Ian Hobson

Ian Hobson
(Photo: Maggie Tang)

Ian lives in Berlin, Germany and is the Technical Principal for DSP at Ableton, where he also works as a software developer on the instruments and effects included in Ableton Live. He moved from the UK in 2011 after receiving an MSc in Digital Music Processing from the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary, University of London. He also holds a BA in Music Technology from De Montfort University, Leicester.

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engineer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

I'm a software developer who builds tools for musicians. When people ask, I say "I help people make weird noises", but what I really hope that I’m doing is helping people to express themselves more freely. Having a musical idea and then finding a way to hear it coming out of your speakers is a wonderful feeling, and I enjoy being part of a movement towards making that easier to achieve. I'm not one of those people who believes that making music has to involve in-the-moment effort or pain; I don't need to see a musician suffer for me to be able to enjoy their music. The more expressive a musician can be, the better they're able to communicate their emotions to the listener, and more fluid expression generally results in more satisfying music. If a musician wants their compositions or performances to involve great effort, then I'd prefer that their labour goes into creation, exploration, expression, and not fighting against their tools. I see a large part of my work as helping to increase the expressivity of music software to make creativity easier for musicians.

Why do you make music?

Before I became a developer, I tended to make music that tried to communicate a very specific idea. For me, making a piece of music was like a puzzle that had to be solved, with all the pieces needing to be slotted into place logically and methodically. There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach to composition, but for me it was driven from a desire to solve problems, and over time I found that my problem-solving impulses were satisfied by my work in building software, which then altered my relationship to composition. Nowadays, I tend to make music as a hobby, to relax, and to maybe work through some thoughts and emotions. I'm much more comfortable with enjoying a musical moment for its own sake than I was in the past.

What music do you make?

I play a lot of piano, recording improvisations and then pull out ideas which I usually rework with synthesizers, and layer themes together to try and capture the mood I'm in. This approach allows me to separate the initial creative moments from the editing and arrangement parts of the process, which tend to pull me into a more analytical frame of mind. Recently I've been playing a lot with feedback loops, enjoying the tones and textures that you can uncover when running audio in a loop through a ton of effects. It's loads of fun and the sonic potential is limitless, so it's great for open-ended exploration.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

There are so many powerful tools readily available now to us as musicians that it's easy to become fatigued when trying to decide where to begin, what sounds and effects to use, how far to go when arranging, how to decide when you've finished... The possibilities are endless, so it's very important to not allow technology to overwhelm you, but instead to harness it to inspire and empower you. As someone who works on music software, I’m aiming to continue to make tools easier to use and as expressive as possible. We're trying to solve a lot of problems with the current state of music technology, and it might be frustrating for a musician to know that the technology available to them will be better tomorrow. Perhaps it helps to keep in mind that technology is the best that it's ever been *today*, so it’s good to embrace what we have now, and make some music with it. The same acceptance of availability can be applied to your own knowledge of technology. If you're feeling limited, then learn some new tools, but if you're feeling creative then stick to what you know well, stay in the moment and make the most out of it.