Thursday, November 29, 2012

Keeping it Real(ish)

My musical background is mostly limited to playing with recorders (the wooden kind) as a child and then years of playing trumpet in jazz bands, pop orchestras and symphonies all the way through high school.

I think that these experiences have shaped my tastes and tendencies to where I often prefer hearing "traditional" or organic sounds when composing or playing music. I did acquire a taste for electronica and synth sounds over time, but the traditional sounds of brass, winds and/or violins has never really left my mind.

When I first started making music with computers (and stopped blowing air through tubes), I was very enthused and at the same time disappointed by what sound cards and early computers were capable of producing. In fact, having never had synth gear, I thought that FM synthesis was limited to the pacman-like sounds coming out of cheap sound cards (they did use FM, but with very poor chips).

As I blogged in a very early post, one thing that changed everything for me was the Creative Labs AWE32 sound card with onboard memory and an early implementation of "wave table" synthesis. Using General Midi with this somewhat expensive ($245) card, let me hear actual instrument sounds with MIDI music. The expressiveness wasn't there and the envelopes were pretty boring, but the sounds were worlds better than cheap sound cards.

This created what remained for me, a holy grail of "real sounding" synthesized sounds. The actual sounds of orchestras, brass sections, sax solos seemed getting closer every day... except the day never seemed to arrive. My first forays into sampling or MIDI composing petered out in the 90s and I returned to other hobbies (lots of shareware programming, brewing beer, etc).

Then something happened. I first decided that OSX made Apple hardware interesting finally (never was a fan of pre-OSX). Having bought a G4 table lamp iMac, I quickly discovered Garageband in the iLive suite. This was a simple DAW but compared to the Cakewalk "light" I had used on Windows, this was amazing.

I was able to pop loops together with real recorded sounds and tweak, twist and combine sounds to make whole compositions. For any of you with far too much time on your hands, my page here goes all the way back to those dark days of 2004 where loops were king!

My Garageband skills eventually grew to including more and more keyboard parts and software instruments instead of loops and eventually I replaced Garageband with Logic Express 9 which brought yet another learning curve but tons more sampled and software instruments.

New instruments were sampled from live musicians and except for the expressiveness, the sounds got closer and closer to "real". The more I played around with brass samples or read up in books and magazines, the more all common knowledge said "forget it"! If you want brass, use musicians or record them. Same for violins, winds etc. For a very long time I think this was accurate.

With each year and generation of sampling technology and hardware, "real" sounds get closer and closer to attainable. I've recently purchased the Akai EWI-USB which is a wind instrument that lets me blow into it to control volume envelopes, cutoffs and vibrato with whatever software instruments I point it at. It really is a phenomenal instrument that emits MIDI events based on live performance.

Coupling this with either software modeled instruments or samples brings things closer and closer to "real". In fact, in the right mix, I don't think it is easy to tell the difference. I've been using the Wivi Band samples in many tracks and while my talent is lacking in terms of playing, the sounds work very well and sound pretty close to actual instruments. I don't think that soloing is quite there yet with the tools I have bought, but every day I hear new examples and see software that brings that closer to reality.

Recently, I also purchased the Miroslav Philarmonik orchestra samples from IKMultimedia which brings an entire orchestra into my mixes.

I often wonder why I enjoy "faking" real instruments so much - must be some character flaw!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Misanthropic Composing

I've been recently been reading "Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation" by Paul Berliner. This is an excellent book and goes into detail about how jazz artists learn and improve their improvisational skills. As an amateur, I don't take what I make musically too seriously, but still....

I have to admit that I am trying to find ways to improve what I create and do. I think hobby or otherwise, that is sort of human nature and all this has me thinking a bit about how things have changed and the processes that online musicians follow now.

In the past, the collaboration and jam sessions were the normal means of picking up tips, learning chord progressions, mimicing styles and adding them into your own repertoire. Musicians would jam after hours or in apartments just to pick up styles and to play off of each other. Learning in this way must have been a unique experience. The back and forth between players often formed great synergies that carried over into the studios.

I recently got to hear a local jazz combo play with Randy Brecker which was a bit of a humbling experience. I've been putting a number of jazz pieces together recently and this was a chance to hear live musicians interact (in this case after only a few days rehearsal!). Of course I realize there is a big gap in talent between my own hacked out pieces and life long performers but there was more than that. I think in live improvisational performance, you see players build on each solo and off of each other's playing styles. This is something you don't see in the online amateur musician - like myself.

I can put many tracks together - drums, saxes, trumpets etc, but every one is me playing or tweaking the sounds. You get my perspective on everything and aside from the skills gap, I think there is a creativity difference there. I can put some things together that I think are very listenable and occasionally pretty good but they are homogenous in a sense. It is presumptuous of me to attempt to put jazz charts together in the shadow of Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter or many others, but since its a hobby, hubris is OK and failing is without consequences beyond slightly wounded pride.

Collaboration in electronic music is often done virtually and disjointed. It is easy to collaborate anywhere in the world which is tremendous but you do lose that immediacy and the back and forth that goes on with performers. What impresses me most is the live improvs between jazz masters. My own process of getting a half decent track involves take after take, practice and finally recording. In live jazz, you see musicians following rapid 16 note patterns immediately with no rehearsal - pretty amazing!

So I am well aware that the process I use in music is different, probably inherently flawed and probably won't match the incredible efforts of skilled jazz combos. But I'm vain and stupid enough to keep trying!