Composing for controllerism

My first set of attempts at controllerism used samples of the Beatles and Michael Jackson. For the next round, I thought it would be good to try to create something completely from scratch. So this is my first piece of music created specifically with controllerism in mind.

The APC40 has forty trigger pads. You can use more than forty loops, but it’s a pain. I created eight loops that fit well together, and then made four additional variations of each one. That gave me a set of loops that fit tidily onto the APC40 grid. The instruments are 808 drum machine, latin percussion, wood blocks, blown tube, synth bass, bells, arpeggiated synth and an ambient pad.

40 loops

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Toward a statement of purpose

I’m in the process of applying for a PhD in music education, and I have to come up with a statement of purpose. Here’s my most current draft.

I have been a practicing musician and music teacher for fifteen years. But my formal music education ended in middle school, and did not resume in earnest for over two decades. My story is a sadly common one. The vast majority of Americans who have access to formal musical study abandon it as soon as they are able. Yet most of us have an emotional relationship to music. I am unusual only insofar as I had the means and the tenacity to find my way back into musical practice on my own. I wish for a world in which music education produces broad-based communities of enthusiastic music makers, using a variety of styles at a variety of skill levels. My goal as a PhD candidate is to work toward making that wish a reality.

I intend to advance change via three parallel, mutually informative avenues: 1) the direct teaching of future music teachers; 2) scholarship and advocacy; and 3) the design of new technologies and user experiences. I want to help students use technology as a tool for liberating their expressive potential, to partake of the essential social vitamin that is active musical engagement. I further hope to devise and spread culturally authentic teaching practices that guide students toward the discovery of their own musical truths.

I have encountered a great many music teachers who would like to take a more creativity-centered, culturally relevant approach. However, most music teachers have no idea how popular music is being made. It is not a technical issue, but rather a musical one. Traditional music training does not map easily onto the rhythmically intricate, harmonically static loop structures of contemporary Afrocentric pop and dance music. Study of harmonic movement at the quarter note level is poor preparation for creative engagement with music that lacks harmony entirely. Classically trained musicians rarely learn how to write songs, use the studio as an instrument, improvise, rap, make beats, or identify the timbral qualities that make one synth sound work better than another. Music education has tended to treat composition, performing and audio engineering as separate disciplines, but in contemporary popular practice, the distinctions between the three are no longer meaningful. Having given myself a hard-won education in the digital studio, I am passionately committed to sharing my toolkit with other educators.

Access to the digital studio is invaluable for young music learners. It is a constructivist axiom that music students work best when they feel like they are making something of value. Digital audio editing makes it possible to apprach the artifacts of our culture as producers rather than consumers. Software enables complete beginners to engage with music at the intuitive morpheme level—riffs, phrases, chord cycles, beat patterns and samples. Approaching music this way does not just give entry into pop; I can attest that it also opens significant inroads into jazz and classical. My goal as a scholar is to extoll the musical values and possibilities of the digital studio to as wide a range of practitioners and policymakers as I can. As a prolific music blogger, I have been undertaking this project for some years already; my hope is that scholarly publication will greatly increase my reach and credibility.

Montclair State student works with Logic

In my own teaching practice, I strive to erase the distinction between “school music” and “real music.” I focus heavily on the production of original student work, and I require all of that work to be posted on the open internet. I am moving in the direction of having all student writing live on the web as well. I have seen how good a motivator the internet can be; rather than creating a folder of exercises that will be heard only by a few teachers and peers, students can build an online portfolio available to anyone in the world who cares to listen.

I also believe that dance music practice has a great deal to offer teachers of any kind of music. For example, there is no better form of compositional critique than the remix. Rather than evaluating student work according to some arbitrary rule set, a teacher can simply remix it, thus starting a conversation about alternative musical choices using the language of music itself. Teachers can carry out the remix/critique during class, so students can see the process, make suggestions, and ask questions.

For pop musicians, most education takes place outside of the classroom. Some of this education happens via peer-to-peer networks, YouTube videos and books, but a substantial percentage is through direct trial and error. The presets, default sounds and user interface affordances in music production software and hardware are de facto music teachers with enormous cultural reach and impact. As Adam Bell memorably put it, “purchasers of computers are purchasers of an education.” I would like to find ways to make that educational experience a better one.

