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.

A photo posted by Ethan Hein (@ethanhein) on

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!

A photo posted by Ethan Hein (@ethanhein) on

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Shared sample projects

My students at NYU and Montclair State are beginning to venture into producing their own tracks. There are two challenges facing them, the small one and the big one. The small challenge is learning3 the tools: remembering where the menus are and which key you hold down to turn the mouse pointer into a pencil, learning to conceive of notes and beats as rectangles on the piano roll, troubleshooting when you play notes on the MIDI keyboard and no sound comes out. The big challenge is option paralysis. Even a lightweight tool like GarageBand comes with a staggeringly large collection of software instruments, loops and effects, even before you start dealing with recording your own sounds. Where do you even begin?

The solution I’m using with my classes is the shared-sample project. Students are challenged to build a track out of a particular sound, or set of sounds. The easy version requires that they use the given sound, along with any additional sounds they see fit to include. The hard version, and for me the really interesting one, requires that they use the given sound(s) and absolutely nothing else. I was inspired in creating these assignments by the many Disquiet Junto shared sample projects I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. I’m trying out my own project ideas on MSU advanced audio production independent studiers Dan Bui and Matt Skouras, and will soon be giving shared-sample projects to my beginner-level classes as well.

The first assignment I gave Dan and Matt was to use eight GarageBand factory loops to build a track. They were free to do whatever processing they wanted, but they could not use other sounds. Also, they only had an hour to put their tracks together. Here are the loops:

Eight loops

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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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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

Reflections on teaching Ableton Live: part one

My music-making life has revolved heavily around Ableton Live for the past few years, and now the same thing is happening to my music-teaching life. I’m teaching Live at NYU’s IMPACT program this summer, and am going to find ways to work it into my future classes as well. My larger ambition is to develop an all-around electronic music composition/improvisation/performance curriculum centered around Live.

Ableton in action

While the people at Ableton have done a wonderful job documenting their software, they mostly presume that users know what they want to accomplish, they just don’t know how to get there. But my experience of beginner Ableton users (and newbie producers generally) is that they don’t even know what the possibilities are, what the workflow looks like, or how to get a foothold. My goal is to fill that vacuum, and I’ll be documenting the process extensively here on the blog.

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What is groove?

You hear musicians talk all the time about groove. You might wonder what they mean by that. A lot of musicians couldn’t explain exactly, beyond “the thing that makes music sound good.” The etymology of the term comes from vinyl records. Musicians ride the groove the way a phonograph needle physically rides the groove in the vinyl.

The original groove

But what is groove, exactly? It isn’t just a matter of everyone playing with accurate rhythm. When a classical musician executes a passage flawlessly, you don’t usually talk about their groove. Meanwhile, it’s possible for loosely executed music to have a groove to it. Most of my musician friends talk about groove as a feeling, a vibe, an ineffable emotional quality, and they’re right. But groove is something tangible, too, and even quantifiable.

Using digital audio production software, you can learn to understand the most mystical aspects of music in concrete terms. I’ve written previously about how electronic music quantifies the elusive concept of swing. Music software can similarly help you understand the even more elusive concept of groove. In music software, “groove” means something specific and technical: the degree to which a rhythm deviates from the straight metronomic grid. Continue reading

Remixing Verdi with Ableton Live

Later this week I’m doing a teaching demo for a music technology professor job. The students are classical music types who don’t have a lot of music tech background, and the task is to blow their minds. I’m told that a lot of them are singers working on Verdi’s Requiem. My plan, then, is to walk the class through the process of remixing a section of the Requiem with Ableton Live. This post is basically the script for my lecture.

Verdi remixed

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Anatomy of a Disquiet Junto project

I participate in Marc Weidenbaum’s Disquiet Junto whenever I have the time and the brain space. Once a week, he sends out an assignment, and you have a few days to produce a new piece of music to fit. Marc asks that you discuss your process in the track descriptions on SoundCloud, and I’m always happy to oblige. But my descriptions are usually terse. This week I thought I’d dive deep and document the whole process from soup to nuts, with screencaps and everything.

Here’s this week’s assignment, which is simpler than usual:

Please answer the following question by making an original recording: “What is the room tone of the Internet?” The length of your recording should be two minutes.

Data Centre

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Composing improvisationally with Ableton Live

I just completed a batch of new music, which was improvised freely in the studio and then later shaped into structured tracks.

I thought it would be helpful to document the process behind this music, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I expect to be teaching this kind of production a lot more in the future. Second, knowing how the tracks were made might be helpful to you in enjoying them. Third, composing the music during or after recording rather than before has become the dominant pop production method, and I want to help my fellow highbrow musicians to get hip to it. Continue reading