YouTube as an Instrument

May 1, 2011
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SoundPrism

April 7, 2011

“Music like you’ve never seen before.”

SoundPrism is a brand new app that completely reimagines musical notation and how sound is visualized. The imagination required to do this is impressive, but it’s the nuanced execution and beautiful design that make it noteworthy.

At its core, SoundPrism is simply a music sequencer that is beautiful and easy to use. But that completely undersells what’s going on here and the level of consideration that went into its creation. To get a feel for what this app is all about, check out this introductory video:

Here are three key takeaways I want to point out:

“SoundPrism is based on the theory that music is interesting if you create tension and release it.”

This quote from the clip is absolutely true, and the foundation of all Western music theory. Music is a beautiful, elaborate departure from the “home” note (the tonic of whatever key you’re in) through various cadences and chord progressions that lead to the chord furthest away from home: the dominant, or V chord, thus creating a faint sense of unease (which I think we’ve all felt when we’re away from home…). The journey back to the tonic note leads to a sigh of relief as the tension is released. Everyone from Chuck Berry to Bach created music with this principle in mind, if only subconsciously. Ever hear of 3-chord rock? The three chords are the I, IV, and V of a key. The progression from I to V and back again is part of the propulsive force that makes the music so dynamic and exciting (along with the rhythm, of course). So while Beethoven’s journey through the 5th Symphony is undeniably epic and complex, blues is simply a distillation of the same tension-and-release principle, boiled down to the most essential chords while keeping the music interesting.

What makes SoundPrism so great is that its creators made a point not just to make the app easy to use, but to make the manipulation of tension and release easy to control. Why? Because it’s an essential part of making interesting pieces of music. It’s a fact that, to my knowledge, has never before been acknowledged by creators of musical software.

You don’t change keys, you change colors.

It’s a synaesthetic‘s dream. When you scroll up on the interface the hue shifts like the Northern Lights. There is no mention of being in F-sharp or B-flat, but rather in “green” or “purple.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the word “tone” is used by both visual artists and musicians to refer to roughly the same concept.

Major and minor modalities are treated independent of key.

Usually one will refer to the mode and the key at the same time. For example, “This song is in D major,” or, “We’ll be transposing this piece into G-minor.” But in SoundPrism you interact with modes in the same way you interact with notes, which is a massively different way of conceptualizing music-making. The odd-numbered horizontal lines are slightly brighter, and gestures along those lines will result in notes in the major mode. The even-numbered horizontal lines are slightly darker and correspond to the minor mode. The SoundPrism creators refer to these modes as “happy” and “sad” respectively, which isn’t a new comparison (this is how most musicians first learn the difference) but somehow seems more appropriate here.

This app, especially in its Pro version with upcoming Core MIDI support, shows a lot of promise for film scoring, demo production, and ambient soundscape creation. But what may be more exciting is what it could bring to the non-musician community, as it strips away some of the layers of technical skill and knowledge required to compose music in the first place.

The future definitely looks bright… and colorful.


Micro

November 15, 2010

Tristan Perich, a New York composer of experimental music, wanted to see how small he could make big philharmonic pieces.

This Wired piece details 1-Bit Symphony, a 40-minute symphonic work on a single, tiny microchip. While technically not 1-bit in size (the work is actually 8 KB), it is an impressively small creation in an age of miniature ubiquity. (You can order 1-Bit Symphony here, which includes a small battery and is shipped in a CD jewel case.)

It’s not the file-size or dimensions that are particularly notable (the iPod Nano, for instance, can probably boast more extraordinary specs), but rather the minimalist nature of the setup. This is a bare-bones recording, and underscores how little one needs these days to make music. It’s an extreme example, but hopefully it will inspire musicians to balk at costly setups and begin working within limitations they can afford, master, and use easily.

The Amplitube iRig is a perfect example of one way for musicians to exploit current technology. The iRig is simply an interface: You plug your guitar into one end, your iPhone/iPad into the other, and your headphones into a third input. Just download the Amplitube app, load up a few effects and pedals, and you have a full-fledged recording setup.

Add to this the Sonoma Four Track iPhone app, and you have a multi-track mini studio on you at all times

The value in these tools is in their accessibility and ease-of-use, but are also valuable for the creative process. The flood of gadgets available to a musician (pedals, amps, mixers, microphones, cables, compressors…) can obscure the fact that the name of the game is music. You don’t need very much to create music, and now you don’t need much to record it either. The only real sacrifice with using these “iTools” is fidelity, but this is a non-issue when recording demos, ideas, piecing together songs, or practicing.

