New remix chain

Arctic Dub

Free Bassel

Something different for the Junto this week: a soundtrack for images of an ancient city inspired by the work of a computer programmer detained in Syria.

Wasn't sure at first how to approach this, I really wanted to play bass but that didn't seem right. I didn't want to create a sense 'orientalism' either and hopefully this doesn't sound like a bad interpretation of the Muslim call to prayer because that wasn't my intention either.

My idea to sing was based on the idea that the human voice is timeless but also, given the subject matter, it was about giving a voice to those who are silenced.

This Junto underlined how messed up the situation is in Syria by giving it a face with the life story of Bassel Khartabil, who interested me for his work with Creative Commons, an alternative to copyright I've been using for almost 10 years. For much of the weekend my thoughts have been wondering about his family and those of other people detained or missing in Syria.

Theft versus inspiration

Since I am not in the habit of stealing another man’s expertise, I shall ask you in due course to accept remuneration for your most valuable technical aid.
Just reading the excellent blog Dangerous Minds and saw the words above written by Ian Fleming, famous for writing the James Bond novels.

It strikes me as something that some of the professional artists I've had dealings with could learn from. I've been disappointed a couple of times now to have shared information about my practises after an offer of collaboration, only to see my techniques imitated without acknowledgment. I should be clear that I don't expect financial remuneration.

On one hand I know that in the arts if you give two people the same tools you often end up with very different results, but on the other, I know how little trouble it is to recognise when someone has provided inspiration. Which is why I continue to thank people like Alan Lamb and Scott Baker a decade after being introduced to 'the wires', even though the lessons I learned are now being deployed in contexts far removed from a large-scale aeolian harp.

Artists might think it best never to acknowledge the source of ideas as a way to elevate their standing but in doing this I think they miss the opportunity to allow an audience to understand their work or, even better, find their own inspiration. Or even just share the love a little -- it doesn't cost anything.

Very few ideas are original anyway, which is one of the things I like about using remixing as a creative approach. Kirby Ferguson has a bit to say on this.

This issue of appropriation has been on my mind since 2008 but in the last year Brian Eno has given me a healthier perspective on it, which was good as I was getting bitter. His concept of 'scenius' gave me a perspective on my role connecting ideas and artists.

And Eno's description of the differences between artists and musicians, while interviewing Grayson Perry last year, has made me realise I'm much happier working with musicians because collaboration and listening are key to their practises:
BE: I was thinking about the differences between the music and art worlds, and one thing that strikes me is that professional musicians are quite happy to share things with each other – their ideas and techniques, the tricks that made them famous. Is that something more characteristic of music than art?
GP: Well, music is more collaborative. In the art world, originality is seen as a precious commodity and it’s increasingly difficult to get because the territory of art is so trampled. I always think that painters are fighting over the last original brushstroke. To find your own voice is incredibly hard. There’s very few people who have a revelatory, original thought; I think they’re almost mythical. Most people start off being someone else and then they make mistakes.

Aeolian Metrics

This week the Junto was a bit more challenging than usual for me. The exercise was to use the sound of a wind chime as the rhythmic foundation for a track.

When the email arrived I thought immediately of a bamboo wind chime that I'd seen hanging outside my partner's parents' house but I wasn't sure it'd been there when I last visited. As my common law brother-in-law was visiting the next day, I called and asked if he could bring it over.

It turned out the wind chime I wanted had left in the garbage a while earlier but he brought over a very nice aluminium chime. A short ride around the neighbourhood and I found another couple of bamboo chimes outside a house not far away and the guy mowing the lawn had given a friendly wave, so I grabbed my camera and took my son too as he's cuter than me.

The bamboo model appealed to me because it makes a 'donk' sound rather than a 'ding' or 'dong'. I also recorded a couple of smaller metal chimes they had and while conversing with Frank I learned his brother-in-law had formerly owned my house.

Once the recordings were loaded into Ableton Live I created loops and used gates to remove background noise. Once again I got an interesting collection of sounds but it lacked progression. A melody came to mind and I wrote lyrics but, once I returned to the track after going to the pool, I'd lost interest and started again.

The next draft focused on a progression created by re-pitching loops and using Live's follow function. Percussion was created from the bamboo chimes with loops of varying length and I tried keep a sense of that lopsided sorta way they sound. I wasn't entirely happy with it and started a third draft but then went to sleep.

Today I went back to the second draft and had a few new ideas to keep it interesting, particularly pitching down a kind of chorus section. I experimented with adding other instruments but nothing seemed inspiring, so I settled on adding a low synth part to fill in the lower frequencies using NI's Massive VST.

The end result is more of a wind chime remix than a foundation. It sounds a bit like instrumental hiphop to me, possibly influenced by the book Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies that I've just finished reading.

Watching Four Tet work

Great idea, really enjoyed this video showing Kieran Hebden putting together a track in 10 minutes. While the samples come from one of the most obvious sources, you can still hear a Four Tet-ishness in the resulting track's house groove.

Sonar Vortex

This week the Disquiet Junto proposed writing a track following the local weather forecast.

As you can see, it was a nice day. I took this snapshot soon after the Junto went live, then went swimming.

Summers haven't felt so hot since the heatwave in '09 but the current season is warming back up again after cooling down at Christmas. Looks like it'll reach 40 next week.

Anyway, this Junto was rewarding for me creatively, I had a couple of chord progressions that took shape and a melody that I started to write lyrics to suit too. It went from being rap to a ballad to a few permutations of electronic music before this version.

In the end this progression in E worked best and I experimented with synth sounds, starting three Live files from scratch in the process. The portion of the forecast in green goes quicker than the forecast in black, as a way of introducing a chord change with a little melodic part to loop back to the start.

