Japan Shopping #2 – A New(?) Method

I’ve decided to use the downtime in Japan to get serious about some academic studies around the science and history of music. I haven’t gone so far as to actually join a course, but I found a great series of books in the Japanese amazon store that I decided to dive into, and so far its paying off. IMG_2668 Have you done any music theory studies or are you mostly self taught? Are the ears really the best path to musical understanding or is a solid theoretical foundation a necessity to truly grasp musical concepts and become proficient in song writing and composition? What are your thoughts?

Day 14 – 17 in Japan

Lots of new material being worked on right now, but the most exciting piece for me is in the more dance oriented bucket. I can’t say too much at the moment but I’m working on something that I think you will find quite different from what I’ve put out so far. As always, expanding into new territories is extremely exciting and full or learnings.

I’ve sampled some new environments as well, including a really nice airport atmosphere that I hope to be able to use at some point. I have some ideas. As I’ve said before, all the environment sampling that I do now will be made available for download and free use once I’ve polished it up and cut it to appropriate format.

I found two great books at amazon that I’ve begun to sink my teeth into. The first is called ‘The Audio Expert’, a thick tome on most of the common engineering aspects of sound and audio. I have only flipped through it so far but it looks really interesting.

PowerToolsCoverThe second is called ‘Power tools for Synthesizer Programming’. This is an older book (2004) but it is a great introduction to sound programming and design with synthesizers. I have read through most of it and have to say I really recommend it as a starting point for learning the fundamentals of synthesis (including both styles such as additive, subtractive, granular, … and the components such as Oscillators, LFO, Filters, …). If you are like me mostly self taught, you’ll be surprised at all the little stuff in the knowledge gaps that really make things ‘click’ when you understand them.

RIght now I’m back in Tokyo for work for a week, during which there probably won’t be much music made, but I hope to find the time to stop by some interesting instrument/music stores. More on that in later posts.

Ableton Live 9 Workshop Notes

Today I attended the Ableton Live 9 workshop at the Supper Club in San Francisco.

Please see this post for the background on the workshop.

The event was relatively small, but thanks to the size it felt very intimate and informal. The crowd wasn’t huge, but I got the impression that it was reasonably representative of the active EDM producers / artists in San Francisco. The old Demo Party organizer in me immediately started thinking about different types of events that could be arranged with a dedicated group of people like this, but more on that later.

I won’t go too much into detail about the topics discussed, but below are some notes of the stuff that I found particularly interesting.

Disclaimer: Keep in mind that the workshop was based on a Beta version of Live 9, and any of the described features and content below could change before it actually ships.

Part 1 : Timo on Live 9 and workflow

Audio to MIDI

By now I think most people have heard of the amazing new Audio to MIDI function in Live 9, what I did not know was that it offers 3 different algorithms to choose from, Harmony for chord heavy sound, Melody for monophonic progressions and Drums for percussion and drums.

Upgrade to 9 compressor or continue to use 8 version is an option

As part of upgrading to Live 9, you will be presented with the option to continue to use the Live 8 standard compressor, or upgrade to the new one. This is not the new Glue compressor, which is a different plugin, but the standard compressor.

MIDI Note Invert

The Notes drawer in a MIDI clip now has an invert button that allows you to select a set of notes in the piano roll and instantly invert their relative pitch.

MIDI Note Stretch markers

In Live 9, when you select a range in the Note lane the selected range markers can be dragged to stretch (speed up, slow down, reverse) the selected notes.

Session Automation Record Arm and Record Buttons

As part of the new Session view automation record capability, the Transport bar at the top of the UI know contains an Automation Record arm button, and an Automation Record button. Both are used when you want to enable / disable recording any parameter changes you do while playing back scenes and clips. With version you add automation points by single clicking, and you can create curves for smoother transitions.

Back to arrangement on a track by track basis

The arrangement view in Live 9 contains buttons that allow you to do Back to Arrangement on individual tracks instead of the entire set.

Consolidate to scene 9

Starting with Live 9 you can select a range in the arrangement view, right click and select Consolidate to Scene. This will create a new scene in the session view that contains a clip for each track you selected, with just the selected range of sound. This includes automation and effects.

Part 2 : Liam on DJ’ing with Live

Set global BPM though scene name

If you name a scene ??? BPM, the global clock will be set to that BPM every time you launch that scene. Perfect for smooth transitions and seamless tempo changes between song parts or tracks in a DJ set.

Use routing to create effects channels

If you get creative, you can create advanced effects channels that allow you to get very expressive when playing back scenes and clips live. (This is really all about coming up with the templates that work for you.)


Don’t let the fact that the notes from Liam’s session are fewer trick you into thinking that his set was not interesting. Since I’m not a DJ I guess there was just more that related to me directly in Timo’s part. Liam really showed how far you can go using Live and the APC 40, if you really know how to work both the software and the hardware.

The event was incredibly inspiring and full of new learnings, especially for a relative beginner like my self.

At the end I also got a chance to speak to Timo directly about the possibility of arranging more workshops and gatherings for EDM people in San Francisco. He indicated that there are already plans to try to strengthen the community and provide more forums and social events for people to exchange ideas, learn and share perspectives and initiate collaborations. I really hope that materializes, and if it doesn’t I will try to make it happen myself.

Finally, a huge thanks to Timo and Liam for taking the time and sharing from their wells of wisdom.

