Octatrack Preview

Ok, so I lied about yesterday’s blog post being the last one of the year, oops.   As I mentioned then, I just received an Elektron Octatrack, and I’ve since been getting tons of people contacting me with questions about it and wanting to see some video.  So I knocked together this really quick before I start my mastering work for the day, hope it holds people over until I can get more indepth on the Octatrack and record some better live performance related videos.

Enjoy, and post any questions you might have in the comments sections.

EDIT – I should also mention that the Elektron forums are a great source of info if anyone wants to learn more about any of the Elektron products. I’m a moderator there as well, but lots of really friendly and helpful people ready to answer questions: http://elektron-users.com

The Live PA Interview

A few weeks back I was interviewed by Ali Berger, a student at Tufts University in Boston.  He was working on a paper for a class called “Sketch Studies Today”, and wanted to pick my brain about different aspects of how I do my live sets, specifically my “Wired Roots” live set that I posted on YouTube.  You can find more details on that set HERE.

Over the course of a couple weeks we traded emails back and forth, and I thought the dicussion was something others might like to read as well.  Some of the most interest on my blog has been when I discuss different aspects of Live PA’s, so I figured there would be some interest in this too.  As usual, if anyone else has any questions on this topic, please add them in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer those.

INTERVIEW

Ali:  First, when you wrote Wired Roots, did you make a conscious effort to keep the sounds or musical features consistent across the set? From the blog, it definitely sounds like you think of it as a single piece of music. How much do you define a theme (in terms of inspiration, not necessarily a musical theme) and other constraints/parameters before you start writing the set?

Tarekith: I definitely had a very clear goal and sound I wanted to achieve across the whole set with something like Wired Roots.  The actual sound was largely determined by the gear I was using, in this case the two Elektron boxes.  But in terms of the overall feel of things, and how it all flowed together, I knew right from the start that I wanted it to be a sort mellow, downtempo set, with just enough energy to keep people from getting bored.

For my hardware live sets, I often have a plan of attack before I start writing anything.  The point of live sets like this is to progress in a logical way, so I spend a lot of effort sort of pre-planning where in the set I want the peak song to be, where I want things to be more chill and laid back, how I want to start and end, etc.  As I write the individual songs, it’s not uncommon for me to move them around a lot in the set so I can maintain this sort of flow.

For instance, say a song was originally in a position in the set where I was planning on having a bit of a breather, and things were more minimal.  Then while writing that song, I get a great idea and now the song is more upbeat than I intended.  I’ll move things around so that the overall flow of the set as a whole reflects the intent I originally had.

Ali: Is your choice of hardware at all related to the theme/central idea of the set, or do you choose particular gear combinations for other reasons?

Tarekith: Well, these days I’m pretty much a minimalist when it comes to gear, so often it’s just whatever gear I happen to have at the time.  Sometimes I’ll buy gear just to see how it works for a live set, in fact the Monomachine was one of these kinds of purchases.  Sadly, as much as I liked it, Wired Roots showed me that it just wasn’t as flexible as the machinedrum for performance based music, so I sold it to fund other gear.

Other times the sound of the set itself will be based completely on the gear I want to use.  Again, with the Elektron stuff, I know they are pattern based boxes that really shine doing loopy electro techy sounds, so rather than fight that I’ll write the set so that the gear in mind.  I’ll embrace the repetitive nature of them when I write the songs.

Ali: How much do you plan the structure of the set, and how much do you improvise? Does this change a lot as you practice the set? What drives the choices you make during the performance? (That might be a tough/broad question.)

Tarekith: I think the overall structure of the set is definitely planned well in advance, and for the most part I stick with that.  If I feel the songs I’m writing for it are really strong but pulling the set in another direction though, I’m not against altering my orginal goals either.  You have to be flexible when it comes to writing music, trying to force crativity to be something its not just leads to frustration in my experience.

In terms of practice, a lot of times the live sets I record and post online are the first complete run through of the set.  It’s one thing to play the same set over and over when you have a crowd to interact with and make it exciting, but doing that at home just gets boring. You start losing the urge to be spontaneous, and fall back on things you know work.

So a lot of the set is improvised, as it’s when you take risks that you run into the best “happy accidents”.  Besides, if you make a mistake in a live set, it’s not a big deal most of the time.  It’s over done with before most people notice, and as long as you don’t do it too often, no one cares.  It helps remind people that you’re really doing something live, and not just pantomiming a preplanned set (*cough* Glitch Mob *cough*).

Does improvise drive the progression of the set?  Definitely.  In Wired Roots you have to remember that each “song” is really only a 4 bar loop, and I’m controlling the song structure and how the sounds evolve live on the fly.  If I hit on something that’s really grooving, I’ll let that play longer, and when I can tell that something just isn’t working, I move on to something else more quickly than I might have.

Ali: When do you consider the set finished? When you finish all the patterns, when you make a final recording?

Tarekith: Whew, tough question.  I think I’ve learned over the years that I tend to always plan out sets to be more complicated than they end up.  For instance, Wired Roots was originally supposed to be a little more glitchy, with more fills and things programmed in it.  But as I started to get all the patterns written and organized, I inevitably reach a point where I realize that adding more to the set really isn’t going to make it better.  I could easily spend a lot more time fine-tuning things, but ultimately at the end of the day most people would never realize.  I think this is true of writing music in general for me, I just tend to suddenly KNOW that it’s done.