The chord changes reflect the points on the line, from left to right: E, D#, A, F#, E, B, C, D, C, B, A -- those last few notes are quick and, now I look at it, the line seems a bit wonky.

After programming these changes it was a matter of making the track dynamic and interesting, adding drums and some modulation. I also made a few little changes to the MIDI loop in places, which repeats through three synthesisers in the track.

Sounds come from Massive, Absynth, one of Live's drumkits (saturated something?) and this really nice 808 sample set.

Japanese Techno Girl Love TR-727 & TR-707 & TB-303

More Beasties

Another fascinating tidbit from the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head album that I've read in Brian Coleman's book Check The Technique concerns the recording of their single 'So What'cha Want':
Mario Caldato Jr.: That was the last song, the one that sealed the deal and let us know the album was ready. The original of that song is underneath, and the Beasties just replayed it over the top of it [Mario plays original song over the phone but makes author promise not to reveal what it is].
It might've been Rick Rubin who said something about how the best singles come together near the end of the process of writing or recording an album, so it was interesting to learn that was the case with this track -- which I listened to a lot in '94.

I'd like to know what the track the Beastie's covered was. I've heard of this technique of building a song on top of another, then removing the foundation described as scaffolding. Here's a live version of the track featuring DJ Hurricane and Cypress Hill:

More Maestro

A few months ago I shared a post about the Maestro drum machine used by the Beastie Boys on their Check Your Head album. Recently I read Brain Coleman's interviews in Check The Technique with those involved in producing that album and there's a bit more information about the band's use of Maestro:
Adrock: The main story about that song is about the effects pedal called the Maestro. There was an old used-gear spot in LA on Larchmont, and we used to go there, and that's where I first learned about Maestro gear. It was a brand of sixties adn seventies guitar pedals.

MCA: Maestro pedals are crazy because they're kind of shitty, but they're also really unique and intense. You could set it so that it sounds like the guitar is playing percusion -- or with the one we used on that song, it's playing the guitar effect but it's also playing that bass line. A lot of jazz guys used that effect, running saxophones through it.

Money Mark: There's a Maestro box on the cover of Eddie Harris' Plug Me In album, so that always gave it some extra weight to us. I think I had the first Maestro of all of us. There are different models -- for percussion, for woodwinds, and for guitar.

Mario Caldato Jr.: The original concept of that song was about the Gibson Maestro effects box, but then we started applying it to people who acted like they were the shit. "The Maestro" is just about the attitude, like that kid on the phone message at the beginning of the song.
Here's some photos of Maestro gear I found on Matrix Synth:

The Maestro gear designed by Bob Moog is quite amazing too

Miraculous explanation?

Last year I read a fascinating article on the topic of miraculous agitations, written by Dan Wilson. His interest in electronic-sounding acoustic sounds is one I share (see here and here -- particularly the latter with reference to Wilson's discussion of where to find interesting sounds) but recently I was reminded of Dan's description of hearing music in everyday sounds.

In Musicophilia's tales of music and the brain, specifically page 146 of my 2008 paperback, Oliver Sacks describes:
...recent work demonstrating that there are massive efferent connections (the olivocochlear bundles) going from the brain to the cochlea and thence to the outer hair cells. The outer hair cells serve, among other things, to calibrate or “tune” the inner hair cells, and they have an exclusively efferent nerve supply; they do not transmit nerve impulses to the brain, they get orders from the brain. Thus one has to see the brain and ear as forming a single functioning system, a two-way system, with the ability not only to modify the representation of sounds in the cortex but to modulate the output of the cochlea itself. The power of attention – to pick out a tiny but significant sound in our environment, to home in on a single soft voice in the ambient din of a crowded restaurant – is very remarkable and seems to depend on this ability to modulate cochlear function...

It made me wonder if the agitations described by Dan might be part of this two-way system, and if so; might this be a form of feedback?

Ice in a glass

This week the Junto returned to the direction of its first project:

Please record the sound of an ice cube rattling in a glass, and make something of it.

Last year I tackled this one in extreme heat but it was a bit milder today, low to mid 30s.

Remembering the lesson of experimenting with different glasses, this year I decided against using a contact microphone -- which had captured detail in thawing ice.

I decided to work with video again too, as I filmed this project last time but didn't edit it together. In the year since I've developed a good workflow for remixing video this way.

The only drawback to editing video with Ableton Live is the reduced resolution exported, which I then composite. Otherwise I'm finding that the virtual analogue flavour I add while mangling the audio covers the reduced quality of the sound imported.

Today I was impatient to begin, so I asked my neighbour for ice cubes rather than wait for my tray to freeze. Once the files were in Live I sought short loops that sounded interesting and repitched them to sound more harmonically interesting.

Gating is a key part of the sound. You can hear it increase during the opening loop and then each of the six loops have varying degrees of gating.

The main progression is eight bars long and is supported by a similar progression an octave or so higher, but this one is four bars in length. These are looped and have reverb and delay effects respectively, as well as widening and EQ. For some reason Live wouldn't export video for these two tracks, maybe because they were made from a very short loop? Dunno.

The rhythm is created through gating and also Live's Beatrepeat effect. The drum sounds have been given a studio-style reverb and then compression.

Overall, I think I could have given this track better structure but the sounds began to grate on me after while so I wrapped it up. It might've been better to ease into the Beatrepeated kick a bit but I like that there's something about the percussion that makes me think of Flying Lotus.

Ny recordings can also be heard in Kelp's first track for the Junto. It's great to have him involved as we've nearly finished our next remix chain.