Technology, Longevity, And Art

Guitarist Allan Holdsworth is running a Pledge Music campaign to help produce his latest recordings. As a contributor, I have access to a video interview with him in which he describes how he’s recording the material, and he had some interesting thoughts on technology that struck me.

0:13: [After improvising a melody on the guitar, connected to his large Mac OS X-based digital audio workstation set-up] It’s OK, but now I can keep going back and tweezing with it, which is [cackle] the last thing you want to give somebody like me the opportunity to do, ’cause I’ll just keep going forever. It was kind of easier in the old days, because when you finished your solo, you were done. There was not much you could do with it. Now I can keep going, like I said before, until the computer decides it didn’t like it, and it eats it, and says, “Thank you! Good night! Next!” Then you have to do it all again. It’s the Crash Syndrome.

1:40: And here we go. A blast from the past. This is my old Atari [ST]. I have 2 of them — I actually have 4 of them. But I have 2 of them right here. This one’s running the DX-7 program SynthWorks, because I love DX-7s. And you can’t buy DX-7s. I have a whole rack of DX-7s here, which I think are absolutely spectacular. Why Yamaha makes something and discontinues it 2 weeks later, I don’t know, but they do. Anyway [pointing to another Atari ST], here’s Cubase 3. With a company up in San Francisco that makes an adapter so you can use a big monitor on it [the Atari is connected to a modern flat panel display]. That thing is flawless. It. Never. Crashes. I’m extremely proud of that. That was my connection, of course, with this guy [indicates SynthAxe]. The SynthAxe was the major connection between me and Atari. And Steinberg. ’Cause they were the only people who wrote the software that would even record this thing. So there they are, the old [indicates Atari, Cubase, and SynthAxe] and the new [indicates modern Mac OS X DAW].

Holdsworth was known in the 80s and 90s for adopting new technology, such as the Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer and the SynthAxe MIDI controller:

When originally produced, the SynthAxe was priced at £10,000 (approximately $13,000) and eventually sold for about $8,000.00. It was such a sophisticated and expensive piece of machinery that few were sold making it difficult to keep the company afloat. Eventually Virgin Games took over the distribution but let it go after a couple of years.

The SynthAxe is no longer produced and it is very difficult to locate used units (fewer than 100 were made). Most musicians who desire a MIDI guitar controller often use other alternatives, such as Roland or Axon systems that can convert a guitar's output to MIDI via 13-pin cables and outboard devices or older systems such as the Roland GR-300.

I got interested in the Atari ST, and found some interesting clips about it and Cubase. Here it is in action as a MIDI sequencer:

And here’s a vintage difference engine boffin discussing the ST’s history as a simple, powerful, beautiful, and musical machine:

6:30: “One of the things I really liked about this machine [...] is that, these machines were complex enough that you could use them [in] a way we use machines now; I had word processors, desktop publishers, and so on, and [I] used them for all sorts of things [...] But, they were still simple enough that one person could understand, not just the software and how to write programs, but actually how the hardware would work.”

By contrast, the regular electric guitar is extremely simple 1930s – 1940s technology. Here are 2 videos showing how guitars were were made in 1959 and then again in 2012. Basically, nothing changed except for quantity. Like a violin, a guitar is forever. Short of total physical destruction, a guitar will keep playing well, and knowledge of how to repair it is easy to discover (even if repairs still require skill to perform well).

Violins and guitars are inherently open source — you can just look at them to see how they work. You’ll need to read 1 book about woodworking and 1 book about introductory electronics to get the basic idea. (Building them well is a lifetime’s work, of course.) When they fail, full repair is usually possible. I have a 53-year old Fender Musicmaster that still plays perfectly and sounds as beautiful as it did on the day it left the factory. The frets have physically worn down over the decades, but that is entirely fixable.

Even extreme repairs are amazingly possible:

Erlewine makes it look easy because he’s an experienced professional. And it is easy to understand, but very hard to do.

But what about Holdsworth’s SynthAxe, Atari, and Cubase, with software and saved music stored on unreliable floppy disks? As with Erlewine’s heroic woodworking, dedicated engineers labor to restore ancient computers. The Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator project is an example of that. It’s beautiful work; here’s another fun story.

Crucially, though, the Atari and the arcade machines are gloriously simple computers, compared to what we have today. And Cubase 3 is a gloriously simple program, compared to what we have today. If the last Cubase floppy in existence were to experience an unrecoverable sector error, a genius software archaeologist could likely restore it (since a floppy sector is only 512 bytes). But more damage could prove fatal, and Holdsworth’s masterful SynthAxe playing could never be replicated on ‘period instruments’. Yet people still rock the krumhorn, no problem:

But what about more complicated hardware and software? What about proprietary data formats and interfaces, and the threat of lawsuits?

I’m anxious entrusting something as important as art to a computer system. Notoriously complex, and notoriously closed. (And often shipped on absurd schedules.) Before computers are really reliable enough for anything important, we need to get them fully opened and decomplexified. I’m very excited about the RISC-V project, which aims to do just that.