On Small Joys Of Making Electronic Music

blue-sky-1600

One small joy for me with electronic music is the sounds. Oh the crazy interesting sounds! It’s easy to find sounds that excite me in ways that acoustic sounds don’t always do.

Electronic sounds seem infinitely open and malleable, responsive to my limitations and even my (brief) moments of control. Electronic sounds are also mysterious and always slightly beyond my comprehension. They often describe things I didn’t even know existed. (Think of a complex synthesizer patch.)

I make my own electronic sounds, and that begins a process that takes me deeper into making music to something that feels more architectural–scientific even. So I embrace every opportunity to design and shape my own sounds.

Sometimes I stumble upon exciting sounds while browsing through my sound banks, and I make note of them. I feel an instant connection to the sounds. Even though I just met them, they seem like old friends.

Some of these sounds I stumble upon are exciting, and I feel connected to them because in addition to them feeling like old friends, they resonate with me–they sound like me. Only upon admitting this do I realize how closely musicians can identify with their sound sources, the timbre of their instruments felt to be a reflection and extension of their own voices. It doesn’t matter whether or not a sound is acoustic or electronic. What matters is the relationship we feel ourselves to have with a sound.

When I sample an acoustic sound–like a favorite drum, say–I have set the sound free. I can play with the sound–re-pitch it, say–and this energizes me as I realize some of the sound’s hitherto latent potential. My sample is a copy that releases the original acoustic sound from its time and place.

My small joy with the sounds of electronic music then, is also an excitement that I am finally free as a musician when working with electronics. The interface is just right and I am learning how to adapt to a new musical system.

On Small Frustrations With Making Electronic Music

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One stumbling block for me with electronic music is the sounds. It’s hard to find sounds that excite me the way certain acoustic sounds do.

Acoustic sounds seem infinitely open and malleable, responsive to my limitations and even my (brief) moments of control. Acoustic sounds are also mysterious and always slightly beyond my comprehension. (Think of a gong’s sound.)

I could try making my own, hopefully exciting, electronic sounds, but that begins a process that takes me away from making music to something that feels less musical. So I resist that.

Sometimes I stumble upon exciting sounds while browsing through sound banks, and I make note of them. But I don’t necessarily feel connected to the sounds. And how could I? I just met them.

Some of these sounds I stumble upon are exciting, but I don’t feel connected to them because in addition to having just met them, they also don’t sound like me. Only upon admitting this do I realize how closely musicians can identify with their sound sources, the timbre of their instruments felt to be a reflection and extension of their own voices.

I could sample an acoustic sound–like a favorite drum, say–but this only traps it like a firefly in a jar. I can play with the trapped sound–re-pitching it, say–but this only makes me wistful for the days when the sound was free. (Copies are never the same thing, phenomenologically speaking, as originals.)

My frustration with the sounds of electronic music then, is also a frustration that I am not free enough as a musician when working with electronics. Like the sampled drum sound, I’m a firefly trapped in a jar of my own design. The interface isn’t right; or I just haven’t yet learned how to adapt to the system.

Roger Linn On Drum Machine Groove And J Dilla’s Off-Beat Sound

roger-linn

Music is fortunate to have inventors like Roger Linn. Linn has designed or co-designed a number of drum machines–such as the LM-1, the LinnDrum, the Akai MPC series of sampling workstations, and Tempest, a recent venture with Dave Smith. Linn is skilled in making instruments that musicians can, and do, use with ease in musical ways. And in every interview I find, Linn always exudes a laid-back curiosity and quiet earnestness that keeps coming back to the intersection of technology, design, and music making. Linn definitely makes my short list of interesting and singular voices.

