Episode cover featuring a person sitting cross-legged with many tools laid out in front of them. Yellow and white background, with the Aboard logo in white and the title "Craft as an Antidote to Crisis" in black.

Paul tries to talk about his current obsession—synthesizers—on a hardware and software level, but Rich turns the tables to talk about Paul’s obsession itself. After Rich repeatedly asks Paul, “What are you doing?” they discuss the appeal of minimally online hobbies (and, by extension, software) in an extremely online world.

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E13

Craft as an Antidote to Crisis

January 30, 2024

Rich Ziade: I’m Rich Ziade.

Paul Ford: And I’m Paul Ford.

Rich: And this is the Aboard Podcast.

Paul: Hey, that’s great. What’s Aboard?

Rich: Aboard is a software platform that lets you collect, organize, collaborate, and work with others. We’ve got a major exciting update coming soon…

Paul: Coming soon.

Rich: But honestly, even with the tool we got today, we’re seeing a lot of wonderful engagement. It’s very neat to see right now.

Paul: Right now it’s a great tool for research, and for—

Rich: Saving links.

Paul: Saving links, managing data and information, images, all sorts of stuff. So go check it out at aboard.com. We’re the co-founders. It’s our sponsor. Here we are.

[intro music]

Rich: This podcast is not only—it’s actually rarely about Aboard, it’s sort of our sponsor, but we talk about tech, life, software, apocalypse.

Paul: Exactly—

Rich: Climate.

Paul: So, look, last week was, you know me, I’m both an incredible enthusiast and—

Rich: It was kind of a bummer last week, dude.

Paul: Last week and a little bit of a downer. That’s what we got. We know this.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I’m good at seeing risk.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Anyway, I thought we could talk about something fun and exciting in the world of software.

Rich: Oh, that sounds great!

Paul: Well, there isn’t any actual objective news aside from AI, but I’ll tell you what, since, so we sold our company going on about two years ago now.

Rich: Yeah, feels like yesterday.

Paul: And, uh, when you sell a company, even if you have a new startup to fill up all of your available time, you do have certain cycles that you need to do something with.

Rich: Yes. This is a classic manager/executive conundrum.

Paul: And you know what I’ve noticed? I’ve known a lot of people who’ve sold their companies. Drones. Drones are big.

Rich: Hydrofoil.

Paul: AI. So there was a part of me that’s like, listen, I’m a middle-aged man. I really like Aboard. I like what we’re building. But it needs—to be healthy and sustainable, it needs to be a job.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: So I need one more thing in my life.

Rich: One of the gifts that software can give you is a sense of completion—

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Around some skill. Fixing the Wi-Fi. Executives love to fix the Wi-Fi.

Paul: Oh, you ever notice that? The stereo system? Well, you’re into headphones. You’ve got it.

Rich: Yeah, and look, I think part of it—but I’m also into things I have to work on.

Paul: This is what happened to me.

Rich: Hydroponics.

Paul: So I bought a synth when we sold our company. And a nice one. Nothing banana cakes, just a nice synth. And then I—

Rich: You bought Phil Collins’s synth.

Paul: Not quite, but like, uh…

Rich: Peter Gabriel’s synth.

Paul: I bought a Prophet Z, which is like a sampling, powerful—it’s like a good pro musician’s tool.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: And then I spent almost a full year completely intimidated by it because it is not for amateurs.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: It’s like you got 50 little knobs, and you need to actually understand how synthesis works, how audio works, and how envelopes work.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And so on. I got to know it. And then over the course of a year, really focusing for hours at a time, buying a few more pieces of equipment and so on, I started to figure it out. And then I realized I could go one of two ways, or I could go both. One is like, learn to solder and make my own synthesis equipment.

Rich: Hardware.

Paul: Hardware. So I did buy a learn-to-solder kit, and I’ve got that there for when I have some downtime. But what really started to speak to me was aspects of music production and also learning music theory. I practice piano every day for about a half hour.

Rich: You’re a student.

Paul: I do scales for a half hour. I actually practice longer than that. But the boring parts are really important, and so I’m focusing on the boring parts and getting better, and I’m learning to read music at a greater and greater speed and so on and so forth.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: So that’s been really fun. But I love software. I love software. You’re not going to change that about me.

Paul: You do.

Rich: You do love software. You love a particular kind of software.

Paul: Well wait, characterize that. I’m curious.

Rich: Most software today is—[laughs] including our own, by the way—is collaborative.

