Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A world without MIDI - The Korg Wavedrum

I recently purchased a Korg Wavedrum which I love. Realize, that I am not a drummer but lately have looked a way to add more rhythm to my songs. I also bought the Wavedrum because I consider it to be on the cutting edge of music right now precisely because it does not have MIDI (hushed sigh, people falling down from shock)

OK, you might think that I am either joking or crazy. MIDI is a great standard right? Well, yes and no. I hope by the end of this article I can both explain how the Wavedrum works (although part of that is hidden in its proprietary chips) but also why MIDI is not the be all and end all in electronic instruments and why it makes at least some sense for the Wavedrum to be missing MIDI.

Anyone who plays a natural instrument such as a guitar or violin, as good examples, knows that there is a magical interaction between musician and instrument. It's a kind of feedback loop. Musical expression, at least for natural instruments, is a complex interaction between the musician and the instrument. The first part of the loop involves both the sense of touch and sight. Although sight only functions initially to identify where notes are. A musician does not need sight to play an instrument but having a sense of touch is essential.
One can even speak of an instrument being embedded in our memories. Our brains even remember the sense of touch in what is often called muscles memory. Our muscles know where to go. A guitarist, such as myself, can bar a fret without looking to see where it is. Even the fine muscle movements for vibrato and harmonics can be learned so that they become fluid and part of the organic whole that forms the basis of musical expression.

One of the faults I see in MIDI is that music becomes quantized and loses expression. At firswt this quantization was time based but with the advent of autiotune, evenp itch is quantized. DAWs even intentionally quantize timing and notes that may not fall on the grid of time and pitch. Any musician will tell you however that musical expression lies in that space in between. The bend of a note or the ever to slight variation in timing can make for magical moments.

Physical instruments also vary from most electronic instruments in that notes are not simply turned on or off (as in MIDI). In fact, MIDI in some ways handcuffed synthesizers by making the keyboard, pitch bend and mod wheel almost obligatory. There are alternative controllers and Buchla has steered away from using a keyboard for it's modulars but for the most part this is true. For a physical system, the playing of a single note is a complex event. The note begins when energy is imparted to the system (or in terms of physics, the system is exited). For example, the guitar string is first stretched with a pick and then once released begins a kind of complex dance (we call this the transient) until it comes to an equilibrium. It is that transient where much of musical expression lies.
There has been a dominant belief in electronic music that the power of electronic instruments is in the waveform. I strongly disagree with this. In fact, studies show that a note cut of from it's transient leaves the listener unclear as to what instrument it comes from. It is also here that musical expression lies in all the subtle ways that that first excitation of a system occurs and resolves itself into a more stable waveform.

So why is all this important? Simple. MIDI ins and outs allow a musician to recreate a performance either through a built in sequencer, a DAW on a laptop or even a hardware sequencer. This is done by recording a MIDI data stream. Because of the nature of a physical instrument, one cannot re-create the performance on a physical instrument using MIDI. Sound can be sampled to create a snapshot in time but not the myriad of ways the musician is able to express themselves. For example, there are guitars that have MIDI outs or can use a MIDI interface but this can't be used to recreate a guitar performance only drive a MIDI synth. Roland V guitar system amd Line 6 guitars take a different route by using piezo pickups to first pick up vibrations and then use additional signal processing to create the final sound. This is what the Korg Wavedrum does as well.

Now its possible to put a MIDI out on a Wavedrum. Note on messages would be easy to create and even velocity. Drum head pressure could be used to map to pitch or aftertouch but these can only be used to drive samples not re-create the performance of someone using a wavedrum.
What is the Wavedrum? It functions somewhat like a Moog Guitar might with built in electronics but the Wavedrum's electronics are far more sophisticated DSP algorithms which process the signals from the piezo pickups (one for the head and two for the rim). These signals also trigger PCM samples which are mixed with the processed signal. In the case of "double sized" algorithms which are more complex, the rim and head and processed together. The head also senses pressure which changes the sound much like a drum head or also creates more ambient sounds.

The Wavedrum sounds and responds like a real instrument. It creates that two way feedback loop I talked about earlier which is lacking substantially in MIDI based electronic instruments. In many ways I would like to see at least some electronic instruments move in this direction. Sure, you can't duplicate the performance of a Wavedrum using MIDI but you can't do it with a guitar either and I don't see anyone stop playing and recording guitars because they don't have MIDI outs.

What the Wavedrum has over a physical drum is that its very very flexible. There are 100 presets and 100 user programs. The drum is programmed by a complex parameters which varies for each algorithm and are based on a generalized model of certain classes of drums. The PCM samples are used to provide a more specific type of sound which corresponds to various drums and percussive instruments.
The Wavedrum is a hybrid of samples and real sound and processing and I would love to see more instruments follow in this direction. Sure, moving outside the realm of triggered MIDI samples is scary to some who have grown up with them but I think its worth the bother.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

All is not Gold

One of the aspects of music that I think I continue to learn each and every day is that not everything that can be done should be done. I just watched a video tonight of someone using his arm as a drum by tapping his fingers on it. I don't post it here because I am trying to be kind but my response to this video is why? Ultimately the test for any music is in the hearing right? OK, I admit that sometimes I am expressing certain concepts in my music and it might help to know what those are but even in these songs I ultimately want them to stand on their own. I guess my point is that I should not need a video to understand what I hear and what I heard with the finger tapping sounded like a cheap $10 DIY drum machine.

Again, if I point the finger at myself I admit that what I do is experimental. But I hope that I seek something of value musically. This is all subjective but my point is that all music and especially experimental music and instruments require a great deal of discernment and refinement. In other words, just because someone can do something, in many cases they would be better of not wasting there time if it's not liiely to yield some musically useful results.

I will leave it at that until the next blog when I talk about an experimental music that does work - The Korg Wavedrum.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Through the Auto Tune Looking Glass

Lately, I have been hearing a lot about auto tune. Rachelle Norman (a board certified music therapist) recently sent me an article in "Slate" by Jonah Weiner on Ke$ha's use of autotune:

And I also listened to a discussion of autotune's and Melodyne's pros and cons in this recent interview on Sonic State of Tara Busch, Maf Lewis and others. Sideline: some great new music from Tara as well (analogue/Moog goodness):

I believe that Ke$ha's use of autotune is, like so many other dreadfull applications of it, a gimmick. No doubt her hard edge and dance beat are also just formulas for effective marketing but not necessarily good music. I find it often difficult to distinguish between what is commercial and what is jingle. Weiner talks about "ear worms" in his article. I suppose in many ways that writing jingles or songs that attempt to use the same technique as jingles or commercials is a kind of art form but it is not what I would call creative.

So let me get to the looking glass. Many forms of music make effective use of pitch bending as an often very effective form of musical expression. Consider for example Celtic music that often bends up to create a distinctive style along with the scales that are used. I have used this technique in my music by simply bending the pitch wheel down before playing the note and bending up.

On the side of American musical art forms, blues not only uses pitch bending but also has a note specifically called the "blues note" that is especially appropriate to bend. Delta blues also makes use of the cordican bottle or slide and many old school country music band use the steel slide guitar. This same slid guitar is also effectively used in Rock (with a bit of distortion added) by David Gilmour in some Pink Floyd songs and by Led Zepplin and of course, the Alman Borther band to name just a few. There are many many others. Also consider the use of vibrato for violin in classical music and also for guitar in many genres of music.

Pitch bend also is used almost subliminally by vocal artists from R&B to rock but also more subtly by artists like Bob Dylan who developed an enormously popular style partially because of his use of pitch bend in his voice.

The changing pitch of birdsong had been used to wonder effect by composers like Olivier Messiaen spent an incredible amount of time carefully and artistically transposing birdsong.

Pitch is also instrumental in human language which is neurologically related to music in th brain. Many eastern languages such as Mandarin use pitch as part of changing the meaning of a word but in just about any language used changes in pitch to convey meaning.

My point is that the desire to quantize pitch seems to contrary to what so many spend their lives perfecting in music be it voice or an instrument. We put pitch bend wheels on synthesizers and violins and some basses have no frets so avoid quantization. With the invention of drum machines it also seems that everyone wants to quantize time. Sure there is groove quantize but isn't that just another form of quantization?

I understand the purpose of Melodyne to make minor corrections to pitch to put the finishing touches on a mix but the idea that a quantized voice is desirable when it seems to be so much of the art of music thrives on playing outside the grid lines. Why so many want to autotune leaves me without a clue unless it really is just a gimmick.

So, as I have said on Twitter, I hope autotune dies a quick death. For those who like it, don't worry, someone will fnd a new gimmick to sell. In the meantime others will play there notes off the grid lines and through the looking glass.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

On Gestures, Kinekt and Beyoind

There has been a great deal of excitement lately about the Kinect video game console. This console uses the motions of the human body rather than a Wii controller or something like it to control a virtual video game world. Many have naturally thought about its adaptation as a musical controller. I will hold off my applause for a while but I wanted to express a few concerns.

