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PCRECORDING.COM - Ken Adams interview (BioDrummer)

1. How did you get started in programming shareware? What is your educational background?

I backed into programming shareware. I was a graduate student in Anthropology when I got the idea for BioDrummer's predecessor in 1995, and since I was rapidly losing interest in Anthropology, I started programming instead. I don't have any formal training in programming or computer science.

2. What is BioDrummer?

BioDrummer is a program that "grows" rhythms. It works on the principle of applied evolution - the program adds randomly-generated notes to a rhythm one at a time, and the user plays the role of natural selection, keeping the good-sounding notes and deleting the bad ones.

3. What was the idea that started BioDrummer?

A book by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins called The Blind Watchmaker. As part of the book, Dawkins wrote a program that evolved simple tree-like shapes on the screen through a process similar to BioDrummer's. Something just clicked when I read it, and I thought the basic principle would work for creating music as well.

4. What need were you trying to fill?

There wasn't really an existing need that I was trying to fill, other than to create music-composition software that doesn't require any musical experience or knowledge at all.

5. How many users of BioDrummer are there?

About 700 registered users, and somewhere around 20000 users of the free demo.

6. What is unique about BioDrummer?

There are actually a large number of programs on the market these days for creating music. However, most of these programs either just remix loops that have already been created by someone else (e.g. Acid, Mixman Studio etc.), or else create music through the process of rule-based algorithmic composition (e.g. Koan, Band-in-a-Box etc.). My experience with these programs is that while their output often sounds quite good and professional, you don't get the feeling from using them that you're actually creating anything by yourself.

BioDrummer is based on the idea that anyone can create unique music completely by themselves, without anything having to be prepackaged or predigested for them. The unique aspect of BioDrummer is that you can create music from scratch with it, and it will really be YOUR music that you've created, not someone else's.

7. Generally, how does it work?

Basically, BioDrummer just adds random notes one at a time, and the user keeps the ones she likes and deletes the ones she doesn't. Eventually you've built up a complete rhythm.

8. What has your experience been like working in the Windows environment?

To paraphrase Shakespeare: "so fair and foul an OS I have not seen." Windows gets bashed quite a bit, especially by programmers, but in my experience it's no better or worse than any other programming environment. Like most things in technology, one product has certain advantages and disadvantages, while other products have different advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage for me programming in Windows is that I can use Visual Basic for the program's graphical front end; VB drastically shortens the development cycle for software and allows much greater flexibilty during development, at the expense of a complete lack of portability to any other platform. The lack of portability is not a problem at the moment, since the other advantage of Windows is that 90% of the world is using it.

9. Have you received any support from MS?

Early on in my programming career, their support engineers were actually extraordinarily helpful with a number of problems that I had. After a while, however, they simply can't help you. The programming problems I run into these days are so bizarre and inexplicable that there's not much they can do.

10. Under what OS's does BioDrummer work?

Only the 32-bit Windows platforms: Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows NT (and presumably Windows 2000, although I haven't tested it yet).

11. Do you have any plans for releasing a Linux or BeOs version of BioDrummer?

Not in the near future. In the long-term I want to switch over to using Java for the program's user interface, and then writing platform-specific natively compiled DLLs to handle the number crunching and audio output. However, this is outside my range as a programmer right now, and in any event I would want Java to become a much more stable platform than it currently is before I started using it.

12. What features/upgrades are you planning on adding to BioDrummer, in its next version?

The next version of BioDrummer, called BioComposer, is going to be a full-fledged musical composition engine. It will work very much like BioDrummer, with the addition of instruments that can generate notes with pitch and length (e.g. strings, marimba, bass etc.). Once you've created a loop, you'll be able to stretch it into a full-length song with a simple grid that lets you turn tracks on and off while the song plays (like the automixer feature in BioDrummer), and also lets you cross-fade between different track combinations. There will also be an upgraded automixer feature that is "trainable" - you can reward it when it plays something you like, and punish it when it plays a mix of tracks that you don't like. I'm hoping to have it in beta by Christmas, but that may or may not happen.

13. What is the coolest least understood feature about BioDrummer?

One unique and important feature of BioDrummer is that it is capable of infinite-voice synthesis. Music software that uses either MIDI or the DirectSound features of DirectX has limitations on the number of different sounds that can be heard at the same time. Because BioDrummer does not do real-time synthesis (users are often quite surprised to learn that this is the case), any number of instruments and notes can be added to a rhythm, regardless of the speed of your processor. In addition to the musical freedom this provides, you can be sure that anyone else you send a BIO file to will hear the exact same thing that you hear.

Another feature that's often ignored is the AutoMixer. Turning on the automixer creates endless variety by turning layers on and off randomly while the rhythm plays. It's a lot of fun to listen to, and it beats hearing the same loop over and over again.

14. What other products are you developing, if any?

Another program in the works is tentatively title WaveGarden. WaveGarden applies the same principle of applied evolution, only it is used to create individual sounds and instruments rather than completed music. So, for instance, you could "grow" a snare drum sound, or even cross-breed a snare drum with a hi-hat cymbal to produce a new generation of sounds that you could then use in BioDrummer or BioComposer. After BioComposer, this will be TripToys' next release.

15. What would you most like BioDrummer customers to know?

That you don't have to be a musician to use it. Even people who have never given a moment's thought to the idea of making music enjoy playing with BioDrummer. People usually laugh when they ask me who the market for BioDrummer is, and I reply "everyone," but I really believe it (probably a dream shared by all shareware authors). If even my mother likes it, so will everybody else.