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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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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Analyzing the musical structure of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel

We’re asking participants in Play With Your Music to create musical structure graphs of their favorite songs. These are diagrams showing the different sections of the song and where its component sounds enter and exit. In order to create these graphs, you have to listen to the song deeply and analytically, probably many times. It’s excellent ear training for the aspiring producer or songwriter. This post will talk you through a structure graph of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. Co-produced by Peter and Daniel Lanois, this is an emblematic eighties pop tune.

Here are the video versions of my analysis:

Below is the musical structure graph. Click the image below to see it bigger, and with popup comments.

"Sledgehammer" structure graph

Here’s the perceived space graph:

"Sledgehammer" perceived space

And here’s a chart of the chord progression.

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Visualizing song structures

How do you write out a pop, rock or dance song? There’s no single standard method. Some musicians use standard western notation. Some do everything by ear. Many of us use methods that fall somewhere in between. One such compromise system in widespread use is the lead sheet:

Other systems for song documentation include chord charts and the Nashville numbering system. But plenty of musicians are unfamiliar with these systems, and may not have any method for writing down songs at all. This leads to a lot of confusion during rehearsals and recording sessions. Any given section of a rock or pop song is likely to be simple, a few chords in a particular pattern, but the difficulty comes in figuring out and remembering the bigger structure: whether the guitar solo comes after the second verse or the chorus, how many bars long the bridge is, what beat the ending falls on.

Jazz is easier to play than rock in a certain sense, because its song forms are more standardized. There are a few very widely used templates: the head-solos-head format, the thirty-two bar AABA standard, blues, rhythm changes and so on. Because of this formal standardization, you can put a bunch of jazz musicians who have never even met each other on a stage together with zero rehearsal, and they’ll be able to bang some tunes out. Rock and pop are a lot more idiosyncratic, so even though they tend to be technically simpler than jazz, getting the different parts sorted out can take a lot more work.

The world of computer recording and sequencing can be a big help with visualizing a song’s structure. Once a tune is in a digital audio editor, it’s automatically “notated” in terms of chunks of audio against a grid of bars and beats. It suddenly becomes easy to visualize song structures, even if you have no idea how music notation works. You can use markers, color-coding and named memory locations to create an interactive road map of the track. Here’s a recent composition I did for grad school using Ableton Live:

Learning to visualize a song on the computer screen doesn’t just make your life easier when you’re writing or recording. By looking at song structures, you can learn a lot about how music is put together, about the symmetries and asymmetries, the repetition and variation and recursion. You can learn these things through very attentive listening too, but getting your eyes involved really helps to drive the ideas home.

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User interface case study: iOS Garageband

Apple has long made a practice of giving away cool software with their computers. One of the coolest such freebies is Garageband. It’s a stripped down version of Logic aimed at beginners, and it’s a surprisingly robust tool. The software instruments and loops sound terrific, the interface is approachable, and it’s generally a great scratchpad. However, Garageband isn’t a good way to learn about music. It gives you a lot of nice sounds, but offers no indication whatsoever as to what you’re supposed to do with them. To get a decent-sounding track, you need to come pre-equipped with a fair bit of musical knowledge.

A young guitar student of mine is a good example. After only his third lesson, he jumped on Garageband and tried writing a song, mostly by throwing loops together. I admire his initiative, but the result was jagged and disjointed, lacking any kind of structural logic. It’s natural that a first effort would be a mess, but I felt a missed opportunity. At no point did the program ever suggest that the kid’s loops would sound best in groups of two, four, eight or sixteen. It didn’t suggest he organize his track into sections with symmetrical lengths. And it didn’t suggest any connection between one chord and another. Seeing enough other beginners struggle with Garageband makes me think that it isn’t really for novices after all. It seems to be pitched more toward dads in cover bands, who have some half-remembered knowledge of chord progressions and song forms and who just need a minimum of prodding to start putting together tracks on the computer.

The iPad version of Garageband is a much better experiential learning tool. Its new touch-specific interfaces encourage the playful exploration at the heart of music-making. The program isn’t trying to be particularly pedagogical, but its presets and defaults nevertheless implicitly give valuable guidance to the budding producer or songwrter. And while it’s quite a bit more limited than the desktop version, those limitations are strengths for beginner purposes.

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The Makossa diaspora

The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song:

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Biggie Biggie Smalls Is The Illest

I always enjoy when hip-hop artists sample themselves. It makes the music recursive, and for me, “recursive” is synonymous with “good.” You can hear self-sampling in “Nas Is Like” by Nas, “The Score” by the Fugees and many songs by Eric B and Rakim. The most recent self-sampling track to cross my radar is “Unbelievable” by Biggie Smalls, from his album Ready To Die. Here’s the instrumental.

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Why do people like Girl Talk?

I don’t enjoy Girl Talk’s music all that much — I find it overwhelming, like watching someone flip channels on a TV. But I think he’s really important, and anyone who cares about music, technology, originality and ownership should be paying close attention. Adam Bossy raised an intriguing idea in his answer — describing an unlikely pairing of Black Sabbath and Ludacris, he observes: “It sounds as though each song was originally written with the other in mind.” At his best, Girl Talk finds connections between seemingly distant genres and styles, and shows that maybe the commonalities run deeper than the differences. This is a big idea, and an exciting one.

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