One application would be a kind of 3D theremin. The idea would basically be to map parameters representing 3D space to synthesizer parameters. That's fine and a marginal advancement over the theremin but I would not really call it groundbreaking. An example of what I do find at least a little ground breaking is the Eigenharp. It's still simply parameter mapping but there is a very fine degree of control over the controllers on each pad not to mention the 2D array. Many I have discussed this new technology with have likened it to being an instrument rather than a controller. I agree. Any thing I have seen for Kinect places it more as a controller. That's ok, but its not groundbreaking IMHO.

So what would be? I believe that controllers will truly break ground when they move from controller to gestural controller. What do I mean by that? Simple. We all use gestures. We first use them when we learn to speak. Our own body had a very complex synthesizer built right in. A voice box that acts as an oscillator and our throat, mouth, tongue and lips that all act as filters and our muscles which control these as modulators. But rather than thinking about position in space (the current paradigm be it kinect, Roland D-beam, theremn, ect), all of these are defined by morphology. Confused, ok. Morphology is just a way of describing how something changes over time. This is why I am interested, fascinated even memorized by developments studying the brain. The brain does not think in terms of coordinates in space. When someone for example extends their hand to use we don't start to think, ok, what is the coordinates of their hand. No! We see gesture. The position of the hand, the open hand, the extension of the hand to the other person, a smile, the direction of our eyes, all of these gestures get processed by our brains and our brains interpret them as a handshake.

Now here is the trick, moving beyond coordinates to gesture. Apple has done this a bit with there computers and I even have a Sony Vaio that interprets two quick finger pats on the mouse pad as a mouse click. Now consider a conductor and how, without using any physical device other than a conductors wand, is able to communicate to the orchestra musical information.

This is my criticism of Kinect as a musical controller. I don't see it moving beyond an XYZ controller (yawn) because to interpret gesture takes a very quick computer and some very sophisticated programmers. Do I think we will get there? Sure and Buchla already has done this with with the Buchla Lighening which is a rudimentary gestural controller albiet at a high price. My problem with Buchla is that they want someone to invest a lot of money in a product without even having a manual or sufficient demos to look at first. The demos that are out there really don't explain the gestural interpretation engine and frankly some of them look more like the motions of an escaped mental patient than a musician.

Anyway, I have bright hopes for the future but is Kinect the answer? I don't think so but as I said, I will at least partially suspend my judgement.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Presets and Performances

A comment today from a Twitter friend got me thinking. He said that he did not like presets because they limited his creativity. I guess I can see where that might be true but in many ways, I am moving in a very different creative direction.

First, let me explain how I write music. First, I get an idea and then, I think of the synthesizers I could use to create it. Then I start programming by working with an existing preset and tweaking it or in some cases, developing and idea from scratch. Then I record one layer and repeat the process.

My compositions are often not complex horizontally. What I mean by this is that they are not long and have a lot of part to them. This is fact is my greatest self criticism and is what is going to get me to the presets and beyond.

Once of the reasons that I don't have a lot of parts to a composition is that it's hard to see the whole. I think the reason is that I have to break everything up. I am not playing it at the same time. So is this even possible. Yes, I think so. One way is to use presets and to change them with my feet. This way I can go from one movement to the next. I even want to use a Switchblade matrix router so that I can even change things like effects routing paths on the fly. I also want bass pedals so I can play bass with my feet much like an organists.

So my two paradigms that I am using to create a different type of studio are based on the pipe organ and the other based on the Orchestra. In many ways, these are the same things. But think of a symphony for a moment. A composer can change directions from one measure to the next simply by using different instruments in a different way. Now of course, the composer is not doing this in real time but imagine he/she could. With the type of electronic instruments we have today it's possible to perform works in real time.

It got a whole lot from listening to another Twitter friend, Mark Mosher, at the Electro Music festival for 2010 who was able to perform his works in real time by using various controllers and Ableton Live. The whole experience got me out of the paradigm I used before of piecing music together.

Now a pipe organ fits the paradigm as well. An organ can change while its being placed with stops.

So I now see composition as setting up a performance space and then using this space to create a composition in real time without stopping. Different settings of synths can be programmed to controllers and different presets also programmed and changed using foot switches or buttons.

So that is the direction I am going in. I just wanted to throw it out there and hopefully get a few comments back. I would very much appreciate responses.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Which comes first, the genre or the music?

Those who know my musical tastes will know that I am not one to limit myself to one particular musical genres. While I write ambient and experimental music, I have a great affinity to listing to and studying the greats of jazz and classical. These two genres stand at rather opposite ends of apporaches to music or at least until the 20th century regarding classical.

Classical music has always taken a certain pride in its rigor. To be a great classical musician and/or composer, one must spend countless hours studying and playing the music of the greats and understanding the music theory behind their works. At first, classical music was very constrained and fell within fairly narrow parameters. If one was to be a master, one has to work within the narrow guidelines but also do so with creativity. Of course, this was more than possible and the greats such as Bach created created musical works that followed the well worn path of the music that had some before with its limitations but also its possiblities for great expression and beauty.

As classical music progressed, the rules became less important and creativity seemed to flourish as composers and musicians found new musical territory to explore. This culminated in the early 20th century with composers like John Cage who broke completely with tradition. Rather than following the past, he challenged it.

The 20th century avant guarde is also very much tied to the advent of electronic instruments. As technology offered hope for the future, composers like Karlheintz Stockhausen saw entire realms of unexplored electronic methods to create sounds that had never been heard. Early electronic music became the age not of organized notes that conformed to musical standards as in Bach's time but a brave new word of the Pierre Boulez coined "organized sound".

As jazz was using melodies and chords to provide broad harmonic constructs of expression, so to, electronics provided a means of expression. The line between composer and scientists seemed to blur. Artists like Stockhausen where asking questions of "what if" perhaps hoping to pave the way to some new synthesis of sounds that would be the pallet for an new age of music expanded far beyond the limitations of traditional instruments.

With the advent of the Moog Modular Synthesizer and Buchla's electronic music system and electronic music box, the ability to create complex electronic voices was now possible with a bit of a learning curve to climb and money to invest. At first, synthesizers were large the purview of universities and therefore, the use of these instruments stayed well within the confines of a carefully studied academic approach.

But Bob Moog did not want the synthesizer to remain locked in the ivory towers so he made a cheaper and more accessible instrument. This much smaller synthesizer was called a Minimoog. The Minimoog could easily be used on stage and it was for hundreds of bands. The Minimoog and a plethora of synthesizers that followed after.

But as music became accessible it left the ivory tower and moved to the recording studio. Electronic music had entered mainstream pop. Now pop music was not dictated by well footnoted treatises on the experimental wanderings of a Buchla Music Box but rather dollar signs. The more one could crank out hit album after hit album, the more dollars one could make but not just the musicians but the producer. So the pressure was put on putting the genre before the music. Music moved from the experimental seeking a genre to a genre that defined musicians and in many ways, limited their creative choices.

For a while, progressive rock found some bolder territory where they could both make hit records but also do something experimental and artistic but soon, following the leader seemed to dominate especially when the age of low cost computer memory made samples all the rage even to this day. Samples defined a game of musical follower the leader and soon, each time a new sound was used, it became all the rage for a new set of copy cat songs. And electronic music, that held the hope of exploring entire new musical universes, was dominated by sample driven music.

Now that is not the whole story and it was my pleasure in going to the 2010 Electro Music Fest to see that he age of experimentation is alive and well. Many web sites now provide music on the internet which reach into a much broader scope. The music appears to be leading the gerne again and this story is far from being over. In fact, now that someone can make quality recordings at home and then sell them on the internet makes the influence of the sample peddler/bankers far from the only game in town.

So where do we go from here? Will music now lead the way rather than the genre. How often are genres defined by someone simply doing something and the rest following. What is a genre other than a self imposed copying of someone's style with the hopes to be creative enough to break out of the box at least a bit. But then we have the new avant guarde. The musicians who value creativity more than copying the crowd.

But now I come to a dilemma. I was going to post a video of a musician flailing around with Buchla Lightening rods. It was not the carefully crafted sounds of someone like a Morton Subotnick who has learned to master the Buchla Music box and take listeners to another world. No, it was someone who at least seemed to me to have little musical experience and spent a large sum of money on Buchla Lightening. Now granted, some other videos were more musical than this poor example but the one I am thinking of, was nothing more than a child playing on a toy drum. I did not post it because I am not trying to disparage anyone in particular but to merely point out a problem.

