From food stamps and survival to writing the songs you know

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” says artist and composer Allee Willis. Yet her output ranges from Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September” to the theme song of Friends. If you don’t know Willis, you should – and her story might inspire yours.

Behind all the cheery social media these days, most artists you talk to have struggled. They’ve struggled with creativity and sobriety, mental health and creative blocks, unfriendly industries and obscurity. And sometimes they’ve struggled just to get by – which is where Allee Willis was in 1978, living off food stamps and wondering what would happen next.

What happened next is a career that led to an insane number of hit songs – along with plenty of other fascinating side trips into kitsch and art. (There’s a kitsch-themed social network, an artist alterego named Bubbles, and a music video duet with a 91-year-old woman drummer on an oxygen tank, to name a few.) But what it hasn’t involved is a lot of widespread personal notoriety. Allee Willis is a celebrity’s celebrity, which is to say famous people know her but most people don’t know she’s famous.

At least it’s about that gap. The odds that you don’t know her? Decent. The odds that you don’t know her songs? Unlikely.

Let’s go: Earth, Wind & Fire “September” and “Boogie Wonderland,” The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield’s “What Have I Done To Deserve This.” The theme from Friends, recorded by The Rembrandts (if you knew that, which I suspect you didn’t)… all these and more add up to 60 million records. And she co-authored the Oprah Winfrey-produced, Tony and Grammy-winning Broadway musical The Color Purple. More songs you know in movies: Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid (“You’re the Best”), Howard the Duck.

The Detroit native is an impassioned use of Web tech and animation, networked together machines to design an orchestration workflow for The Color Purple musical, and now lives in LA with … Pro Tools, of course, alongside some cats.

But this isn’t about her resume so much as it is about what she says drives her – that itch to create stuff. And for anyone worried about how to get into the creative zone, maybe the first step is to stop worrying about getting into the creative zone. We value analysis and self-critique so much that sometimes we forget to just have fun making and stop worrying about even our own opinions (or maybe, especially those). In the end, it was that instinct that has driven her work, and presumably lots of stuff that didn’t do as well as that Friends theme song. (But there are her cats. Not the Broadway kind; that’s Andrew Lloyd Weber – the furry ones.)

There’s a great video out from CNN-produced Web video series Great Big Story:

And her site is a wild 1999-vintage-design wonderland of HTML, if you want to dive in:

https://alleewillis.com

More:

How she wrote “What Have I Done to Deserve This” gets into her musical thinking – and incongruity (and she does sure seem like she knows what she’s doing):

Plus how she hears and why she needed a Fender Rhodes:

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Modular to go: 4ms are making cute little $100 “Pods” for modules

It’s Eurorack without the big rack. Or rack modular that thinks it’s desktop. In any event, if you ever found a module or three you wanted to use without getting a big rack, or quick portability for a beloved module, 4ms may have a solution for you: 4ms Pods.

They’re cute. They’re cheap. They’re daisy-chainable. So if you don’t want that “cockpit” / “I’m outfitting a submarine command center” look, now you can take modules and put them in little handheld boxes you can move around, mix with desktop synths and effects, guitar pedals – whatever.

The daisy-chainable power designed just for this range also mean that you can put together a handful of pods pretty economically, since you only need to buy one with power supply. The pricing – the number being the size in hp, of course:

Pod20: US$55 unpowered / $99 powered
Pod26: $60 / $109
Pod32: $65/$119

It’s a clever idea, and they look really nice. Now they just need a nice carry case – a Podpod?

4ms announced these earlier today; “coming soon.”

https://4mscompany.com/

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The new Jaguar cars sound like spaceships, thanks to Richard Devine

Music, film/TV, games… yes. But another frontier is opening for sound design you might not expect: cars. That has led automaker Jaguar to sound designer Richard Devine, and that in turn means when this Jag accelerates, it sounds like it’s headed into hyperdrive, bound for the outer rim.

Sounds will be another differentiation point of the auto brand experience, a way to set luxury vehicles apart, it’s true. But when it comes to engine noise, there is actually a safety issue. Fully electric cars don’t make the noise that internal combustion engines do, which means you can’t hear them coming – which makes them dangerous.

