Sunday, October 19, 2014

Finding the Perfect Musical Sketchpad

Shortly after a compo round ended, I stumbled upon a thought that provoked a chat session among other music makers. I wondered aloud why I tended to put one project on hiatus to work on a different one. For example, I had stopped publishing my webcomic to focus on hosting my radio show, and this in turn halted new mixtape episodes since I put all of my new Duosis material into the radio broadcasts. I also placed any new non-Duosis musical projects on hold while I did all the other stuff. Someone in the chat suggested I sketch out my compositions bit by bit over time so that I could do more things at once. It's a fair suggestion, except that my sketching usually involves painstaking sequencing that takes almost as much time as producing the completed song. I don't know sheet music or play instruments, so even laying down a skeletal structure of chords and melodies would take time. How could I sketch out my ideas quickly?

This question spurred a search that has not led to a fully adequate solution, but nevertheless brought a few options to my attention. My first train of thought was some sort of musical app. I have a mobile device on me for most of the time, so why not use that to lay down songs? Google brought up Fiddlewax, which looks like the exact opposite of iOS GarageBand. Skeuomorphism is largely absent from Fiddlewax, so there's little to no association to physical instruments. There are even different types of input that people can choose based their own level of musical knowledge. One snag is that there's no MIDI export in GarageBand, so taking a work-in-progress over to the desktop for polishing is a complicated effort. A few other apps seem to have the same problem: they function well as digital instruments, but when it comes time for post-production you're usually stuck with an audio recording.

After a while I pivoted toward a different musical note-taking option: using my voice as a writing instrument. Doing so with technology isn't a new concept: there's the old John Tesh anecdote about how he was in a hotel room without a piano, and that he ended up singing into his answering machine to lay down what would become the NBA on NBC theme. Regarding contemporary gear, I had tried Loopy HD in the past to record one-man-acappella-band versions of potential songs; I also later checked out Take Creative Vocal Recorder, which has similar functionality. What I was looking for now was some way to use my voice as a controller. Ideally my sung notes would trigger an on-screen element that could jot down the notes for me. In my search I immediately came across Imitone, which recently got financial support from Kickstarter. The app developer's goal is to open up music making to anyone whose larynx could express music. This seems too good to be true, so I'll see how that goes when the product is available for public release.

I later tried other processes based on software that I already had on my computer. Microsoft Research Songsmith sat on my hard drive for years after I installed it to make some joke songs for compos. One way I could use it for serious work would be to hum the melody idea I had in my head, select the corresponding chords manually in each measure, and then export isolated instrument parts as MIDI. Once I had the MIDI parts loaded up in a DAW, I could do whatever changes I wanted. So that worked for the chordal sections somewhat, but what about the melody line I sang? For that I used Melodyne's feature to export audio as MIDI. This isn't a perfect method, as a lot of the time the software has a ballpark guess as to what was sung. Getting close to the intended line however, as someone in the compo chat suggested, is an improvement to having to sequence it from scratch.

Going through other potential solutions also caused me to figure out problems I had in FL Studio that had prevented me from inputting things via microphones and MIDI controllers. If I can take anything from this search, it's that. This brings me to my current state of musical sketching: meeting technology halfway to get my ideas down. Regardless of my method, I still lean on simple chord-identifying programs like Reverse Chord Finder just to know what it is I'm writing. I shouldn't be a choosy beggar; the initial problem wouldn't be there if I learned notation or took music-playing lessons. As I said in the chat, it's not like my cartooning where I can sketch out something in fifteen seconds and then finish eating a sandwich.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Through the Prism - A Closer Look

A lot has happened in the past year regarding my involvement in compos, and my creative output in general. In the latter half of 2012 I launched The Duosis Mixtapes, a podcast made entirely out of derivative material. It initially provided context for my music entries from competitions; rather than release my Duosis tracks as an endless series of singles, I merged them to create cohesive, themed episodes. After a while I started to make entire episodes from scratch instead of producing tracks for compos. This led me to consider making conventional albums again. Thus the seed for Through the Prism was planted.

