The Setup


What do people use to get stuff done?

Emma Winston

Emma Winston

PhD student, musician, botmaker

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Emma Winston, and I'm a PhD student, musician, teaching assistant, sound artist, and botmaker.

I'm in my first year of an MPhil/PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London, where I'm studying the contemporary subculture surrounding the ukulele and the people who play it, particularly as that relates to identity and creativity. I'm still in the very early days of research, but it's an instrument marked out by beginner-friendliness, a DIY aesthetic and real passion for what is often seen as a novelty or joke instrument (despite quite a long and rich multicultural history). In the last few years it's increasingly become bound up in narratives of gentrification, twee middle-class aesthetics and hipster culture; yet it was also the only instrument recorded to have sold more, not less, during the depths of the UK economic recession, and has formed the centre of community activity for everything from mass world record attempts to music therapy groups for Alzheimers. It's a fascinating instrument, largely because the ways in which people use it are fascinating, and if you're reading this and have any particular interest in (or hatred of!) it please do get in touch, since I'm currently at the 'talk-to-as-many-interesting-people-as-possible' stage of research.

Despite my day job basically consisting entirely of being obsessed with small stringed instruments, the music I make myself is largely electronic. I write fun poppy sad synthpop songs under the name Deerful, which has been described most accurately in my opinion as 'the music The Postal Service would have made if they'd not sent the tapes across the pond and stayed staring at the stars and dancing alone in a field'. I didn't start writing my own songs until summer 2015; I'd spent several years playing keyboards in other people's bands (and more years, further in the past, attempting to train as an opera singer, which never quite worked out) but never written anything myself. During a period in which I was very very unwell and mostly housebound (I'm much better now, fortunately!), a friend who runs a tiny indie label asked if I'd be interested in contributing to a compilation he was putting together. Since I was pretty much lying in bed staring at my iPad all day I decided to see what I could create without having to either get out of bed or use a device other than said iPad. I'd always wanted to get into making electronic music, and it ended up being the perfect gateway. Once I'd started writing I couldn't stop, and I still can't. So far I have released a 7" single, will be putting out an EP in the summer, and am planning an album. I'm not sure I know what writer's block is yet. It just pours out. It's the main thing I procrastinate from my PhD with, because I always, always, always have ideas. It was, eventually, what got me out of bed for good.

I also make more abstract, less poppy sounds sometimes. I enjoy capturing relatively ordinary, day-to-day environmental sounds and transforming them into something entirely different (and hopefully aesthetically compelling). I like the idea of preserving something ephemeral more permanently but not necessarily in an immediately recognisable form. I keep an ongoing series of 'sound journals', sound art pieces which act as a kind of messed-up audio diary of places I go, on SoundCloud, which are produced simply by recording snippets of audio from around me and then manipulating them. I have also done likewise with a sample of a Minion solely in order to be annoying, which I am a bit sorry about but not that sorry. I enjoy making more abstract, even pretentious concepts accessible by openly talking about how I made them or poking fun at myself with them or teaching others how to work with similar material; when I have time, which isn't often, I help run workshops with School of Noise, which teaches children (and sometimes adults!), many of whom have no musical background, about experimental and electronic music. They almost invariably pick it up incredibly quickly and do things with the equipment I'd never have dreamt of.

I sometimes make Twitter bots, too. I spent a (reluctant) three years as a freelance front-end developer before returning to academia and, afterwards, swore I'd never write another line of code if I could help it, but botmaking somehow changed that. There's a truly wonderful and welcoming community on Twitter who seem almost universally prepared to offer advice to novice (or, like me, just bad) coders with interesting ideas; it's another truly DIY subculture in which it's fine to make mistakes, to mess up, and to ask for help. Most of my bots (such as The Tiny Gallery, which is my most popular offering by quite some way) are centred around creating scenes with emojis, inspired by earlier bots like Tiny Star Field and Tiny Seas, but the most significant of my bot projects, to me at least, is Graphic Score Bot, which you can read more about here, which automatically generates graphic musical scores inspired by Modernist composers like Xenakis and Stockhausen, mixed with text from Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. To my knowledge I'm the only person to have performed from it so far, at BotSummit 2016 at the V&A museum in London, and will performed alongside it again for two days straight as part of the Art Of Bots exhibition at Somerset House in April. I'm very much hoping others will contribute to the project, either by contributing new code or ideas for scoring systems, or by integrating it into their own performances.

On the surface my interests seem very diverse, but they're all linked together by a fascination with how and why people, including myself, make things, the expressive and empowering potential of building stuff, and the democratisation of creativity. Making things has changed my life and I want it to do the same for others. I also want to understand why and how it's so life-changing in the first place.

What hardware do you use?

I do everything digitally, which I have a sense is actually somewhat unusual in arts and humanities academia. This is largely because my flat is absolutely tiny, like, picture a really small flat then halve it and you're probably close, but also because I am terribly disorganised, clumsy, and with a tendency to step on, sit on or otherwise maim sheets of paper, but am great at keyword searches. So I digitise everything, and rarely handwrite (and when I do it gets scanned into my phone straight away). I work mostly on an 11" MacBook Air and I love it to death. It's not too small. It's perfect. Except when it's too big, and then I take an iPad Mini 2 out with me instead. I like being able to change the space I'm in at the drop of a hat, and both devices let me go to my university library or to a cafe or anywhere else with no drama and no need to plug in anywhere, and the Macbook works for live performance as well as it works for thesis-writing. I can't imagine needing anything bigger.

