Make Believe Studio’s Keith Rodger on AI, Education, and Technology in Music

March 8, 2019

From early flutes carved of bird bone and mammoth tusks 43,000 years ago to the AI composers of today, music has always exploited the latest technology. Keith Rodger thinks about it constantly. As recording engineer at Omaha’s Make Believe Studios—as well as music producer, musician, songwriter, part owner of the Make Believe Recordings label division and DJ by the name of Kethro—Rodger has mastered a variety of tech in his quest to capture music.  

“I’ve always been a huge advocate for technology in music, ever since I was a kid and discovered the synthesizer,” he says. “I was always like, ‘This is what music is going to be. This is how people are going to think about music and think about making music.’ I just had a feeling these devices are going to be the ones that really motivate people.” He gestures around at hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of beat machines, grooveboxes, synthesizers, compressors, keyboards, consoles, and computers. A tireless love for technology and music have carried him a long way.

Teaching Himself to Make Music with Technology

“I’m not gonna lie, I grew up extremely poor. My mom could never afford to buy me a $500 synthesizer. Like, it’s just never gonna happen,” Rodger recalls.

Instead, he underwent a kind of self-education through experimentation via whatever technology he could get his hands on. In junior high, he learned how to program beats and make music on a pirated copy of Fruity Loops software on his family’s PC.

“Our computer was not fast enough to even run it,” Rodger says. “So I could only get like eight tracks of music recorded before the computer would start to glitch out.” He laughs. “But I learned how to sequence, and I learned how to make stuff and print parts (musical notation).”

In high school, his friend would come over when she was done with her homework and let him use her Macbook so he could experiment with Garageband, a popular Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW, for beginners. (A DAW is a complete music production and recording environment. It’s like a digital version of those giant mixing consoles you see in recording studios. DAWs also have built-in synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers for writing and programming music).

Rodger also took a bunch of art classes at Millard North, even though he felt he was bad at art, because the art rooms had Macbooks loaded with Garageband software.

“Real talk: I’d be in art class and literally just pulling up Garageband, and you’d hear tsch-tsch-tsch-tsch.” He simulates the sound of a techno beat and laughs. “The teacher would yell, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ ‘I’m just trying to make a song!’”

For kids who are inspired to make music, Rodger recommends not waiting to start.

“Just go for it. There’s tons of programs out there. Get whatever is accessible. Don’t wait six months to go get the big thing. Get the cheap little software on the device that you have and master it.”

Garageband is free, for instance. Fruity Loops is available for $13.99 in the App Store. Don’t have an iPhone or iPad, or can’t afford to spend any money? Check out Audacity, a free, open-source DAW that works on Windows, Mac, and Unix-like operating systems, and has been used to record albums by artists such as Tune-Yards.

Doing What He Loves Most

Now, Rodger works in a multimillion dollar studio every day, recording other artists and making his own music.

“I’m in the process of editing a record right now, so I’ve just been putting on Netflix and Twitch in the background, and I just go to town. I’m pretty far. This song should be done in a few hours.”

He’s also creating his own sample pack of different sounds for artists to patch into their own digital recordings. He enjoys the idea of creating things for people to use. His custom samples are yet another contribution he’ll make to the musical conversation he joined in his youth.

In recent years, he’s also transferred his musical knowledge to the realm of film. He formed his own video production company, Kismet, with some business partners, for instance. And in 2017, he scored “Camp Life,” a documentary on world-famous Omaha native boxer Terence “Bud” Crawford.

Imagining the Future at Make Believe

“The future of music is going to be heavily influenced by artificial intelligence,” Rodger says. “They’re already making AI programs that can make songs. There’s a college in the UK that was able to make a computer that could improvise jazz music with a live jazz band. You give an AI program ten years of learning music, and then you pit it against an orchestra, it could probably play something more complicated than humans could ever comprehend.”

Rodger believes humans will use AI programs to create new types of jobs. He envisions a world where AI programs write pop and commercial music, and collaborate with humans on shaping new sounds. AI may even play the role of a recording engineer by helping humans record, mix, and master music: some of the main roles Rodger is paid for. “Right now, working in the studio industry, it’s quite scary. Jump on board now or be lost at sea forever.”

Rather than burying their head in the sand, though, Rodger and Make Believe Studios want to join the AI revolution. “We embrace it all, full-steam ahead. To have a virtual Make Believe would be tight.”

Over time, Keith says, as more people hear the Make Believe sound on artists’ songs, Make Believe could sell an AI version of itself to musicians and producers who want that sound. “You could come here and make your record, or you could have virtual Rick Carson (Make Believe founder) make your record.”

Artificial Intelligence, Real Creativity

Rodger offers a possible scenario where AI would benefit his creative process. “If I’m sitting at the piano trying to record something, and I got Keith number 2 in here, I can be like, ‘Hey, let’s patch this in and add a little bit of EQ (audio equalization); I want it to kind of shimmer.’ And the AI just does it to my liking because it understands my moves.”

AI will also prove instrumental to music education, he adds.

“It’s going to help people understand music in a whole different way. Like children learning how to make music for the first time. Nowadays, if you can’t afford a teacher, you can go on Youtube. But in the future, it’s gonna be so personal to where you feel like someone’s there with you.”

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article mistakenly listed Keith Rodger as co-owner of Make Believe Studios. He is, in fact, a part owner of the Make Believe Recordings label division.