The Art & Science Of Survival

Part 4 of Julian Colbeck’s reflection on the twists and turns of life in music tech as Keyfax NewMedia turns twenty-five.

Keyfax has always been a creative company. We like making things, new things; not just the same old same old.

Motif and related software and hardware kept our wheels spinning (and then some) building websites, making videos, launching products, doing tech support and offering all manner of support products in a number of on-line stores. At one point Keyfax was one of Yamaha’s top 10 Musical Instrument dealers in the US, almost exclusively just selling accessories.

Maintaining a company over an extended period of time is a feat of endurance and ingenuity but it’s especially tricky in the fickle world of music technology. Take your eye off the ball and hello a rather less welcome ‘Kodak Moment,’ as in what also happened Blackberry, Netscape, MySpace, Motorola, Radio Shack, Nortel…

In the beginning you’ve got nothing so you’ve got nothing to lose. Taste some form of success and it's harder to be braver.

Alan Parsons projects

Fortune smiles on those who’s eyes and ears are open to new opportunities and one such moment happened at the home of my good friend Alan Parsons. Alan and I had met on an album session for a band called Vitamin Z that he was producing at his mansion studio in leafy Kent deep in the UK countryside. I came to the project with my fellow John Miles bandmate Barriemore Barlow who had recently left Jethro Tull. Alan had produced John Miles global smash hit Music a few years earlier. Such is the intertwined world of the British music business.

Alan and I worked together on a number of projects (Vitamin Z, The Orchestral Music Of Yes, during my stint with the affirmative ones), Alan’s SoundCheck test CD, and the instructional video project Getting The Most Out Of Home Recording for which I conducted an extended interview with Alan on mixing.

Getting The Most Out Of Home Recording became quite popular and although it was created for users several fathoms below Alan-level productions, Alan liked it and often said we should do a program like this but "more advanced."

One day over at Alan's house in Santa Barbara the subject cropped up again.  This time I said “OK, let’s do this.” Keyfax had by now become highly skilled at producing videos and we had a team of full-time video editors and a small recording studio within our offices.

A legal pad and two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc later and we were fast work, listing what topics we would cover, who we’d like to interview, how long it’d be, a title, a budget, a price, and a time frame. In two hours we mapped out what would become The Art & Science Of Sound Recording. Three years later it became a reality. Pretty much everything on that legal pad became so; just our budget was off by 50% and time-frame by 30%.

The write stuff

I’ve always treasured certain degrees of ignorance. Ignorance can be your friend. If you know too much you probably know enough not to embark on half the good things in life – having kids, buying a house, starting a company, embarking on a ten hour multi-language video series on recording. Also, if you don’t know something ‘can’t be done’ then one’s enthusiasm for a project can remain unsullied by someone else’s version of what's possible.
ASSR as it abbreviatingly would become known, is all about the script. Write a decent script and don’t entirely mess up the production and you’re three–quarters of the way there. Technology enabled Alan and myself to write together, apart, on different continents, in real time and via email and drop box. Essentially either I would write and Alan would edit or he would write and I would edit. Then we’d re-write and re-edit. Each of the 24 video section scripts had fifteen to twenty versions. Our goal was to make this so often confusing and BS-infested subject easy to follow and fun to watch. Hard to fault Occam’s Razor or Einstein’s wisdom of “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”

In time the video series became 
Alan Parsons’ Art & Science Of Sound Recording—The Book (Hal Leonard), happily now a staple in schools teaching music production.

Video almost killed the recording star

At first my fellow workers were all a little “What’s Julian up to?” But slowly Alan and my magnus visio became magnus opus for the whole Keyfax team. We took a film crew around the country and throughout our own neighborhood—a local high school, the beach, downtown Santa Cruz where Alan hilariously stopped random passers by and asked them if they knew the difference between mono and stereo… ‘interviewing’ them with a hairbrush into which they spoke without batting an eye!

Editing a program of this length (and breath—we decided at the outset to have English, Spanish and German language tracks) was a daunting task since we’d assembled some 50TB worth of footage in a year of filming. Another daunting task was the music. I’d composed all the beds and stings on a Yamaha Motif XS, mixes of which I sent down to Alan, who also used an XS and so could insert them into the final mix direct from the instrument. Alan being Alan he just couldn’t resist re-mixing them. "I think the hi-hats are are a bit harsh…”.