This brings me to my next topic, which is that I'm obsessed with the miniaturisation of tools. Seriously. I want everything to be tiny and portable. No, tinier than that. I write about 90% of my music on a Teenage Engineering OP-1, which is a kind of synthesiser/sampler/sequencer/miniature-four-track-workstation hybrid with its own teeny-tiny elf-sized speaker and a 16-hour battery life. It's made by some awesome nerds in Sweden, and I lived on baked beans for a month so I could buy it and I don't regret having done so for even one second. It's amazing, and addictive, and limited, and powerful, and inspiring, and it goes everywhere with me. It's on virtually all my songs, and when the extractor fan in my bathroom caught fire last month the OP-1 was the one thing I grabbed and took with me (fortunately everything but the fan itself survived in the end). I recently got my hands on another Teenage Engineering synth, the Pocket Operator Arcade, which is a fantastic little chiptune machine which fits in the palm of your hand and that I got hold of for the grand total of £40 on eBay. It's an absolute delight, nowhere near as versatile as the OP-1, but it has such an unusual workflow and is terrific fun to perform live with. By the end of my first day with it I'd finished a song.

When I started learning about electronic music production I got quite deep into the world of analogue and modular synthesis but in the last year or so I seem to have rocketed in the other direction and am now all about tiny 'toy' digital synths I can sling into my backpack and go and write songs with under a tree in the park. I sound like a Teenage Engineering shill here, I guess, but it's love and I can't help it. Live, I also use a Critter and Guitari Septavox, which is not quite so compact, but it's nicely self-contained (batteries! A surprisingly decent speaker!) and user-friendly and has an utterly charming arpeggiator and slicer and a glorious low-bit smiley warmth to its sound which I point to every time I hear folk trot out the 'analogue is always warmer' trope.

I am both quite a small person and quite an easily-stressed person, and I live in London, and I don't have a car, so I guess it makes sense that I want all my technology to be as little and cable-free and low-drama as possible. I pretty much feel like I've nailed that, I think.

And what software?

All my research gets written up in Scrivener, because it stresses me out less than Word and you can move things around more easily; it's less linear than a conventional word processor. It's meant for novel and screenplay-writing but obviously being able to move chapters around as if they were index cards, storing all of your notes in the same document without having to delete them when you print the final draft, taking snapshots and target-tracking is perfect for academic writing. My supervisor, however, loves Word, so I've got a workflow going where I write in Scrivener in Markdown, then use Pandoc to compile my chapter drafts to Word. For citations, I store everything in Zotero reference manager, then use David Smith's ZotPick applet to insert citations into my writing. It works well enough that almost a year into my research I have not yet wanted to set fire to anything which is, I feel, all you can really ask of a thesis workflow.

I back up and version all my work to a private GitHub repository. I spent a (reluctant) three years as a freelance front-end developer before returning to academia and the one thing I've held on to from that period is the flagrant misuse of GitHub as a one-person backup system. When I became a student again I applied for GitHub's Student Developer pack in order to get access to a free private repository (I know Bitbucket exists, but this way I can ignore the command line). I wrote an application message along the lines of 'I am not a developer, and I am just going to use this to store a lot of research about ukuleles, but if you are okay with that, great!'. They approved my application within 24 hours so I guess they must have been cool with it.

For music-making, the only software I use for playing live is Ableton Live, which I use to trigger backing tracks that I can adjust parameters of on the fly, then play hardware lead synths over the top. I sometimes record into Ableton, but I basically never use the software instruments in it. I do write quite a lot of music in NanoStudio for iOS - it's now quite an old app, but there's something about the flexibility of the synths I find really appealing - I also work with Korg Gadget and BeatMaker 2 sometimes, but keep finding myself coming back to NanoStudio. It's the first app I go to when I'm on a bus with nothing to do; something about the simplicity of it works well for writing synthpop on public transport (and it's a lot less ostentatious than getting the OP-1 out). If I'm working on more abstract field-recording-based stuff I will usually use Samplr for iOS - my aforementioned sound journals are composed and recorded completely in Samplr. It's a phenomenal app for sound design and also very conducive to happy accidents.

For botmaking and other miscellaneous coding I use Sublime Text 2, although I'm fairly sure I don't make the most of its capabilities at all. All my Twitter bots are either written in (bad) Python and hosted on Heroku, or written in Kate Compton's amazing generative grammar Tracery and hosted on George Buckenham's cloud platform Cheap Bots Done Quick. The latter combination is a fantastically creative and accessible tool, you don't need to be able to understand code at all to use it, and it's also surprisingly powerful - Graphic Score Bot, which is by far my most conceptually complex bot, is written in Tracery and runs on CBDQ.

What would be your dream setup?

I think I'm actually relatively close to owning my dream setup, which is pretty amazing. This will probably change the next time any synth company releases anything small and battery-powered (actually I really wouldn't mind a Korg volca fm, or a Shbobo Shnth, or an OP-Z when it comes out - Teenage Engineering strikes again! - but I feel like the setup I've got now is so conducive to the type of music I want to be making that it's not like I ever feel stuck or frustrated with it).

I dream of owning a plumbutter2 and will never be able to justify actually buying one. So exquisitely beautiful. So ludicrously odd.

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