Linn’s thinking is on display in a recent interview at Attack magazine as well as in a talk he gave with DJ Carl Craig at Dubspot. In the Attack interview, Linn discusses the topic of how his drum machines groove through his “swing factor” quantization. (Quantization, by the way, is another Linn innovation from back in the 1980s and refers to the “rounding off” of beats to their nearest note value.) The Attack magazine interviewer asks Linn about the secret to the MPC’s distinct groove or rhythmic feel. Linn replies that the key was the design of his machines’ “swing” feature. Here, swing entails delaying by various amounts all the even-numbered 16th-note subdivisions within a beat. While this might not be how a drummer conceptualizes musical time, it’s a straightforward explanation of Linn’s machines’ apparent techno-musical magic. Linn:

“Swing – applied to quantized 16th-note beats – is a big part of it. My implementation of swing has always been very simple: I merely delay the second 16th note within each 8th note. In other words, I delay all the even-numbered 16th notes within the beat (2, 4, 6, 8, etc.) In my products I describe the swing amount in terms of the ratio of time duration between the first and second 16th notes within each 8th note. For example, 50% is no swing, meaning that both 16th notes within each 8th note are given equal timing. And 66% means perfect triplet swing, meaning that the first 16th note of each pair gets 2/3 of the time, and the second 16th note gets 1/3, so the second 16th note falls on a perfect 8th note triplet. The fun comes in the in-between settings. For example, a 90 BPM swing groove will feel looser at 62% than at a perfect swing setting of 66%. And for straight 16th-note beats (no swing), a swing setting of 54% will loosen up the feel without it sounding like swing. Between 50% and around 70% are lots of wonderful little settings that, for a particular beat and tempo, can change a rigid beat into something that makes people move.”

In the Dubspot talk, Linn provides an informative overview of the history of drum machines over the past 80 years. Here is the talk:

***
Dilla4

Music is also fortunate to have had musicians like producer J Dilla (1974-2006) whose approach to achieving swing was to avoid using quantization altogether. In fact, Dilla was known to finger-drum his beats live and pretty much leave them raw and unquantized. In Dilla’s music, you can hear a good sense of groove, and this groove depends on little timing variations and inconsistencies that are very much audible in the performances. Dilla’s approach has also inspired amateur musicians to think about how certain machine-made grooves move the way they do. For instance, at futureproducers.com in 2008, a musician named samplesbank threw a question out into the ether:

“So I listen to a lot of hip hop and noticed cats like j. dilla, madlib, black milk, flying lotus and a bunch of others….they have this off-beat sound to their tracks like the snare is late or early and the high-hats seem off but on at the same time. I got access to an mpc 3000 [co-developed by Akai and Roger Linn]…and I’ve been trying to get that sound by using no quantize and having the metronome off…but still can’t get that vibe. What’s the secret???”

Listening to various recordings, samplesbank then hypothesizes that perhaps the producers are “shifting all the snares a tiny bit early…”? Another reader named guilty j comes to the rescue and sets the record straight on behalf of Dilla et al:

“[The producer is] not shifting anything he’s just playin live like a real drummer would. Just leave ya quantize off and play in a good rhythm, you’ll get that off-beat sound.”

Here, then, is Dilla’s track “Lazer Gunne.” Listen closely and you can clearly hear the odd drum hit that is “off” –pushing ahead or pulling back–just enough to keep the groove so very on:

General Notes On Theory

Theory connects the dots.

Theory maps the space.

Theory reads between the lines.

Theory extends the boundaries.

Theory pushes the envelope.

Theory names the parts.

Theory explains.

Theory is speculative.

Theory stakes a claim.

Theory raises the stakes.

Theory is political.

Theory gives voice.

Theory reveals signification.

Theory is empirical.

Theory coins terms and uses them.

Theory shows the “thing itself” always has more to reveal.

On Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer’s Re: ECM

images

The record label ECM has long interested me, ever since I used to buy second-hand jazz LPs as a teenager. (And I wrote earlier ECM-related blog posts here and here.) The brainchild of German producer Manfred Eicher, ECM is as famous for the beautiful and atmospheric recording quality of its releases–Eicher loves to record in naturally reverberant spaces–as for the stellar contemporary classical, jazz, and world artists whose musics the label records. A few years ago, Eicher agreed to let techno musicians Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer remix ECM’s catalog of music. Over a few months, Villalobos and Loderbauer combed through recordings looking for instrument sounds, voices, and even empty resonances to sample and work with. With the samples as raw material, they then constructed new pieces using electronic sounds and processing. The result is a double CD called Re: ECM.