Some of it is boredom and wanting to move on too.  Writing an entire live set is A LOT of music to write, and sometimes I just want to finish it and move on to the next project.  It’s always a gut feeling though, a little light bulb going off that tell me “right, you’re done, wrap up the loose ends and get this recorded”.

Ali: Are there any influences you’d point to for where this set came from? (other artists)

Tarekith: Not so much.  Mostly it was just exploring what the MnM could do as that was a new purchase, and I wanted to see how it paired with the MD for a live performance.

Ali: In the process of writing the set, did you use any additional midi controllers like a keyboard, or was it purely step editing/live recording with the step keys?

Tarekith: No, it was all done directly on the MD and MnM.  I like the focus working with the least amount of gear possible gives me, and it helps familiarize me with the way it works.  Since those are the only tools I’ll have on stage to perform, it’s a good way to get more comfortable with how they work on all fronts, in case I get an idea while performing.

Ali: What kind of audiences might this set be for (besides the people listening to the recording or watching the video)? Dancing, seated? Watching you, or not? I ask because people in the class were curious how this would translate to an in-person audience. Would you consciously do anything differently if there were people there? And what are the audiences like in general for downtempo sets you do in person?

Tarekith: Umm, good question.  I guess in this case thoughts about the audience wasn’t really a factor in how I wrote the set, it was mainly for my own enjoyment (in this specific case).  If there were more people there, or if I knew for sure people were going to be watching this particular set, I probably would have had more material prepared, just to give me more flexibility in how it progressed based on people’s feedback. In some cases you can tell when people just aren’t feeling a particular section, so it’s nice to have more material than you need so you can skip to something different if needed.

Most of my downtempo sets are for more relaxed crowds, either at art galleries, lounges, or chill out tents where I don’t need to make people dance.  I have plenty of more clubby and uptempo sets prepped in case the venue or crowd dictates that kind of approach.

Ali: To what degree to you expect/want your audience to know what you’re doing when you play a live set? People were curious about who you had in mind when you did the commentary (other producers/live PAs, or audience members who you wanted to educate, etc).

Tarekith: The commentary in the youtube videos was strictly for other electronic musicians and performers.  A lot of people had questioned whether my sets were truly done live, so I wanted to offer up some sort of proof if you will.  But I’ve found that a lot of other musicians like to see how other people perform, it seems to be a common question I get a lot.  Most producers these days seem to start out in their bedrooms alone, so they don’t understand the process of taking studio work live, or creating music JUST for live performance.

I got into electronic music almost solely with it being a live performance type of deal.  Most of my friends were DJs, and if I want to play at parties with them, I wanted it to be my music and not just records written from other people.  So all of my early music making was spent creating material solely with a live setting in mind.

In terms of do I care if people know what I’m doing or not, well… not really.  There’s plenty of live acts out there where the performers focus more on putting on a good visual show versus truly creating something unique on the fly.  Some people wear a big mouse head, or jump around like a rabid monkey trying to avoid a swarm of mosquitos, but that’s just not my thing.  I grew up in the early rave days, and even a club scene, where the performer or DJ was often hidden off to one side and people were only concerned about what they heard.  Sure, you might have a couple musicians curious about what was going on watching, but for the most part people were happy to just dance or enjoy the music without that visual interaction.

In a lot of respects I think that’s been one of the worst things to happen to electronic music, trying to make a visual show out of something that just doesn’t inherently lend itself to spontaneous gestures where the lay person can understand what is going on.  Let’s face it, a lot of today’s live acts dumb down their live sets merely so it looks good, and as a result there’s a lot less improvisation and truly on the fly creation.  Too much of it is performers just pretending to exaggerate a big filter sweep with a knob or touchscreen, because it’s the one motion just about anyone can correlate to a sound they hear. It’s become pantomime.

Most of what we do is music meant for dark rooms and for people to get lost in their own mindsets as they listen to it.  You don’t need to be looking at a stage for that happen, so I don’t concern myself about it.  The lack of rock star egos is what used to set this kind of music apart, and the second that sort of mentality crept in, it just got compartmentalized and lost it’s edge.

Of course, that’s just my opinion 🙂

Ali:  One more question for the paper: why do a live set over a DJ set? If you don’t expect people to know either way, and in fact that doesn’t really matter to you, is it just a personal preference, or do you believe there are advantages to the live set that allow you to provide a better experience for people than a DJ set might?

Tarekith: Because I enjoy the act of playing live, and I’d rather have the chance to show people my own music than someone else’s.  Don’t get me wrong, I DJ a lot too, been doing it almost as long as I’ve been playing live.  But in general I prefer the more hands on aspect of performing my own music, versus DJing most of the time.

Ali: And one thing I’m curious about as a producer/live PA. I’m planning to take this winter break and finally work up a hardware live set, since I’ve always wanted to do one and I’ve been making old-school acid techno and electrofunk tunes lately. Now that I’m free of complex song structures and sound design it makes sense to use a hardware sequencer, a sampler, and a few synths instead of need Ableton’s audio loops to organize everything. The main thing I’ve been wrestling with, though, is how to get smooth transitions.

Tarekith:  LOL, if you knew how many sleepless nights I spent trying to answer that question myself back in the day!

