October 30, 2017

Flipping The Script...

by Chris Randall

Yesterday, I started writing a post about watershed moments in your creative lifestyle, when something (either external or internal) brings a change to how you make music (or, well, whatever it is you make.) Then I thought "meh, that probably doesn't really happen to anyone else, because everyone else seems totally together. I'm just a nut." I highlighted all the text and pressed DEL and got on with my day.

About 20 minutes ago, the above exchange took place on Twitter between Noisetheorem, myself, and DJ Empirical that made me realize that this sort of thing isn't uncommon at all, and in point of fact I'm totally norms.

For better or worse, your external environment greatly affects your creative output. Speaking strictly for myself, spending the last three years boxing and shipping Eurorack, talking about Eurorack, travelling for Eurorack, sleeping in piles of Eurorack, and generally devoting my entire existence to Eurorack, has left me in a creative nadir which was unparalleled in my 30+ year history of making music. Earlier this year, we came to the conclusion that we were devoting too much of the company resources to Euro, and decided to ease off and work on desktop and mobile ideas. Since the nature of the Euro market means the hockey stick is ludicrously strong, without a new Euro product we can't really justify remaking older Euro products. As a result, I got to spend the summer, which in Phoenix is like winter for the rest of the country, doing something I truly enjoy: making user interfaces, and not putting Eurorack modules in boxes.

Since confirmation bias is the name of the game these days, as you're reading this, you're going to only see the Zig Zigler Power Words and run off to say "Chris Randall's an asshole! He hates what I do!" or "GOD DAMN RIGHT, FUCK [insert creation method here]." I can't do anything about that, but let me relate a metaphor:

I was raised by divorced parents about 50/50 in rural Oregon and New York City. The rural Oregon half of my family are, for the most part, gun nuts. I was raised around guns, and am comfortable with their existence and use-cases. I own a gun, and know how to use it. My father (the New York half of my co-parenting lifestyle) was a general contractor, so I was also raised around power tools. I am comfortable with their existence and use-cases. I own power tools, and know how to use them. In my head, a gun is basically just another tool. There are people for whom guns are a religion. I am not one of those people. I do, however, understand the motivations and mentality that lead to worshipping guns, talking about guns, collecting guns, etc, and how guns become a lifestyle and not just another tool in the box.

Anyhow, you get the point. Lots of boxes and M3 screws, creative nadir, tedious metaphor, blah blah blah. Long story short, two things happened:

1. Due to our considered opinion that iOS was finally ready for pro (or at least semi-pro) music-making, we decided to make a run at the mobile side of things, and began porting our desktop products to iOS. This forced me to purchase and become comfortable with a state-of-the-art iOS creation environment.

2. Due to customer requests for MPE versions of our synths, we needed to investigate MPE, something of which I knew very little. After pondering things for a bit, I decided the Linnstrument was probably the best source of MPE data, and since I'm friends with Roger, I dropped him a line to see if I could borrow one of the small ones to develop some test cases.

I got the Linnstrument a couple weeks ago, and the first thing I did, to test how MPE worked, was to plug it in to the first synth in my collection that understands MPE. That happened to be Animoog, the polysynth that Moog made for iOS. I spent a few hours playing with this, and decided that MPE was worth exploring. So I moved the Linnstrument to my big computer and folded it in to my development process. Since I don't have a ton of room on my desk, I moved my normal controller, a Kontrol S49, out of the way. The much smaller Linnstrument sat in its place.

Since it was sitting there anyhow, I ended up using it to try to play melodies when I was testing other shit. And I suddenly found myself puzzling out scales and chords on it, and my testing other shit turned in to making songs. At some point that I can't exactly put my finger on, it clicked and I was able to play it. I'm not going to review the device itself because there are reams written about it. But yesterday morning, my wife pointed out that it was nice to see me making music again. I was like "huh?" And she goes "you haven't actually sat in your office and made a song in like 2 years, dude." That's when all this hit me, and I wrote Roger to tell him I'd be buying the Linnstrument off him.

