Fast forward five years and I inevitably ditched the ballet and began a burgeoning love affair with dance music and everything that surrounded it. By 2002, I was living in London and thrusting my electroclash shoulders at The End and The Ghetto for Nag Nag Nag. By my early 20s I had moved on to minimal techno and my social circle to DJs and budding young producers. I had never felt such community, such unison between people. We were bound together by something stronger than I had ever experienced before. Regardless of the lack of professional place for me in the industry at that time, I felt I had no other choice but to find one for myself.
The following years saw me intern and work as a booking agent, a label assistant, a promoter and eventually a writer and journalist for artists, labels and magazines. I adore what I do and despite having every confidence in myself as a writer, there is one aspect of my occupation that concerns me. With no technical knowledge of electronic music or production software, how can I analyze, document or even criticize other people's music? With today's software and a plethora of accessible education options am I giving our artists too much or too little respect for their work? Can just about anyone make electronic music these days? To find out, I enrolled in an online course at Point Blank, and kept a diary of what happened along the way.
Monday 6th June
Other than email, Microsoft Word and Excel my IT capabilities are limited, and it's fair to say I have a slight computer phobia. Learning software feels more intimidating than the musical side of this project at this stage. After installing Logic I log in, familiarise myself with the layout of the page, and begin Week 1's course notes. My tutor introduces himself as Alex Phountzi and explains that alongside his job with Point Blank he produces under the pseudonym Greenmoney and is part of Bugz In The Attic. I'm not surprised to discover I am the only female and the only one with no previous music education, production or DJing experience amongst the five students on the course.
Our first course notes cover the history and evolution of sequencers from early analog through to MIDI, DAWs and onto how MIDI messages, notes and files work in relation. I can't see myself being able to reiterate exactly how a sequencer works, but I get the basics. I work through the course notes, there are video demonstrations that show me around the interface. I move onto music theory; bars and beats, measures, tempo, time signature and how Logic displays them. There are embedded audio players to demonstrate examples of time signature in recognizable songs so we can relate. I vaguely remember some of the music theory from school but other than a few hazy memories it's new to me and I'm grateful the course begins with such basics. Logic's interface is not unfamiliar. I've observed it in use numerous times in various studios. But as I sit in front of it as the user for the first time, I suddenly feel as if I'm looking at the control panel of a Boeing 747.
Saturday 11th June
Our first week's assignment is to simply "create a piece of music in Logic. It can be absolutely anything, any style, incredibly basic and any length you wish." I clean up an M-Audio Radium 49 keyboard that's been gathering dust under my bed since a friend left it there in storage three years ago and plug in my tiny but trusty Logitech desk speakers. I begin my first assignment, but can't remember how to load an instrument and immediately regret not starting straight after I completed the theory on Monday. I re-watch the demonstration videos and open a new project. Tempo set and metronome on, I create a MIDI channel and select an instrument. I start with a kick drum but it sounds horrendous. After an hour experimenting with a series of hollow thuds I switch strategy and record a down tempo loop with a harp and strings, adding a hi-hat last. It takes me forever to navigate my way around the interface and my finished loop reminds me of the musical ballerina jewellery box I had when I was 6 years old...only worse.
Monday 13th June
Week two's assignment called for us to create a new drum pattern. Using Ultrabeat for drums seems so straightforward on the video demonstrations, but then when I try to do it myself everything I record sounds like absolute shit. I think I spend about three hours trying different kick drums just to find one that vaguely resembles what I hear in house and techno music. Every drum pattern I record sounds static and cold with no groove or movement. I'm convinced that when I add a bassline it will all fall into place. I'm wrong, it sounds worse. How can one of the most rudimentary parts of a rhythm section be so difficult for me to get right? In my increasing frustration, I forget the most basic of commands time and time again, lose my patience and don't complete the assignment. Highlight of my day? Apple Z.
Tuesday 14th June
As this is an online course, my weekly assignment feedback is sent to me via DVR video. Alex has access to my submitted Logic assignment and works his way through, verbally advising and physically demonstrating as he corrects my methods and mistakes before sending the recording back to me. Today I received my first DVR for Week 1's assignment. Alex's feedback was really positive and at first I feel so much better after my failed attempt last night with drums. But then he started talking about "quantize" and how I could have "quantized" my MIDI notes? I'm lost. What is quantize and why are we talking about it? I thought I just had to record the notes. Alex is flying around my project at what feels like the speed of light, altering things and using terminology I don't understand. I immediately go from feeling inspired to pissed off. No time to re-attempt the drum assignment, I have a flight to catch to Sonar for work.
