This post documents a presentation I’m giving in my History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See also a more formal history of the vocoder.
The vocoder is one of those mysterious technologies that’s far more widely used than understood. Here I explain what it is, how it works, and why you should care. A casual music listener knows the vocoder best as a way to make that robot voice effect that Daft Punk uses all the time.
Here’s Huston Singletary demonstrating the vocoder in Ableton Live.
This is a nifty effect, but why should you care? For one thing, you use this technology every time you talk on your cell phone. For another, this effect gave rise to Auto-Tune, which, love it or hate it, is the defining sound of contemporary popular music. Let’s dive in!
The MusEDLab will soon be launching a revamped version of the aQWERTYon with some enhancements to its visual design, including a new scale picker. Beyond our desire to make our stuff look cooler, the scale picker represents a challenge that we’ve struggled with since the earliest days of aQW development. On the one hand, we want to offer users a wide variety of intriguing and exotic scales to play with. On the other hand, our audience of beginner and intermediate musicians is likely to be horrified by a list of terms like “Lydian dominant mode.” I recently had the idea to represent all the scales as colorful icons, like so:
Read more about the rationale and process behind this change here. In this post, I’ll explain what the icons mean, and how they can someday become the basis for a set of new interactive music theory visualizations.
I complain a lot on this blog about the traditional teaching of music theory. Fortunately, a better alternative exists: Everyday Tonality by Philip Tagg. Don’t be put off by the DIY look of the web site; the book is the single best explanation I know of for how harmony works across a broad spectrum of the world’s music.
The good people at Noteflight have started doing weekly challenges. I love constraint-based music prompts, like the ones in the Disquiet Junto, so I thought I would try this one: compose a piece of music using only four notes.
The music side of this wasn’t hard. My material tends not to use that many pitches anyway. If you really want to challenge me, tell me I can’t use any rhythmic subdivisions finer than a quarter note. Before you listen to my piece, though, let’s talk about this word, “compose.” When you write using notation, the presumption is that you’re creating a set of instructions for a human performer. However, actually getting your composition performed is a challenge, unless you have a band or ensemble at your disposal. I work in two music schools, and I would have a hard time making it happen. (When I have had my music performed, the musicians either used a prose score, learned by ear from a recording, or just improvised.) Noteflight’s target audience of kids in school are vanishingly unlikely to ever hear their work performed, or at least, performed well. Matt Mclean formed the Young Composers and Improvisers Workshop to address this problem, and he’s doing amazing work, but most Noteflight compositions will only ever exist within the computer.
Given this fact, I wanted to create a piece of music that would actually sound good when played back within Noteflight. This constraint turned out to be a significantly greater challenge than using four notes. I started with the Recycled Percussion instrument, and chose the notes B, E, F, and G, because they produce the coolest sounds. Then I layered in other sounds, chosen because they sound reasonably good. Here’s what I came up with: Continue reading
This post documents my final project for User Experience Design with June Ahn
Overview of the problem
The aQWERTYon is a web-based music performance and theory learning interface designed by the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. The name is a play on “QWERTY accordion.” The aQWERTYon invites novices to improvise and compose using a variety of scales and chords normally available only to advanced musicians. Notes map onto the computer keyboard such that the rows play scales and the columns play chords. The user can not play any wrong notes, which encourages free and playful exploration. The aQWERTYon has a variety of instrument sounds to choose from, and it can also act as a standard MIDI controller for digital audio workstations (DAWs) like GarageBand, Logic, and Ableton Live. As of this writing, there have been aQWERTYon 32,000 sessions.
If you have even a passing interest in funk, you will want to familiarize yourself with Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” And if you are preoccupied and dedicated to the preservation of the movement of the hips, then the bassline needs to be a cornerstone of your practice.
Since George Michael died, I’ve been enjoying all of his hits, but none of them more than this one. Listening to it now, it’s painfully obvious how much it’s about George Michael’s struggles with his sexual orientation. I wonder whether he was being deliberately coy in the lyrics, or if he just wasn’t yet fully in touch with his identity. Being gay in the eighties must have been a nightmare.
This is the funkiest song that George Michael ever wrote, which is saying something. Was he the funkiest white British guy in history? Quite possibly. Continue reading
QWERTYBeats is a proposed accessible, beginner-friendly rhythm performance tool with a basic built-in sampler. By simply holding down different combinations of keys on a standard computer keyboard, users can play complex syncopations and polyrhythms. If the app is synced to the tempo of a DAW or other music playback system, the user can easily perform good-sounding rhythms over any song.
This project is part of Design For The Real World, an NYU ITP course. We are collaborating with the BEAT Rockers, the Lavelle School for the Blind, and the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. Read some background research here. Continue reading
I’m continuing to gather materials for my upcoming ISMIR 2016 presentation on Why Hip-Hop Is Interesting. One of my big themes is the melodic content of rap. Emcees are deliberate in their use of pitch, whether they’re singing or rapping or some combination of the two. In the post, I’ll analyze segments of three great emcees’ flow. I made the graphics by loading acapella tracks into Melodyne, and then added the lyric annotations by hand using Omnigraffle. The selection of these tracks represents the intersection of “songs that I like” and “acapellas that are available to me.”
Eric B and Rakim – “Follow The Leader”
Emcee: Rakim Allah
Rakim Allah stands out among eighties rappers for the complexity and subtlety of his flow. Here’s an excerpt from verse one: