Saturday, September 15, 2007

What Computer Music
I know I said I wasn't going to do any more posts for a couple of weeks but Matt replied to my second computer music post. Of course he did so in his usual thoughtful manner but I really have to take issue with much of what he said - hence this post. Let's take a look at some of Matt's comments on analogue-versus-digital electronica and see how these comments they apply to my theories and music.

"Looking into synths I've come to appreciate the difference between computer sonic synthesis, the "Rompler" style of synthesiser (essentially manipulating samples to create sound) and the older "Analogue" synthesisers."

I'm not sure these categories apply to what I - or the majority of contemporary computer music producers - do. Perhaps the more relevant categories would be "granular synthesis" (manipulating samples by breaking them down to a molecular level and moving the particles around) and "virtual analogue synthesis" (computer-modeled oscillators and envelopes).

"With Analogue synths one is actively shaping the sonic envelope generated by oscillators. It's the difference between carving a statue out of stone and I dunno, ordering a sculpture off a website."

From my point of view, the difference between analogue synthesis and granular synthesis is the difference between playing an acoustic guitar and playing with psycho-acoustic space.

"There's always something very physical and tactile, very "of-human-dimension" about Analogue electronic music that I find appealing too."

Funny how old synth music that probably sounded impossibly alien and robotic at the time now strikes our ears as specifically human.

Actually, there's something incredibly tactile about granular synthesis - the ability to take any sound, bust it up into atoms and twist it inside out, in real-time. In my experience, nothing in conventional musical practice or instrumentation comes close to allowing this kind of hands-on sonic manipulation.

I've also always tried to include a more literally tactile element in my computer music practice. My Max patches are entirely around a Behringer BCR 2000 MIDI controller (as pictured at the top of this post). Basically the whole set up is designed to act as a virtual version of the Behringer or - to put it more accurately - I use Max/MSP to turn the Behringer into a kind of granular synthesis hardware instrument. The Behringer has, I think, 32 knobs and 16 buttons, which effectively means that I can do most of what I need to in a live performance without even touching my laptop's track-pad.

"Recently I've tended to find Electronic music made on computers flat,

Surely, then, Matt is simply hearing the wrong computer music. I guess I'll have to send him copies of my glitch classics and new electronic underground mixes. I'll also use this opportunity to link to my series of posts on a few random masterworks of more-or-less recent glitchy and/or software-based electronica, all of which are highly recommended.

Frank Bretschneider - Curve

Ultra Milkmaids - Disko 2K

Autopoises - La Vie a Noir Remixes and Random Inc - Walking in Jerusalem

Oren Ambarchi - Suspension

Gas - Pop

General Magic - Frantz

On the other hand, why not just go out and buy the most recent Alog album, which should be proof enough for anyone that computer music can be a joyous, multi-dimensional experience.

"I think, and it's not a wholly original point-of-view, that people tend to make very un-dynamic, unphysical music on computers."

Yes, this is most certainly the common wisdom among serious music fans. Indeed not a day goes by when someone doesn't accost me in the street to tell my "your music and all the music you love the most is appallingly un-dynamic and unphysical" before spitting in my face and leaving me to trudge home dejectedly.

Seriously, though, I'd have to plead guilty as charged on this one - dynamics and physicality are probably the musical values that mean the least to me. I tend to prefer disembodied music structured mainly around stasis.

"The MPC for instance, it's not a word-processor it's this big chunky hand-triggered drum-machine. As for its interface, you're not layering tracks on top of one other as is the dominant visual paradigm in Pro Tools, Logic or Ableton Live, you're building music out of stabs. "

Interestingly, there is a MIDI controller modelled on the Aika MPC, so it is actually possible to play computer music MPC style. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to discover that the MPC itself has a MIDI-out port, which would allow one to use it to play other hardware and software instruments.

In addition to all this, a couple of people have actually built Max patches that simulate the MPC! I bring this up mainly because I think it's funny, rather than because I think it proves that anything you can do, I can do virtually.

"By definition the music is built on gaps of silence as much as of noise (and don't you know half music is silence!) Computer music to my ears these days, of whatever kind, sounds very much like a endless, unpunctuated, obsessively-tweaked, spelling-corrected trickle.

Again, this surely has to be a result of hearing the wrong records. That Alog record, for instance, sounds more like a hilarious typo-ridden gush of wonder. My personal taste is not for electronica of the obsessively tweaked kind - I tend to prefer it glitchy and spontaneous.

As for aural punctuation, why not try some Raster Noton releases, like the ones K-Punk wrote about about so eloquently in The Wire last month? The Raster crew are absolute masters of rhythm and silence. Doesn't the term "raster" even refer to the space between pixels on a computer screen?

And there's always Rafael Toral's awe-inspiring Space - an album that combines virtual analogue synthesis and DSP with analogue synthesis and custom MIDI interfaces to create copious amounts of silence plus some extremely extremely dramatic, beautiful music.

Anyway, I've had my say (again). For those of you who want to hear me back my bullshit up with some actual music of my own, head over to the connect_icut website and have a listen to some MP3s. Trickle or gush? You decide.


Pete said...

i'm surprised this turned into an additive vs granular synthesis debate - max lends itself to additive synthesis just as much as anything else, making computer music in the sculpture analogy something more like not only carving out of stone but also making the tools to do it with...

Pete said...

cheers for all the music recommendations by the way - some stuff there i don't know of, looking forward to hearing it

Biggie Samuels said...