Sunday 26th June
Finally got my head around the drum assignment, I just needed to have patience and actually think about what I was doing. I'm very impatient, and will either find my own way of doing something if the correct route is not immediately apparent or—failing that—I'll just walk away and give up. Unfortunately for me, there is no "my way" when it comes to the rudiments of programming and my stubborn attitude isn't helping. I take it slowly and methodically, putting into practice soloing and muting my drum parts to ensure they all talk to each other. I make two different drum beats in the end: The first one sounds overcomplicated so I try a different style and send them both to Alex. It's becoming apparent I need to re-asses my impatient attitude and resistance to keep going when things get tough.
Week 3 + 4
Saturday 2nd July
Opened up Logic twice in the last week only to shut it down again a few hours later with my stomach in knots. I can't remember the things I learnt in week 1 & 2 and every time I click on something I think does one thing, it does another. I can hear what I want in my head but can't get my recordings to even vaguely resemble my ideas. My drums sound like static thuds and—once I eventually get them right—any percussive flow I had in my mind for the next stage is gone.
I feel so stupid. Why is it so difficult for me? I even feel embarrassed to ask for help from friends who produce. They've been doing this for so long that those initial stages are as natural to them as waking up in the morning. I ask my partner who DJs and produces professionally to come and sit with me to help. I play him my kick drum and explain that I can't hear past it to layer further. Within five seconds he is making a series of "boom," "clack" and "tsss" noises with his mouth. He's literally beatboxing an entire drum kit without even thinking about it. "See? It's easy, listen. Boom and clack and tsss, tsss, boom and clack—OK? Stop looking at the screen and just feel it."
After he leaves the room I desperately cling on to the boom, the clack and the tsss; whispering them out loud while I stumble haphazardly around the interface to find the right drums. My first snare doesn't sound right so I go to change it but my whole channel disappears. I relocate it, but for some reason now my kick is falling on the up-beat. I don't know what I've pressed but the arrange page looks different, I can't see my media page and the kick is pushing the shit out of the DB. My pointer tool has morphed into a pair of scissors that are snipping the shit out my kick drum which has subsequently doubled in tempo and is very much falling "off" the beat by now.
The next two hours follow a similar scenario with each attempt and so I eventually I go to beg, but his answer is simple. "You're never gonna learn if I do it for you." Tears and tantrums follow, but before I reach the breaking point and dispose of the laptop out of the window we meet in the middle: He calmly talks me through what I'm doing wrong until I get it right. Having the on hand advice is invaluable, and with his reassurance that my struggles are normal after just four weeks, I complete my two late assignments and for the first time since week 1 my desire to carry on is back. It's emotionally exhausting, frustrating and I can't quite believe that something so impersonal like computer software is dredging up so many insecurities and anger within me.
Sunday 10th July
This week's assignment is to "write a chord sequence of at least three chords over one of the rhythm tracks" that we've created over the previous weeks and to "add a bassline underneath." I take the rhythm track from the previous assignment as suggested and begin to put into practice the structure and sequence of chords that I've learnt about in the course notes. It comes naturally. These simple piano chords sound glorious to my ears; warm, elegant and if played in the right sequence more beautiful than any drum beat. I grew up with Enya, Sade and classical compilations. Other than Phil Collins' epic drum fill on "In the Air Tonight," drum-heavy music was sparse in our house. I spend hours switching my chords through various synths, piano and string instruments. The satisfaction of being able to transmit what I hear in my head onto the arrangement page is incredible.
Later that afternoon we go out to party. As I'm dancing a familiar scenario unravels; I am drowning in the sound, the rhythm has hold of me and I'm utterly lost in the music. But something is different this time; I'm only listening to the hi-hats, noticing there is just one that falls off the beat and in doing so lifts the entire rhythm. My ears move onto the snare drum, its precise placement imperative for the hats to do their job. I then drown out everything bar the bass and the kick: They are talking and dancing with each other, watching each other's every move and reacting accordingly, pausing for a cymbal crash and reclining to allow the drum fill their moment of glory. I listen to the entire kit, bringing each element in one by one, seeing how they exist as singular parts but as a group as well. I have unknowingly mastered the art of soloing and muting drum structure in my mind. I snap out of it when a friend asks if I'm enjoying my Logic course. I say yes. And for the first time in five weeks, I actually mean it.
Monday 18th July
I boycott work for the day and switch on Logic as soon as I wake up. I log in to Point Blank, skim read the week's notes while watching the video demonstrations intently. Discovering Apple loops brings instant inspiration. While I don't agree with professionals constructing their music using a heavy amount of pre-recorded loops, I realize their positive influence for inspiration. Using one MIDI drum loop and one MIDI harp loop, I record in eight other channels of my own. I'm a sucker for classical, orchestral music and this combined with my new drum phobia means this week's assignment ends up downtempo and ambient.