Ali: My setup will likely be an EMX for sequencing and some percussion, a small synth for 303 basslines, and an Akai S2000 for drum samples, all running into a Roland hard disk recorder/mixer (since it has some built-in effects). I know you’re a big fan of the RAM machine loops–I spend about a page on that in the paper–but I know you haven’t always had the MD for live sets. How did you do things before that?

Tarekith: In general I’ve tended to gravitate towards gear that had some sort of facility to enable me to do this.  Early on it was the Roland MC505 which had a function called Megamix.  Basically it let you grab a phrase or track from one pattern, and insert it into your current pattern, all in real time.  So I’d grab a phrase one at a time from the next pattern in my set (with each pattern basically being a song), and in this way I could introduce elements from the next song before I actually switched to it.

After that, I was using an Emu Command Station, and actually worked with the programmers to implement a better version of this feature that they called XMIX.  Same concept, just a bit more flexibility in how it worked.  For awhile I was also using the Roland SP808ex, which is a phrase sampler.  So I could have pre-recorded loops, or grab samples on the fly from my other hardware to play while I switched patterns on them.  Same basic concept that I still use with the UW aspect of the Machinedrum.

I’ve even done the rather simple method of just holding a long droning note on a keyboard while loading a new song too.  Done sparingly, it works just fine.  Lot’s of ways to tackle this issue really.  If you’re using multiple pieces of hardware, especially with built in sequencers, then you can just switch each piece of gear one at a time.  For instance, while it’s muted or has the volume down, switch to the next pattern on your 303 device, then raise the volume.  While that’s playing, maybe you drop the volume on the EMX and then switch to your next song on that, bring the volume back up. Etc.

Thanks to Ali Berger for allowing me to repost the interview, you can find out more about his own music and live set on his blog:

http://aliberger.tumblr.com/

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On a different note, I’m pleased to say that I had over 10,000 visitors to the blog last month alone.  Glad to see that people continue to find interest in what I write, and have helped pass on the site to others they think might be interested as well.

Unfortunately, while the number of visitors has increased, the number of people donating to help support the blog has dropped drastically.  If a few people a month send me just $1, it really helps to offset my hosting costs.  I’m not looking to get rich or anything, but if you’re feeling charitable and can spare $1, please click on the donate button up on the right hand side of the screen.  Thanks everyone, much appreciated!

7 Days To Go

Well, I feel bad I haven’t been updating the blog as much as I’d like, but there’s been two pretty major events in my life happening almost concurrently.  So, I figured it was time to give a quick update while I had a free moment.

The thing I’ve been working on my new live set for the Photosynthesis 4.0 Festival starting a week from today.  I’m REALLY excited for this, the line-up is killer (I mean Tipper? How cool is that?) and it’s in one of the most beautiful locations in my favorite part of the United States.  Not to mention I have a really prime time-slot for when I’ll be performing, this is no early evening warm up slot (somewhat typical for downtempo musicians like myself).

So I really have been putting a lot of time into fine-tuning my normal live set, and trying to come up with something special.  In this case I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to see how (or if) I can combine my hardware Elektron-based live set, with my normal Ableton Live set.  Further made interesting by the fact that I sold my Elektron Monomachine earlier this week.  I know, WTF right?

It was a great synth which I really enjoyed using, but due to the second reason I’ve been busy lately, I needed some spare cash sooner than expected, so it had to go (for now).  Before I sold it however, I did take the time to separately record all of the parts of my new Wired Roots live set into Live, so that I could sync the Machinedrum to Live and still perform that set if need be.  Well, that was the plan anyway, I ran into two issues that will probably make this a no go at this time.

The first was that my Elektron stuff sounds so different (more minimal, techy) from my normal Ableton live set, that it was hard to mix and match the two the way I intended.  Not really possible to intersperse them among each other, and playing the Elektron stuff before or after the Ableton stuff just didn’t flow right.  I’m playing for an hour and half at the festival, which is 30 minutes longer than I usually play my live sets.  So I thought, maybe I could just work in one or two of the Elektron songs into the set as segues, or maybe for the intro.

And then I ran into issue number, I just can’t get the Machinedrum to follow Live’s tempo accurately enough.  Or rather I should say most of the time it syncs fine, everyone in awhile for reasons I can’t figure out, it just goes wonky and that’s that.  The new beta of Live 8 syncs to the Machinedrum as master ok, but I don’t want to be messing with the Machinedrum all night to change tempos.  Something my downtempo sets do a lot of.

So in the end I decided it was probably best to make this performance almost entirely Live based, with the Machinedrum standing by with a self-contained live set in case I need to extend my set somewhat.  After a trial run last night though, I’m confident that i have enough Live-prepped material to more than cover the time slot, so I doubt I’ll need to turn to the Machinedrum at this point.

Ah yes, last night’s trial run.  First time I’ve played some of my newer songs in a live context, and for the most part I’m SUPER excited at how it’s all going to sound.  Only had one real issue, where I ran into a weird Live bug where some of my clip loops were extended by tiny fraction of a bar.  Just enough to sort of barely throw the groove off when the clips looped each time.  Not sure most people would have heard the issue, but when it’s your songs, every little thing stands out if it’s not right.  I don’t remember ever having this issue in the past, but at least it was easy enough to correct.  Another reason you should ALWAYS do trial runs at home!

