Monday, July 30, 2007

Why Computer Music?
I've been wanting to write this post for ages.

The subject matter was originally suggested by Matt Woebot (when I had dinner with him in London, a month or so ago). Matt expressed surprise when I told him I had no interest in using analogue synthesizers/effects and seemed intrigued when I described why I try to work exclusively in Max/MSP.

I had a hunch that he was not too clues in to contemporary computer music practice, having been quite shocked by a post in which he suggested that digital time-stretching was an inherently unpleasant sound. As anyone who's heard Greg Davis'
Somia will attest, this is not the case.

Anyway, ever since I got back from the UK, a plague of computer-related problems has been visited upon me - with particular emphasis on impediments to the stable running of Max/MSP. This plague has made the whole subject of computer music much harder to get enthusiastic about. It's also been very time-consuming.

Still, this post should have been written weeks ago. Instead, what always happen s has happened again. A substantive blog post gets put off again and again until I end up writing it in a hurry and not proof-reading it - just to get the bloody thing out of the way.

Here it is then - some rambling about the joys of making computer music on a Mac laptop that just doesn't seem to be working as it should. More of that later.

In the mean time, it's time to confess that much of my loyalty to computer music is spurred by sheer stubbornness. Over the last few years, I've witnessed a number of talented friends forsaking their laptops in favour of a veritable armoury of analogue gear. While they're all still doing great stuff, I must admit a preference for what they were producing before glitch became a dirty word. But it's stubbornness really - a lame conflation of swimming against the tide with artistic individuality - that keeps me hunched over the laptop.

That and the more positive fact that I still believe nothing in the world of music offers infinite possibilities like computer software does. Often, this is confused with a surfeit of choice. We are told that people making music on their computers are simply faced with too many options, resulting in some kind of creative breakdown.

But do serious musicians really have any choice at all? It may seem like a romantic notion but it could be argued that most really driven artists spend their lives chasing a single, singular vision (or audition). These people will take what they need from whatever tools they use and they will show the dedication necessary to plumb the cavernous depths of possibility opened up by computer music programming environments like Max/MSP, supercollider and Reaktor.

The term "computer music" - by the way - is used here specifically to distinguish the practices of abstract electronica artists from people who are simply using their computers to make music. For the most part, music software has simply become a tool for making beyond-shitty rock bands sound halfway competent (perhaps these are the folks who get stymied by the surfeit of choice). The way music-made-with-computers has become a debased concept aptly reflects the way those early '90s dreams of Utopian digital communities have degenerated into the horror and ignominy of MySpace.

For computer musicians per se, applications like Max/MSP etc. offer an unprecedented means by which anything is possible - any instrument, any studio, any sound, any music. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that if you can imagine it, you can build it in Max.

Like a lot of people, I found the graphical programming interface offered by Max utterly confounding when I first encountered it. Once I'd figured out what I wanted to do with it; once I realized that I could use it to build whatever performance set-up I wanted; once I realized that - if I was willing to apply myself - I could use it to get that exact sound out of my head and into the world... well then things started to become a lot easier.

I've been working on the same live performance tool for the last couple of years, gradually building its versatility while simultaneously focusing the sound it makes to a more precise representation of the way I imagine my ideal music to be. Often - like now - it's a frustrating process but once everything is working, the experience of using it is wonderfully intuitive and the results pretty much unique.

Ah but the frustrations... Computers don't lessen inconvenience, they just move it about. Which is another great reason that they shouldn't be used to make things easy for rock bands. You can't have a lazy, non-critical attitude to computers or they'll fuck you over.

Real computer music is inherently critical - you might say that the whole project is a hymn to the aesthetics of the critical attitude. Computer music doesn't rely on computer technology the way other genres have come to - it interrogates computer technology from a position of empathy. This may be a non humanistic approach but it's far from being a sterile emotionless one.

Ah but the inconvenience... It's hard to keep up my rabid Utopian fervour when my computer isn't even working properly. So to finish of the post on a charmingly negative note, please enjoy the following summary of my current computing woes. Any help or advice would be appreciated.

Machine Name: PowerBook G4 12"
CPU Speed: 1.5 GHz

Memory: 1.25 GB
I seem to be having a hardware problem which effects the audio on my Powerbook. Unfortunately, I'm having a hard time getting the problem fixed.

Audio applications have been behaving oddly for some time now. It’s always been fine in basic applications like iTunes, DVD Player and VLC but does strange things in specialist music applications. For instance:

Macromedia Soundedit 16
(i) Audio plays back at wrong speed

(ii) Audio input occasionally receives nothing but loud feedback and distortion (this is a system-wide problem, as it also appears when I open the System Preferences)


Tracks do not stay in sync

Logic Trial

This was never a big deal as having these applications run reliably was never vital to me. However, over the last couple of months, I've started experience unpredictable problems in Max/MSP, the most important application I use.

(i) Audio cuts out completely and permanently during normal usage
(ii) Audio input occasionally receives nothing but loud feedback and distortion

(iii) Problem (ii) often seems to occur after problem (i)

I tried debugging my Max patches but but the problem doesn't seem to be related to anything in the patches in a logical way. I have been able to improve the reliability of my Max set-up quite a lot by tidying up my patches but the audio still cuts out from time to time, so it's really no good as a live performance tool (I already had to cancel one show because of this issue).

An Apple forum discussion led me to believe that the problems were caused by changing the sampling rate in the Max DSP Status window (especially while Max audio is on). Possibly, this corrupts a couple of the computer's audio library files, which are easy to replace by deleting the following files...

