Ilan meets the Fugees

My youngest private music production student is a kid named Ilan. He makes moody trip-hop and deep house using Ableton Live. For our session today, Ilan came in with a downtempo, jazzy hip-hop instrumental. I helped him refine and polish it, and then we talked about his ideas for what kind of vocal might work on top. He wanted an emcee to flow over it, so I gave him my folder of hip-hop acapellas I’ve collected. The first one he tried was “Fu-Gee-La [Refugee Camp Remix]” by the Fugees.

I had it all warped out already, so all he had to do was drag and drop it into his session and press play. It sounded great, so he ran with it. Here’s what he ended up with:

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Teaching reflections

Here’s what happened in my life as an educator this past semester, and what I have planned for the coming semester.

Montclair State University Intro To Music Technology

I wonder how much longer “music technology” is going to exist as a subject. They don’t teach “piano technology” or “violin technology.” It makes sense to teach specific areas like audio recording or synthesis or signal theory as separate classes. But “music technology” is such a broad term as to be meaningless. The unspoken assumption is that we’re teaching “musical practices involving a computer,” but even that is both too big and too small to structure a one-semester class around. On the one hand, every kind of music involves computers now. On the other hand, to focus just on the computer part is like teaching a word processing class that’s somehow separate from learning how to write.

MSU Intro to Music Tech

The newness and vagueness of the field of study gives me and my fellow music tech educators wide latitude to define our subject matter. I see my job as providing an introduction to pop production and songwriting. The tools we use for the job at Montclair are mostly GarageBand and Logic, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the mechanics of the software itself. Instead, I teach music: How do you express yourself creatively using sample libraries, or MIDI, or field recordings, or pre-existing songs? What kinds of rhythms, harmonies, timbres and structures make sense aesthetically when you’re assembling these materials in the DAW? Where do you get ideas? How do you listen to recorded music analytically? Why does Thriller sound so much better than any other album recorded in the eighties? We cover technical concepts as they arise in the natural course of producing and listening. My hope is that they’ll be more relevant and memorable that way. Continue reading

We dream of Star Wars

Anna and I went on one of our vanishingly rare parent dates to go see The Force Awakens a few days ago. We had a great time. The movie is loaded with gratuitous fan service and doesn’t stand up to even casual scrutiny, but then, that was true of episodes IV and V too. Nothing that happens in the reality of Star Wars makes an ounce of sense. Why try to pick apart the logical inconsistencies in these movies? It’s like picking apart the logical inconsistencies of dreams.

All movies are a kind of waking dream. The good Star Wars movies (in my opinion, IV, V and VII) are as dreamlike as it’s possible for movies to get without becoming impenetrably avant-garde. There is no stranger or more dreamlike special effect than plain old human aging. Seeing the familiar actors playing the familiar characters, but thirty years older, is a kind of strangeness I have never experienced in the movies before.

The passage of time

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Ethan’s Trax

Ethan’s Trax is an iTunes playlist I maintain that includes all of the music I’ve ever recorded. Well, more accurately, it’s all of the music that I care to be reminded of. I haven’t included every draft and dead end. But if a track has any artistic or sentimental value whatsoever to me, it’s in Ethan’s Trax.

Ethan's Trax

As of this writing, the playlist contains 477 “songs.” That’s a cumulative one day, thirteen hours, forty-seven minutes and fifty-three seconds worth of music. My self-described genres include: Blues, Classical (General), Electronic, Experimental, Folk, Funk, Hip-Hop, Jazz (Vocal), Mashup, Pop, R&B/Soul, Rock, Showtunes, and Soundtracks/Scores. The Electronic category is substantially bigger than all of the others combined. The recent high points are here:

The question is, how much of this music is actually “mine”?

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Goodbye SoundCloud?

I love SoundCloud. I love it for being an exceptionally easy way to share my music with people all over the world. I love the community aspect, especially the Disquiet Junto. I have all of my students host their portfolios there. But like a lot of the electronic musicians who form the heart of the SoundCloud userbase, I’m running into some problems with copyright.

Recently, I needed to unwind from a stressful morning, so I fired up Ableton, put in some Super Mario Bros mp3s and James Brown breaks, and went to town. I uploaded the results to my SoundCloud page, as usual, but got one of their increasingly frequent copyright notices.

SoundCloud copyright notice

I’ve uploaded a lot of material to SoundCloud that violates copyright law in various ways, and for the most part, no one has made any objection. I’ve occasionally used some long intact samples that triggered takedown notices, but my remixes and mashups are usually transformative enough to slip through the filter. Lately, however, I’m finding that SoundCloud has dramatically stepped up its copyright enforcement. A few months ago, I could have posted my Super Mario Bros/James Brown mashup without any trouble. Not any more.

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Musical shares

Recently we had some guys from Splice.com visit NYU to show off their intriguing new product. (It’s basically GitHub for musicians.)

Splice logo

The Splice guys demonstrated the power of networked collaboration with an exercise they call “musical shares.” Everybody starts a track in some DAW (we used GarageBand.) You work on your track for ten minutes. Then you share it with the person to your left, and you receive the track from the person on your right. You work on your neighbor’s track for ten minutes. Then you pass left again and spend ten minutes on another track. You repeat until you run out of time. Finally, you listen to your original track and experience the appropriate delight, or surprise, or horror. It’s somewhere between Exquisite Corpse and Telephone, and it’s a lot of fun.

