Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 3 NO. 9 / APRIL 1989


by Mard Naman
START Contributing Editor

Jimmy Hotz has made quite a reputation for himself as a record producer and MIDI expert. But that's nothing compared to what he's doing now: he's invented a new way to make music, one that will not only make everyone a musician, but expand the musical horizons of the profession. In this exclusive START interview, Jimmy tells how the Hotz Instrument came to be and why it's the hottest thing in music since MIDI.

In an ordinary suburban house in an ordinary Southern California neighborhood, something quite remarkable is going on. It's December, 1988 and record producer Jimmy Hotz is putting the finishing touches on his new invention: a musical instrument that may revolutionize the way we compose and play music in the 1990s and beyond.

Claims Hotz, "Anyone who can tap his foot or play drums on the table can make incredible music. Anyone who wants to be a musician can be." What is he talking about? Is this a joke? A pipe dream? Pure hype? No, what he has is real: an instrument that is almost idiot-proof for the non-musician, yet one that opens up new worlds of possibilities for the accomplished musician. He has created an instrument that is far ahead of anything else around.

And the computer Hotz built his instrument to play with? The Atari 1040ST, of course.

A Musical Revolution

Very few people have even seen this instrument yet. One of the lucky few is Frank Foster, Atari's national director of specialty markets and a man who knows the music industry very well. He is unequivocal in his praise. "I think this is going to revolutionize music--not just education, but the way professionals perform, the way composers compose and the way filmmakers make film. "

"There are four things that really make this revolutionary," says Foster. "First, its incredible velocity sensitivity. I've never seen anything like it in any other controlling device. You can give expression to the music very easily. Second, the layout that accompanies that ease of use makes the dexterity of your fingers less important than with other instruments. It's easier to play than any other keyboard. Third, computerized translation through the ST means you don't have to have scales memorized or music theory memorized. Fourth, it's modular, which makes it real easy to mix and match. If you're a computer hobbyist, you might have one configuration; if you're a professional musician, you might have a complete surround system where you can play back entire orchestras at one time."

That Jimmy Hotz is the man to put this machine together should come as no great surprise. For years, he has been the pied piper of MIDI, leading superstars such as B.B. King and Fleetwood Mac into the wonderful world of MIDI on the Atari 1040ST. His special skill has been to make MIDI accessible to musicians who would not otherwise use it. But now he has taken it a step further, because he says he can turn anyone into a musician and elevate an existing musicians musical output to levels he or she never dreamed possible.

To prove his point, Hotz invited START Magazine to his Thousand Oaks, California home for an exclusive look at the very first prototype. It is the first interview ever given about his invention.

A Man With a Mission

Hotz is a family man who has been married for 16 years and has four children. But he doesn't look like your typical suburban husband. He looks more like a singer you might catch on MTV at two in the morning. Rod Stewart rooster hair, only jet black. Earring, dark eyes. The Glitter Rock look. So it seems a bit incongruous when he speaks to you in his down-home Texas accent, thick as 90-weight oil. Underneath all this, one is struck by two things: his enthusiasm and his sincerity. He's a man on a mission to bring better music to the world.

Hotz demonstrates his instrument by having me pound away on it while the Fleetwood Mac song "Seven Wonders" (from last year's Tango in the Night album) plays. As I listen to my contribution, I soon feel like another member of Fleetwood Mac, a studio musician backing up Stevie Nick's vocals. Miraculously for me, I am always in key, sounding pretty good and never making a mistake. The reason I am able to play so flawlessly is that Hotz has formatted the right tables (the chords and scales for this song at any given moment) into the instrument. He calls this the "Hotz code." I realize "Seven Wonders" is an appropriate demonstration song, since his invention may be the seventh wonder of the electronic musical world.

"With my invention, you may play along with a Hotz-coded song, while hearing it for the first time, simply on feel and emotion, without the restraint of mental musical arithmetic, yet still add your contribution, the same as if you hired some hot studio musician," says Hotz. "This is definitely not a chord organ. As long as you have loaded the proper tables that come with the recording, it can sound amazing. If the wrong tables are put in, instead of providing wonderful life-giving results, it could sound terrible." (This will help prevent illegal duplication of recordings in the future.)

