SonikMatter Interview - published in June 2004

Sound on Sound author and reviewer Martin Walker has had experience in designing audio gear, offering expert reviews on hundreds of music technology products, and started his own record company. He offers Sonikmatter readers his insight into the current state of synthesizers, the music industry, game sound design, and more.

by Rick 'Brujo' Wishart with assistance from Brian 'Cowzar' Cowell

1. How did you become involved in the music industry?

Although I'd played in various local bands for years, and recorded in various local studios, my first job was way above the audio spectrum - working between 1GHz and 10GHz as a radar engineer! It's ironic that the personal computers we all use today clock at similar frequencies. However, I was far more interested in audio, and soon moved across to the hi-fi industry, working in the R & D lab of Garrard (of record deck fame) as Chief Electronic Engineer. During this time I also did some work with acoustics, before being bitten by the Sinclair ZX81 computing bug.

This led to a couple of years working for Atari UK, where I ran training courses, programmed demos, and gave promotional talks about personal computers. However, I couldn't stop programming, and eventually became a self-employed software author writing in a variety of assembly languages, and had six original games published during the late 80's.

From here I became a computer musician, specialised in composing game soundtracks and sound effects, completing over a hundred projects for the Commodore 64, Atari, Amiga, PC, Super Nintendo, Gameboy, Megadrive, and Gamegear. I enjoyed the challenge of squeezing the last drop of potential out of fairly primitive soundchips. When my clients asked me for soundtracks for PC games, I bought my first PC around 1990, and thus began my long relationship with this platform, which continues to this day.

Alongside my musical and computing activities, I'd written columns and features for many years in computing and game magazines, but made the final jump to music technology in 1996, when I approached Sound On Sound magazine here in the UK. I now write their regular PC Notes column, along with a mountain of software and hardware reviews (66 soundcards to date!) and workshops on a wide variety of topics, but am probably best known for my in-depth PC Musician features. I also write the regular PC Audio column for Audio Technology in Sydney, and have also contributed to other magazines including ComputerActive, Future Music, and The Mix.

2. Who have been your musical influences?

I had nine years of piano lessons, but eventually rebelled against taking all the exams and started dabbling in writing my own music from the age of sixteen onwards. I ended up building an electric guitar at school, and this coincided with an interest in electronics, so I started designing and building audio effects boxes, culminating in a primitive guitar synth with patchcords. This is partly why I'm now so interested in software like Reaktor and Tassman - it's wonderful to create your own sounds from scratch. However, I was never much of a guitarist, so while at university studying Physics I bought my first keyboard - a single manual Vox Jaguar organ for 50, followed by a Hohner Pianet, Crumar Stringman, Fender Rhodes Stage 73...

I've always had eclectic interests in music, ranging from the English eccentricities of early Genesis, Keith Emerson's keyboard playing in ELP, and the vision of Jon Anderson and Yes, through to jazzier things like Brand X, Chick Corea (particularly the wonderful Return to Forever), pianist Keith Jarrett, and the ensemble playing of Weather Report. I've always been fascinated by keyboard players who have a unique sound, such as Michael Nyman, the keyboard playing of Richard Barbieri in the group Japan, and particularly of Dave Stewart (the other one) of Egg and Bruford. Bill Bruford is also one of my favourite drummers for the same reason, and I loved his work in the more experimental period of King Crimson. Admired guitarists include Bob Fripp and Bill Nelson (BeBop Deluxe), once again each with their own unmistakable sound.

More recently I've enjoyed Bjork, Moby, Future Sound Of London, Orbital, and the Chemical Brothers, and love the rhythmic freedom of classical music by Debussy, Elgar, Holst, and Satie, plus modern composers like John Williams. Nowaday I'm also into more peaceful and ambient music - the direction my own has taken.

3. Do you follow any sort of criteria when doing articles for magazines?

Some magazines are very specific about how each article and review should look, right down to the number of screenshots, photographs, and extra boxes of text, and where they should be placed on the page, even before you write the first word. Thankfully I have very good ongoing relationships with Sound On Sound in the UK and Audio Technology in Australia, and they generally give their writers more freedom to explore their subject within the limits of whatever word count is available, which not only makes for more relaxed writing, but also provides a much greater opportunity for the writer's personality to come through.

With reviews, it's important to tell readers not only what features the product has, but also how they might benefit them in practice, and to report back on how easy they were to use. I'm lucky that having designed both electronics and software myself, and had experience of hardware production lines, I can often see both the designer's and the end-user's viewpoint, and can often explain why things have been done in a certain way.

I've also been writing for quite a few years now, so editors trust me to provide an honest, informative, technically correct, yet balanced viewpoint in a review, with the huge advantage that as I get to see a huge range of hardware and software I can place my views on each new product in context, and try to suggest a few alternatives that will help readers make up their mind.

4. In your years of experience reviewing, do you find manufacturers receptive to constructive criticism and have you ever been asked to review something that you felt like declining due to the lack of quality ?

Most manufacturers do value the thoughts of those of us who have been in the industry for some years, since we get to see and use a huge range of products, and can quickly see where something new fits in to the market. It's sometimes difficult to be objective when you're too close to your own product, and already knowing it backwards makes it more difficult to write a user's manual suitable for a beginner!

A fresh viewpoint from an experienced musician and reviewer can sometimes also find strengths that the manufacturer hadn't thought of, and conversely can reveal weaknesses that they never considered. However, as long as the comments are fair and technically correct this should never cause any arguments. On the contrary, Sound On Sound's reputation has been largely made on telling it how it is, which is why its complementary reviews are so valued by manufacturers.

As for declining to review a sub-standard product, I've very rarely had to do this. Anything that doesn't impress the magazine staff and reviewers fairly quickly isn't likely to get serious consideration for a review anyway, since there are so many good products competing for review space in most magazines.

However, if I ever receive a product that's performs well below expectations, I always check first that it isn't a one-off faulty unit, but then the review goes into print regardless, with details of the faults found on the original and any improvements in the second sample. This is after all why users read reviews - to find out what happens in the real world, well removed from the occasionally 'inventive' claims of the manufacturer's marketing department.

5. Whats your view of the raging "software versus hardware" debate?

As a reviewer I probably get to try out as many of the latest software and hardware synths as anybody, but ultimately it always comes down to how good it sounds and how easy it is to use. I quickly learnt in my years as a game designer that you have to make it easy for users to get into the first level, however complex things become later on. If a synth produces amazing sounds but has an impenetrable user interface, people will try to create with it for so long and then give up and use the presets.

This is where hardware manufacturers are still at a disadvantage, since they have to design with production cost in mind - I've designed for a production line, and every penny counts. On the other hand, having a hundred virtual knobs on a software synth costs the same in development terms as half a dozen, so the interface possibilities are endless. However, this creates another problem area, because without limits developers may give us a huge unwieldy user interface simply because they can, and because the marketing people thinks it looks more impressive in advertising screenshots.

The best interfaces seem simple and intuitive, but this is because each control is often in charge of several interacting parameters - a graphic overlay if you like. It takes more time, effort, and lateral thinking to perfect designs like this, but they are ultimately far more rewarding, as each control feels 'organic'.

When it comes to the sounds themselves, I don't really think it matters whether we're talking about hardware or software - most modern designs are digital in nature, and there's absolutely no reason why DSP code should sound any different running inside a personal computer or in a dedicated rack unit. I suspect that we're heading for the best of both worlds, with even hardware synths having optional computer front-ends for detailed sound editing, while maintaining portability for gigging.

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