Composing improvisationally with Ableton Live

I just completed a batch of new music, which was improvised freely in the studio and then shaped into structured tracks after the fact.

I thought it would be helpful to document the process behind this music, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I expect to be teaching this kind of production a lot more in the future. Second, knowing how the tracks were made might be helpful to you in enjoying them. Third, composing the music during or after recording rather than before has become the dominant pop production method, and I want to help my fellow highbrow musicians catch up to it. Continue reading

Recording Peter Gabriel’s Security

This post was originally written for the Play With Your Music blog.

Peter Gabriel’s songwriting and recording process in the early 1980s was unusual in its technological sophistication, playfulness and reliance on improvisation. But now that the technology is a lot cheaper and more accessible, most pop, dance and hip-hop music is produced using similar methods.

Peter Gabriel's Security

The South Bank Show’s long 1983 documentary on the making of Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album Security follows the production of the album from its earliest conception to its release and critical reception, giving fascinating insight into the creative process along the way.

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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.

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The state of the lullaby

Anna wanted to know what my friends are singing to their kids for lullabies. I posted the question on Facebook and got about fifty times more responses than I was expecting. Since I now have all this (highly unscientific) data about lullaby trends in 2014, I figured I would write it all up. Here’s what I found.

The most interesting commonality is the song “Hush Little Baby.” Many people report singing it, and my mom sang it to me. But it’s more complicated than that. Jonathan C says:

I made up about 50 couplets of “Hush Little Baby” over many consecutive tortured hours in 2006, and somehow we’ve remembered them all and still use them. It was a good rhyming puzzle to keep me sane at night.

As soon as I read that, I tried it out on Milo, and it was super fun. I recommend it.

Rewriting the lyrics is an especially good idea because, as several people pointed out, the original song is quite depressing. “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mama’s gonna buy you a series of unsatisfying things that don’t address your basic emotional need.” A number of other traditional kids’ songs are similarly depressing. My mom sang me “You Are My Sunshine” and “My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean” as a kid, and while their melodies are beautiful, their lyrics are full of pain, loss, and disappointment. And don’t even get me started on “Rockabye Baby.” I sang it to Milo exactly once; never again.

Anyway, here are all the other tunes that my Facebook friends use for lullabies.

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Tabla Breakbeat Science

Update: we’re working on an album. Listen to it here.

Last semester I did a project for my psychology of music class that studied the way people clap to funk/dance music. I was testing to see whether my subjects knew to clap on the backbeats or not. I didn’t give them any prompting as to how they were supposed to clap, and most people did their best to clap to the beat one way or another. The most interesting response came from my buddy Shashank, a classically trained tabla player from Bangalore. There are plenty of Indian musicians at NYU, but most of them are culturally very western — a lot of them play metal, and you’d think they were from suburban New Jersey if you didn’t know otherwise. Shashank, on the other hand, has had close to zero exposure to western music. He attempted to clap tabla patterns over the beats in my study, with strange and interesting results.

After the project was over, I thought it would be cool to hear Shashank improvise on the tabla over various classic breakbeats. We did a couple of recording sessions, and they were a lot of fun.

Tabla Breakbeat Study recording session

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Software design as research

Brown, A. (2007). Software Development as Music Education Research. International Journal of Education & the Arts. Volume 8, Number 6.

My thesis is supposed to include a quantitative research component. This had been causing me some anxiety. It’s educational and creative software. What exactly could I measure? I had this vague notion of testing people’s rhythmic ability before and after using the app. But how do you quantify rhythmic ability? Even if I had a meaningful numerical representation, how could I possibly measure a big enough sample size over a long enough time to get a statistically significant result? The development of my app is going okay, but I was really stressing about the experimental component.

The Drum Loop in Xcode

Then my advisor introduced me to Andrew Brown‘s notion of software development as research, or SoDaR. As Brown puts it, “SoDaR involves computers, but is about people.” Humans are complex, our interactions with computers are complex, the way we learn is complex. The only method of inquiry that can encompass all that complexity is qualitative, anthropological inquiry, involving a substantial amount of introspection on the part of the researcher.

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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

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Computer improvisation

Can the computer be an improvisation partner? Can it generate musical ideas of its own in real time that aren’t the product of random number generators or nonsensical Markov chains?

In Joel Chadabe‘s “Settings For Spirituals,” he uses pitch-tracking to perform various effects on a recording of a singer: pitch shifting, chorus, reverb. The result is effectively an avant-garde remix. It isn’t exactly my speed, but I like the spirit of the piece – remixing existing recordings is a central pillar of current interactive electronic music. I’m less taken with Chadabe’s 1978 “Solo” for Synclavier controlled by theremin. The idea of dynamically controlling a computer’s compositions is an intriguing one, and I like the science-fictional visual effect of using two giant theremin antennae to control note durations, and to fade instrumental sounds in and out. Chadabe set the Solo system up to intentionally produce unpredictable results, giving the feeling of an improvisational partner. He describes “Solo” as being “like a conversation with a clever friend.” Who wouldn’t want such an experience?

Joel Chadabe performs "Solo"

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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.

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