Archive for the ‘gear’ Category

Roger Linn + Carl Craig

I’ve always been a sucker for drum machines of all kinds — something like my first three or four hardware purchases were drum machines, just because I’m drawn so strongly to rhythm, I suppose. So I absolutely loved this lecture / interview with two giants of electronic music history.

I sort of wish Carl Craig had gotten more time to talk, but a guided tour of drum machine history with one of the giants of synthesizer design is still not too bad.

Metasynth Video Diary

This tutorial video is start of a new series by Eric Wenger, creator of Metasynth, showing how he uses the program. I consider this an especially promising development because Metasynth is totally a scratch-the-itch type program; you can tell he wrote it and keeps working on it because he loves what he can do with it personally. That also means that it is extremely quirky, and I firmly believe that is partly because it is designed for an audience of one: the way it works is essentially a reflection of Wenger’s own mental processes.

For example, the way he uses the Montage Room in this video pretty much explains one of the deep annoyances (for me) of Metasynth: it’s absence of multi-level undo. If you use the montage feature as a scratchpad this way, you don’t need undo; but it had literally never occurred to me to do this before.

Anyway, I’m filing it here so I can find it easily in case I want to refer to it later.

Tracker Family Tree

Even before I starting working on anything I particularly thought of as music, I was a fan of sample trackers. I had a friend in college who had an Amiga-based copy of Pro Tracker. I jammed out with him many times, usually with him on the Amiga, though I occasionally got a crack at it, too. Some of the earliest Zero Times Infinity recordings included beats and textures designed with Pro Tracker, and it was a big influence on how I made music later.

In my day, I’ve personally used Impulse Tracker, Buzz Tracker, and a few others, here and there. Despite having a laptop full of other synth software, I come back again and again to Renoise. I think it’s fair to say that although I’ve used many tools and techniques in my music-making history, tracking is in my blood.

In fact, my latest track is shaping up to be 100% Renoise-based. I should be putting something up about that soon — it’s very nearly complete — but in the meantime, please enjoy this flowchart detailing the history of tracking software. I didn’t create it; it was linked in a Renoise forum article I stumbled across recently. But I thought it was too amazing not to share.

An Introduction To Metasynth

Seen on U&I Software’s Twitter feed: the best overall description I’ve ever seen of exactly what Metasynth is and does:

“Metasynth uses a totally unique method to produce sound and I can’t think of anything that comes close to it in originality and creative depth.”

Well worth a look if you don’t know Metasynth and have ever wondered what the big deal was. It really is an amazing bit of software.

New Track: Free As a Neutrino In A Light-Year of Lead

New track on SoundCloud

[Note: track no longer on Soundcloud]

This one was an experiment in organizing resources for speed of production: I used Renoise for beats and part of the bassline, Numerology for melodies and harmonies, Ableton Live for mixdown and post-production, and Metasynth in homeopathic doses for a dash of extra DSP weirdness here and there. Nearly all of the synth sounds are from one or another bit of Native Instruments software.

So, sort of a “blend the strengths” approach. Not my most innovative work, but a solid entry in the back-catalog, I reckon, and I managed to put it together in a matter of weeks instead of months. I need to be far less precious about finishing things up, and this is a step in the direction of doing that.

The title of the track refers to the fact that neutrinos interact so weakly with the rest of the universe that one could pass through a light-year of solid lead and still have only a 50% chance of colliding. It was applied post-facto, as usual, but I think it fits the feel of the song, somehow.

The Joy and Perils of Time Travel

A few weeks ago I started working on a collaboration. With myself…from about ten years ago. This guy, I tell you: he’s reckless, he’s sloppy. He’s got way more time than he realizes, and far too little discipline about using it well. But I like him anyway. He’s got a lot of enthusiasm, and some good ideas. It’s working out okay, and we’re both learning something.

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back.

Starting sometime in 2005, I started numbering all my musical projects. This was mainly to save me the trouble of coming up with meaningful titles for unfinished work. Coming up with a title for a track is normally the last thing I do, and having to do it before I have a good sense where the track is going cramps my style. I complete far fewer tracks than I start, so I’ve now got nearly a hundred of these numbered projects. Some of them combine bits and pieces from multiple music apps, so pulling them together into a single folder would help. It’s all getting a bit confusing.

