A History of Bedroom Production — Part 1

Mark started his history of music production yesterday, and I thought I would follow suit.  I’ve never documented the process.  As I warned on his blog, my history is messy and doesn’t involve fancy equipment.  In fact, to a large extent, it mostly involves the cheapest equipment available.  But I’ll get to that.

It all started with the picture above.  That’s me in maybe fourth grade.  (I can tell because not much later I would grow a mullet .)  I was always enthralled by my dad’s huge record collection (though it seemed big at the time, I passed him up with my CD collection many years ago) and I was raised by MTV.  I mean that literally.  I would get up in the morning — my dad hadn’t woken up yet — I would ask to watch TV, and immediately switch on MTV where I would often be greeted by Awake on the Wild Side with KISS and Quiet Riot and Def Leppard and too many hair metal bands to name.  We always had music playing, in the car, while we were eating, music was always around me.  So, I was always interested in playing music, but I had no idea how.  At one point I asked for a guitar and got a plastic, steel-stringed Dukes of Hazard guitar.  I tried and failed to make it play music and one day I smashed it, either out of frustration or a desire to be like Pete Townshend, I’m not sure which.

I moved on to a mini Casio keyboard.  That was a bit easier to manage.  I could make it play little ditties that I wrote and they didn’t sound horrible.  When I got the keyboard in the picture above, I was pretty thrilled.  It wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst, and sometime after that I started being able to teach myself the melodies to songs that I heard.  It wasn’t always pitch perfect, but it was close enough to be recognizable.  My dad bought me one of those “play popular hits on your keyboard” books with notations for the auto-accompaniment and the melody — the resulting product sounded like an elevator music version of the original, but through that, I started to learn how to read music.

Later, I picked up the saxophone and started playing in my school band.  I remember when my dad told me that the sax was paid off — I didn’t really fully understand the full implications of what that meant, but I knew that it meant it was mine.  I was never very good, but I was never very bad either.  Through band, I met a couple other guys and we started a band called Zygote (I was very big on names that started with X’s or Z’s — I thought it made them more hardcore).  We had two rehearsals in which we tried (and failed) to play “Come Together.”  It was then that I realized that playing in a band was harder than playing by myself.

But it wasn’t until high school that I really started working on my own compositions.  And it started with a classmate named Lawrence.

My musical interests were always varied.  Through my dad’s record collection, I was heavily into 80s music and New Wave and also classic rock.  As I began to form my own musical tastes, I ventured into metal, and when I dug into the roots of metal, I found punk rock.  Now this was music I could play.

The point of punk — as I discovered it — wasn’t that you could actually play your instrument.  If it was loud and if it had attitude, that was all that really mattered.  There was one small problem: punk was dominated by guitars; I couldn’t play guitar.

The next thing on my wish list was a Karaoke machine.  I saw one in a music store once.  It had 2 mic/line inputs, dual cassette decks (good for overdubbing), and an auxiliary input in the back with RCA jacks.  With this, I could record a track on my keyboard, play it in one deck while playing a second track on my keyboard, recording both, and then repeat or add vocals.  This became my 2-track mixing station for a long time.  My friend, Dave, shared my passion and my ghetto approach to recording equipment.  He played bass, but soon took up guitar and mastered that, as well.  He would loan me his bass and he taught me how to play.  Together, we formed a band called Deviance.  We weren’t very good.

[audio: Meathead.mp3]
Deviance – Meathead (Original Version)

I recorded my own songs under the same name.  Those were quite possibly worse.

And so, I started writing music.  And I did it a lot.  And the music went from atrocious to somewhat listenable.  I  even did a few performances at my high school.  By then, I’d changed the name for my solo music to Fœtus Kryste and I was using a combination of synthesizers and bass with a distortion pedal.  I traded a stack of punk CDs + $50 for a bass guitar from a friend of mine who would later be a partner in my third band, called Everything.

[audio: IAmtheWalrus.mp3]
Fœtus Kryste – I Am the Walrus

By this time, I had already bought a second keyboard, this one had an actual midi output.  I saved up the $100 or so that I needed from my paper route and got the Concertmate-1000 from Radio Shack.  It had 2 things I deemed to be important: one was the midi out, which I knew I would need to feed into the computer.  The second was variable touch response, which means that when you hit a key lightly, it plays the note lightly.  My old Yamaha keyboard played the same intensity no matter how hard or soft you hit the keys.  The Concertmate-1000 wasn’t much, but it was functional, and it’s actually what I still use now.  I hadn’t yet used the midi function primarily because my computer didn’t have a midi input.  I thought you needed some kind of professional magic voodoo equipment to connect it to to make it work.  I put it aside and continued with my ghetto punk rock recording practices.

Lawrence was into Industrial and IDM before there was such an acronym.  He and I were both in drama, and — when there wasn’t anything going on — he would often sit at the piano and just play.  At some point or another, I started joining him.  When I went to his house, I was amazed by all his equipment.  He had stuff I didn’t have names for and couldn’t possibly imagine how they worked.  They made sounds that could have been from the latest Skinny Puppy album (which, at the time, was Too Dark Park ).  He played me a few of his compositions and I was hooked.  It was through Lawrence that I learned all I needed to play midi on the computer was a special adapter cable.  I found one at some guitar store and went to my mid-range NEC computer running Windows 95 and looked for “midi sequencer”.  The only thing I found that I could afford (because it was free) was a shareware copy of a program called Sweet Sixteen.

Sweet Sixteen was a MIDI sequencer and composition program.  It differed from the majority of similar programs out there, like Cubase and Cakewalk, because it was largely pattern-based.  It was designed such that you could easily write songs in a standard verse-chorus-verse format.  It had 16 tracks for midi output but you could actually program 64 patterns.  The only downside of the shareware version (which wasn’t really a downside to me) was that you couldn’t save files as .mid files, you could only use the internal .sng format.

As a result of Sweet Sixteen and eventually learning how to manipulate it in various ways, my compositions got much more sophisticated.  It was hard when I finally used another music application, because Sweet Sixteen worked so differently from everything else.

[audio: Unburdened.mp3]
Fœtus Kryste – My Hate is Unburdened

This is what I was using until I entered college, at which point a lot of things changed.  But that will be continued in part two…


3 responses to “A History of Bedroom Production — Part 1”

  1. theboyellis Avatar

    Excellent stuff. Fun, thinking back, isn't it.

    How times have changed, too.

    Look forward to Part 2 (better get on with mine…).

    1. jazzs3quence Avatar

      All I can say is that I'm glad things started getting better after the stuff described in this post. That said, Sweet Sixteen is still a really interesting program because it's so different from everything else. As I recall, I think it had a notation editor, too, so you could actually see (and write) your music as sheet music, which is something that dropped out of most other music apps. The fact that it separated patterns by number of bars, and could really simply do key changes and time signature changes actually seems, to me, to make it superior in some ways to some of the other stuff of its time. Really interesting how the technology seems to move more with what is popular at the time and what everyone else is doing rather than what's actually a better way of doing things or more innovative.

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