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By Reed Fischer
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A mid-level music executive in the 1980s beams, rollerblading from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir to his apartment in the Village, Boy George blasting (thanks to Mega Bass) from a proprietary Walkman given as a gift by a Japanese friend. Things have been remarkably good for him and his over the last 50 years. The industry—created basically as a means to sell phonographs—ended up providing so much more (and much more fun: a megaphone into the souls of the world, as rock 'n' roll became electrified noise and that noise became blood, pumping the heartbeat of a generation. And, through financial monarchy and shrewd planning, the executive in those ridiculous nylon shorts has held his vise-like grip around its every means of creation and dissemination the whole goddamn time.
Fast-forward to 2010: The metaphorical smokestacks are in serious disrepair, and the megaphone points at dirt in the wake of ingenious children whittling code into whatever shape they wish, allowing anyone to get anything they want at any time, circumventing all manner of built and naturally occurring razor-wire fences. Audiofile Engineering's Matthew Foust and Evan Olcott are both champions and victims of this information revolution. Ten years ago, after spending the '90s recording and playing in the beautifully prescient 12 Rods, they decided to assemble a recording studio from their massive stock of equipment. This was around the time Apple Corporation released an operating system they called OS X (as in 10), making their computers easier and more beautiful than ever. Making the software switch at the studio, Matt and Ev couldn't help but notice that the applications they relied on before hadn't come along with the the new system. They set about creating their own applications, which in a nutshell meant creating the very things that would make their new studio obsolete.
"It was pretty clear that digital music production software was going to kill the studio business. We just realized 'we can't run away from our fate,'" Matthew Foust says with a laugh. Of course he's laughing. Audiofile Engineering, the modest company whose success usurped their nascent recording studio, has had a pretty striking run through the aughts. "The light bulb went on: If we need this, other people do, too," says Foust, who does most of the talking while Evan Olcott and Chris Smalley tap and scan away under headphones. "So we hung our shingle out on the Web and got a really cool reaction. It was one of the very first audio production apps for Mac OS X that was written from the ground up for Mac OS X." Over the next few years they wrote various audio production programs on Macs for Macs, the primary medium for professional recording studios and, now, the exponentially expanding amateur market. Then the iPhone happened. Or rather, the iPhone had already happened, but with its ace still up its sleeve.
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"Early in 2008 they announced the iPhone developer program"—we know this now as the App Store, which, for better or worse, has come to define what we expect from a smartphone—"and immediately after that was announced, we were contacted by a company in the UK called TruPhone," says Foust. This ended with a trip to London and the first iPhone app that allowed for VoIP, or Wi-Fi phone calls, just a month after the App Store was debuted. "By the time that app shipped, there wasn't anyone on the face of the planet who knew iPhone audio development better than we did. What we were for them was a fast-forward button."
Developing this program gave the already plenty-experienced team a huge head start in developing highly technical audio apps on iOS, the software that runs iPhones and, now, iPads. This led to partnerships with D'Addario, the world's largest manufacturer of musical equipment consumables and accessories (guitar strings, woodwind reeds, those sand-filled eggs) and Line 6, the world's largest guitar amplifier company. They've appeared at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, a summit of the Apple faithful and showcase for the most exciting of the new. An unannounced project they are in the midst of puts them face-to-face with some of the most famous musical recordings in rock history. All of the success and opportunity that Audiofile has been granted can be traced to an almost fatalistic recognition of the promise and primacy of technology, and the hammer-like shape it's taking in business and culture.
"I think people are generally too fearful of technology," says Foust. "Are you interested in the content or the genre, or are you interested in the physical medium? I understand it, my sister-in-law was a library-science major and does letterpress, she loves it and I totally get that. And I think there'll always be a place for it. But is the world a better place if I can carry literally 20,000 books on [the iPad] instead of them being printed? I think so. And it's the same with music, creating music. Imagine being able to produce a final piece of music on something that cost $400 with some software as opposed to sinking $250,000 into studio equipment, into microphones and everything else. Is it shitty for people who own studios? Probably." They'd probably know.
"We just put our big-boy pants on and moved on to something else, instead of sitting in the corner muttering under our breaths about these youngsters with their flying machines." It's a spirit that seems too rare these days among the higher ups of the culture industry—accepting the inevitable and throwing out the short pants—but that almost always takes them the same way, ahead of the curve.
AUDIOFILE ENGINEERING will have an informational booth at the MODERN GUITAR FESTIVAL 2 this SATURDAY, OCTOBER 9, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674