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Evolving DAWs—Julian Colbeck reflects on the birth and growing pains of Digital Audio Workstations

It Was 25 Years Ago This Month


KEYFAX NewMedia celebrates its quarter century with Julian Colbeck’s multi-part look back at the birth and growing pains of MIDI sequencers and how they morphed into Digital Audio Workstations that revolutionized mainstream recording; opening up professional recording to all, but decimating the professional recording studio business in the process.

In Part 1 of a 4 Part series of Julian looks at how Keyfax’s Twiddly.Bits MIDI Loop libraries helped solve the problem of stiff ‘MIDI music’ in recording life before there was ProTools.

Evolving  DAWs

Julian Colbeck reflects on the birth and growing pains of digital recording as Keyfax NewMedia turns twenty-five.

Part 1. MIDI Files From HELL

Some people like to run with the pack but if I see what others already see as a trend on the horizon I always feel more comfortable swimming against the tide.

In 1993 music technology in the UK was enjoying its first real love affair with computers. People fell into different camps: the tweedy academics, tinkering away on a BBC Micro, and who always seemed to refer to data as ‘darta.’ Then there were were the super slick, rich kids with Apples, who deep-dove into control and sound design.

There was the MIDI File mob, whose passion was collecting song files that sounded like hell but created a modicum of excitement in that you could play back and vaguely customize vaguely recognizable music. And then there were people who just wanted to be in charge of their music like they’d never been before; to compose, create, and have fun without the schlepp of having to collaborate with anybody else.

That was me.

I’d just emerged from two years on the road with Yes supergroup Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and was currently recording and touring with Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett.

I was also in full flight as a music tech journalist, writing reviews, covering shows, interviewing the good and the great, hopping over to Japan every year for more than a decade, and even finding the time to record a solo album for Virgin EG (in spite of a most kind hour long phone call from Robert Fripp urging me not to sign with them. And Fripp was right of course. Virgin EG was about as effective as Virgin Brides and Virgin Cola.)

But no matter. Into this heady mix of musical mayhem fluttered a request from a magazine to review yet another collection of appalling MIDI File songs; replete with over pitch-bent sax parts, wooden drums (and not in a good way), and clanky guitar parts that sounded like they’d been played by someone wearing boxing gloves. Only the pianos and organs sounded remotely like their namesakes. Hmmm. Why is that, I wondered? Maybe it’s because all this rubbish had been played (into a ‘sequencer’) from a MIDI keyboard?

The light bulb moment

But hold on a mo: Steve Hackett was playing some pretty interesting stuff on his Roland guitar synth. And even if Bill Bruford’s sounds tended to be a bit harsh and unrelenting on his Simmons SDX kit there was no denying it all sounded like a real drummer—and more’s the point, Bill—was at the helm.

And there was more: Akai and Yamaha had released MIDI Wind Instruments….in hopes that sax players could now sound like drummers or organists. Someone with a wicked sense of humor had even even created a MIDI violin! Even though MIDI violin made fiddle players sound like they were playing their instrument whilst being dragged down a cobbled street by their hair, the point was that MIDI controllers existed that could emulate every acoustic instrument playing technique and articulation type.

What both the ‘alternate MIDI controller’ designers and the MIDI Files From Hell users seemed to be unaware of was the power of getting a decent drummer to play drum loops on a MIDI drum kit. Getting an EWI player to lay down the sax solo. Getting a guitarist the caliber of a Steve Hackett to strum something meaningful on a guitar synth.

I had been the proud owner of an Atari 1040 ST computer for some time. The Atari had no RAM and no hard drive (don’t be silly). For storage it had a disc drive that could store a whopping 720KB—yes, kilobytes--of ‘darta’ on 3 ½ inch floppy discs.

 

But it had MIDI.



Built-in.

 

 


Sequencer of events

At this point so-named sequencers were very much the rage. A sequencer recorded MIDI information. They could only record MIDI information. If you wanted to record audio you had to record onto tape: in a studio, or on a Portastudio that squeezed four discrete tracks out of an otherwise conventional-looking cassette tape.

There were numerous sequencer programs made for the numerous computers of the day: Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari, BBC, Apple, IBM PC. Then, as now, software developers seemed to be divided between US and German, with the odd UK platform thrown in for food measure and my favorites were a pair of fledgling German outfits Steinberg—whose Pro-16 sequencer I had used on an album produced by Alan Parsons, possibly one of the first pro recordings to use a computer-based sequencer—and C-Lab, whose Notator program offered rather more programming power. C-Lab went through various name changes until it became Emagic whereupon Apple bought it and turned it into Logic. And GarageBand!

My light bulb moment of wondering why no one was recording drummers playing drums on a MIDI drum kit came in late 1993. I made some experimental recordings with a local tech whizz Dave Spiers who had been my keyboard tech on a couple of duo tours with Steve Hackett, and together we recorded some of our friends like Bill Bruford, Steve Hackett, Milton MacDonald, and thereafter-to-be Amy Winehouse bass player Dale Davis to see if loops of these MIDI recordings could be isolated and used in other sequences.

Boy could they.

On my MIDI Files From Hell, the simple act of substituting the stiff and unnatural drums with Bill Bruford, was transformative.; not just to the rhythm section but the entire MFFH. Suddenly the entire track sounded ‘real’ purely because the drums were indeed played by a real drummer.

Setting sale

If I liked it, I wondered whether anyone else might as well? And so a product and a company was born.

Keyfax Software—named after the keyboard buyers guide books I’d been writing since 1985—emerged in the Spring of 1994 with a £25 classified ad in the back of Sound On Sound magazine. Within days, one or two checks fluttered into our mailbox and copies of ‘Twiddly.Bits General Instruments’ were sent out, stored on Floppy Discs and packaged inside CD jewel cases.

In the next installment, the trials and tribulations of turning a cottage industry into a proper company and why that had to involve leaving the UK.

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