brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: music software

Interviews with Roger Linn

Instrument designer and musician Roger Linn is perhaps most famous for inventing the first drum machines (in the early 1980s) to use digitally sampled drum sounds, the LM-1 and LinnDrum.  In the years since, Linn teamed up with Akai to invent the MPC-series of drum machines/sequencers, and lately Linn has turned his attention to making unusual products for guitarists such as the AdrenaLinn filter/effects/sequencer units.  In a way, through his products he has deeply shaped the sounds of popular music over the past thirty years.

I found several interviews with Linn at sweetwater.com (that won’t show up in a google search).  Here, Linn outlines the history of some of his innovations such as the LinnDrum.  In the final video, Linn offers his perspective on what is missing in musical hardware innovation today.  He’s amazed that we are still largely playing guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums, and muses about what a new controller or control surface needs to have in order to compete with these old-fashioned instruments, what a new controller needs to be truly interactive.  He says:

“What is the new control surface that allows people to not only to just do superb solo work…but also work with other people, to use wireless sync to be able to synchronize together?  Instead of the old-fashioned way which is to read the same sheet music…You’ve got this interactive merging of the worlds of real-time and recording editing in the form of looping where you basically record something and immediately play back on top of it.  There are all kinds of great ideas happening, but people are implementing those ideas using fairly poor hardware interfaces–just a keyboard or guitar or mouse–you’re rolling a bar of soap around on a table. It’s silly.”

An unintentionally funny part of this is that musicians playing acoustic music together do the “wireless sync” thing pretty effortlessly together!  (It’s called listening.)  Another thing to remember is that widely-used, time-tested instruments like guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums are more than simply musical “controllers.” What makes them enduring is that they have deep histories of use, a kind of collective consciousness embedded in them that includes all the things that were ever played on them–a repertoire of expressive possibilities.  When someone decides to take up the drums, for instance, he is dipping into an ocean of other people who have played that same constellation of instruments (I’m thinking of a drumkit here), struggled to overcome the resistance of the instrument, struggled with learning a technical facility to enable the feeling of being “expressive”, and so on.  Simply put, there is a lot going on beneath the seemingly simple surface of an “old-fashioned” instrument, and that might be part of why we continue to be drawn to them.

The kinds of new electronic/digital controllers Linn is describing don’t have this collective history embedded in them (yet), and this may be part of the reason why it will take time and a lot of work by a lot of musicians to move them securely into our collective embrace.  But consider what happened to turntables after DJs began using them in new ways in discos, in hip hop: thirty years later we now have digital turntables that are widely used and considered expressive instruments.  (And DJs are considered a breed of musician too.)

You can view interviews with Roger Linn here.

The Sound Of Auto Tune

You know the Auto Tune sound when you hear it: it sounds artificial, electronic, not quite human enough, too perfect.  Auto Tune is everywhere today, from TV commercials to hip hop to country music.  It’s the Photoshop of the musical world.

The technology was conceived by Andy Hildebrand, an engineer for Exxon who developed methods for interpreting seismic data through sound to help discover ocean oil reserves.  Hidebrand realized that this frequency-analyzing technology could be used in the context of digital sound recording to correct off-pitch singing.  So in 1997, he released the Auto Tune software as a plug-in for computer recording applications.  Auto Tune was used moderately at first, until Cher released her severely auto-tuned Song “Believe” in 1998.  The rest is fast-moving history of a musical technology spreading meme-like through almost every kind of music making, from Cher to the recent best-selling Auto Tune iphone app, “I Am T-Pain” that enables anyone to sound like a well-tuned robot.  Simply put: Auto Tune (and of course its predecessor, the vocoder) changed how we think about voice–the musical voice, but also just our regular speaking voices and their (hitherto hidden) musical potentials.

Just as I began browsing YouTube for videos on Auto-Tune I stumbled upon a very thoughtful, informative and very entertaining video produced by, of all people in the musical universe, “Weird Al”Yankovic.  The video is part of the series “Know Your Meme” and is titled: “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Helps Explain Auto-Tune.”  But he does much more than this, providing a concise history of the technology, its musical uses, and its circulation as a musical meme over the past thirteen years.  The video traces what it calls the four stages of Auto Tune: 1. introduction, 2. overexposure, 3. parody and remix, and 4. equilibrium.  You can watch the video below:


Of the many insights of Yankovic’s video is the idea that whenever a new technology is introduced everyone rushes to explore the extremes of what it can do in order to unlock its transgressive/expressive potential.  For instance, when stereo sound was invented, musicians overused the ability to pan instruments to extreme left and right positions in the stereo field.  (Listen again to those old Beatles recordings …)

Where is Auto-Tune taking us?  What has it done to the grain of the voice?  Is this just an elaborate cover up for our imperfect singing or something with rich expressive potential?  Or both?  I leave you with Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek”:

The Hang Drum: Real and Virtual

Do you like the sounds of steel pans and gamelans?  Then you might really be intrigued by the sound of the Hang, a percussion instrument created and hand-built by the Swiss company PANart (Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer) since 2000.  The Hang consists of two steel sheets welded together to make a convex shape, a little like a UFO.  The top sheet has a main pitch hammered into its middle, along with 7 additional pitches located as indentations around its perimeter. The instrument almost looks like the concave steel pan turned inside out.  To play the Hang you place it on your lap and tap it with your hands and fingers, which brings out the instrument’s many overtones.  Due to some YouTube videos that show the Hang in action, demand for the instrument has skyrocketed in recent years.  Yet there is very little information on how to obtain a Hang, besides buying a used on eBay for thousands of dollars. Moreover, PANart has no website with information on how obtain one.  I have a percussionist friend who has one or two, but I’m a little afraid to ask how he obtained them (!)  It’s all a little pleasantly mysterious in a time when just about everything is one click away on Amazon.com.

As with so many audio-video things, YouTube is a good place to check out the Hang in action.  Here’s a clip of the most-watched Hang video (over two million views so far): an original piece by the Austrian percussionist Manu Delago.  The piece is a moody and catchy one, showcasing the Hang’s tuning and dynamic range,  along with Delago’s groovy percussionist’s rhythmic flow.  You can watch his performance here.

If you want to get your hands on the Hang’s sound but like many of us have no access to obtaining the actual instrument itself, you might want to consider downloading a sampled version.  The company Soniccouture sells a virtual instrument called “Pan Drum” which is a meticulously sampled Hang drum that has earned rave reviews.

 

Soniccouture specializes in reproductions of instruments from around the world, including the Chinese gu-qin, the khim Thai dulcimer, the Balinese gamelan, and a version of the mbira from Zimbabwe.  For US $79.00 you can own Soniccouture’s Hang samples and play them from your MIDI keyboard, add effects, and mutate them to your liking. Soniccouture’s website describes its Hang software as “a unique and evocative instrument that will bring indefinable atmosphere to all kinds of musical production …”

Unique and evocative?  Indefinable atmosphere?  All of this talk about musical mood leads us back to timbre, or sound “quality” in music.  Timbre isn’t everything, of course, but it’s a whole lot of what makes one music sound different from another.  Think of the crunchy distorted electric guitar timbres in rock and metal musics, or the liquid metallic shimmer of steel bands, gamelans, and now, the Hang.  Timbre is a big part of why we are attracted to or repelled by a music.  Companies such as Soniccouture recognize our love of timbre and the simple fact that different timbres make us feel different things; they may even mean different things.  And so we continue searching for new sounds for making our music.

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