The cool thing is, manufacturers are finally beginning to consider aesthetics in sound design. And in a world that’s flooded with repetitions of the Windows startup sound, that Nokia theme tune (only mostly driven away by the iPhone), horrible sirens, beeps, and whatnot, this couldn’t come a moment too soon.

Richard Devine has been doing sound design across various industries, from sounds used in films to strange presets you find lurking in your plug-ins (as well as making some great music himself). Now at last he can share publicly that he did sound for the mighty Jaguar, and its all-electric I‑PACE car.

The design team at Jag get to crow about their work in a company blog post:
https://www.jaguar.co.uk/about-jaguar/jaguar-stories/i-pace-design-secrets.html

Here’s how the external sound system works:

The engine acceleration noise is cool, and with good reason – this car may be ecologically minded, but it also does 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds. (I’m not advertising for Jaguar, though… uh, hey Jag, I accept money. And automobiles. Be in touch.)

Engage:

Iain Suffield, Acoustics Technical Specialist at Jaguar:
“We have taken a completely blank canvas and worked with electronic musician and sound designer Richard Devine to interpret the design language of the vehicle, to create building blocks of sound we can craft into the I-PACE.”

And they’ve worked on every aspect of the sound: “The Stop/Start noise of the motors, the audible vehicle alert system, the dynamic driving sounds all have been designed completely from scratch.”

From the outside, the car hums. Inside the cabin, you get different sound sets to reward you as you engage “dynamic” mode, and there is manual customization. (Yes, your car has sound sets. I’m waiting until I can drive a car that looks like a LADA on the outside but sounds like the Enterprise-D on the inside. I’ll keep dreaming.)

You can expect major car companies to enlist these sorts of sound departments more frequently, along with other manufacturers of various products keen to engage customers. And since these teams are developing internally, as well as hiring outside creative talent as with Richard Devine, that means more opportunities for music producers and audio engineers.

So the next time you’re obsessing over getting a sound right and layering instead of just dialing in a preset the easy way, think of it as a career investment. It worked for Richard.

Previously on CDM, German maker Audi following a similar path:

Designing the Sound of a Real Car: An Audi, from Silence to Noise [Video]

Plus a homebrewed solution for bicycles:

Velosynth: Bicycle-Mounted Synth is Open Source, Hackable, Potentially Useful

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A favorite sequencer gets more dimension: new Make Noise René

Forget about gear fetish: the delightful surprise behind the modular movement is that a whole bunch of people are interested in exploring weird new musical ideas. And one of the sequencer modules at the heart of it is getting a big refresh.

The René module wouldn’t strike anyone as something that’d turn into a big hit. This is an esoteric little device: a grid of touchplates and a bunch of knobs, which you then spaghetti-wire into other modules to make, uh, odd patterns.

But making weird patterns you can then shift around – well, that’s a lot of fun. And René liberated modular rigs from one of their major weaknesses: too often, people were stuck with rigid step sequencers that produced overly repetitive loops that would drive you insane. Basically, the “Cartesian” bit is, instead of having a line (those marching steps), you get a grid (x + Y).

So, here comes the René refresh. This is three-dimensional chess to the original model’s checkers.

The new model is three channels instead of one, three dimensional sequencing instead of two, and boasts expanded memory so you can save up to 64 states – no more long modular performances that sound great for the first three minutes and then … sort of exactly like that for the next hour, too.

This “three-axis” business is maybe a little exaggerated, but basically what you get is z-axis touch sensitivity, so added expression. Combine that with three channels of output, though, and you can in fact route a lot more control from this one module than before. And no doubt the additional memory will be useful in performance.

Here’s the full feature set:

  • 3 CV outputs for controlling pitch or timbre
  • 3 Gate outputs for generating musical events
  • Snake and Cartesian patterns available simultaneously
  • STORE all Programming in one of 64 STATEs.
  • New Z-Axis allows for modulating through any combination of 64 STOREd STATEs
  • All programming done real-time, programming of René is a key performance element
  • Visualization of pattern activity always displayed on left half with 16 illuminated Knobs
  • Visual indication of Programming always displayed on right half with 16 illuminated touch buttons
  • Communicates w/ TEMPI via Select Bus to Select, Store, Revert, Multi-Paste and MESH STATEs
  • Maximum amount of artist controlled musical variation, derived from minimum amount of analog data input
  • All new touch sensing technology tested successfully on the most commonly used euro rack power solutions

Of course, since the René first came out, it’s gotten a lot more competition. So it could be fun to see how this stacks up against other modular (and desktop, or software, even) sequencers.