Bon Jovi Does Jupiter

Hotz envisions many things. "You know those shows where people used to lip-sync along with the songs? Well, we could have people get up and play this instrument along with the latest hit record, without any prior experience." The possibility of spontaneous reaction is limited only by the imagination. "You might even have something come out in the future like Bon Jovi recording Jupiter by Holst, only it sounds like the London Symphony Orchestra--something you never really expected," he says.

One of Hotz's biggest fans is Mick Fleetwood, drummer and leader of the phenomenally successful rock band Fleetwood Mac. Says Fleetwood, "Jimmy is such an electronic musical wizard with far-out ideas, that sometimes people don't believe what he says. But I've known him long enough to know that when he says he can do something, he can do it. He has real vision, so far beyond most people that they think he can't be for real. But he is. He comes through every time."

For Fleetwood Mac's new album, scheduled to be released in 1989, the plan is to have the Hotz code formatted into the CDs, meaning that anyone who bought Hotz's instrument could play along with the record as another member of the band. Playing along interactively is great fun, and the possibility is there for every CD released in the future to be an interactive recording that incorporates the Hotz code.

Notes Hotz, "It hardly uses any memory; compared to putting out conventional MIDI scale and chord where you duplicate the recorded parts, it is so efficient that I could put the tables and changes for an entire album in less than 100K. Conventional MIDI data duplication could require several megabytes to do this sort of manipulation, but with Hotz code, 64K of RAM and a cheap microprocessor will suffice. These won't bring up the price of an average CD player beyond the reach of the masses."

Everyone Hotz works with, from B.B. King to the Scorpions, plans to implement this on future CD's or similar digital technology. "I envision a time when all releases will have this, or they won't be purchased," says Hotz. Imagine, every time you buy a CD, you could play along with your favorite band with little or no training and contribute musically.

The Hotz Instrument

The instrument is so new it doesn't really have a name yet. It's called variously the Hotz Musical Thought Translator, the Hotz Box or just the Hotz Instrument. The basic unit is a rectangular console, about two feet wide and 20 inches from front to back. The "keys" that you play are actually sensors that you touch. Hotz calls them pads. Depending on how elaborate you want to get, there will be from 16 to 240 pads. In addition, one large pad will serve as a built-in mouse.

The sensor pads will be two shades of blue, the rest of the instrument will be black with white lettering. In the standard configuration, the dark blue pads on the bottom rows are for chords; the lighter ones relate to scale. But, says Hotz, "they can be reconfigured any way you want." While Hotz won't reveal any technical parameters, he does say that the entire program with enough tables to play most of the music people are familiar with could fit in about 200K. The reason? "Nothing is cast in stone," he says. "Every time I go to a different program, every one of these pads can be something totally different. I can use data from one location to manipulate another. This could put out a whole string to set up a song," he says, touching one sensor; "this could be a chord, these could be scales."

"I could get 50 people together, who have never played together in their lives, have one person serve as conductor and they could do a spontaneous performance where no one makes a mistake, yet each person has creative input. One could be playing strings, another brass, etc. and no one's going to mess up because their changes will happen in absolute synch with one another automatically. "

With his revolutionary new instrument in the foreground, Jimmy
Hotz is shown in his home studio with two of his four children.
The Hotz Instrument can read its song data from musical Compact
Discs and keep anyone in tune--kids included--as they play along.

How can he do this? "When I push a conductor pad, which transforms my musical window, not only does my window change, but I am sending out a code which transforms any unit that is looking to me as its conductor. This happens so fast that it seems transparent--no one has the feeling that computer manipulation is taking place. So only one person would ever have to do that maneuver or think about what chord it is. This is true even during original composition, by the way. For the first time ever you can have spontaneous composition among any number of musicians, where no one can hit a wrong note and disrupt the creative flow. "

No More Dork Bands

The educational potential of the Hotz Instrument is awesome. "I feel every school in the world will eventually have one of these," says Hotz. "All the school bands that sounded like dork bands? They won't have to be dork bands anymore! Here's their chance to sound like the London Philharmonic Orchestra. There's not only the gratification of accomplishing something, but you eliminate that stifling of children's spirit that occurs because they feel they aren't up to par with everybody else, or they couldn't hit a chord without offending someone.

