Project-based music technology teaching

I use a project-based approach to teaching music technology. Technical concepts stick with you better if you learn them in the course of making actual music. Here’s the list of projects I assign to my college classes and private students. I’ve arranged them from easiest to hardest. The first five projects are suitable for a beginner-level class using any DAW–my beginners use GarageBand. The last two projects are more advanced and require a DAW with sophisticated editing tools and effects, like Ableton Live. If you’re a teacher, feel free to use these (and let me know if you do). Same goes for all you bedroom producers and self-teachers.

The projects are agnostic as to musical content, style or genre. However, the computer is best suited to making electronic music, and most of these projects work best in the pop/hip-hop/techno sphere. Experimental, ambient or film music approaches also work well. Many of them draw on the Disquiet Junto. Enjoy.

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Milo meets Beethoven

For his birthday, Milo got a book called Welcome to the Symphony by Carolyn Sloan. We finally got around to showing it to him recently, and now he’s totally obsessed.

Welcome To The Symphony by Carolyn Sloan

The book has buttons along the side which you can press to hear little audio samples. They include each orchestra instrument playing a short Beethoven riff. All of the string instruments play the same “bum-bum-bum-BUMMM” so you can compare the sounds easily. All the winds play a different little phrase, and the brass another. The book itself is fine and all, but the thing that really hooked Milo is triggering the riffs one after another, Ableton-style, and singing merrily along.

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Teaching reflections

Here’s what happened in my life as an educator this past semester, and what I have planned for the coming semester.

Montclair State University Intro To Music Technology

I wonder how much longer “music technology” is going to exist as a subject. They don’t teach “piano technology” or “violin technology.” It makes sense to teach specific areas like audio recording or synthesis or signal theory as separate classes. But “music technology” is such a broad term as to be meaningless. The unspoken assumption is that we’re teaching “musical practices involving a computer,” but even that is both too big and too small to structure a one-semester class around. On the one hand, every kind of music involves computers now. On the other hand, to focus just on the computer part is like teaching a word processing class that’s somehow separate from learning how to write.

MSU Intro to Music Tech

The newness and vagueness of the field of study gives me and my fellow music tech educators wide latitude to define our subject matter. I see my job as providing an introduction to pop production and songwriting. The tools we use for the job at Montclair are mostly GarageBand and Logic, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the mechanics of the software itself. Instead, I teach music: How do you express yourself creatively using sample libraries, or MIDI, or field recordings, or pre-existing songs? What kinds of rhythms, harmonies, timbres and structures make sense aesthetically when you’re assembling these materials in the DAW? Where do you get ideas? How do you listen to recorded music analytically? Why does Thriller sound so much better than any other album recorded in the eighties? We cover technical concepts as they arise in the natural course of producing and listening. My hope is that they’ll be more relevant and memorable that way. Continue reading

Pedagogical remixing with Splice

My newest music student is a gentleman named Rob Precht. As is increasingly the case with people I teach privately, Rob lives many time zones away, and he and I have never met face to face. Instead, we’ve been conducting lessons via a combination of Skype and Splice. It’s the first really practical remote music teaching method I’ve used, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rob came to me via this very blog. He’s a semi-retired lawyer who took some piano lessons as a kid but doesn’t have much other music training or experience. He approached me because he wanted to compose original music, and he thought (correctly) that computer-based production would be the best way to go about it. He had made a few tracks with GarageBand, but quickly switched over to Ableton Live after hearing me rave about it. We decided that the best approach would be to have him just continue to stumble through making original tracks, and I would help him refine and develop them.

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Rhythm Necklace

I have a thing for circular rhythm visualizations. So I was naturally pretty excited to learn that Meara O’Reilly and Sam Tarakajian were making an app inspired by the circular drum pattern analyses of Godfried Toussaint, who helped me understand mathematically why son clave is so awesome. The app is called Rhythm Necklace, and I got to beta test it for a few weeks before it came out. As you can see from the screencaps below, it is super futuristic.

Rhythm Necklace

The app is delightful by itself, but it really gets to be miraculous when you use it as a wireless MIDI controller for Ableton. Here’s some music I’ve made that way.

I was expecting to use this thing as a way to sequence drums. Instead, its real value turns out to be that it’s a way to perform melodies in real time. Continue reading

Booking me for workshops

I want to expand my private teaching and speaking practice. If you were to book me for a workshop or seminar, what would you want it to be about? Music production? Intellectual property and authorship? Music and math? Music and science? Music pedagogy? Improvisation and flow, both in music and in life generally? Something else?

Ethan does his thing

I’d be happy to visit your music classroom, non-music classroom, company, co-working space, or community organization. Here are some instructional videos of mine to give you a sense of my style.

I do traditional music teaching and production too, but I’m pitching here to people who don’t consider themselves to be “musicians” (spoiler alert: everybody is a musician, you just might not have found your instrument yet.) Group improvisation on iOS devices or laptops is always a good time, and it’s easier than you would think to attain musical-sounding results. Instrument design with the Makey Makey is a fun one too. If you have Ableton Live and are wondering what to do with it, a remix and mashup workshop would be just the thing. All of the above activities are revelatory windows into user interface and experience design. Group music-making is an excellent team-building exercise, and is just generally a spa treatment for the soul. Get in touch with your suggestions, requests and questions.

DJ Earworm on the art of the mashup

DJ Earworm is the foremost practitioner of the art of the mashup. I don’t think there’s a more interesting musician in the world right now. I was on public radio with him once! His main claim to fame is the United State of Pop series, where he combines the top 25 US pop songs of a given year into a single, seamlessly coherent track. I’ve scattered several of them throughout this post. He has started doing more seasonal mashups as well; here’s one from this past summer:

It’s rare that an artist talks you through their production process in depth, so I was delighted to discover that DJ Earworm wrote an entire book about mashup production. He wrote it in 2007 and focused it on Sony Acid, so from a technical standpoint, it might not be super useful to you. But as with the KLF’s pop songwriting tutorial, the creative method he espouses transcends technology and time period, and it would be of value to any musician. Some choice passages follow.

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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.

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.

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Remix as compositional critique

This month I’ve been teaching music production and composition as part of NYU’s IMPACT program. A participant named Michelle asked me to critique some of her original compositions. I immediately said yes, and then immediately wondered how I was actually going to do it. I always want to evaluate music on its own terms, and to do that, I need to know what the terms are. I barely know Michelle. I’ve heard her play a little classical piano and know that she’s quite good, but beyond that, I don’t know her musical culture or intentions or style. Furthermore, she’s from China, and her English is limited.

I asked Michelle to email me audio files, and also MIDI files if she had them. Then I had an epiphany: I could just remix her MIDIs, and give my critique totally non-verbally.

Remix as compositional critique

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