I find it myself when I have a wealth of ways to make music and find myself lost in possibilities. I myself do have some musical training and I have found that those musicians who have some training themselves often make better music than those musicans who resemble more the flailing musician with lighting rods in the video I am talking about.

Experimental music is always as risk, when it puts the music before the genre and in doing to gets lost in a sea of possibilities. The music should come before the genre but in a thoughtful and skilled way. I am not suggesting that we either follow the way of mass produced pop music or the rigor of the Baroque period with its well crafted fugues but I am suggesting that we talk about music that is being created and try to learn some skills that will help the better experiments to begin to forms into genres or perhaps better said, musical paths that show promise. I myself would rather try to focus on a few genres that I create and learn how to explore them with some skill and forethought than to drown in a sea of the latest gadgets and believe me, I am very guilty of that. Perhaps, at least for a time, I want to go deeper instead o broader and try to find something lasting and worthwhile creating, even if it does mean I have to spend some time practicing and really learning how to use the wonderful instruments that I have that make those wonderful sounds. Perhaps, learning to use what I have will become the contraints that define a deeper creativity born of skill rather than drowning in the possiblities.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tear Down the Wall

I never got to know my great grandmother in person because by the time I was born, she had already passed away. But my father has told me stories about her. Like many of the Irish who lived in Boston at the time, she did not really have even two dimes to rub together but one of her great sources of entertainment and enlightenment was to go to the local library and bring back a stack of books that she would then devour over the week and return the next week for another stack. I have little doubt that if she went to a University and mingled with the whose who walked the hallowed halls of the ivory tower, she would have found a group of her peers even though her small Boston apartment was never adorned with a diploma from one of the great higher learning institutions.

Now I understand that people with degrees often find a ready group of people that can relate to them and that different intellectual disciplines often develop their own vocabulary and knowledge of advancements in the field. I do the same with music. Now mind you I have no degree in music (I have degrees however), but I have learned from experience, a lot of hand on practical experience and a have done a lot of reading and talking to people in the field about many things about synthesizers. With people I often talk to on Twitter for example, I can talk about the VCS3, VCOs and VCAs and most will know exactly what these things are. They know who EMS is and Robert Moog and Donald Buchla. All this is natural and good.

However, I am always open to learning something new. I like my grandmother, am not so interested in getting a nice new piece of paper on my wall but rather, getting a new stack of books (in my case often put in my own bookcases) and read and learn. Or to sit in front of a soft synth or a hard synth and play music. Music that speaks to my heart and I want to share with others.

IMHO (degrees or no), we can all learn from one another and frankly, if someone has a degree or not, I don't really care. It's why I rarely share what diplomas I have. My great grandmother did not have any degrees from higher learning institutions as I do but I would rather go back in time and be able to spend an hour with her than with the great minds of the universities. She had a practical knowledge that I think the world is losing. The Irish are some of the greatest writers because they learned the art of poetry, music and story telling by sharing it with their friends at the local pub. They learned to paint with words and notes not because they had a degree but from telling stories and playing music.

I posed a tweet the other night about the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" which is, as I said, not really about either zen or motorcycles but has a lot to say about metaphysics. I know, not a word that you hear discussed much these days although I bet my great grandmother knew what it is. Metaphysics is the study of being, of what something is, the underlying essence of things.

The academic mind tends to break things down into small pieces so that each knows their own piece but often not the whole and so they only see the trees and not he forest. They see a drop of water and not the ocean or even the world of life that can exists in a single drop of water from that ocean. A person can only know something by knowing it from all sides and then, putting it all together and then, and only then, understand it's essence. I will tell you my take on music and the brain. That is why so many parts of the brain light up when music is being played.

Music can also be seen from many directions. It is theory, notes and scales and tempos and the like. But it is also emotion and mystery. It speaks both in conterpoint but also of sadness and longing or the joy of summers day. It speaks a language all its own. I can approach music from the perspective of neurology, psycho acoustics, psychology, music theory, electronics even physics. Each can tell me something but none on their own capture the essence.

When I allude to the Carolian rabbit hole, I am trying to invite people down a hole that will show them a world below the surface of academic disciplines that they seem to cling to with such fervor. One of the reasons I love the first Matrix movie (the 1st, the writers kind of blew it after that) is that we each live in our own matrix. We have a vocabulary that we may share with a particular group of people, or knowledge, or experience. And like the movie, it's ok sometimes to enjoy taste of the steak, but there is more to the human experience than that and to experience it, we have to leave our matrix.

We hold up our degrees and believe that only those in our small circle have something to say or contribute to our jobs and our life but the truth is, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, "The words of the prophets are written on the subway ways and tenement halls". Perhaps, we have only to listen and the silence will speak to us.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Do Sounds Have Meaning?

I just listened to this great interview with John Cage again:

In this interview, Cage claims that sound has no meaning.

I think the question as to if sound has meaning or not relates to the very old philosophical question that if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound. If the meaning of sound is that the molecules in the air vibrate when it falls then yes, it makes a sound. If one where to leave a recording device in the forest when the tree fell it would also produce a recording of those vibrations. But if one means by sound what we associate sound with in language, our experience of the sensation of sound, then no, the tree does not make any sound.

It is impossible for us to hear a sound the way a recording device records it. Each time we hear a sound our brains not only filter it, but try to make sense of it. There is a psychological theory refered to as pareidolia

Thursday, August 26, 2010

It Just Runs Programs

In trawling the web for comments good and bad about some hard synths out there, I have often come upon the argument that soft synths sound at least as good if not better, and are more powerful, than hard synths and far chapter, so why buy a hard synth?

There are a few reasons. The most significant reason is that the knobs on a hard synth create a musical space that lends itself to real time experimentation. The common response that is, that's true but there are controllers out there now that will give the musician knobs and sliders to control soft synths. Some, even have pre-made mappings to many of the popular synths or some soft synths have MIDI learn to make it easy to map knobs on the controller to the virtual knobs on the soft synth. DAWs also have tools.

All of this is true but its not the whole picture. First, the controller has no visual markings to label the knobs and sliders. Of course, one could create a series of templates but that is a lot of bother. There are also some attempts to improve on the basic paradigm of a controller such as Native Instruments Kore 2 but the fact remains that if you look at the hardware controller, there is no visual cue to what you are controlling so the direct interaction with the synth is lost.

One solution would be do have a very high res set of LEDs that provided soft templates. I am not sure why Native Instruments or someone else has not come up with this. Another problem is that the position of the knobs are still fixed. I have three hard synths. A Moog Voyager, a Korg M3 and a Waldorf Blofeld. Each of these synths have a very unique and very different set of knobs and sliders. The reason is simple. Each of these synths has a very unique character or personality if you will. That is reflected in the design of the keyboard or controller and reflected in the sound. The two are integrated together.

Now soft synths could have their own dedicated controllers and in a few instances they have but they have not gone over well because in the mind of the consumer, they are adding unnecessary cost. I don't really agree with this but the second problem is that if you have a lot of soft synths you would need a massive USB hub which would strain most computers.

So that's the first reason that soft synths fall short of hard synths.

Also realize that is possible to stack at least three keyboards. This is not the same as snazzy MDI controllers with keyboard splits. One has a full range on each synth whatever that range might be.

Now onto the financial argument that they are so much cheaper. OK, but what about those upgrades. Isn't that part of the game. I've played it. The company comes out with an upgrade and well, even if it's not all that significant, well, one just has to have it.

Now in some cases hard synths companies want money for upgrades but they don't come out as much and in some cases, like the Korg M3 for example, they are free which includes new samples. Add say three upgrades to a soft synth and that cheap synth has nearly doubled in price!

The final advantage I wanted to point out is often overlooked but important. Go look at the back of any hard synth and there are usually a whole wide range of in and outs. Often, sound can be routed differently to different sets of outs. Ins can also be used in different ways. On the Korg M3, the entire synth is an effects processor and through the audio ins it can process external audio and also resample it. Most soft synths have a meager set of effects. The Korg M3s effects are vast and powerful and directly tied to the hardware, yes, all those knobs and sliders. It even is more powerful than that but I will not get into that.

So if you find an extensive set of soft effects and add on a few upgrades for the synth and effects and your getting up price prize a lot closer to hardware.

The bottom line is that the ability to route audio to other hardware is something that soft synths and DAWS do not do all that well. Yes, I know about Reason and some other products as well but these attempts are not nearly as good as the ability to use a patch bay or even a more sophisticated matrix audio router like the "switchblade". One aspect of any hardware based system is that it is in a sense a modular itself. Combine it with a modular or with effects pedals and the possibilities expand far beyond the meager possibilities on soft synths.

