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!

Continue reading

A book you should read

I’m currently reading On Immunity by Eula Biss, which is so good you can’t believe it. Recommended if you’re interested in vaccination, health generally, being a parent, gender, race, class, the history of medicine, Greek mythology, vampires, or if you just need an example of how to parse out a difficult subject in a warm and elegant manner.

On Immunity

Also, if you have money and want to make a well targeted public health intervention, I recommend buying a bunch of copies and handing them out in front of the Park Slope Food Coop and the equivalent locations in Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Laurel Canyon, Portland, and wherever else well-educated professionals aren’t getting their kids vaccinated.

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

Continue reading

Music theory blues

I’m reading a lot Schenkerian analyses of blues right now in service of my forthcoming article about blues tonality. Each paper I read is wronger than the last. On the one hand, they fill me with righteous rage, but on the other hand, that rage does at least help me focus my arguments. Here are some particularly awful quotes from a scholar who will remain nameless, because I don’t believe that the racism is intended:

Blue notes, by nature, are alienated from their harmonic environment and have a dissonant relationship with them, giving the blues and all its derivatives a rough, angry character. Nevertheless, the hostility of blue notes toward the surrounding world may be mitigated—“domesticated”—through consonantization.

Blue notes (BNs), by nature, spoil the diatonicism of and cause dissonance in “clean” chords. But these notes may achieve their own independent harmonization, thereby being domesticated and turning into “environment-friendly” consonant notes.

The products of the consonantization of the BNs, which appear in a major-mode harmonic environment, are necessarily flatted degrees. These degrees turn the BNs from minor notes, which are “alien” to the major chords that build the basic harmonic progression, into “family” notes that are “at home” in these chords. The legitimacy that the flatted chords give the BNs is ostensibly the opposite of the “emancipation”that Arnold Schoenberg gave dissonant notes when he freed them from having to resolve to consonance, since the BNs by nature are dissonant notes with no obligation to be resolved.

However, the domestication of the BNs is an emancipatory act, since they thereby stop clashing with the harmony and instead become settled in it.

In Example 1(e), we see flatted or “minorized” degrees, among them VI and III. These degrees now include 3ˆ and 7ˆ not as BNs but in a mixtural framework—that is, as an insertion of flatted notes in a major key. Both of these—mixture and BNs—are common in the Beatles’ songs. Are they related? Ostensibly, they are two completely different things: the journey back in time in quest of the origins of blues will take us to the Mississippi Delta and from there to Africa, whereas the search for the origins of mixture, which is anchored in traditional harmony, will eventually lead us to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. The connection goes through the “domestication of BNs”—when it can be shown that a particular BN has changed from being outside the consonant harmony, in which case we may regard it as a garnish or a “disturbance,”to being an integral part of a consonant triad. If, for example, we can claim in a particular context that the III chord in Example 1(e) is based on a BN (G), then the status of this BN has improved substantially relative to its status in (c): instead of being an outsider, it becomes a distinguished member of the club of the flatted mediant without losing its blues character.

The status of these [blue] notes in the harmonic society improves substantially in part B: they become the roots of VII and III, and thus they become respected members of the community and live in consonant harmony with the rest of the notes. Their past is nevertheless evident in the descriptive term CBN, which is imprinted on their identity cards.

THAT'S RACIST Continue reading

Blues tonality

Most Americans who study music formally do so using common-practice era western tonal theory. Tonal theory is very useful in understanding the music of western Europe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. However, tonal theory is inadequate to explain the blues and other musics of the African diaspora. Given the central role of this music in both popular culture and art music, music theory classes do their students a grave disservice by not discussing its harmonic content.

The blues cannot be explained by Western tonal theory. Nevertheless, the blues emerged in western culture and is now a central pillar of it. McClary (2001) observes that while twentieth-century music has no single main stream, it does have a “mighty river” that follows a channel cut the blues:

When LeRoi Jones published his powerful book Blues People in 1963, his title referred to the African American musicians who fashioned the blues out of their particular historical conditions and experiences. Yet a music scholar of a future time might well look back on the musical landscape of the 1900 s and label us all “blues people”: those who inhabited a period dominated by blues and its countless progeny (32-33).

It no longer makes sense to think of the blues, or any other music of the African diaspora, as non-Western. Therefore, Western music theory must grow to accommodate the blues, the same way that the music itself has.

Continue reading

Internet blues

Recently, WNYC’s great music show Soundcheck held a contest to see who could do the best version of the 100 year old song “Yellow Dog Blues” by WC Handy.

Marc Weidenbaum had the members of the Disquiet Junto enter the contest en masse. I did my track, put it on SoundCloud, and promptly forgot all about it.

A month later, I was surprised and delighted to learn from Marc’s blog that the contest winner was Junto stalwart Westy Reflector.

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

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

Recording Peter Gabriel’s Security

This post was originally written for the Play With Your Music blog. Also be sure to check out our interview with engineer Kevin Killen and drummer Jerry Marotta.

Peter Gabriel’s songwriting and recording process in the early 1980s was unusual for its technological sophistication, playfulness and reliance on improvisation. While Peter was considered avant-garde back then, now that music technology is a lot cheaper and more accessible, his practices have become the baseline standard for pop, dance and hip-hop.

Peter Gabriel's Security

The South Bank Show’s long 1983 documentary on the making of Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album Security follows the production of the album from its earliest conception to its release and critical reception. It’s an invaluable record both of Peter’s creative process and the technology behind it.

Continue reading