Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 74 / JULY 1986 / PAGE 102

The World Inside the Computer

Fred D'Ignazio Associate Editor

It Only Takes Two To Make Music

For 20 years Paul Lehrman has dreamt about becoming a composer. "But," he says, "serious composers often end up starving to death."

Paul has a lot of experience in the music industry--as a musician, recording engineer, and most recently as vice president of Southworth Systems, the makers of Total Music, a MIDI music program for the Apple Macintosh. "I'm not a serious composer," he says. "I'm a pop guy. But I want to help serious composers make music."

Paul is convinced that computers can help composers. To prove this, he recently did what no one has done before: He created an entire album of music with a personal computer. His album, The Celtic Macintosh, consists of traditional and contemporary Irish and Scottish jigs, reels, hornpipes, airs, and laments. It took him less than three weeks, start to finish, and cost him a little under $100. (He had to buy five floppy disks, a VHS videotape, and rent a digital tape converter.)

Why Irish and Scottish folk songs? St. Patrick's Day was coming, and Paul's Irish-American friend Sharon Kennedy, a storyteller, asked him to put together "something quick" that she could play over the PA system as background music at the annual St. Patrick's Day Concert in Brookline, Massachusetts. She was so happy with the result that Paul decided to make a whole album and sell it at the concert.

A Home Studio

Paul's recording studio was in his living room. Each morning he would get up at 10:00 a.m., shower, eat breakfast, walk the eight steps to his studio, and go to work--in jeans and a bathrobe. His instruments consisted of three synthesizers (a Kurzweil K250, a Yamaha DX7, and a Casio CZ-101), a drum machine (Roland PR-707), a digital effects processor (Lexicon PCM 70), a keyboard mixer, and the Fat Mac running Southworth's Total Music software.

Paul did not look especially historic or impressive sitting alone in a bathrobe in his living room typing on a Mac and flanked by a few keyboards. But looks are deceiving. To really appreciate what he has done, you have to listen to his album. You hear woodwinds, an accordion, a hammer dulcimer, guitars, an acoustic piano, penny whistles, drums, trumpets, a harp, flutes, tympani, and many other instruments--some of which he invented. And, thanks to the PCM70 (which doubles as a reverberator), the songs sound as if they were played in all sorts of places--from a small, cozy bar to a grand concert hall. I was totally fooled. It is a masterful audio illusion. But it is also fine music.

Using the Mac, Paul called up instrument sounds on each of the keyboards, played them on the Kurzweil (which acted as his master keyboard), and recorded them as a single track on a 3½-inch floppy disk. He replayed the tracks, polished them, then overdubbed new tracks on top of the old. By layering the tracks together, he created the illusion of an entire band or orchestra.

With the press of a button, the computer played all the instruments while Paul taped them on a VHS video recorder. To make the recording sound professional, he used a Sony PCM (pulse code modulation) converter he rented for $10 a day to convert the analog sound signal into a digital signal. When recorded on the videotape, this digital audio equals the sound quality of a compact disc.

Next he went to a local record duplication house, which copied his master tape onto standard audio cassettes--50 at a time.

Not Machine Music

"People expect music made by machines to sound like machine music," says Paul. "I made this album to disprove that. I used the computer to do the things it does well, and made it play the kind of music I wanted to play. I deliberately left in things that some people might call mistakes--little timing things and grace notes. I could have fixed them, but I didn't. I wanted the music to sound like it was made by a human being. Without that human element the music becomes rhythmically perfect all the time. It sounds boring, robotic.

"I wanted to show that a composer could set up everything in his living room and not spend a lot of money. He can create and record his own music all on his own. A system like this cuts all the complications and red tape separating a composer from his audience. Now there is no one between them.

"When I was a kid I went to see Mary Martin do a concert in New York City. I remember she sang a song called `It Takes Three to Make Music'--one to write, one to play, one to hear. That equation is changing. Now, in a very real sense, the person who writes and the person who plays can be the same person. So it only takes two to make music. And we're not talking about playing a piano, either. We're talking about having an entire orchestra at your disposal. Any kind of orchestra, with any kind of instruments."

To learn more about Paul's system, write to Paul D. Lehrman, 31 Maple Ave. Apt. #1, Cambridge, MA 02139. To get a tape of The Celtic Macintosh, send $10. To learn more about Total Music, write Southworth Music Systems, Inc., Box 275, RD 1, Harvard, MA 01451.