René is available to preorder for US$525.

http://makenoisemusic.com/modules/rene

Since that’s my monthly rent, it’s worth saying Eurorack is still pricey relative to some lower-cost desktop hardware, to say nothing of computers. Clever software patching is great if you’re broke, or if you’ve a little scratch, something like Five12 Numerology.

But that said, this no doubt will go high on people’s shopping lists in the modular world – and it’s an impressive piece of work. Look forward to seeing more.

Oh yeah – there’s a GIF, too.

via GIPHY

https://gph.is/2CTzLbq

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Cues: Detroit innovator Alan Oldham talks to us about techno, creation

It’s easy to forget if we get too deep into hero worship and seriousness, but real creativity is fun and boundless. So nothing energizes like talking to people like Alan Oldham, the multidisciplinary Detroit techno artist.

Oldham, sometimes DJing as DJ T-1000, had a multifaceted series of roles in techno. So he’s served in Underground Resistance – including as “Minister of Information.” He did artwork for Derrik May’s legendary Transmat label. He’s a comic artist as well as a producer, savvy enough to interact with the art market and not only the music industry. A lot of us in the USA got our first introduction to techno and the full story behind it through his story “Fast Forward” on National Public Radio. But then, in this age of overabundant production, we need those kind of voices now more than ever – people who can narrate what’s happening in music, DJs in the club sense and DJs in the radio sense.

Meanwhile, as CDM finds its evolved voice this year, I got to invite Alan (now a Berlin transplant) to talk about his process, to jam a little, and to chat about music, aesthetics, and futurism.

Alan is a big Native Instruments Maschine fan, and it’s nice to see how the MPC and other hardware workflows have made the transition to the computer age. I think immediacy is important to tapping into that creativity.

Have a look:

Off camera, it was also great that Alan got to hang out with our other guests, HRTL and Oliver Torr and their live project Windowlickerz. Growing up in Detroit, meet growing up in Czech Republic.

Alan Oldham in the studio.

Making beats (MASCHINE MIKRO), making comics (paper and pen).

Since January, Alan has been busy, in the studio and in the club (as well as continuing his visual art work). Message Discipline is the EP dropping in October on Pure Sonik Records.. The timbres, the tech are decidedly future-looking, not nostalgic. But as a lot of techno gets cold and clinical, overthought, or overly … well, dreary (not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that) — this is none of those things. It’s “up,” as Alan says. Maybe it’s hard to find words for that funky, groovy feeling because it’s better to describe it me moving my body around than it is just wiggling my fingers over the computer keyboard.

You know you’re in for something special when you’re dancing around to the damned excerpts on SoundCloud. Tell me I’m wrong:

Even that last cut swings, like a nice makeout slow dance. And the title track sounds ready to blast into orbit to some, uh, really sexy space lounge, I would imagine.

Message Discipline is all bangers, but for a more tripped-out experience, DetroitRocketScience is the ticket:

Alan and Ellen Allien can often be caught side by side, so expect more on Ellen’s BPitch Control, like this excellent remix:

He’s also got a great remix of Sky Deep’s “In This,” but looks like I can’t share that – take my word for it.

Now who wants to don an Andy Warhol wig and dance around a bit? Yeah? Have a great weekend, y’all.

Related – in summer 2011, Wax Poetics provided us with this article they ran exploring early Detroit techno history, and even talked to Alan. of course, now you meet the Detroit artists in Berlin.

Future Shock: The Emergence of Detroit Techno, Told by Wax Poetics

Photos courtesy Native Instruments.

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Sacha Baron Cohen’s EDM track reminds us of the joy of sampling

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? continues its epic troll of US society. And since Spinal Tap predates laptop production, we instead get a Hudson Mohawke tribute to sampling.

Resident Advisor picks up the story.

Here’s the thing, though. Miami nightclub owner and manager Jake Inphamous – that’s his real name, not a parody – not only figured out the prank, but shares a story that makes it clear the reality is still odder than the parody.

