mixing, matching

Recently on the Muffwigglers modular synth forum, the subject of making “finished songs” was brought up. The idea is that it’s easy to spend hours and days with a modular synth creating noises and short loops of music, but it’s very difficult to put things together in a way that has a beginning, middle and end. It’s similar to making pages of sketches but never being able to make a finished painting. Or writing paragraphs but not completing a story. This problem isn’t only with modular synthesizers. I find that it’s a problem with music in general. I’ve likely written here before that when I first entered the hole that is electronic music, it seemed simple to make “songs.” I had Reason, I had a little keyboard, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I used presets for the most part, and just strung loops together with drum tracks behind them. SInce then, my tastes in the sounds I make have become more complicated, and I have many many more choices to make when working. Not only do I have literally hundreds of ways to make sounds for the songs, both in software and hardware, but I have a lot more understanding as to how these tools work, and sitting down fiddling with sounds in these tools is in a lot of ways the more interesting endeavor.
Thinking about this issue after reading and contributing to the thread on the forum, I came up with a couple of thoughts. One is that in many ways and most of the time, it’s just more fun to turn knobs and record sounds. Conforming these results to a 4/4 beat at 125 beats per minute with verses and chorus is just kind of silly. Moreover, it becomes work, and I don’t make music as work. This is a thing I do to not be working. Secondly, a lot of what I do with the modular, as well as with some of the software like Reaktor, is done with changing speeds, no real musical keys, and a real lack of structure. The way I’ve been using my main software sequencer and DAW (Ableton Live) for years is with very rigid grids and loops. After the freeform music-making with the modular, attempting to put it all together in the confines of Live is a royal pain. I just lose interest.
So I brought this up, and immediately got some replies with suggestions. They spanned from simple ideas like merely quantizing the un-sync’d sequences to bars so that at least they “reset” at common points, to the more complex, like somehow sending out a “click-track” from the modular to a track in Ableton so that I can lock up Ableton to the recorded sequence later on. Last night I tried the more simple ideas, just using pieces of a thing I recorded the day before as samples in Ableton’s drum racks and lining some bits up in Live’s arrangement view, but rather than trying to quantize the loops, I just let them run free, unwarped. I like the results, and while it’s pretty tame, I can see the possibilities.

Everything you hear here comes from The Harvestman Hertz Donut, which is really an incredible module. The bass/drum line is made up of simple samples from the Donut, and the more gurgly chaos bits are small sequences. Here are some of the samples.

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I plan to put together a downloadable package of sounds from the modular. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, let me know.

One Comment

  • Dave Stotz

    This is the approach taken by early minimalist composers, particularly Tery Riley and Steve Riech. in one Riley piece, “in C” – i believe – he produced a few fragments of music, and then let them be played by the musicians one after another. They all had to play them in the same order and at the same tempo, but each musician got to choose when to stop repeating one fragment and move on to the next one. The result is about twenty little “samples” all moving in and out of phase with each other as the piece moves along. As they merge and blend, fascinating emergent layers of melody and harmony come out and the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. Reich also does things with little fragments interacting in unexpected ways…

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