Each scene had at least a dozen or more audio tracks, from music beds to Alan’s voice, Foley, narrator (a superbly dry Billy Bob Thornton, who we recorded on his beloved Trident A Series board at his house in Beverley Hills) and production music i.e. what we were actually demonstrating. Turning Billy Bob German and Spanish is a process that’ll have to wait for my autobiography.

Ultimately, twenty-four scenes in three languages i.e. 72 separate final mixes were delivered to the DVD authoring facility. Alan said it had felt like making twelve albums at the same time.

In the end a project that had begun with Alan and myself around the kitchen table involved almost 100 people, spearheaded at Keyfax by photographers and editors Chris Killen, Ben Cruz, Robin Moore, web maestros Terry Shields and Jason Ware, sound recordist Raymond Jones, mixer Coley Read, and our graphic designer Lisa Liu, took three years to make and cost, well, that’ll have to wait for the autobiography too but a lot.

The Art & Science Of Sound Recording was initially released online as individual streamed or downloadable videos. I remember sitting with my kids in a coffee shop in Hollywood the day the doors opened, watching the order counters go 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 25, 50… validation of what had been the largest single project in any of our professional lives.


In the years since ASSR was released the focus of our work at Keyfax shifted from ASSR as a project to ASSR as a master and a huge part of that work has been in the somewhat boggy field of education, where decisions tend to be made, if ever, at the speed of a particularly slow-moving glacier.

Nowhere does the axiom of those who can do, those can’t, teach and those who can’t teach, teach gym apply less than in the field of education for the recording arts. But, fortunately, a lot of musicians and studios who are now finding it harder and harder to raise an invoice for their musical life are turning to either institutional or private teaching. Tim Pierce, the stellar guitarist we used in the recording of ASSR, now has a massive online student following at Abbey Road, Blackbird, Ocean Way along with engineers like Niko Bolas, Jack Douglas and John McBride who all appeared in ASSR are all now fully engaged in music education.

For our own part we have continued to dive deep into creating materials for education, including an
Education License app version of the ASSR video series, a hardback book, and most recently a complete Music Production Curriculum that links the video series with the Session Files raw multitracks with 24 in-depth lesson plans. 

School’s In

Outside of ASSR, it was a great pleasure to see Thomas Dolby again at the Synthplex expo in Los Angeles earlier this year. Thomas, too, has finally become the professor he was destined to be, at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. When we chatted over breakfast we discovered we’d actually attended the same school in England (along with Radiohead), though not, I have to admit, at the same time!


A good part of the ‘trick’ of maintaining a company over a sustained period of time is to make sure you’re always doing at least some things that other people aren’t. If nothing else it’s a sure fire way of keeping ahead of the competition.

Master Class Training Sessions

Having released ASSR the video series in a number of different formats and languages and marketed it as ‘the next best thing to being in a studio with Alan Parsons’, we wondered how feasible it’d be to offer live master classes where you were just that. Alan was embarking on a tour of Argentina and we approached an old friend Mercedes Onorato,  who ran one of the country’s best distributors, to see if we could test the notion. The first of what has now become an on-going series of
Master Class Training Sessions was held at the Universidad Nacional de Lanús, in Buenos Aires, to a rapt audience of audio engineering students both in the studio and via video feed to a sizeable auditorium. MCTS events have continued successfully in studios all over the world from The Village in LA to Abbey Road to the current series at Alan’s personal studio in Santa Barbara.

The opportunity to work with Alan and either a band or top session musicians the likes of Nathan East, Vinnie Colaiuta, Simon Phillips and Rami Jaffee has proved a priceless and occasionally life-changing one. Attendees have switched careers, gone on to make successful records, even found employment…with Alan! And I met my future wife at an MCTS we held in Bogota!

Session Files

The master classes slowly built up a masterful collection of studio recordings. Alan has released some himself (All Our Yesterdays, Do You Believe At All? and Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice that just appeared on Alan’s brand new album The Secret. Some of the bands we’ve recorded have also released their tracks: Belmonte, from The Dave Barrett Trio recorded at Noble Street studios in Toronto, The World’s A Stage by Fish On Friday, recorded at Abbey Road, and White Matter Recess from Casey McPherson, recorded at Orb Studios in Austin.

