From Funk to Functions

Or how I went from touring the world with George Clinton to developing music production apps

Photo by Elizabeth Fisher

Part I

Between 2017 and 2020 I had the surreal privilege of opening up for Parliament-Funkadelic on tour, as well as producing an album with funk legend George Clinton. Each day beside Dr. Funkenstein was a masterclass in intuition, positivity, and letting it flow. This was the pinnacle of my 15-year adventure in professional music.

In the studio with George Clinton in Brooklyn, NY • Photo by Elizabeth Fisher

I can’t say how I got here exactly but I’m grateful for my unlikely success as a career drummer. I watch many friends struggle to find a foothold in the industry as wild opportunities continue to paw at me time and time again. Every once in a while I’ll be on stage with some music icon and have a brief lucid moment of “Dang, I’m lucky.” The never-ending travel and nothing-but-vibes lifestyle is often as good as it sounds. My childhood prayers were answered. My bucket list is checked.

Performing with Gryffin • Photo by Juliana Bernstein

But this era had been coming to an obvious close and I began to feel stale. My skills as a drummer kept growing, but in very nuanced and specialized ways that didn’t seem to be adding much value to my career. Sure, I can learn that trendy new paradiddle variation. But will it increase my earning potential? Will it get me more gigs? After ten or twenty thousand hours of mastering your art, it takes hundreds more to grow even just a tick.

Then came the global shutdown.

As a professional artist, I’m used to financial ups and downs, but the pandemic was different. An 18-month touring schedule was erased, with no return in sight. Could I wait it out? The work would come back eventually… wouldn’t it? I still had some production and studio opportunities, but I saw too many artists, myself included, twiddling their thumbs waiting for the return of live music. Free time is one thing, wasted years is another. I could see myself soon turning 35 with a depleted savings account and few opportunities. It was time to take the leap into software.

Coding is a venture that’s been on my back burner ever since I programmed an Arkanoid clone in a high school computer science class. It’s the, dare I say sexy, ability to open a blank text document, hack away at a keyboard, and create something that has a life of its own. I had attempted some online coding tutorials a few years back, but it became quickly apparent that touring would not allow me to devote the amount of time needed to learn effectively. The social isolation and work drought of 2020 provided me this luxury of time, and the pandemic had become a personal blessing in disguise.

If you’re unsure how to begin the journey into software engineering, you’re not alone. I was utterly overwhelmed by how little I knew about what goes on inside a computer. Quality education was a must. I spoke to many coding boot camp recruiters, all of whom were trying to sell me on their tried-and-true platform. After lots of online research, it seemed there were many dissatisfied boot camp grads, but almost no unprepared self-taught engineers.

Mastering the art of drumming took decades of self-disciplined practice. “If I did it once, I can do it again.” I looked forward to the challenge. After more thorough review digging, I went with the following educational tools:

  • Harvard CS50x (to cover a broad base of computer science fundamentals.)
  • freeCodeCamp.org (for a comprehensive and methodical track towards employable skills in full-stack development.)
  • Textbooks and documentation (which need mentioning because, with all of the other resources available, the solution to your problem is often found here.)
  • YouTube tutorials and Stack Overflow threads (because it helps to see real problems in the wild and how other engineers are solving them.)

It would take several articles to explain why these specific resources were valuable. Reach out to me if you’re considering this track and I’d be happy to discuss the ups and downs.

I’m a fan of extremes. So for seven days a week, and approximately 10–14 hours a day, I would be reading, writing, and researching code. An incessant fire-hosing of new jargon, paradigms, and curiosities blew the dust out of my head. This was not unlike my formative years in drumming, where I would race home from school and spend hours on end learning new techniques and implanting muscle memory into my limbs.

If this sounds intense, it is. This strategy requires as much rest as it does effort. A decade of meditating every day had built a habit of taking meaningful breaks, which helped to recover mental energy. I also stumbled upon the surprising benefits of context switching, which paid dividends. The basic premise is:

  1. Focus intensely and work until the mind starts to fog (or even just thinly mist.)
  2. Take a brief meditative break. Nothing esoteric, just sit quietly and let the mind pus drain.
  3. Switch to a new but related task. (ex: stop working on the current algorithm challenge and start reading a textbook about your programming language.) This is where compound interest kicks in. You are recharged with the start of a new activity, leveraging what you learned with the previous task while actively climbing the learning ladder towards something new.

Your mileage may vary. I recommend giving it a try if you’re not progressing at your desired pace. However, there were times when I simply needed to step away to recuperate — there was no way to “hack” my brain into learning more.

A note to drummers interested in coding: you were built for this. Our brains have been wired for complex state management since we learned our first beat. Do you remember your first beat? The magical new satisfaction of neurons snapping together to coordinate four independent limbs and keep steady time. This juggling of attention between lots of moving parts becomes part of your brain’s perpetual learning machine, allowing you to navigate problems acrobatically. It’s not just a talent. Drumming is a superpower.

Solving my first coding challenges brought that same delicious brain stretch I hadn’t felt in years.

Ever since the advent of Pro Tools in the early ‘90s, software engineers have been cloning our favorite analog gear “in the box” so to speak. As a musician, we get the best of both worlds: the functionality and quirkiness of the original gear plus an array of features where creativity is likely your only limit. I was always a little underwhelmed by the limited size of a drum sequencer’s pattern and slow input between instrument sounds. I decided to solve this problem by experimenting with my skills as a newly minted software engineer. I had a few goals for this project:

  • It would be something fun and useful enough that I’d personally consider using.
  • It would have an intuitive interface that anybody could use regardless of musical ability.
  • It would be sufficiently challenging and would help me learn the intricacies of front-end web development.
  • It would help me prove to myself that I could put all my newly learned skills as a software engineer to use in an effective, purposeful, and deliberate way.

After ten weeks of obsessive keyboard shredding to the point where I was eating, breathing, and actually dreaming code, Sequencer64 was ready. It’s a drum machine, sample player, and sequencer, with an intuitive design optimized for building 64-step patterns fast.

The app made it to the front page of Hacker News for a whole day with over 300 points and 120 comments. In just one week it’s had over 64,000 pageviews with 21,000 unique visitors. You can check out the app here and the source code here. And the Hacker News post here. I am humbled and inspired by the positive feedback. My experiment of, “How robust a music app can I build in the browser?” has me now bouncing ideas off industry veterans. And to think I almost didn’t share it because I was afraid it wouldn’t be good enough.

Code is art, and as with most art forms, your own inner critic is usually what stops you. It doesn’t matter if you’re composing a symphony or developing a new piece of software. On hesitating to contribute backing vocals in the studio, George Clinton’s advice to me was simple and effective, “You just gotta get in there and make some noise.”

Have you been considering a change but are afraid to get started? Get in there and make some noise!

I hope this article reaches other artists (especially drummers!) who, as a whole human, feel underutilized, eager for new challenges, or just simply bored with their day-to-day impact on life. You can code. And if you can code, you can do anything.

Coming up in Part II:

The inspiration, challenges, and execution of developing Sequencer64.com

Nick Carbone is an NYC-based Software Engineer. You can connect on LinkedIn, GitHub, and Instagram

Software Engineer with a background in professional music. Connect if you want to build stuff.

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