Paul: Web-based.

Rich: Web-based, chatty, social, constantly trying to reconnect you by showing you the thing you missed out on last time you were there a minute ago.

Paul: I love much of that stuff, too.

Rich: You do.

Paul: I like my email client.

Rich: You do.

Paul: I like organizing information. That’s part of me.

Rich: You do. But you do love the software equivalent of the fully decked out workbench in the garage.

Paul: You know what? I never have liked massive multiplayer games. I like first-person shooters. I’ll play that.

Rich: I think you get to fiddle with the thing without anyone—look, the killer feature of the software you gravitate to is that no one’s going to show up and distract you. You’re alone. You’re alone.

Paul: No, that’s right. It’s my zone to figure it out. That’s how I learned about software. So anyway, if you look out in the world, everything is about AI, et cetera, et cetera. And everything is, like, about web apps and Google and Facebook.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And meanwhile, there is, I wouldn’t call it a renaissance, but actually wonderful things going on in the music technology space.

Rich: Huh. Software?

Paul: Yes.

Rich: Music software—you’re talking about, like, FruityLoops. That’s like, the extent of my knowledge.

Paul: Sure, that’s a good example. I don’t have that. But there is, so there’s—

Rich: It’s been around 20 years, FruityLoops—

Paul: Everybody has to pick what’s called a digital audio workstation. Let’s just put that aside for a second.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: Digital audio workstation. There are big ones. There’s Logic on the Mac. There’s Pro Tools, FruityLoops. The one I use is Ableton Live. It came free with a sound card 20 years ago, and I’ve updated it ever since.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: So I know Ableton pretty well. I like it. I’m noodling around. I’m not trying to be a musician. I just like to understand how it all works.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: Okay. So now there is this idea in the world of music of a plugin. And a plugin started with a company, Steinberg, but you can basically be like, hey, I want an instrument that sounds like that.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: What the plugin—so you get a plugin, and it’s a plugin, emphasize—it actually perfectly emulates an older synthesizer. So when you’re in this world, they have a thing called GAS—Gear Acquisition Syndrome. You just want to keep buying stuff.

Rich: Normal. For many hobbies.

Paul: And plugins are wonderful because you can spend $50 to get the $2,500 synthesizer, and you’ll find after dinking around with it for a couple of hours?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: That the fever is passing. It’s a tool. It sounds pretty good.

Rich: The unboxing euphoria passes.

Paul: It does. And then the craving for the $2,500 one goes away. Right?

Rich: Right.

Paul: I don’t want a life filled with stuff.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: I’ve bought plenty of stuff.

Rich: Sure.

Paul: So here’s what’s going on. So, this world of plugins—and plugins are funny because they’re the most skeuomorphic. They literally look like the synthesizer.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: They’re, like, 3D rendered.

Rich: They’re very cool looking.

Paul: They’re very cool looking. But you see the keys move as you hit the keys.

Rich: Sure, sure, sure.

Paul: It’s utterly ridiculous. The knobs are like the knobs in 1985.

Rich: The knobs, just to be clear to everyone, because you’re moving fast, the knobs on the screen are turning as you turn the knobs.

Paul: Yes.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: So then I started to look around, and so there’s a company that is really interest—there’s a couple that are really interesting. I mean, there’s Yamaha, which makes synthesizers and motorcycles, in case you need both on—

Rich: Sure.

Paul: In case you’re the coolest guy ever.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: You might need both on the same day.

Rich: Kawasaki makes subway cars.

Paul: Yes, exactly. Right? So there’s those. And then there’s like, old classics like Roland and Korg. These are—

Rich: Famous.

Paul: Hundreds, thousands of employees.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: And we’ll talk about those in a sec. But there is this company that I’ve been keeping an eye on that makes a lot of the great retro-synth plugins. And it’s called Arturia. It’s a French company.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: First of all, their software is good.

Rich: So wait, just so I understand, they don’t make hardware.

Paul: They do. That’s what’s mind-boggling.

Rich: So they make hardware and software?

Paul: Yes, and they make mixing—I have a mixer that they created that is beautiful.

Rich: Uh huh.

Paul: It’s called the 16Rig, and it brings in all the audio and so on. It has a nice interface.

Rich: Okay—

Paul: I have their plugins, and then I have their little utility keyboard. It’s called the KeyStep Pro.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It lets you sort of—

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It sort of partners with your DAW and lets you play keys, because, again, I’m learning my keyboard skills.