The most significant part of it is there is something kind of magical about hardware. It lends itself to experimentation and for the reasons mentioned it can be rivaled by generic controllers. What is it worth? That's something each musician or composer has to decide. For me, its worth it. I see value in soft synths and frankly, some of my soft synths do things my hardware can't but I see it as supplementing not replacing my hardware.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Happy Accidents

Rather than posting a whole slew of tweets on Twitter, I thought it best to blog. I have been thinking lately about happy accidents in the history of music synthesis. What I mean by this is that often, what works musically is often more the result of imperfections than perfections. Perhaps, this might even apply to governing nations, but I digress.

To explain what I mean by this, consider the Moog Ladder Filter. In order to get the cutoff desired, a lattice of filters was necessary to design the Moog Ladder Filter. This results in distortion. Moog did not mind this but realized that the distortion, while from a purist point was undesirable, but from a musical perspective, it was desirable. So much so that this filter became a kind of musical legend.

Another example is that of oscillators for analog synths. The reason for all three waveforms that are usually used (square, sawtooth, triangular) is because these waveform are easy to approximate using the discharge of a capacitor. The corollary to this happy accident is that these waveforms have particular harmonic properties that make them useful.. For example, the square and triangular waveforms have no odd harmonics which make them effective for mimicking woodwind instruments, especially the square, because of the harmonic and physical characteristics of those instruments. Sawtooths provide a very broad spectrum waveform that can then be filtered to create very musical effects combined with envelopes.

Another example spurred on a whole musical industry from blues to rock, to hard rock to heavy metal. Back in the early days, amplifiers used tubes (and some still do) because there were no transistors. When tubes got hot, they distorted (well, even before that but the heat enhanced the effect). But they did so in such a way to enhance harmonics in a musical way. Amps today use several stages of amplification which creates another type of sound. The why however is not so important as the fact that it is musical. There is also what is called sag in amps which has to do with the power supply but it creates a drop in power that is part of the signature sound of some amps.

Pickups on guitars are another example. The more windings one has on a guitar makes the signal not only a lot stronger but also more distorted combined with an amp. Again, for some types of music this is desirable.

Natural instrument are perhaps the best example. Instruments are expressive (much more so than electronics without a lot of help) because when a note is first played, the physical system which creates the oscillations is not in equilibrium. This creates noise which, in a brief time, changes to a stable waveform. What we actually find expressive and interesting about an instrument is not the static waveform (which is actually kind of boring) but the first part of the note we call the transient. This is what we identify often with musical virtuosity.

From a purists perspective, the stable physical system which creates a stable sustained waveform is what is attractive perhaps on an intellectual basis but its the imperfection of the transient that creates the magic.

So there you have it. That is my walk though the happy accidents of music.

The flip side of course is that those things that might seem theoretically relevant, may not be musical. My example of that is additive synthesis. I will not go into it here but I am in rebellion against what I would call the Fourier illusion. My basis for this is actually because I have a mathematical background and believe that he whole concept of harmonics is defunct to some extent. It can be a useful tool but in some sense, its only a model of reality, not the true reality. Granular synthesis is coming closer to the true reality but much like the physics of a particle being a wave and a particle, the same applies to these models of sound.

Not to inject a lot of politics into my musical blog, I try to keep this separate, but consider a society. People come in all shapes and sizes with all sorts of problems. If we embrace that which is imperfect, then things work. Yes, we know there is greed but if its directed towards making a good product that can help people than that is a good thing. Yes we know that some people are not healthy but perhaps helping those people actually makes us better people. I know there are those in our government, some at the very highest level, who believe that government can create an earthly utopia without injustice, hunger and suffering so they try to force people into a mold of what they believe Perhaps, in some odd way, its those things that we struggle with, those imperfections, that may just be the happy accidents that help to bind us together.

Just a musical musing for a somewhat tranquil Sunday morning for me.

Hope all enjoyed.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Music and Government

I rarely like to combine my political views with musical views but in these case, I have to say a few words. I just read this great article on the wonderful work in early synthesizers by Ken Freeman who very much furthered the development of early string synthesizers and is no doubt part of the inspiration for the modern string ensembles that appear on more modern synths today. String synthesizers also have been a huge part of pop music history.

So what does all this have to do with politics. Simple really. I find myself wondering how a modern day Ken Freeman would fair in the bureaucrat business killing environment of today. Many new and often struggling companies today find themselves hit by government regulations that at time border of the absurd and taxes that will soon be going up in the US. Many people also don't realize that for many small companies, their corporate profits are part of their personal income and it's this money that they often put back into their business. With the Bush tax cuts being eliminated in all likelihood, the ability of many young companies to find capital to make great products like synthesizers, will soon find themselves dying under the tax burden. A course in macroeconomics will tell you that that means a contraction of the economy and depression.

I am a practical man as well as a musician and composer outside my day job. I worked in the financial/insurance world for 12 years before my current day job and I know finance. I value innovation and I love stories like the one I read in Sound on Sound. It disturbs me that those who should be encouraged and helped by the government are being crushed and vilified. Making wonderfull tools for musicians might come from capitalism and I know that many hate capitalism but why? For those who do I ask this. Why don't you turn all your lights off, shut off your refrigerator and get an ice box, turn the AC off and freeze during the winter because pot belly stoves produce pollution and that would result in global warming. Then ride a bicycle to work.

Sorry to be so sarcastic here but I am being serious. If people really believe that capitalism is bad then live by that. bicycle or walk to Montana and start a ranch and live by candlelight at night. I don't know what you can do for heat because you should not burn wood to be politically incorrect. And no "View" for you MSNBC because you can't use electricity unless of course you can't to produce it from a bike driven generator which would also have to power the I-pads.

Just a thought, but I guess integrity does not apply if you are a political visionary.

Let's hope that the fledgling young instrument makers can survive this administration and that the evil products of capitalism can still find their way to the shelves of music shops.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Tyranny of the Computer

For a long while now, I have been revolting against the computer plug in revolution. At the same time, I have been looking for all sorts of alternative controllers. I saw no connection between these two until now. It dawned on me today that the reason that I feel this way is that a soft synth is something disembodied. What I mean by this is that the instrument part of the synth (the controller) is removed sound generating part of the synth. This has led up until recently in a stagnation of controllers that since the time of early synths has remained stuck in the mire of pitch bend and mod wheel and spongy MIDI controllers that are little more than toys.

Now don't get me wrong. I like to program synths (soft synths to) and I can take delight in the strange new sounds that sometimes come from my monitor speakers but often, those patches, are not very useful musically. Sure, they sound really interesting but using them in a composition is a different story.

Some have claimed that hard synths are on their way out. I beg to differ. Here is why. On a hard synth, at least a good one, there is an integration of the controller/s and the synth. A classic example in the Korg M3 which is vastly underated. The M3 has expansive controller capabilities not just because of the built in joystick, ribbon and XY controlers, sliders and buttons but it's ability to mix controller signals and to assign a controller to a vast (and I mean vast) array of parameters including effects. It also has a real keyboard especially the 88 key version which is the one I reccomend. It feels closer to a piano than any MIDI controller you can find.

The key here is integration. The M3 is not a disembodied synth but a synth in which the instrument part is integrated with the sound.

Now I also have a Minimoog Voyager. I recently listened to an interview with Bog Moog that I really love in which he speaks of the synthesizer as instrument. The Voyager's knobs are part of that instrument. On soft synths, these are either relegated to a mouse or one of the lustiest generic controllers like those for Live. I like thse but they are not instrument specific, they are not integerated. Native Instruments has also tried to create a parameter sets that makes up a pseudo instrument in products like their Kore and also products like Massive that integrate this into the synth.

This is not the same as a Voyager. Once you play the Voyager for a while, you get to know it. It integrates with you and as I said, every knob becomes part of the instrument.

Now lately, I have bought into the tyranny of the computer and bought a Macbook pro as the one computer to rule them all (the synths). Problem is I have driver problems. Frankly I am a musician and composer and I don't want to have to be a computer tech to get sound to come out of my computer. Menu screens on my hard synths I can deal with but some invisible driver and a generic message that something is not working, that aggravates me and takes me away from the music which is what it's all about right?

That brings me to recording. I remember back when I first started to play guitar I bought a 4 track cassette multitrack. I still have it of course no one would really want to use it today but I loved this thing. Why? Because when I recorded I knew what was going on. Everything was tactile and in front of me. Even the sound of the tape drive motor going on made it like an instrument, something directly related to the music I wanted to record.

Now I know that programs like Live are very sophisticated recording studios and don't get me wrong, I live Live. I have Live 7 on an old dying computer that I am trying to replace with a Macbook Pro and liberate my softsynths (not as easy as it sounds). I also know that multitrackers are meant to be portable and not really for the studio. Really? Are not studios just larger versions of these? How many studios just use Live? I suspect because there is something tactile and direct about a mixing board and don't tell me that the Live controllers are mixing boards because they are not.

