The Groove Pizza

Walking to the subway this morning, I had a bright idea for how to make the Drum Loop more kid-friendly by representing the radial grid as a pizza. Here’s a very quick concept sketch:

Groove pizza

To really make this work, I wouldn’t just plop a JPEG of a pizza under the existing UI. I’d want a cartoon pizza rendered in a flat-color style. Instead of colored wedge cells, drum hits would be represented by stylized pepperoni, sausage, anchovies, olives, mushrooms and so on. I’ll throw it on the ever-expanding “future work” pile.

Usually I like to make everything on this blog freely available to whoever wants to use it, but The Groove Pizza is ⓒ Ethan Hein 2013, all rights reserved.

Teaching audio and MIDI editing in the MOOC

This is the fifth in a series of posts documenting the development of Play With Your Music, a music production MOOC jointly presented by P2PU, NYU and MIT. See also the first, second, third and fourth posts.

Soundation uses the same basic interface paradigm as other audio recording and editing programs like Pro Tools and Logic. Your song consists of a list of tracks, each of which can contain a particular sound. The tracks all play back at the same time, so you can use them to blend together sounds as you see fit. You can either record your own sounds, or use the loops included in Soundation, or both. The image below shows six tracks. The first two contain loops of audio; the other four contain MIDI, which I’ll explain later in the post.

Audio and MIDI tracks in Soundation

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Play With Your Music curriculum design – learning to listen

This is the second in a series of posts documenting the development of Play With Your Music, a music production MOOC jointly presented by P2PU, NYU and MIT. Read the first post here.

Alex is fond of the phrase “pedagogies of timbre and space.” By that, he means: ways of studying those aspects of recorded music beyond the notes being played and words being sung. Timbre is the combination of overtones, noise content, attack and decay that makes one instrument sound different from another. Space refers to the environment that the sound exists in, real or simulated. These are the aspects of music that get shaped by recording engineers, producers and DJs. Audio creatives usually don’t have much input into the stuff you see on sheet music. But they end up significantly shaping the end result, because the sonic surface is the main thing that most non-specialist listeners pay attention to (along with the beat.) For many pop and dance styles, the surface texture is the most salient component of the music.

Frequency spectrum of an E9 chord on an electric guitar

The work of audio professionals, be they recording artists, engineers, producers, remixers or DJs, consists mostly of close listening. Making recordings consists of doing a lot of asking yourself: Does this sound good? If not, why not? Is there something missing? Or does something need to be taken out? Is the blend of timbres satisfying? Are the sounds placed well in the stereo field? Are they at the right perceptual distance from the listener? No one is born able to ask these questions, much less to answer them. You have to learn how, and then you have to practice. In a sense, music production software is like the Microsoft Office suite. Before you learn about the fine points of formatting or making equations, you need to learn how to write coherently, how to organize data, how to structure a presentation. So it is with music. There’s no point in learning the nuts and bolts of particular software until you know what you’re listening for and what you want to achieve.

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Teaching math with the Drum Loop

I’ve undergone some evolution in my thinking about the intended audience for my thesis app. My original idea was to aim it at the general public. But the general public is maybe not quite so obsessed with breakbeats as I am. Then I started working with Alex Ruthmann, and he got me thinking about the education market. There certainly a lot of kids in the schools with iPads, so that’s an attractive idea. But hip-hop and techno are a tough sell for traditionally-minded music teachers. I realized that I’d find a much more receptive audience in math teachers. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between music and math for a long time, and it would be cool to put some of those ideas into practice.

The design I’ve been using for the Drum Loop UI poses some problems for math usage. Since early on, I’ve had it so that the centers of the cells line up with the cardinal angles. However, if you’re going to measure angles and things, the grid lines really need to be on the cardinal angles instead. Here’s the math-friendly design:

math-friendly Funky Drummer lesson

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Software design as research

Brown, A. (2007). Software Development as Music Education Research. International Journal of Education & the Arts. Volume 8, Number 6.

My thesis is supposed to include a quantitative research component. This had been causing me some anxiety. It’s educational and creative software. What exactly could I measure? I had this vague notion of testing people’s rhythmic ability before and after using the app. But how do you quantify rhythmic ability? Even if I had a meaningful numerical representation, how could I possibly measure a big enough sample size over a long enough time to get a statistically significant result? The development of my app is going okay, but I was really stressing about the experimental component.

The Drum Loop in Xcode

Then my advisor introduced me to Andrew Brown‘s notion of software development as research, or SoDaR. As Brown puts it, “SoDaR involves computers, but is about people.” Humans are complex, our interactions with computers are complex, the way we learn is complex. The only method of inquiry that can encompass all that complexity is qualitative, anthropological inquiry, involving a substantial amount of introspection on the part of the researcher.

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Experience designers design experiences

Hassenzahl, M. (2010). Experience Design: Technology for All the Right Reasons. Morgan & Claypool.

For this week’s reading on experience design for music education, we moved up a level to think about experience design generally. A lot of design theory tends to boil down to “Design things better!” Marc Hassenzahl’s book falls into that trap a little, but he does have some useful specific ideas. His main thesis is that designers of technology aren’t just designing the technology itself. They’re designing the felt experience of using the technology (intentionally or not.) People care less about the technology itself and more about how they feel while using it.

Are You Experienced?

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Drum Loop programming lesson concept images

Nearly getting scooped by Loopseque lit a fire under me to get some more concept images for my thesis app together. So here are some examples of the beat programming lessons that form the intellectual heart of my project. The general idea is that you’re given an existing drum pattern, a famous breakbeat or something more generic. Some of the beats are locked down, guaranteeing that anything you do will sound musical. Click each one to see it bigger.

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Another radial drum machine

I’ve been working on my thesis app this whole time in the serene knowledge that there’s very little precedent for what I’m trying to do. However, I just learned that I’m wrong, that there’s an app out there with a lot of broad similarities to mine: Loopseque, made by Casual Underground. At first glance, I was alarmed; had I been scooped? Has all my work been in vain? The superficial similarities are hard to miss:

Loopseque

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Radial drum machine update

I’m planning to be done with my thesis by (gulp) December. My collaborator Chris and I got a basic prototype of the radial drum machine together over the summer using Max and Javascript. What we learned is that you don’t want to do an audio app in Max and Javascript, since it will be single-threaded and slower than molasses in January. Since then, we’ve been building the iOS version, which is going to include more features and be closer to the version I have in my head.

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