Rich: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: So I just talked about a company that is in three major categories, but isn’t like a Microsoft or Google. They’re shipping really good hardware, they’re shipping really good software.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: And they’re shipping it across—in this one range, which is music?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: But it’s actually of very good quality at a reasonable price. That is really remarkable that that’s going on. And we’re so focused on the giants that we forget to look—like, Korg makes really good software and really good hardware. So does Roland. It’s wild.

Rich: It’s interesting you’re focusing on music, because that’s where your hobby is right now. Yes, but there are many wonderful, great software companies that burrow deep into a niche and create great experiences.

Paul: Yes.

Rich: Like, just great software.

Paul: This is what I’m getting at. Right? And the fact that they’re able to cross the line between hardware and software is really—

Rich: Is very impressive.

Paul: Maybe not renaissance, but what the hell? That’s very cool.

Rich: Yeah. It is very cool. It is very cool. What the hell are you doing?

Paul: What do you mean?

Rich: Are you going to join a band?

Paul: No.

Rich: Are you going to put music on BandCamp?

Paul: No.

Rich: Why not?

Paul: Be—

Rich: Wait, wait. No. Let me keep guessing.

Paul: Hmmm.

Rich: What you’re doing. We had a podcast last week where you talked about how 2024 is going to be just this sort of roller-coaster, messy world.

Paul: And since last week…

Rich: And now we have a podcast this week—

Paul: We haven’t disproved that since last week.

Rich: We haven’t disproved that since last week.

Paul: That’s still coming.

Rich: Big election year. There’s wars around the world. The world’s messy. My argument, my counter was, it’s always been messy.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: We just get to watch it now.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: And now we’re recording a podcast and you are talking about synthesizer software on the Mac. It’s a hobby you’ve gone deep into—and I’m happy you have, by the way, as your friend. What are you doing?

Paul: I’m just enjoying the aesthetics of a thing. It’s the same as going to a museum for me. And this is my nerdy aspect.

Rich: Are you producing anything?

Paul: No.

Rich: No, but a museum is, you’re a passive observer here. Here, you’re interacting, correct?

Paul: If you are not a participant, you’re truly not a good observer, critic, analyst. Okay?

Rich: Mmm.

Paul: I am never going to be a really good interpreter or understanding of oil painting, because I have never tried to paint in oil.

Rich: Got it. You want to touch it and understand it.

Paul: And look, there’s another context here. I am, was a successful writer. I’ve had tremendous success in my career, more than most people. I’m very lucky.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: There’s other things that I failed at as a writer. It’s always a mixed bag, right?

Rich: Sure.

Paul: But I can tell you, I can look at what people are writing, and I know what they’re doing. I know how they craft their paragraphs. And we don’t talk about it because it is way down in the weeds.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: But I’m a very actually intense critic of prose. There’s very little I can read and just enjoy at this point.

Rich: Mmm.

Paul: But I love that. I actually love knowing how the system works.

Rich: And you’re learning the system?

Paul: I am. I’m learning how music works. And so where did I end up going? I ended up going back to music theory. And I’ll tell you what, I’ve always wanted to understand classical music a little bit better.

Rich: Mmm hmmm.

Paul: And I’ve tried. And it’s just a lot of notes, man. It’s a lot of notes.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: But I can hear the notes, because I’ve been practicing piano for half a year. So suddenly, Mozart, you know, Piano Concerto No. 11, which was the one— [imitates melody] It always sounded, like, kind of jaunty? And now I can hear what’s going on.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And I can read the score.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And there was this secret knowledge. Now, is this relevant, important knowledge for a world headed towards catastrophe? Not really.

Rich: No, but I want to take everything you’re saying and synthesize it with last week’s podcast.

Paul: Okay.

Rich: And give out a piece of advice.

Paul: Good.

Rich: There is a pretty popular Instagram account. There’s many, by the way.

Paul: Lil Miquela, the 3D-rendered supermodel?

Rich: Not that.

Paul: Okay.

Rich:  Not that at all. It’s essentially Japanese woodwork.

Paul: Oh, yeah. [makes chef’s kiss noise]

Rich: Where they create these weird joints because they don’t use nails.

Paul: And I like, you know, the guys who fix the old toys.

Rich: There’s a lot of this.

Paul: Yes.