So at this point, I think everything is set and ready to go.  I’ve got my laptop prepped and backup, all my important data and the set are burned to DVD just in case.  I’ve got a diagram drawn showing all the connections to the Fireface400 I need to make, just to  make sure I remember everything.  All my cables are checked, packed, and I have extras of everything.  I even make some nice labels for the APC40 to make it easier to remember which channel is which at 2:00 AM!

Just to be safe I’ll probably do a trial run again tonight or tomorrow, really making sure all the kinks are worked out before everything gets packed up for good.  Practice makes perfect, so it’s not time wasted.  And honestly, I love performing my music live, even if it’s just at home. 🙂

So, Photosynthesis festival 4.0, July 22nd-25th, Hobuck Resort in Neah Bay, Washington State.  Tarekith performing live from 12:30-2:00 Saturday night (Sunday morning) in the h’Art tent.  I doubt many people reading the blog will be able to make it out to the show, but if you do please stop by before or afterwards and say hi.

And that’s the news on the first thing on my plate lately.

The second thing I’ve been spending a lot of time on, is sort of relaunch of mastering and mixdown business I run, InnerPortalStudio.com.  Things have been steadily ramping up since I started doing this full-time, and there’s a few other things in the works that I know are going to be driving a lot of traffic to my site in the next two to three months.  So as a result, I’ve decided to revamp the website, upgrade the studio acoustics (custom fabricated courtesy of GIK Acoustics USA out of Atlanta), and re-look at the services I offer.

After almost two years of doing this full-time, it’s apparent that I can make a living doing it, and that there’s a demand for what it is I offer.  I’ll admit, I’m a musician and engineer more than a business man, so it’s been a long process of trying to figure out exactly where I fit in, in this time of change in the music industry.  But I think I’ve got some exciting new ideas that people will find appealing, so it seemed like a good time to re-look at what it is I offer people.

The new acoustic treatment should arrive in 2-3 weeks, with the new website to launch shortly after that.  Currently streamlining some other aspects of the business as well, so pretty exciting times for me, if crazy busy too!

More news to come as I get closer to launch of Inner Portal Studio v2.

Well, that’s the update on what’s bee going on, and why I haven’t been posting to my blog as much as I’d like.  On a side note, despite getting the most traffic to my site ever, and a lot of positive feedback, the Production Q&A series seems to be dead in the water after only one episode.  Everyone liked the idea, and web hits were through the roof that month, but I didn’t get many questions for the follow up (and those were strangely almost word for word the questions I asked in the first Q&A).  I’d love to keep helping people out, but I’m only going to spend the time on it if people actually have questions they want answered 🙂  So, last call for production, mastering, or mixdown questions you’d like to see me tackle.

Finally, for those Facebook users in the USA, I’ve been spending a little bit of time each night on the new Turntable.fm service.  It’s a fun way to chat to other DJs and share tunes, in this case in a room dedicated mainly to downtempo (we stay sometimes).  If you’re bored and want to share some similar tunes, or just want something to listening to while chilling at night, check out:

http://turntable.fm/el_jefes_downtempo_saloon

I mainly tend to visit in the evenings, around 6:00-7:00 PM Pacific Time.

Wired Roots – Downtempo Live PA

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Tarekith-Wired_Roots_Live_PA.mp3

Tracklist:

Start Time – Track

00:00 – Leav
02:45 – Leak
05:57 – Trient
08:43 – Whithr
10:54 – Stalke
14:50 -Furow
17:53 – Brancht
21:31 – Biome
24:44 – Chlorl
28:30 – Petl

I’ve also posted YouTube videos of the set being performed live, along with comments describing what I’m doing as I perform it:

Wired Roots 1

Wired Roots 2

Also, for those of you with an Elektron Machinedrum or Monomachine (or people who just like really short samples), you can download the sysex and samples used in this set (included the songs I didn’t include in this performance), along with details on how to install them:

http://tarekith.com/assets/WiredRootsSysex.zip

As regular readers of my blog know, I’ve been working the last few months on putting together a new live set using only the Elektron Machinedrum and Monomachine (no laptops this time).   You can read about the process here: http://tarekith.com/almost-live/ and here: http://tarekith.com/still-almost-live/.

Well, after months of work, I finally got the first demo of the set recorded at long last.  I have to admit, trial runs of the set had me wondering if perhaps I had decided to do too much this time.  The plan was to start off kind of chill and flowy, go into a middle section that was darker and more ‘minor’ sounding, and then end the last third of the set on a stronger note with more positive tunes.  After a couple of run throughs of the set to get used to everything and try different camera angles, it just seemed like the middle section of the live set was too different from everything else, so I regretfully decided to remove those songs and save them for a later date.

While this was a sizeable portion of the set I originally planned, I think ultimately everything worked out for the best as a result.  That, combined with trimming the original 16 patterns down to 14 before I even started recording, means the set is only 31 minutes long.  While frustrating initially, one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that sometimes you start hitting a point of diminishing returns.  So going back and trying to write more material was honestly not going to improve things all that much at this point.  Sometimes you just need to use what you have, and then move on.

So, I’m really happy with how it all turned out, and now I can move on to my next big project.  More about that later though.  🙂

Hope you enjoy!