I submit my piece, but instead of closing Logic, I open a new project and spend the rest of the afternoon attempting to put into practice what I've learnt so far. It's the first time I'm doing it because I want to and not because I have to. Determined to fight my fear of drums and basslines, I start to make a dance track. It's a slow process, I make countless mistakes but I now know how to fix them and move on.
I say to him is that I think we should
move the last note in the bassline...
My partner arrives home from working away for the weekend and I'm so excited that I persuade him to join me. We start to work on the track together, one of us humming a melody, the other one finding the corresponding notes, playing and recording them in. We add a bed, more hi-hats and the bassline I created earlier is improved upon. We are both hearing the same things, feeling the same vibe and any envy of his enjoyment for making music that I felt before is now replaced by understanding. It's magical, and not because it's with him per se, but because I have turned a corner of understanding the software and the core structure of electronic music to feel confident enough to share the experience. I don't know what time it is that we shut the computer down but when we wake up the following morning the first thing I say to him is that I think we should move the last note in the bassline to give it more movement. I'm hooked.
Thursday 21st July
An online chat is held every Thursday evening for an hour between Alex and all the students. A huge part of the Point Blank online course, it's your opportunity to ask questions and resolve issues not covered in the course notes. For some students, this may end up being their only real-time contact with anyone. Tim and I are the only students based in England, so it's no surprise that the other two are absent for the majority.
Everyone is naturally encountering different problems and has individual questions to ask. So when I have a question to ask and Tim and Alex are conversing about another subject, I try not to interrupt the flow of conversation and the benefit that Tim is receiving in having Alex's attention. By the time they are finished, the one hour time slot for the week is over. The scenario works vice versa, and when I am in conversation with Alex I see Tim drop away. I begin to realize that other resources like YouTube tutorials, outside online forums and friends are going to be just as essential in helping me with technical queries.
I feel that one hour per week per student would be of huge benefit to the online method. It would allow privacy, eliminate embarrassment and allow each student who is at a different level to receive the time and attention they need. The other two students begin to hand in less and less assignments. It is only Tim and I who finally complete the course. This is in no sense a criticism of the chatroom system as it was a crucial part of my development. But it's obvious that if you're taking an online course that proactivity is essential. There is no price I can put on the time I have spent with friends who produce, observing them in their studios and equally having them come and sit with me while I learn.
Sunday 24th July
My thoughts are becoming increasingly dominated by music and its production. I'm restless at work until I can come home and switch on Logic, and my way of thinking about—and hearing—music is changing more than I ever expected. I am listening, dissecting and analyzing in new ways, the results are immensely satisfying but in a strange way, my naivety of listening to music as a whole has been taken away from me and the experience of simply enjoying music is gone. When I first got into dance music years ago I heard it as one piece of sound that in its entirety had the power to alter my state of mind in a split second. It was genius, an art form so far out of my reach or understanding that I could do nothing but let it blow my mind. Not once did I separate its elements, scrutinize its technical effects or pick flaws in its arrangement; I couldn't, I didn't know enough about it to do so.
As I begin to progress through understanding music's construction, seeing how that bleep has gone from flat to full and why that bassline creeps from nowhere and unexpectedly wraps itself around my ribcage. There is—and I pray to God always will be—a vast amount of music that is way beyond my assessment. But I miss my innocence.
This week we're given one continuous piece of audio, full of separate beats and sounds. We need to deconstruct it into separate segments and then arrange them to make something cohesive. I separate the parts easily, snipping and chopping them with the scissor tool but struggle with the arrangement. I don't like the sounds we are given to work with, which doesn't help my desire to keep pushing until it's perfect but I get by with the bare minimum for this assignment and it sounds OK. My lack of enthusiasm for the allocated audio makes me think about remixes and how difficult it must be for producers who are asked to remix stems of a track that, quite frankly, they don't like. "Don't do it" may seem like the obvious answer. And that may be the case for the lucky ones, the already established artists. But for those still trying to make a name for themselves, refusing an opportunity at exposure might not be the wisest decision in the long run.
Friday 29th July
My laptop is out of action for a week so I e-mail the college to see if I can go into their studio and use one of their computers. I've been thinking a lot about how my experience and progress would have differed if I had gone to a physical class to learn with a tutor in a studio. The online method is invaluable for a number of reasons. It gives you the freedom to continue everyday working life. And there's no other method where you can do an assignment at 3 AM on a Sunday morning, or stop a lecture mid-sentence, rewind and replay the teacher 32.5 times if necessary. But does the lack of personal contact and inability to ask spontaneous questions inhibit the results?
Alongside using the college's computer I ask if I can have one of the college tutors sit with me while I complete this week's assignment. I want to compare the process with a real life lesson and teacher. Point Blank agree for me to go along on Thursday afternoon where I can use their studio and one of the college tutors, Paul Crossman, AKA General Midi, will sit with me for three hours. It's not part of the standard syllabus and whether this would be agreed to for someone that wasn't writing a diary for a publication isn't asked or answered. I have no idea, but I see an opportunity and take it.
