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What's wrong with this picture?

A student is working with a keyboard that is nearly as old as he is, and a piece of equipment that you hardly ever see any more. What's wrong with that?

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Let me describe the picture. A student of Music Technology is sitting at a keyboard that is nearly as old as he is. He is looking at the waveform that the keyboard is generating on an oscilloscope that is definitely older than he is. He isn't playing music, he is combining simple sine waves, observing and listening to the result.

So what's wrong with that?

Easy - in modern Music Technology education what is most important is that students should learn how to operate systems. They need to be able to insert plug-ins, timestretch loops, export in a variety of file formats. They need to know the keyboard short cuts in Pro Tools, import a Gigasampler program into Kontakt, apply an automation profile to an audio sequencer track.

That's what students need to know.

Wrong and double wrong!!

The student pictured is in fact doing exactly the right thing - working with sound and listening to the result. The equipment used isn't relevant as long as it does the job effectively and is reliable.

The topic in question is FM synthesis. The keyboard is a Yamaha DX7 which does FM synthesis very effectively. The DX7 has the reputation that no-one knows how to program it. That's because they don't understand FM synthesis. This student does - he knows that you start off with a sine wave, modulate the frequency of that sine wave with another sine wave. He understands how the level and frequency of the modulator affect the sound. He knows that you can modulate the modulator with another sine wave and achieve an even more complex sound. He knows how the sine waves (operators) can be combined in various 'algorithms' to achieve sounds of greater, lesser, and different types of complexity.

Now tell me there is a problem with that.

The equipment manufacturers have the entire education industry dancing to their tune. They want students - the industry movers and shakers of the future - to be locked into their complex operational systems. They are not interested in generic knowledge or understanding of sound and music because that doesn't shift product. Messing around with plug-ins does.

Plainly, ultimately you do have to know how to work the equipment, and whatever equipment manufacturers make available to us. But without an understanding of the foundations of audio and music, what good is that?

By David Mellor Monday August 7, 2006
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