It isn't, of course, as facile as that. There are other outside stimuli that are affecting things (new hobbies, the weather change, etc.) but putting in the time to get the Linnstrument to ease itself into my methodology was definitely the deciding factor in unwedging my creative block. Let's hear it, AI peoples. Do you have similar unblocking experiences?


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Oct.30.2017 @ 8:01 AM
Couple of months ago I sold my beloved MPC1000 with JJos. Made a lot of shitty beats on that thing. But also managed to finish a few songs.

For whatever reason I sold it.... to go all Ableton with external hardware. Big mistake. Didn't actually make any music for quite a while.

I now have an MPC Live. Which is limited and so on and on. But I feel like I'm playing music again, and not just mousing around pixels.

Oct.30.2017 @ 11:40 AM
Linnstrument for me as well -- totally changed how I wrote melodies and opened up a new vein of creativity. Love it.

Oct.30.2017 @ 1:46 PM
Good to see you back.

Unblocking experiences?

I have StudioOne, Maschine and Ableton Live but use S1 98.3% of the time which makes the other two semi redundant which is not funny, because I got into them for some time thinking it'd boost my creativity. Hasn't happened.

What did help me was adding playing bass to my other instruments (pro sax, a bit of keys and guitar). The downside, I crave basses more than saxophones...


Oct.30.2017 @ 7:34 PM
i've been on the fence about an ipad for music use for long while though seems more and more uses for it arise every other week. sooner or later i'll reach the tipping point and cave in and get a used/refurb one from somewhere. unless i need to fix my roof or something. then.. wanna buy some modules?

anyway.. as for unblocking experiences.. id' say in the late 90s early 00s it was audiomulch. making big complex patches and automating things. it was best of both worlds for me. lot's of jamming and making patterns with lot's of devices. saving snapshots then getting intense w/the automation of those snapshots.. also skipping that part of it altogether and performing the patch numerous times by simply clicking through snapshots until i got one i liked well enough. this kind of thing was great... freed me from the timeline of logic etc when needed, opened up live performance of a complex idea or bundle of patterns in a way that felt live to me and was full of improvisation which is something i had trouble with in previous set ups..

then modular.. once i was well acquainted with the modules i had i was able to jam and record. multitrack or record straight to 2 track. still enjoying this a lot.

other than that.. 512 numerology, elektron octatrack also were pretty fluid things for me..

though.. i think one of the most rewarding things was finding someone who i could collaborate with. the Cascade Data project w/jason goodrich has been great. it's challenging and freeing in a lot of ways.. making sounds, patterns etc and sending them off only to get them back in a very different state is something i recommend. it removes that sort a + b = c in the music writing process. big jumps are made. there's no template.. there's no rules. things go out.. they come back.. they go out again.. always changing.. then at some point it's agreed that it's done. it's liberating to surrender and share the process w/another composer... when it works. if it wasn't a good partnership then obviously the experience would be different..

in all the things i mention here it's as good as any of them for me.. find a collaborator.. give it a try.. might take 6 months or a year or something but it's worth a shot. have no rules. mangle everything. add remove etc..

sorry for all the words. so it goes. nice blog post chris.

Oct.30.2017 @ 8:32 PM
In my case, I never got passed feeling like the iPad was a toy and not a tool. Much of the software didn't help in this regard (and still doesn't). Getting sounds into it and work out of it was too much of a pain in the ass.

This weekend, I decided to play with Korg Gadget a bit as well as iMascine 2.0. while my son was playing video games. I don't know exactly what happened, but something just clicked. I was creating in one or the other and bouncing audio back and forth...then bouncing that out to iCloud and boom...there it is on my desktop for dropping into an Ableton set. In the case of Gadget, you can actually export *ableton files* which, i know, has been there for years, but I never have used it. I suddenly felt like I was writing and not just putzing around.

I know people that use it as their primary song writing tool and, while I don't ever think I'll be one of them, I can understand their use case better now.

Oct.30.2017 @ 10:02 PM
Chris Randall
Some interesting points here that merit consideration.