Thursday 4th August
It's the first time I'm using Logic in front of anyone other than close friends, so I feel defensive about showing my beginner standards to someone who has been releasing records since the late '90s. I eventually loosen up and take full advantage of the one-on-one studio session, though. Paul and I go through the assignment's pre-assigned audio files together, detect and change their tempo, Paul verbally instructing and me following on the computer.
I learn how to use flexing and slicing tools so that all our channels are running at the same tempo. I ask questions that are answered within seconds; Paul's hand gestures, repetition and physical demonstration aiding my understanding a huge deal. Our rhythm begins to take shape, Paul is getting into it, I am getting into it and, together, we create a mutual vibe and buzz for our piece. I begin to hum a bassline that's been rolling around in my head since we started piecing the audio into its arrangement and Paul plays and records it into our arrange page. We fiddle around with our bass, altering the notes and experimenting with sounds. He shows me a little about EQ and automation, and when I see what both of these do to our music, I begin to understand why everything I've been attempting sounds flat and dry. We touch only the tip of something so deep that an advanced course now seems even more of a necessity than it did before. Just as we begin automation, our three hours is up and I begrudgingly walk away from my studio session with Paul. I take away with me an adrenaline for making music that I doubt I'll forget in a long, long time.
Wednesday 10th August
Carrying on my buzz of working alongside a studio partner, I ask my friend if she'd like to come and do this week's assignment with me. I'm interested to see what she, as an Ableton user thinks of Logic. Initially the more complex interface of Logic seems a little daunting for her, but I see her mentally processing the difference between the two program's features as we work. There are numerous moments of disbelief as she realises how Logic performs a task in comparison to Ableton. Logic's Audio Scoring capabilities, for example, blow her away.
We learn how to record our own lyrics/voices/sounds into audio and play with vocal processing, transposition to increase or decrease the pitch, harmonic correction and time stretching. We're not the best singers in the world, but it's an interactive, fun exercise and once again I am inspired by having a studio buddy.
Week 10 - 12
Monday 15th August
There are no set assignments for week 9 and 10, so I am left to study "Structure, Arrangement and Basic Mixing" via video demonstrations and course notes as my aid. Basic EQ theory, reverb, the usage of buses and effects are all covered thoroughly but without an assignment and feedback DVR, I can't be sure if I am getting it right.
Friday 26th August
My final assignment is to create an entire track from start to finish, arrange it and mix it down using what we have learnt over the last 11 weeks. I make a list of all the things about house music that stand out to me, the elements I can't fail to notice and fall in love with every time and try to think about what I want to produce before beginning. I am determined to make something for my final assignment that I am happy with and I am also determined that I will go it 100% solo to analyze exactly what I've picked up. I go out, buy a rather obscene amount of alcohol to aid my "creative process" and close the curtains and door. I emerge three days later with two things: 1) a track and 2) my illusion of producing something that could come anywhere close to the standard of house music that's on the market today firmly in tatters.
I begin with a four chord synth sequence that I really love. It's slow, warm and emotive but unfortunately opens the trap door of being too mellow and I then struggle to get out of it. I don't want to lose that ambient edge so I stick with it, layering my synths, adding strings, beds and doubling up in sections. Aware that it's way too drawn out for a dance track, I start to program the dreaded drums to pick it up. One bass, one kick, two snares, two claps, various shakers, bongos, rim shots and seven layers of hi-hats later I'm still not happy. My bass doesn't seem to have any depth or power behind it or lift the rhythm as I want it to; my kick drum is dry and my claps generic. No amount of altering them seems to work so I move on, adding more instruments to bring movement and some kind of groove. It continues to sound linear, predictable and amateur.
But while I'm not happy, I just don't know where else to go with it. I play it literally hundreds of times and it gets to a point where I cannot hear anything anymore. I arrange what I have and using what little effects I've learnt automate my strings, synths and pads, reverb my piano chords, set up and send through two buses and EQ a couple of my percussions. I listen to it on two sets of speakers and headphones before bouncing it down and hesitantly sending it to Alex. I'm suddenly very aware that it will be published alongside this piece and a whole new set of emotions open up. I feel exposed, shy and torn between an honest account of what I have learnt in 12 weeks and my ego of not wanting to be criticized.
What I realise in the days after completing my course and being able to finally step outside of it being "me," however, is that this project has in fact only just begun. In order to fulfil creative potential, enjoy that process and even think about making good electronic music, I first had to learn how to make music at all. Only after that will I be able to begin a much longer journey into making music sound how I want it to. Can just about anyone make good electronic music these days? Yes. Good electronic music? Give me another 12 weeks, 12 months, 12 years. We'll see.