So I have thought about a Korg 3200. This is definitely a mixer. Sliders, knobs and buttons that make recording very tactile. OK, a major drawback, a terrible small screen but everything else looks great on it. It also has a lot of automation options which is important to me and has MMC control and scene changes More on why this is important to me latter but believe me, I have plans on how I can integrate all my equipment. The nice thing is that it can easily be moved and I need to do that a lot. What it does is integrate recording in one place including burning a CD. Let's say I have recorded tracks and I just want to tweak the mix a bit but I am going to be away. I can just put the thing in the car and I don't have to connect an interface to set it up. Just headphones and a place to plug it in will do.

I am seriously considering buying one. When I do get my drivers working on my Macbook, I am going to use it but only as an instrument using Live, but not to record. That advantage is that I am not dependent on a single computer to do everything and generic musical instruments. I want my hardware and software tightly integrated and not subject to failure.

So that is where I am going right now musically and with recording. Hope to post more on this soon. In about a month I should be able to have the money for a K3200 and while I have not bought one yet, I suspect that I will. If in the meantime my Macbook is working, the plan is still the same.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I Have the Need, the Need for Hardware

Recently, I have taken a great deal of satisfaction in sitting down in front of a piano. There is something very musical about it. There are no electronics, just me and this wonderful invention. OK, don't get me wrong. Believe me, I am not going acoustic but I do like hardware.

My Korg M3 for example. I turn it on right away the M3 logo comes up and in a few minutes, the main menu screen. The press of a few buttons and I can be playing a piano or have a whole symphony at my fingertips. Not once did my M3 ever say things like Firewire extensions not available.

My Moog Voyager takes even less time to boot up and with a few twists of some knobs I can have mellow analog sounds or harsher FM and synced sounds coming from my speakers enough to wake the neighbors and the dead. But no messages about drivers and rather than raising my blood pressure, I find delight in playing music.

Funny thing is that I used to program computers. It was part of my job and when I first started to get involved in synths I like the idea of synths that I could program. But as I got older, I found that complex programs were often noisy, confused, not all that musical. Simpler, more suble variations like those I could get with my Voyager seemed to appeal more to me. Or having the ability to layer sounds on my Voyager.

So when I was anxious to get my Macbook working and I get this annoying driver message that I suspect has to do with Firewire 400 and 800, I really am irritated. I frankly don't care about why something works or whether its Firewire or USB or 400 or 800. I just want to make music and record it so I can share it! All of this computer stuff is taking me away from music because I have to find new drivers and re-install software and talk to tech reps that I get a busy signal for.

A while back, I thought about getting a digital multitrack and someone said to me, why do that? Software DAWs are much more powerful. Don't get me wrong, I have Live and you know what, eventually I will get me software and hardware to make nice to one another and I will upgrade my Live and my Komplete and all will be well but the idea of having a piece of hardware that can burn a CD for me and create read made MP3 files right from a single piece of hardware, no interface needed. Well, that has appeal as well. So who knows, a multitrack might still be in my future while I try to get my software to behave. In the meantime, I can create music.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Muisc My Parents Listened to

I read a post on a bulletin board which got me thinking.

I admitted that the music of his parents generation was better than his and his better than the current generation. Sure, I know that every generation is claiming that there music is better than the past and the past generation is claiming that there music is better and so it goes. That is not what I am saying. I am admitting as the poster in this blog was, that my parents generations music was better mine and in fact, that music has de-evolved. I know that Devo means something else by this but music has lost something.

I often try to soften words and I am not saying that I am a great composer but what I hear today is often, dare I say it, infantile. If it has any chords or notes (rap does not), then there may be only three in a simple progression. I am listening now to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and I just listened to "Stardust". Both are great songs because there is a movement in the melody and there are a lot more than 3 chords. It's why jazz musicians don't look to Lady Gaga's songbook for inspiration. Standards come often from my parents generation because to put it very simple, the music is better. Example - Frank Sinatra - whom many younger people like.

There, I said it. Now for that matter, the poster said that Mozart was a genius but his music is "corny". Really, I have never heard those words but together in that way before. He calls Bach boring and says there is nothing really interesting to listen to in the world of jazz. He favors more brooding romantic music. His choice but truth be told, I think that there is something to offer in each of the periods of classical music and that jazz is far from having reached its peak.

I feel that for anyone who wants to aspire to music its worth listening to both classical and jazz. One can learn a lot from the masters. Why have people abandoned them? Simply because they don't want to put the effort into it and frankly, I place myself in that category. This generation and mind (although to a less extent) is musically lazy and believe me, guitar hero is not helping.

Sure, I don't have a lot of time but I can learn some theory and improve my playing skill as I will try to .

As for Lady Gaga being forced to take her clothes off for the big bucks. Well, I recommend a few people to listen to. First, Celtic Woman. These ladies bring dignity and style back to music not to mention incredible talent. A little Vivaldi anyone -

Yea! I would love to see Beyonce sing Vivaldi - I dare her to!

This one is amazing:

So yes, I am perhaps an old curmudgeon who I used to laugh at for talking about how music from their generation was better but you know what, it was. I guess wisdom does come with age. Thank goodness that we still have artists like Celtic Woman and others like Nikki Yanofsky on the jazz side of things that really bring a new dignity and life back to music.

So yes, in addition to listening to Tangerine Dream I listen to jazz and classical with a little prog rock thrown in once and a well. Nothing like a little Jethro Tull or Yes once and a while. There is something to learn from music music save music that panders to motives other than making good music and I will not name names but perhaps all that needs to be said is that all that glitters is not gold although perhaps its green.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Korg Wavedrum - The Electronic Option

I must admit that I have a propensity to love electronic instruments. I suppose that is not secret to those who read this blog or read my tweets or for that matter have listened to my music. When I was in high school I got hooked on listening to Morton Subotnick's sidewinder on headphones and was hooked ever since. Back then I could not afford much in terms of electronics other than a cheap guitar (a Les Paul knockoff with sawdust still in the drillhole for the cable connection) and a few stomp boxes but I enjoy some of my own software/hardware, digtal and analog synths and effects.

I wanted to discuss the Korg Wavedrum. It's latest re-incarnation is once again going in a direction that I think is a positive one for the electronic music industry.

I would like to quote Justin Owen @abstractjuz (Twitter) who said of the Wavedrum "It's an amazing electronic instrument on it's own merits - not a replacement for acoustic instruments".

While I suppose I was convincing some musical therapist in my tweets today who are inclined to acoustic drums that the Wavedrum can be a replacement for many drums, it can certainly be seen on its own merits, as an electronic instrument. Thank goodness the synth makers have finally come to the realization that a keyboard, pitch bend and mod wheel are not the only way to control sounds.

Now onto the Wavedrum itself. According to "Sound on Sound" in their excellent review of the Wavedrum, it uses analog, additive, non linear, PCM and physical modelling synthesis. In a sense the drum head is passive but not completely. Yes, it triggers sounds based on velocity and pressure but these are used as parameters. For example, the pressure of the drum head can be used to change the tone of the drum head and simulate the location of changing position on a real drum head. There is also a set of sensors on the rim to create other effects.

What is clear is that there a kind of tactile feedback loop between how the Wavedrum feels and how it sounds. Many claim that this is what is lacking in electronic instruments but I bet to differ on that position. I understand where it comes from but the truth is that most who hold this position have never worked with electronic instruments at least the more modern variety that have come on the market lately.

I also wanted to address a few comments made by @brandon_dnl (Twitter) that PCM is not only used to create transients but also the impulse from the head. This would contradict Justin Owen a bit if its true. How is the head being used? I am not sure and the articles that I have read don't explain it. I can understand this because they are probably protecting trade secrets but if the impulse is going to a DSP (which I presume is what is meant by non-linear) or physical model that used the actual impulse of the drum head as as the excitation source for the membrane of the drum head, then indeed, the drum head is more than a trigger.

I noticed that it will respond to different types of mallets, sticks, fingers, ect. without changing the model. This means there is some type of contact type mic and this is being used for the algorithms. The PCM sound make the sound more realistic when that is the intent.

So, I guess my question from all this is what is under the drum head? A pressure/velocity sensor or these plus a contact mic? I am not sure.

Bottom line is that I like the Wavedrum. I don't have one but perhaps one will be in my future. I heave gotten more into rhythms and sequences lately and having an instrument to trigger some exotic sounds as well as more traditional ethnic and western drum sounds would be something I would love to add to my sonic arsenal.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

An Instrument by Any Other Name

I have been discussing a lot lately with friends on Twitter what constitutes and instrument. When dealing with electronic instruments, this question if far from easy to answer and perhaps, as I would like to suggest, needs no answer at all.

Perhaps, what has always captivated audiences is the degree of expression that there is in an instrument. The symphony orchestra has a soloist, a great pianist or perhaps a violin player or another instrument. The rock band has the guitar hero who learns to play blazing solos. Or the blues man who has that certain tone that defines him or herself as a great musician. There are many much examples but what seems to be clear is that there is a kind of magic in playing a musical instrument.

