by Author nicbriggs

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Getting the tech right by Chris Mapp (Music Leader on Quench Arts' Interface project)

Early on in the Interface project we were faced with an unusual but very pleasing dilemma. The young mentors were told that they had a budget to spend on equipment and/or production costs to get their band sounding and looking how they wanted. As the focus of the project is about bringing together young musicians to perform using non-traditional ‘Music Tech’ instruments, the only stipulation was that it had to be spent to help achieve that goal.


‘Music Tech’ is a pretty broad term which, to someone who grew up in the 90s, still brings back fond memories of battling with Cubase on the school’s Atari STs. A reasonable definition of ‘Music Tech’ might be making music using some kind of computer, how I was introduced to the idea. A more thoughtful definition would probably also include the use of synthesisers, effects pedals, MIDI controllers, coding, haptic feedback devices, video game controllers and more. As a young musician, I was given the impression that ‘Music Tech’ was a separate discipline to making or performing music on ‘real’ instruments. Undoubtedly, there has been an integration between these two schools of thought over the intervening thirty years with ‘Music Tech’ now embedded throughout live performances in various ways. Although there isn’t one single reason for this, I think it is fair to assume that the proliferation of powerful, portable computing devices has been one of the main drivers.


Clearly, current smartphones possess way more processing power than my school’s Atari STs. This means that a large number of people now carry with them a highly capable music making tool. In recognition of this, Apple include their app GarageBand as part of the operating system on all of their devices. This is an app which is more than capable of being used to produce commercially successful music. For example, producer/songwriter Steve Lacy made tracks for Kendrick Lamar and his own solo album amongst others using his iPhone, GarageBand and a simple audio interface ( Access to these tools enabled him to create the music he wanted to create and became a key part of his sound in the process.


GarageBand is certainly a powerful tool in music education too. Given that most schools and settings will have a least one iPad, if not many more, then it is an easy and cost-effective way to give young musicians access to ‘Music Tech’. It has a relatively shallow learning curve and you can create sonically pleasing results pretty quickly. With the dedication and talent demonstrated by Steve Lacy it can become a fully-fledged outlet for music creation. Making music using GarageBand on an iPad can be quick, easy, accessible and lead to great music-making, the very opposite of my teenage experiences with an Atari ST.


As someone who’s often asked to take charge of the ‘Music Tech’ aspect of a project I’ve become very familiar with GarageBand and often use it myself, particularly when there aren’t other options available. I love the fact that it has made creating music with non-traditional instruments more accessible compared to my Atari ST days. However, I can’t help but notice that many of the problems of how we think about ‘Music Tech’ are continually propagated by the ubiquity and rigidity of the tablet/app model. It continues to reinforce the way of thinking that ‘Music Tech’ is somehow a separate activity to ‘music’. Making access to digital music-making easier has the opposite problem of making it less inclusive when it comes to making music together.


Which brings us back to Interface and our budgeting problem. When we talked to the young musicians it was refreshing to hear that they didn’t see ‘Music Tech’ as being solely confined to software. Immediately they wanted to invest in synths, MIDI controllers and guitar effects pedals; tactile, performative instruments which would usually be unavailable to them due to the cost. After waiting for the order to arrive, and a mass unboxing session, the young musicians immediately got to work, discovering ways of working with their new instruments and integrating them into the group sound. The foresight to include a line on the budget sheet for equipment has allowed these young musicians to make their own choices about what ‘Music Tech’ means in this context through the creation of some fantastic and fascinating music. My experience with Interface has been an excellent reminder that accessibility is not only about availability of resources but the appropriateness of those resources for the task at hand.