Vulture has the story. Here’s my favorite bit, on the way Inphamous coddled the artist over his awful track:

It wasn’t necessary to be polite. You know, I manage an artist called Lil Toenail. He’s a gimmick rapper and a troll rapper. He dresses up like a big foot, and has millions and millions of views on the internet. So I figured, “Okay, I’ve dealt with Lil Toenail before, it’s something similar to that.” I figured that if I’m taking this guy under my wing, I got to get his confidence, because this guy’s freakin’ nuts. I gotta support him. Me calling his work a masterpiece? Although I did think it was clever that he was able to get production hardware in prison and capture the sounds of his sentence, I called the song a masterpiece the same way I tell my 2-year-old daughter, “Oh my God, you finished your lunch! You’re the best eater in the whole world!”

How Sacha Baron Cohen Wound Up DJing at a Florida Nightclub

Well, that pretty much sums up the whole music industry. Remember, if you’ve ever struggled for support in your music, there’s something good about obscurity: it aids in self reliance. Oh yeah – Germany helps; people tend to be … frank.

Synchronicity: as I’m writing this, there’s a small child outside my window making… basically the same track, screaming and banging on things. I’d record it for you, but… it’s Germany, there’s presumably a law against that, and you can easily imagine.

Not to let Mr. Sacha Baron Cohen down, but music produced in prison is actually really a thing – and not this joke. For instance:

Behind Bars: Meet The Georgian Techno Producer Making Music From Prison [Electronic Beats]

Photo: Showtime network.

Previously in EDM on CDM:

deadmau5 wants EDM DJS to actually play, produces Tumblr poetry in the process

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What do you play? Berklee adds electronic digital instrument program

Musicians have majored in trumpets and voice, conducting and reeds. Now, they can choose the “electronic digital instrument” at Berklee College of Music, as music education works to redefine itself in the post-digital age.

The underlying idea here itself isn’t new – turntables and computers have been singled out before as instrumental or educational categories – but making a complete program in this way is novel. And maybe the most interesting thing about Berklee’s approach is bringing a range of different subcategories into one theme, the “electronic digital instrument,” or EDI. (Uh… okay, the search for a great name here continues. Maybe we can give away an Ableton Push as a naming contest?)

In Berklee’s formulation, this is computing device + software + controller.

I wonder if the “controller” formulation will stand the test of time, as computation and sound modeling is brought increasingly into the same box as whatever has controls on it. (You don’t think of the knobs on a synthesizer as a distinct “controller,” even though the functional relationship is the same.)

But most encouraging is the cast of characters and the program Berklee is assembling here. I’m very interested to hear more about their curriculum and how it’s taught – plus apparently know quite a few people involved – so let’s definitely follow up soon with an interview. Here’s their launch video:

The curricular objectives:

Upon completion of the performance core program with an electronic digital instrument, you will be able to:

design and configure a versatile, responsive, and musically expressive electronic performance system;
synthesize and integrate knowledge of musical styles to develop effective electronic performance strategies;
play in a variety of electronic performance modes using a variety of controllers;
use common types of synthesizers;
produce audio assets from a variety of sources, and use them in a live performance;
demonstrate proficiency in effect processing in a live performance; and
perform in solo and ensemble settings, taking on melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and textural roles as well as arranging, mixing, remixing, and real-time compositional musical roles using all parts of one’s performance system.

And the required coursework is interesting, as well. The program includes improvisation, and a bunch of ensemble work – with turntables, techno/rave and “DJ sampling,” hip-hop, and synth technique for live ensembles. That builds in turn on the development of laptop ensembles and more experimental improvisational work in programs in some other schools. Berklee students in the program will work with turntables (which some schools have offered in the past, if sporadically), but also studies in “performance” and “grid” controllers. (Dear Brian Crabtree, Toshio Iwai, and Roger Linn – did you imagine you would all help turn “grids” into an instrumental study?)

This is all over a four semester study.

The program announcement:

Principal Instruments: Electronic Digital Instrument

https://www.berklee.edu/

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Synths may be spared worst of US trade war – for now

Following Moog Music’s alarmed email regarding US trade policy, some in the synth industry have responded that the immediate impact on manufacturers will be minimal.

Okay, so what’s going on?

The matter of discussion is still a document by the US Trade Representative regarding proposed tariffs or import taxes. These are 25% additional tariffs imposed by the USA on Chinese goods as they’re imported into the United States.