With respect to the iPad, I was able to make a couple tracks in BeatMaker 3, which is definitely the best of the work-suites I've tried for iOS, in my opinion. (I can't bring myself to try Gadget; the UI is so bad even a screenshot gives me eye twitches.) However, the afore-mentioned creative nadir ensured that the music wasn't up to my normal standards, and thus it didn't carry the usual payload of satisfaction.

e.g. this screen recording of a BM3 project, which is a reworking of an old Chris Carter cassette release: link [www.youtube.com]

Or this experiment, using AUM as a mixer for electro-acoustic stuff, which I probably shouldn't have put up: link [youtu.be]

I don't have any particular problem with people seeing me flail a bit, but I do need that "okay, I'm happy with this" vibe to really feel like I did something worth anyone else's time, and neither of those have it.

Another interesting phenomenon that I've noticed is that there's such a huge barrage of Hands videos in the last couple years that are ludicrously poorly made that it's really easy to sleepwalk through something that dusts the vast majority, but still isn't up to the standards I hold myself to; I'm not saying I'm a better musician or anything. Just that I have a lot of experience making YouTube videos by virtue of my job, and am able to put up something relatively clean, with relatively okay photography and actual sound. That being the case, the tendency is to say "well, this is good enough" when something really isn't.


Oct.31.2017 @ 1:35 AM
I had a similar opposite result as atlastop: Some time around February I made the decision to try to go all hardware. I switched my setup from FL Studio to Ableton since the external hardware handling in the latter is just that much better. And it disrupted my entire creative process to the point where I just haven't really made any music all year. (Granted, there's also been an international move in there that introduced some other logistics problems, like putting most of said hardware in storage).

That said, I don't think I've ever had an "unblocking" experience per se. My "process", usually involves fiddling with bits and pieces of 8 and 16 bar ideas at a time. And eventually, months and months later when I have enough of those that I think might "fit together" and are worth developing, I'll make a very deliberate decision to build them out into something resembling a collection of songs.

I'd almost forgotten Animoog! There was a period where I fiddled with it almost daily. I had a hard time doing much more with it than making weird noises, which is often my case in general I guess. But I've used it for a few pieces where weird noises were exactly what I felt was called, and was extremely happy with the results.
I suppose there was a bit of an unblocking moment there, as it helped fill space in a piece I was really struggling with up until I introduced it in a moment of experimentation.

I'm still waiting for that magic unblocking creative bullet though. I suspect when I do find one, it will be some sort of change in my process where something clicks differently, rather than a new tool.

This post got a lot longer than I thought it would, but that reminds me: there's a really great talk from GDC 2017 by Mick Gordon about his work on the Doom soundtrack and disrupting the creative process. Definitely worth checking out.
link [www.youtube.com]

Oct.31.2017 @ 2:51 AM
My most fun hardware/interface experiece has been with the zaquencers that I have. Got two and totally changed how I use bidule as that doesn't really have much of a sequencer to talk about.
More than a decade ago used to use FL Studio, which was fun initially, too.
Admittedly I collect most of my noodlings at link [www.fabiankondza.ban...]

Oct.31.2017 @ 4:45 AM
My 'hands' videos are terrible. I did them for a while, but I really don't know what I'm doing at all when it comes to visuals. All of it was self indulgent ambient masturbation. Oddly, I'm still asked if I'll ever do more. People's standards are extremely low these days.

Oct.31.2017 @ 3:10 PM
Real instruments, mainly.

I mainly identify as a pianist, and yet haven't had a full-sized keyboard in a flat for years, and when I did I didn't use it much. Lots of excuses about space.

Then I remembered - by playing a piano - how much I like them, and that I still have some skills. And now there's a Nord in the house, and even when I don't play it enough for stupid brane reasons, it makes me so happy.

It doesn't always lead to composition, and it's annoyingly in a different room to the studio gear - but it's in a public space, which is somewhat important. And most importantly: I turn it on and play it. It just works. And I find fewer ways of being in ruts with it than with the modular, or the endless 4-bar noodling elsewhere.

I mean, sometimes the war of art is just hard, and branes make it harder. And it's OK for my engineer-brain to like building and thinking. But sometimes, an expressive tool that falls naturally under hands is the thing to unblock, and in this case, the most familiar one of all. What I'm saying (badly) is that this both feels a little familiar, and a little like I think I'm not out the other side of.

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