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Bitwig? But why?

17 Jul

Everybody that I’ve talked to in the Ableton scene seems to have an opinion about Bitwig, and a few have asked me to opine…so opine I shall!

The first thing that most people note about Bitwig is its similarity to Ableton. And indeed, this seems to be explained by the fact that the folks that developed Bitwig used to work at Ableton; as if that’s a real justification. That’s like saying that, since I know how to make pancakes, I should just make pancakes for every meal. I mean, I do that, but for religious reasons.

And Bitwig is almost eerily similar to Ableton, I don’t see any major feature differences at all, except for one thing: The UI of Bitwig is perhaps even drearier than Ableton’s. This is surprising to me, since it seems like you would make a virtual copy of a piece of software in order to improve upon it, not to exaggerate its failings. In fact the differences between the UI of the two pieces of software seem to be totally capricious; the doings of a few developers’ personal preferences. The browser is on the other side of the screen! “Session” view is called “Mixer” view! The arrangement view has its own clip launcher!

Now, that is not to say that I think that these are all bad changes. In fact, I think that a lot of them will be interesting. But I wonder, on what basis were they made? I’m not totally certain that compounding more information onto the screen or having pet features is going to make a significantly better workflow than Ableton’s. One of the major challenges of design is to intelligently ignore your audience. I’m not saying that software designers shouldn’t address their users’ needs, but they shouldn’t just throw in a new feature whenever someone on a forum complains that the color of the knobs doesn’t match their drapes.

But features and design are only two points on which a product can compete. They can also compete on price and on performance (note: I am distinguishing performance from features here because there’s a huge difference between saying your software does something and that thing actually happening in such a hostile environment as digital signal processing). On price, I think that, if Bitwig were a couple hundred dollars less than Ableton, it could stand a chance at competing. Ableton is slightly too expensive, given market trends (IMO). I also think that Ableton can be beat on performance. The holy grail of live performance/DAW hybrids is stability, something which Ableton often has trouble reconciling with feature creep. I myself would sacrifice 1/3 of the features of Ableton for total stability. And by that, I don’t mean some weird configuration recommended by some Ableton forum necromancer (Turn your Wifi off at sunset, restart in VMware, wear a foil hat). I mean a piece of software that is stable on all operating systems, running concurrently with most conventional software. All the time.

There is, however, one feature which I find geniunely exciting in Bitwig: Layer editing, a feature that , seems to take cues from the layers in Photoshop or Illustrator.. Layer editing allows you to edit several clips simultaneously, viewing them superimposed on one another. This seems like it could solve one of my genuine Ableton workflow bottlenecks, since I often have elements of the same “pattern” (drums, melody, etc.) in different clips. And right now, it is difficult to reconcile them. I either have to toggle between clips (crappy), or copy and paste them into Arrangement view and edit them there, only later to copy them back into Session. Clearly, neither of these is optimal. Layer Editing may be the answer.

I’m definitely interested in learning more about Bitwig, but I really hope that it emerges as more than just a “me-too” Ableton. Because if they’re not careful, the folks at Bitwig might just learn that they inherited Ableton’s drawbacks along with its benefits.

Untimely Meditations: Damu

9 Jul

Don’t expect these thoughts about music production to be current, since Untimely Meditations is the opposite of music journalism. The goal of these posts is to write about music in a way that is beneficial to those of us who make music, not for the Tumblrati. Don’t expect Pitchforkian adjectives (WTF does “hotly tipped” mean?) or descriptions of music solely by comparison to other music (“Sounds like SBTRKT meets MSTRKRFT by way of Pat Benatar”) Strident opinions included.

To be honest, I was not entirely in love with Damu’s music when I first heard it. A lot of the work on his first EP sounds like a fairly paint-by-numbers “bass music” exercise. You’ve got square-wave pads with rhythmic filtering, squiggly, unquantized arpeggios and pitch-shifted 90′s R&B vocals. Everything is “done right”, but the sum of the parts is just, well, cool parts. With his album, Unity, though, Damu has overcome some of this and released some really next level work.

