In the sequencer, the notation is the performance

In my laptop band Revival Revival, we use Reason for all of our instrumental sounds and sample playback. The newest version has a handy color-coding feature in the sequencer, which makes it easy for me to be able to keep track of which part of which song happens in which order. Having all the tunes under my eyes all the time has revealed new wisdom to my ears about symmetry and asymmetry, and isn’t that what music is all about?

The color-coding system started as a simple information-management technique, but it ended up improving my ears. Spending so much time looking at these colorfully abstracted representations of so many songs, I couldn’t help but notice some patterns. I’ve done enough tracks now that I can lay something out in the sequencer and know that it’ll basically work without having to listen to it first. Classical and jazz musicians get to the point where by glancing over a score, they can hear it quite clearly in the mind’s ear. The Reason sequencer has a much shorter path into the brain’s deep sense-data processing centers because it’s dynamic, animated, and responsive to my thoughts in real time.

So here are three representative tunes. The rows are instruments, mostly sample players along with the odd drum machine or synth. The columns are groups of eight bars, sixty-four beats according to the dance music convention of a bar comprising eight eighth notes. You can see that every phrase in these tunes is two, four, eight or sixteen bars long. This is no accident. Powers of two sound good. Each colored brick is a phrase worth of sequencer data. My system is to color intros and outtros pale yellow, the verses blue, choruses green, instrumentals and breakdowns orange, and bridges purple. The colors are chosen soley on the basis of what looks good together on the screen.

The SignRevival Revival vs Ace Of Base vs Super Mario Bros vs Scientist


Even though this track is a freakshow sonically and memetically, its underlying structure is total pop boilerplate. Every phrase is eight bars long. The intro is mostly identical to the verses, each of which is followed by the chorus. The breakdown is modeled on the verse, but twice as long, and is followed by a triple chorus to end the song. The outtro is the last chorus spaced out and with no drums, plus a little tag on the very end.

Tomorrow Never KnowsRevival Revival vs the Beatles vs M.I.A. vs Missy Elliot

Tomorrow Never Knows by ethanhein

Since this is a fake Ravi Shankar tune, it has a more open-ended, less narrative structure. The single-chord jam fits electronic music like a glove, and fake Middle Eastern and Asian music usually translates better to computers than Western linear tunes with definite beginnings, middles and ends. Tomorrow Never Knows is a single mixolydian scale to infinity, verses interspersed with open-ended passages of swirling modal chaos. I have a few different versions of the basic loop with different densities, but functionally they’re all interchangeable. The colors are more general landmarks for me.

Love Her MadlyRevival Revival vs the Doors vs James Brown


We like this tune so much that we extend it like crazy in performances. The recording only goes to the bridge once, but live we do a breakdown and then go back into the bridge, sometimes a few times. The outtro is when I rap.

MIDI sequencers like Reason have done for music notation and composition what word processing and the internet did for the written word. Especially intriguing is the way you can move the loop markers around during playback. My one sadness with Reason’s sequencer is that while there are many operations you can perform during playback and live recording, you can’t copy and paste in the sequencer window without stopping first. Maybe there’s some unavoidable software constraint here, or maybe it’s just lazy coding, I’ll give the Reason guys the benefit of the doubt and assume the former. I’m finding so much inspiration in their software, it feels ungrateful to criticize.

Reblogged on Hysysk’s Delicious

3 thoughts on “In the sequencer, the notation is the performance

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  2. Color-coding synesthesia is exactly the phrase! I was seeing music in terms of interlocking colored shapes anyway, so it’s a relief that the software has finally caught up with me.

  3. When you say “color coding improved your ears”, the first thing that comes to mind is that you are doing some kind of machine-assisted synesthesia. very cool, that.

    I’ve heard similar things from people who color code their calendars (the “monday” part of the calendar is always blue etc) and that helps them figure out what the week is just by sight and not thinking.

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