Improvising electronica

The other day Brian Eno was on NPR talking about his process. He likes to have people walk into the studio without any preconceived ideas or written out material. Then he has the musicians improvise within certain constraints. Usually these constraints are more about a mood or a vibe than a particular musical structure. After recording some improvisation, Eno edits and loops the high points into a shape. Miles Davis used this same process for some of his electric albums, like In A Silent Way.

Miles and Eno seem radical, but in a way, they’re just boiling the usual compositional process down to its raw essentials. Really, all composition and songwriting consist of improvising within constraints and then sequencing the best ideas into shape. Usually this improvisation happens in short spurts, inside the composer’s head or alone at an instrument. Using a recording device instead of a sheet of paper can make the process more bodily and immediate, and can help get at playful ideas that might not squeak past the mind’s internal judges and editors during the relatively slow process of writing stuff on paper. Michael Jackson wrote his best stuff by improvising into a tape recorder. There’s something about improvising a performance while being recorded that focuses the mind wonderfully.

Since 2004 I’ve been writing and recording with Barbara Singer in different configurations. The first version was her idea, a band called Blopop. She had some techno versions of pop songs programmed into her MC-909 groovebox, and the idea was that she’d sing and DJ, and I’d improvise guitar on top.

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Eric B and Rakim

In 1987 I remember having my ears grabbed by this thing on the radio called “Pump Up The Volume” by MARRS.

Now that mashups are so common, this track doesn’t sound particularly remarkable. But in seventh grade it was startling to hear a house music track full of random samples. “Pump Up The Volume” was part of the same UK dance music movement that spawned the KLF’s “Doctorin’ The Tardis” and “Rush” by Big Audio Dynamite. I wasn’t enough of a hip-hop head in 1987 to recognize where the phrase in the title comes from, but now I do, it’s from “I Know You Got Soul” by Eric B and Rakim. Listen at 0:43:

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Tommy The Cat

Tommy

Revival Revival vs Primus

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Vocals by Barbara Singer. Samples and programming by me. The guitar licks were originally played by Alex Torovic but have been chopped up pretty dramatically. This is part of our ongoing strategy, learned from hip-hop, of taking a familiar chorus and coming up with new verses.

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Hey! Wait!

Let Us In

Revival Revival vs Nirvana

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Vocals and guitar by Barbara. Additional guitar, controller synth, 808 programming and sampling by me. Contains some salty language.

This continues our recent push into mostly original rock material about Barbara’s complex romantic life. The sample comes from one of my favorite Nirvana songs.

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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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Video remixes and mashups

Couple of exciting memetic hybrids circulating around the web right now. First, here’s a techno track using samples of Pixar’s Up, which is one of the best and saddest movies ever. Thanks Mike for alerting me to the remix’s existence. Remixing songs is all well and good, but remixing movies, that’s where it’s at. Continue reading

How we wrote this song

Boys And Dance Floors

Revival Revival vs Janet Jackson

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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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Bitter Sweet Symphony

One of the biggest copyright failures of copyright law ever is the The Verve’s song “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”

The distinctive string sample comes from an orchestral arrangement of “The Last Time” by The Rolling Stones.

Doesn’t sound much like the Verve, does it? Here’s the Andrew Oldham Orchestra‘s version, the sample will jump right out at you twenty-five seconds in.

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