CD Update

I’ve been working away on the CD I’m creating. I have large parts of a funk tune and large parts of a sort of ballad. Plus small parts of five or six other songs. And I’ve learned a lot of interesting stuff.

The software I’m using, Ableton Live, was really designed with DJs and hip hop, or at least some kind of commercial music, in mind. It is very easy to create a drum groove, then another, and seamlessly switch between the two of them. The software wants you to write in even four-measure chunks. It wants you to repeat stuff (think dance grooves). This, of course, has an affect on what you write. Music that moves from one idea fluidly to the next (classical music!) doesn’t fit nearly as well into the software’s structure as music that has one very even section, followed by another very even section. Think of the kind of drawings you might do on graph paper as opposed to what you might do on blank paper. Yes, you can draw some freehand stuff on graph paper, but you are then subverting the structure that the horizontal and vertical lines are providing.

Everything that you record (every clip, which is the name for a recorded chunk of music) can be viewed on screen as a graphed wave form set against a timeline. The timeline is divided into beats and measures – it looks like a ruler. This is great when you record rock music, which unfolds in beats and measures (most western music does, though there has been a long-term historical move into first a more fluid approach and then an abandonment of beats and measures, or at least a subversion of them). What Ableton is able to do is find and put a marker at the beginning of each new phrase. Let’s say your phrase is supposed to start on the second beat of a measure. You record it, then you look, and lo and behold, you actually played a tiny bit later than the second beat – you can see it in the graph. Horn players are always late when we play – go to any orchestra rehearsal and you’ll hear the conductor telling the horns they are playing behind the beat (the horn players protest vehemently, though not to the conductor’s face). Imagine my horror to see this lateness confirmed in black and white. So – that’s bad! What’s good is that the software conveniently provides a little handle to drag the beginning of the note right to the beat. You can’t always make it work; sometimes you hear a little fold in the sound, which is no good, and you have to start over. But in this album, I’m recording lots of harmony parts. If a guitar or piano plays a chord, it’s pretty much a given that the players will hit the notes all at once. When recording each line of the harmony separately, it’s very nice to have some drag-ability to get everything together.

Many of the tools that are to be found in Ableton can be used for their intended purpose or for another purpose. For instance, the dragging tool I just described. I can record a chord (each note separately), then drag each note, starting with the bottom and going up, so that there is a tiny lag between notes. You’ll hear the lowest note, then the next, then the next, and so on up the top. Result: a strummed horn chord, something which has probably never existed in a song.

Ableton also comes with huge numbers of effects, like guitar pedals. The great thing is, you can either record with the effect on, so that you hear the effected sound, or record with no effects so that you hear the horn sound. You can go back and apply the effect once the sound is recorded. So, if I record a verse of a song, I can try fifty different effects on the melody line, or a hundred, or however many until I find the perfect sound for that song.

I think I mentioned in my last blog that I am using “found sounds” for my percussion setup. I’ve recorded (and altered) lots of sounds and built a kind of drum kit out of them. Like everything associated with this odd project, that is both good and bad. The uniqueness of the sounds is good, but rock sounds like rock because of bass drums, snare drums, toms, and cymbals. This is an ongoing project, looking for a convincing sound for the style that is still completely my own.

Finally, I love recording short improvisations against a drone. I did one today that seemed just right for the album, and I think I might do a few more, and intersperse them through the album as a sort of sorbet between courses.

Back to work.

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