Monday, March 30, 2009

Plotting the learning curve

Lots of web logs out there "document the creative process." That is fantastic. I follow those kinds of web logs and I attempt to maintain that kind of web logging here. But what I have come to discover is that I need also to accept the kind of learning curve that I've got to deal with in terms of my creative avocations. So I've got to document not just my creative process but also my slide down the various learning curves that I've got to manage.

Last January, inspired by another web-logger's (Stretta's) year-end-review, I published my own "production principles." With as much as I have to learn, they seem a bit comical to me now. So this post is kind of a response to my own previous post. I need not only principles guiding my creative process, but some way to make sense of managing my steep learning curve and keeping a balance between actually producing something and all the study time I need in my project studio (for musical and sonic pursuits) and with the artists who guide my study of iconography and sacred architecture. They say that half the journey is getting there. I am the type that wants to be there already. So I quickly and easily get impatient with myself or discouraged by the sheer amount of in-depth and arcane knowledge possible for (and sometimes demanded by) the creative avocations I have come to pursue.

I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the shear volume of area that my interests cover. In terms of my sonic and musical pursuits:

  • programming, which includes
  • synthesis,
  • use of the multitude of applications for the monome device
  • sequencing in general and
  • drum-patterning in particular
  • musical composition (be that ambient or "pop")
  • sound capture and
  • use of my digital audio workstation ("DAW," e.g., Logic)
  • possibly needing to learn another DAW (i.e., Live when it comes out combined with MAX/msp)
  • possibly learning to program monome applications (with the bundled MAX)
  • guitar (again)?

In terms of sacred images and architecture:

  • their history
  • their theology
  • their multiple styles
  • drawing technique
  • painting technique

The above bullet points cover vast tracts of learning territory. Then there is learning how to share the products of one's creativity after one has finally learned enough actually to produce something worth sharing!

  • web publishing through one's web log
  • "sharing" through (sane use of) forums
  • "sharing" files through social networks (Vimeo, Soundcloud)

Some of these have a steeper learning curve than others. Some I recall well from my high school garage-band days. Some, like the iconography and architecture, are really quite new to me. Some I feel comfortable with at this point (e.g., managing my web log), others I feel intimidated by (e.g., the vulnerability I feel when sharing my amateur tracks on Soundcloud).

So, for perspective's sake, I'll do a little review. I recently looked back over receipts with regard to purchases for my project studio. It has helped me form a timeline of acquisition directly proportional to a timeline of my learning curve.

I hadn't broken out my synthesizers and fired them up for, say, about four years until last January of 2008. I was playing them through a crappy four-channel radio shack mixer into an old borrowed guitar amp.

Last March (2008), two months after I finally turned my synthesizers back on, I bought a real mixer, monitors, my Korg Kaoss Pad, and all the stuff to connect the power, the audio and the MIDI to one another and into my computer. I still didn't have a DAW other than the free Garageband that came with my apple and the "Live Lite" that came as trial software with my M-Audio Audiophile.

Finally, in May (2008) I bought Logic Express. The last time I tried to mix my computer with my synthesizers was back in 1993 when I bought Opcode's Vision. I tried to run it on my little Mac Classic II and it just crashed every time. It was about that time that I started dedicating all my energy to my vocation and left music to just the listening category. So, as of this post, I've only been learning DAW technology for about 10 months. In my old garage band I certainly sequenced using my awesome MMT8, but I didn't also have to serve as my own producer, engineer, mixer, master-er, and "publisher." When I write these things down, they give me perspective. I guess I feel like I've been learning pretty well so far!

I finally picked up a decent quality home studio microphone in October (2008). So that launched me into the need to learn something about audible sound capture (as opposed to simple "line-in" from my synthesizers). It was also about that time that the glorious email from came letting me know that my "device" was "ready" for order. And that is when things avocational really started to change for me.

I received my monome 64 in November (2008). So I have only been working on learning how to integrate its nearly mind-boggling capabilities into my (still only hypothetical) "work flow" for about five months. Wow. That is good for me to read. I guess as of right now I've decided that I am right on track with my learning curve!

My monome device and the amazing monome community was what initially inspired me to go crazy and start up this web log. I am glad that I did. It has been fun and I have enjoyed the interactions, inspirations and communications that it has allowed me to be a part of. It is far more fun pursuing an avocation with others who share a common interest and are supportive.

I am so thankful and joyful to be back in the world of creativity, especially that of sound and music. More plotting of my learning curve to come. Thanks for reading, and thanks for all the encouragement I have received along the way. So here is to more learning - and the gift of more, inspired creativity I have come to know that I can expect. Peace

Monday, March 23, 2009

monome introduction

Here is a wonderful video on Vimeo by sam_square introducing the monome device:

How great! I am so happy this video now exists. I can refer many questions I receive straight to this. That "tehn" to whom the music is attributed at the closing credits is none other than Brian Crabtree who is the inventor and co-owner of the company. Special thanks to sam_square and the monome community. Peace

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Winter sun setting

Violet Crown Heights, Austin, Texas, evening in early March, year of our Lord 2009.

The slide show is in at just over four minutes. I am a little disappointed with the sound quality on Vimeo. Lots of glitches. I also uploaded the longer version of the song, at just over six minutes, onto Soundcloud.

