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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Looping and stasis in Medúlla

Malawey, Victoria. Harmonic Stasis and Oscillation in Björk’s Medúlla. Music Theory Online, Volume 16, Number 1, January 2010.

The fundamental unit of electronic popular music is the loop. This puts it at odds with the Western art music tradition, which typically favors linear structures with a narrative arc. Repetition has mostly appeared in classical music at the macro level of phrases and sections. While shorter repetitive cells do appear in classical music, they are not always welcome. The term ostinato, from the Italian “obstinate,” does not connote approval. Popular music (and some minimalist classical) of the twentieth century has been significantly more repetitive, deriving its harmony from western Europe but its rhythms and circular loop-based structures from Africa and the Caribbean. The advent of synthesizers, drum machines and computers has strongly encouraged the trend toward cyclic repetition, since the default output of such devices is the endless loop.

Björk produced relatively conventional dance music early in her solo career, but her use of loops has become more sophisticated and complex over the course of her career. Her 2004 album Medúlla is comprised entirely from vocals, aside from the occasional synthesizer. Some of the songs are traditional songs and choral works, but most are built from vocals that have been heavily edited, sampled and looped in Pro Tools.

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Why do people like Girl Talk?

I don’t enjoy Girl Talk’s music all that much — I find it overwhelming, like watching someone flip channels on a TV. But I think he’s really important, and anyone who cares about music, technology, originality and ownership should be paying close attention. Adam Bossy raised an intriguing idea in his answer — describing an unlikely pairing of Black Sabbath and Ludacris, he observes: “It sounds as though each song was originally written with the other in mind.” At his best, Girl Talk finds connections between seemingly distant genres and styles, and shows that maybe the commonalities run deeper than the differences. This is a big idea, and an exciting one.

[iframe_loader width="480" height="360" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/yixk8N6b7cQ" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen]

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Gimme Shelter

I’ve always been more of a Beatles guy than a Stones guy, but respect where respect is due, “Gimme Shelter” is a classic.

It’s on my mind because Dangerous Minds posted the isolated tracks, and they’re a lot of fun. It’s fascinating to hear the separated vocals, guitars, bass and drums. The Youtube videos containing the tracks were swiftly taken down by the Stones’ lawyers, of course, but as of this writing you can still download the stems in multitrack Ogg format. You can open and edit the Oggs in Audacity, and export pieces in other formats.

Whenever a guy like me hears “isolated tracks” I know it’s remix time. So here are some samples from “Gimme Shelter” along with various other sounds, enjoy.

Rock With Shelter

Me vs the Rolling Stones vs Michael Jackson

mp3 download, ipod format download

Shelter Guitar

Me vs the Rolling Stones vs Michael Jackson vs Glen Velez vs Britney Spears vs Charles Mingus

mp3 download, ipod format download

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Capturing sound

I was doing a frivolous Google search for the Simpsons episode where Bart, Nelson, Milhouse and Ralph form a boy band. They’re in the studio singing, and they sound terrible, until the producer pushes a huge button labeled “studio magic.” Then suddenly they sound like the Backstreet Boys. While I was digging through the Google results, I came across a book called Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music by Mark Katz. He references the Simpsons gag as an example of how recording technology has undermined our notions of authenticity in music. There are a couple of chapters of the book online, and it’s great stuff.

It’s hard for us now to imagine a time when recorded sound was a wondrous technological novelty.

Those gathered around the phonograph were experiencing music in ways unimaginable not so many years before. They were hearing performers they could not see and music they could not normally bring into their homes. They could listen to the same pieces over and again without change. And they ultimately decided what they were to hear, and when, where, and with whom.

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Inside the recording process

The vast majority of music that I hear is recorded, and if you’re reading this the same is probably true of you. Most people don’t have a clear idea what the recording process is like, especially using computers. Here are my adventures in recording.

I grew up in the eighties. Cassette recorders were just starting to be ordinary household gear. My sister and I made a bunch of random tapes as kids, not knowing what we were doing or why, just that it was fun. We also taped songs we liked off the radio. We waited until the song we wanted came on, and then held up the tape recorder to the radio speaker. Go ahead and laugh, millenials, but this was such a widespread practice among my generation that there’s a whole Facebook group devoted to it.

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Video remixes and mashups

Couple of exciting memetic hybrids circulating around the web right now. First, here’s a techno track using samples of Pixar’s Up, which is one of the best and saddest movies ever. Thanks Mike for alerting me to the remix’s existence. Remixing songs is all well and good, but remixing movies, that’s where it’s at. Continue reading

Björk thought she could organize freedom, how Scandinavian of her

I revere Björk above most other musicians. She knows how to balance the coldness of electronic production with hotly unpredictable vocals and instrumental textures. Not everybody loves Björk as much as I do; her approach is eccentric and her sound gets on some people’s nerves. It took me a couple years to be convinced by her. I’m glad I hung in there, because she’s been one of my best teachers in the art of making music with computers.

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The Beatles were an electronica band

Update: hear my 5.1 surround remix of “Here Comes The Sun.”

Why are the Beatles still so cool? By which I mean the late Beatles, Revolver onwards. I like Please Please Me as much as the next guy, but it isn’t why the Beatles are cool now. No, I mean the last few records, especially Sgt Pepper, the White Album and Abbey Road. If any of these albums were released next week, Pitchfork would go ballistic over them. Three quarters of the indie rock of the past ten years descends directly from Abbey Road. Why do we all still care so much?

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