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.

Learning how this thing works. Major musical challenge.

A photo posted by Ethan Hein (@ethanhein) on

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.

Can a two-year-old live remix Michael Jackson with an APC40? Let's find out!

A photo posted by Ethan Hein (@ethanhein) on

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The great music interface metaphor shift

I’m working on a long paper right now with my colleague at Montclair State University, Adam Bell. The premise is this: In the past, metaphors came from hardware, which software emulated. In the future, metaphors will come from software, which hardware will emulate.

The first generation of digital audio workstations have taken their metaphors from multitrack tape, the mixing desk, keyboards, analog synths, printed scores, and so on. Even the purely digital audio waveforms and MIDI clips behave like segments of tape. Sometimes the metaphors are graphically abstracted, as they are in Pro Tools. Sometimes the graphics are more literal, as in Logic. Propellerhead Reason is the most skeuomorphic software of them all. This image from the Propellerhead web site makes the intent of the designers crystal clear; the original analog synths dominate the image.

Reason with its inspiration

In Ableton Live, by contrast, hardware follows software. The metaphor behind Ableton’s Session View is a spreadsheet. Many of the instruments and effects have no hardware predecessor.

Loops in session view

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What is groove?

You hear musicians talk all the time about groove. You might wonder what they mean by that. A lot of musicians couldn’t explain exactly, beyond “the thing that makes music sound good.” The etymology of the term comes from vinyl records. Musicians ride the groove the way a phonograph needle physically rides the groove in the vinyl.

The original groove

But what is groove, exactly? It isn’t just a matter of everyone playing with accurate rhythm. When a classical musician executes a passage flawlessly, you don’t usually talk about their groove. Meanwhile, it’s possible for loosely executed music to have a groove to it. Most of my musician friends talk about groove as a feeling, a vibe, an ineffable emotional quality, and they’re right. But groove is something tangible, too, and even quantifiable.

Using digital audio production software, you can learn to understand the most mystical aspects of music in concrete terms. I’ve written previously about how electronic music quantifies the elusive concept of swing. Music software can similarly help you understand the even more elusive concept of groove. In music software, “groove” means something specific and technical: the degree to which a rhythm deviates from the straight metronomic grid. Continue reading

Remixing Verdi with Ableton Live

Later this week I’m doing a teaching demo for a music technology professor job. The students are classical music types who don’t have a lot of music tech background, and the task is to blow their minds. I’m told that a lot of them are singers working on Verdi’s Requiem. My plan, then, is to walk the class through the process of remixing a section of the Requiem with Ableton Live. This post is basically the script for my lecture.

Verdi remixed

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Play with your music theory

Last week I put together a new set of music theory videos.

These videos are aimed at participants in Play With Your Music, who may want to start producing their own music or remixes and have no idea where to start. I’m presuming that the viewer has no formal background, no piano skills and no reading ability. This would seem to be an unpromising place to start making music from, but there’s a surprising lot you can do just by fumbling around on a MIDI keyboard. Playing the white keys only gives you the seven modes of the C major scale, with seven very different emotional qualities. Playing the black keys only gives you the G♭ major and E♭ minor pentatonic scales. From there, you can effortlessly transpose your MIDI data into any key you want.

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Why is son clave so awesome?

One of the best discoveries I made while researching my thesis is the mathematician Godfried Toussaint. While the bookshelves groan with mathematical analyses of western harmony, Toussaint is the rare scholar who uses the same tools to understand Afro-Cuban rhythms. He’s especially interested in the rhythm known to Latin musicians as 3-2 son clave, to Ghanaians as the kpanlogo bell pattern, and to rock musicians as the Bo Diddley beat. Toussaint calls it “The Rhythm that Conquered the World” in his paper of the same name. Here it is as programmed by me on a drum machine:

The image behind the SoundCloud player is my preferred circular notation for son clave. Here are eight different more conventional representations as rendered by Toussaint:

Toussaint - visualizing son clave Continue reading

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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Designing a music production MOOC

In my capacity as a research assistant to Alex Ruthmann, I’ve been getting to work on a bunch of cool projects. The first one to come to fruition is a MOOC (massively open online course) about music production. It’s called Play With Your Music, and it starts November 1st. The project is spearheaded by the idealistic edupunks at Peer to Peer University, with input from the MIT Media Lab. It’s free and open to anyone with an internet connection.

Play With Your Music

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