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Songwriting and the Evolution of Physical Media

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Recently, I've been recording at the Stanford Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA, where MIDI and electronic music were invented). My best friend from college happens to be a ProTools certified guest lecturer at Stanford, so it's worked out well. The Stanford community continues to welcome and support academics and artists affiliated with the institution and I'm fortunate that this resource is available.

Some of the highest donors to my 'Lars Attacks!' Kickstarter project received specialised items, such as custom songs or paintings of my 27th Street webcomic characters. I went back up to Stanford last weekend to finish these songs. As part of this adventure, I went by way of my parents' home in Northern California, and they asked me if I had time to help them with their project of cleaning out the garage.

These days, my mom and dad are simplifying their lives and are finding the Zen in the day-to-day of their retirement, which means their 29-year-old son is invited to help facilitate this clarity whenever he's in town. I'm proud of my parents; they never lose interest and fascination with the world, as they are getting older (and wiser), something they instilled in me. As a kid, whenever I'd say, "I'm bored," my mom would tell me, "If you're bored, that means you're boring. Go find something to do." To this day, I refuse to spend time with non-creative people who complain that there's nothing to do.

My father, a former lawyer, has a website for his art and has recently put together a book of poems and photographs. We collaborated on last year's Indie Rocket Science mixtape, MC Bob Nielsen's hip-hop debut alongside veterans KRS-One and Sage Francis. My mother has discovered a new love of genealogy and is compiling a book of family history, going back hundreds of years. She always has questions for me about indie publishing and I can barely keep up with their active, new-media lifestyles.

In agreeing to help clean out the garage, I rediscovered the boxes of videos, tapes and CDs of songs and skits I had produced as a hyperactive kid. There were so many media formats during this period; every company in the software and hardware worlds was trying to out do the other, and in this a race for 90s and early 00s standardization, we were given dozens formats. In my parents' garage, I found CD-Rs, SyQuest EZ drive cartridges, Zip disks, external SCSI drives, cassettes, MiniDiscs, 3 1/2 inch floppy disks, VHS tapes, S-VHS tapes, 8mm camcorder tapes and MiniDV cassettes. There were cables and cables to different devices, different voltages, speeds, lengths, widths and sizes. It was an old-school technological maze full of excitement and surprises.

The benefit of having so many formats means that, as long as the playback technology is available, the past is accessible through these chunks of time and data. Too often I've filled external hard drives with terabytes of ProTools and Logic sessions only to have them crash and have entire albums disappear into the digital ether. This is no good; I've since learned to backup and backup often.

Fans of the original Star Wars movies often tout the first films' superiority. In having to physically build each set and generate laser sounds with actual cables, Episodes IV - VI had a charm that the "newer" movies seemed to have lacked. Episodes I - III feature computer-generated effects that look dated today, whereas the original films are timeless. Limitations can bring about creativity, which is the case with digital production of music too. In the world of hip-hop, the turntable gave way to the TR-808 drum machine and the unified, stripped-down digital drum aesthetic of groups like Run-DMC. The E-mu SP-1200 sampler followed, and the fixed sample length gave groups like EPMD a finite length of time in which to find and loop the perfect groove.

I started making music with Cubase Audio VST 3.5 and Rebirth. The constraints I was working under on older systems actually inspired me to be more creative with my work. ReBirth on the Mac OS 8 made it so you only could emulate certain synthesizer sounds and 303 drum tones in a loop-based way, which forced me to figure out how these electronic elements could emulate hip-hop beats in the 80s and 90s. ReBirth won't run on the 10.7.3 OS, but they have released it for the iPad.

When I work on music in my home studio these days, I try to think in terms of the confines of what makes a good song. It doesn't necessarily mean having layered quantized drums, the newest synth sounds or most refined Antares Auto-Tune software. A good song comes from the heart: a good chord structure, melody and lyrics. Everything else is just a facelift. The fusion of the digital with the real is what gives art its power, and finding a balance between the two is what making art in the 21st century is all about. Digging through boxes of macaroni art, historical newspapers, cables and disks in my parents' garage helped me remember this.

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