Of all the sins of mediocre bass music, chopped and shifted vocals are the most vile. Post-CMYK, every bass producer decided that they needed to jam a 2 second Aaliyah sample into their track, the winkier, the better. (Full disclosure, I once pitch-shifted a Third Eye Blind sample in an attempt to out-ironic myself. People got hurt.) In and of itself, I don’t mind this. When it is done well, it is sublime. And like many things in contemporary electronic music, it has already been done better. Compare Damu’s chopped Erykah Badu vocals on his track Karolina’s Magic J to this El-Tuff track from the first coming of UK Garage and tell me which is better. There’s a right answer.

Damu–Karolina’s Magic J

El Tuff–Drive Me Crazy

The difference between these two is that Damu’s vocals are chopped and shifted without any seeming heed to the song as a whole. And I understand why. As someone who has chopped and pitch shifted his share of vocals, I have to say: It’s really hard to do right. You are trying to repurpose someone else’s work and weave it into your own work seamlessly. And while this is basically THE problem of sample-based music, pitch-shifted vocals are an extreme case, since they are so out front and the ways to mess them up tonally are many.

Many mistakes that arise from this technique arise because producers treat these pitch-shifted vocals like a part of the percussion. They feel like their main function is rhythmic, so scales and melody be damned. This is a mistake. Unfortunately, vocals are, by nature, melodic. And if you don’t watch out, you’re going to have the melody of your pitch shifted vocals clashing with your pads, your leads, etc. and pretty soon you’ll have a hot mess.

Damu’s seems to have learned this lesson. Just look at the difference between a track like Karolinas Magic J, which is perfunctory bass music in the extreme, and tracks like Breathless and After Indigo. Just listen to how much more integrated the vocals are in the latter tracks. Nothing sounds tacked-on or perfunctory. It is hard to even imagine the track without this vocal snippets. This is music to be proud
of.

Damu–Breathless

Damu clearly also has an ear for melody that is often sorely lacking in this genre where rhythm is king. And this attention to melody is what differentiates the good producers from the great. But Damu’s melodic sense is, to me, a work in progress. I say that because, as his work has become more refined, it also slips dangerously into the saccharine (take, for example, his track L.O.V.E., which could be in a chewing gum commercial). This is a natural danger of embracing melody. The next phase is to take these melodic ideas and whittle them down until only the necessary elements remain.

Given Damu’s quick progression, though, I have no doubt that he’ll be able to pull this off with panache worthy of the hype that’s been given him.

Buy Unity here or join Spotify like the rest of the world.

Gobbler: Like Ableton Share, but Real?

2 May

Where are the Ableton Shares of yesteryear? Oh, Ableton Share, how little we knew ye.

And so on.

Ableton Share promised to make sharing among Live users effortless, by some undisclosed means. It was touted as one of the main selling points of Live 8 (a fact that you can read about in all its ranty glory at the Ableton forum), but the feature disappeared quickly after being introduced. But due to its ungoogleability and some great damage control on the part of Ableton, I haven’t even been able to figure out what it was, much less what was wrong with it.

But I am curious, since it seems like it could have revolutionized the way we make music.

Right now, producing music is often a solitary activity (your cat does not count as a companion). But what if we had a service like Ableton Share to help us not only connect with collaborators, but to discover new ones as well?

Many people have gotten into using Ableton’s “Collect All and Save” feature and a Dropbox account in order to share their sets with their collaborators. My experience with this has been mixed, tbh. It still seems like a kludge to me, which is great, but I’ve always said “Dare to Dream” (my therapist gave me a poster to that effect). I’ll tell you my preferred method after the fold.

[...]

Why Max for Live?

19 Apr

So, as those of who follow me on Twitter may be tired of hearing about, I’ve been working with my main man Nate to get together some basic video tutorials together on how to use Max for Live. But it might be worth taking a moment asking ourselves, Why do we care?