This document has changed over the past months. But the USTR does provide a public comment period for any changes – meaning, while these tariffs are set to go into effect this Friday the 6th of July, theoretically there shouldn’t be any additional changes.

And that’s where there’s a legitimate problem with the way Moog Music – and my own writing here on CDM – presented the problem.

Paul Schreiber, an engineer who has worked with multiple companies in the industry, posted a heated rebuttal to the Moog letter. That was not necessarily to defend Trump administration policy, but rather to suggest that Moog and others may have overreacted or mischaracterized the immediate realities of the policy.

See, previously:
Moog urges US citizens to take action to stop Trump import tax

Long story short: the idea is, the tariffs apply only to small components, like LEDs and potentiometers, but not to more significant expenses like the “circuit boards” Moog mentioned in their email.

And in fact, the cost of those really shouldn’t significantly impact the cost of US-made products, including Moog’s – even on an instrument that’s covered in LEDs and stuffed with circuits, those particular parts make up a relatively small portion of the cost. They’re not meaningless – shaving dollars and even cents off individual components is a pretty major part of the design process. But they’re not the sort of thing that would disrupt jobs or hurt the economy.

The area of confusion may be around circuit boards, as Schreiber observes – and I’m forced to admit, I agree with his assessment. He writes in a follow-up post:

If you search the tariff PDF for ‘printed circuit assemblies’, you get many hits (ATM machines, radiation detectors, etc) and here in Section 90, this one listing.
The ‘issue’ is that the listing of the tariff codes are an ABBREVIATED DESCRIPTION, not ‘as formally written’ in the ACTUAL codes.
The 9030 section of Chapter 90 is SPECIFICALLY talking about oscilloscopes. And this 9030.90.68 is referring to a non-US company, importing a ‘kit of parts’ into the USA, including a stuffed pc board, and then building a scope in the USA.

That’s not necessarily a definitive list, and it is open to interpretation but … I do tend to agree with this interpretation, unless someone can present a compelling alternative reading.

There are still reasons for the electronic musical instrument building community to be concerned. An escalating trade war between the USA and its trading partners could pose unexpected problems in the near future. And if these trading difficulties hurt the US economy, that impact could be felt, too. But it’s important to separate that from the immediate impact on making synths, which for the moment may indeed be negligible.

Other industries have greater cause to worry. The US automakers in particular are seriously concerned about costs for raw materials and retaliatory penalties abroad – but they’re impacted differently than US synthmakers are. Agriculture are concerned, too, as punitive measures cut off markets they need for exports. (And, okay, yes, synthesizers make up a much smaller part of the US economy than cars or agriculture, obviously. I guess we still have work to do? Or we have to figure out how you can ride synthesizers to different places, or … eat them.)

The DIY community I shared in my original post are harder hit, too, as a lot of their products are just these components – see Boing Boing’s story on maker products.

And there’s the fact that the US President is saying threatening things about the EU in general.

But in a heated political climate, it’s important to separate long-term risks from immediate problems, and to keep concerns in scale. For now, it’s reasonable for makers like Moog to protest isolationist or protectionist US trade policy, or heated up trade rhetoric and potential trade wars. But the rules going into effect this week, when viewed just inside the context of our industry, likely aren’t catastrophic – not yet.

I’m awaiting further comment from Moog on their activism and will update this story when that’s available.

Feature photo (CC-BY Paul Downey.

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Moog urges US citizens to take action to stop Trump import tax

As steep tariffs on electronics loom at the end of next week, Moog are warning that US synth makers could lose their jobs.

The US Trade Representative and the Trump Administration are proposing a steep 25% additional tariff increase on electronic components from China (among other goods), as covered here on CDM last week:

Trump’s tariffs could be costly for made-in-the-USA music gear

Now, those tariffs are expected to take effect on Friday, July 6.

Moog has gone as far as to implore their own customers to take action, in an email sent a week in advance of the rules change. That’s as far as I know reasonably unprecedented. Whatever the politics in Asheville, North Carolina, many US music customers are Trump voters.

But in this case, Moog’s business – and the American manufacturing they’ve consistently made a selling point – are threatened. The mailing, which includes a heart-wrenching photo of Moog employees in North Carolina, reads:

A U.S. tariff (import tax) on Chinese circuit boards and associated components is expected to take effect on July 6, 2018.