And if you want to get behind the wheel yourself you can buy the raw multi-tracks from some of these sessions in the ASSR store.
Session Files offer the unique learning experience of driving a large format ‘real’ recording session (i.e. using players and microphones) for so many of us who’s musical manifestation is, out of a variety of necessities, one of loops that have never been out of the box.

Keyfax and ASSR remain very much alive to this day and, even if another twenty-five years might be a little optimistic personally, I’m hopeful the work the companies have created over the years will continue to survive and thrive for years to come.

Motifating Masses of Motif Owners

Keyfax NewMedia began life as the softest of software companies, creating the effectively open source MIDI loop libraries, Twiddly.Bits.

Adding hardware to our mix of products in the shape of the Phat.Boy MIDI Performance Controller changed everything. Crucially, the logistical and financial impacts of manufacturing hardware in Central London put a different spin and stress on how the company was structured. Eventually Keyfax divided like a mitosisizing amoeba and the UK division re-emerged as Gforce Software, purveyors of fine virtual instruments like the MiniMonster, MTron and ImpOSCar.

Getting Stuck in the Grooves  

In the USA, Keyfax NewMedia set about exploring how our programming and audio skills could be applied to specific individual instruments and one such instrument that caught my eyes and ears was Yamaha’s RM1x.

The RM1x is a groovebox with a Yamaha sample-based tone generator, built-in sequencer and a bunch of grooves whose mix and manifestation you can manipulate in real time. The internal grooves were good. But not that good. I reckoned we could do better so we recorded a groove library that could be inserted into the RM1x via our old friend the 3½ “ floppy disk. Almost instantly, the RM1x Hip Hop And R&B Groove Library was very well received.

And especially by Yamaha.

Motif Magic

Yamaha supported both the Hip Hop and R&B and the subsequent FUNK groove libraries and when it came to the company working on a new keyboard workstation code-named “*$%^&3CV” (do you spot a competition question on the horizon?) they got in touch and contracted me as a UI design consultant.

One thing led to another and over time Yamaha licensed some Twiddly.Bits MIDI loops as raw material for what would be called the Motif’s internal ‘arpeggios.’ The flute flutters, those acoustic guitar-fingerpicking patterns, funk electric guitar? They’re Twiddly.Bits.

Motif was brewing up to be an excellent instrument but it had two things not going for it. In spite of my UI input it was pretty darned complicated to operate. Yamaha also had modest expectations of sales. “It’s really the end of the road for workstations” they said.

Undaunted, both I and the senior marketing guy for Yamaha US loved it and together we hatched a plan for a dedicated website to help launch the instrument.

Motif was previewed to the press at 1 Infinite Loop (Apple HQ) late in 2000. For the most part the launch was like a thousand others I’ve attended over the years. “We’re using the latest XYZ technology and this comes with 8476 sounds and a capacity of blah blah blah.” But then the demonstrator played one of the flute arpeggios and, though MIDI, it sounded like a real flute sample. You could hear the room snap-to. “Eh?” “What’s going on? How’s it doing that?” Our ‘magic’ of simply using a real flute player to record a flute motif on a MIDI Wind Controller and for that data to then drive a short burst of MIDI, proved to be the icing on this admittedly already very tasty cake.

Social Media before Social Media was launched before the Motif even appeared, in July 2001, to immediate acclaim and massive viewing figures. The key to Motifator was its ability to motivate a group of people with similar interests: to inform, educate, enable people to inter-communicate, share music, share stories, share pictures of their cats… in two words ‘social media’ before there was a thing called social media. At this time Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school. LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, SoundCloud and more hadn’t been invented.

The forums on got off to a flying start, as much because we wanted them to be open, carefully but non-intrusively moderated, and that a culture of support and friendliness was paramount. And it worked. Only months into its life 9/11 happened and in its own miniscule way, Motifator became a healing force, reiterating the power of music and the power of being good and nurturing to one’s fellow citizens. Over the years, and en route to well over a million posts, Motifator produced many heroes: Motif owners who spent thousands of hours helping others figure stuff out. And it was pro bono. BradWeber, sciuriware, TheDukester, Wellie, Patchcord, DavePolich, philwoodmusic, Meatballfuton, 5pinDIN (who remains to this day) and dozens of other ‘gurus’ represent the best money Yamaha never spent.