The album was conceived as an alternate soundtrack to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. As some people have guessed from the title and cover art, the concept is based on the supposed theory that the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon synchronizes with the film. Rather than do a Pink Floyd cover album, I wanted to produce an original work that deliberately plays off of the visual imagery of Oz. The end result would effectively be an alternate score and therefore would have recurring themes. Melodic lines in the first half of the Through the Prism are rearranged in the second half, just like elements in the early scenes of the film come back later when Dorothy reaches the Land of Oz.

You may wonder if Through the Prism has to be played alongside a copy of the film in order to appreciate it. While it was fun composing and editing the album to match the on-screen activity, I see the music as a standalone work that merely has an audiovisual bonus. People may in fact loop the album two or more times to cover the entire length of the film, but there is no guarantee that the synchronicity will work after the first go-around. Through the Prism is set to be released on March 8, which happens to coincide with a certain other take on Oz. Now that’s what I call a tie-in.

JH Sounds – Through the Prism track list
01. Sepia Skies
02. Seeds We Sow, Part I & II
03. The Lord
04. True Haranguer
05. Genius Stroke
06. Forecast Horizon
07. Skies of Hue
08. Almighty
09. City Stroll
10. To the Hangar
11. We're Off
12. Vertex Fields
13. Softshoe
14. Bistro
15. Young in Heart

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Composer Spotlight on Andy Kelley

When I met him at a chiptune show in NYC earlier this year, Andy Kelley aka superjoe changed my perception of him as a person. For one thing, he’s shorter than I had imagined. Judging from photos of his angular head (think Conan O’Brien) I assumed he would be towering, but he turned out to be about 6’ by my estimation. At the show he also clarified his love of electronic music, favoring it over the acoustic tunes that came before. I asked Andy a few questions about his pet project SolidComposer, his experience in compos, and an Internet band he’s in called The Burning Awesome.

Andy commented on his earliest exposure to music, which happened to be of the acoustic variety. He said that, “My mom would always listen to country music while I played Legos. I hate country music. I didn't start liking music until much later.” His leaning away from non-synthetic sounds continued to the present day: On more than one occasion, he completely dismissed acoustic versions of electronic compositions. He affirmed this line of thought as my question brought it up, and he used OverClocked ReMix as an example. “I'm a sucker for synthesizers, what can I say? I'm disappointed that the OCR judges think there is too much electronic music, because I love it.”

This is also reflected in Andy’s approach to music production. Speaking of his common workflow methods, he said that “I usually start with some effect, trick, or sub-genre I want to try out, see how it goes, and then work from there. It's not a particularly effective method. I'd like to know a better way; maybe I should be planning on paper or something.” He uses FL Studio and works with two staples of that workstation: Sytrus and 3xOsc. Andy also incorporates the Vengence Essential Clubsounds sample packs as well as SampleFusion. He owns a guitar and occasionally uses a microphone. At one point he had a piano keyboard, but that fell away as he felt he had inadequate skill in that area.

With his gear in place, Andy made a number of entries for composition competitions. He first discovered compos via the OCReMix forums and found them compelling. “It's fun to get instant feedback. Also the Doubles’ Dash ones force you to quickly cooperate with someone you don't know, who you can only communicate through the Internet. It's super fun.” His interest in the mechanics of running a compo led him to develop a competitions arena at SolidComposer. He noted that, through ThaSauce’s existing format of using IRC to synchronize listening parties, “One Hour Compos don't scale to more than eight people; it gets unruly to manage. I saw a place where my l33t skillz could help make the competitions a better experience.”

SolidComposer embeds a chat room into the compo rounds themselves, and the listening parties are automated. Although he was mostly pleased in how the concept of his website worked out, he admitted that “Ironically ThaSauce currently scales better than SolidComposer after you pass the twenty-five entrant mark.” Over two years after its launch, Andy's site isn’t so much on the back burner as it’s almost off of the stove. He was visibly stunned when he realized how long SolidComposer has been running, and jokingly lamented that he should resume housekeeping on it.

