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Interview with Don Robertson (2000)

In 2000, Don Robertson predicts the demise of the brick and mortar music-distribution system. Tower Records will exist only at Disney World, as an example to our grandkids of how music was once sold.

by Ben Kettlewell

Ben Kettlewell is a composer and multi-instrumentalist and author of the book Electronic Music Pioneers. This is a an interview from the year 2000.

Ben: [My previous] interview took place in the late 1980s. Don’s predictions came true, and now it is possible to create a computer-based music system that far surpasses the Synclavier in every aspect for under $2,000.00, including hardware and software. One of the great things about music and computer technology is that as the technology advances, the costs are diminished. Wouldn’t it be grand if everything else in the consumer market were like this?

Instruments have evolved tremendously since you first started making music yourself, Don. Have these changes helped or influenced your personal musical evolution in any way?

Don: These changes have helped me a great deal, Ben. However, they haven’t influenced me as much as they have helped me. I use my instruments to produce the music that I hear, as opposed to letting the instruments lead me in a direction. That just happens to be how I operate. The music is always inside of me waiting to get out, and I use the tools that are available to allow it to do so.

Ben: Tell me about your new studio setup, and it’s advantages and disadvantages over the old one.

Don: My original studio, based around the Synclavier II, was at first a dream come true. I had one of the first instruments built by New England Digital. However, as the technology of the Synclavier progressed, so did the price of the enhancements that I needed to buy if I were to progress also. There was a point where I had to stop upgrading my machine because I couldn’t afford it! Instead, I watched the few others who had the money (such as Frank Zappa, who I understand paid $250,000.00 1980-era dollars for his full-blown Synclavier II) use all the great, new features, such as MIDI and sampling. These were the features that I really wanted.

    For example, I had created a wonderful string patch, to make the kind of string-orchestra sound I loved. The patch was the result of a lot of experimenting. To create it, I had chorus units, reverb units, digital delay units, a lot of hardware gear strung together in a very finely tuned fashion. Meanwhile, my friend Denny Jaeger set up a session in his recording studio and recorded real violins and cellos for his Synclavier! That’s what I really wanted to do, but I was unable to use Denny’s samples because I couldn’t afford the extremely expensive and pioneering sampling option for the Synclavier.

Jumping ahead fifteen years, I purchased the equipment for my latest studio in 1998. I have a Kurzweil 2500 sampling rack-mounted unit and the Paris Digital Audio Workstation. I paid the same price for my entire current studio (including speakers, midi patch bay, mike pre-amp, mixing desk, CD ROMs units and so on) that I paid for the original Synclavier back in 1982, and the capabilities of this new equipment are greater than the unit that Zappa bought for $250,000. So I am really happy! For example, now I finally have Denny Jaeger’s original string library on CD-ROM in Kurzweil format, in addition to others.

Another important asset for me now is being able to use MIDI. I didn’t have MIDI in my original studio because the Synclavier MIDI interface cost $8,000.00! My friend Chet Wood was one of the two original inventors of MIDI. I myself sat on the dais of the first MIDI conference, yet I didn’t have MIDI myself! I used the old-fashioned sync-tone to synchronize my gear instead. I had several PCM digital recorders that I had purchased in 1984. These recorded CD-quality sound on Betamax tape. What I did was record the music in digital on the ‘video’ part of the Betamax tapes, then record the sync tones on the audio part. I had an awful time getting this to work, but the results were great when I could, because I was able to produce a pure digital “multi-track” recording by bouncing between the two PCM machines long before digital mixers were commercially available.

But now I have MIDI, and it has opened a door for me. For years I have improvised at the piano and wanted to record these improvisations then release the recordings. Some of my best music has been these piano improvisations. Yet I didn’t release these recordings, or even keep them, because I am really fussy about the piano being in tune, and if I hit the wrong note in a couple of places, then that would spoil it for me. Now, I just activate the MIDI recorder on my PC, improvise using one of my favorite sampled piano sounds, fix the few wrong notes here and there, record my improvisation, and I am finished: I now have a tuned piano and a glitch-free performance! This has allowed me to produce my first piano album, called Keys.

Ben: What do you think about the evolution of electronic music in the 1970s and 1980s?