These tariffs will immediately and drastically increase the cost of building our instruments, and have the very real potential of forcing us to lay off workers and could (in a worst case scenario) require us to move some, if not all, of our manufacturing overseas.

In the article, they break down why this is such a big deal for Moog – and illustrate how the Trump trade policy could devastate American manufacturing and the US economy.

“Made in the USA” depends on Chinese parts. Roughly half of Moog’s circuit boards and related components come from China. Those parts are the fuel that allow them to support good manufacturing jobs in the USA, for assembly, testing, and shipping.

They pay more for US parts – and those will get more expensive, too. Electronics sourced inside the USA are already more expensive – priced up to 30% higher than other components. But because these parts also source Chinese components, those prices could go higher still.

People are going to lose jobs. Because these changes have an immediate impact, costs go up immediately. That will likely mean layoffs, soon, say Moog in the mailing. In the long run, it could mean having to move manufacturing out of the USA.

Moog have offered CDM to provide additional comment, so I hope to follow up this story.

In case you aren’t depressed enough, I think the mailing covers only a part of the problem. The immediate impact will be driving up the costs of US synth manufacturers. But stiff import tariffs could cause immediate and widespread job loss across a number of sectors. Motorcycle maker Harley Davison announced plans to move some manufacturing abroad – and saw stiff market losses as it came under direct fire by the President. General Motors warned the move could shrink the company, cut US operations, and kill jobs.

US job losses and a weakened economy would hit the biggest market for music electronics and musical instruments, meaning a second blow would be delivered to our whole industry.

And there’s more: Harley Davison’s move came after retaliatory tariffs imposed by the European Union, not the USA. This is what a global trade war looks like. If the EU expands those tariffs, then a manufacturer like Moog or MakeNoise or Eventide assembly products in the USA could face 50% taxes imposed on customers when its goods reach Europe.

But don’t get depressed – do something, if you’re a US citizen. Moog suggests writing Representatives and Senators. They’ve added contacts for North Carolina, but this is relevant of course to people living across the USA.

The Moog mailing is the best place to start if you live in North Carolina – and it has some talking points if you want something to look at when writing or calling your officials elsewhere:

25% Tariff On Chinese Goods Threatens Our Jobs

For everyone else – including Americans living abroad, like myself – you can find White House, Senate, and House contacts easily from the official US government website:

https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials

Don’t know who your Represntative is? See here: https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative

And find your Senators by choosing your state from the dropdown upper left here: https://www.senate.gov/senators/index.htm

The US Trade Representative is an office of the President, so I’d suggest also contacting the White House, even if this Administration is unlikely to change its policy.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/get-involved/

For the rest of the world outside the USA, uh, yeah, I have no idea what to tell you. But certainly, I think it would be optimistic to assume this will only impact US manufacturers; the ripples are likely to be felt throughout electronic music tools as through other industries. We’ll keep you posted as this develops.

And to all you folks at Moog – thanks for speaking out. And I hope we can help you keep your jobs.

https://www.moogmusic.com

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Trump’s tariffs could be costly for made-in-the-USA music gear

Industries like automative (and motorcycles) may be getting the attention, but music gear and even Eurorack could feel the impact of trade restrictions in the United States.

This is CDM, not the Economist, so let’s back up and review the issue but stick to the impact on makers of synthesizers, guitar pedals, and the like.

First, it’s important to note that for now, this is all talk – a threat by the Trump Administration meant to provoke rival China. Specifically, we’re talking about a the Trump Administration threat last week to impose stiff import tariffs on $200 billion in goods produced in China. But even the talk is relevant, as tensions between the superpowers can turn a threat into reality – especially if they cause the negotiations to fail.

Here’s what’s happened. Early last week, the Trump Administration threatened new tariffs on Chinese goods:
U.S., China Rattle Trade-War Sabers in Vowing Harsh Tariffs [Bloomberg]

Bloomberg immediately speculated that electronics could be hit hard. The result could be higher prices for consumers of those goods in the USA – presumably including some Chinese-made electronic music gear. CDM readers from South America, for instance, can attest to this reality – ask someone from Brazil, for instance, how expensive it is to get a popular music controller or mixer. Those tariffs hit the bottom-line cost of goods, so the penalty is passed on to the consumer, not necessarily the manufacturer (though more on that in a moment).