(Still) Almost Live

Back in April I posted about the steps I was taking while preparing a new hardware based live set:

http://tarekith.com/almost-live/

Well, things are getting much closer to wrapping up finally, so I thought I’d update people on some of the other aspects of what’s going into this set.  Probably a bit overkill since it’s a relatively simple affair, using only the Machinedrum and Monomachine, but people seemed generally interested the last time I talked about it.

So, when I last discussed this, the core patterns in the Monomachine (MnM) had been written, covering the bassline, lead, pads and fills, and other random synth sounds.  I had the basic beats sketched out in the Machinedrum (MD), mainly just some simple kick, snare and high hat patterns though.  I was planning on using 16 patterns as songs to fill up an hour live set, with transitions being handled by the real time sampling functions of the MD’s RAM machines.

The next step was to start adding in supporting percussion parts in the MD, and for this I wanted to do something a little different.  I decided that all of the percussion sounds would be made of of found sounds, basically me running around the house with a microphone recording myself hitting and tapping random objects (note to self, the dog does not appreciate being a drum).  I didn’t need a lot of sounds, the MD has quite a bit of sound sculpting ability, so I narrowed it down to only 23 samples in the end.  You can download them here if you’re curious:

http://tarekith.com/assets/2011LiveSetMDSamples.zip

From there it was just a matter of fleshing out the Machinedrum patterns with these new sounds, as well as some cymbals using the built-in synth engines (as well as my samples).  At this point I was also balancing all the levels of the different drum sounds, adjusting the panning on the less important sounds (main sounds are always right up the center), and programming some parameter locks here and there to keep things interesting and evolving. I’m a big fan of using the LFO of some parts like HH’s to modulate volume in a semi-random fashion as well, keeps things a little more organic sounding and less static.

Once done with that, I’d say 95% of the music on both the MD and MnM was written, so I was able to start working on the track order for the live set.  I like to start out a little slower but still catchy, build that up for a bit, then break up the set in the middle with some slightly weirder and perhaps even darker sounding songs.  Then I can come out of those and increase the complexity and energy to end on a strong note.  I’ve always found that Ableton Live is a really good tool for helping me to figure out the track order of live sets, since I can easily move clips around in session view to see how the set flows from start to finish.

The first thing I do is create 3 audio tracks in Live, one for the MD, one for the MnM, and one that I actually record to.  The MD and MnM tracks are routed to this third record channel, which lets me record both instruments into a single clip for each pattern.  I do this, naming each clip in Live the name of the patterns in the Elektrons, and then play around with the order of things until I like the way it flows as a set.

(Click to enlarge)

Once I’m happy with the order of things, I take a screen shot of the clip order in Live, and then it’s time to start playing with sysex.  The Elektron boxes don’t have a dedicated librarian for moving things around on the computer, so it all has to be done old-school style with sysex.  Luckily, Elektron has built some really clever sysex functionality into each box that makes this a lot easier to manage.  For starters, since a pattern will always call up a kit when loaded, it’s possible to export both patterns and kits in one go, and they will be tied to each other.  So the first thing I do is export the pattern and kit sysex for every pattern in both machines, naming them appropriately according to the track order I want.

Here’s the neat bit though, once the sysex is named and ordered on the computer, I can send it back to the Elektrons and specify the exact locations where I want both the kits and patterns to load into.  When receiving sysex dumps, the Md and MnM can be set to load the sysex into the same locations it was originally, or I can specify an exact starting point for the both kits and patterns.  This means I can send all of my sysex in one go, in the correct order, and I know that the Elektrons will store this data in the correct order as well.  Sounds a little confusing, but it saves a TON of time compared to having to manually send each kit and pattern and save them individually to the right locations.

I should also note that during this process I culled two songs that just weren’t really working in the set.  Rather than back track and trying and write new material, in the interest of moving forward and getting this set prepped, I’m just going to go with 14 patterns.

So, once the track order is set and addressed the way I want it, the last step is to go back and do one final adjustment of all the volume levels.  I’m trying to make not only each patterns full and balanced sounding ala a mixdown, but also making sure that the volumes are consistent from song to song.  I also make sure that the low end is nice and balanced (as much as I can), since the Elektron boxes can output gobs of sub-bass if you’re not careful.  Full range monitoring definitely helps here!

I also tend to write my Elektron sets with the master volume knob on each machine all the way to max, so I’ll double check that I’m not clipping my audio interface by sending too hot of a signal to my Fireface400.  I don’t perform with the volume knobs at max, I tend to put them at about 3:00 to give myself more of a safety margin when I play out.  This just lets me know that even with things maxed out for some reason, I will not be clipping either a PA or anything I recorded into.

And of course I’m backing up all of this work daily too, sometimes more than once a day depending on how much work I’ve done.  Better safe than sorry!

And now we come to where I am at the moment with the live set.  All of the above has been done so far, and I’m pretty close to being able to perform and record the set.  As I mentioned earlier, the songs are all about 95% of the way done, so I’ll take my time over the next couple of weeks to go back and fine tune everything until I’m totally happy.  After the last couple of weeks of heavy writing and tweaking, it’s nice to have a couple of days away to give my ears a break and get some fresh perspective.

Then it’s just a matter of waiting for the right time to get inspired to play and record the set.  Hoping to have this done in the next couple of weeks, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve said that about this live set!  🙂  I also plan on trying to video tape the performance, so people can see how I ‘play’ a live set on hardware.  No promises, but I’d like to do a close up of the MD and MnM and annotate what I’m doing through out the set if I can.