Isn't subtractive synthesis the one that's most like sculpture? Anyway, Max can do additive, subtractive, FM, wavetable etc. synthesis really well. Applications like Max and Reaktor really do let you build your own high-quality synths from scratch.


(i) I seriously doubt that virtual analogue synthesis will ever be able to truly replicate the tactile experience and sound quality of a really great vintage synth.

(ii) I really am wary of using computers as a convenient way of simulating other musical instruments/hardware. I wanted to use these posts to point out the things that you can really only do with a computer, which is why the issue of granular synthesis became so important (along with generative processes, customized virtual interfaces etc...)

Biggie Samuels said...

And while we're talking recommendations, I seem to have left out the most important of my electronic obscurities posts

farmersmanual explorers_we

Arliss said...

I'm with your synth opponent on the synthesizer preference side of things - I personally like (only) vintage synths. I find programming/sequencing an old Roland/Moog/Yamaha FM synth way more... "interesting" than any computer-based synth "emulator". They just plain and simple sound "better", and I like the choices one makes when confronted by dedicated hardwate controls as a contrast to a mouse/midi controller setup. But, as I said to you before, there's no putting the computer back in any bottle. There shouldn't be any combativeness between the two methods of production because:

A: that's stupid

B: Something like a Roland 100-M analogue sequencer is never going to do 1% of what MaxMSP can do, and while the synths one makes in Reaktor look/sound cool, they shrivel up and die compared to what comes out of a MiniMoog.

C: Computer-based electronic music is the only one of the two that let's you have your cake AND eat it too (recording "non-computer created" electronic music into your computer for further use) so it wins, here.

ps: MPC does have a midi out, and yes - it's actually a computer - pass it on

Biggie Samuels said...


I'm particularly interested in the 99% more that Max can do as opposed to an analogue sequencer. In an email you said something about how one can't make "truly algorithmic or generative music" without a computer.

Arliss said...


I didn't say "one can't make "truly one can't make "truly algorithmic or generative music" without a computer" without a computer" - I said "it's pretty tough". I think a better way to phrase that might be to say "it's pretty tough to make NEW FORMS OF "truly algorithmic or generative music" without a computer". Not impossible - but hard. Learning MaxMSP is hard, but once you have, creating "truly algorithmic or generative music" is actually hard to avoid.

But as I said, it's "stupid" to pit different methods of making music against each other - and listening to electronic music, I could give a rats' bum as to how it's made.

Ps: went to and bought some Alog tracks (never heard of them before, thanks)

Biggie Samuels said...

This goes back to the point I've been making all along. I use computer software to make music because I need to make the kind of music one can only make with computer software. It's possible to simulate the kind of thing I do with gear (as I used to do with my beloved Korg ES1 sampler) or with software designed to act like gear (as I used to do with Reason) but to really get where I wanted to go I had to make the leap into audio programming interfaces like Max.

Likewise, I don't really believe that people should use computers to simulate "real" instruments, recording studios, analogue synths etc... because the results will never be entirely satisfactory and the whole experience will be cheapened somehow.

Basically: use computers to do what computers do well.

And yes, Alog are awesome. Amateur is available on double vinyl and I strongly recommend that you all rush out and buy it, right now.

Brady Cranfield! said...

OK. I agree with you Sammy, also with Arliss. However, I can't get behind this statement:

"Likewise, I don't really believe that people should use computers to simulate "real" instruments, recording studios, analogue synths etc... because the results will never be entirely satisfactory and the whole experience will be cheapened somehow."

From my point of view, this is needlessly restrictive, perhaps pointless. It reads like classic dichotomizing, and I think it's totally unnecessary with respect to your larger intention viz computer music. Your concept is still valid and secure without this somewhat hackneyed evaluation. For my part, I think people should use whatever they want or need to use to do whatever they want or need to do. For sure, tools have "personalities". And some tools, like computers, are amazingly versatile, indeed becoming only more flexible and powerful. This powerful versatility, which makes computers as able to (increasingly more than less) emulate "real" gear as produce totally new possibilities, is an essential capacity of the computer as a tool, hence part of what computers "do well". Seems to me that what makes a "real" synth or mixer a different, for some much better experience is the tactile character of its interface before anything else. Sometimes it's great to turn knobs and push buttons. And sometimes simpler, more straightforwardly dedicated gear is the best thing for the situation (or concept, such as Josh Stevenson's new all-analogue synth group, for example). Nevertheless, computers will probably eventually be able to perfectly emulate the "sound" of all analogue gear, if they can't already (let's ask Arliss). Besides, for good or bad or both, all music these days is computer mediated at some point in its production and reproduction. So, whatever.... When it comes to music, the proof of its value is primarily in the listening, anyway. This is why I like your stuff, buddy, regardless of how it's made. Keep on blogging, Sammy!

Biggie Samuels said...

I agree up to a point but I think what you're missing is the fact that whatever you do with a computer, you pretty much have to do via the regular computer hardware/OS/software interface. I think this is what a lot of people can find off-putting about using computers to make music.

It's understandable given what this interface has come to represent for most of us - the nullifying mundanity of work and Facebook. I guess my point is that computer music methodology should aim to reclaim this territory to do creatively unconventional things that make positive and imaginative use of this interface.

Brady Cranfield! said...

No, Sam, I get what you're saying, I just tend to see things dialectically.

Biggie Samuels said...

For my part, every time I do a blog post or leave a comment, I start seeing the other side of the argument about five seconds after I hit "publish".

I'm already regretting this one.