What I would like to suggest is that that magic has to do with a feedback loop between the musicians senses (what he/she feels and sees) and what he/she hears. Musicians learn to play by muscle memory. The muscles in the body become accustomed to ever more refined movements and with a bit of inspiration, a kind of magic happens that we call musical expression.

But now we live in the age of electronics and something rather unique has happened. The instrument is now no longer fixed. A guitar for example, can only sound a certain way and respond a certain way. Sure, there are many techniques to get certain sounds but there is still a limited pallet, a guitar, by any other name, is still a guitar.

A synthesizer is by virtue of what it is, designed to be many things. It's universe of sounds is much greater. In the beginning, how to control a synthesizer was far from obvious. It was really Robert Moog that seemed to bring the keyboard into the forefront but others like Donald Buchla did not see the keyboard as the obvious choice of controllers. In time, the keyboard became the standard and for a long time, the keyboard, pitch bend wheel and mod wheel, with a few exceptions, dominated the world of synth controllers.

Lately however, new instruments and controllers have flooded the market. The Eigenharp, the Haken Continuum and now even Apples pride and joy, the I Pad and the new sensation Morphwiz with it's colorful screens and finger based pad control.

There are also tools like Tenori or even just layouts of knobs like those of the Minimoog and it's reincarnation the Moog Voyager that act as instrments themselves. While not all that tactile, the realtionshsips between sound and sight are joined in a unique say. On builds and feeds back on the other.

So this brings me to the question, what makes an instrument? "Feedback", is my response. That very same connection between what ones sees and feels and what one hears. Now, what one hears is greatly expanded. What one hears does not even have to be connected with the seeing and feeling. One can have a controller in one place and a computer program with a synthesizer in another. Or for that matter, as can be said of the Continuum, a set of analog circuits. So what's an instrument and what is not?

My answer is that they are all instruments. What works for a musician is a matter of taste. I for example like weighted keys because I like the way they feel. And it's not just a matter of how they feel but the connection between hearing the sound and feeling the key which is different for non weighted keys.

Bottom line, I see no real difference between controller and instrument. The controller can be separated or not but ultimately, if it makes a sound its an instrument. Sure, there are controllers that don't make sound but when combined with some type of sound generating source, they become and instrument. Now some ways of controlling and instrument are more expressive than others. What is more expressive is a matter of taste. Screens such as the I pad allow a direct visual feedback but only a weak tactile feedback. The Continuum offers more of a tactile feedback as do the wonderful keys on the Eigenharp which also offer the visual component of lighting up.

So I guess I never really answered the question because perhaps, an instrument by any other name is still an instrument and instruments these days are more like chameleons than lepers which can't change their spots.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What's Genre Got to Do With It

I wanted to blog about this article by Ryan Howes Phd. As it goes, I am pretty easy going. In fact, I did one of these on-line evaluations of my twitter posts and it evaluated me as very positive and for the most part I am. However, two things irritate me the most. One is the current administration (I kind of like capitalism - I'm funny that way) and the other is when people try to create artificial groupings of people that don't really exist, in this particular case, musicians.

When I listen to an artist I tend not to think of them as part of any particular genre. In fact, much of what I listen to is hard to find in record stores because it defies genre and lately, I listen to a lot of stuff of the Internet from independent artists who define themselves my breaking traditional genres.

So when I read this:

Well, let's just say that I was not happy. I would use another word but I like to keep my blog and twitter posts free of inappropriate language.

Heres a sunmary of the musical world according to Howes.

Top 40 - Popular (that is redundant by the way), effective, formulaic (yes, I agree with that), does not go to deep (again, agreed but is that a positive?)

Rock - apparently all rock involves loud guitars with amps cranked to 11. Really? All rock is also about sex, aggression and death. If that is not stereotypical then I don't know what is. Rock is a pretty broad category and much of it is very positive. Some of it is social commentary. Listen to Pink Floyd Animals. It's really a commentary on society. Dark, yes and while in some ways about death, that's not really its focus. There are many many more examples that dont' fit easy categories.

I think it would also be wise of parents to listen to some of the rock their children are listening to and talk about the lyrics. Sometimes, these lyrics are attractive because they identify with them. Telling them to not buy the music is one way to deal with it but being open and honest with children about the music they do listen to is an even better way.

Muzak - highly praised for being humanistic, positive and empathetic. To be honest, I hate Muzak. It's pretty much devoid of any musical integrity. Can it calm someone in a dentist or doctors office? Perhaps but there are other forms of music that can do this such as calm classical music that would have the same effect and be less, well, irritating and vapid. and the musical equaivalent to me of a root canal.

Classical - I draw a blank on this comment. Something about family therapy, the whole being greater than the sum of it's parts and apparently the ability of classical music to cause a dissociative mental state. I can't even make sense of the comments so I have nothing more to say on this category.

Techno - which the blogger calls neurofeedback. Apparently he thinks techo is good because while the musicians don't really know what they are doing it works by leveraging technology to create eclectic sounds. Hmm, to be honest I don't find techo all that eclectic. Like many genres it's pretty monkey see, monkey do but I also listen and love "Tangerine Dream". Are they techo? Who knows. I just find there music to be creative and honest which is what I am looking for in any of the music I listen to.

Punk - Accordng to the blog, it gets to the core issues, the raw animal fight or flight instinct. I could not figure out if he thought that was good or bad.

Emo - Anxiety, existentialism leading to some optimism or something like that.

Gangast rap - This one is really good. Apparently all about envy, breasts (yes breasts), death and hostility - ok, a bit off the mark but yes, that is the gansta life style so you could call this stereotyping but this is the one case I would have to agree for the most part.

Blues - You have to love this one. Blues are Jungian archetypes about loves gained and lost. OK, sure, to some extent if you want to stretch analogies to the breeaking point. Jung would be so please to know that a whole genre of music has been created based on his psychology.

Contemporary Christian Music - Spiritual ac coding to the blogger. Yes, but not nearly as sophisticated as something like Strauss "Death and Transfiguration" or much of Wagner's music of longing. I'm Catholic to the core but frankly, in my music I am looking for beauty and honesty. If I want to read the bible or theology then that's what I do. I do listen to sacred music. There are several good requim Masses that I like but they are transcendent and sublime works of classical music. They may even create that dissociative thing but I like to keep my sacred music of a high level. Equating God with top 40 well, it just doen't work for me.

My Response

OK, here is my response for what it's worth. From the time I have been a young child I have loved music. There was always music in my family. My mother played the piano, my grandmother sang Italian folk songs and I have expanded my musical experiences in various ways in my own music and what I have listened to live and otherwise. I have listened to great jazz in a bar in Newark NJ and Piink Floyd in Yankee Stadium. I guess I never really thought about genre that much. I know what I like and I also know the music I can create. If it's honest and positive it's all good but mind you, some of my music is dark. Like Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" my "Disturbance in the Clouds" in necessarily dark. My music expresses what is often inside me, fears, joy, transcendence, many, many things. I use electronics and computers to express it because they give me a wider pallet of sounds. If some can do this with a guitar or piano then the more power to them. I do with with a Moog (and a Korg) and a lot of software with dark and strange sounding names like Absynth and of course, the inevitable Moogerfoogers (I love my foogers)

I call my music experimental/ambient because I want to push boundaries. Sometimes that gives it a limited audience. I'm ok with that. I want to take the listener inside another world of sound and intentionally stir the emotions. In my "Disturbance in the Clouds" for example I use a siren and some reverb to intentionally stir up feelings of fear in the listener., Is my music about death? No, much of it is uplifting and light. I like bells and choral sounds and many things suggestive of something transcendent, even heaven (I am Catholic).

So where does my music fit in with Mr Howes psychoanalysis? I don't really know if it does and I doubt it fits any of the artists I follow because I choose them for the honesty and integrity of their music. They make music for the sake of music not to follow some formula so as to stay ont he surface, in the shallow water, where things don't go to deep.

Truth is, that much of music is a formula and it does not go to0 deep as Howes suggests of the top 40. If music is a meaningless noise in the background of life then I suppose that is ok. If it keeps patients calm in the office then I guess that is ok to. But if music can really take us somewhere, lead us into is mystery then I think I would prefer the other genres that are less of a formula and more of an art but then again, that's just me, a usually happy, sometimes angry, sometimes artistic musician/composer and Catholic trying to make music something more than a warm and pleasant buzzing on the surface of the mind.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Leaving the comfort of the box

I think one of the reasons that I have gotten so interested in composing and playing experimental electronic music is that it gets outside the box. Music tends to be something we learn from others so it's only natural that we copy one another. Musical genres themselves are defined by copying. This is true also of classical music albiet in a much more complex way. It's simply a matter of how big the field is. Popular music is a small field and classical much larger. The genres and styles within each music field has to do with what gets copied and then repeated in thousands of songs. The more a particular style is copied, the more it becomes a genre.

