Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Producer School: Mike Huckaby and Brendan Gillen

Okay, so I have been way out of touch, out of town, and out of internet access. But now I’m back. I meant to leave a “bye-bye I’m taking a little break” post before I headed out on my holiday, but I did not get to that. I’m sorry. I’m back and I’ve been busy.

I’ll just start with what is fresh in my head: last night! I went to the Red Bull Music Academy Producer’s Session at River’s Edge, a grille downtown by the Detroit River. I am so glad I went, it was producer school with freaking Huck and BMG!! Mike Huckaby, producer, DJ, and music production software instructor, gave a demonstration of Native Instruments music production software Reaktor and Maschine hardware. It was interesting to watch him show the transition of a musical creation from a single tone/chord/beat into more complex phrases and layers using all kinds of sonic manipulations available in the software. He also talked a bit about creating your own instruments in Reaktor, which sounded pretty neato. Mike has been producing successfully for decades and is extremely important to Detroit electronic music because of this, but also because of his role as THE buyer for the main Record Time store in Detroit for a lot of years. Many younger DJs and producers in Detroit worked with him at Record Time and describe him as a mentor who educated them and influenced them in profound ways.

Here’s a nice bio from the Red Bull Music Academy site:

Mike Huckaby is a dance music purist extraordinaire. Being an integral part of the Detroit dance scene, he was the man behind the legendary Record Time store and as such gathered an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Mike is one of those rare guys who know all the roots and culture of electronic dance music, who see beyond the hype and divisions in the scene and know exactly what this music is. He is the kind of purist whose love for music has literally had him flown around the globe. Huckaby also produced for labels like Rick Wade's renowned Harmonie Park outfit, London's Cross Section or his own ventures Deep Transportation resp. Synth. Apart from his activities as a DJ and producer, he also works as a sound designer and a tutor for the software company Native Instruments, and Ableton teaching Reaktor and Live around the world, as well as for a special Detroit youth foundation project called "YouthVille". Tune in for a very special classics mix from his vaults in the Motor City...

In light of discussions and debates on musical production using computer software, I would like to make a few suggestions for advocates of this software. But first let me say that my mind is totally open to all the various ways to produce and perform electronic music. As long as I’m moved, I’m good. Now of course, vinyl and analog gear are extremely important to the production and circulation of electronic music. People who buy vinyl need to keep buying vinyl because it needs to remain viable. People who play only vinyl, keep playing that black gold, because you are few and far between, and you help “Keep Vinyl Alive!” I still want a shirt with that on it. Theo Parrish wore that on his shirt at the Roots of Techno conference that I organized in 2006. Okay, so here are my suggestions to computer production software advocates: please don’t repeatedly profess how EASY it is to use. That will just fuel the fire of the staunch vinyl advocates, encouraging them to proclaim even louder that easy does not mean better, and it certainly does not mean better music production. This fact is something that Mike did talk about. He acknowledged that computer software has made it easier for more people to produce music, but he also acknowledged that this often means that more people are going to be flooding our ears and pockets with more mediocre music. Keeping yourself viable and successful means that you must really learn whatever software or gear you are using so that you can really tap into your own creativity and produce important, meaningful music. A lot of talented musicians have told me that same thing here, whether they are talking about choosing a type of computer software, or about analog gear. It is important to acquire a limited number of musical production tools and really learn how to use them well.

Here, just watch this Ghostly video and listen to what Todd Osborn tells ya:

Oh yeah, and one other suggestion, make sure you have zero computer glitches when you are demonstrating or performing using a computer. I know, this is out of your hands for the most part. But still, just do that.

Brendan M. Gillen, BMG of Ectomorph and Interdimensional Transmissions, gave a demo of Abelton Live following Mike’s demo. And wow, he started off talking some trash that had WhoDat and me rolling on the floor. It was hilarious and I’m not sure whether the other folks there just didn’t know he was making jokes or they were just angry that he was being critical of music production software. And he uses Abelton to produce and perform, so it’s not like he got up there just to talk trash about it. He was making a point in a humorous way about how easy it is to make and perform music using computer software, but music that is not so great. This is the same issue that Mike Huckaby was talking about, they just explained their perspectives in totally different ways! So Brendan was up there talking about how he has seen DJs get up and use things like Serato as elementary school iPod DJing. My abilities to retell funny stories and maintain the humor in my retelling are second-rate, so just trust me when I say that it was pretty damn funny. Brian Gillespie, the primary organizer of these RBMA info sessions in Detroit, mentioned that the video of these sessions will be available online sometime soon. If it is publicly available, I’ll post it here and you can watch and laugh for yourself. And then you can go to producer school on your own time.