Music and Silence

At the most fundamental level, one thing that has interested me since I was very little is space. Not as in outer space, but the spaces ‘in-between’ that define intervals, pulses, perceived size and the length of time and so on.

When I was very young one of my favorite things was riding in a car through a forest of white birch. I liked it so much because as the car moved forward the parallax of the trees would constantly change, and the interspersed black ‘spots’ on the otherwise white trunks added a second dimension of randomness to the scene.

Trees in particular fascinated me (and still do) by the way their branches seemed to spawn  and grow in completely random patterns, and the only way I could get a grasp for the size or ‘space’ that a tree occupied was by moving my vantage point in relation to its ‘fixed’ position.

Years later this fascination with space was what led me to 3D graphics engineering. Constructing 3D spaces via computer code forced me to make up a ‘space’ within my imagination that I would then ‘populate’ with objects. Moreover, since the camera that represented my Eye could be moved freely, I was able to explore the scenes I had built from view points that would not have been possible in reality. My first stumbling steps in 3D programming was to generate random clouds of points and then programmatically move the ‘camera’ around in those clouds.

Later this led to my involvement with Time geography, which took the entire concept of time and space to a new level for me with it’s attempt to quantify time and turn it into a shapeable, physical mass. (Time geography btw could very well be one of the most powerful disciplines of science I have ever had the pleasure of getting close to…) From Time geography it was a small step to architecture, and once there I soon stumbled upon the concept of Ma.

Ma is a Japanese term that describes a form of space. The very short and simple explanation is that Ma is the space in-between. It is often explained as a way to talk about the intervals or pauses that define the relationship between two structural elements, such as the space between two heartbeats that define a pulse. This explanation touches upon a very important aspect of Ma, namely its dependance on Time. Without time there can be no movement, and it is the movement (of the eye, the heart, other elements within the same time/space and so on) that allows us to experience space in the sense of Ma. Ma is not measurable in terms of centimeters or seconds, it is entirely a ‘sense of space’ that exists purely within the observer and is thus very subjective.

We can talk about the distance between two walls as being 5 meters, but how a person experiences those 5 meters will be highly dependent on what objects are places between the walls, and their size and placement. The physical properties of the viewer are also important such as size, speed of movement and whether the viewer uses primarily sight or hearing to ‘measure’ the space.

Ma also tells us that without confinement, boundaries or limits there can be no space, only emptiness. Space is the in-between, that which makes emptiness measurable and meaningful.

Lao Tzu speaks of similar things in the famous verse 11 of Tao te Ching:

Thirty spokes
meet in a hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
Is where it is useful.

Hollowed out
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
Is where its useful.

(I have only quoted the first two passages here.)

This can be interpreted in many different ways, but to me one of the interesting reads is that we often think of the outer shape of a ‘vessel’ as what defines it’s character or purpose, when it is in fact only turning emptiness into something useful. In this process a piece of emptiness gains meaning and a purpose, but for the most part that purpose is still mostly imbued in the space, not the ‘shell’.

In music, Ma can be felt in the meaningfulness of spaces between ‘beats’ that make up a rhythm. It is the limiting of emptiness in time (Ma), by a rhythm, that allows us to make sense of and ‘understand’ sounds as music. Thus silence and the in-betweens are  important not only as structural elements in the music but as conveyers of meaning and atmosphere.

While it is hard for me to find the right words to explain my feelings, one if my musical goals is to explore this relationship between silence and sound, the Ma of music…

Learning instruments…

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about….

When you learn a new instrument such as piano, guitar or drums, you usually start by finding the various notes, practice scales and play some really simple songs. You then normally move on to some standard tunes, and hopefully before long you’re picking up the challenge of learning some melody/solo you really like personally.

Much of your time, initially is spent recreating, mimicking and covering other peoples work in order to learn techniques and styles. Your building your musical tool box so to speak in order to, at some point, be able to compose your own melodies.

When I was learning to play the guitar, which by the way was my gateway drug into music just about a year ago, I found this process incredibly helpful and rewarding. I’d pick a song I really like, in the style I’m personally aiming for, and then I’d spend hours trying to recreate bits and pieces (especially the solo of course) of it.

For electronic music though it took me a long time to realize that there are a lot of similarities.

When you are creating electronic music such as Trance, Dub or whatnot, the instruments you use are by necessity different, and often you need a vast array of different tools. Some of them are pure software and composition is more like programming or parameter tweaking until you find just the right sound. Some of them are actual hardware instruments such as pads or keyboards.

I have come to the realization just recently that the fact that I cannot play the piano for example (or any other keyboard) is actually limiting me a lot when it comes to exploring new melodies and finding harmonies. Sure, with MIDI you can get pretty far since it allows you to sequence your way to the sound you want, but a sequenced melody, in my opinion will often sound too ‘perfect’ as compared to something that’s found through actual experimentation with the keys. (Listening to my wife who’s a great piano player makes the difference painfully obvious to me…)

The same goes for pure software instruments where your understanding of the synthesis process for example is key to being able to recreate a great lead, pad or texture that you either thought up in your head or heard somewhere.

Therefor I have decided two things. I will spend more time trying to ‘cover’ the sounds and melodies of my favorite electronic songs and artists, and I’m going to make a real effort to learn to play the piano.

I really think this will improve my workflow and let me explore and find new melodies faster.

What is your process for learning to compose or play electronic music styles?