Andy West: From Dregs to (Software) Riches
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You must have plenty of those kinds of stories.

Actually just two. When I was at AT&T in Washington, D.C., I worked for a contractor with a crazy deadline. We were all in a lab programming like crazy one night with a radio on, and this one guy finally just yells out, "Would you please turn that pop crap off! I'm a musician and it's driving me nuts to hear that crap music." I told the guy I knew what he meant and asked him if he'd ever heard of the Dixie Dregs. He said, "You're that Andy West?" He jumped up over my desk to shake my hand and said, "Wow, now I've got to treat you well!" He was an employee and I was just a contractor.

Beyond those two stories, though, people around me in the programming world are completely unaware of my past with the Dregs.

Andy West Live West attacks a five-string (photo: Bill White)

How have you balanced your programming and musical drives for the past 20 years?

I have one career that pays the bills, and another that enables my expression. That makes it easy. When I was in the Dregs it was artistically a very interesting and rewarding time, but the financial sustainability of that kind of non-mainstream music is and always will be extremely difficult. Something I discovered a long, long time ago is that the more you know about music, the less income you are guaranteed to generate. The inverse is true in the world of software programming, where I can learn more and am paid more for my knowledge and experience. Being virtuosic on an instrument, at least as far as making money from that virtuosity, is almost a curse.

How has software programming affected your musical creativity?

I've been really interested in software and computers since the early '80s. Once I started to follow software programming as a way to make money, though, the creative side of my career in music became slanted differently. I no longer had the requirement to make a lot of money from music, which can be a double-edged sword, but programming freed me to do whatever I want with my music. The other side is that I don't have as much time for music, which is especially true the better I've become at my job, which more and more involves design and oversight rather than programming.

How do the two disciplines compare and merge for you?

When it comes to business software programming, it's a lot harder to think you really know something if you really don't. The evidence of your abilities is more in-your-face with programming than when you're but one instrument in a group of talented musicians. Also, I think the music culture is to a large extent about fame more than talent. There isn't so much of that in the software culture, although it does exist in the publishing of computer books and creating open source projects, and other pursuits like that. These parallel universes of fame and the corresponding degrees of respect that go along with it are very interesting to me.

NAMM 2004 West lights up the 2004 NAMM show

Have you ever written music software?

When I first started my career in the mid-'80s, I learned C--my first language. Naturally I wanted to write cool stuff with it, so I had an opportunity to work with a small company in West Los Angeles that was doing one of the very first hard-disk recording systems [Hybrid Arts]. It was on the Atari's GEM desktop, a complete windowing environment way before Windows came along.

Are there similarities between programming a DAW and a corporate software platform?

I think there could be .... Well, actually, no, there aren't. [Laughs.] And here's why: if you think of the engineering required to do digital audio and MIDI, that's really true software engineering, in the sense that you're working in a closed system and it's interfacing directly with hardware. The user interface, by nature, has to be extremely rich. It's more like writing CAD software than the kind of stuff I may have worked on for IBM or Motorola. At its core, business software is usually about nothing but data and reporting. It is about managing data and reporting on it. Having said that, though, I will say it's starting to get more interesting lately at the company I currently work for, Thomson NETg.

What do they do?

It's an e-learning company for the business market. Thomson Learning, the parent company, is more about publishing books and research information, assessments, the metrics of proficiency, and so on. That stuff becomes somewhat more interesting the more I get into designing for it. I just dumbed it down, but of course it is extremely complex with lots of business rules around data manipulation. At its heart, though, it is a very different kind of thing from music software programming.

How so?

Business user interfaces are nowhere nearly as sophisticated as they are in the music software world. It's funny because people at my company will point out a certain business program GUI to me as being very cool, and I'll just say, "Oh yeah? Well, look at these interfaces on Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Reason, and Logic." Those software programmers are doing really amazing stuff. Steinberg's Cubase was really the first one that did things innovatively with the front end. There are tons of innovations all over the music landscape going on every day.

Tell me about your early music-tech days in the Dregs.

Well, I started on the Atari and then I was with a group [Zazen] that had a Synclavier, and then I went to Windows PCs and suffered immeasurably for that decision. [Laughs.] I mean, really, I had the first predecessor version of Pro Tools on Windows, which was called Session 8, and I was in SCSI hell with it for three months! It was insane. That experience drove me to buy a Roland DM80 hard-disk recorder, which was simple and it worked, but of course it's not a computer. So I went back to the PC hell music stuff then finally got my first Mac in '99 and have been here ever since. Now I just use [TASCAM] GigaStudio on the PC talking through Lightpipe [a.k.a ADAT Optical] to the Pro Tools system on the Mac; that's my only PC tool.

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