intimidated by the engineering process even if they went to a studio. "They're used to 'what rhymes with day,' or 'could you play that in an E-flat,' " he says. So they turned their songs over to a sound engineer who might not have caught their original vision.

Now, Hepworth says, "people can get from that point of inspiration to the end product in their own homes."

"The real serious people are still going to a studio," says guitarist/songwriter Walt Gaisford, manager of the drum and band department at MARS Music. But even these folks may use the technology to fine-tune their songs in order to save time and money once they get to the studio.

Not everybody who owns a digital area workstation wants to make a commercial CD. Jazz musician Floor uses music software to try out musical arrangements.

"I get a chance to write something and play it back and say, 'that's awful' " and then try out something else, Floor says. Arrangers and composers also use software programs such as Finale and Sibelius to play their songs on, say, a keyboard and end up with a fully notated score on the computer.

Bart Bartholoma and his friend Dave Trask use software called Band in a Box to make recordings "just for our own amusement."

Here's how it works: "You take a song and you write the name of the chord on the computer. You can write C-sharp sustained, or B-flat with an F bass sustained, really involved chords. After it's all typed in you pick a rhythm, and a tempo and a key. You say 'go' and it automatically plays a drum beat, guitar, piano, wind instruments as an accompaniment for your song."

Then Bartholoma and Trask lay down tracks of themselves playing their own instruments. Finally, they put all the tracks into Cubase software, where they can manipulate each note on each track.

Composers who aren't accomplished musicians can download sequenced licks and fills — loops — from professional musicians.

"I might hear four beats of a drum lick that I like on a CD," explains Morris. "I just 'paint' it where I want it. Or I might say, 'This tambourine would sound good layered on top of that, and I'll paint that on.' " Sure, he'd rather hire a live musician in a studio, but "it takes three hours just to mic the drums."

"In the studio you're up against the clock. You'll settle for things you don't really love but are adequate." Instead, Morris spent "hundreds of hours" to produce his first CD in his basement. Professional musicians could probably tell the difference between his CD and one produced in a big-league recording studio, he says. "But 95 percent of the population won't be able to tell the difference."


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com