For the past year, I have had the privilege of working with the NYU Steinhardt Music Experience Design Lab. Rather than taking a narrow view of interface design or curriculum development, the MusEDLab approaches the holistic experience of the music learner, considering both the design of new technologies and their underlying pedagogical values and assumptions. The Groove Pizza is an emblematic MusEDLab project: a circular drum machine that visualizes rhythm patterns in the arrangement of plastic mushrooms, sausages, pepperoni and sausages. Beyond the novelty of the form factor, we believe that there is deep value in circular rhythm visualization as an intuitive representation of the loops comprising all pop and dance music. In addition to music, radial rhythm visualizations can be used to teach mathematical subjects, including ratios and proportional relationships, angles, polar coordinates, rotational and reflectional symmetry, and modular arithmetic. I expect that my doctoral studies will dovetail neatly with the MusEDLab’s work, and that the two will mutually inform each other.

Ableton Session View and instrument design

We usually think of “recorded” and “live” as two distinct and opposed forms of music. But technology has been steadily eroding the distinction between the two. Controllerism is a performance method using specialized control surfaces to trigger sample playback and manipulate effects parameters with the full fluidity and expressiveness of a conventional instrument. Such performance can take place on stage or in the studio.

Controllerism is attractive to me because I came to music through improvisation: blues, jazz, jam bands. I spent years improvising electronic music with Babsy Singer, though she did the beats and loops, not me. My life as a producer, meanwhile, has involved very little improvisation. Making music with the computer has been more like carefully writing scores. Improvisation and composition are really the same thing, but the timescales are different. Improvisation has an immediacy that composing on paper doesn’t. The computer shortens the loop from thought to music, but there’s still a lot of obligatory clicking around.

It’s certainly possible to improvise on the computer with MIDI controllers, either the usual keyboard variety or the wackier and more exotic ones. Improvising with MIDI and then cleaning up the results more meticulously is pretty satisfying, though my lack of piano skills make it almost as slow and tedious an input system as the mouse. Jamming on iPhone and iPad apps like Animoog or GarageBand is better. What they lack in screen real estate, they make up for with form factor. Making music on the computer comes to feel like office work after a while. But you can use the phone or the tablet while lying in bed or on the ground, or while pacing around, or basically anywhere. Multitouch also restores some of the immediacy of playing instruments.

There’s also the option of recording a lot of vocal or instrumental improvisation, and then sorting out all the audio afterwards. This is the most satisfying strategy for infusing electronic music with improvisation that I’ve found so far. You get all the free-flowing body-centered immediacy of live jamming, with no pressure whatsoever to be flawless. However, then you have to do the editing. It’s easier now than it was five or ten years ago, but it’s still labor-intensive. It can take an hour of work to shape a few minutes of improv into musical shape.

All of this time, I’ve had severe DJ envy, since their gear is designed for immediacy and improvisation. It’s a lame DJ indeed who meticulously stitches together a set ahead-of-time in an audio editor. However, DJ tools operate at the level of entire songs. It’s not easy to use Serato to write a new track. I’ve been wanting a tool that gives me the same sense of play, but at the scale of individual samples rather than entire songs.

Enter the APC40. The form factor resembles an MPC, and you can use it that way, to trigger one-shot samples like drum hits or chord stabs. But the intended use case is for Ableton session view, starting and stopping the playback of loops. By default, loop playback is quantized to the bar, so whenever you hit a pad, the loop begins playing cleanly on the next downbeat. (You can set the quantization interval to be as wide or narrow as you want, or disable it completely.) Playing your loops live makes happy accidents more likely. Of course, unhappy accidents are more likely too. But those are easy to fix in Arrange view. When I discovered that NYU has a little-used APC, I signed it out and started teaching myself controllerism. Here’s a picture of it.

Learning how this thing works. Major musical challenge.

It seems complex, and it is. The Starship Enterprise quality appeals to my tech nerd side. Creating an Ableton session for APC playing is like inventing a new musical instrument, every time. After you design your instrument, then you have to learn how to play it. On the other hand, if you design your instrument right, the actual playing of it can be fun and easy. When I set up the APC with some Michael Jackson samples and let Milo try it, he figured out the concept immediately.

Can a two-year-old live remix Michael Jackson with an APC40? Let's find out!

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All student work should go on the web

Well, it’s official. All of my students are now henceforth required to post all music assignments on SoundCloud.

It solves so many problems! No fumbling with thumb drives, no sharing of huge files, no annoyances with incompatible DAWs. No need to mess with audio-hostile Learning Management Systems. Everyone gets to listen to everyone else’s music. And best of all, the kids get into the habit of exposing their creative work to the blunt indifference of the public at large. Students can comment on and fave each others’ tracks, and so can randos on the web. It really takes the “academic” out of academic work.

