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

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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

Teaching mixing in a MOOC

This is the third in a series of posts documenting the development of Play With Your Music, a music production MOOC jointly presented by P2PU, NYU and MIT. See also the first and second posts.

So, you’ve learned how to listen closely and analytically. The next step is to get your hands on some multitrack stems and do mixes of your own. Participants in PWYM do a “convergent mix” — you’re given a set of separated instrumental and vocal tracks, and you need to mix them so they match the given finished product. PWYM folks work with stems of “Air Traffic Control” by Clara Berry, using our cool in-browser mixing board. The beauty of the browser mixer is that the fader settings get automatically inserted into the URL, so once you’re done, anyone else can hear your mix by opening that URL in their own browser.

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The Schizophonia of David Byrne, Brian Eno and The Orb

For Paul Geluso’s Advanced Audio Production midterm, we were assigned to choose two tracks from his recommended listening list, and compare and contrast them sonically. I chose “Regiment” by David Byrne and Brian Eno, and “Little Fluffy Clouds” by The Orb.

Recorded ten years apart using very different technology, both tracks nevertheless share a similar structure: dance grooves at medium-slow tempos centered around percussion and bass, overlaid with radically decontextualized vocal samples. Both are dense and abstract soundscapes with an otherworldly quality. However, the two tracks have some profound sonic differences as well. “Regiment” is played by human instrumentalists into analog gear, giving it a roiling organic murk. “Little Fluffy Clouds” is a pristine digital recording built entirely from DJ tools, quantized neatly and clinically precise.

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Sonic analysis of “Tightrope” by Janelle Monáe

The most fun Music Technology class I’m taking this semester is Advanced Audio Production with Paul Geluso. A major component of the class is learning how to listen analytically, and to that end, we were assigned to pick a song and do an exhaustive study of its sonic qualities. We used methods from William Moylan’s book The Art of Recording: Understanding and Crafting the Mix. I chose “Tightrope” by Janelle Monáe featuring Big Boi.

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That ill tight sound

Chapman, Dale. “That Ill, Tight Sound”: Telepresence and Biopolitics in Post-Timbaland Rap Production. Journal of the Society for American Music (2008) Volume 2, Number 2, pp. 155–175.

Chapman examines the impact that Timbaland has had on popular music production, and what his significance is to the broader culture. While Timbaland himself is no longer the tastemaker he was at his peak ten or fifteen years ago, his sonic palette has become commonplace throughout the global pop landscape.

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Doctorin’ The Top Forty

In 1988, a pair of British acid house DJs named Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, variously known as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The Timelords, and The KLF, had an improbable number one hit with “Doctorin’ The Tardis.”

The track isn’t so much a song as it is an early mashup. Just about everything in it is a sample or quote. Here are the sources:

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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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