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Editor's Blog: San Francisco Music Tech

May 19, 2010
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There are days when I feel like the editorial offices of Keyboard should be either in Los Angeles or New York. We cover musicians, after all. I'm happy yo say that this past Monday, May 17, was not one of those days. The thanks for that goes to the San Francisco Music Tech Summit. This was the sixth since the first one in February 2008 (at which I had the privilege to sit on a panel with Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison), and since then, it's grown from a locals-only networking hang largely focused on social networks as they related to music delivery, to a fertile marketplace of ideas covering all aspects of the music business in the digital age--from instruments and production to marketing and distribution.

"Music conferences" in the tech-saturated Bay area haven't always been this cool. If anything, what I'd been used to in the past made me skeptical. Stylistically, they skewed heavily towards the DJ/electronica scene. (To bastardize a famous scene from The Blues Brothers, sometimes I feel as though I'm asking San Francisco "What kind of music do you like?" and it's answering "Oh, both kinds: drum and bass!") Business-wise, these meet-ups tended to be dominated by the web startup of the month promising to revolutionize the music business by helping bands market directly to audiences, grow fanbases online, and blah, blah, blah.

Okay, some of these have worked and matured into robust platforms, but when 20 or more self-delcared CEOs pitch me the same idea as I'm trying to inhale lunch before my next real meeting, it gets old fast. (Pitching tip: If you're angling for a write-up in Keyboard to impress potential investors, don't let me overhear you pontificating about the irrelevancy of print media at the same gathering. Yes, this has happened, and more than once...)

I'll stop with the sarcasm now, and to be fair, we could rip the L.A. stereotypes just as gaping a new one. But those are the S.F. stereotypes, and happily, this most recent Music Tech Summit was relatively free of them.

Beyond that, it was packed with genuine musical goodness and synth geekery. This year, event producers Brian and Shoshanna Zisk chose to have just as many creative and production panels as business-oriented ones, which was the right choice. It made for a balanced, dynamic, and fun conference with something for everybody.

It kicked off with none other than piano-punk proponent Ben Folds and San Fransicso Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas discussing the power of video.

Folds, of course, is known for his live concert one-upmanship of his own visual and musical doppleganger Merton on Chat Roulette. (WARNING: both those links point to YouTube videos that contain R-rated language.) In the clip below, Folds talks at SF Music Tech about how YouTube hits have replaced record-label execs as the ultimate tastemakers that can make or break an artist's popularity. (CLICK HERE if you can't see it.)

 

In a conference abuzz with talk of cloud this, web that, and digital everything, you've gotta love that they had a panel entitled "The Resurgence of Analog Synths." You've gotta love even more that the panel consisted of three of the most important elder statesmen of analog synths on the planet: Tom Oberheim, Dave Smith, and Roger Linn. I'm sure Bob Moog was watching over the proceedings and smiling, as you will when you click through the playlist below. (CLICK HERE if you can't see it).

 

At the "Case Studies and Performances" panel, I was treated to a shredding Ableton Live demo courtesy of custom-controller enfant terrible Moldover and his latest creation, the MOJO. (CLICK HERE if you can't see the playlist below.)


Next on my agenda was a "Future of Musical Instruments" panel whose heavy-hitters included (again) Roger Linn, UC Berkeley CNMAT director David Wessel, Smule co-founder and Stanford Laptop Orchestra director Ge Wang, and a couple of guys it was a true honor to meet in person: John Chowning, who developed the algorithm-based FM synthesis made famous in the Yamaha DX7, and none other than Max Mathews.

Mr. Mathews' is well-known as the "father of computer music," and the title is well-deserved. He created MUSIC, the first programming language that was widely used to get musical sounds out of a computer. Generations of musical tools, including Csound and Max/MSP (which is named after him!), would not exist were it not for his work. Here's Max demonstrating a progenitor of touch-based iPhone music apps, the Radio Baton. (CLICK here if you can't see the playlist below.)

 

Though they weren't on panels, synth designer Don Buchla and renowned mistress of electronic music Suzanne Ciani were in attendance, and being able to hang with them, Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, John Chowning, Roger Linn, and Max Mathews at the same time made me think of that scene in The Professional where Gary Oldman, playing a corrupt police commander, screams "Bring me everyone!" If he'd been playing a synth enthusiast, he would have gotten his wish, because that is indeed just about everyone.

On an interesting note, they all shared a similar skepticism about the iPad as a serious musical tool, based on the exact same observation: It doesn't sense finger pressure. Jordan Rudess might find that to be less of a problem, given the app he shows off in this video, but the above Council of Demigods makes a valid point.

Speaking of iPad apps, I'll close this week's blog by introducing you to a friend who's doing some cool things with them: Rana Sobhany. Her day gig is as a leading authority on marketing iApps - musical and non-musical alike, but of late, she's gathered a buzz as the "iPad DJ," seeing just how much electronic music you can really make with a pair of iPads. Follow her music blog at destroythesilence.com, and on Twitter @ranajune.

Ciao for now, and if you're in the area in about six months, I strongly recommend catching the next SF Music Tech summit. It's growing in a very positive direction from which NAMM could learn a thing or three...

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