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Music the Way I Do It

Several days ago I was totally bedazzled by Wesen’s openness and the willingness to share information when he laid down all tiniest details of his techno music construction workflow to the readers of his blog. He posted a carefully crafted PDF file with textual information accompanied by the set of loops, samples and sysex data ready for immediate action. You can take it all, play with it, feel it the way he felt and get all inspiration you can.

I had several awe moments, and in this writing I would like to attempt to share my own experience. It’s not going to be as nicely put, but still may be interesting to read and compare to your own views and techniques.

It’s probably an issue that almost everyone faced when trying to compose a musical piece. It’s easy to put together a short one- or two-bar sketch that you like and ready to listen infinitely, but it’s way harder to move on from there. I always felt a strange obligation to “finish” the job started and make an arrangement, make a song with the logical beginning, development and ending. I studied the structure of the tunes I like, attempted to replicate it in my own tracks, but it wasn’t really fun. It was something that I ought to do as opposed to something that I wanted to invest time into. On the other hand, there was a clear understanding that nothing of what I have has any long-term value unless it’s usable and serves some purpose. That’s how I got my main portion of stress and frustration.

Reading Wesen’s work, I was deeply impressed by how he admitted and stated in a straight way that he works with mainly 2-bar loops. It’s all that he ever needed, and it’s fun, and challenging. It sounded like a spectacular achievement, not like a flaw in psychology I considered myself. Now, as I’m seeing it from a different angle, it sounds entertaining. I have probably 20 tracks that I managed to finish in the last 15 years of irregular musical exercises intermixed with playing on private parties, in clubs and open-air raves. But I have several hundreds of techno themes presented in loops that I put together in Buzz, Fruity Loops, Reason, Reaktor and most recently in Ableton Live.

Several months ago the work on a new live set has started after seeing the video from Robert (“Monolake”) Henke’s workshop in Melbourne where he showcased the updated Ableton Live 7 and his Monodeck II. The way he described his live performance was universally simple. There’s the deck with buttons corresponding to clips in the Live’s session view, there’s the bank selector to move up and down choosing different songs and there are per-channel and global controls to manipulate the effects, volume and sends. The way the deck works lets him close the lid of the laptop and focus on the performance interacting only with the deck itself.

This was a shock to me and inspired to start two projects in the hope that maybe now I’ll get enough tools to start my regular live performances. The devices are now finished and can be seen on the pages of this blog. They are ALG Console and the Monome clone. One after another they were completed with an immense help of my father who did all the electronics and metal works. My own part was the software programming (firmware and drivers for Ableton Live) and face plates designs.

ALG Console

Monome Clone

As the result I’ve got the blend of the Richie (“Plastikman”) Hawtin’s console and Robert’s deck split into two independent parts that could be used on their own or stacked one after another to form a single workbench with buttons, knobs and faders.

The way it’s all designed let’s me work with the mix as with the set of musical themes. I can move from one to another, mix their parts and transit between them in any possible way using as many effects as I like and all the creative power that I possibly can come up with. This very concept brought a brand new problem with it though.

In the times when we had slow and weak CPU’s we had to minimize the load on them in all imaginable ways and it drove us to the simplst and most clear layouts possible. Today, having all that computation power at hand, we no longer care about the number of effects, instrument parameters and clips that are working at the same time and it’s a big help on one hand, while a huge trouble on the other. My latest frustration was this. Say I have two themes each of which takes 8 channels. Each channel holds a virtual instrument (drum machine or synth) that plays MIDI notes along with some effects. Now if I want to have two songs share the same physical channels on my mixer, I have an issue with placing two instruments on the same channel and selecting the correct one for the correct piece. If you still follow me, imagine what it looks like when there are 10-20 pieces in the live set. It’s simply insane.

Wesen reminded me of the way it was 15 years ago. We all used samples and audio loops in “trackers”. There were litterally no virtual instruments. The best the world could offer was Yamaha’s OPL3 that could not be used everywhere due to the lack of the saw wave. This taught me a great lesson, and the latest thinking is that I don’t need any instruments in the live performance situation but rather the collections of loops and 3-4 standard effects per channel (that also may be an overkill, btw). This greatly simplified design makes it way more comfortable even to think of the life set. I can work on all my pieces independently without any artificial restrictions on the structure, the effects and the channel layout that I use. Later, I will be able to render the clips in the raw audio and finally load them into the performance file.

As you could see, in this writing I focused mainly on my current setup and the way I see my live set being laid out and performed. Hopefully, this is only the beginning of the series of posts and the exchange of ideas and visions. If nothing else it was always a mystery to me how people do what they do on the stage and having a way to learn the tricks of others is always fun on its own.