Then things got more specific – and interesting. The US Trade Representative (USTR) – essentially the office that both develops the President’s trade policy and represents the US on behalf of the Administration – published a list of just which Chinese goods it had in mind.

There’s a lot in that document, if you feel like reading it:
https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/Press/Releases/301FRN.pdf

According to the USTR, this exhaustive list of products is selected based on goods that “benefit from Chinese industrial policies, including Made in China 2025.” (That in itself is a pretty striking statement – even in a western country like the USA, it’s hard to imagine that industries don’t benefit from government policies.) Then, from that list, the USTR claim they’ve removed products that would disrupt the US economy.

And then the whole lot of these products gets a proposed 25% increase in tariffs – on top of what’s already there.

The whole process of identifying this list is based on public hearings and comment. So if you’re a US citizen, you can actually participate in a public comment process if these tariffs would impact you.

And then you get into the list. The way the global trading system works is, you have a set of codes that describe specific categories of goods, to an absurd level of detail. Here, you have pages of particular kinds of steel and aluminum and machinery.

But one thing the list has a whole lot of us is electronics components: motors, batteries, but also LEDs, capacitors, diodes, transistors and the like. There are also a whole lot of machines and components used in the manufacture of electronics, from injection molding to electronics assembly.

There are also weird things, like electrical particle accelerators and nuclear power reactors, but we can forget about those.

The bottom line is, a lot of the ingredients of electronics are included under the tariffs, but then a lot of the assembled goods – including, as near as I can tell from this list, musical instruments and music and sound electronics – are excluded. Assembled TVs and (perversely) tape VCRs are taxed. But most other finished goods aren’t.

So if you thought your made-in-China pocket recorder or keyboard would be slapped with a tariff, that’s not what’s happening – not in the proposed list. In fact, it’s the made-in-the-USA gear that winds up getting more expensive, because American makers use components purchased from China.

The tech press has responded accordingly:

Gadget makers are bracing for Trump’s trade war: Trump’s tariffs could spell doom for small hardware startups [The Verge]

But maybe even more interestingly, DIY-focused site Hack-A-Day weighs in:
MAKING ELECTRONICS JUST GOT 25% MORE EXPENSIVE IN THE US

For example:

This will hurt all electronics manufacturers in the United States. For a quick example, I’m working on a project using half a million LEDs. I bought these LEDs (120 reels) two months ago for a few thousand dollars. This was a fantastic buy; half a million of the cheapest LEDs I could find on Mouser would cost seventeen thousand dollars. Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

(Emphasis mine.)

Potentiometers are included. PCB components.

A 25% increase in parts costs is fairly significant. It’s eating directly into profits. And what’s strange to me is, an easy way to avoid the tariffs would be to assemble the product outside the United States, since for most product categories – as ours are in music – the components are impacted but assembled products are not.

Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

For now, all of this is hypothetical. And I don’t want to overstate the case here. Trade and economic instability would likely threaten boutique music gear makers far more than these kinds of tariffs. That is, those boutique synth makers might be able to work out a way around the increased tariffs, and/or adjust prices. But if a massive trade war between the US and China erupts and crashes the economy, lost demand for synths would hurt more.

I do think this illustrates two important points, however.

One, even as electronic music offers some respite from politics and headlines, the news will inevitably reach electronic music and gear. You can’t escape the news in the end.

Two, it’s more clear than ever that the world is an interconnected place. DIY music and independent boutique music gear makers have exploded thanks to both the Internet and global trade. That’s included cheap access to prototyping, cheap components and machinery – even for those makers producing in the USA. For other engineers, cheap and expanding Chinese manufacture has allowed people to become manufacturers who otherwise never would have done so.

That’s not to get into the deeper questions of how positive these trends have been, or what impacts they may have had along the way – societal, environmental, human.

But the world of 2018 sees musicians and inventors tied together across borders and distance in ways they never were before. And with that world order shifting fast, those connections are likely to change along with them, in unpredictable ways.

Okay, you’re now free to go apply some unpredictable modulation to an oscillator if all of this made your head hurt.

All comments welcome. (I’ve reached out for comment to some manufacturers; I expect an ongoing conversation here around these issues, especially as we get more news.)

Feature photo (CC-BY Paul Downey.

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