Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Remembering the Rockman

Today was my last day of teaching for the semester. I wrapped up my course on music technology on something of an odd note, but one that I thought raised some provocative questions. We'd been spending the last weeks of the semester talking about the effects of digitization on the music industry, with journalist Steve Knopper's polemic Appetite for Self-Destruction as our guide. We've talked about the development of MP3 technology, and about Apple's successful plan of using music to market new hardware with its simultaneous promotion of iTunes and its various mobile listening devices. And we've stressed the ways in which portability has superseded fidelity as the optimal feature for music consumers.

All of this raised important questions about the connection between music technology, listening and consumption. But it left questions about music production and creativity largely to the side. So, to bring things back around, I spent a good chunk of today's class discussing the brief history of the Rockman.

Anyone out there remember the Rockman? None of my students did, which is no great shock since this thing's heyday was nearly thirty years ago when most of my students weren't born. But, the Rockman marked a pretty fascinating early instance of trying to take portable music technology and make it something useful for musicians, not only for music listeners. The name, of course, was a play on the famous Sony Walkman, but the function was singular: a portable guitar preamp designed to be played through headphones, and with built-in distortion, chorus and echo effects that were considered state of the art as guitar effects were concerned.

That the device was designed by Boston guitarist (and MIT-schooled) Tom Scholz only added to the peculiar mystique of the thing.

Personally, I never liked the Rockman all that much. I never owned one but a good friend of mine did, and it didn't quite have the quality of distortion that I liked to have. But others disagreed, and the Rockman made an impact in its day, less for its portability than for giving guitarists a range of valued sounds in a compact, affordable package.

With all the current interest in music's portability, I'm surprised more people haven't been drawn to recall the Rockman. Any time spent with the iTunes app store will show an awful lot of apps made for the new generation of portable devices that seem to try to do something akin to the Rockman, to appeal to musicians' desire for a range of ways to manipulate sound in an accessible and compact package. Luckily for me, Tom Scholz himself seems to put a lot of stock in preserving the history of his own efforts, and he's designed a website devoted to the Rockman that has a remarkable amount of information about its history. Worthy checking out for those who want to explore this unusual bit of music technology:


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

War Is Heavy Metal

That's the working title of an essay I'm writing for what looks to be a really interesting anthology devoted to popular music in the post-9/11 era. Not my usual topic, insofar as I tend not to write about things so current as the past decade, but it's given me the occasion to read up on some of the really interesting literature that's appeared concerning the cultural politics of the "War on Terror."

I'll be writing on the recurrence of heavy metal music in the soundtracks to a variety of Iraq War-related films. Earlier today I watched the first half-hour of Soundtrack to War, a fairly obscure documentary (far as I know, at least) dedicated to the place of music in the experiences of the soldiers stationed in Iraq. Michael Moore used footage from this film in his own documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. It's pretty fascinating, and has a great sequence about 20 minutes in revolving around a soldier who's into "gore metal," and is playing guitar while explaining how the music he likes is so suited to being at war. I'm taking the title of my essay from this scene, where after playing through a riff on his guitar, the guy says "War is heavy metal" and flashes the devil horns. \m/ (Is that how it goes? I'm not much for emoticons...)

Below is the link to the whole film, which is available through Google video. Definitely worth a look:


(I tried to embed the video but somehow it didn't work; the link will do for the curious though.)