As many of you know, Max for Live is basically a port of Max/MSP, a graphical programming environment that can be used for normal computation (boring) or Audio Video applications (huzzah!). What this means in human-speak is that, instead of programming by staring at a black screen full of green text, you can program by connecting pretty little boxes and, when they inevitably don’t do what you’d like them to do, you just unhook them and connect them to something else. Think about like the modular synthesizer of the programming world. And Max for Live extends this functionality by allowing Max to run inside of Ableton as a Device, the format that we are all so fond of.

For many true-blue geeks, like myself, this is exciting simply because it is. Game of Thrones isn’t on Netflix, so what else am I going to do?

But for the novice, you might need some convincin’. So here’s why I think learning Max for Live is worth your time.
[...]

Finish The Track

17 Mar

In the last couple of days, I’ve going to some great shows at SXSW (watch this space for a recap) and mingling (talking about myself, haha). I’ve met a lot of people who have what seems like a passing interest in producing electronic music. What, I asked myself, is the difference between these people and the folks on stage or in the DJ booth?

What does Salva (one of my new favs) have that most Ableton jockeys don’t?

The answer is, he’s mastered a storied technique called: Finish the Damn Track (FDT).

I feel like we spend a lot of time discussing tips and tricks and little shortcuts and secret routing techniques and blah blah blah. But, in the grand scheme of things, it’s finishing the track that is the most important thing.

Finishing the Damn Track is not something that just happens. It takes practice and the implementation of smart techniques. It’s a skill, just like programming drums and synths.

But, finishing a track is more difficult, because whereas most production skills are about learning more about your tools, Finishing the Damn Track is about learning more about your tools AND yourself. It is not only about twiddling the right knobs, it’s also about twiddling YOURSELF.

Wait. That sounds gross. You know what I mean.

So, for the next few posts, I’m going to put the little tips and tricks on hold and try to dive into this skill that seems to elude so many of us.

But first I have a question for you. What do you feel is the biggest obstacle to your finishing a track? Let me know in the comments.

Are Music Producers Better Humans? Short Answer: Yes

6 Mar

I was talking with a friend the other day whose first show had been attended by me. And just me. He was bummed and I was trying to give him some advice based on an essay that I had read by noted nutburger Ernst Jünger called On Pain.

Jünger says that there are two kinds of people in the modern age: Those whose whole existence is based on avoiding pain and those who realize that pain is unavoidable and must be dealt with. “Pain” for Jünger is a broad term: It can be physical pain, or it can mean embarassment, failure or disappointment. And, by perpetuating the idea that it is desirable or even possible to totally avoid pain, we consign ourselves to a life of fear and mediocrity. Only the second group is capable of doing truly epic shit (my term).

In my experience, this is true. Because there is only one skill that I am absolutely convinced will yield more success. And that one skill is being able to deal with failure.

Losing. Blowing it. Embarrassing yourself. Not meeting deadlines. Humiliation. Regret.

And the amazing thing is that our contemporary culture and educational systems seem to be designed to shield people from experiencing failure. The only people who actually experience failure are those, like us, who take on projects of their own, independent of any institution.

The good news is that being an artist (ie. being you or me) means understanding failure. If you’ve never failed, then you’ve never tried. So, take heart and know that the lumps that you take when you drop your EP and no one downloads it, or when no one comes to your show, will serve you well when you attempt anything else. And this ability to deal with your failures and bounce back from them will surely be useful in other, probably most aspects of your life.

So, if you haven’t failed yet, you haven’t hung it out there far enough. And if you have failed, realize that you’re stronger and better prepared for life that many who surround you who haven’t dared as much as you have.

Just my two cents.

Let me know in the comments what your biggest (artistic) failure has been and what you’ve learned from it!

What’s Your Fetish?

