Uses This

Interview

What do people use to get the job done?

Josh Millard

Josh Millard

Musician, developer (MetaFilter)

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Josh Millard, also known as "cortex" on the Metafilter-centric bits of the internet. I live in Portland, OR, run the community website MetaFilter, and make lots of random odd creative stuff in my spare time. I've been DIY recording music for a couple decades now (and posting some of it on MeFi); I produce or co-host a few podcasts like the horror film review We Have Such Films To Show You, general beer-and-sophistry chatfest, and MeFi's two podcasts, the monthly Best Of The Web roundup and our brand new bite-sized show Out Of The Blue. I also like fiddling with Markov chains, with stuff like Calvin & Markov and The Big Markvoski; I made a comic a while back called Larp Trek about the Next Generation crew playing a Deep Space 9 role-playing game (Geordie's the DM); and a bunch of other stuff. I'm a serial project starter and, unfortunately, project abandoner.

Lately I've been having a wonderful time programming tiny video games with the retro-as-hell PICO-8 development environment. I made a game called Ennuigi a few weeks ago that people seemed to like a lot, and super stupid little thing the other morning called Tableflipper based on that tableflip emoticon.

What hardware do you use?

For most of the computer stuff and misc. creative stuff, I just get as much as I can out of a bunch of uniball pens, notebooks, and whatever desktop computer I'm using, so the last few years "a Mac Pro or something" is the main answer there. Right now a 27" iMac that's a few years old but kicking along fine. Plus a MS Natural Keyboard because I have occasional tendonitis flareups in my wrists and this seems to help. I'm not ideological about Apple, it's just what I've ended up using the last several years.

My music stuff isn't much more complicated; my recording and production setup is really minimal, a decent inexpensive Studio Projects B1 condenser mic that I bought years ago, one or another USB-based multi-input audio interface so I can record from more than one mic at a time (handy for podcasts and for drums), and then whatever miscellaneous cheap dynamic mics and cords and so on I need to patch it all together.

I do own a bunch of musical instruments, but none of it is high profile stuff. I just like having options, and I'm kind of omnivorous about what I want to learn to play, so I've got one or two of a lot of things. Main exception is guitars, which I have a few of, acoustic and electric (I just bought myself a Gretsch Honey Dipper resonator this summer because I was in Alabama with none of my normal musical equipment); but I've got a couple ukes, a banjo, a mandolin, a digital piano, an upright bass, a decent drumkit, harmonicas, melodicas, a digeridoo, a theramin, a bunch of tiny rhythm instruments, a washboard...

It's all a mix of gifts and mostly cheap purchases with an occasional larger one (you can't really buy a cheap upright bass). I've never been a gear fetishist; I want to buy something that will just do the basic thing it needs to do without having anything obviously and distractingly wrong with it, and for a lot of stuff the line there is a lot lower than I think people sometimes think.

And what software?

GarageBand for most recording stuff; it has problems but it's free and I can work fast in it. Photoshop Elements for image manipulation stuff. Skype for remote podcasts.

Writing gets done in a mix of vi (when I'm working over a shell, probably doing some tiny perl hacking or editing HTML or RSS), Sublime Text 2 (when I'm working locally or on something large/unwieldy enough that vi feels constraining), and TextEdit when I forget what an overhelpful piece of shit TextEdit is and use it by accident.

Mostly I just use whatever does the job and is quick to hand, even if it's not the best possible tool; I'm really distractible, get ideas fast, and usually want to work on them while I'm excited, which means just getting down to work, and I've found that I can get bogged down pretty bad when I let worrying about tool selection become part of the process of getting started, and I spend that creative energy futzing with and being frustrated with a new tool instead of making something. Which, just using what's handy is both liberating in that way and also constraining -- if the tool that's handy doesn't do verb x well (e.g. basic cross fades in GarageBand), I tend to treat that verb like it doesn't really exist as an option instead of hunting down a more verbose tool, which is sometimes kneecapping myself out of stubbornness. Pragmatism is tricky.

And that PICO-8 stuff is a perfect answer to all that, which I think is why I've been so into it. PICO-8 is a tiny software development kit for a non-existent 1980-something video game console by the same name. It's got tiny resolution, 128 * 128 pixels, 16 colors, not much memory, a slow (emulated) processor, and a really confining memory limit for video game cartridges. You gotta do everything in 32K of memory, or you're boned. And I love it, because it's so stripped down that it makes building a tiny game idea fast. It sets all these limits that, for me, are fantastic, because they keep me from getting overly ambitious and bogging myself down on figuring out tools and processes. It's got a built in editor for everything -- coding, sprites, sound and music tracking -- so there's no need to go looking for other tools, figuring out how to get them to work together, etc. Just boot it up and get building.

I'm positive it's not for everyone, but it's gotten me actually making little games quickly and regularly, which is something I've daydreamed about for twenty years but made really, really halting progress on in more full-scope development environments.

What would be your dream setup?

Infinite time and an army of interns? I don't have many setup complaints, maybe just because I've convinced myself to settle for whatever is available and focus on doing stuff; usually my main problem is being busy with other stuff (though for all that MetaFilter as a work-from-home, my-own-boss setup is loads more generous for fooling around with creative stuff than a typical job) or just not wanting to deal with some of the more tedious aspects of one or another creative idea (I loved making Larp Trek but it fell by the wayside eventually because getting it put together three times a week was tedious and stressful in a some ways and that overpowered the fun).

If there was a gun to my head and cash on the table, I could easily throw a hundred thousand dollars at a nice little home recording studio, but I doubt it'd make me write any more music than I do. Acoustic treatment and Neve consoles are nice but they don't write songs. And that's kind of the deal with everything. I don't tend to get excited about tools for their own sake; if I look at a pen and a notebook and I'm excited about something, that's the whole deal right there. That's all that matters: jot that idea down and start figuring out the quickest way to turn it into an actual thing.