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So, there you go, an update on the live set.  It’s been a lot of fun working on the set, I always enjoy the mental process of composing on hardware in a groovebox fashion.  but, I’m glad it’s almost done too.  I’ve been working on this for a long time, so it will be nice to put this behind me and move on.  I’m tentatively planning on starting a new full-length album after this, focusing on Ableton Live and Max4Live, using the APC40 and iPad apps to control and write.  We’ll see though, after this project I might need a break and who knows what new ideas I’ll get then.

Thanks for reading as always, hope some of you found this interesting.  Just a note that I’m now on Facebook as well, so stop by if you want to follow or say hi:

https://www.facebook.com/InnerPortal

 

Machinedrum DJ Set Vol. 2

Machinedrum DJ Set Vol. 2

This is the second in a series of collaborations initiated by the Elektron-Users.com community.  The basic idea is that each user contributes a pattern they wrote using only the Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1.  Then, users of the forum can perform a sort of combination DJ and live set using only those patterns.

Unfortunately I was pretty busy around the pattern submission dead-line, so none of the songs in this set were written by me.  Still, it was great fun performing the set, so thanks to all of the producers who let me use and modify their patterns so I could still participate.

This set was recorded live in one pass on 05-07-2011 using only the Machinedrum recorded direct via a RME Fireface400.  2dB of limiting was applied to tame one large peak during the set, otherwise no additional processing was applied.

Here’s the tracklist:

00:00 – Dubathonic – SubTerra
03:10 – Catabolic – Biz’n’Veetz
07:52 – Catabolic – Escalate
12:04 – djd_oz – Monopoly
15:37 – Jonathon Doe – Derive
19:10 – djd_oz – Jenga
22:44 – Jonathon Doe – Fraktur
26:23 – djd_oz – Scrabble

The sysex files of my edits to the original patterns can found here:

http://tarekith.com/assets/MD02_Edits.zip

Here’s a link to the first Machinedrum DJ/Live set I did as well:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Tarekith_-_MD_DJ_Set.mp3


 

Almost Live

Recently I’ve talked a little bit on my Twitter feeds about how I’m prepping a new hardware based live pa, and I’ve had a few people ask me questions about it.  Namely, why hardware and not Ableton Live anymore, and how do I go about creating a strictly hardware based live set.  So, I’m going to talk a little about that for this week’s blog entry.

To start with, no I’m not ditching Live and the APC40 completely for my live sets.  I’ve been happily using that combination for a couple years now, it’s just time to revisit my past a little bit.  If you were one of the bored people who made it all the way through my “History” blog post from a few weeks ago, then you’ll know that my very first introduction to writing electronic music was to put on live pa’s in the late 1990’s.

I’ve revisited the idea a few times over the years since then in a series I call “Morphing Mechanism”, but for the last couple of years I’ve really been itching to put together a brand new live set that doesn’t involve a laptop at all.  It’s both a challenge to me, and I think a way to sort of set myself apart a little bit from the plethora of laptop based performers in Seattle these days.  I’m sure one day I’ll revisit the laptop based live set (in fact all this hardware work has given me some new ideas on how to do so), but for now I’m focusing strictly on hardware grooveboxes and drum machines to perform with.

I started work on this project early last year with the intention of it being based around an Elektron Machinedrum-UW, and an Access Virus TI2 Polar.  In this instance, the Machinedrum (MD) was going to be doing all of the drum sounds, as well as being the sequencer driving 4 tracks of synths in the TI.  Unfortunately, after 8+ months of work (and literally on the day I finally considered the set done and ready), I ran into a nasty bug in the Virus OS.  An hour before I was to record a demo of the set to pass out to promoters, I lost all of the sounds TI and there was no way I could get them back.  Yes, I had been making daily sysex backups, but the bug was such that the backups the TI sent were corrupt and I had no way of knowing this.  So after loading one of these corrupted sysex backups back into the TI, all of my sounds were over-written with garbage noise.  To say I was upset would be a huge understatement.

A few days later Access confirmed the bug (and released an OS update correcting it shortly after), but by then I was pissed off and fed up, so I sold the TI.  Of course, this left me in sort of a quandary.  With the TI and all of my synth sounds gone, what was I going to replace it with?  In the end I decided to finally take the plunge on an Elektron Monomachine (MnM).  The Machinedrum is my favorite bit of gear ever, and I figured it was time to see if the MnM equally as good when it comes to synth sounds.  Based on other user reviews, I was a bit fearful that it might not be a sound that I liked, or that it would be too simple for me, though luckily in the end these fears proved to be completely unfounded.  The MnM is a very deep synth, and while not as oriented to performance as the MD is, I knew it would work nicely for my new live set.

By this time, I was beginning to think it would be best to just scrap everything from the last live set attempt and start over with a clean slate, so that’s what I did. All the MD sounds and patterns got deleted, and I started with an empty palette on both the MD and MnM.  Because the MnM has it’s own built in sequencer, there was no longer a need for me to use the MD to sequence my synth parts either.  So for this go around, I’d still be doing all of the drums on the MD, but both sequencers would be running slaved, with the MnM being the master clock.  No real reason why the MnM is the master rather the MD, other than the fact that I have the MD on the left and MnM on the right, and it just feels more natural to hit start and stop with my right hand.  I again decided to use only 4 synth sounds on the MnM, which leaves two of it’s six track free to assign as effects.

