GarageBand, gTar and how technology can help turn you into a musician

By Haley BeMiller, Special to Blue Sky

Advances in technology have made it possible for just about anyone, even those who quit after one piano lesson, to explore music making.

That was the message of a panel of three music and music-technology experts who spoke during a Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST) event Tuesday night. The event was moderated by Aaron Freeman, C2ST’s artist in residence and former host of NPR’s Metropolis and WTTW’s Chicago Tomorrow.

Music producer Doug McBride, owner of Gravity Studios in Wicker Park, cited Apple’s GarageBand program as an example of production at a user’s fingertips.

“It’s terrific that anyone can have that experience of recording and capturing their ideas and learning to make music,” he said.

Panelists expressed excitement about new tools and technology. Consider gTar, a smart instrument that teaches you how to play songs on the guitar. Users can download the gTar app and connect their smartphone to the device, and LED lights on the frets of the guitar show what notes to play.

Torin Hopkins, an app developer for gTar, referred to the device’s Learn app, which teaches users everything they need to know about the guitar. With enough instruction, Hopkins said, players eventually can create their own tunes with gTar.

Hopkins said he thinks gTar and other smart instruments illustrate the marriage of music and technology, making this “a very exciting time for music.”

“In an age where computer networks have never been more pervasive, knowledge and inspiration are surfacing everywhere,” he said. “Musicians and engineers are working on the same projects every day, and we are all becoming more and more connected.”

Music lovers appreciate the personal touch the gTar provides, especially in an era of digital music, said panelist Nicolas Collins, a composer, electronic-music performer and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. One day, he said, his students pointed out that sound art is much less hands-on than visual arts like painting or sculpting.

“For all the power you get in your computers,” Collins said, “the hand is not very well-connected to the computer.”

To remedy that, Collins decided to start showing people how they could “touch sound.” This required him to channel his younger days — a time, he said, when technology was inaccessible and anyone interested in electronic music would have to make his or her own instruments. He began teaching classes and workshops on the subject and wrote the book, “Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking.”

Collins emphasized that he strives to help students understand the technology they see every day. People have invented and attempted to perfect these creations over the years, he said, and others should know that they have the same ability.

“You can open this thing up, and you can destroy it,” he said.

McBride of Gravity Studios said he has used vintage and modern tools to produce music. He said technology can create setbacks but that it’s a huge asset to the music industry.

“The thing I love most about technology is I like finding creative solutions to tricky problems,” he said.

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