Far from being an end-of-line instrument Motif propelled a new era of workstations into life. No, into orbit. Motif, in its subsequent various extensions and diminutions has gone on to sell in excess of 200,000 units worldwide making it one of the best-selling keyboard lines ever.

Video Vidi Vici

Keyfax’s role in helping Motif be understood, supported, and loved by millions became pivotal. As the Motifator community ballooned, so too did the demand for third-party sounds, accessories, and more tangible support media like instructional videos. Keyfax has produced the official instructional DVD for every single Motif product in the line. We also produced ‘unofficial’ videos like Sound Advice on programming, Drum Programming Secrets, and Cubase 4 Recording The Band, all of which are alive and on sale to this day. It’s been a personal mantra that if people understand and enjoy a product they’ll come back for more. More stuff, more products.

Explaining a product is like telling a story and it’s not that difficult. Essentially you need to speak in words your intended viewers can understand. For any product’s 'instructional' video it should be fairly obvious not to assume much prior knowledge and to avoid-or if you can’t then properly explain—technical jargon. If a video is dull to watch and contains about as much humor as a restraining order don’t be shocked if your message fails to land. 

In addition to the Motif videos Keyfax went on to write, shoot, edit and distribute many other videos-Exploring Sound Reinforcement, 01Xperience for the ill-fated MLAN project mixer the 01x , the oddball Tenori-on (for which Keyfax was appointed the official US and Canadian distributor) and videos for both the electronic drum and professional audio divisions of Yamaha—as well a videos for Universal Audio, AVID, Arturia and Casio.



Just before Christmas 2004, Yamaha acquired Steinberg from its previous owners Pinnacle Systems. Pinnacle, a company who knew as much about the music community as I do about mink farming, was supposed to continue supporting the platform, including its crucially important customer upgrade path. But to everyone’s horror, especially Yamaha’s, Pinnacle just stopped in its tracks and said, as the ink was drying on the contracts, ‘Over to you, boys, we’re outa here.’

Keyfax to the rescue, and in record time a new online upgrade process plus a dedicated support site, was in place. The relationship between a hardware-orientated company like Yamaha and its young software-based acquisition was interesting to observe. At the 2005 NAMM show I attend a priceless meeting-of-the-forces between Yamaha and Steinberg sales teams. Within minutes of the ‘we’re all on the same team now’ spiel and expected hug fest, skirmishes broke out quickly followed by open hostility. It’s always been a source of pleasure to see how quickly a veneer of corporate calm and control can disintegrate. It's good and somewhat assuring to be reminded we're not all drones who stick to the given script-and-spreadsheet like flies on a windshield.

The Motif period of Keyfax was a blur of products, videos, and intense NAMM shows. But it was also a warm and fuzzy time, knowing we were helping people who'd bought music tech products get their money’s worth and be creative with it.

And actually, it was the same driving force that had created the Twiddly.Bits loop MIDI loop libraries.

In Part 4, Alan Parsons and The Art & Science Of Sound Recording.

Evolving  DAWs

Julian Colbeck reflects on the birth and growing pains of digital recording as Keyfax NewMedia turns twenty-five.

Part 2. Coming To America

The UK is a challenging place to live and work, especially if you’re in music.

When I was a touring musician there was nothing quite like returning to London from a gig in the midlands at 2AM on a rainy Saturday with nothing but the Watford Gap (a ‘service station’) and its fare of greasy whatever to look forward to before you crept back into a freezing flat ("apartment") with only the girlfriend’s toes for warmth.

The late night food situation in the UK may have improved modestly in the past thirty years but the country is still not built for travellers, as it is in the USA.

And from my experience in 1994, nor was it built for new businesses.

Credit Squeeze

The initial problem was not so much getting sales but getting the money. In spite of owning a house and having a spotless credit record Barclays, my bank of some twenty years, refused to give us a credit card facility—i.e. the ability to ‘receive’ (not borrow)—money by credit card payment. “Too risky” they said. And that was that.

It’s a half empty / half full glass thing and, decamping to the US some months later, a guy called Ron, who didn’t know me from John Adams, got in touch after having registered the business at the County Court and just said “You’re going to need a credit card facility!” Ron, who looked like he’d stepped out of a Quentin Tarrantino movie came through and I hope he still gets a piece of the action because over the next few years Keyfax put millions of dollars through that company. Nice one, Ron. Barclays? You suck.