6 Feb

Dunno this guy but he's awesome

Not a day goes by that I don’t see at least a few comments across the Able-webs conjecturing about when and how Ableton Live 9 is going to come out. In fact, speculating about Live’s new features and complaining about its release date seem to have become a full-time job for segments of Twitter and the Ableton forum. I, for one, couldn’t give less of a hoot [original expletive deleted].

What, exactly, is so awful about Live 8? Or I should say, Is there really anything wrong with it that’s a total dealbreaker? Probably not, or else we wouldn’t be reading or writing this blog.

TBH, I really don’t think that being able to render directly to MP3 would make me the next Four Tet. It would save me exactly 20 seconds that I would probably use to watch stupid Youtube videos.

Not that this kind of complaining and speculating is limited to Ableton. It seems like a lot of writing about electronic music is actually a kind of gear fetishism: trying to get you to buy or try a new software, plugin, synth, stompbox, DIY controller kit, etc. and so forth.

Anything but sit down and make some actual music.

Now, as someone who spent most of his youth drooling over Bass Player magazine (what’s up, Victor Wooten!), I can tell you that this is not a phenomenon exclusively related to making electronic music. Not at all. But I think that Electronic Music is especially susceptible to this kind of thinking.

Part of what makes Electronic Music so exciting IS the fact that it is closely linked to new developments in technology. An instrument that makes up a key part of your sound could have been non-existent 5 years ago. See: The rise of Auto-Tune (for better or for worse) and AfroDJMac’s Justin Bieber rack. That is really exciting and it would be ridiculous to want to limit that.

But I think that it easy to verge (as I do from time to time) from “keeping up with the newest technology IN ORDER to make music” into “keeping up with the newest technology IN ORDER TO NOT make music.”

That’s right: I mean to say that much gear fetishism is actually just procrastination.

Let’s face it, making art is an act of courage (I’m quoting Steve Gutenberg here, which is telling). It is an act of courage in that it requires commitment. The difference between a schlub and an artist is that an artist puts his or her neck out. An artist has to commit. And sometimes, we’d rather worry about the technical details than jump into the abyss. The abyss is scary. And if your tools are faulty, then you don’t have to commit 100%. I understand this because I myself am guilty of it about 9 days out of 10.

All I’m saying is: keep an eye on yourself and be tough on yourself. We don’t have the luxury of totally closing our eyes to new technology. But we can also easily get sucked in by the newest and the shiniest. Make sure that your tools enable you and don’t limit you. It’s tough, but it can be done.

To quote Flying Lotus, apropos of his extremely rinky-dink production setup (just laptop): “To find something new, I don’t have to update my shit; I just have to update my brain.” [Quote taken from the new Peter Kirn book, The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music]

I’d be interested to know what you guys think: Am I totally off-base here, or do you think that sometimes we focus on our tools to avoid doing real work? Let me know in the comments!

My New Years Resolution

3 Jan

Almost everything that I’ve ever read about personal goals is dismissive about New Years resolutions. According to some, the practice embodies everything wrong about setting goals: it’s infrequent, it’s high stress and it doesnt have any mechanism for assessing your progress. It’s basically the worst.

Well, I don’t agree. I think every opportunity to think about improving yourself is worth taking. Especially if that opportunity is accompanied by drinking too much champagne and trying to make out with everyone in sight.

So, here goes: This year, I resolve to do less.

And no, this does not mean that Im going to start living in a Snuggie and watching Jersey Shore reruns.

Like you, I consider myself a pretty creative person by nature. I am always dreaming up new schemes or projects and about 1/16 of those get realized.

So, for me, coming up with new ideas is not the problem. Thank God.

My problem comes at the next phase. Either I start a project and never see it to completion. Or, I start a project and don’t accurately estimate how much time it’s going to take. Either way, it wastes time and causes stress.

This is an easy trap to fall into as an electronic musician. Because what we do is creative, it tends to be conceptually amorphous. Because what we do is digital, it can tend to take up an unforseeable amount of time.