"You could buy one of these for your kid, take it home that evening, and before you went to work the next morning, the sound coming from the next room would be that of a reasonably accomplished musician. The first time I had my five year old play it, if you were to hear it from the next room, you'd ask, how many years has she been playing?

"What about handicapped people who have never been able to play musical instruments?" asks Hotz. "Now they can. Even if you only have one hand, or only have a pencil in your mouth and had no arms or legs, you could still make decent music." And he proceeds to prove his point. "This is with my elbow!" he exclaims, hitting the sensors with an elbow. "This is with a screwdriver in my mouth!" I have to admit, it doesn't sound bad at all.

"The whole point is," Hotz concludes, "it takes away all the fear, all the anxiety of trying to pursue something musically. All the pain and heartache of spending years just learning how to use something is bypassed."

"A lot of people will say, 'What about the classical training?' well, I could sit a kid down and say I want you to understand all the possibilities of what a D major chord is. With the Hotz instrument, every idea you can conceive of in relationship to that chord is available, yet you may attack it with reckless abandon without the possibility of making a mistake. The type of chords and scales you can play are absolutely without limit. I will have tables for virtually every type of music imaginable, from Arabic to Japanese to whatever. I've already got over 36 different chord types in all 12 keys, not to mention the scales.

"You could sit your child down to practice his E minor scale. He'd be using a simple MIDI monitor where not only could he see what chord he just played, but there are many interactive notation programs that allow him to see, in convenient notation, what note was just played. He doesn't have to worry if in theory a D goes with an E sharp minor. He can hear it instantly."

Hotz knows he will still encounter resistance from those who want little Johnny to have years of traditional piano practice. His response? "How many calligraphers do you know? There was a time when they had to study old English calligraphy to painstakingly make symbols. Now, if you have the right fonts loaded up, you hit a key and that symbol that used to take some guy half an hour to etch out is stamped out just as good as he could do it. This is the same thing. We can't look at the world musically any more as though everyone is going to be a calligrapher. When was the last time you can remember a new instrument that encompasses a whole new way of playing, a whole new terminology of where muscial values are? How many people do you know who have never played a piano who could sit down in less than an evening and sound relatively fluent on it?

"If you were to ask the best keyboard player in the world to play an E major seventh, and play every variation he could think of, he couldn't do it as fast as an amateur who'd spent one afternoon with the Hotz Instrument. The amateur would win because it's all there, he doesn't have to calculate his every move "

Too Easy?

But if it's so easy, where's the challenge? Says Hotz, "There's still learning and creativity because you ask, does it sound good to go from this chord to that one? And you learn. And if you want to learn the scale associated with a particular chord, we have certain regions of the instrument that are devoted to scale. And all the in-between notes and subtle sounds are there as well. Even somebody who's never played music in his life can ask, 'What's a G#M 7-3+5?' and play it perfectly, or 'What's an F#m 9-5?' end play it perfectly. And then he can say, hey that sounds good going from an A sharp major to A minor. Then he might try an F sharp augmented. He can go through every type of chord imaginable and find the worth of it."

Even very accomplished musicians will benefit greatly. "After people really spend time with this machine, I think the quality of the compositions being written will have a whole new dimension. Today, if I ask a composer to write a song using chords they're not familiar with, they'll probably shy away from it. Everybody can play an F, C or A minor with no problem. But if I said write something in a B flat minor sixth, most rock and roll bands wouldn't be able to. And I don't mean garage bands, but the guys who have been selling millions of records. But now, they can easily. Because with my instrument, the most complicated chord is no harder to play than a normal C chord."

