THE DOCTOR IS IN
Dr. T: The Man Behind The MPE
by Jim Pierson-Perry
Emile Tobenfeld, Ph.D.--Dr. T--is one of that rare breed of people who have left their first careers to pursue their dreams. Dr. T's first career was in physics, but his dream led him to create the world 's biggest MIDI software empire. In a rare interview with START Contributing Editor Jim Pierson-Perry, Dr. T reveals the unusual path he followed from the lab to the studio.
|Emile Tobenfeld, the famous Dr.
T: A non-musician in the normal
sense of the word.
Not many of us have the opportunity to turn our hobbies into careers, much less successful companies. A few years ago, Emile Tobenfeld, alias Dr. T, took that risk, turning away from a Ph.D. in physics to follow his musical aspirations. The result was Dr. T's Music Software and it has been an overwhelming success. Over the past four years Dr. T's has grown from a one-man operation to the largest MIDI software developer and distributor in the world.
"I defined myself as an artist even though I wasn't working as an artist for a long time," recalls Tobenfeld. He accepted a low-key programming job at a science laboratory in order to have the time for his music and photography interests.
Having few formal music skills, Tobenfeld seized on an ARP Odyssey in 1976. "Here was something I could make music on without needing to be a trained keyboard player, having a trained ear or needing much of anything except an imagination." The ubiquity of synthesizer tone controls fit well with his interest in exploring musical processes and structure.
The turning point came in 1984. After viewing sequencer programs based on the recently created MIDI standard, he decided to write his own, since "nothing available then could do the types of things that would be useful to me." Once committed, he reasoned "If I'm going to write software, I'll do it all out and see if I can make some money at it." His initial expectations, at best, were "to sell enough to quit my job and work on some new programs, with maybe one person helping with shipping. Even if it didn't get that far, it would be fun to have a couple of programs and make some extra money for awhile. It would at least give my resume a kick in the pants!"
Tobenfeld's first programs were for the C-64. "Having blown all my money on a [Yamaha] DX7 synthesizer," he said, "I found that the Commodore was the cheapest computer around with a MIDI interface. My customers and I could afford it." From there, he expanded to the Apple II and then to the Atari ST in 1986. Currently, the vast majority of his products are for the ST. "We have a whole group of people who understand the ST really well and want to develop software for it," he explains.
No other company matches the breadth of Dr. T's product line, which has expanded into all aspects of music software. There are four work groups for ST products: sequencers and algorithmic composing programs, patch editor/librarians, scoring programs and sample editors. Efforts are in progress to port the programs over to the Amiga and to test the Macintosh market on a limited basis.
Commenting on the MIDI software market, Dr. T holds mixed opinions. "With desktop publishing [another software niche market), there is a job to get done," he says, "and a guy can weigh the economic equation and see if there is going to be a payoff. You don't have the option not to do the job. For music, the nitty gritty market is all the people out there without an economic driver who aren't even active musicians. There are a hell of a lot more non-musicians who would enjoy playing music if they could than there are actual musicians. Whether these people will get bitten by the bug enough to want to make the commitment--that's my fear about this market."
A criticism leveled at Dr. T's sequencer programs is that they are not very user-friendly; GEM is not used and the workscreens are full of dizzying amounts of data. GEM's speed limitations are the main reason for avoiding it; sequencer programs that appear to use GEM features have usually gutted the GEM code and replaced it with high-speed proprietary routines.
As to the user interface, Dr. T feels that if you're going to make computer music, you have to deal with the computer. The ability to access and interact with virtually every byte of MIDI data is a hallmark of his programs (or tools, as Tobenfeld calls them). "The tools are there for anybody who has an imagination concerning sound and really wants to make music. Why did the rules of music develop the way they did? It comes down to a question of what works--not only what sounds good but what can be executed. A lot of things that can sound interesting haven't been done because they are too damned hard to play."
With release of the MPE (Multi-Program Environment), Dr. T has provided the first fully integrated desktop computer music workstation. Far more than memory partitioning, the MPE offers interactive data switching among whatever modules you have installed. "They're not merely multiple, independent programs," Tobenfeld says. "Rather, they're modules sharing a central data pool. The programs in memory act together as one big program." The MPE is still evolving to greater degrees of interaction. Planned modifications include increasing the number of program modules that can be installed to make it more GEM-like.
For future projects, several concepts have caught Tobenfeld's attention. Long a proponent of improvisation, he's looking at ways to merge traditional sequencers with algorithmic composing for real-time interaction. Another interest is software to interpret your music and play along with you, possibly requiring some form of artificial intelligence.
Carrying the interactive ideal a step further is development of computer music instruments that respond to gestures. "I'm looking at how to make more tools like Fingers, and simpler ones like Music Mouse [for the Macintosh]," says Tobenfeld. "Simple and cute makes it appealing to the end user, the guy who's just coming in." In the (somewhat) long run, he has been looking at ways to combine interactive graphics, video and MIDI into an interactive, performance-oriented multimedia workstation.
Not bad for someone with no formal microcomputer training and a self-described "non-musician in any normal sense of the word"!
Jim Pierson-Perry is a semi-professional musician and a Contributing Editor for START. He lives in Elkton, Maryland.
Fingers, $49. Dr. T'S MUSIC Software, 220 Boylston Street, Suite 306, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167, (617) 244-6954.