So, the semester is almost done, we’re in the home stretch on assignments, the snow is falling (well, was falling), and soon I’ll be on my first real break since this whole grad school thing kicked into high gear four months ago. (Does that mean actually stopping work entirely for any period of time? Of course not! We’ve got papers to write and proposal papers to edit and god knows what else!)

However, at some point in the mere two weeks between the end of this ride and the start of the next, I’m hoping there’ll be at least a few hours to delve into something non-science-related for the first time in a while. I’m talking, of course, about music!

It may or may not surprise you to know that I was, of course, a huge band nerd throughout most of elementary and high school. The first instrument I learned was that most infamous butt of all orchestral jokes, the viola, mainly because I was too asthmatic to play one of the cool wind instruments when we started music in grade 4. (Did I mention the nerd part?)

Har har har.

The state of funding for music education being what it was, I was lucky to be able to play as long as I did, but by high school my beloved little screechy firelog days were numbered as there was no string orchestra program. Thankfully, seeing the writing on the wall, I’d already started learning a new instrument by the end of middle school (8th grade for you Americans): the keyboard!

My mom had received a 90’s Casio junker from my older cousin’s failed attempt at taking piano lessons, and when it made its way into my hands I found a whole new musical world waiting for me to explore. The keys were yellowed and clicky, the buttons stuck and the labels were worn off of some of the features, but it could make sounds and gave me a visual route into truly understanding music theory for the first time. I wasn’t taking lessons, but I did have a friend who was into music who I eventually performed in a band with, so I had ample opportunity and motivation to practice.

Once in high school I found out you actually needed to be good at an instrument to be able to play it in class or the school orchestral bands, so there was no way I, with my lack of any formal piano training at all, was going to be up for that task. However, the school’s rag-tag underfunded drama program did need music for our tiny theatre productions, and my chord-plunking skills were juuust about well-developed enough by then that I could take up a side role as music writer and performer for them when I wasn’t acting or writing.

Somehow this is the only picture I can find of me playing keyboard for the drama club? Anyways. Such concentration. Such giant clumsy fingers trying to mash those tiny, unweighted keys.
Cailin. You’re in biology class. Put down the tiny Hawaiian guitar and do your god damn homework!!!

By the final two years of high school, I’d picked up drums and ukulele on my complement of self-taught instruments, and had the beginnings of enough skill and knowledge to actually start making my own music that was, shall we say, not terrible. Unfortunately very little of my compositions from then survive (the hard drive of the old tower PC they were on blew up), but I started to have some confidence that I could actually make something even if I never ended up playing in a band again.

For the next decade, that became the case. I only performed once again on stage, at an ad-hoc punk show at a vegan café in Toronto where people signed up and were randomly assigned members to be in a band together, and then had one month to put together and practice a set. I’ve got to say, it was about the most terrible thing I’d ever played in up to that point: our guitarist flaked the day before so it was just me and the drummer trying to hold down the tunes while our tone-deaf singer carried us through sheer force of charisma alone. But it was a ton of fun! Just check out this action shot mid-trainwreck through The Strokes’ “Last Nite”:

RIP D-Beatstro, your vegan hot dogs will be missed.

Which brings us to today. Last month, as a little early-winter seasonal-depression-fighting Black-Friday treat to myself, I bought my first proper MIDI controller keyboard. My best friend had also gifted me a used MIDI drum pad for my birthday earlier this year, and armed with these two little blinky light machines I finally feel ready to jump back into trying to make music again.

The current setup, with my laptop, the new Arturia MiniLab Mk II MIDI keyboard (left), and the PreSonus Atom drum pad (right).

The keyboard I bought was an Arturia MiniLab Mk II, a relatively old unit as far as 25-key MIDI controllers go, but was both on sale and, more importantly, came with a free software package that I would need to make anything usefully musical at all.

You see, in the decade since I stopped being actively involved in playing music (and actually for quite a while before then), the primary way solo musicians have been making music is through software called a Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW. There are many different DAW platforms out there, but one of the most popular for both live performance with electronic instruments as well as producing solo tracks is Ableton Live. The thing about MIDI controllers is that they don’t produce any sound on their own. They just send software signals that contain information such as pitch, attack speed, pressure, sustain, and other fun musical terminology. You need a DAW to actually translate that data into sound. Essentially, the laptop is the real instrument, and the MIDI controller is just the interface that allows you to play it more easily (although you can technically make music without having a MIDI controller at all, and just do everything via clicking and dragging with a mouse!)

Diagram of the two main ways to make/record music using a computer and a USB audio interface (image source)

I have absolutely no idea how to use Ableton properly yet, although I’ve worked with other multitrack music creation software before like Sony Acid and GarageBand. I’ve read that there’s a steep learning curve, but after all, it’s just clicking some buttons and turning some knobs in the end. How hard could it be??

Ah, okay, apparently…. hard

I’ll only have a little while to try to dive into this infinite well of musical creation tools now available to me, but I’m hoping that this is just going to be the first step in making music a much bigger part of my life again. I get an incredible amount of satisfaction and fulfillment out of just noodling around with the instruments I currently own, and the compositions I have actually finished are some of the things I’ve been most proud of in my life. So, watch for the Soundcloud link to drop here in the New Year!

Till next time,

-xoxo gossip grad