One of the things I find most helpful in preparing and performing live sets, is sticking with a set layout on all my gear when it comes to instrumentation.  For instance, I know that no matter what song I’m playing, Track 1 on the MD is always my kick, Track 2 is snare, Tracks 9 and 10 are the HH’s, etc.  Likewise on the MnM, Track 1 is the bassline, Track 2 is my lead, Track 3 is the effects for the lead, Track 4 is a random synth, Track 5 is my pad or fills sounds, and Track 6 is the effects for Track 5.  Setting things up this way right when you beginning writing and prepping the live set really makes it simple to know exactly what you are controlling at any time in the set.  Not to mention trying to troubleshoot things in the heat of the moment when something doesn’t sound right.

The other thing I do when working with hardware live sets, is to treat each pattern like it’s own song.  In most hardware grooveboxes and drum machines, your sounds and sequences are organized into short segments called a pattern, typically from 4-32 bars long.  So when I’m crafting the set, I basically treat each of these patterns as a distinct song in the live set, and I write between 10-16 patterns to last me an hour or so.  Of course, this means that all of the drops, build ups, and variations in each song need to be done on the fly, they can’t be programmed in advance.  Normally this is accomplished via muting individual sounds, and tweaking the parameters of different sounds as I play.  This is actually my favorite part about performing, as it means that each time I do a set it’s completely unique, and I get to orchestrate it on the fly depending on my mood.

In the case of the MD and MnM, they both have a maximum pattern length of only 4 bars though.  This presents some interesting challenges when writing and preparing a live set.  Namely, how do I keep things interesting enough and not too loopy sounding?  With software, this is less of any issue, it’s easy to add in complex pre-recorded fills, or use longer patterns.  So one of the things I’ve learned over the years, is to just not worry about that too much.  I just embrace the fact that this is going to inherently be a bit loopy sounding, and focus on making the strongest grooves I can so people don’t mind listening to them for 3-4 minutes a piece.  Again, this is one of the great things about playing live versus writing in the studio, in all likelihood your audience will only ever hear these songs this one time, so you can get away with a little more repetition.

That’s not to say I still don’t try and keep things evolving and interesting either.  I try and keep each song pretty short, and add a lot of variations with real-time tweaking and mute variations.  You only have two hands, so there’s only so much you can do, but I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years now so I have a good feel on how to pace things to keep it moving.  It helps that the MnM has 3 really slow LFO’s for each sound, so it’s not too difficult to make things slowly morph over the 3-4 minutes I’m playing each song.

The other trick I’ve learned for keeping things interesting, is to not worry about the drum parts until later in the process.  I try and really focus only on the synth parts initially, so that they are strong enough to stand on their own without relying on complex drum parts or familiar rhythms.  When I do this, it seems that the songs ultimately are more interesting than when I start with drums like I normally do when writing music.  It might seem odd at first, but when you have really strong instrumentation, it’s a lot easier to write drums to fit, versus the other way around.  Especially when each groove is only going to be 4 bars long.

Of course the one thing most people ask me, is how do I transition smoothly from one song to another?  Let me start by saying that you don’t always have to worry about this.  I know a lot of really awesome live acts that only play one song, stop, load up the next song, and then perform it.  It’s a perfectly valid way of performing, and arguably has it’s own advantages (like not having to stress about transitions).  But, for whatever reason, playing electronic music live has always been about crafting a continuous piece of music for me.  Because of this, I’ve always gravitated towards gear that has some sort of facility that makes this easier.  Initially it was the Roland MC505 with it’s Megamix, then the E-mu Command Stations with their similar XMIX function.

The Machinedrum UW has a rather unique function in that you can sample both it’s internal output signal, and/or anything coming into it’s inputs at the same time.  Samples are mono, can only be 2 bars long at most, and quite honestly sound rather digital since they are played back at a bit rate of 12bits.  Still, despite being a limitation, it’s a lot of fun and offers me an easy way to move from one pattern to the next.  I merely sample the MD internally at the same time as the MnM coming in externally, loop that, mute all other parts, do the pattern switch while the sample continues to play, and then slowly unmute the new parts from the next pattern.  The whole time you can freely tweak and re-sequence the audio you previously sampled too.  It’s a terribly difficult thing to describe succinctly, but trust me that it works great and is very simple to do once you get the hang of it.

Initially I was running the MnM directly into the MD’s inputs, but to be honest, anything coming through the MD directly like that ends up sounding rather flat and one-dimensional.  All the depth and subtlety is gone.  So now I use my RME Fireface400 as a small, but very high quality standalone mixer (it doesn’t need a computer connected to work like this).  Both the MD and the MnM go into the FF400’s inputs, where they are summed and sent to a master stereo output.  I also have a copy of the MnM’s audio signal going to a separate output which feeds the MD’s inputs strictly for sampling for these pattern switches.  The best part about this set up is that both machines sound fantastic on their own, and I can still feed the MnM to the MD for sampling.  If the Fireface is out of your budget and you’re interested in this idea for your own sets, the MOTU Ultralite can do the same thing at less than half the price.