When I grew up, the local bands I knew in high school all did cover songs some almost exclusively. They really did not try to get "outside the box". If it was good enough for the top 40 it was good enough for them. And you know what? That's ok. Music for most is something we put on in the car and a catchy tune, even it it copies the 1,000 other tunes that came before it, can still get our feet tapping. There is also a real art to working within the fence. Sometimes limitations can also force creativity in other ways.

However, for me I see music as this huge universe to explore. So when everyone else is grazing in the fences that are defined by genre, I try to get outside the fence, to explore undiscovered musical country.

One of the fences we build in music is to use certain chord progressions. There are many such as the 1, 4, 5 some others that I will not elaborate on but one way to get outside of them is to explore songs that don't use these progression and to understand how they do it. Copying one another is not a bad thing and many people have enjoyed many songs that never leave the safe musical confines of the home genre but some, like to go to outside and find their own genres.

Friday, June 4, 2010


I have to admit that after years of using synthesizers now, what I consider a good synth has changed considerably. I used to favor synths that had lots and lots of controls. For me, the more complex, the more menus, the better because I thought that more options would make for better sounds and better music. Naive I know but we all mature musically and otherwise over time.

Then I realized what was must enjoyable about playing music was that it was direct. You play a note and you get feedback right away. On the piano, all the keys are there in front of you. On a guitar, the harmonic relationships are not so obvious but you touch the string itself and in some sense have direct contact with the sound.

Lately, my quest for the perfect controller/'instrument has led me to some fascinating new developments in the musical world. The Tenori-on, Audio Cubes, the Haken Continuum and the Eigenharp all offer a more direct connection with the music. Even DAWs can do the same such as Ableton Live and the hardware controllers that are available for it.

In some sense, while I am sure the average person who knows nothing about a modular synth, would find it complicated to the extreme but I find it more direct than layers of menus. The circuit that is making the sound is right there in front of you behind the panel and the connections are made physically with patch cords. The parameters are not buried in menus but are also right there in front of you to be tweaked. This is what I think made the Minimoog sell so well and why I love my Moog Voyager (ok, it does have menus but you can also just use the knobs to get many of the sounds)

Sound can get amazingly complex with little effort. FM is an example as is PWM. Both of these are not complex technically but the results are astounding at times. Even something as simple as taking two oscillators and then detuning on can create a wonderful effect.

In the end, I think this is why, as some have pointed out to me, that I am moving towards getting a modular synth. Musically, I want to experiment, I want to be the mad musical scientist discovering new sounds by simply connecting cords and turning knobs. What I don't want to be is a computer scientist buried in computer menus.

Don't get me wrong, these have their place and at some point in time I also want to get MAX/MSP and Max for Live because it can do some interesting things. I also will not be abandoning my soft synth collection with its myriad of menus. However, it is the the world on sonic exploration that is a modular intrigues me at this time as do musical controllers.

Right now I'm cash strapped. But in time, I will find my way around to building a modular and finding new sonic landscapes just beneath the surface, not the menus.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

On the Avant Guarde and Electronic Music

I have about 1 hour before I begin my final push to begin vacation and I wanted to get this blog out because from time to time in my Twitter conversations I come across a topic that is worth posting here to the blog.

When I first got interested in synthesizers (and believe me, I love synthesizers!), I wantred to know where electronic music started, where its musical roots were. So I got this book which basically gave short essays on a number of avante guarde composers. I knew enough to believe that this was a good place to look for the musical roots of electronic music. I was right. I also had another great book (I don't have it here with me and can't recall the name or author) but it gave a beief but thorough history of synthesizers and their historical influence. What I found was that the early period of electronic music which really started with what was called "music concrete" (tape splicing, ect) was very closely tied with the musical avant guarde which was a certain branch, if yo will, of 20th century classical music. You can really follow electronic from Wagner alll the way to Karlheintz Stockhausen to provide a concrete example.

Composers such as John Cage, Karlheintz Stockhausen, Max Matthews, Oscar Sala, Pierre Shaeffer and many others came from this tradition.

One of the things that happened with synthesizers is that when Bob Moog made the Minimoog, electronic music became very accessible to popular music. Certainly the Melotron as well became to herald in a new age of electronic music and synthesizers when from the universities (probably because they were the only ones at first who could afford them) to the mainstream. Artists lke Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Richard Wright of Pink Floyd (may God rest his soul) (just to name a few) made synthesizers more accessible to the public. I also should mention Walter Carlos (Switched on Bach) which has a huge influence on the popularization of electronic music.

Now don't get me wrong, this popular influence is not a bad thing. I love Pink Floyd for the music myself although I don't like the drug connection (I deeply hate drugs), it took electronic music in another direction which moved away from being more on the cutting edge to being subordinated in many ways to the needs of the record companies and there artists who saw synthesizers as a way to sell a lot of records. The early Moog modulars and the VCS3 (which did not even have a keyboard) began to trasnition into what today dominated the market with sample based workstations which would offer the musician anything from symphonic instruments to the cliched collection of hip hop rhythms and sounds that seem to be standard on every keyboard.

So, to make a very long story short, the early experimental stage of electronic music for which great names like Karlheintz Stockhausen played such a wonderful role in, became popularized and the history became forgotten. I personally would like to see a return to the avant guarde where music becomes something we experiment with pushing envelopes. I do believe that indie music and all the new tools that are out there now like the Eigenharp and the Tenori-on and so many others that I could mention might move electronic music back to it's experimental and creative roots and perhaps, musical workstations will not longer carry a cliched set of hip hop sounds (sorry, I know that is to much to hope for).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

It's all Greek to Me

The development of western scales (or for that matter the study of all scales western or eastern) is a fascinating topic. The study of tuning or temperament also is a very interesting subject. Probably the earliest scales that are known (although I don't know the exact historical facts in this regard) are the scales of the Greeks. The Greek culture had a great love for ratios be they in relation to the motion of planets or the sound of the Greek lyre. From the Greek scales or modes as they are called, the western scales developed and settled on only two modes (major and minor). Jazz music and other forms of music do make use of other modes and scales.

While there are also other scale temperaments which have a lot to do with ratios (a more complex topic than one might think), the western scale is now usually what is called equal tempered.

Here is a brief introduction to this complex topic:

The concept of equal temperament is that is not key dependent so each half tone step is equally distanced mathematically.

The concept of dividing scales equally I believe to be more of a product of a kind of scientific bias of the western mind than anything else probably derived from the quantization of all things introduced to western thought by Descartes. (sorry, my philosophical background is showing :))

Bottom line however and a question: Why do all instruments have to have equally spaced intervals? Truth is they don't and music is more about ratios than it is about the placement of notes. So when we speak about an instrument like the Eigenharp which has a flexible way of assigning notes to keys, different arrangements simply reflect different relationships. I guess in many ways I am not that tied to a western equal tempered bias or feel that all divisions have to be equal distance in terms of frequency.

Certainly, the Eigenharp has got people thinking in new ways as the Tenori-on has done for thinking about sequencing. What is clear is that the idea of a fixed way to play music is changing and as I have stated before, I think that's a good thing. Are there going to be pitfalls along the way? Sure, but those are the very stuff of good music because you never know where they will lead.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Performing, Composing and and Musical Tools

I was not sure what to title this blog but I thought I would get off a quick blog this morning to comment on a quote of Mark Mosher:

"I'm simultaneously composing and arranging for live performance with various controllers."

While I know that Mark was simply commenting on his days activities, it struck me that music technology has brought us to a new word where the old paradigms simply don't work anymore. I think back to the movie Amadeus when Salieri asks Mozart's wife for his original transpripts of his music. Upon looking at them and realizing that they were without flaw with no corrections and changes, Salieri responds that he wants the originals upon which his wife explains that those are the originals on which in shock, Salieri drops them on the floor.

For Mozart, music was something that was all inside his head. Mozart could write a work for an entire orchestra by hearing it all in his head and when he wrote it down, there was no difference between the visual representation and the music that musicians would latter perform.

I can't do what Mozart did and I suspect most who write music can't. Composing is a process full or starts and stops, edits and mistakes that in time, make for what one would hope is a composition worth listening to.

But now we live in different times and the tools that musicians/composers have at their disposal today are far different than the harpsichords, musical instrument and quill and paper that were the tools of Mozart's musical trade.

Last night, I was perusing two books I recently purchased. One was on polyrhythms and the other on rhythmic illusions. I was thinking about how I was going to use these to create music on the Tenori-on. Now I am not a drummer nor have I had any great talent in creating complex rhythms but with the Tenori, the ability to see and hear at the same time, a complex rhythmic pattern had now become accessible. Even real time modification of this in a performance environment became possible.