Life’s A Beach

Landing in Santa Cruz, CA as a technically illegal alien, the US could not have been more welcoming. In addition to brown leather jacketed Ron, I was overwhelmed by support from local music companies: E-Mu’s Marco Alpert, Q Up Arts’ Doug Morton, Keyboard magazine, local musos like ex-Doobies Dale Ockerman, and Tiran Porter (who’d famously announced to me on tour with my band Charlie that their upcoming album “wasn’t my fault. It’s terrible…” talking about Minute By Minute.).

Recording MIDI-a

The concept behind Twiddly.Bits was having real players record loops on the MIDI equivalent of their instruments. Recording drums (using drum pads, mainly Roland V Drums) was relatively simple. As Alan Parsons would say to me years later, the secret to getting a good drum sound is get a good drummer. And that holds true with MIDI recording as well. After Bill Bruford we also recorded Hugo Degenhardt (my bandmate with Steve Hackett) and Gavin Harrison (King Crimson, Porcupine Tree, The Pineapple Thief) and the success of the Drums & Percussion library inspired us to record several new drum loop collections, notably MIDI Breakbeats. We also, and bravely, tackled a genre not typically beloved by programmers: country music. It fell to me to do the initial recording of Dwight Yoakham’s fiddle player Scott Joss, more recently known for his work with Merle Haggard.

The key to record convincing MIDI performances is not quantizing, and not cleaning up every little ghost note or what might appear to be extraneous data. We used a Zeta violin MIDI pickup and, in order to be able to capture articulations like double-stopping, decided to record multi-timbrally, i.e with each string on its own MIDI channel. During the recording Scott had the sort of fixed, pitying expression of a man looking at miniature poodle trying to mount a St. Bernard. Mining this data for nonetheless usable loops was also both an hilarious and hair-tearing exercise and I’m not sure even our genius programmer and editor Dave Spiers back in the UK ever quite recovered.

Twiddly.Bits MIDI sample loops began to catch on, selling not only in the US but all over the world. One of Doug Morton’s recommendations was the Japanese distributor Media Integration, who purchased crates of product at a time. In 1998 I visited them in Tokyo, taking part in a live MIDI loop contest at a Roland Sound Party, trading loops in front of a sizeable if bemused audience with local rival company Idecs, flaunting their Hypergroove series. “And now, a bass loop from Keyfax….!” Bizarre but beautiful. And yes, since you ask, we like to feel we ate their sushi.

Hard Sell on Software Sales

At this time, in addition to producing multiple new MIDI sample collections—Drums and Percussion, Electric & Acoustic Guitar, Country, and The Funk—it had also come to our attention that the world was going increasingly soft. Dave Smith’s Seer Systems. Reality, the world's first professional software synthesizer for the PC, came out in 1997 and sound cards, notably those made by Creative Labs, who had purchased our friend E-Mu back in 1993, dominated the burgeoning market with the SoundBlaster AWE32. We created custom libraries, both for the AWE 32 and for PC people's favorite DAW, Cakewalk.

But when it came to performing, was music under the control of a blob of plastic on wheels really the best answer? Increasingly, I felt, not. Music should be more of a kinetic, immediate cause-and-effect thing. Do something, hear something. So, with some initial skepticism from my partners and subsequently a ton of skepticism from the world at large, I came up with the idea of a MIDI Performance Controller: A box of knobs hard-wired to several key MIDI Continuous Controllers that you could play in real time. My son was an avid Game Boy user and I figured Phat.Boy was a pretty decent name for a device that allowed you to tweak and control sound. Well, MIDI; but sound was the end result.

Who knew MIDI volume went to 11?

The key to Phat.Boy was that it was instant. Plug it into a GM or GS synth or soundset and it worked. No drivers, nothing to set up, download, install, fiddle about with. At first the community was all ‘Oh no, we need to be able to assign different controllers, customize parameters.’ Arrogantly, perhaps, I figured that even if there were 1001 parameters you could control there was probably only a dozen you actually/typically would. And here they are! I felt that, at least initially, people would appreciate the freedom of having lmited controls and just be able to focus on the music. I remember going to a game convention in San Diego in 1999 and seeing the expression on people’s faces who, for the first time, felt like they were able to control music. And in real time. Magic stuff.