Indeed, accomplished musicians can find a lot to like about the Hotz Instrument. "It will allow them to perform feats in a couple of days they have tried to do their whole lives and have not been able to achieve," claims Hotz. In a few days, for example, Hotz says someone who plays the guitar but not the keyboard can become a very accomplished Hotz Box keyboardist.

Only a tiny handful of professional musicians have seen the Hotz Instrument. But those who have praise it to the skies. Take Herman Rarebell, drummer for the popular rock group, the Scorpions. He says, "This is the future of music. I want to be the first one on the planet to actually play and endorse it. I love it."

In live performance, the Hotz Instrument may end the complaint that sequenced music can make for a lifeless performance. Notes Hotz, "For a musician who wants to play impeccably and still be a great showman at the same time, now he's free to play his part without blowing it. He can dance on the thing, run all over the stage and be a maniac. He could do a tap dance on the keyboard and be playing a flamenco guitar. "

Hotz says the instrument will help people reclaim their ethnic roots by easily bringing up ethnic sounds. For example, it's very difficult to play a Middle Eastern melody on most conventional instruments. But it would be no harder to play that on the Hotz Instrument than it is to play a three-chord blues song. Or Indian music. The Hotz Instrument can supply you with the right voicing to match a sound disk that's capable of putting out, say, the sound of a sitar. "We're going to have all styles of music," says Hotz. "Just put your disks in, load the thing up. Push a button and that will set up a chord table, whether it's a classical Moody Blues-type arrangement or a traditional Japanese melody."

The Physical Side

Hotz notes a big difference between his instrument and a normal keyboard. "With a conventional keyboard, you've got 25 percent efficiency on a three note chord, but this gives 100 percent efficiency. For example, on a five-octave keyboard, you can play five proper C major chords. 25 percent of the keys are available for what you're trying to accomplish. But on the Hotz keyboard, out of any number of keys, all of them are usable. So you get that kind of efficiency ratio and you can have up to 240 keys that are usable at any given time, and each pad can put out anything on any MIDI channel independent of the others. You can have any number of different instruments playing from one set of pads at a time. So not only are all the right notes before you, but you can set it up like an orchestra--a string section here a brass section here and drum section there, everything you can dream of, in real time, without having to switch synthesizers and patches.

"You can load an entire table in less than five seconds, that would have, for example, not only all the information for rock chords, but every note in every one of the tables, three levels deep. You can load that entire bank for doing all that information, off a regular disk or a hard disk, do your part, then move on. I can do in an afternoon what used to take me several weeks to do. That's no exaggeration."

Hotz is now making 300 metal prototypes. By February of 1989, he plans to have these units available to major studios and recording artists-- "the elite of the music world," as he puts it--on a custom-order basis. Below these top-end custom units (which may sell for $2,500 to $10,000), there will be three other units that will vary in price from $2,000 to an amazingly low $200 or $300. The top-end model has two full wings that attach to the main board, having a total of 240 sensors. These, says Hotz, are the "ultimate studio instruments" and weigh around 30 pounds.

The $2,000 model will be the main console without wings, including five banks of 16 sensors. "It's the equivalent of having five keyboards around you that you could reach exactly where you wanted to and not ever mess up," says Hotz. That will hopefully be available this spring.

The $800 version will compete with the upper-end Casios. It will have 32 sensors to enable a person to play melody and chords together. Finally, the $200-$300 unit will be priced to compete with the cheapest Casios, and will have 16 sensor pads and could weigh no more than a pound or two. "If you walk into K-Mart and your little kid starts playing a normal cheap keyboard, he's not going to sound too polished," says Hotz. "Then he goes to the $200 Hotz Instrument and his random banging sounds great, with the same single chord reference. He's just dragging his fingers and it sounds pretty good. His joy of accomplishment is overwhelming. Which one do you think the parent will buy? Of course, you're not going to get the same fidelity or power out of these units you'll get out of the high-end stuff. But the beauty of this instrument is how modular it is. If you bought several of our small units, and plugged the interface together with it, functionally you'd have one of our more expensive units, but without the convenience of the layout."

