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Part 4 of Julian Colbeck’s reflection on the twists and turns of life in music tech

The Art & Science Of Survival

Part 4 of Julian Colbeck’s reflection on the twists and turns of life in music tech as Keyfax NewMedia turns twenty-five.

Keyfax has always been a creative company. We like making things, new things; not just the same old same old.

Motif and related software and hardware kept our wheels spinning (and then some) building websites, making videos, launching products, doing tech support and offering all manner of support products in a number of on-line stores. At one point Keyfax was one of Yamaha’s top 10 Musical Instrument dealers in the US, almost exclusively just selling accessories.

Maintaining a company over an extended period of time is a feat of endurance and ingenuity but it’s especially tricky in the fickle world of music technology. Take your eye off the ball and hello a rather less welcome ‘Kodak Moment,’ as in what also happened Blackberry, Netscape, MySpace, Motorola, Radio Shack, Nortel…

In the beginning you’ve got nothing so you’ve got nothing to lose. Taste some form of success and it's harder to be braver.



Alan Parsons projects

Fortune smiles on those who’s eyes and ears are open to new opportunities and one such moment happened at the home of my good friend Alan Parsons. Alan and I had met on an album session for a band called Vitamin Z that he was producing at his mansion studio in leafy Kent deep in the UK countryside. I came to the project with my fellow John Miles bandmate Barriemore Barlow who had recently left Jethro Tull. Alan had produced John Miles global smash hit Music a few years earlier. Such is the intertwined world of the British music business.

Alan and I worked together on a number of projects (Vitamin Z, The Orchestral Music Of Yes, during my stint with the affirmative ones), Alan’s SoundCheck test CD, and the instructional video project Getting The Most Out Of Home Recording for which I conducted an extended interview with Alan on mixing.

Getting The Most Out Of Home Recording became quite popular and although it was created for users several fathoms below Alan-level productions, Alan liked it and often said we should do a program like this but "more advanced."

One day over at Alan's house in Santa Barbara the subject cropped up again.  This time I said “OK, let’s do this.” Keyfax had by now become highly skilled at producing videos and we had a team of full-time video editors and a small recording studio within our offices.

A legal pad and two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc later and we were fast work, listing what topics we would cover, who we’d like to interview, how long it’d be, a title, a budget, a price, and a time frame. In two hours we mapped out what would become The Art & Science Of Sound Recording. Three years later it became a reality. Pretty much everything on that legal pad became so; just our budget was off by 50% and time-frame by 30%.





The write stuff

I’ve always treasured certain degrees of ignorance. Ignorance can be your friend. If you know too much you probably know enough not to embark on half the good things in life – having kids, buying a house, starting a company, embarking on a ten hour multi-language video series on recording. Also, if you don’t know something ‘can’t be done’ then one’s enthusiasm for a project can remain unsullied by someone else’s version of what's possible.
ASSR as it abbreviatingly would become known, is all about the script. Write a decent script and don’t entirely mess up the production and you’re three–quarters of the way there. Technology enabled Alan and myself to write together, apart, on different continents, in real time and via email and drop box. Essentially either I would write and Alan would edit or he would write and I would edit. Then we’d re-write and re-edit. Each of the 24 video section scripts had fifteen to twenty versions. Our goal was to make this so often confusing and BS-infested subject easy to follow and fun to watch. Hard to fault Occam’s Razor or Einstein’s wisdom of “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”

In time the video series became 
Alan Parsons’ Art & Science Of Sound Recording—The Book (Hal Leonard), happily now a staple in schools teaching music production.

Video almost killed the recording star

At first my fellow workers were all a little “What’s Julian up to?” But slowly Alan and my magnus visio became magnus opus for the whole Keyfax team. We took a film crew around the country and throughout our own neighborhood—a local high school, the beach, downtown Santa Cruz where Alan hilariously stopped random passers by and asked them if they knew the difference between mono and stereo… ‘interviewing’ them with a hairbrush into which they spoke without batting an eye!







Editing a program of this length (and breath—we decided at the outset to have English, Spanish and German language tracks) was a daunting task since we’d assembled some 50TB worth of footage in a year of filming. Another daunting task was the music. I’d composed all the beds and stings on a Yamaha Motif XS, mixes of which I sent down to Alan, who also used an XS and so could insert them into the final mix direct from the instrument. Alan being Alan he just couldn’t resist re-mixing them. "I think the hi-hats are are a bit harsh…”.

Each scene had at least a dozen or more audio tracks, from music beds to Alan’s voice, Foley, narrator (a superbly dry Billy Bob Thornton, who we recorded on his beloved Trident A Series board at his house in Beverley Hills) and production music i.e. what we were actually demonstrating. Turning Billy Bob German and Spanish is a process that’ll have to wait for my autobiography.

