Here’s where I am in my process of learning to play the horn with live electronics.

1. I have bought and kind of learned how to use the software Ableton Live. This is an incredible piece of software that turns the computer into a performing partner (lots of people use it for dj’ing). You can effect the sound (for instance, you can add reverb, or distortion, or delay) and you can create loops (repeating sections of music – the computer makes the loops and you can record new stuff into the loop, and you can improvise on top of the loop).

2. I have bought a wonderful microphone, from the company Applied Microphone Technology. Thank you, AMT! This thing sounds great.

3. I have bought a pedal system from a company called Keith MacMillan. The pedals are quite cool – they can be mapped to the many effects contained in Ableton (for instance, you can set a pedal to turn on or off reverb, leaving your hands (and lips) free to keep playing). Learning to do this mapping stretched my limits big time, so thank you Todd Reynolds for your help. Todd is a violinist who uses Ableton, writes lots of awesome music for himself with electronics, and is an all-around really good (and patient!!!) guy. Keith MacMillan, who designed the pedals, made a great piece of equipment, except that you need a PhD in engineering to know how to use it.

4. I have bought a mixing board, amazing speakers, and various other pieces of equipment to complete the setup. My colleague Mark Hetzler, with whom I have formed an electronica duo (Mark teaches trombone at UW, where I teach, and our band is called Gretzler), helped me figure out what I need. Frankly, I have no idea how the first person to do this kind of stuff figured it out. I have had help (read hand-holding) every step of the way. Incidentally, Gretzler’s debut performance is March 6 here in Madison, so there’s no time like the present for me to get all this stuff figured out

5. I have incorporated a wah-wah pedal, which I already owned, into my setup. It makes a very cool sound, but I’m finding that it gets old fast. Equipment does NOT equal music.

All this stuff is really fun, and a great challenge. Of course, once you have the setup all done, you are faced with the same problem you had before you started, namely that you need to create something interesting. When I first learned to use Ableton to make loops, I had a great time building up layers of sound, but eventually I realized that my loops weren’t very interesting to anyone but me. They weren’t pieces of music. A beautiful tool is only helpful when you know how to use it. Imagination, I am seeing, always has to come first, although the tool can provide inspiration. I think that’s the point of this post.

On the other side of things, I have written some pieces of music that I like, but I’m not sure how to incorporate the electronics.

So I have an interesting task ahead. I’ll be sure to keep you posted. Meanwhile, if you want to listen to music which uses electronics to brilliant effect, check out the band Radiohead if you don’t know them. There are recognizable instruments and voices, and then varying degrees of distorted sounds, ranging all the way to sounds that are clearly machine made, and it is all put together seamlessly and beautifully.

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