Get Started as a Bedroom Musician

Learning to make music can make for a new you in the new year

Sometime in December, I realized that I was burned out on the writing life. I was sick of long days spent sitting in my apartment, staring at the screen, and trying to come up with ever more creative ways of shirking deadlines -- strategies that had gradually devolved from blogging to porn to afternoon boozing. I knew I needed help, and so, in the spirit of all good mid-career crises, I decided on a double dose of retail therapy and shameless nostalgia.

You see, in my teenage years, I had fancied myself a musician, and I whiled away many an adolescent hour churning out bad new wave on synthesizers and a four-track recorder. If life as a music critic was getting me down, surely the solution was to balance my parasitic job with a hobby that actually felt productive. And so I pulled out the credit card and charged up a shiny new drum machine and a copy of Ableton Live, a popular music software program.

The result has been a remarkable turnaround -- with the only caveat being that I've become so consumed with my musical moonlighting that I can barely bother with my real work. (Addiction figures heavily in New Year's resolutions, but usually the self-improver is trying to kick a habit; somehow I got it backwards.) If you're not afraid of such obsessive-compulsive side effects, here's how you, too, can recast yourself as a secret tunesmith -- and perhaps even take your tinkerings from the closet to human ears that aren't your housemate's.

Gear Up

Recent software applications -- from Apple's GarageBand to Propellerheads' Reason -- have radically lowered the barriers to entry for would-be bedroom musicians, combining sampling, loop creation, synthesis, and drum programming into reasonably priced, stand-alone packages. As long as you've got enough RAM in your PC and aren't yet crippled by carpal tunnel syndrome, you're halfway to producing your first opus. The aforementioned Reason and Ableton Live are both good, mostly idiot-proof, all-purpose options that run on Mac and PC alike. Reason is better for crafting straight-up dance tracks, but Live fits the needs of clubhounds and rockers alike. Download demos from their respective Web sites (www.propellerheads.se, www.ableton.com), or try them out at local shops like RobotSpeak (589 1/2 Haight St., 415-554-1977; www.robotspeak.com), Computers & Music (4837 Geary Blvd., 415-666-9944; www.computersandmusic.com), or the national chain Guitar Center (1645 Van Ness Ave., 415-409-0350; www.guitarcenter.com). If you're uncomfortable with any computer purchase that doesn't come in a white box, try the Apple store downtown (One Stockton St., 415-392-0202; www.apple.com), where you can try out GarageBand or the more professionally focused Logic and Logic Express on several workstations conveniently equipped with music keyboards.

Of course, if technology's not your thing, you could always wrap your head -- and your fingers -- around something more traditional. 101 Music, with two locations at the corner of Grant and Green in North Beach, is brimming with gear to spark your creativity, from staples like guitars and saxophones to more unusual instruments like sitars. Would-be DJs can also find turntables and mixers here -- as well as a basement stuffed wall-to-wall with over 50,000 pieces of dusty vinyl that's just waiting to be spun and sampled.

Get Schooled

Just because software is idiot-proof doesn't mean it's easy. Fortunately, in a city overrun with underemployed musicians, help is never far away. The Norcal DJ and Music Production Academy (www.norcaldjmpa.com) offers classes in turntablism, sampling, and a number of software programs, including Reason, Live, Cubase, and Reaktor; taught by working musicians such as DJ Vinroc and Christopher Willits, sessions run from 12 to 20 hours and break down to about $30 to $35 per hour of class. I enrolled in a four-week introduction to Ableton Live at the Lower Haight's RobotSpeak (full disclosure: the owner is my ex-housemate), where eight-hour classes in Live, Logic, and other applications break down to $20 an hour, and instructor Gustavo Lanzas -- who plays in the local electro duo Cybrid -- leverages his experience as a longtime power-user to induct students into the mysteries and hidden workarounds of the tools.

If you're looking to improve your chops on a traditional instrument, look to Craigslist or your local music shop for classes and tutoring, or enroll in the nonprofit Blue Bear School of Music at Fort Mason (415-673-3600; www.bluebearmusic.org). A Bay Area institution since 1971, Blue Bear offers private lessons, group classes, and one-off seminars in everything from guitar, drums, and piano to "World Rhythms You Should Know," "Exploring Vocal Texture," and the "One-Shot 'School of Rock.'"

Show Off

Of course, a musician without an audience is like a fish without, well, other fish to listen to it burble. If home recording is your focus, you can upload your work to DIY sites such as GarageBand (www.garageband.com), MySpace Music (www.myspace.com), or PureVolume (www.purevolume.com), sit back, and wait for the fan mail to stream in.

Out in the real world, if you've graduated from karaoke but aren't ready to take the rejection of a real booking agent, you can always strut your stuff at an open mic night. The Canvas Gallery (1200 9th Ave., 415-504-0060; www.thecanvasgallery.com) hosts its popular weekly Open Mic/Talent Showcase every Wednesday; just show up at 7 p.m. to sign up, and don't forget to enter the raffle, which offers four hours of free recording time at El Mundo Bueno Studios to one lucky winner every week (or maybe not-so-lucky; you do have to stick it out till the bitter end to claim the prize). Many other bars and cafes host similar gatherings; Matt Jalbert's Exuberance.com hosts a comprehensive list of venues (www.exuberance.com/docs/openmic/).

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