User interface case study: Patterning

The folks at Olympia Noise Co recently came out with a new circular drum machine for iOS called Patterning, and it’s pretty fabulous.


The app’s futuristic look jumps right out at you: flat-colored geometric shapes with zero adornment, in the spirit of Propellerhead Figure. There’s nothing on the screen that doesn’t function in some way. It’s a little dense at first glance, but a complex tool is bound to have a complex interface, and Patterning reveals itself easily through exploration.

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Rhythmic simples

In the service of teaching theory using real music, I’ve been gathering musical simples: little phrases and loops that are small enough to be easily learned, and substantial enough to have expressive value. See some representative melodic simples, more melodic simples, and compound simples. This post showcases some representative rhythmic simples, more commonly known as beats, grooves, or drum patterns. They’re listed in increasing order of syncopation, also known as hipness. Click each image to hear the interactive Noteflight score.

Boots N Cats

Boots n Cats rhythmic simple

The basis of “Billie Jean” and many other great beats. Continue reading

Mixing “Call Me Maybe”

Sound On Sound ran this highly detailed account of mixing the inescapable summer jam of 2012. It’s the most thorough explanation of how a contemporary pop song gets mixed that I’ve ever read.

I’m interested in this article not so much for the specifics of the gear and the plugins, but rather just out of sheer awe at the complexity and nuance of the track’s soundscape. My cadre of pop-oriented music academics likes to say that the creativity in recordings lies not in their melodies and the chords necessarily, but in their timbre and space. “Call Me Maybe” is an excellent case in point. Its melody and chords are fun, but not exactly groundbreaking. Yet the track leaps out of the speakers at you, demanding your attention, managing both to pound you with sonic force and intrigue you with quiet detail. Whether you want your attention grabbed in this way is a matter of taste. I happen to love the song, but even if it isn’t your cup of tea, the craft behind it bears some thinking about.

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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:


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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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The radial drum machine: background and inspiration

Update: I now have a functioning prototype of my app. If you’d like to try it, get in touch.

My NYU masters thesis is a drum programming tutorial system for beginner musicians. It uses a novel circular interface for displaying the drum patterns. This presentation explains the project’s goals, motivations and scholarly background.

If you prefer, see it on Slideshare.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Today is the Fourth of July, and I can’t think of anything more patriotic than a post about our most significant contribution to world musical culture: swing. The title of this post refers to the classic Duke Ellington tune, sung here by Ray Nance. Check out the “yah yah” trombone by Tricky Sam Nanton.

The word “swing,” like the word “blues,” has multiple meanings, depending on context. Swing is both a genre and a technical music term describing a certain rhythm. The two are related, but the rhythm has long outlived the genre.

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INXS needs you tonight

I’m pretty sure that “Need You Tonight” by INXS was the last song I fell in love with through commercial radio. I would never have admitted it, and I couldn’t have articulated why, but oh yes, in middle school this track hit me exactly where I lived. It still sounds as fresh today as it did back in the eighties.

I resisted liking the song because of what I imagined it representing. I mean, watch this video with the sound off, these guys look like incredible douchebags. As a teenager I was very invested in the idea of purity in music, and INXS was the exact opposite of pure. The band was and is a capitalist venture above all else. I hadn’t yet learned that commercial music can be incredibly good, and that pure artistry is no guarantee against awfulness.

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Drum machine programming

This post has been superseded by my giant collection of rhythm patterns, which you can see here.

I wrote a general post about what makes a hot beat hot. As a followup, here’s how to program some generic patterns and a few famous breakbeats. The basic unit of dance music is a sequence of sixteen eighth notes, two measures of four-four time. Drum machines like the Roland TR-808 represent the sixteen eighth notes as an ice cube tray with sixteen slots, with a row for each percussion sound. Software like Reason and Fruityloops have drum machine emulators that follow the look and feel of the 808. The loop cycles from slot number one across to the right. When it gets to slot sixteen it jumps back to one.

Here’s how you’d count the basic loop. Above is the standard music notation method of counting two bars of four-four time. Below is the drum machine representation, with the eighth notes numbered one through sixteen.

|  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  + |
| 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 |

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