Phat.Boy did become something of an ‘overnight success’ and, in addition to breathing new life into the Roland Sound Canvas and Yamaha XG module business (I remember Yamaha seeing us at a NAMM show and literally not believing what was coming out of a Yamaha MU128) and soon Phat.Boy became the de facto ‘hardware controller for soft synths.’ Propellerhead and Steinberg distributed Phat.Boy with Cubase and Re-Birth under the name Birth Control! Who says Swedes and Germans don’t have a sense of humor?

The Beginning of the End of the Beginning

It was an exciting but challenging time juggling hardware and software products and juggling two sets of people, one still in the UK and one freshly ensconced in a suite of offices downtown Santa Cruz: modest, but a major step up from the basement of my house in Aptos.

By 2001 Phat.Boy and Twiddly.Bits were selling in Guitar Center and in countries all over the world. But, as so often happens, internal pressures between the UK and USA were building and our world would soon both be torn apart and reborn shortly before 9/11.

In Part 3, the phenomenon that was the Yamaha Motif. Working in social media before there was such a thing as social media.

It Was 25 Years Ago This Month

KEYFAX NewMedia celebrates its quarter century with Julian Colbeck’s multi-part look back at the birth and growing pains of MIDI sequencers and how they morphed into Digital Audio Workstations that revolutionized mainstream recording; opening up professional recording to all, but decimating the professional recording studio business in the process.

In Part 1 of a 4 Part series of Julian looks at how Keyfax’s Twiddly.Bits MIDI Loop libraries helped solve the problem of stiff ‘MIDI music’ in recording life before there was ProTools. read more

Your chance to win $1000 worth of Session Files raw multitracks

All you have to do is correctly identify the three vintage keyboards being played by a youthful Julian Colbeck. 

Correct answers will be entered in a drawing for Session Files Complete comprising ten raw multitracks produced by Alan Parsons. Drawing will be made May 15th and the winner will be notified directly. No purchase is necessary.

Evolving  DAWs

Julian Colbeck reflects on the birth and growing pains of digital recording as Keyfax NewMedia turns twenty-five.

Part 1. MIDI Files From HELL

Some people like to run with the pack but if I see what others already see as a trend on the horizon I always feel more comfortable swimming against the tide.

In 1993 music technology in the UK was enjoying its first real love affair with computers. People fell into different camps: the tweedy academics, tinkering away on a BBC Micro, and who always seemed to refer to data as ‘darta.’ Then there were were the super slick, rich kids with Apples, who deep-dove into control and sound design.

There was the MIDI File mob, whose passion was collecting song files that sounded like hell but created a modicum of excitement in that you could play back and vaguely customize vaguely recognizable music. And then there were people who just wanted to be in charge of their music like they’d never been before; to compose, create, and have fun without the schlepp of having to collaborate with anybody else.

That was me.

I’d just emerged from two years on the road with Yes supergroup Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and was currently recording and touring with Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett.

I was also in full flight as a music tech journalist, writing reviews, covering shows, interviewing the good and the great, hopping over to Japan every year for more than a decade, and even finding the time to record a solo album for Virgin EG (in spite of a most kind hour long phone call from Robert Fripp urging me not to sign with them. And Fripp was right of course. Virgin EG was about as effective as Virgin Brides and Virgin Cola.)

But no matter. Into this heady mix of musical mayhem fluttered a request from a magazine to review yet another collection of appalling MIDI File songs; replete with over pitch-bent sax parts, wooden drums (and not in a good way), and clanky guitar parts that sounded like they’d been played by someone wearing boxing gloves. Only the pianos and organs sounded remotely like their namesakes. Hmmm. Why is that, I wondered? Maybe it’s because all this rubbish had been played (into a ‘sequencer’) from a MIDI keyboard?

The light bulb moment

But hold on a mo: Steve Hackett was playing some pretty interesting stuff on his Roland guitar synth. And even if Bill Bruford’s sounds tended to be a bit harsh and unrelenting on his Simmons SDX kit there was no denying it all sounded like a real drummer—and more’s the point, Bill—was at the helm.

And there was more: Akai and Yamaha had released MIDI Wind Instruments….in hopes that sax players could now sound like drummers or organists. Someone with a wicked sense of humor had even even created a MIDI violin! Even though MIDI violin made fiddle players sound like they were playing their instrument whilst being dragged down a cobbled street by their hair, the point was that MIDI controllers existed that could emulate every acoustic instrument playing technique and articulation type.

