The great music interface metaphor shift

I’m working on a long paper right now with my colleague at Montclair State University, Adam Bell. The premise is this: In the past, metaphors came from hardware, which software emulated. In the future, metaphors will come from software, which hardware will emulate.

The first generation of digital audio workstations have taken their metaphors from multitrack tape, the mixing desk, keyboards, analog synths, printed scores, and so on. Even the purely digital audio waveforms and MIDI clips behave like segments of tape. Sometimes the metaphors are graphically abstracted, as they are in Pro Tools. Sometimes the graphics are more literal, as in Logic. Propellerhead Reason is the most skeuomorphic software of them all. This image from the Propellerhead web site makes the intent of the designers crystal clear; the original analog synths dominate the image.

Reason with its inspiration

In Ableton Live, by contrast, hardware follows software. The metaphor behind Ableton’s Session View is a spreadsheet. Many of the instruments and effects have no hardware predecessor.

Loops in session view

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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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Remixing “Here Comes The Sun” in 5.1 Surround

For my final project in Advanced Audio Production at NYU, I created a 5.1 surround remix of the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun.” You can download it here. If you don’t have surround playback, you can listen to the stereo version:

I was motivated to create a surround remix of a Beatles song by hearing the Beatles Love album in class.

I chose “Here Comes The Sun” because I have the multitracks, and because I heard potential to find new musical ideas within it. Remixing an existing recording is always an enjoyable undertaking, but the process takes on new levels of challenge and reward when the source material is so well-known and widely revered. Much as I enjoy Beatles Love, I feel that it didn’t take enough liberties with the original tracks. I wanted to depart further from the original mix and structure of “Here Comes The Sun.”

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What does live music mean in the laptop era?

This weekend my electronica band Revival Revival is doing some shows for the first time in many months. We’ll be doing a lot of what my non-electronic-musician friends consider to be cheating. The lead vocals and guitar will be live, as will some of the synths. Everything else will be canned, recordings played back from a laptop. Here’s the setup:

From left to right, you’re seeing an Mbox, the audio interface that goes with Pro Tools. We plug the vocal mic into it so that the computer can perform its magic, like Auto-tune and compression. Next is a little mixer sitting on top of a headphone amp. Then there’s Babsy’s laptop running one of our Pro Tools files, showing some of the backing vocals she’ll be singing over. On the right is a Line 6 Pod, a guitar effects unit and amp modeler. It’s a lot easier to carry to gigs than a real amp. Using a fake amp modeler isn’t very rock and roll but it fits perfectly with the spirit of electronica. For the show we’re going to use two computers, Barbara’s to run Pro Tools, and mine for Reason synths and playback of ordinary audio files.

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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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How we wrote this song

Boys And Dance Floors

Revival Revival vs Janet Jackson

mp3 download, ipod format download

Right-click or option click the links to save the track to your computer.

There are as many different ways of writing songs as there are songwriters. Barbara Singer and I have arrived at a good one, so I figured I’d share it with you in the hopes you find it inspirational.

Like all of our tracks, “Boys And Dance Floors” began life as a string of looped samples in Reason. Here’s the sequencer window.

Each brick is eight bars of four-four time. The top two tracks are different samples of “What Have You Done For Me Lately” by Janet Jackson, just synth bass and drum machine. Both loops are the same basic groove, but with subtle differences: one has a backwards cymbal crash building up to the end and the other has a quiet crash at the beginning. The third track down is a sample of Barbara singing “Fire, fire” in an intense voice that we have filter sweeping in at the beginning and end of the song.

Peach is for the intros and outtro. Light blue is verses. Green is choruses, with the darker green as the prechorus and the lighter green as the chorus proper. Orange is for instrumental breaks and purple is the bridge. If we ever try to release this thing commercially, we’re either going to have to license the samples or program something else. Hope Janet’s people are willing to make a deal.

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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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