The Music Of JC Harris

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet


The Pen Is Mightier Than The Computer

Well, at least for making music. The sounds on Solid State Siren aren’t as cutting edge as we would’ve hoped. Shortcomings of music technology. Why paper and pencil makes for better music than any computer tools. StaffPad to the rescue.

Roger CortonWay back when, before The Solid State Siren came out, you did a blog post where you talked about using old-school synthesizer sounds and really handcrafting patches. But except for a couple of songs that didn’t really turn out to be the case on the record. Any comment?

JCHCaught red-handed. But that reminds me of another interesting Beethoven anecdote!

RCOkay you promised you weren’t going to use the B word anymore.

JCHI know. I’m messing with you.

RCBut you’re going to do it anyway.

JCHOf course. The thing that most interests me about Beethoven, even beyond the deafness and all the weird behaviors and so on, is that the guy who wrote piano music for a piano that didn’t exist.

RCThe piano existed in Beethoven’s time. I saw Amadeus, dude!

JCHYes it did but it was this thing that sounded really crappy like one of those portable electric keyboards at an airport lounge. Anyway even as a young guy, when he could still hear, he wrote music that just sounds dreadful when played on the kinds of instruments that were around at that time. The kinds of pianos that we hear today took another thirty years after his death to be commonly available. It would be like trying to make that Avatar movie back when the only special effects were, like ‘Beastmaster’.

RCHow is that different from being stone deaf and writing the Ode To Joy for a whole symphony orchestra?

JCHWhat a great point. With an orchestra, you can hear in your mind what all the instruments sound like. I mean, those instruments existed. But in the case, of the piano, he was writing for something that hadn’t been invented yet.

RCAnd your point is?

JCHMy point is that it’s really hard to hear new sounds in your head, let alone realize them in a computer. I kept hearing all these wonderful sounds and being very frustrated that I couldn’t figure out how to execute them. And then it finally hit me just how uncreative the creative process is with computers. And that’s something that I’m gonna gas on about a lot in the coming weeks.

RCOh boy!

JCHSee my contention is that you don’t create sounds so much as you find them. You stumble across patches with a synthesizer. If you are Beethoven, you wander around in the forest for a few months until you hear some birds that make a sound you like. If you’re Zawinul, you noodle on yer keyboard for hours a day until yer fingers do something you didn’t expect.

RCYeah, that’s weird how that can even happen but that happens to me all the time.

JCH…You rifle through a library of sounds until you find one much more often then you imagine something in your mind and then figure out a way to make it happen. In fact I think the latter rarely if ever happens. I think that creativity is, unfortunately much more a case of stumbling upon something that grabs you rather than actually “making” something. And that’s a tough thing to admit.

RCWhy is that so tough to admit?

JCHLook if you’re a composer you are supposed to be in control. Unless you believe in these random methods of composing, the end product is supposed to be what you wanted it to be; not picking and choosing from an Ikea catalog. To me it’s somewhat humiliating to have to admit that the sounds one uses are things that one stumbled upon or the melodies are ones that one stumbled upon rather than things that you created. But true creation happens very rarely.

RCWhich is a long-winded way of saying that you didn’t make all the sounds you wanted to for the record?

JCHYes it is. Thought I could dazzle ya with the fancy footwork. But look, I kept falling back on timbres that were ‘good enough’ or that I knew would ‘work’. And it’s also one reason why I keep being drawn towards the instruments of the orchestra.

RCBecause they’re familiar.

JCHRight. They are becoming like old friends. They always sound great and you can depend upon them to really create sounds out of your mind.

RCNot that you are out of your mind.

JCHCute. To create sounds completely from your ‘minds eye’ is amazingly difficult. It is extremely difficult to think of a timbre and then figure out how to realize it–even for the most sophisticated sound designers. Even someone like Ben Burtt of Star Wars fame admits that there are hundreds of hours of experimentation to try to get the sounds that he hears. And that drives me nuts.

RCSound is way behind the visual arts in terms of translating what is in the mind into art.

RCAnother generalization.

JCHOK, think about programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Those programs allow people to basically use the samea ‘interfaces’ they’ve been comfortable with for hundreds of years; except much faster and much more accurately. The starting point of those programs is to accelerate something humans have been doing. You draw. You take a photograph. They start with the same basic creative process. Think about Microsoft Word. Again, it’s basically a typewriter on steroids. You don’t interact with it in a fundamentally different way.

Now think about music. In order to create music in a computer, you do not use the traditional technique of notes and staff paper. You basically have to do it with a keyboard; either a computer keyboard or a MIDI keyboard.

RCBut a piano keyboard is not some radically new deal.

JCHBut you’re connecting playing with composing. Composing is with notes, not a keyboard or a trumpet or a guitar. And that’s huge. The moment you make composition a de facto keyboard deal, it changes everything. And it turns out that drawing notes on staff paper is way, Way, WAY more efficient and more creative than being stuck to a MIDI device.

RCSo once again, there’s no hope for culture as we know it.

JCHActually, just last week I came across this product called Staff Pad and it’s the first pad kind of application that makes writing notation as direct as using paper and pencil.

RCIs it great?

JCHNo idea. It only runs on a Windows tablet.


RCJCHYeah, but I get it. And in fact, it gives me hope. The guy wrote it for Surface Pro simply because it’s the only tablet that has a pen interface that works like a real pen; ie. with the necessary resolution to write notes naturally.

RCThat speaks to integrity.

JCHRight. Even if the 1.0 isn’t great,it means that he’s got his priorities straight. There are a bunch of iPad ‘apps’ that purport to let one write notes, but they are all cute toys fit only for an Apple advert. If he were the typical developer he’d put out a mediocre app which was limited by the finger-pointing gestures of an iPad.

RCBut a kid who is serious about writing notes will pay $1,000 for a Surface Pro and have something that you can really write with.

JCHExactly. I cannot stress enough how being able to write notes in a computer exactly as one would on score paper is crucial to writing good music.

RCYou’ve talked about this before.

JCHYes and I’ll talk about it again.Your tools affect what you create. The MIDI keyboard and conventional music sequencers really are the Siren; they subtly but inevitably push one towards writing mechanical and repetitive music. Notation, but virtue of its abstract nature is completely freeing.

RCSo when are you gonna get one?

JCHV2.0. As jazzed as I am, I would get too upset.


JCHLook, any new software like this is like an infatuation. I want it so much, but as a former software guy I know that all 1.0s have huge zits. And I get emotionally involved. I’m the guy who would write the developers a hundred ‘suggestions’ and ‘bug reports’.

RCYou don’t have to be that way.

JCHYou don’t (laughs) I’m old enough now to know what I can change about me and what I can’t. The best I can do? Remain blissfully ignorant and wait until it’s fully baked.

RC(sings Wrong) I am an engineer…

JCHThat’s what that song is aaaaall about, baby.

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