The vocoder and Auto-Tune

This post documents a presentation I’m giving in my History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson.

The vocoder is one of those mysterious technologies that’s far more widely used than understood. Here I explain what it is, how it works, and why you should care. A casual music listener knows the vocoder best as a way to make that robot voice effect that Daft Punk uses all the time.

Here’s Huston Singletary demonstrating the vocoder in Ableton Live.

This is a nifty effect, but why should you care? For one thing, you use this technology every time you talk on your cell phone. For another, this effect gave rise to Auto-Tune, which, love it or hate it, is the defining sound of contemporary popular music. Let’s dive in!

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My music technology syllabus

I use variations on this project list for all of my courses. In Advanced Digital Audio Production at Montclair State University, students do all of these assignments. Students in Music Technology 101 do all of them except the ones marked Advanced. My syllabus for the NYU Music Education Technology Practicum has an additional recording studio project in place of the final project. Here’s the project list in Google Spreadsheet format.

Music Ed Tech Practicum image

I talk very little about microphone technology or technique in my classes. This is because I find this information to only be useful in the context of actual recording studio work, and my classes do not have regular access to a studio. I do spend one class period on home recording with the SM58 and SM57, and talk a bit about mic technique for singers. I encourage students who want to go deeper into audio recording to take a class specifically on that subject, or to read something like the Moylan book.

My project-based approach is informed strongly by Matt Mclean and Alex Ruthmann. Read more about their methods here.

I do not require any text. However, for education majors, I strongly recommend Teaching Music Through Composition by Barbara Freedman and Music Technology and Education: Amplifying Musicality by Andrew Brown.

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Groove challenges with the Groove Pizza

One of our key design principles at the NYU MusEDLab is not to confront beginners with a blank canvas. We want to introduce people to our tools by giving them specific, real-world music to play around with. That was the motivation behind creating presets for the aQWERTYon, and a similar impulse informs Ableton’s approach to their online music tutorials. The Groove Pizza comes with some preset patterns (specials), but there aren’t direct prompts for creative beatmaking. This post introduces some prototype prompts.

Groove Pizza logo

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Toward a Methodological Stance

Final paper for Approaches To Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

Section 1: Reflections on Received View of Research

I was raised by two medical researchers and a former astrophysicist, surrounded by stacks of quantitative journals. I rarely questioned the assumption that quantitative empirical research is the gold standard of truth, and that while subjective accounts are interesting and illuminating, they are not ultimately reliable. From scientists I learned that stories belong to mythology, while facts do not necessarily organize themselves in ways that can be apprehended so easily. Creation myths tell the story of a human-scale world in which humans are the most important element. Astrophysicists tell us that the universe is unfathomably vast and incomprehensibly old, and that we are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, while evolution teaches that we are more like mushrooms or daisies than unlike them. It is axiomatic for scientists that reality is empirically knowable, and while social and emotional considerations are a fact of life, they are noise to be filtered out.

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Research proposal – Hip-Hop Pedagogy

Final paper for Principles of Empirical Research with Catherine Voulgarides

Research questions

Jamie Ehrenfeld is a colleague of mine in the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. She graduated from NYU’s music education program, and now teaches music at Eagle Academy in Brownsville. Like many members of the lab, she straddles musical worlds, bringing her training in classical voice to her work mentoring rappers and R&B singers. We often talk about our own music learning experiences. In one such discussion, Jamie remarked: “I got a music degree without ever writing a song” (personal communication, April 29 2017). Across her secondary and undergraduate training, she had no opportunity to engage with the creative processes behind popular music. Her experience is hardly unusual. There is a wide and growing divide behind the culture of school music and the culture of music generally. Music educators are steeped in the habitus of classical music, at a time when our culture is increasingly defined by the music of the African diaspora: hip-hop, R&B, electronic dance music, and rock.  Continue reading

A participant ethnography of the Ed Sullivan Fellows program

Note: I refer to mentors by their real names, and to participants by pseudonyms

Ed Sullivan Fellows (ESF) is a mentorship and artist development program run by the NYU Steinhardt Music Experience Design Lab. It came about by a combination of happenstances. I had a private music production student named Rob Precht, who had found my blog via a Google search. He and I usually held our lessons in the lab’s office space. Over the course of a few months, Rob met people from the lab and heard about our projects. He found us sufficiently inspiring that he approached us with an idea. He wanted to give us a grant to start a program that would help young people from under-resourced communities get a start in the music industry. He asked us to name it after his grandfather, Ed Sullivan, whose show had been crucial to launching the careers of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Jackson 5. While Rob’s initial idea had been to work with refugees who had relocated to New York, we agreed to shift the focus to native New York City residents, since our connections and competencies were stronger there.

Ed Sullivan Fellows

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American Apartheid

Denton, N. A., & Massey, D. (1993). American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass.

American Apartheid

The question endlessly debated by sociologists: is the black underclass the result of a) racism b) a culture of poverty c) welfare d) structural economic change or e) residential segregation? Denton and Massey say it’s choice e). “Residential segregation is the institutional apparatus that supports other racially discriminatory processes and binds them together into a coherent and uniquely effective system of racial subordination” (8). Without residential segregation, structural economic changes wouldn’t have been so devastating. Middle-class migration out of black neighborhoods contributed, but wasn’t the main factor.

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New online music theory course with Soundfly!

I’m delighted to announce that my new online music theory collaboration with Soundfly is live. It’s called Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, and it gives you a practical guide to harmony for creators of contemporary pop, R&B, hip-hop, and EDM. We tie all the abstract music theory concepts to real-world musical usages, showing how you can use particular chord combinations to evoke particular feelings. I worked hard with the team at Soundfly on this over the past few months, and we are super jazzed about it.

Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords

Like my previous Soundfly courses, the Theory for Producers series, the chords class is a blend of videos, online interactives and composition/production challenges. The musical examples are songs by people like Adele, Chance the Rapper, and Frank Ocean. You can download the MIDI files for each example, stick them in your DAW, and dive right into hands-on music making.

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Marked

Note-taking for Principles of Empirical Research with Catherine Voulgarides

Pager, Devah. (2007). MARKED: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Page 21 of Pager’s book includes this chart, showing annual prison admissions for drugs by race in the United States. In the 1980s, we imprisoned roughly the same numbers of black and white people for drugs. There are about six times as many white people as black people in the population generally, so unless you believe that black people do drugs at six times the rate white people do, there would appear to have been some racism at work.

Pager 2007 p 21

Then in the late 80s, there was an incredible jump in the number of black prisoners, leading to the present situation, where there are between two and three times as many black people in prison for drugs as white people. While America has become less racist in some respects, this statistic tells us that we are not making as much progress as we like to imagine. These facts also have implications for the history of hip-hop. You can see the rise of both gangsta and overtly socially conscious rap in large part as a response to the devastating effect of this sentencing disparity.

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