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Electronic music tasting menu

Right now I’m teaching music technology to a lot of classical musicians. I came up outside the classical pipeline, and am always surprised to be reminded how insulated these folks are from the rest of the culture. I was asked today for some electronic music recommendations by a guy who basically never listens to any of it, and I expect I’ll be asked that many more times in this job. So I put together this playlist. It’s not a complete, thorough, or representative sampling of anything; it mostly reflects my own tastes. In more or less chronological order:

Delia Derbyshire

This lady did cooler stuff with tape recorders than most of us are doing with computers. See her in action. Here’s a proto-techno beat she made in 1971.

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Digital audio basics

Before you can understand how digital audio works, you need to know a few things about the physics of sound. This animation shows a sound wave emanating through the air from a circular source — imagine that it’s a drum or cymbal.

Spherical pressure waves

As you can see, sound is a wave, like a ripple in a pond. Imagine that your ear is at the bottom center of this image. The air pressure against your inner ear is rhythmically increasing and decreasing. Your brain senses how wide those swings in air pressure are and how often they’re happening, and you experience the result as a sound.

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The great music interface metaphor shift

I’m working on a long paper right now with my colleague at Montclair State University, Adam Bell. The premise is this: In the past, metaphors came from hardware, which software emulated. In the future, metaphors will come from software, which hardware will emulate.

The first generation of digital audio workstations have taken their metaphors from multitrack tape, the mixing desk, keyboards, analog synths, printed scores, and so on. Even the purely digital audio waveforms and MIDI clips behave like segments of tape. Sometimes the metaphors are graphically abstracted, as they are in Pro Tools. Sometimes the graphics are more literal, as in Logic. Propellerhead Reason is the most skeuomorphic software of them all. This image from the Propellerhead web site makes the intent of the designers crystal clear; the original analog synths dominate the image.

Reason with its inspiration

In Ableton Live, by contrast, hardware follows software. The metaphor behind Ableton’s Session View is a spreadsheet. Many of the instruments and effects have no hardware predecessor.

Loops in session view

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A DIY video about DIY recording

For the benefit of Play With Your Music participants and anyone else we end up teaching basic audio production to, MusEDLab intern Robin Chakrabarti and I created this video on recording audio in less-than-ideal environments.

This video is itself quite a DIY production, shot and edited in less than twenty-four hours, with minimal discussion beforehand and zero rehearsal. Continue reading

Killen and Marotta

Participants in Play With Your Music were recently treated to an in-depth interview with two Peter Gabriel collaborators, engineer Kevin Killen and drummer Jerry Marotta. Both are highly accomplished music pros with a staggering breadth of experience between them. You can watch the interview here:

Kevin Killen engineered So and several subsequent Peter Gabriel albums. His other engineering and mixing credits include Suzanne Vega, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Bobby McFerrin, Elvis Costello, Dar Williams, Sophie B. Hawkins, Ricky Martin, Madeleine Peyroux, U2, Allen Toussaint, Duncan Sheik, Bob Dylan, Ennio Morricone, Tori Amos, Rosanne Cash, Shakira, Talking Heads, John Scofield, Anoushka Shankar, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Stevie Nicks, Los Lobos, Kate Bush, Roy Orbison and Bryan Ferry.

Kevin Killen

Jerry Marotta played drums on all of Peter Gabriel’s classic solo albums. He has also performed and recorded with a variety of other artists, including Hall & Oates, the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, Marshall Crenshaw, Suzanne Vega, John Mayer, Iggy Pop, Tears for Fears, Elvis Costello, Cher, Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, and Ron Sexsmith.

Jerry Marotta

The interview was conducted by NYU professor and Play With Your Music lead designer Alex Ruthmann and UMass Lowell professor Alex Case. Here’s an edited summary. Continue reading

Reflections on teaching Ableton Live, part two

In my first post in this series, I briefly touched on the problem of option paralysis facing all electronic musicians, especially the ones who are just getting started. In this post, I’ll talk more about pedagogical strategies for keeping beginners from being overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities of sampling and synthesis.

Building a pop song structure

This is part of a larger argument why Ableton Live and software like it really needs a pedagogy specifically devoted to it. The folks at Ableton document their software extremely well, but their materials presume familiarity with their own musical culture. Most people aren’t already experimental techno producers. They need to be taught the musical values, conventions and creative approaches that Ableton Live is designed around. They also need some help in selecting raw musical materials. We music teachers can help, by putting tools like Ableton into musical context, and by curating finitely bounded sets of sounds to work with. Doing so will lower barriers to entry, which means happier users (and better sales for Ableton.) Continue reading