College student supplements income, makes music with Macs

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by Macworld's Editors

Top Deals On Great Products

Picked by Techconnect's Editors

Budding musician Adrian Johnson is a 20-year-old student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who uses a Power Mac G4-based home studio to record, produce and publish CDs. Profits from those CDs go towards new music gear, and recently paid a big part of the tab on a new iBook.

"The style of my music project, Rustcycle, is somewhere between recent Satriani, Tool, Nine Inch Nails and Linkin Park," Johnson told MacCentral. "Aspects of music by prog-rockers King Crimson and electronic visionary Moby are highly influential."

He said that the success in selling the promo EP (which offers a taste of an upcoming, full-length album) comes largely from having free MP3s available for download. In fact, you can download the whole EP for free at the Rustcycle Web site.

"I often go into chat forums and get feedback from individuals on these MP3s, and this may inspire me to alter the mix a bit," Johnson said. "I even have the benefit of correspondence with mid-tier artists who promote their solo projects via, such as Peter DiStefano. The traffic that goes through my area makes me more 'visible' to people browsing the music genres, and even brought me a license arrangement with a film company that wanted to use my music in a motion picture."

Several months ago, a representative from a small film company, Northwind Films, found his music at and played a song for his boss, the executive producer. Johnson was asked by the exec to submit the high fidelity recording via CD. Shortly thereafter, he received the paperwork to non-exclusively license the song to Northwind Films for a feature-length movie titled "Jasper Lake."

"Casting just recently occurred in August, so I don't actually know when the film will be released, but it will be released directly to video," Johnson said. "Since this isn't a theatrical release, and the film company is fairly young, I received relatively little monetary compensation, but the exposure makes it worthwhile and may pave the way for things to come. Additionally, we've begun discussing the use of several other tracks in upcoming projects."

Perhaps the best thing about being noticed by Northwind Films is that there was no promotional expense on his part. The song "Rise" was in the postmodern rock (a subgenre of alternative rock) top 40 (#20) that day on's charts, due to the tremendous help of some random critics.

He said that it's critical to have a laptop for live performances. Using MIDI, he controls not only his synth modules, but a Pod Pro amp simulator from Line 6 amplification. MIDI allows Johnson to control many aspects of tone, and have his guitar be routed to different virtual amplifiers automatically in various parts of a song.

"The G4 in the studio allows me to not only layer guitar in my recordings, and score the instruments (17 parts in some songs), but handle production of the EP from start to finish -- from graphics rendered with Newtek LightWave 3D to final layout and compositing in Photoshop."

The "real-world" instruments that Johnson plays are electric and acoustic guitars, and electric viola. The instruments that are controlled via MIDI, in the synth module (an E-MU Proteus 2000), are the koto, piano, drums and various percussion, basses and "too many synth/table/techno elements to list." He has an oscilloscope mounted in a rack for times when he needs to customize synth sounds.

"Having the visual image of the waveform can be a major help," Johnson said. "Once I can see what I'm doing, using the 'scope, I can use software on my Mac to edit the synth patches over the MIDI connection."

The full-length album will contain some singing on the title track and a few other spots, in a style similar to Chris Hall of Stabbing Westward, but his vocals are mostly spoken word poetry. One song on the Rustcycle Promo EP, "Rise," has spoken poetry over synth and guitar, while the rest of the EP is instrumental (unless you count the sample of Johnson's G4 "speaking" through some FX gear on "Soulcoitus" as any sort of vocals). Johnson said his latest music project's focus is more towards guitar, synth and rhythm than vocals, so he keeps the poetry/lyrics limited to spoken word.

"I could bring in a full-time singer that could sing things that I simply can't sing while playing guitar, but I love the control and flexibility that I have as the sole musician," he said. "I love knowing that if the gig isn't going well, then I'm off, and have to fix some things -- but if people are on their feet cheering and watching intently, it's all me, and I'm 'in the zone'."

Johnson is optimistic about Mac OS X's potential for musicians. And he's eagerly awaiting Mac OS X native products from companies such as Logic Audio.

"The bottom line is OS X has better stability and memory handling," Johnson said. "I've seen this firsthand. When you're recording, nothing could be more important than those two things. When you're in the final seconds of a perfect recording session it really sucks the energy right out of the musician when the operating system crashes. Even during practice sessions, it destroys the creative flow if the computer-driven gear is functioning as anything less than a natural extension of you and your instrument."

Stability of the sequencing/recording software is a whole different issue, he explained, but said he "knows" he'll be much more at ease with Logic Audio running native under Mac OS X. Currently, it doesn't run under the Classic environment; you have to reboot into 9.2). From independent sources, Johnson said he's seen a fair amount to indicate that the audio engine in Mac OS X has very low latency, which is a major benefit of X.

"My Mac was a robust studio solution before OS X, and I think X will only improve upon that with reliability enhancements, not to mention the improvements in process handling that are already part of Apple's state-of-the-art operating system," he added. "Plus, iTunes lets me keep track of different revisions and mixes of my songs, and very importantly, converts them quickly and painlessly to MP3s for online distribution. The speed enhancements and burning capabilities of 10.1 are definitely things I'm anticipating. Having a free, intuitive CD authoring suite makes a musician's life that much less stressful -- I look forward to burning with 10.1."

Despite all his activities as a musician, Johnson considers it more of a hobby than a career choice.

"While I'm a computer science major and my career will be in programming, my Macs have allowed me to start up a profitable side-project to express myself and have a lot of fun. From recording to publishing the Web site, Macs have made the entire process a breeze."

But he doesn't plan to abandon his music. First and foremost, the music is a vehicle for his self-expression, but Johnson said he could end up working in an area of digital signal processing or music-related programming. This lends itself to the possibility of creating custom audio tools to integrate into his current system.

Johnson's primary machine is a 350MHz G4 with 576 MB RAM and a 90GB HD. Johnson installed an M*Audio Delta 6X6 audio interface card to give him more than the Mac's one stereo in. The alteration gives him three stereo inputs, enabling him to record, mix and monitor the synth, guitar and mic at the same time.

"Of course, I layer the various parts once they're recorded, but having the different inputs keeps me from having to switch cables around every five minutes; each instrument remains hooked up," Johnson said. "I installed an additional display card to drive a second monitor; it's important to have lots of workspace to monitor your faders, audio samples and MIDI score with all those windows open and giving you feedback. I'd like to upgrade to a faster G4 tower at some point, but the other components I mentioned are of greater importance."

This story, "College student supplements income, makes music with Macs" was originally published by PCWorld.

Note: When you purchase something after clicking links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate link policy for more details.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon