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The Point of Contact

Dr Mike Metlay


Hello and welcome! In this little corner of the music universe, I've set up a soapbox to stand on and speak with passersby about this, that, and especially the other thing. I hope you'll enjoy my ramblings and perhaps take away something from them. (Well, something more than "Yep, he's definitely playing pinochle with a Tarot deck.")


I'd like to start off my table of nonsense with a little introduction to my absolute favorite music tech topic: what I call the Point of Contact. There are a whole lot of tools and toys that make up any recording studio or live performance rig, but the most fascinating, frustrating, surprising, maddening, inspiring, and utterly unique piece of gear in the whole shebang is always the human making the music – and how we connect the human to the rest of the rig is endlessly fascinating to me.


I have a lot to say about the place of the human in the creative process – it's not going to be a topic I can cover completely in one blog entry, or a hundred. For now, let me start by positing that the Point of Contact, where humanity touches technology, is the single most interesting and rewarding part of what we do. I would further argue that in today's technological world, anything beyond that point of contact is worthless – worse than worthless! – if the Point of Contact doesn't connect the two sides effectively.


People are wonderful because of the very things that make them so frustrating: you never really know what someone's going to do next until they do it, and when they do it, you're often left scratching your head as to why. The world of music tech is full of stories about artists fumbling their way around prototype synthesizers trying to make things work, surrounded by a team of engineers glancing nervously at each other and wondering why this person was totally missing the point of their genius design. Why? Because the design might be genius to an engineer, but apparently to this particular artist it's completely wrong-headed.


In his interview for the book INSPIRE THE MUSIC, a 50-year history of the Roland Corporation, sound designer Eric Persing said of his initial work with Roland engineers: "As we started working together, they saw the wisdom in the idea that maybe engineers who don't know anything about music shouldn't be the ones making the sounds." Ya think?


Admittedly, these weren't obvious lessons at the start. These days "gear designed by musicians for musicians" is a tired cliché, but you don't get something right until after you get it wrong a few times. (Well, aside from BOSS stompboxes. But I digress.)


However, even if the designers are musicians, that's no guarantee of instant clarity of purpose. Quite the opposite, in fact. A musician/designer might design gear for other musicians who think like the designer does... but one musician's creative innovation is another musician's horrifying heresy. One wonders what Bartolomeo Cristofori would have thought as he listened to a prepared-piano piece by George Crumb... and I shall allow myself a moment's guilty pleasure of imagining Laurens Hammond at an Emerson Lake & Palmer concert, wondering why the organist was wearing knives, and what he was going to do with OH MY GOD SOMEBODY STOP HIM!


The Point of Contact is affected by ergonomics, by the practicalities of design and construction, by the weight of history and tradition, and by the many other collisions between What Should Be and What Is. Entire books have been written on the subject: my first published work as a music educator was an article on this very topic in the MIT Computer Music Journal, and the first Bjooks title, PUSH TURN MOVE, was an extensive treatise on this idea from a design perspective. (It was the book I'd always wanted to write, but at least got to edit after somebody did it better than I ever could. Mange tak, Kim.)


These days the tech present at the Point of Contact is not quite the only aspect of music technology that I find truly absorbing, but it's pretty close. So I'll be talking about it here – a lot – as well as the other side of the Point of Contact: the musician, who somehow keeps getting overlooked in pretty much everything people say about synthesis, despite the fact that people are far more interesting than synthesizers. (Well, most of them, anyway... remind me to introduce you guys to Poindexter someday soon.) Hence my frequent comment that I long ago gave up collecting synthesizers and now collect the people who play them.


Welcome to my collection. Kick back, have a drink, try not to step on the dog, get ready to listen and be listened to... and let's have some fun.














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