...and restarting the computer. I tried this but it didn't seem to help.

I ran a hardware check with my installation disc. Nothing came up.

I reinstalled my entire operating system and downloaded all of the latest updates. This helped some of the minor problems - e.g. Soundedit now plays back at the right speed - but not:

(i) The Max audio cut-out problem
(ii) The line-in receiving noise problem (which seems to be related to the Max problem)

This was enough to make me believe that I was experiencing a hardware problem, a belief that was validated when I phoned Applecare. The person I spoke to implied that what I'm experiencing with the audio input going haywire is a known hardware problem and told me to take it to an Apple service agent to get it fixed.

When I did so I was told that if they couldn't reproduce the error then they'd just give me the computer back and charge me $70 for their time. I decided not to give them the computer because the problem occurs in such a random fashion that I doubted they would be able to reproduce it.

I've considered buying an external soundcard, which should solve the problem. But why should I? I paid $300 for Applecare and I'm experiencing an extremely inconvenient problem, which I'm assuming other people have experienced. It doesn't seem fair that you can't use your Applecare to get a problem solved if it doesn't behave consistently.

So do I bite the bullet, risk the $70 on the check-up and then most likely spend $700 on a soundcard? Or do I just stop performing live until my computer problem becomes serious enough that someone is prepared to fix it?


charlie m. said...

I'm not going to offer technical advice especially with macs that I know nothing about.

I recently took the trek to "go old school" got a 4 track and cassettes etc. etc. While i think its a lot of fun and can make wonderous results I doubt I'll be forsaking my computer completely anytime soon. Its still wonderful for editing and additional adding/taking away of tracks.

Biggie Samuels said...

Well that's cool but I think you're missing one of the fundamental points here.

Ideally, a computer shouldn't provide a convenient simulation of or replacement for something that exists in conventional musical/recording practice. It should offer the opportunity to create something totally customized and unique from the ground up - both virtually and conceptually.

pete said...

i couldn't agree more about the computer not needing to replace, or creating a "virtual" version of, something that already exists.

glad i found your blog, i was sure that more people must be thinking/writing along these lines. any chance you'll tell us more about your live performance patch? while it's true that a lack of boundaries leads to creative death, what you're doing with something like this is making your own set of boundaries, to push against and explore during performance.

Biggie Samuels said...

It's funny you should ask for more detail on my Max set-up because I have been planning a post of that nature. In the meantime, click on the image at the top of this post for a look at the main interface.

Thinking about it made me really start to worry about whether what I'm doing is really that unique or imaginative. Your comment about creating one's own limits was somewhat comforting in this context.

Christopher O said...

Lots of stuff to comment on, but I'll hold off until we bump into each other at random again....well, not that random; usually at blim.

I will say this though: limitations can be good. For the last few years I've been making the bulk of my sound work in SoundStudio, which, for all intents and purposes is for ripping vinyl into aiff/mp3 form. But it comes with a bunch of bells & whistles, and I like the idea of no multitracking and only being able to work in L & R channels, using its built-in effects & tone generation...even working with field recordings in such a limited realm has offered me endless hours of little surprises. Essentially, using the software against its intended purpose. Such limited means excites me way more than say, ProTools, where I need to be WAYYYYY more disciplined, as there's too much opportunity to muddy up whatever I'm doing. Its the same reason why I prefer my old point-n-shoot film camera over gear that has a million gizoms & doohickeys.

Biggie Samuels said...

Didn't maybe Holger Czukay say something about limitation being the mother of invention? I agree, I guess but given the opportunities offered by computer technology, it seems a bit of a cop out.

So you found you weren't disciplined enough to get good results from ProTools. Switching to more limiting technology is certainly the quick way of getting better results but isn't it better for you, in the long run, to make the extra effort needed to develop more discipline as an artist?

Either way, I've heard your CD and the results are very good so...

Biggie Samuels said...

BTW: The exact Holger Czukay quote is "restriction is the mother of invention."

Christopher O said...

To clarify: there are other factors at hand, such as time, inclination, inspiration and not having ProTools immediatley clickable in my dock, as I'm using ProTools Free in OS 9.
Discipline is in there, but its rare that I have the gumption to reboot in in OS9,import, work, etc, and have something I'm satisfied enough with to bounce in real time and then boot back up in OSX. It's partially discipline, I'll give you that, but a very small part. Track 2 on the disc was ProTools, btw, and I'm pleased with the results.

I should just get me an OSX version, but I'm perpetually low on memory as well, since I'm running a 7-yr old G4 tower. So thats another factor. Or one of many excuses.

At any rate, it adds up to "work with what you got", and I like that framework.

I guess what I was getting at as well with SoundStudio is that I like it on conceptual, not just practical terms for its' restrictions/limitations.
Yes, conceptual. My brain works like that....Paradigm. Rhizome. &other words tehy tauhgt me in artsko0l

Biggie Samuels said...

At least in SoundStudio you know what your limitations are whereas ProTools gives you the illusion of unlimited choices while sneakily forcing you into a set of very restrictive conventional practices. Also, there is no ProTools Free for OS X (the nearest equivalent is probably Audacity).

Anyway, I'm not against limitations, I just like them to be my limitations. My music is limited by (i) the specific boundaries of my really quite basic Max programming skills and (ii) my very set ideas about how my music should sound. These limitations add up to the fact that I only learn something in Max when I need to in order to achieve some particular end. The result, I hope, is that when you hear the music, you recognize it as having been made by me, rather than having been made using a particular application.