Rich: Right? And they’re pretty mesmerizing, and they’re very popular. Right? It’s like, I’m going to take this old rug and make it new again. And it sort of has these quick cuts where they show all the work that goes into it. Or I’m going to create this really unique joint that’s going to bring these two pieces of wood together. It’s not like there’s this big grand finale. It’s just people working.

Paul: The wood comes together.

Rich: This is in contrast to trying. And what has happened is, I think we’re finding these little pockets in our feeds as sort of moments of sort of zen and solace, right? Because everything is so intense and so hot that when you see someone calmly working on a bonsai tree or chiseling a joint, we find peace in it. And I think what you have done is you have said, how about I come out of that feed entirely and I work on the wood myself, because it brings me peace. And I think that’s what I’m hearing. And, boy, there’s an entire world of software out there. It doesn’t have to be software, by the way. It could be gardening. For me, it is gardening. Like, interesting.

Paul: Sure, I get that.

Rich: It could be software—but there is software out there that is welcoming, inviting, zen in that there is no noise, there’s no static.

Paul: Well, you know what’s fascinating? So I bought—Ableton is a perfect example. Some of the world’s top producers use Ableton Live, and they market that way.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It’s in every studio and songs that you know and like are produced with that.

Rich: 100%.

Paul: Right? So you could approach it that way, and you could approach it—and this is always in the back of my, I sit down at the piano and I’m like, I’ll never be as good as, and it’s sort of whoever I was listening to.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Yuja Wong, right?

Rich: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: She’s the fastest player in the West.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: So good.

Rich: I’ve seen her, yeah.

Paul: It’s just, like—

Rich: It’s wild.

Paul: It’s just like, the fingers just are blurry, right?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And perfect precision. And so I sit there and I go, I’ll never be that good. I’m a million miles away from that.

Rich: You’re not trying to be!

Paul: No.

Paul: But it’s, know, sometimes you ride your bike and you’re like, I’m just not Lance Armstrong. Like, that is radiated into your brain.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: So you can look at and interpret Ableton Live two ways. It is a tool for me to learn about the world. Or it is a tool for me to find success in the world.

Rich: Hmmm. Explain that. Because you don’t mean commercial success.

Paul: Well, maybe I do, or maybe I mean that it’s going to get me out into the world and like—

Rich: Oh, I see. Yeah.

Paul: But I love software on its own. Like in the same way I love going to a museum.

Rich: You’re not looking to sell out a show.

Paul: I don’t want any of that.

Rich: You don’t want any of it.

Paul: I know working musicians, I don’t want any of what they’ve experienced because it reminds me of the worst days of being a writer.

Rich: You want to build craft and the satisfaction of making little baby steps.

Paul: Yes.

Rich: And it is an escape from what software has become for so many people, which is this immensely noisy place.

Paul: It’s also really hard, and we’ve made software so easy and so cheap and so free that there’s an element of paying for something and getting value out of it that seems almost radical in the other direction. Everyone likes to yell the word “capitalism”?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: But when you actually get back to the root of it, which is I’d like to buy this good or service for money, and then it’s mine.

Rich: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: This is now my software.

Rich: Yeah. It’s your tool.

Paul: It’s my tool to do nothing that anybody thinks matters.

Rich: Right.

Paul: And so I sit there and I’m trying to improve my finger speed. Why? Because then I can play a little faster and I can learn more.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Are you retired?

Paul: No, because I come to work for at least eight hours a day. I’m writing the copy for the website.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I’m very—I actually, I was looking for this balance.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Like I need to ride my bicycle, play piano, and work really hard on Aboard and be a dad.

Rich: Yeah. I’m a little envious of you.

Paul: Well, your hobby is, like, music-listening.

Rich: No, but also I tend to drown in the work.

Paul: Yes.

Rich: I tend to go to the work all the way. And it tends to consume me.

Paul: Yes, and I told you many times that you actually don’t have to. Your brain works fine and you could take more pauses.

Rich: Yeah, or use it to learn other things.

Paul: There is an element where obsession and grinding does get you things, but you don’t differentiate. You’re just, like, unless I’m grinding, you get nervous.

Rich: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: So that’s, we’re always balancing that out.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I used to be that way, but there gets to be a point where I’m, like, I don’t know—you know what it is, but you know what you have locked down. You’re like, if you don’t work out until ten in the morning, it’s not a good day for you.

Rich: It’s not. I got to let that steam out.

Paul: I was riding my bike over until I had a bad bike accident, and that was really giving me the focus that I needed.

Rich: Yeah. Yup.

