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Further Evolving DAWs-Part 2: Julian Colbeck reflects on the growing pains of digital music making


It Was 25 Years Ago This Month

Read Part 2 of ‘Evolving DAWs’ —Julian Colbeck’s blog on recording technology as KEYFAX NewMedia celebrates its a quarter century—below.

But first, this week's cunning competition involves identifying the strange-looking computer seen on the book cover of Keyfax 2.

  1. 1. What is the name and model of the computer?

  2. 2. What name was it sold under in mainland Europe?

Correct answers will be entered into a drawing for a copy of Keyfax 2 personally signed by the author.

Drawing will be made May 30th.  No purchase is necessary.

And There's More!

Every correct entry will receive a free download of a Twiddly.Bits MIDI loop library of your choice (go to to see what’s available). Correct submissions will contacted directly for their desired Twid collection.

Evolving  DAWs

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

Part 2. Coming To America

The UK is a challenging place to live and work, especially if you’re in music.

When I was a touring musician there was nothing quite like returning to London from a gig in the midlands at 2AM on a rainy Saturday with nothing but the Watford Gap (a ‘service station’) and its fare of greasy whatever to look forward to before you crept back into a freezing flat ("apartment") with only the girlfriend’s toes for warmth.

The late night food situation in the UK may have improved modestly in the past thirty years but the country is still not built for travellers, as it is in the USA.

And from my experience in 1994, nor was it built for new businesses.

Credit Squeeze

The initial problem was not so much getting sales but getting the money. In spite of owning a house and having a spotless credit record Barclays, my bank of some twenty years, refused to give us a credit card facility—i.e. the ability to ‘receive’ (not borrow)—money by credit card payment. “Too risky” they said. And that was that.

It’s a half empty / half full glass thing and, decamping to the US some months later, a guy called Ron, who didn’t know me from John Adams, got in touch after having registered the business at the County Court and just said “You’re going to need a credit card facility!” Ron, who looked like he’d stepped out of a Quentin Tarrantino movie came through and I hope he still gets a piece of the action because over the next few years Keyfax put millions of dollars through that company. Nice one, Ron. Barclays? You suck.

Life’s A Beach

Landing in Santa Cruz, CA as a technically illegal alien, the US could not have been more welcoming. In addition to brown leather jacketed Ron, I was overwhelmed by support from local music companies: E-Mu’s Marco Alpert, Q Up Arts’ Doug Morton, Keyboard magazine, local musos like ex-Doobies Dale Ockerman, and Tiran Porter (who’d famously announced to me on tour with my band Charlie that their upcoming album “wasn’t my fault. It’s terrible…” talking about Minute By Minute.).

Recording MIDI-a

The concept behind Twiddly.Bits was having real players record loops on the MIDI equivalent of their instruments. Recording drums (using drum pads, mainly Roland V Drums) was relatively simple. As Alan Parsons would say to me years later, the secret to getting a good drum sound is get a good drummer. And that holds true with MIDI recording as well. After Bill Bruford we also recorded Hugo Degenhardt (my bandmate with Steve Hackett) and Gavin Harrison (King Crimson, Porcupine Tree, The Pineapple Thief) and the success of the Drums & Percussion library inspired us to record several new drum loop collections, notably MIDI Breakbeats. We also, and bravely, tackled a genre not typically beloved by programmers: country music. It fell to me to do the initial recording of Dwight Yoakham’s fiddle player Scott Joss, more recently known for his work with Merle Haggard.

The key to record convincing MIDI performances is not quantizing, and not cleaning up every little ghost note or what might appear to be extraneous data. We used a Zeta violin MIDI pickup and, in order to be able to capture articulations like double-stopping, decided to record multi-timbrally, i.e with each string on its own MIDI channel. During the recording Scott had the sort of fixed, pitying expression of a man looking at miniature poodle trying to mount a St. Bernard. Mining this data for nonetheless usable loops was also both an hilarious and hair-tearing exercise and I’m not sure even our genius programmer and editor Dave Spiers back in the UK ever quite recovered.

Twiddly.Bits MIDI sample loops began to catch on, selling not only in the US but all over the world. One of Doug Morton’s recommendations was the Japanese distributor Media Integration, who purchased crates of product at a time. In 1998 I visited them in Tokyo, taking part in a live MIDI loop contest at a Roland Sound Party, trading loops in front of a sizeable if bemused audience with local rival company Idecs, flaunting their Hypergroove series. “And now, a bass loop from Keyfax….!” Bizarre but beautiful. And yes, since you ask, we like to feel we ate their sushi.


Hard Sell on Software Sales

At this time, in addition to producing multiple new MIDI sample collections—Drums and Percussion, Electric & Acoustic Guitar, Country, and The Funk—it had also come to our attention that the world was going increasingly soft. Dave Smith’s Seer Systems. Reality, the world's first professional software synthesizer for the PC, came out in 1997 and sound cards, notably those made by Creative Labs, who had purchased our friend E-Mu back in 1993, dominated the burgeoning market with the SoundBlaster AWE32. We created custom libraries, both for the AWE 32 and for PC people's favorite DAW, Cakewalk.

But when it came to performing, was music under the control of a blob of plastic on wheels really the best answer? Increasingly, I felt, not. Music should be more of a kinetic, immediate cause-and-effect thing. Do something, hear something. So, with some initial skepticism from my partners and subsequently a ton of skepticism from the world at large, I came up with the idea of a MIDI Performance Controller: A box of knobs hard-wired to several key MIDI Continuous Controllers that you could play in real time. My son was an avid Game Boy user and I figured Phat.Boy was a pretty decent name for a device that allowed you to tweak and control sound. Well, MIDI; but sound was the end result.

Who knew MIDI volume went to 11?

The key to Phat.Boy was that it was instant. Plug it into a GM or GS synth or soundset and it worked. No drivers, nothing to set up, download, install, fiddle about with. At first the community was all ‘Oh no, we need to be able to assign different controllers, customize parameters.’ Arrogantly, perhaps, I figured that even if there were 1001 parameters you could control there was probably only a dozen you actually/typically would. And here they are! I felt that, at least initially, people would appreciate the freedom of having lmited controls and just be able to focus on the music. I remember going to a game convention in San Diego in 1999 and seeing the expression on people’s faces who, for the first time, felt like they were able to control music. And in real time. Magic stuff.

Phat.Boy did become something of an ‘overnight success’ and, in addition to breathing new life into the Roland Sound Canvas and Yamaha XG module business (I remember Yamaha seeing us at a NAMM show and literally not believing what was coming out of a Yamaha MU128) and soon Phat.Boy became the de facto ‘hardware controller for soft synths.’ Propellerhead and Steinberg distributed Phat.Boy with Cubase and Re-Birth under the name Birth Control! Who says Swedes and Germans don’t have a sense of humor?


The Beginning of the End of the Beginning

It was an exciting but challenging time juggling hardware and software products and juggling two sets of people, one still in the UK and one freshly ensconced in a suite of offices downtown Santa Cruz: modest, but a major step up from the basement of my house in Aptos.

By 2001 Phat.Boy and Twiddly.Bits were selling in Guitar Center and in countries all over the world. But, as so often happens, internal pressures between the UK and USA were building and our world would soon both be torn apart and reborn shortly before 9/11.

In Part 3, the phenomenon that was the Yamaha Motif. Working in social media before there was such a thing as social media.