How should we be teaching music technology?

This semester, I had the pleasure of leading an independent study for two music students at Montclair State University. One was Matt Skouras, a grad student who wants to become the music tech teacher in a high school. First of all, let me just say that if you’re hiring for such a position in New Jersey, you should go right ahead and hire Matt, he’s an exceptionally serious and well-versed musician and technologist. But the reason for this post is a question that Matt asked me after our last meeting yesterday: What should he be studying in order to teach music tech?

Matt is an excellent case study for the music ed tech field generally. He’s a classical trumpet player by training who has found little opportunity to use that skill after college. Wanting to keep his life as a musician moving forward, he started learning guitar, and, in his independent study with me, has been producing adventurous laptop music with Ableton Live. Matt is a broad-minded listener, and a skilled audio engineer. His exposure to non-classical music is limited in the way typical of people who came up through the classical pipeline, but he’s eager to fill in the gaps. It was at Matt’s request that I put together this electronic music tasting menu.

So. How to answer Matt’s question? How does one go about learning to teach music technology? My first impulse was to say, um, I don’t know, but if you find out, please tell me. The answer I gave him was less flip: the field is still taking shape, and it evolves rapidly as the technology does. Music tech is a broad and sprawling subject, and you could approach it from any number of different philosophical and technical angles. I’ll list a few of them here. Continue reading

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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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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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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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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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.

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Silver Apples of the Moon

Discussing “Silver Apples Of The Moon” puts me in a quandary. I like Morton Subotnick personally, and very much enjoyed studying with him. I appreciate his desire to liberate the world from the shackles of keyboard-centric thinking. There’s no question that his music is personal, original and forward-thinking. But I find myself unable to emotionally connect.

Allmusic’s artist profiles include user-submitted “moods.” The Allmusic artist moods for Subotnick are: Cerebral, Clinical, Detached, Reserved, and Hypnotic. I couldn’t have described “Silver Apples” any better. Subotnick certainly isn’t reserved in person; his willingness to sing and dance spontaneously in class is his most charming quality. But like most of his high modernist cohort, Subotnick’s music is austere.

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User interface case study: iOS Garageband

Apple has long made a practice of giving away cool software with their computers. One of the coolest such freebies is Garageband. It’s a stripped down version of Logic aimed at beginners, and it’s a surprisingly robust tool. The software instruments and loops sound terrific, the interface is approachable, and it’s generally a great scratchpad. However, Garageband isn’t a good way to learn about music. It gives you a lot of nice sounds, but offers no indication whatsoever as to what you’re supposed to do with them. To get a decent-sounding track, you need to come pre-equipped with a fair bit of musical knowledge.

A young guitar student of mine is a good example. After only his third lesson, he jumped on Garageband and tried writing a song, mostly by throwing loops together. I admire his initiative, but the result was jagged and disjointed, lacking any kind of structural logic. It’s natural that a first effort would be a mess, but I felt a missed opportunity. At no point did the program ever suggest that the kid’s loops would sound best in groups of two, four, eight or sixteen. It didn’t suggest he organize his track into sections with symmetrical lengths. And it didn’t suggest any connection between one chord and another. Seeing enough other beginners struggle with Garageband makes me think that it isn’t really for novices after all. It seems to be pitched more toward dads in cover bands, who have some half-remembered knowledge of chord progressions and song forms and who just need a minimum of prodding to start putting together tracks on the computer.

The iPad version of Garageband is a much better experiential learning tool. Its new touch-specific interfaces encourage the playful exploration at the heart of music-making. The program isn’t trying to be particularly pedagogical, but its presets and defaults nevertheless implicitly give valuable guidance to the budding producer or songwrter. And while it’s quite a bit more limited than the desktop version, those limitations are strengths for beginner purposes.

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