The Hotz Instrument is powerful enough to function without the Atari ST. But, of course, without the MIDI interface, you won't be able to actually see what you're doing. Adds Hotz, "I recommend the ST to anyone on any level, because it makes the power of the system so much greater. The 1040, for musical functions, is not only just as good as the Mac, it's better. The ST is one of the most efficient machines you can buy for the money. When you're remanipulating someone else's stuff from another keyboard or editing, the ST is definitely the most efficient machine to do that. For the higher-end machines, they're made to work with a dedicated ST. To make it work most efficiently, we've got the software included to support the ST.

Hotz is making the prototypes with financial backing from Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac. For mass production and marketing of his invention, Hotz is currently negotiating with Atari. (Editor's note: As soon as we learn Atari's plans for the Hotz Instrument, we'll let you know.)

Inspirations and Risks

One wonders what inspired Jimmy Hotz to create this instrument. "I've been dreaming about these things all my life," he says. "About four years ago, I saw Leon Russell play some chord run with a speed that fried my brain. Right then I said there's got to be a way to let an average person do that without spending 30 years of his life studying and practicing. And there is! Today if I asked Leon to play a D sharp minor seventh all the way up the scale, as quick as he could, I don't think he could beat me; I've been around the best in the world, and he's hands-down the most talented musician I've ever known."

Hotz had other reasons for making his instrument. He was upset by the limits on pop songwriting. "How do you uplift the level of how three-chord songs are being written so that it might include something you could hear in an orchestra?" he asks. "Look at 'Nights in White Satin' by the Moody Blues. That had a little of the character I'm talking about. I was frustrated by an inability to do that. There was a good reason: those chords are very difficult to play on the guitar and unless your keyboard player studied classically, he has no inkling how to do that. And even if he did, how do you take the voicing of that and optimize it to rock?

"It was in the back of my mind until I decided if I didn't stop everything else and believe in this enough, I would never do it. Of course, everyone said 'How can you be so ridiculous as to stop everything else to try and make an instrument anyone can play?' Even my friends thought it was an overwhelming task. When you first tell your dreams to others, sometimes they just don't see the vision you do. But you have to have faith in your ability and step out at some point. If you don't believe in yourself enough to go that first step, how can you expect other people to believe in you?

"I said, 'If I really believe this, I'm going to live my life like it's true,' so I jumped off the deep end. I had a family to support, a new baby coming. I didn't know how long it would take. But it only took me three months from the time I said I'm going to stop doing anything else. It's been a tremendous gift. I've been a technician, engineer, record producer and musician. I've built studios and done more beta-testing than I care to remember. But if I didn't have the background in each of those areas, this might never have happened. I would have only seen part of the puzzle."

And now that his instrument is out, Hotz is ready to change the world of pop music. "Most pop songs today include major, minor, a few major sevenths, a few minor sevenths, a handful of odd-and-end chords. Other than that, musicians don't know how to play them--I mean fluently--where they could whip it out in a flawless fashion every time. Now everybody's going to be able to execute any type of chord in any type of voicing with the same expertise. That will make the window of chords used in normal writing much greater than it ever has been.

All he has to do now is get his instrument into the hands of the masses. "All of a sudden we could have half the population contending for who's going to be the latest rock star," he enthuses. The sheer number of samples you can pick from means the quality of the specimens will go up. All those musicians who could get away with running at two-thirds of their potential had better start running full speed or they'll be out of the race. It'll make everybody better.

"There's going to be a kid in some garage somewhere tinkering with this thing. And he'll come up with some composition using all these complex chords that hits a nerve ending in the populace. Suddenly, the whole idea of what good music is will be lifted another notch. I've been playing guitar since I was seven, but I don't know how much guitar I'll be playing from now on. The way we make music has changed. We're in Oz now. You can never say you didn't go. Even if you go back to Kansas, you still remember there's an Oz. We're forever changed."

Mard Naman is a freelance magazine and television writer and a Contributing Editor of START.