Don: The European music of the mid-1970s was what originally turned me on, and still does: Klaus Schultze, Manuel Gottsching’s Newzeit der Erda [New Age of Earth], and the early music of Vangelis. During the 1980s I liked one of Kitaro’s first albums, Silk Road, and some of the albums of that era. I also listened to some of the music by my friends Emerald Web, Iasos, Xolotl, and the music of Ray Lynch and Synchestra. My interest was pretty limited and as far as evolution, it seems as though I didn’t hear much music better than that.

Ben: It seems that more and more, the future of getting a composer’s music out there is through the emerging interactive formats and working with the World Wide Web. What are your views on that?

Don: Several years ago, I was saying that the web was the greatest technological breakthrough in communications since television. Now, I am more inclined to say that it is the greatest breakthrough in communications since the printing press! The World Wide Web will destroy all of our current ways of dealing with music, period…like it or not.

Ben: And do you like it?

Don: Yes. I am now putting free MP3s of great music on the DoveSong website. Ben, I am less concerned about selling CDs and more concerned about sharing my knowledge of music and my gifts with the world. And the internet is the place to do that. It is amazing, absolutely amazing…the realization of the global village. Right now, anywhere in the world, someone can listen to my music, should they choose to, or read my writings about music, or anyone else’s for that matter.

Ben: Do you think there will be some future evolved form of MP3, maybe MP6, MP7?

Don: Ben, I believe that we will eventually evolve beyond MP3. New compression algorithms will be invented and the ones that we have will be improved. Plus, bandwidth will get better and storage limitations will become less of an issue. Actually, we may get to the point that compression will be pointless because we will be able to download and store 32-bit encoded, 88Khz wave files with ease! One way or another, technology will continue to improve. It seems that technology is the only thing that is improving (laughs).

Ben: You can now visit a site online, put in a credit card number and a piece of music will download directly onto your computer’s hard drive. Many people in the record industry seem terrified of this whole idea. What do you think will happen?

Don: I think the record industry will jump on the bandwagon. They will have to! They way music is currently sold and distributed will go away, or at least be greatly diminished. What this means is that there will be a revolution in the distribution of music, because all the music will be available, not just the stuff the major labels and distributors and Wal-Mart want to sell us.

Ben: In terms of the music industry’s fear of MP3 and its eventual better-sounding descendants, you’re competing with the record store, the distributor, with the large chains, etc. How do you think will this impact the industry as a whole?

Don: When MP7 (let’s say) is here, along with high bandwidth internet connections into the home and to the desktop, very high-speed fiber links on the internet backbone itself, and all the other evolving technology, I think that the record stores will basically become extinct. There will probably be a model of a 1980s era Tower record store at Disney World and places like that, where our children will take their kids to show them what “we used to have to go through to buy music.” There will be little point in buying CDs anymore. We will download or stream what we want quickly and store the music on whatever media is currently the most appropriate. And what about liner notes? Hey, on my current CD project, there are only minimal liner notes on the actual CD insert. The full liner notes (that normally couldn’t fit onto a two-page CD insert) can be viewed on the DoveSong.com website. Eventually I plan to include them as a data file on the CD itself.

The writing is on the wall. You won’t need to store all your music in little plastic jewel cases at home. It will be “just available”… everything! Isn’t THAT wonderful? Maybe not for the current giant music production and distribution mechanism, which is corrupt and often has little to do with music anyway. In the coming years, most internet access will be accomplished from wireless hand-held devices, not PCs. Wherever you are, you will be able to put on your earphones and hear almost any music that exists, once all the recordings are on-line.

This is great for me. I’ll just put my music on the net. Anyone in the world will be able to hear it. And DoveSong has one of the greatest collections of Positive Music ever assembled!

Ben: Already a lot of existing radio stations have web radio, and this has become a big area of contention now with the passing of the Digital Millennium Act in Congress. All of the performance right organizations and the recording organizations, like ASCAP, BMI, RIAA are all saying, “Gee, there’s all this music being put out here, which is essentially being put out without any royalties being paid. There’s a lot of piracy going on. And there’s a big scramble to figure out what to do about that. A lot of stations have taken a wait and see attitude. What are your opinions on this subject?

Don: There is no reason that internet radio can’t be regulated just as traditional radio is. But yes, there will be a lot of bootlegging and piracy going on.