Holed up in his eggshell whitelow-ceiling basement in Hackensack, New Jersey, Matthew Whitaker is making magic.
He’s surrounded on all sides by an arsenal of machines for creating music: a MIDI controller keyboard, four keyboards stacked in racks of two, and an organ, while a bass cabinet, guitar amp, drum kit, and percussion section fill out the rest of the cramped basement. All of these run through five interfaces which route 40 signals—eight apiece—into the 21-year-old jazz musician’s computer. It sits at the helm of this tightly organized chaos.
While chatting on a video call, Whitaker flits around a sea of dials, sliders, LED displays, and keys, like a pilot in the cockpit of a jumbo jet. A turn of a knob here, a click there, then his fingers from him turn to their true love from him: the piano keys. He grins while they dash across the keyboard, producing a raucous, cheeky major-key run. The piano is an extension of Whitaker: When he’s particularly excited, or laughs, his hands dele dart across the keys, creating short melodic trills and riffs.
This basement is where Whitaker records and produces his music. But he doesn’t use home production software or mixing boards the same way that sighted musicians do. He’s blind, and has been since he was an infant—a result of complications from being born prematurely at 24 weeks.
Now at 21 and entering his fourth year at New York City’s esteemed Juilliard School, he’s an established recording and performing artist, a Gen Z jazz wunderkind with three full-length records under his belt and collaborations with jazz veterans like Christian McBride, Rhoda Scott, and the late Dr. Lonnie Smith. He’s driven and he values control over his creative process, but for most people, recording music in the digital age is as much a visual process as a musical one. Playing, recording, mixing—all of these are carried out on visual cues, especially on a computer screen.
So how does Whitaker do it without sight? With a nod to Sinatra, Whitaker does it his way.
His parents, Moses and May Whitaker, say that Matthew was playing piano before he could speak. The story is almost folklore: He was 3 years old when he started playing back simple melodies on the keys, with both hands. By 11, he was performing in concert halls around the world.
Whitaker is used to facing challenges that other musicians don’t. When he was asked to create a fast-turnaround piece for two American Ballet Theater dancers, he stress hit: “How do I compose for dancers? It’s not something that I can see and match to what they are doing,” he worried. The choreographer told Whitaker the feeling, sound, and movement he wanted the piece to have. It took a couple of days, but he composed a song that nailed the challenge by exploring sounds he hadn’t used before.
Whitaker first started home recording on GarageBand, before upgrading to music production app Logic Pro around 2015. On a Zoom call from his basement studio in May, Whitaker shares his screen to demonstrate how he records. He’s working on a song idea that afternoon, so he opens a session in Logic with a track for his MIDI keyboard, which connects to computer software for his sounds. He sets the beats per minute at 192 and hits record. After a click track counts Whitaker in for one bar, his hands from him set to work, pumping out a dazzling bouquet of complex chords and melodies. It’s impossibly beautiful, light and bold, the sort of thing you might imagine playing when you feel on top of the world, strutting at a cutting pace on a sunny day. A gentle breeze ruffles your hair. You’re in New York City, baby.
Whitaker’s computer audio, though, is the key to all of this beauty. Before and after the gorgeous piano keystrokes, VoiceOver, Apple’s built-in screen reader, speaks in a rapid-fire stream to Whitaker, who can then navigate and manipulate his computer.
VoiceOver is integrated into his Mac Studio’s architecture, software, and apps, rendering a verbal roadmap of the page, reading out which buttons and labels are on screen and what information they contain, descriptions of images and objects, what tools are in a window and how they function.
VoiceOver and similar technologies rely on two key processes. First, the analysis of information, which uses machine learning to identify the most pertinent data on a screen. The second is speech synthesis, which converts this information into a linguistic composition that best describes the information. Then, a phonetic transcription is assigned, the text is divided into units like phrases and sentences, and that transcription is turned into a digital voice.
Whitaker uses VoiceOver across his devices using an expansive and customizable set of gesture- and touch-specific actions. For example, tapping with four fingers near the top of his iPhone screen will select the first item on the screen. A three-fingered tap will compel VoiceOver to relay more information, while a three-fingered swipe up or down is how he scrolls. To return to a previous screen, he’d use two fingers to quickly draw a Z shape on the screen. “Depending on the interface, I have to interact a lot with sliders and buttons and various other elements, while a sighted person can just drag or click or tap or whatever,” says Whitaker.
Whitaker started using VoiceOver in 2011 when his dad got a Mac. Over the years, Whitaker has fine-tuned how he interacts with the program: He’s set the verbosity setting—how many words are used to describe certain things—to his liking, the maximum speed. For Whitaker, it’s efficient and quick. To an untrained user, it sounds like a voice recording on fast-forward. Whitaker puts a finger on a round plastic knob on his keyboard. “If I touch one of them, it just reads out when I move them,” he says. He turns one to adjust his piano track’s volume and VoiceOver races along, calling out the level changes at a dizzying rate: “Minus 0.2 decibels, 5.4 decibels, 6.2 decibels, 3.7 decibels.”
“I prefer it really fast,” Whitaker laughs. “I practice with the interface a lot so I can just zoom through everything.”
Whitaker says each assistive program is different, so the software on his MIDI keyboard is different from VoiceOver. But he’s gotten to know the layout of his equipment and recording software so well that he’ll sometimes navigate them with accessibility features turned off entirely. At times, the chatter can be more than he needs; Whitaker mutters, “Shush,” as VoiceOver babbles over his own voice.
When he’s recording drums or percussion on the other side of the room from his computer, Whitaker uses a companion app on his phone that allows him to control Logic remotely. “That’s how I can record over there by myself and hit the buttons,” he says, “so I don’t have to worry about people doing it for me.”
In his basement studio, surrounded by wires and screens and instruments, Whitaker maintains control and agency in a world that’s built in a way that often deprives him of those things. Whitaker’s father hooked up and wired a lot of the hardware to the software elements like interfaces, MIDI controllers, and computers. Now, the younger Whitaker is the king of this basement: He knows each square of carpet, each knob and button and key.
But Whitaker’s love is music, not technology. His work is expansive and wondrous; “Journey Uptown,” the opening track from his 2021 record connections, makes this abundantly clear. It pivots on a dime between key signatures, tempos, and moods with cinematic flair and texture. It’s loose and playful jazz, but it’s melodic and bright, too. Through his piano, Whitaker creates whole worlds. The tools Whitaker uses are incidental. They work like a conduit for his talent and his musicality —things that have already garnered the attention of scientists studying his brain to figure out how the hell he’s so damn good at what he does.
Programs can be coded, data can be arranged, wires can be connected. Whitaker’s genius can’t be quantified like a line of code or the electric signal current from an instrument to a processor. He uses the same tools as every other composer. He just makes music his way. “It’s different because of how we blind individuals control everything,” says Whitaker. “But we achieve the same result, ya know?”
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