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.

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