The muscle of generosity

Last week I listened to Jon Hopkins on the podcast Tape Notes, and over the weekend I listened to another episode featuring the UK techno-duo Bicep.

I listened quite a lot to Bicep’s music a few years ago and spent some time thinking about their techniques, how they had achieved certain sounds. I didn’t go as far as to reverse-engineer and recreate. But now I can to a certain degree. Because in the episode Bicep very generously shared their tricks using gates and filters on synth-pads triggered by 909-hats. Which is how they achieve their rhythmic and choppy riffs which feature in songs such as Glue, Apricots and Opal.

It’s a technique they use a lot. All their most played hits on Spotify seems to use them. And still, they didn’t keep it to themselves like some Coca-Cola recipe.

I’d like to view this as both generous and confident. They know that their talent, taste and skill is more than that particular trick. So they give it away. Not that experienced synth-producers couldn’t have figured it out their own, I more or less already did. But still, listening to the episode I got a lot more ideas on how to improve my craft and grow my skills. So, thank you Bicep! I thought it was awesome.

Here’s a short test of the techniques taught by Bicep. A four-bar loop of synthpad chords that is chopped up by a sidechained gate and later also by a sidechained filter. I vary some settings as it runs.

5ive 4our

Every improvisation needs to start somewhere. And more often than not the trick is just to get started. There’s nothing to plan. Time will tell where you end up. If it’s any good the end destination might surprise you. After all, you wouldn’t be exploring if you end up in the same spot, with the same result as last time.

The power of prompts is an example of this. You just let any arbitrary starting point be the fuse to send you off. Somehow, I got it all wrong I figured that prompts were for beginners, for students. I’ve later realized that skilled writers and poets might use prompts too, just to get started.

Disquiet Junto is a weekly musical prompt that takes you out of the comfort zone very fast. I do these from time to time. Not because my end result is fantastic, it never is. But quite often, it turns out to be interesting. Because I wouldn’t go there on my own.

Yesterday was the deadline for Disquiet 0540.

Disquiet Junto Project 0540: 5ive 4our

The Assignment: Take back 5/4 for Jedi time masters Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond

Step 1: The day before this project began was May 4, which has been claimed by a fantasy from a galaxy far far away. Prepare to reclaim the day for the late jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and saxophonist Paul Desmond.

Step 2: Now, in honor of Dave Brubeck’s classic recording of the Paul Desmond composition “Take Five,” record something original in 5/4 time.

This is what I did:
Playing music in 5/4 is definitely outside the comfort zone of my musicianship. I started with programming a simple drum beat. Then I generated some electric piano. Added some chords on top, a bass synth playing long notes and an 808 drum machine playing hihat-patterns. I tried a while to solo on guitar over it all, but it sounded like crap. All in all, it was an hour of fun.

Here’s what I ended up with:

Learnings from jamming

My daily jam-challenge is still ongoing. I make a little beat everyday, but since a few days back I have taken a break from posting them. Making the jams is great practise, I make new discoveries. But naturally it’s not in many people’s interest to look at someone else’s attempts, or push-ups.

I still plan to post them as proof 😉 – but I don’t really see the value of spamming someone’s RSS-feed with something half-assed that I’m throwing together just before midnight.

So far, I’m on my 27th day of daily jams. I’ll push through til 30, but from then on it makes more sense to putting in a bit more work in every piece. To break the stalemate I had found myself in, the challenge was the right thing.

The Op-1 and I had been on a hiatus. But being forced to come up with something every day it soon became the first tool to reach for. I don’t love everything about how it sounds, but I love how fast and playful it allows me to move forward. Ableton Live + Push could of course be just as fast and more powerful. But the great thing about the Op-1 is its limitations that forces you to make decisions and move on. There’s very little room for editing. It’s either keep or re-record.

Forcing myself to make something with no or little idea is interesting. In general it starts pretty uninspired, an-uphill creation. But pushing on, there’s always something unexpected that happens that makes me a bit excited.