So early in July, after finishing up the last of my FreeSound uploads, I was puttering around in the studio, deciding what to work on next. It seemed like a good time to review all my past work and start a proper catalog, so I’d know where I stand with everything. (When in doubt, tidy up.) I got a list together of all the numbered projects, gave each a quick listen, noted which have been worked into complete tracks, and generally fitted the pieces together. So far, so good. Then I started digging into…the mess.

Oh, the mess! Apart from the numbered projects, there’s my accumulated work from roughly 2000 through 2004. None of this is in any sort of order, and like my current work, it’s overwhelmingly unfinished material. Quite a lot of it was missing for a long span of time after the computer I was using at the time died on me, taking the hard drive with it. Backups?! Ha! I did not back things up then. I recovered the garbaged hard drive a few years ago, but I hadn’t listened back through all the material yet.

What is all this stuff? Most of the projects are no more than moderately catchy four- or eight-bar loops that I wrote and then abandoned as soon as they stopped being fun. Did I mention the lack of discipline? I had a premature sense of preciousness back then, too: I failed to finish musical ideas, because they sounded good in their nascent form, and I lacked the confidence to believe that I could expand on them without disrupting whatever fragile balance made them worth keeping. It was a bit like admiring a blank canvas because it contains no mistakes. Philosophically satisfying at the time, but a great way to get nothing done.

Among the countless goofy throwaways, there are a few real gems. So, cataloguing idea sidetracked for the time being, I decided to grab a promising start and finish it off. Problematically, many of these early works were originally written in Impulse Tracker, which I haven’t used in years. Luckily, we live in the era of the Internet, and as Kevin Kelly famously posited, technology never really dies. Enter Schism Tracker: a complete open-source, multi-platform reimplementation of music program written in assembler, designed to run strictly under MS-DOS, and last updated nearly 12 years ago.

So, I can load and play all my Impulse Tracker projects. But early tracker programs were never known for user-friendliness. How long would it take to rebuild the muscle memory required to competently use such an obscure, weirdly designed program? Two to three hours, it appears. Like riding a bike, without the skinned knees. I reckon I’m more productive with Schism Tracker now than I ever was with Impulse Tracker back when I was jamming with it on a garage-sale Pentium 100 system.

Having dispensed with the technical issues, what other challenges arise while completing a musical idea from nearly ten years ago? Well, there’s the fact that I knew nothing about music theory then: not a single scale, not a single chord. Everything was arranged by ear, leading to some inconvenient consequences. For example, none of the samples are tuned to a common base key. Instead, different musical parts are simply written in different, incompatible, scales, so that the samples — out of tune relative to each other — wind up harmonizing. If I could reach back in time and slap myself for having done this, I would.

Not everything about my former self’s naivety is negative, though. For one thing, I had this tendency to overlay bits of melody on each other, unsynchronized, to create harmonies, rather than writing chords in themselves. It’s a strange compositional technique, but the result is a nicely untethered, floating quality that I quite like, even now. Another thing I noted with some amusement is that most of the “high hats” in my older rhythm patterns are just some sample or other tuned up four or five octaves above normal. In general, I did a lot with transforming the sounds of samples just by playing them back at the wrong speed. I still do this a bit, but not nearly as much as I did back then.

Finally, I’ve noticed that most of my tracks were faster in 2001: most are somewhere in the 130 to 150BPM range, whereas the material I’ve worked on in the past few years has been closer to 100-120BPM. Maybe I’m slowing down as I age? Whatever the case, I may take a few leaves out of my younger self’s book for the next few tracks I finish, and speed things up a bit. I may also decide to release some of the unfinished loops as they are, bowing to the reality that someone else is far more likely to finish them off than I am.

So, that’s the story of how, despite investing several hundred dollars in advanced plug in technology this past spring, I’ve spent the last several weeks collaborating with my 27 year old self using 12 year old MS-DOS based technology. I am a perverse son of a bitch in any time frame.

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