The DIY / technical mind

An exporation of how my mind works

“I always been very technically minded.”

That sentence looks slightly weird to me. But it doesn’t have to. It can simply feel true. I have been tinkering and “hacking” systems. With my very first computer that I actually owned myself I would do these experiments. Since I really liked hardware I had put in a request at the store from which my mom bought me the parts I had researched to help me assemble the tower and one of their staffers would come by and check on me every now and then. I would receive little tips about static and grounding myself before working with delicate parts. I could asks questions and they were all answered to my fullest content. I went home proud as a peacock and although being allowed a limited amount of ON the computer I would still spend a lot of time WITH the computer.

For example I would research ways to make it run more quietly and then build a crafty little hard drive suspension out of wood and old bicycle tires. One of my favorite tings to do with my new hardware was to “maintain” it. One way I would do this was that pretty much weekly I would disassemble the machine, vacuum all the fans, and reassemble it again. I felt good about knowing and being confident in handling my hardware. I often times would also install the operating system from scratch (XP back then) and try to optimize the process. One big one was learning about partitioning and keeping certain files wile still being able to completely wipe the OS. I installed the OS so many times that I ran out of activations (I believe with XP that was something like 50). What that is to show is that I strived very much to be literal in this computer environment. I tough myself a lot and asked for help sometimes but I worked hard and kept at it even if things didn’t work out all the time.

After teaching myself how to DJ and having a rather big gig at a party some students at my high school organized I realized I wanted to take my sound ideas into a different direction. A friend of mine pointed out Ableton Live to me and gave me a 20 minute introduction (and it’s Live we are talking about :P) but it gave me some basic starting points to get into exploring this new environment. I would open up the software, click and drag and poke and prod. Sometimes I would spend an hour, sometimes just fifteen minutes. Eventually I would run into something that simply would not work and I would give up and close the application again. And then a day or two, a week or sometimes months would go by and after which I would give it another shot. I would try and try and finally something would stick. I learned the interface, how to make it make a sound, and eventually how to retrieve a file I could share with people. And then I discovered that the Internet had all this figure out already. There were hundreds of tutorials on Abletons feature set, fantastic long form courses that teach the ins and outs and a lot of tutorials that would cover other software, but it still applied. FM synthesis is simply a concept. It exists in a lot of DAWs, plugins and hardware but the underlying principles are the same across the board.

This learning process continued after school at my internship at CPP Studios where I started building towers and I remember thinking “They are paying me to assemble PCs? I love it!”. Over time I started doing sound design, production and VO recording, music editing and eventually composition for all sorts of projects there and my internship turned into a full time position but the learning continued. I studied After Effects, nerded out with the fabulous IT mastermind Frank, and also continued teaching myself getting better at sound. I always say I would spend 40% of my time on the job and 60% of the time how to do my job better. And I got better. Actually way better than I expected to become. I found something I loved and the rabbit hole did not seem to end.

After some time I realized I reached a point where “more EDM production tutorials” would not bring me any closed to where I wanted to go. I was hearing a difference between the presentation of feature films, commercials and my work. I was missing something. And now the lesson I didn’t have the perspective for at the time:

“I didn’t know where to look further.”

What I needed were the right keywords to type into DuckDuckGo (which I had just discovered). I needed a new set of leads to follow up that were less music oriented. There were a couple. The fantastic blog as well as but I had not figured out how to go from there. (more resources on my resources post)

I had reached a point where I wanted to do better sound design, and that term is so washed out and means different things to every person saying it that it became really hard to dig deeper. I didn’t mean sound design in therms of sculpting a synthesizer patch. I meant gluing my mix together, making it more believable, a better workflow to do post production. On the one hand I was doing all my sound design for all these “film productions” in Ableton Live, which in hindsight was a mistake. I felt comfortable there and didn’t want to learn new tools. On the other hand it was about mindset of when to do which aspect of the sound work. What needs to be captured on set, what in the studio. How to you build a world – NOT a music track. At this point in life my energy to dig deep was slowly getting lower. I spent more time consuming, less time teaching myself. I realized the trend and started looking for places where I could get access to mentors. I was looking for a place where I could ask questions and then DO stuff. I wanted to get educated and then get back to work. I had already two and a half years of working with performers, clients, colleagues. I wanted to get back to that as soon as possible.