Brendan also pointed out that sometimes, all it takes is a DJ up there with a pretty lame beat pumping his fist to get the crowd going. He lauded DJs for getting caught up in staring at a screen all night… “It’s called checking email,” he said. He explained that it should be standard for there to be a small camera pointed at the DJs laptop, and even other equipment up there, capturing what the DJ is doing and projecting it up on a big screen so that the crowd can see what the DJ sees and does. One reason for this is so that DJs cannot just stand up there and pretend to be playing live, but in reality, just push play and then dance around. I’m not sure how common this is, but lots of people talk about this so it must happen sometimes. He also wants this to be standard practice so that people who enjoy watching a DJ perform, watching their hands move on the equipment can really understand what is going on during the performance. It doesn’t have to be such a secret or a mystery. I would love to see this happen sometime, because I really enjoy watching DJs perform, no matter what type of equipment or performance tools they are using. Not because I want to keep track of what music they are playing (I like to pay attention to the music too of course), but because it can be really interesting to study how they manipulate the equipment to produce the sounds you are hearing. Brendan explained that if you can’t see what software the DJ is using, then you can’t really understand how the sounds are being produced because you don’t know how the other equipment, like a mixer or drum machine are interfaced or programmed with the software. Brendan had an AKAI APC – it’s kind of like an MPC, but the APC is able to interface with Abelton Live software so that you can manipulate the musical samples that you have set up in Abelton on your computer using knobs and buttons instead of a mouse and keypad. Brendan explained that he likes it so that he can get away from keeping music so visually oriented. He wants to be able to interact with the crowd in a way that he feels he cannot using just a computer.

I really learned a lot last night and tried to write down as many notes as I could just so I could get a grasp of how Mike and Brendan talk and think about music production. There’s a pretty specific vocabulary and if your not actively doing it, like me, then you really have to be tuned in to words and phrases to understand what’s going on. There was one other presentation in the other room of the upstairs at River’s Edge, DJ 2ndNature gave a demo of Pro Tools and Final Cut Pro. It would have been interesting to stick around for it, but Mike and Brendan were both talking outside on the upstairs patio and it would have been a bit nutty for me to pass either one of them up.

Brian Gillespie, local producer and DJ, and RBMA representative for Detroit (official title? Not really sure, I do the best I can…), seemed frustrated with the low turnout. There were fewer people there last night than were at the info session in May. I was surprised about that because this session was so clearly beneficial to local musicians in ways that are just not publicly available in most places in Detroit or anywhere else. I think Brian assumed that people in the area would jump at the chance to learn from Mike Huckaby or Brendan Gillen, two people who obviously know what they are doing with these programs and with music in general. Organizing and promoting events is tough work, and it seems extra tough in Detroit where there is so much local talent, and also a lot of self-directed pride. Yes, pride is good, but not when it keeps you from being open to learning and experiencing new things. It drives me crazy when I hear people say things like, ‘there’s no good music coming out lately’ or ‘I’m bored by most of what people are putting out lately.’ I’m not! Maybe you need to look somewhere else, or just open up your ears and head a bit more. Yeah, I love Detroit, I love living here, I love this whole experience. There’s lots of weird judgmental shit that goes on here, just like every where else. But there’s also lots of beauty and life. I hate it when an event promoter, whether an actual promoter, or a DJ promoting her/his own parties, apologizes or takes a low turnout personally. Yeah, I suppose a small crowd reflects badly on a promoter who is supposed to be responsible for the event. Like Brian feeling down about not enough of a crowd turning out for the sessions. I have even had Rick Wilhite apologize to me because one of his parties had a relatively low turnout. Really? Why apologize? I understand why you might feel that way, but did you know that you’re Rick Wilhite and I think what you do for Detroit is pretty awesome? And I know that everyone wants to be supported in their hometown, particularly if that hometown is Detroit. It seems like people here who are into techno and house music are so used to being here and being around all these artists who receive much attention and love globally that it’s just everyday for them in Detroit. You don’t have to go very far or pay a lot of money to see these DJs play, they’re right here. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t seem like a big deal for someone like Mike Huckaby or Brendan Gillen to talk at length for free about music production and performance. When I first met Pirahnahead last summer at the Belle Isle house music picnic, Kenny Dixon was walking past and he said something like ‘most people think KDJ is a god, but he’s really just a regular guy who lives down the street.’ That’s the general perspective whether you’re buddies with Moodymann, or worked with Mike Huckaby at Record Time, or Theo Parrish is your mentor, or you learned to DJ from Ken Collier. “Eh, it’s no big deal.” It is kind of a big deal, it’s at least important to educate yourself and pay attention to. Anyway Brian, it was totally worth it. Thanks to you and everyone else involved.


weareallmachines said...

I agree absolutely. The ease and inexpensiveness of immersing yourself in these types of artistic events should not breed laziness. It should instill a sense of community.

People, in Detroit, should strive to support their community. Nobody else is going to do it for them. For Christ's sake, most of our Country has already written Detroit off. What a shame! If we don't stress how important the local art, music, and cultural scenes are, no soul will ever understand how rich in spirit Detroit is.

I have had conversations with countless individuals about music and art. When Detroit inevitably becomes a topic, people nearly always say "what good music comes from Detroit?" At this point, it takes every fiber of my being to restrain myself from battering these people. This sensibility must be combated from within, from those who know. Thanks for attending this event, I wish that I could have.

Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew said...

Nice article even video is good..
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Anonymous said...

Cool read. I have mad respect for those guys, Brendan is the man. But...gadgets are gadgets, we like to figure them out on our own. So whether it's Maschine, Ableton, Traktor or simply my new hot rod laptop, iPhone or simply the latest Video game, I will always want to tinker until I get it for myself. Those guys could drone on about the technology for hours and Meh, but give me detail on what you are trying to create artistically and I would be there. Huck and Brendan are visionaries, the technology is the medium for those visions, tell me about the vision and I am there.

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