Since starting to blog earlier this year it seems I’ve been trying different approaches. At first I wrote more about creative strategies, and lately about the nitty-gritty of music making in my jams. Neither one seems like the right subject for a blog. I’d rather engage in those discussion among peers, such as in the lines forum. I think/hope I can focus this blog on putting my music out in the world, rather than staying in the workshop.

I think I will try to turn it more towards lyrics. Towards feelings and thoughts, in contrast to the jams of the last few weeks that for good or bad have been pretty thoughtless.

Jam 21: Push-ups

This one was like push-ups. Recorded guitar and piano with Op1 built in mic. Recorded every other track in reverse. Slowed/pitched down 12 semitones (halfspeed). Had the Endless sequencer play on top.
Just like doing pushups, nothing glorious.

June 2: Mon Monotron

The Korg Monotron is a funny creature. Small, so full of potential, yet a bit challenging if you want to create musical pieces that are in tune and keep a steady pitch. In that sense playing it is a bit like the trombone or a violin with floating boundaries between different notes.

Well, listening to Brian Funk’s podcast featuring Adam Rokhsar I got the tip of a free auto-tune plugin called Auburn Graillon 2 Live Voice Changer. And I figured it could be useful for the monotron.

So, all sounds in today’s jam comes from the Monotron, except a clap. While warping the bass note I made the terrific mistake to warp it to 6/8 (6/4?) instead of straight quarter notes. So, with the drums I got this triplet swinging shuffle that was totally unplanned. “honor thy mistake as a hidden intention”.

June 1: Gated bells

Hey ho, let’s go. It’s good to finish something every day. I’ll try to keep up the routine. Today’s experiment concerns using a gate sidechained to something else. A few years back I listened to the UK act Bicep and their song Glue attracted my interested. I felt pretty good about myself when I figured out on my own that they were using a gate.

Today I resampled a bell sound, or rather a bell melody, in the spirit of Jon Hopkins – mangling and destroying it with extreme delay settings, some Soundtoys filter plugin and what not. I should have sidechained my gate to something more funky than a straight four-to-the-floor beat. Next time.

May Challenge 14: Op-1 house

A good thing with doing these 14 May challenges is that has made me reconnect with the OP-1. When I’m short of time and need to doing something that feels creative – there’s simply no better sketchpad. Even though I’m pretty fluent with the Op-1, half of the time I’ve got no idea what I’m doing. I’m grabbing a preset of some synth, a few quick tweaks to get it more to my liking and off we go.

This time around, and especially today, I’ve become aware of all the “randomization” available with the OP-1 sequencers, such as Endless. It just seems hotwired to get happy accidents happening.

Today’s jam was built up in 8-bar segments. Adding loops, “ping-pong” resampling etc til I had enough small loops to get a full arrangement. Dumped everything into Live arrangement view and started.

For now, here’s just a quick bounce of a section. I have some work to do to get it all structured and varied, but tonight I have no time it. Let’s call it a jam – and see what June has to offer.

May Challenge 13: Bottle up

Today’s instrument.

Sylvan Esso is one of my favourite bands from the last few years. I like them in so many ways, but what I find especially interesting is the blend of folk sensibility with electronic beats – while keeping it all in the pop domain.

Nick Sanborn has been very generous with sharing some of his production techniques. And I hope to try some of them out. Today’s jam was inspired by the breathy, flutey stutter of the Sylvan Esso song Frequency. According to Sanborn it is made up from a vocal sample on the OP-1, then played as chords – and ran through his modular synth.

I didn’t really have access to that. But the sound of Frequency reminded me of pan flutes or blowing in bottles. So, that’s what I did. I filled a wine bottle with water. Recorded a snippet onto my phone. Dropped it into Ableton sampler and had the M4L-device Melodic Steps followed by some midi-fx come up with a chord-riff.

I added some drums, Minitaur-bass, rhodes with beat repeat and then there’s some “failed blowing” that I put a gate on and sidechained to the drums for percussive effect.

I didn’t really end up that close to the Sylvan Esso song. The breathy airyness that I wanted to emulate was simply a starting point. Texture-wise I was pretty satisfied. The bass…not so much hmm.