Universities were out of the question. I did not want to spend four, six or even eight years at a campus, doing “university life”. I wanted quick results. There were a couple of options but they mostly catered to the “audio engineer” side of things and I thought I knew enough about that aspect. And then I remembered an interaction years back. When I first started putting creations up on Soundcloud (RIP) someone had approached me, complimented my work, potentially critiqued it and asked a favor. It was something along the lines of “I just submitted an entry to this competition and if you like it can you vote for it please?”. I listened to some entries, decided my contact was really good and better than most entries and voted. My contact won and that was that. Now I remembered that that person had applied at this school for a sound design course and won a scholarship. I reached out to them, stated my desire for knowledge and my current activities and then asked if I should enroll. The short reply was “Yes. Do it.”. I also met with a kinda big mixer in the German feature film scene who a friend of mine put me into contact with. I showed the mixer my work and mentioned the school and when the second person in a row told me to go I knew I had to.

I wrapped up my work at CPP and announced heavyheartedly that I decided to go to Canada to get better at sound design. The entire company (who I am still in love with – more on that some other time) was extremely supportive and helped me prepare for my big adventure. And I was off.

Vancouver Film Shool offered exactly what I was looking for. I knew my sample rates and Decibels, but I received additional information on how and why. We worked primarily in Pro Tools (as alas that is what the film industry defaults to) but this forced me to learn a new tool and take on a different editing mindset. It had so many options and abilities Ableton Live never had and never will have. That is a tool to make and perform music. Pro Tools definitely is not. You can create music in the but I personally never would want to. PT basically is a digital tape machine. And that can be a great thing. I learned how to better layer sounds, use various fade types to great effect, do fader moves on big consoles, and all the details about the film production workflow I could dream of. And I loved it!

And I hated it. So much tedious back and forth and manual conforming and nitty gritty work and all this to get a couple minutes of video sound good. PT has been developed in a era where computers were a new thing and a lot of the opportunities the digital world bring had not been discovered yet. And it shows. It’s a digital tape machine.

A classmate pointed out Reaper to me and I started researching. It is being developed by this small company called Cockos centered around Justin Frankel (the creator of WinAmp) who was frustrated with the options in the digital audio editor market and created his own. Cockos is all about sutainability and creating a deicated community. The company does not advertise their product. You either hear someone mention it or find it by chance somehow. Their product is in a constant state of development. There is a version number and it goes up ALL THE TIME. Every few weeks there is a biggish update bringing more stability and new features. Often these features come from feature requests made by the user base. Sometimes features come out of the blue. Suddenly reaper enables people to write notation, and print sheet sheets. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.

There is something about Reaper that also appeals to me related to the very first sentence in this article. It’s extremely customizable. All the menus (File, View etc) as well as context menus (right clicking on the play button, an audio item, a fader etc) all contain various things called actions. “Create a new project tab” is an action as is “Reverse the selected items” as is “Jump to the next zero crossing in the waveform”. And all the menues and all the shortcuts basically just link to those actions. You want a menu to show something? Add it! You want a keyboard shortcut to mute all tracks? Add it. Another apsect of actions is that you can create your own. You can stack them and combine then to to very cool things like “jump to the start of the selected item and the advance 1.5 seconds, set the fade in with curve type log then jump to the end and fade out over 10 milliseconds and also turn down the item by 6dB”. And now you can add that to a menu or a shortcut or you can use that new action as part of another custom action. This is so extremely flexible it makes repetitive and tedious tasks so easily automatable. Then there is the builtin scripting engine which allows people to create new funtionality and access the lower level workings of the software or to change functionality comletely. Some of the ideas get then later rolled into a builin feature of the DAW itself. This is how I as a user want to be treated. All the power to change things. A large community of people sharing ideas, features, customizations, themes and actions. And a company that does not care about profits but about creating a great tool and fostering engagement.

There is a huge downside to all this. There is so much you can do and the software has as a result had a really easy time adding new and powerful features that it can be really daunting to start exploring Reaper. Especially coming from another DAW where certain workflows or methodologies are more dogmatic it can be hard switching into an environment where anything can work any way.

“You have to decide how you want it to work.”