Ultimately, twenty-four scenes in three languages i.e. 72 separate final mixes were delivered to the DVD authoring facility. Alan said it had felt like making twelve albums at the same time.

In the end a project that had begun with Alan and myself around the kitchen table involved almost 100 people, spearheaded at Keyfax by photographers and editors Chris Killen, Ben Cruz, Robin Moore, web maestros Terry Shields and Jason Ware, sound recordist Raymond Jones, mixer Coley Read, and our graphic designer Lisa Liu, took three years to make and cost, well, that’ll have to wait for the autobiography too but a lot.

The Art & Science Of Sound Recording was initially released online as individual streamed or downloadable videos. I remember sitting with my kids in a coffee shop in Hollywood the day the doors opened, watching the order counters go 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 25, 50… validation of what had been the largest single project in any of our professional lives.



Ejicashun

In the years since ASSR was released the focus of our work at Keyfax shifted from ASSR as a project to ASSR as a master and a huge part of that work has been in the somewhat boggy field of education, where decisions tend to be made, if ever, at the speed of a particularly slow-moving glacier.

Nowhere does the axiom of those who can do, those can’t, teach and those who can’t teach, teach gym apply less than in the field of education for the recording arts. But, fortunately, a lot of musicians and studios who are now finding it harder and harder to raise an invoice for their musical life are turning to either institutional or private teaching. Tim Pierce, the stellar guitarist we used in the recording of ASSR, now has a massive online student following at
TimPierceGuitar.com. Abbey Road, Blackbird, Ocean Way along with engineers like Niko Bolas, Jack Douglas and John McBride who all appeared in ASSR are all now fully engaged in music education.

For our own part we have continued to dive deep into creating materials for education, including an
Education License app version of the ASSR video series, a hardback book, and most recently a complete Music Production Curriculum that links the video series with the Session Files raw multitracks with 24 in-depth lesson plans. 



School’s In

Outside of ASSR, it was a great pleasure to see Thomas Dolby again at the Synthplex expo in Los Angeles earlier this year. Thomas, too, has finally become the professor he was destined to be, at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. When we chatted over breakfast we discovered we’d actually attended the same school in England (along with Radiohead), though not, I have to admit, at the same time!


 


A good part of the ‘trick’ of maintaining a company over a sustained period of time is to make sure you’re always doing at least some things that other people aren’t. If nothing else it’s a sure fire way of keeping ahead of the competition.

Master Class Training Sessions

Having released ASSR the video series in a number of different formats and languages and marketed it as ‘the next best thing to being in a studio with Alan Parsons’, we wondered how feasible it’d be to offer live master classes where you were just that. Alan was embarking on a tour of Argentina and we approached an old friend Mercedes Onorato,  who ran one of the country’s best distributors, to see if we could test the notion. The first of what has now become an on-going series of
Master Class Training Sessions was held at the Universidad Nacional de Lanús, in Buenos Aires, to a rapt audience of audio engineering students both in the studio and via video feed to a sizeable auditorium. MCTS events have continued successfully in studios all over the world from The Village in LA to Abbey Road to the current series at Alan’s personal studio in Santa Barbara.





The opportunity to work with Alan and either a band or top session musicians the likes of Nathan East, Vinnie Colaiuta, Simon Phillips and Rami Jaffee has proved a priceless and occasionally life-changing one. Attendees have switched careers, gone on to make successful records, even found employment…with Alan! And I met my future wife at an MCTS we held in Bogota!

Session Files

The master classes slowly built up a masterful collection of studio recordings. Alan has released some himself (All Our Yesterdays, Do You Believe At All? and Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice that just appeared on Alan’s brand new album The Secret. Some of the bands we’ve recorded have also released their tracks: Belmonte, from The Dave Barrett Trio recorded at Noble Street studios in Toronto, The World’s A Stage by Fish On Friday, recorded at Abbey Road, and White Matter Recess from Casey McPherson, recorded at Orb Studios in Austin.

And if you want to get behind the wheel yourself you can buy the raw multi-tracks from some of these sessions in the ASSR store.
Session Files offer the unique learning experience of driving a large format ‘real’ recording session (i.e. using players and microphones) for so many of us who’s musical manifestation is, out of a variety of necessities, one of loops that have never been out of the box.



Keyfax and ASSR remain very much alive to this day and, even if another twenty-five years might be a little optimistic personally, I’m hopeful the work the companies have created over the years will continue to survive and thrive for years to come.

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