Paul: I need to find something else like that. So you need, like, the… But you do take that time.

Rich: I do.

Paul: You do.

Rich: Coding used to be that for me.

Paul: I can’t code anymore.

Rich: I can’t code anymore either.

Paul: It’s too big.

Rich: It’s too big.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Yeah, I mean, the last thing I coded was my video repo in Flask, Python Flask. And it was beautiful.

Paul: But there’s no room in the world for little fun websites anymore. So it’s like—

Rich: No…

Paul: What are you going to? You can code a bot.

Rich: That’s the thing. But I could do what you’re doing, which is you’re not looking to publish your music.

Paul: You will. I mean, the thing is—

Rich: I don’t know if I will, because I feel like—

Paul: Well, actually, what I think is going to happen is—

Rich: —it moves so fast.

Paul: Aboard is going to take off. That is my instinct. It’ll take off in some way that may not be, like, super commercial hit, but you and I will be sort of part—

Rich: We’ll be busy.

Paul: We’ll be partnering with organizations.

Rich: You’ll have to bring your portable—well, your laptop has the synth software.

Paul: I brought a little, a little tiny keyboard in, and I practice scales while I’m reading.

Rich: I’ve seen it.

Paul: And so I just move my fingers, helps my fingers.

Rich: Yes. That’s right.

Paul: So it’ll have to be—honestly, and I accept that, like, the way my life works.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It’ll be like that. This will drift for me because other things will take up my energy.

Rich: I like this theme that came out of this podcast, which is like, because I feel like every time we talk about the internet, we talk about how it’s ruining us. [laughing]

Paul: Yes.

Rich: And what we’re saying here is there’s these amazing tools out there. My daughter loves Final Cut Pro.

Paul: Yeah, right?

Rich: Never took a lesson on it.

Paul: No. My daughter uses Procreate on the iPad.

Rich: Loves it. I think it’s so great because it’s such a blank slate. It’s such a place to go learn and not get caught up in trying to impress your friends on social or read the news or whatever it may be.

Paul: You know what’s funny? We bought my daughter the animation version in Procreate—

Rich: Oh, Dreams!

Paul: Okay yes, Dreams—

Rich: I want to play with it, is it cool?

Paul: It’s really exciting. And she sort of, like, we told her about. It was for Christmas. So we told her about. And she looked at us, and she’s like, “…okay?” Because she’s not down—she’s using the app, she’s not downstream of endless marketing about it. You and I are.

Rich: Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah.

Paul: We’re participating, and we—she had no idea what it was, because it hadn’t been advertised to her because the other experience doesn’t advertise.

Rich: [laughing] Right. Exactly.

Paul: I had this weird moment where I’m like—

Rich: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Paul: “Oh. I was absolutely convinced that you live in the same infosphere that I do. And because you love this app, you’ll be incredibly excited.”

Rich: You’ll want the next thing. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Paul: And she was just like, “I guess so? Cool.” She’s into it. So I do want to get back to, in my life, because here’s what’s real. Reading the daily paper in the morning is probably about right, like 20, 30 minutes of bring it all in, figure it out. Figure out how you’re going to react for that day. But the in-the-moment reaction, the constant panic, actually just leads to only more panic. It doesn’t—

Rich: You just keep going back to it.

Paul: There’s no better consequences. I’d love to see Aboard used in good, positive, constructive ways to build a better world. I’m not going to do that if I’m on just, like, smashing my head against social media.

Rich: Right.

Paul: And I am, frankly, a better thinker and a better partner on this product because I’m playing my piano. I know that.

Rich: Yeah. Yeah. It’s healthier, yeah.

Paul: I’ll give it up—I’ll give it up at some point, because it will get busy.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: But it’s also like, healthier is better.

Rich: TL;DR. Find a tool that doesn’t connect to the Internet and go learn it.

Paul: Yeah, actually, a synth that doesn’t connect to the—most don’t.

Rich: Most don’t.

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: Many tools don’t.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Right. [outro music] This has been the Aboard podcast. I’m Rich Ziade.

Paul: I’m Paul Ford. Thank you for bringing this fun hobby back to last week’s context of social collapse. We’re putting it all together.

Rich: Of course! [laughing] That’s what I’m here for.

Paul: Check out aboard.com. Lots of good, exciting things coming. We love to hear from our audience. Hello@aboard.com is a good email to reach us at.

Rich: Have a lovely week.

Paul: Bye!

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