That’s a big one. It takes a lot of time and effort getting to grips with all this freedom. There is so much customization and if you have done any work in any DAW you have some ideas how things are supposed to work. And the defaults suck. That at least was my experience. If I was teaching sound design or something along those lines I would teach Reaper and I would first teach myself the defaults and see how well they actually work. When I started out I wanted Reaper to work like a hybrid of PT and Live. I spent four months learning about Reaper and studying endless resources (as you can find on my resources post) trying to bend the software to my will. Then I started using Reaper and realized that I had started building my configuration with a lot of assumptions. Some of my ideas didn’t work out as expected and some thing I simply had not thought of at all. I ended up customizing Reaper over and over and the software becoming a welcoming work environment and the best partner a sound designer could ask for. For me. Other people would probably have a really hard time working with what I created. And some didn’t. My colleague Em made the switch from PT to Reaper in less than two weeks with some support from me and some dedicated learning. She wanted to leave the PT world and did so very successfully. Others rely on certain workflows so heavily and Reaper is not a magic bullet. It can do a lot of things you can’t possibly do anywhere else and there is some stuff I know can’t be re-created there.

What this comes down to is that being inquisitive and digging deeper usually requires some keywords to search for, possibly a mentor to ask for advice and a lot of dedication. The first you can get from the second. The third you have to bring yourself. The second is an interesting one. In Germany I didn’t feel like there was community to reach out to to ask for advice. Maybe I didn’t see it. In Vancouver is so blatantly obvious and vibrant you almost can’t miss it. And everyone is sharing their wisdom and helping each other get better. It’s hard to find your way if you don’t even know there is a way and I want to ask you the reader to think about these things:

  • Is there something you want to pursue and you don’t know where to get started? Are there people you admire who seem to hold the keys to your dreams? Take all your courage and reach out. Ask for advice and chances are you will receive. This is different in every industry and culture but you have to give it a shot. If you are shy ask someone close to you to help establish contact.
  • Are you a person who is active in what you are passionate about? Do you have the feeling you kinda know what you are doing? If you do it for work you are already far ahead of so many who want to do the same thing. Reach out to people who seem interested. Offer help where needed. Give critique answer questions. The most important part is to point people the right direction so they can explorer further.

I would not be where I am without people willing to give advice, offer guidance, pointing out directions that might interest me. That classmate of mine who pointed out Reaper to me probably regretted it a little later. I became obsessed and would not shut up about my discoveries. But I am forever grateful to him because he enabled me to foster this need to learn and tinker and explore technical possibilities. I want to enable other people to do the same.

If you have questions or seek guidance please reach out. Everyone starts somewhere. There are no stupid questions. And people who do what they love and don’t want others to succeeded are not the ones you aspire to become. Fook those people.

“Please don’t skip this part”

This is hard to talk about but it is very important to me as I’ve seen the effects myself.

The audio and games industry has turns out to consist of loads and loads of white men. There are other ethnicities and other gendres, sexes and orientations but they are not represented in a fashion that studying the current set of existing living people would suggest. This is NOT because these fields mostly attract white men. This is because we grow up in society that has certain expectations and we are around people who think certain ways and say certain things. Every person alive has bias and you can not simply say that you don’t care. Your bias affects people in real life. Even in subtle ways. I want to suggest that these underrepresented groups are

A) deterred because the game and audio industry is so dominated by white males
B) are not being considered fit for certain roles or at companies based on bias
C) deserve a bit of special attention. There is no room for sexist, racist jokes. There is no room to assume that because of X also Y must be true.

I ask you to be open minded. To accept that you have bias and then try to sense where it lyies and how you can live with it. Is there a way that you can un-bias yourself? Maybe a very subtle low-pass filter for the consciousness? I am convinced you can. These things are learned and indoctrinated and you have no fault for having bias. But if you choose to ignore that fact, if you choose not to accept it and the responsibility that comes with it then you are to blame. On the other hand if you embrace it and decide to be conscious about your bias, to think about how or where it may affect people and you decide to try not act upon your bias but upon facts instead I applaud you. You should be proud and if no one notices then you just have to know that you are trying to be a better person and that’s what counts.

Closing note:

Thank you so much for reading. I hope you found something interesting in here and I hope you can go out and explore something you are passionate about. Please reach out if you found this interesting, you found this disturbing or there were typos:) I hope you have a very fine day ahead!