In a video about the remix project, the producers–well Villalobos, mostly–discuss the aesthetics of the music as well as their creative process in assembling it. One observation was how there is a fairly limited range of frequencies available for the production of electronic music. By sampling the acoustic sounds on ECM recordings, the producers could significantly expand their timbral palette and make more “organic” music. Another observation concerned creative process. Villalobos explained that he and Loderbauer made loops out of all the sounds they sampled (whose repeating structures are almost impossible to actually hear in the music, by the way). They then improvised in the studio:

“It is an improvisation, where the elements are looped in a definite length and always repeat themselves in a certain way and also intertwine in a certain way…The mixing board becomes an instrument as well, and also the synthesizers, of course.”

For the most part, the music is dark, atmospheric, and quite abstract. This isn’t dance music by any stretch, and it isn’t an easy listen. My favorite track is “Reblazhenstva”–a remix of Russian composer Alexander Knaifel’s “Blazjenstva” that actually caused me to stop walking up some subway stairs so stunned was I when I first heard it. The piece has a slow 6-beat meter, an ominous low-end via kick drum and bass synth tones (sounding once every 3 beats), choir and solo voice samples from Knaifel’s piece, sampled snare drum hits, occasional percussive interruptions (bow on the bridge of a cello), bits of static, bits of string section, and solo violin. Lots of bits really, but incisively chosen bits. The sampled snare hits, the kick, and the bass synth tones glue everything together as the other sound sources come and go like clouds. For me, the most impressive aspect of the way the electronics were programmed/improvised is that the finished track doesn’t sound like beats were simply added to ECM samples or that the samples were grafted onto the beats. Instead, each sound sounds as if it were meant to be in the company of the others. It’s music like this that make me glad I take the time to listen.

Not surprisingly given ECM’s strict control over the circulation of its music over the Internet, I couldn’t find “Reblazhenstva” on YouTube. But I did find a stellar performance of Knaifel’s original composition. You’ll have to seek out the remix on your own.

On Voice In The Tour De France

Triplets01

“Why do you watch this? It’s pretty repetitive.”

“I just kind of trance out.”

“Do you like it because it’s soothing and mellow?”

“Yes! It’s all about the scenery and especially the voices.”

“Okay..Can we watch Wimbledon now?”

***

When July rolls around, the world of professional cycling rolls into our apt, bringing the bright colors of the Tour de France peloton and the French countryside through the TV and straight into my imagination. I can watch it for hours. I have written before about the Tour, but this year my fervent watching and listening have reconfirmed one of the best things about the event: the commentary and voices of Phil Leggett and Paul Sherwen.

Leggett, who has been commentating for some forty years now, is the steady calm voice of observation. He talks as if viewing the proceedings from a perch at 10,000 feet above looking down, making easy notice of the scenery (“Here they are skirting the Camargue, which is famous for its wild horses and pink flamingos…”). But when the action heats up–a surprise breakaway from the peloton say, or an unexpected sprint finish–Leggett can find a higher gear, raising his voice abruptly and almost running out of air so long and continuous are his sentences that track the unfolding action in a feverish pitch.

Sherwen is a little more intense. There’s an urgent quality to his voice, and he often begins sentences by agreeing with his co-host, but then pointing out a potential difficulty ahead: “That’s absolutely right Phil, but [name of cyclist] has got to pace himself and be very careful here…”–with the emphasis always on the word “got.” Sherwen also has a lower verbal gear in which he recites facts about the passing landscape such the names of centuries-old churches and the precise height of their spires (in European metric). Great TV if you ask me.

As you watch the Tour and listen to Leggett and Sherwen’s commentary, you notice a clear call and response quality to it as their voices alternate back and forth just as reliably as the cyclists’ legs move up and down. Occasionally, when there is a brief (2-5 second) lull in the talk, you can hear the road hum of the bicycles buzzing up and around mountain ranges and the cheering of the spectators lining the course. When either Leggett or Sherwen return to continue weaving their real-time narrative, you realize how important their voices are to making sense of the Tour’s relentless repetition over thousands of miles. Without their voices describing and animating the action, it would just be a very long and taxing ride.