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Booking me for workshops

I want to expand my private teaching and speaking practice. If you were to book me for a workshop or seminar, what would you want it to be about? Music production? Intellectual property and authorship? Music and math? Music and science? Music pedagogy? Improvisation and flow, both in music and in life generally? Something else?

Ethan does his thing

I’d be happy to visit your music classroom, non-music classroom, company, co-working space, or community organization. Here are some instructional videos of mine to give you a sense of my style.

I do traditional music teaching and production too, but I’m pitching here to people who don’t consider themselves to be “musicians” (spoiler alert: everybody is a musician, you just might not have found your instrument yet.) Group improvisation on iOS devices or laptops is always a good time, and it’s easier than you would think to attain musical-sounding results. Instrument design with the Makey Makey is a fun one too. If you have Ableton Live and are wondering what to do with it, a remix and mashup workshop would be just the thing. All of the above activities are revelatory windows into user interface and experience design. Group music-making is an excellent team-building exercise, and is just generally a spa treatment for the soul. Get in touch with your suggestions, requests and questions.

Ableton Session View and instrument design

We usually think of “recorded” and “live” as two distinct and opposed forms of music. But technology has been steadily eroding the distinction between the two. Controllerism is a performance method using specialized control surfaces to trigger sample playback and manipulate effects parameters with the full fluidity and expressiveness of a conventional instrument. Such performance can take place on stage or in the studio.

Controllerism is attractive to me because I came to music through improvisation: blues, jazz, jam bands. I spent years improvising electronic music with Babsy Singer, though she did the beats and loops, not me. My life as a producer, meanwhile, has involved very little improvisation. Making music with the computer has been more like carefully writing scores. Improvisation and composition are really the same thing, but the timescales are different. Improvisation has an immediacy that composing on paper doesn’t. The computer shortens the loop from thought to music, but there’s still a lot of obligatory clicking around.

It’s certainly possible to improvise on the computer with MIDI controllers, either the usual keyboard variety or the wackier and more exotic ones. Improvising with MIDI and then cleaning up the results more meticulously is pretty satisfying, though my lack of piano skills make it almost as slow and tedious an input system as the mouse. Jamming on iPhone and iPad apps like Animoog or GarageBand is better. What they lack in screen real estate, they make up for with form factor. Making music on the computer comes to feel like office work after a while. But you can use the phone or the tablet while lying in bed or on the ground, or while pacing around, or basically anywhere. Multitouch also restores some of the immediacy of playing instruments.

There’s also the option of recording a lot of vocal or instrumental improvisation, and then sorting out all the audio afterwards. This is the most satisfying strategy for infusing electronic music with improvisation that I’ve found so far. You get all the free-flowing body-centered immediacy of live jamming, with no pressure whatsoever to be flawless. However, then you have to do the editing. It’s easier now than it was five or ten years ago, but it’s still labor-intensive. It can take an hour of work to shape a few minutes of improv into musical shape.

All of this time, I’ve had severe DJ envy, since their gear is designed for immediacy and improvisation. It’s a lame DJ indeed who meticulously stitches together a set ahead-of-time in an audio editor. However, DJ tools operate at the level of entire songs. It’s not easy to use Serato to write a new track. I’ve been wanting a tool that gives me the same sense of play, but at the scale of individual samples rather than entire songs.

Enter the APC40. The form factor resembles an MPC, and you can use it that way, to trigger one-shot samples like drum hits or chord stabs. But the intended use case is for Ableton session view, starting and stopping the playback of loops. By default, loop playback is quantized to the bar, so whenever you hit a pad, the loop begins playing cleanly on the next downbeat. (You can set the quantization interval to be as wide or narrow as you want, or disable it completely.) Playing your loops live makes happy accidents more likely. Of course, unhappy accidents are more likely too. But those are easy to fix in Arrange view. When I discovered that NYU has a little-used APC, I signed it out and started teaching myself controllerism. Here’s a picture of it.

It seems complex, and it is. The Starship Enterprise quality appeals to my tech nerd side. Creating an Ableton session for APC playing is like inventing a new musical instrument, every time. After you design your instrument, then you have to learn how to play it. On the other hand, if you design your instrument right, the actual playing of it can be fun and easy. When I set up the APC with some Michael Jackson samples and let Milo try it, he figured out the concept immediately.

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Remix as compositional critique

This month I’ve been teaching music production and composition as part of NYU’s IMPACT program. A participant named Michelle asked me to critique some of her original compositions. I immediately said yes, and then immediately wondered how I was actually going to do it. I always want to evaluate music on its own terms, and to do that, I need to know what the terms are. I barely know Michelle. I’ve heard her play a little classical piano and know that she’s quite good, but beyond that, I don’t know her musical culture or intentions or style. Furthermore, she’s from China, and her English is limited.

I asked Michelle to email me audio files, and also MIDI files if she had them. Then I had an epiphany: I could just remix her MIDIs, and give my critique totally non-verbally.

Remix as compositional critique

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