What both the ‘alternate MIDI controller’ designers and the MIDI Files From Hell users seemed to be unaware of was the power of getting a decent drummer to play drum loops on a MIDI drum kit. Getting an EWI player to lay down the sax solo. Getting a guitarist the caliber of a Steve Hackett to strum something meaningful on a guitar synth.

I had been the proud owner of an Atari 1040 ST computer for some time. The Atari had no RAM and no hard drive (don’t be silly). For storage it had a disc drive that could store a whopping 720KB—yes, kilobytes--of ‘darta’ on 3 ½ inch floppy discs.

But it had MIDI.








Sequencer of events

At this point so-named sequencers were very much the rage. A sequencer recorded MIDI information. They could only record MIDI information. If you wanted to record audio you had to record onto tape: in a studio, or on a Portastudio that squeezed four discrete tracks out of an otherwise conventional-looking cassette tape.

There were numerous sequencer programs made for the numerous computers of the day: Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari, BBC, Apple, IBM PC. Then, as now, software developers seemed to be divided between US and German, with the odd UK platform thrown in for food measure and my favorites were a pair of fledgling German outfits Steinberg—whose Pro-16 sequencer I had used on an album produced by Alan Parsons, possibly one of the first pro recordings to use a computer-based sequencer—and C-Lab, whose Notator program offered rather more programming power. C-Lab went through various name changes until it became Emagic whereupon Apple bought it and turned it into Logic. And GarageBand!

My light bulb moment of wondering why no one was recording drummers playing drums on a MIDI drum kit came in late 1993. I made some experimental recordings with a local tech whizz Dave Spiers who had been my keyboard tech on a couple of duo tours with Steve Hackett, and together we recorded some of our friends like Bill Bruford, Steve Hackett, Milton MacDonald, and thereafter-to-be Amy Winehouse bass player Dale Davis to see if loops of these MIDI recordings could be isolated and used in other sequences.

Boy could they.

On my MIDI Files From Hell, the simple act of substituting the stiff and unnatural drums with Bill Bruford, was transformative.; not just to the rhythm section but the entire MFFH. Suddenly the entire track sounded ‘real’ purely because the drums were indeed played by a real drummer.

Setting sale

If I liked it, I wondered whether anyone else might as well? And so a product and a company was born.

Keyfax Software—named after the keyboard buyers guide books I’d been writing since 1985—emerged in the Spring of 1994 with a £25 classified ad in the back of Sound On Sound magazine. Within days, one or two checks fluttered into our mailbox and copies of ‘Twiddly.Bits General Instruments’ were sent out, stored on Floppy Discs and packaged inside CD jewel cases.

In the next installment, the trials and tribulations of turning a cottage industry into a proper company and why that had to involve leaving the UK.

ASSR in classroom

Team ASSR is joining the back to school brigade Sept 7, hosting a free symposium (physical and webinar) on "Trending Technologies for Music Production in Education."

The symposium comprises a series of Sessions presented by leaders in music production: educators, developers, musicians and producers. Legendary producer and engineer Alan Parsons will deliver the keynote, taking a look over the shoulder at what constituted his music production training back in the UK (not the USSR!) with The Beatles, George Martin and Geoff Emerick at Abbey Road.

The event will be held live at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz and will also be broadcast simultaneously as a webinar.

Attending in Person
Contact to reserve your seat.

Cabrillo College 6500 Soquel Dr, Digi-Lab VAPA 5136 from 2PM-7PM.
Paid Parking is available

Light refreshments will be available free of charge

ASSR in classroomSign up for the Webex Webinar
Register at Webinar runs 3PM-7PM Pacific Time

Space is limited at both in-person and Webinar formats so early registration is strongly advised. First come first served.

The following Sessions comprise a 15-20 minute live presentation followed by 15 mins Q&A from the floor and also questions submitted online from the webinar.

  • The State Of Play The skinny on new music production gear, platforms, technologies, acronyms and jargon. What you need to know, what you need to buy.
  • Creating a GRAMMY-winning high school music production program Dynamic educator Beth Hollenbeck tells all and talks about funding options.
  • Music On The Move Superstar Swedish company Soundtrap talks about its powerful platform-agnostic, online DAW.

