Zen and the Art of Analog Synthesizer Maintenance

2014: The Year of Magical Thinking

You can take a picture of something you see
In the future where will I be?
You can climb a ladder up to the sun
Or write a song nobody has sung
Or do something that’s never been done

Last week I was in Atlanta for CocoaConf Atlanta. That conference was the cap on one of the craziest years I have ever had.

Exactly a year ago I had dropped out of school because I was having a nervous breakdown. I knew I needed to find a programming job but I had no idea where or how I would do so. I was completely broken and I had no hope that anything would get any better. The only thing that got me through that period of my life was the faith that something would happen.

I spent a lot of my time in 2013 sowing seeds, hoping one or two of them would take root. I attended several conferences and met a lot of people. Two of the people I met were Jonathan Penn and Chris Adamson. Jonathan mentioned he was writing a book and wanted to know if I would tech review it. Being a tech reviewer is an unpaid task, but I like and respect Jonathan, as evidenced from this blog post.

The editor for Jonathan’s book is Rebecca Gulick, who also happens to be the editor of my book with Chris. When he was looking for a coauthor and he mentioned me to Rebecca, she already knew who I was.

Before I was approached about writing the book, I reached out to Brad Larson about learning OpenGL. I knew I wanted to be a graphics programmer, but that it takes a long time to learn, especially for someone like me who didn’t have any programming experience until two years earlier. My reaching out to him resulted in me having the chance to work with him on a contract project for Digital World Biology. Even though we were working on this project, I hadn’t met Brad in person.

I happened to meet Brad in person a week after I signed the contract to work on the book with Chris. I didn’t know it at the time, but the book I was working on used to be the textbook used for the iOS programming class at MATC. That definitely made an impression.

Six months ago, I had a couple of conferences that I knew I would be speaking at. I wound up doing twice as many as I thought I would. My first conference talk was less than a year ago. This year I spoke at ten conferences total.

Between writing a book, traveling all over the United States, and getting a job with one of the best programmers in the world working on robots, my head is spinning. There are so many things I thought I might get to do a few years down the road. I just wanted a job to get some experience so that maybe one day in like five years I would be able to work with someone of Brad’s caliber. I hoped that maybe I would be able to work on a book in three years.

I looked back at the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year. No, I didn’t wind up starting a podcast or buying my MIDI wind controller (however that is on the horizon). I set out six long-term goals that I wanted to do in the next 3-5 years. I have knocked half of those off in 2014.


Oh brother I can’t, I can’t get through
I’ve been trying hard to reach you, cause I don’t know what to do
Oh brother I can’t believe it’s true
I’m so scared about the future and I wanna talk to you
Oh I wanna talk to you

I am going to be honest. I had absolutely no idea how to proceed from here. Part of being alive is to strive to go further and do better. Once you get to where you want to be, what do you do? I always feel a bit of a disappointment when I finish my cross stitching projects because I keep feeling like I will feel a sense of accomplishment, but it’s always a letdown. I enjoy the process of making the thing more than the joy of accomplishing them.

Part of my excitement about these long term projects was the anticipation of all the neat things I would get to do between then and now. I was really looking forward to all the neat stuff I would get to do and all the time I would get to spend working on my craft.

None of that happened.

Things happened so fast that I haven’t had a chance to enjoy anything I have been doing. I haven’t had a chance to stabilize the ground under my feet. I haven’t had a chance to really dig deep into something than interests me because I am running around like a chicken with my head cut off rushing to the next thing.

I have honestly been depressed. I feel like I shouldn’t be depressed and that I am a terrible and ungrateful human being because I got everything I ever wanted. Not only did I get everything I ever wanted, I got it way faster than anyone else. I have it made and I have no idea how to get up each day and deal with my life. Plus I feel like I can’t talk about it because I know that there is absolutely no reason for me to be unhappy.

I had a lot of conference talks lined up for 2015 and I was thinking about doing a lot more stuff because I feel like I worked my ass off sowing these seeds. I hoped that one or two would take root but twenty did. Last year I had nothing but my stubbornness and refusal to quit and now I have the situation of having too much. It feels wasteful to me to squander opportunities I would have killed for a year ago.

But I have to.

It has been a tremendously difficult decision, but I am not doing any conference talks for at least six months. I do not plan to attend any conferences during that time either.

I love this community. I have made so many friends in so many places. I spent a lot of my life feeling like a freak who never fit in anywhere. Being welcomed into this community and treated with respect has meant more to me than I can ever express. One reason it took me so long to make this decision is because this community means so much to me and I want to make sure other people like myself have a chance to join and be welcomed as well. The Klein family has changed my life and I can never express to them what their kindness has meant to me.

I feel like my life is moving too fast and I need to take a step back. I need to focus on getting my feet back under me. I need to focus on doing my job well. I need to focus on sharpening my tools. I need to find something that gives me back the joy and meaning I had in my life back when I was struggling to break through.

The Zen of Sound

Are you lost or incomplete?
Do you feel like a puzzle, you can’t find your missing piece?
Tell me how do you feel?
Well, I feel like they’re talking in a language I don’t speak
And they’re talking it to me

Last year I felt like I had to spread a wide net to catch one opportunity. I spread myself very thin doing a lot of different things to try and get myself enough exposure to find a job. I am pulling back on a lot of these things.

Looking back at my long-term goals, the half that were not fulfilled all had to do with audio programming. I love sound. I wanted to be a sound designer before I became a programmer. Last year I wanted to write a synthesizer app as a portfolio project, but I had too much noise in my life that I couldn’t focus the way I needed to for this project.

Now that I can pull back on a lot of the things that are taking up my time, I can focus my free time on projects that personally interest me without worrying if they will get me a job.

I spoke to Brad when I began to feel overwhelmed about what I should focus on for the next year or so. He advised me to think of something that doesn’t exist and to try and make it happen. He talked to me about taking an impossible task and breaking it down into small, discreet parts that can each be accomplished individually.

Audio affords me a lot of opportunities to explore things that interest me. I became interested in electronics after I began working with physical hardware at my job. I also became interested in math after I started working with GLSL. Additionally, Apple introduced not only Swift, but AVAudioEngine. There have been audio programmers on Twitter who do not think you can do audio programming in Swift because Swift is not built on C.

When I tried to tackle this last year, I had no idea what I was getting into. I also placed a lot of chips on me being able to pull this thing off that caused me a tremendous amount of anxiety.

I am not going to make that mistake again.

I know it isn’t necessary, but I want to build a physical synthesizer before I tackle a software one. I want to get a feel for how all of the pieces fit together.

I also want to spend more time making music with my tools. You can’t really create a piece of software for a group of people if you don’t understand how they are going to use it. I used to play around with this stuff all the time years ago, but it’s been too painful to work with until recently.

I am not going to disappear. I am going to catalog my journey here on my blog. I hope that I can figure out how to do some things that will be helpful to the community at large. I plan to take everything I am learning over this time and present it at NSScotland, which I am still going to speak at. I could not let down Alan Francis again.

I hope that anyone reading this can understand and respect my decision. I hope that I am not the only person who has felt this way and that reading about my depression can help someone else. I am in this career for the long haul. 2014 was a sprint. The journey is a marathon. I can’t keep going the way I am because I won’t make it to the end. I am going to miss all of the amazing people I have met over the last year, but I need to take care of myself and focus.

Thank you everyone for an unbelievable 2014. I am looking forward to coming out of my self-imposed isolation a happier and healthier person. God bless and keep all of you. Don’t have too much fun without me.