My resolution, then, is to limit the amount of things that I actually DO. That way, I can commit 100% to the task at hand.

Of course, this requires some specific actions…ones that I’ll be happy to share with you in a future post!

So tell me, what are your New Years resolutions?

My Solution for Dealing with Haters

9 Dec

I was listening to a podcast the other day and a story came on about the craft beer industry in Japan, which is still in its infancy. They did an interview with a craft brewer and what he said can, I think, be applied to many fields of life; including music production.

He claimed that, what every craft beer maker in Japan had to do was to make their beer as personal as possible. Make exactly the beer that they want to drink. Make beer you are sure no one else will like. Make it personal. But, in the process of making it personal, know that some people, a lot of people in fact, will hate it.

This is exactly the opposite of what corporate beer makers do. They try to make their beer as nondescript as possible. In order to not offend people, you have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And the thing that corporations fear more than anything is not being popular.

So, my advice to you, if you are dealing with haters in any endeavor is: Take it personally. Because, if you have people who hate on what you do, it means that you are putting some style into your music or your product. And that is a good thing, because style is the future.

[...]

What Can a 6000 Year-Old Chinese Guy Teach You About Music Production?

2 Dec

Tao of Music Production Let me tell you a story, slightly amended for length. This story is taken from the writings of the great Chuang-Tzu, an important figure in the history of Zen.

Three in the Morning

Once upon a time, there lived a Chinese dude who, for whatever reason, kept monkeys. I have no idea what he did with these monkeys…it’s not really part of the story.

Also, these monkeys could talk. Apparently Chinese monkeys can talk.

So, one day, he goes out to the little hut where he keeps the monkeys and he says, Hey, Steve, Carol, Ted and Lisa. Just thought I’d give yall the feeding schedule.

The monkeys listened attentively

I’ll give you 4 chestnuts (that’s what talking monkeys eat) in the morning and I’ll give you 3 chestnuts at night.

Sounds reasonable, right?

The monkeys went bonkers, throwing things, squawking, generally being obnoxious. Lisa the monkey fainted.

What? asked the old Chinese guy.

We want 3 chestnuts in the morning! cried Ted. Yeah, yeah, and 4 at night, cried Carol the monkey.

The old man thinks for a second and nods his head. The monkeys have a monkey party, thinking that they’ve pulled one over on the old man.

The point of this story is not that monkeys are dumb and don’t know how to add (although that’s probably true).

The moral of the story is that, when trying to get something done, you should never lose sight of the goal. It is very easy to get frustrated if you insist not only that something get done, but that it be done in a certain way.

The Tao of Music Production

I experienced this quite frequently when I first started producing music. I didn’t just want to get a certain synth sound, I wanted to know WHAT synth a certain artist used and WHAT preset it was. Instead of focusing on what sound I wanted, I focused on trying to follow someone else’s path to that sound.

This was a mistake. It blinded me to my own creativity and probably cost me sleep, time and money.

If I’ve learned anything from my experience on this Earth, it’s that there is very very rarely only one way to get something done. This is doubly true of music. You want a certain “groove” on your hi-hats? I can tell you at least 4 ways to do it. So, don’t fall on your sword about getting it done the way that you heard Armand van Helden does it.

You don’t need the same synth as Brian Eno. I guarantee you that all of you can make a pretty good, Eno-ey synth with about 60 different plugins and assorted effects, some or all of them come with Ableton (which I’m assuming you have, given that you’re reading a website devoted to the software) or free.

So, whenever I find myself getting frustrated that a goal or a project is not proceeding like I’d like it to, I have to stop myself: Is this going badly? Or is it just going differently?

I usually remind myself of this by saying “Three in the Morning” to myself. I don’t say it out loud, though. It freaks people out.

P.S. If you are just getting started with Live, or you want to brush up on the basics, why not pick up the Clip Module that just went on sale? CHECK IT OUT HERE