    KEYNOTE: Alan Parsons reflects on what constituted his music production education in London back in the 1960s.

  • Game On FM guru Dave Bristow looks at writing music for video games, and takes a peek behind the curtain at game audio content platform Fmod.
  • Plug-in 'n' Play Dan McFarren from leading plug-in producers Plug-in Alliance, based in Santa Cruz, reveals and demonstrates plug-in's power and potential for educators.
  • EuroRackstars Nothing is hotter than Eurorack right now. Synthwerks' James Husted provides historical context, explores what’s going on, and explains why this format can be so powerful in education.
  • Climb Inside The Music - ASSR debuts Session Files - raw professionally recorded multitracks you can load into any DAW.

    The ASSR symposium is free to attend both for local educators in California’s Bay Area & Silicon Valley, and for those attending via webinar but it’s hoped that in spite of cheap talk, valuable insights into how to develop or run Music Production courses in schools and colleges will be gained by all.

    ASSR would like to thank Cabrillo College Music Technology Recording Arts Club “MTRAK” for hosting this event.

    Product Discounts for Educators Those attending the symposium live will be able to purchase books and DVDs at educational prices. Both live and web attendees qualify for discounts on products and services from several companies, including: ASSR in classroom

  • Art And Science Of Sound Recording ASSR in classroom
  • Soundtrap plug in alliance
  • Plug-in Alliance synthwerks
  • Synthwerks

    Full details will be supplied in the venue and by email.


    James HustedJames Husted is the designer and co-founder of Synthwerks, a widely acclaimed producer of Eurorack performance control modules. In addition to being a committed Eurorack player himself, James has spent many years in education, teaching electronic music. James is also an accomplished designer who has worked for numerous music and audio companies including LOUD Technologies, Digital Harmony, and Symetrix.

    Beth HollenbeckBeth Hollenbeck is both a highly skilled educator, developing and implementing recording arts and songwriting classes that incorporate business skills and practices used for becoming a professional in the music industry, and a musician and performer in her own right with several successful records under her belt. Beth’s vision and tenacity earned her congressional recognition in 2011 as educator of the year, the same year she was awarded a GRAMMY for the creation of her music production program at Scott’s Valley High School. Beth has also been recognized in the NAMM Foundation’s Best Communities for Music Education in 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017.

    Julian ColbeckJulian Colbeck is the co-creator, producer and writer of Alan Parsons' Art & Science Of Sound Recording (ASSR) projects. Julian spent 25 years as a professional keyboard player working with the likes of Charlie, John Miles, Steve Hackett and Yes/ABWH. Julian began writing about music technology in 1986 with the publication of Keyfax, A Buyers Guide published by Virgin Books. He has since written more than a dozen books on music and music tech while also assuming duties as the CEO of KEYFAX NewMedia Inc.

    Dave Bristow Dave Bristow is a luminary of the electronic music industry. An accomplished pianist with many albums to his credit, Dave was a key member of the Yamaha DX7 team, co-authoring a book on FM with Dr. John Chowning (FM Theory And Applications) and playing a central role in the original voicing of this landmark instrument. After his work with Yamaha Dave spent three years at Pierre Boulez’s research institute IRCAM in Paris, running the MIDI and Synthesis studio. Moving to Santa Cruz in 1995 Dave worked with E-Mu Systems on the development team for several important instruments including Morpheus, and Emulator 4. In 2002 Dave once again teamed up with Yamaha Corporation of Japan to work on the company’s FM chip for mobile phones, developing ringtones and alerts. Since 2011 David has been teaching electronic music production at Shoreline Community College in Seattle, while continuing to play demanding jazz with his quartet RedShift. Dan McFarren

    Dan McFarren holds a bachelor's degree in Digital Audio Technology and has worked as a sound engineer, video editor, DJ, and writer in the modern electronic music sphere. Dan has been Product Marketing Manager at Plug-in Alliance for almost three years.

    Meredith AllenMeredith Allen is an educator and an international presenter. She currently works as an Instructional Technology Consultant, Education Ambassador and Account Manager for the collaborative, online DAW, Soundtrap. Prior to her work with Soundtrap, Meredith taught instrumental music, technology and virtual reality. She is currently located in Iowa, has two little music maker daughters and enjoys traveling.