One of the most interesting events at the recent Ableton Loop was a panel led by prolific musician/composer/video producer/YouTube personality Andrew Huang. What is really cool about Andrew is the innovative music career he has created for himself, using current computer and communication technologies. That is not to belittle his talent. He has plenty of that, as well as refined audio (and video) craft, and a deep understanding of community building, honed through countless hours of hard work. On top of all that, he has a nutty sense of humor.
In any artistic endeavor the intersection of creativity, craft and community is what makes a result that is compelling and engaging. Back in the 90s music software developers turned the computer into a recording device that was more convenient than tape. Today the computer has become a musical instrument unto itself, with music being created that couldn't be realized without it. At the same time communication technologies have made the world smaller, and the ability to build communities easier. Finally, the ease of musical distribution (legally and illegally) means that artists can't rely solely on sales of their recordings. The combination of these technologies has given rise to an entirely new kind of artist/entrepreneur.
He was kind enough to speak to us following the Ableton Loop event in December.
Tell us about the music part of your background. You grew up in Canada?
Yea, I grew up in Ottawa, but I've been in Toronto the past 15 or 16 years now. I have a really varied background. A lot of people know me now as this YouTube character, definitely with an electronic music focus, sampling interests, but I've also worked in a lot of different genres. I grew up playing classical piano, a little bit of double bass. In my teens, I picked up guitar and electric bass as well. My brother was a drummer, so I would just get on his kit and figured things out.
How did you get to where you have been able to support yourself with music?
I went to school for classical composition but I left because I didn't think sitting in a classroom with a bunch of people was the best way to learn how to create music. I started my own band, and started doing commissions on eBay for anybody who would happen to stumble across me. I was posting auctions where the winner of the auction would get a piece of music produced by me and they could ask for whatever they wanted. I was making songs for whatever random people found these eBay auctions.
So, I'd write songs for people's weddings, or songs for their dogs. I even did comedic songs based on people's suggestions. That was what got me on the map. I built a website and started making the songs publicly available. The songs were just weird and funny, and people would email them to each other. After a couple of years I had a few thousand people following me, and my family had no idea how I was making money. It was kind of a fun time.
And this was before Facebook and social media really became mainstream...
Yea. Eventually I got into commercial music production, scoring car commercials and little jingles for the radio or whatever. And concurrently I became aware of YouTube. I saw it more as a traditional vehicle for promoting music and I started to put music videos together for my music pieces. I found over time was there was a much more engaging—and to be honest, easier type of content to produce—the mix between talking about music and creating music and sharing about my process and involving other people in projects. It's been a really unorthodox journey, but a very rewarding one.
Prior to Loop, Andrew posted a sample file, with directions to create a piece of music primarily based on that file. The event featured Andrew and two other panelists whose work had been selected from the pool of entries.
Where did the idea for your Loop event originate?
It's a take on a series I did on my YouTube channel where I got three producers, and myself, to put their own spin on one sample. Ableton liked that, and we'd been talking about doing it at Loop since my first episode, so it was sort of like a big live version of that idea.
It worked out quite well. I mean, there were three (Andrew's own was the third) completely different approaches to that particular piece...
That series is one of my favorite things that I do on my channel because it really is what I'm interested in—collaborating and showcasing different artists and upcoming artists and celebrating the incredible diversity of style and creativity that each individual has.
Do you remember the first computer application you started working with?
The school I went to had Cubasis, that was first, but it led me to FL Studio, but it was limited in terms of what I could do with audio, so eventually I found my way through Reason and Acid, and then Live in 2005. I didn't get it at first, so I kind of wrote it off. But then a friend told me about an Ableton workshop. And for me, having a person explain to you, "Here's the tiny button you can press to access this huge function," and showing the way that warping worked. That was the thing that blew my mind and kind of convinced me on the spot that I needed to get into it. I had never seen being able to re-time audio so flexibly. It was the audio mangling capabilities that drew me in.
Any particular plug-ins you use the most?
Oh man, there're so many. My computer is just full of them. I've been a big fan of the Reaktor community for quite a few years. There is so much creative and dynamic user made Reaktor stuff that sounds good. I do like a lot of Native stuff besides Reaktor. It takes up a larger portion of what I end up reaching for. I have a Kontrol S controller. I have been working with them and I think the whole culture of their workplace is great. Everybody is super passionate about what they're doing.
I've got one more plugin that I'll throw in the mix. There're a few from Unfiltered Audio that I really, really like, but particularly Sandman Pro is just the most bonkers delay ever. All of their stuff has build-your-own modulation points, and that's kind of a selling feature for me.
Are there any particular parts of Live or perhaps plug-in instruments or even effects that have inspired music that you've made? Any particular tricks that you are willing to divulge?
That's a good question. I take a lot of different approaches. I'm trying to think if there's any go-to trick like that I might use. I do a lot with percussion, as far as little ways to mess around like that to come up with something cool. Using the Ableton's launch features. So, yea, the different launch modes and quantizing them differently—that kind of thing for just generating rhythms or creating an entire track where the rhythm of the percussion never quite repeats, that's a real trick of mine. And then using that in conjunction with the Max for Live LFO or something like that, where you can assign that to modulate some kind of parameter of the sounds and you end up with this ever-evolving sort of a beat.
How did you get your YouTube channel started?
