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

Continue reading

How to write a pop song

My students are currently hard at work writing pop songs, many of them for the first time. For their benefit, and for yours, I thought I’d write out a beginner’s guide to contemporary songwriting. First, some points of clarification:

  1. This post only talks about the instrumental portion of the song, known as the track. I don’t deal with vocal parts or lyric writing here.
  2. This is not a guide to writing a great pop song. It’s a guide to writing an adequate one. Your sense of what makes a song good will probably differ from mine, whereas most of us can agree on what makes a song adequate. To make a good song, you’ll probably need to pump out a bunch of bad ones first to get the hang of the process.
  3. This is not a guide to writing a hit pop song. I have no idea how to do that. If you’re aiming for the charts, I refer you to the wise words of the KLF.
  4. You’ll notice that I seem to be talking a lot here about production, and that I never mention actual writing. This is because in 2014, songwriting and production are the same creative act. There is no such thing as a “demo” anymore. The world expects your song to sound finished. Also, most of the creativity in contemporary pop styles lies in rhythm, timbre and arrangement. Complex chord progressions and intricate melodies are neither necessary nor even desirable. It’s all in the beats and grooves.

To make a track, you’ll need a digital audio workstation (DAW) and a loop library. I’ll be using GarageBand, but you can use the same methods in Ableton Live, Logic, Reason, Pro Tools, etc. I produced this track for illustration purposes, and will be referring to it throughout the post:

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

Will musicians ever be replaced by robots?

A Quora user asks whether artificial intelligence will ever replace human musicians. TL;DR No.

David Cope and Emily

If music composition and improvisation could be expressed as algorithmic rule sets, then human musicians would have reason for concern. Fortunately, music can’t be completely systematized, much as some music theorists would like to believe it can be. Music is not an internally consistent logical system like math or physics. It’s an evolved set of mostly arbitrary patterns of memes. This should be no surprise; music emerges from our consciousness, and our consciousness is an evolved system, not an algorithmic one. We can do algorithmic reasoning if we work really hard at it, but our minds are pretty chaotic and unpredictable, and it isn’t our strong suit. It’s a good thing, too; we may not be so hot at performing algorithms, but we’re good at inventing new possible ones. Computers are great at performing algorithms, but are lousy at inventing new ones. Continue reading

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

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

Tabla Breakbeat Science is dropping an album

My new studio band has an album nearing completion. It’s called Music Information Retrieval, because our studio time was sponsored by NYU’s Music and Audio Research Lab — we contributed to a database of multitracks that will be used for music informatics research.

We made our DJ debut over the weekend at the Rubin Museum, where our brand-new track “Rock Steady” was dropped by DJ Ripley.

Continue reading

My process of composing music

Quora user Jennifer Ha asked me: What is your process of composing music? She goes on:

For me I have to wait for the right inspiration given to me very irregularly. But it seems others can compose with chords deliberately. How do you compose, and do you feel proud of it all the times (i.e. know you couldn’t have done better)?

I have two methods of composition: improvisation and collage. I use the computer for both. At the moment, my software of choice is Ableton Live. Before that I mostly used Pro Tools and Reason. It’s been a long time since I “composed” something on a piece of paper (except for music school assignments.)

Composing with Ableton Live

Continue reading

User Interface Design for Music Learning Software

Computers have revolutionized the composition, production and recording of music. However, they have not yet revolutionized music education. While a great deal of educational software exists, it mostly follows traditional teaching paradigms, offering ear training, flash cards and the like. Meanwhile, nearly all popular music is produced in part or in whole with software, yet electronic music producers typically have little to no formal training with their tools. Somewhere between the ad-hoc learning methods of pop and dance producers and traditional music pedagogy lies a rich untapped vein of potential.

This paper will explore the problem of how software can best be designed to help novice musicians access their own musical imagination with a minimum of frustration. I will examine a variety of design paradigms and case studies. I will hope to discover software interface designs that present music in a visually intuitive way, that are discoverable, and that promote flow.

Continue reading

There’s joy in repetition

Susan McClary “Rap, Minimalism and Structures of Time in Late Twentieth-Century Culture.” in Audio Culture, Daniel Warner, ed, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004, pp 289 – 298.

This essay is the best piece of music writing I’ve read in quite a while. McClary articulates my personal ideology of music perfectly. Also, she quotes Prince!

Here are some long excerpts.

Continue reading