I also think of how much Ableton Live has become talked about more than any other DAW. Part of the reason is in the very name "Live". Live provides and environment where much like Mark Mosher's work, composing and arranging blend into live performance.

Adriene Lake has also commented in one of her tweats how she had all these snipits of music flouting around in her head but not sure who composed them. Ableton's clips allow us to categorize these clips and modify them and arrange then in new ways.

For me, see musicians/composers living in a wonderful new world of music where the lines between composing, arranging and performing are being blurred but I see that as something positive not negative. Who knows what great music that musicians/composers/arrangers can make when they cross the streams and make way for a new music.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

My New and Unorthodox Step Sequencer - The Tenori-on

I just ordered a Tenori-on. For a long while, I have been wanting to round out the one thing that I really don't have, a step sequencer. Actually, I do in a sense. There is a simple one in the Korg M3 I have and KARMA can do a lot of sequencing but the problem is, I want to think a new way about my music.

The most enjoyable times I have had playing music have also been the times that I have played the best music. For example, for me to play a really good jazz solo over chord changes I have to spend a lot of time playing scales and cementing in my mind the chord changes for a song. But those times that I have played really good solos it was all natural. Once the foundation was laid the creative part became play which is what any pure creative act is.

When I first saw Tenori I thought of it as a toy and in many ways I still do but after years of using more complicated toys in music, I am not sure that the simplistic, visual and playful approach of Tenori is not exactly what the doctor ordered for my music.

One of the reasons I have never really learned Korg's KARMA is that reading the manual for it is like reading some sort of computer science journey. Sure, if you get to the 10th level of a series of menus you can probably make KARMA get up in the morning and make you morning coffee but its not elegant and its not playful. Tenori on the other hand is both.

Simple ideas often work best. Consider Beethoven's 5th. It's a theme on three notes, three notes! Think about that. Sure, I know, there is a lot more to it than that but the basic structure is three notes.

I love music but I find when music get's tedious for me it loses its flavor. I have longed since wanted to get into poly rhythms and add some sequences to my compositions. I don't want my music to get stale and I want to move it in new directions. Tenori is a way to do that.

Now I think Tenori is in many ways stage one. I hope Yamaha does not see it as a finished product but rather, the 1st installment on a way to think about music more visually.

So when I get my Tenori I am going to plug it right into my M3 and my Voyager. I also want to send Tenori MIDI messages into my MP201 and then control Moogerfoogers from this. The potential to get to some pretty sophisticated sequences that can change over time is tremendous.

So, I await to create new sonic gateways all by playing with a toy.

The Korg M3

I wanted to find a good title for this blog but I felt it best to make it simple, the Korg M3. For a few years now I have owned a Korg M3 and I suppose like buying most keyboards or even soft synths, one eventually moves bey0nd the initial excitement of having a new set of sounds to work with and begins to realize the strengths and weaknesses of an instrument. Perhaps, this is really the best time to write a review and not during the period of initial exploration.

First, I wanted to explain why I bought a Korg M3. Very simply, I got tired of soft synths crashing on me and all the little glitches in my recording when the CPU was not up to the task. At first, I was attracted to the Roland V-Synth which I still find to this day and interesting synth. I have even considered buying one but the truth is, the V-Synth is not really a workstation.

Then I found out about the Korg OASYS and I was very intersted but of course buying one would have bankrupted me. In the end I have probably spent about that much on other equipment and synths anyway but I don't regret not getting one. Korg promoted this synth as a sort of be all and end all of synths because it was in their words "expandable". The idea was that even if this synths did not do everything that you wanted (and it does a lot), it could be expanded with new synths that were going to be coming out all the time.

For a short while after its release it looked like this might be the case but then it was clear that what you saw was what you got. I knew that the M3 was not a lesser OASYS but I also knew that it was a notable synth in it's own right and KARMA (Korg Algorithmic Real time Musical Architecture) got me interested.

Now for those who may not know, KARMA is in the words of Stephen Kay, an appegiator on steroids. It's actually much more than this but many aspects of KARMA untested me. KARMA was not a fixed arranger but something that was supposed to work in a dynamic way with the musician.

Korg also offered an internal Radius which could be placed inside the Korg and accessed through the main menus which also untested me. The Radius being an Analogue emulation.

Now the Motiff had more to offer in a way. It has a digital interface for recording. The M3 has an expansion card but it has problems, big ones. It also had a better sequencer and probably a better set of sounds. Korg tended to favor more dance oriented music and had a bit of a flare for cheesy sounds.

On the positive side the M3 offered a touch screen controller, a strip controller and what I would have to say is a very sophisticated modulation mixer.

So balancing all things together I decided on the M3 over a Motiff.

Now that I have been using it for a while now what are my impressions. First, I have to confess that outside of using presets, I have not worked much with KARMA. KARMA is very complex. Unfortunately, the KARMA presets don't really work so well for me. I would not call them cheesy per say but they are not to my liking. I overlooked this because I saw myself programming my own but as I have said, this has not really happened at least yet. Some KARMA presets do tome really useful things like emulating a strummed guitar by using the strip. This actually works pretty well and with some practice, has some real potential. My point is that KARMA can be used effectively and many of the presets can be tweaked to be useful for a variety of applications. I am not done with KARMA yet, I just have to admit that at least at first its a bit daunting.

That being said, are the sound cheesy as one review I recently read said. No. I really can't say they are. There is a nice collection of samples of instrument sounds and drum kits that would give most musicians more than enough to work with.

On the side of effects the M3 comes with a very substantial set of quality effects and a pretty sophisticated on board routing system. There is also an audio in which works well for a side chain input for the vocoder effect and also can be used to make the M3 into a very sophisticated effects processor (which you can controller using the full set of the M3s controllers). It also has not one but two axillary stereo outs (4 outs to be technical) which can be used to create complex setups with other equipment.

What I like about the M3 is how you can layer sounds and that I learned to do reasonably quickly. Some of the sounds are also very beautiful. I like many of the string and voice sounds myself so characterizing the M3 as a collection of cheesy sounds is unfair. The M3s filters are, well, not what they could be cut I find its real strength is in laying and modulation as well as realtime control.

The M3 is a master at modulation and this is where it really excels and in my option far beyond the Motiff. First, you have not a mod wheel but a joystick. The joystick can also be frozen using two utility buttons so that it remains in one position. There is a ribbon controller right below that, the XY touch pad, beyond being an easy way to program is also an XY controller. There are also a set of 8 sliders and buttons to control many things in real time. When you play something on the M3 it will record everything that you do and play it back. While the sequencer is not that powerful, you can always to this with an external DAW. The M3 is more oriented toward recording you performance.

The M3 also a sophisticated modulation mixer beyond probably anything in the market. The M3 is a powerhouse at modulation. You can modulate just about any setting and you can mix modulation sources in several ways. Sliders are great ways of setting up various performance parameters and then using them in real time in performance which the M3 will record.

That's a simple assessment of the M3 after using it for a few years and yes, while I have been fair to point out what is weak about it, I also have pointed out why its still in my mind a really powerful workstation. In my mind, any musician that can't make some great music with it is just not taking advantage of what it can do.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What Is That?

I was just looking at Ableton's new Operator which allows you to draw your own waveforms. This seems like an interesting idea but I can tell you that in my own experience with additive synths, this idea while satisfying perhaps to the geeky side of music is not necessarily an avenue to making good music.

I must admit that when I first started making music with synthesizers, the more controls I had the better and when I bought my first additive synthesizer, well, the idea of being able to actually draw partials made the geek in me get excited. Absynth also let me draw waveforms. I was in Geek heaven at least for a time.

So now, many years latter now, I have a Moog Voyager and I get much more exited about patching a control voltage than I do drawing waveforms. Why? I will get to it.

But let me also point out that the idea of drawing waveforms is nothing new. The "Synclavier" and "Fairlight" come to mind. In fact, I remember a friend of mind working with a "Synclavier" at RPI. He took me over there one day and pulled up a file called metal. You could see the waveform but the thing sounded like crap at least to me.

My point is that being able to see what you hear is not always the best way to make music. Neither waveforms or partials hold any great sway for me anymore because I can't make a real connection between what I see and what I hear. Funny thing is, I can on my plain old subtractive analogue the Voyager which is why I suspect the original Minimoog did not well and I suspect Bob Moog understood this. I have listened to his interviews which are pretty enlightening. He speaks of their needing to be a connection between musician and instruments. I guess I can't just connect to waveforms anymore, perhaps the geek is me is asleep.

Anyway, before everyone goes crazy with Operators new concept of making the old new again, perhaps they should study the past and find a way to avoid pitfalls in the future.