And the fact is, if you can’t create great music using these tools then you aren’t ready for a full-fledged studio setup anyway. The power of a recording lies in the heart and soul of the musician, lyrical craft, and an inspired placement of notes, not the sample rate of the resulting file.


Video Games: Some Musical Insights

October 18, 2010

Cruise Elroy is a self-proclaimed “blog about video games and, especially, video game music.” It combines a spartan page design, solid insights, and embedded musical examples to give the reader a stronger appreciation of the artistic merit of video games.

Of all the blogs I subscribe to, this one gives the biggest return in terms of content. Take this particular insight from a post on “Irregular meter in video games”:

“Remember the race results screen in Mario Kart 64? Most likely you skipped past it with barely a glance at the scoreboard, but if you stuck around for a moment you’d have heard this gem from composer Kenta Nagata… Despite being in 11/8, I think this rhythm feels pretty natural. Kudos to Nagata for smoothing over the strange time signature.”

The skill required to take an unusual time signature and make it sound altogether natural should not be underestimated. (Dave Brubeck’s classic jazz album Time Out is one of the most famous explorations of this concept). We are conditioned to “hear” things in 4/4 or 3/4 time. It’s the rhythmic basis for most popular music, and the easiest rhythm to learn (at least to my Western ears). Irregular meter feels unnatural at first, which leads me to believe that composers writing in an odd time signature are simply not thinking about the time signature. It’s akin to writing a novel without thinking about the conventions of punctuation and paragraph structure, or painting with complete disregard for the nature of the paint and brushes.

Here’s another great insight regarding one of my favorite tunes from Sonic the Hedgehog, in the post “Spring Yard Zone”:

“Why does this work? I suspect that years of jazz and pop harmony have trained our ears to accept all kinds of modifications to ii-V-I chords: sevenths, tritone substitutions, altered chords, and so on. Given that context, using m9 in place of m7♭5 doesn’t seem like such a big deal. The Spring Yard Zone theme does push its luck, as it were, by prominently featuring the F♯ in the melody, but I found that to be a pleasant dissonance and not an ugly one.”

Here’s to filling our lives with pleasant dissonances and not ugly ones.


A Master Class in Songwriting

June 18, 2010

This is brilliant. Paul Simon sits down with Dick Cavett to discuss music, and he uses his then-unfinished song, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” to demonstrate his take on songwriting and music theory. His bridge begins with a D9 chord, which he introduces for the sole purpose of introducing C and C-sharp—two notes that haven’t been used in the song yet. He even gives a great breakdown of a guitar’s standard tuning and the fact that all of those open strings actually do form a legitimate chord… two actually: E minor 7th and G6: Both chords are identical in the notes they include.

Aside from the sad fact that you would never see this type of discussion on a talk show these days, I find remarkable the topics that get introduced along the way:

“It’s one of those lines that has the right inflection… it swings.” – Paul Simon drops this offhanded remark after Dick Cavett playfully interjects, “Have you ever reached for your C-sharp and gotten your C-natural?” Paul picks up on the cadence and rhythm of Cavett’s sentence, not its meaning.

“You’re Theatre People. Theatre People come at music from another direction.” – Paul notes that your relationship with music affects your knowledge of it. Paul, being a musical architect of sorts, knows the engineering of it, naming chords and resolving cadences. Cavett, ever the entertainer, adores music (enough to have a conversation like this on television) but through a different lens. It’s an astute observation by Paul: music means different things to different people.

“I imagine the same principle would hold true in comedy…” – Comedy?! Yes. Right in line with his comments about the timing and inflection of Cavett’s “joke,” Paul compares music theory to comedy, and rightfully so. Timing, delivery, freshness, variety… all adjectives at home in both worlds.

The point here is that a topic like music invariably opens up conversation into the rest of the humanities. I truly believe that the arts are somehow linked on a primal, atavistic level and that all artists are using the same creative fuel.


Wisdom Bits

December 15, 2009

Take a minute to check out Wisdom Bits. It’s a neat little diversion of a site that simply, and stylishly, reveals wisdom through pop music. Just hover over an artist’s colored square to reveal the nugget of truth inside…


Your First Song

September 24, 2009

Jay-Z

It’s my life.  It’s my pain and my struggle,

The song that I sing to you it’s my everything.

Treat my first like my last, and my last like my first

And my thirst is the same as when I came.

It’s my joy and my tears and the laughter it brings to me

It’s my everything

— Jay-Z, “My First Song” from The Black Album

Always treat your first project like it’s your last, and your last project like it’s your first. This guarantees quality.