Once I started my website, everything could just funnel through there. YouTube was an interest for me, but not something that I ever saw being the main part of what I do. Eventually, what kind of changed that, was seeing all of the other creators and meeting some of them in person who really understood the power of YouTube. It's the world's second largest search engine behind Google, and that alone gives you the potential to reach so many people who are interested in the same things that you are interested in creating. At the same time, with the medium being video, there are a lot of creative ways to share ideas.
Being plugged in to the YouTube scene for so many years, I've watched it change and I've watched how there have been all of these evolutions of people realizing what you can do within a YouTube video and what makes them more effective, whether that's for communicating or reaching more people. We're in a really interesting time right now with how easy it is to shoot and edit a video, and put it up online. There's so much inspiration and it's a lot more dynamic than when it started out, when people just kind of turned on their camera and the video would be one long unedited take.
Did you actually market yourself, or just do the videos and people came?
Pretty much, I just did the videos and people came. I would say that some of the videos I have done, I have had in mind that they would be an outreach video. Most of the videos that I do are just something that I thought of someday where I'm showcasing a part of something I'm working on that I think will be interesting to my audience, but there is the occasional video where, okay, everyone is searching for a Fidget spinner right now, so I made a couple of videos where I put the fidget spinners front and center. And those got about a million views each.
People were searching for "Fidget spinner" and your video would come up...
Exactly. There were just tons and tons of people just wanting to see what other people were doing with fidget spinners, so that's just one example. The more common ones for a music channel would be to do a cover of whatever the hottest song is at the time. That's what a lot of music channels do to keep new viewers finding them.
You started as a composer. What kind of advice would you, as a successful entrepreneurial kind of musician, offer people these days?
It's really about having a diverse skill-set and being ready to do whatever gig comes your way. There are a lot of different revenue streams that are possible to have, and they all take different skills and different amounts of time and energy. I was composing all of this stuff and producing, and that was my main thing, but even through those years, I was doing some live stuff. I was doing merchandise and selling it. I was recording the occasional band at my home studio, little mixing and mastering jobs here and there. I do know people who found their success by just focusing on one thing and being the absolute best at it. Like a mix engineer who does nothing but mix. That's all his portfolio is made up of and that's what he spends his whole day on, but that's not something that works for me.
The computer has progressed from being a recording device to being a musical instrument unto itself. With traditional musical instruments it's pretty obvious when you are watching someone who is at the peak of their craft. With the computer as an instrument, how might you define virtuosity?
That's a great question. I think it's definitely much more beneath the surface than what you would traditionally associate with a performing virtuoso or an instrumental or vocalist virtuoso. I think it encompasses so many more different kinds of skills or different ways to execute ideas that it's hard to pin down. I do get a lot of comments on some of my videos where I really delve into some of the processes where someone will say that it wasn't until they saw this video that they actually understood how much needed to go into that side of music. It wasn't only about the writing of the song and the performing of the song, but how many details in the production phase that really shape the music.
I think it has something to do with the quality of one's ideas, and then of course, the quality of their output. But it's such a complex beast, people can be involved in the computer side of music in so many different ways, that you don't always know who contributed what.
One of the things that triggered the previous question was one of your videos about beat subdivision (see 3 tips to master odd time signatures below). I think you did a 19/16 meter part and then you played it on the drum. And I thought, wow, he must have had to practice that. I'm guessing you didn't set out to write a song in 19/16, but if you chop an audio sample it might come out that way, and now you've got to figure out how to play the other parts in that meter, and work it into an overall song structure.
Yea, that's something that's less understood, in terms of how some music is created these days because there's so much more overlap between different creative processes and it's not necessarily just, "I'm going to be inspired and I'm going to think of an idea and I'm going to enact that physically through the instrument I have to express myself." A weird recording or a weird artifact of something like technology that didn't do what it was supposed to do can turn into something that can spark an idea that you can then develop. There's so much more interplay between all of these different parts of the music making process and that's what I'm finding is most fun to explore these days, even though there are still lots of elements of the traditional "write it and then perform it" kind of methodology that I can still use.
What did you learn from music school that was good? I listened to what you created with that sample at Loop and I thought this is carefully thought out. It all flows from one theme to another. Was your study of composition helpful in this regard?
I think that was in other parts of my classical training. Doing piano from a young age and having the theory foundation, I think that was important, and when I got to the university level, I think some things were probably helpful in small ways. One assignment that I remember was having to take a movement of a Beethoven symphony and arrange it for a single piano. I think there's tremendous value in studying classical music.
Where do you think things are heading in the next few years?
I think that we are in a time of fragmentation. I think there are some things that people feel are disappearing, but I think they are more just shrinking and there are more slices of this pie. I don't think that the computer is replacing instruments or anything like that, but the computer being an instrument has been a huge paradigm shift. I think it's an exciting time to be able to be a creative musician. There are so many more options available for musicians to explore.
One of the developments that I have my eye on is the use of machine learning and how that will become part of our creative processes. I think machine learning is going to be the next one of those where we suddenly have these tools that are able to do a lot of the creating for us and I think it'll be interesting to see how that merges with our need to create and the things that we want to create.
Thanks very much for your time. A lot of our audience at KVR are into what you are doing...
I have been on KVR all the time and it's been a great resource for finding little synth plugins that helped me find some inspiration that way, and of course the forum whenever I have this thing I'm wondering about, it would pop up where someone has already asked the question, so it's cool.