I wanted to do an ambient piece. But I didn't really know where to go. This sunset was so amazing I just tried to capture it with our little digital camera. Each picture got fuzzier, but, in the end, I think it adds to the ambient mood. It's practically impressionistic by the end. So I found my inspiration: make a slideshow, and then make an ambient track to accompany it.

I wanted to see if I could make something meditative using a simple video editor like iMovie along with an ambient track I composed. I am not entirely happy with the attack on the noise level in the tone I synthesized for the track. But, my hope was to get a kind of "wind rustling through branches sound." And it comes close.

I used the ES-1 softsynth plug-in that comes with Logic Express. Triangle wave with noise as the sub-oscillator. A little bit of drive, a touch of resonance. Simple envelope, routed to FM the cut-off. Gate release envelope on the amp. Lots of reverb, lots of delay set at 1/2 note sync. Master track with an EQ and a compressor. Only one midi track to mix down. I think I like this ambient music thing!

The monome application is Stretta's tintinnabulome. Truly an amazing app. I am proud to be associated with it!

I could have changed many things. But the main point is that I am not being a perfectionist. The meditation is done, and shared. Please let me know what you think. Thanks for following, and thanks for the encouragement. Peace

Friday, March 6, 2009

less (control) more (expression)

Sometimes, at least for me, the less complex my synthesizer controller is, the more actual musical expression I wind up finding. I think this is just another way in which the minimalist maxim, "less is more," manifests in my own creativity.

That is where my little Korg nanokey comes in. I picked this up as soon as it came out in order to have a cheap, packable and easily portable MIDI controller.

Lots of folks are complaining about this little thing already, but that is because, in my humble guess, they have set up false expectations for themselves. They look at this tiny cheap little plastic thing and say "small keyboard controller," instead of, more accurately, saying "alternative controller." This thing only vaguely resembles a piano, organ or "synth" keyboard. And although it supports velocity sensitivity, it is more like the felt-like pad of the WASP than a keyboard of any caliber. When you set aside the notion that you are playing a keyboard and instead say, "this is a tiny, portable, velocity sensitive alternative controller," then you can let go and have a lot of fun with this little interface.

I love monome devices just exactly because they are not keyboards. They do not support velocity or aftertouch - and that is something good about them. The limit keeps their use sane. Instead, for example, the sixty four supports "tilt," and the 40h has its own kind of accelerometer. By sensing the relative position of the unit to the horizon, one can achieve interesting and even beautiful expression by "mapping" things like note duration, relative volume and tone to the position that one is holding the device. This allows a totally different kind of interface that nevertheless allows for expression. But for me, the kind of expression it allows "maps" better to the kind of instrument a synthesizer is - electronic.

What I mean is that a synthesizer is already an "alternative" instrument when compared to previous, traditional, non-electronic instruments. To expect an old traditional interface, like a piano or organ keyboard, to make sense in conjunction with an electronic instrument just doesn't always make sense. The first synthesizers were almost entirely triggered by analog sequencers: so nobody "played" them "live," or expected that kind of "expression." When Moog added a keyboard to it and marketed it, many "purists" complained. Now, most folks can't imagine a "synthesizer" as anything other than a "keyboard," and for those not interested in synthesis, the terms are often used (sadly) equivocally.

So folks have come up with some unbelievably cool ways to interface with a synth that allows far more expressive control. But one of the things I often like about the synthesizer is the way in which it often provides a far more limited dynamic horizon - like an organ where one must directly add more stops or just turn up the pump to get more volume and tone. You can't play an organ like a drum - or even like a piano. And that is okay. An organ is still quite expressive. When I play a synth, sometime I don't want velocity sensitivity - I find it distracting. I can't play it like a drum either - you can't hit an oscillator with a stick. I like my Prophet because the expression often comes in the way that I set up the envelope and trigger it with the keyboard, rather than through setting a velocity value to some parameter.

So when I first used the nanokey, I found myself not content to leave it on the table surface in front of me. I picked it up and rested it on my left forearm so that I could bring it to up to my right hand as I played the keys. Because it really feels nothing like a traditional keyboard, I find myself not falling into the typical (over-used and, to me, now disappointing) patterns in which my hands habitually fall on a regular keyboard. What can I say? It was fun. I was "jammin'."

This post is, in a small way, a response to a series of posts by Stretta - a professional musician - who has been commenting on the problems of getting synthesizers to be as expressive as traditional, non-electronic instruments. I love following his blog, and often find myself agreeing with his opinions on things.

Well, Stretta is absolutely right. Synthesizers are capable of real expression and musicality. For someone with truly developed musical talent and skills, more expressive control of synthesizers is imperative. But it set me off, comparing my own meager "skills" to that of a professional musician again, and I started to worry and fret and . . . you get the picture. So, upon further reflection, I realized that I actually like how relatively "unexpressive" a synth can be. The limit doesn't kill expression. It just provides boundaries within which, at least someone with my level of talent and skill, can find meaningful expression. The limitation frees me to be more expressive than when I feel lost in a sea of possibility.

I am not being Pollyanna here because, in my sane moments, free from regret that I majored in philosophy instead of music, I am happy that real, skilled, trained musicians can handle the kind of subtleties that "more expressive control" gives them. And I love listening to, enjoying, and being inspired by the results of such good musicians. I am also happy that there is a musical and aesthetic philosophy out there - minimalism - that lets me, on the other hand, express myself unapologetically: less control gives me, in this case, more expression.

Now, back to my sixty four and nano! Thanks for reading and thanks for the encouragement.