Initially, the site's workbench system had been created as a way for him and his colleagues to work together as an Internet trio. Andy explained the pitfalls of making music as The Burning Awesome: “We ran into all kinds of problems with stepping on each other’s toes, trying to make sure we all had the same samples, trying to communicate effectively. I ended up creating a website to help our project along, and it worked great. I improved it a lot, generalized it, and made it into SolidComposer's workbench.” The Burning Awesome eventually put out a debut album, albeit one largely consisting of the same chord progression.

Despite the intentions of the workbench, the majority of activity on SolidComposer is through its compos. Andy reflected on this, and on the concept of collaboration: “I thought the site would help draw people into what I thought was a brilliant idea for working on projects. The benefit of working with other people is that when you run into composer's block, you have someone there to take the song in a totally different direction and give you all sorts of new ideas. The bad thing about working together is that you often disagree with what the other people do, or they don't understand that they shouldn't put seven Soundgoodizers on the master channel with the bass turned all the way up.”

Andy summarized his thoughts about competitions and group-composing by saying, “Yes, I think compo experience helped me quite a bit. Also vice versa: working on The Burning Awesome album together helped out in compos.” Andy’s attention has shifted away from the online arena as he moved to NYC and pursued his career at Indaba Music. To quote his response at the end of my questions: “Sorry, I’m a bit busy atm.”

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Welcome to Earth

Battle of the Bits had a small handful of battles in the past few days, not the least of which was the seemingly pleading “Submit Anything II”. As a result the combatants upload highly varied product: Jangler sent out a MIDI while LittleTheremin submitted a text file, gyms put up an MP3, and so on. Sonic Zone Remix Competition entered the final countdown as it got to the last to remixers standing: Amphibious, who unwittingly got in a minor controversy regarding the previous round, and Gario, whose vocoder vocals apparently put his entry over the top. 

Dwelling of Duels called up its denizens for a Free Month, which promises to bring in a variety of remixes because of its lack of restrictions regarding source material. SDCompo concurrently allows a wide swatch of VSTs for entrants to use in addition to the sample pack; in particular SQL8 offers emulation of a 1980s synthesizer. This is in aide of the optional theme for the round, which is to generate a nostalgic sound. Elsewhere at OLRmageddon the theme of the month was settled: for “Password” the participants could arrange any video game tune that originally appeared alongside a password screen. For bonus points the arranger would have to use unusual time signatures. 

JHCompo on Tuesday celebrated independence by way of its “Break Away” theme. Starting things off was my vocal narration accompanied by a recording of “Stars and Stripes Forever”, which thankfully did not last forever. Immediately following was dusthillguy taking a break from his pastiche of zany clips to provide some elegant guitar twanging. Duosis appeared with another of his sample-based dance track, this time infusing his drum and bass with New Orleans brass. Rob appeared from hiatus to deliver a brief foray intro pounding trance filled with pitched vocals. Finally nikola threw together an assortment of instruments for the sake of liberty and freedom. 

Thursday’s OHC fell into an unexpected area as the “Out of Their Element” theme provided two images: a fish out of water and flower growing from the pavement. With that in mind Aru Azumaya introduced the round with a narration of his own, included the foreward “See attached materials.” The first musical entry of the night came from Draconiator, who neglected to look at the theme before submitting his dance track. Zovi followed that up by making one of the biggest taboos in music production: using FL Slayer for guitar work. Blastron seemed to lean toward the fish by naming his track “Shallow Water”, expounding on a riff for the duration of his song. 

Duosis also referenced water his entry, although the composition itself consists of a chopped-up sample of a lullaby cover of a Metallica song. IXI came out of compo remission and wasted no time working out lots and lots of bells. At the end of the listening party, munchi made multiple uses of his song description: he announced that he intends to remix various entries from OHC past to celebrate the upcoming 200th round; he also made a point of mentioning that he is now in a dubstep/electrofunk group, and that a new single would be out soon. If one thing is certain, it’s that compo pages can be prime real estate.