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.