So there you have it, a somewhat brief run down of how I’m prepping and preparing my new live set.  Currently I’m about halfway through writing material for the new set, though it’s coming together a lot faster than I thought it would.  If all goes well, I hope to have a demo recording ready to go in a couple months or sooner, with some live gigs to follow shortly after that.  If you’re interested in hearing some examples of material performed like I’ve described, here’s links to two of my previous live sets using similar gear.

This set is done using only the Machinedrum and nothing else:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Tarekith-Machinedrum_Live_PA.mp3

This live set was done with the Machinedrum doing the drums, and a Korg EMX-1 providing all of the synth parts:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Tarekith-The_Flow_Of_All_Things.mp3

Both sets were done 100% live and on the fly, with no additional editing or processing aside from normalizing done to them.  Enjoy, and stayed tuned for the new live set in the near future.

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Also, if anyone is curious to see what your’s truly looks like (shudder), I just recorded a new video introduction for my mastering business.  You can view it here:

http://innerportalstudio.com

Know Your Limitations

One of my favorite ways of coming up with new ideas for songs, is to limit the options or tools I use during the composition process. I’m sure a lot of this is born from earlier times when I first got into music making, as I just didn’t have the money to spend on a lot of gear (and back then gear was expensive!). So I’d have no choice but to plumb the depths of whatever I was using, doing my best to write complete songs and not get bummed out by my lack of gear.

I used to get so frustrated with that too, not being able to follow through with an idea because I was already using my one EQ, or didn’t have another free input on my tiny Mackie 1202 mixer, whatever. Of course the flip side of that lack of gear, was that I was unknowingly learning the gear I did have really, really well.

Fast forward a few years and the whole concept of limitations was foreign to me, as DAWs with the unlimited choices they offer will do that. As many effects as I wanted, tons of free synths, plenty of free tracks, you name it and it was largely possible. I’d even go so far as to try and write songs using as many tracks and effects as I possibly could, just because I had that option open to me.

Like any new idea though, eventually this concept of throwing as much as I could at a project slowly began to fade as a source of inspiration, and I once again found myself struggling to think of ideas for new songs. It was around this time that I started playing with the idea of imposed limitations as a source of inspiration. By limiting my tools, I was forced to use what I had at my disposal in new ways. More importantly, it made me re-look at my working methods, and come up with new ways to do things.

You see, I firmly believe that we do our best work when confronted with a challenge. When taken out of our comfort zone and the creative repetitiveness that tends to breed, we begin to come up with new ideas we would not have arrived at earlier. So I began to look at each song as a chance to solve a new problem, and these problems were always self-imposed. Sometimes the challenges I set myself were not too difficult and affected only part of the writing process, other times I made myself work to achieve a task I knew could be extremely hard to complete.

For instance, here some of the things I would do to limit my options:

– Try and write a complete song using only a drum machine and nothing else. Double points for using only drum synthesis to create the sounds, and not samples.

– Use the song mode on a piece of hardware instead of my DAW, even though the DAW was much easier and faster to use.

– Try and mix a song using only one type of each effect. IE, pretend I still only had one EQ, one compressor, one delay, etc. Trying to figure out where to best use those effects can be very challenging.

– Create a song using nothing but a guitar, including the drum sounds.

– Create a song using only a short 4-5 second snippet of audio. Could be a field recording, or a sample of a record, whatever. The point was to deconstruct that one sample and use it to create a whole palette of sounds for the song.

– Record a solo for one of my tracks using a MIDI drum pad instead of a keyboard.

– Create the drum sounds in a song using only a single monophonic synth. The simpler the synth, the better.

– Use a pair of headphones to record all the sounds for a track. No going direct or using a real microphone.

– Let my room mate or girlfriend chose all the sounds for my song, no matter what I had to make it work with whatever they picked. At the very least this can lead to some pretty funny results.

– Play all the piano parts in a song using only my toes. (Ok, that’s a bit extreme, never really did that).

You get the idea.

Like I said, almost all of my songs these days start as some form of limitation I’m trying to make myself overcome. It forces me to learn the gear I have in new ways, and really opens up possibilities I never would have thought of otherwise. Of course the key is to set yourself a challenge that you can likely actually achieve, and not set yourself up for failure and endless frustration. I recommend starting with limiting yourself during small tasks at first, during small parts of your writing process.

Try choosing just one synth for all your sounds, or work only with midi instead of audio like you usually do. Eventually you’ll get better and realizing what kinds of limitations will help spur new ideas and working methods, and what limitations just lead to banging your head against the wall. Like everything, the more you do it, the better you get.

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Just a reminder that you can now sign up for email notifications of new blog posts if you’re not into RSS or Twitter. The subscribe buttons are to the right of the blog postings now.

“Cache” – New Monomachine track

Cache – Downtempo – 01-11-2011

Available in Wav and FLAC versions from Addictech.com:

Cache @ Addictech

Here’s a new tune I just finished, using only the Elektron Monomachine again.  Everything was sequenced using pattern mode for the most part, I merely used the Song Sequencer to arrange the patterns sequentially one after the other.    Interesting way of working, made doing things like fills somewhat easier than trying to do them all in Song Mode like I did in Fourtude.  Here’s the MnM sysex if anyone wants it, it’ll wipe out your Song Slot 1, Pattern banks A, B and C, as well as Kits 1-9, so back those up before you load this:

Cache Sysex

I can’t believe they still call this thing a “Mono”Machine!