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My Adventures With OSC

OSC -- Open Sound Control -- is a communications protocol designed primarily for passing messages between various music software and hardware. It's sort of a successor to the MIDI protocol. Like MIDI, OSC is not concerned with passing an actual audio stream (you can use the ReWire protocol for that) -- it's a way to transmit controller movements, tempo changes, time synchronization, etc. between devices and applications. It has numerous technical advantages over MIDI, such as transfer rate and data resolution.  MIDI communication is hard locked at 31.25 kBaud (slower than most dial-up modems), and most MIDI data are in the form of 7-bit integers (only allowing numbers in the range of 0-127). OSC, on the other hand, can basically pass messages as quickly as the data transport (UDP over ethernet or local sockets) can churn them out, and uses higher-resolution floating point numbers. OSC is very easily extensible and doesn't have to be just about music of course -- it can be useful for any application where an tightly-synchronized interchange of data is needed. And OSC is potentially a lot friendlier for the user in that it allows full URL-style object names -- you don't have to remember what MIDI CC 92 corresponds to, you can just call it "/leadsynth/volumefader".

I'd been hearing about OSC on and off for a couple of years, but didn't have an occasion to experiment with it firsthand until recently, when my search for iPhone music apps led me to TouchOSC, a little application that's basically like a mini Jazzmutant Lemur, a configurable touchscreen interface that lets you build widget panels of knobs, faders, buttons, xy pads, piano keys, EQs, etc. which can then be linked any hardware or software that speaks OSC. It's a great example of a "does one thing and does it well" application. It comes loaded with half a dozen templates, and there's an editor application for Windows + MacOS that makes it easy to create new layouts. The editor is pretty slick and easy to use; the one wrinkle I encountered was that I manually had to open TCP port 9658 on my Windows Firewall configuration to be able to upload custom layouts to the mobile TouchOSC -- this really needs to go in the documentation (though to the developer's credit, he was very responsive to my email help request (on a Sunday morning even) and I got things sorted out soon enough).

Most popular audio apps do not (as of yet) support OSC natively, so an OSC to MIDI bridge is generally required. There is a popular MacOS app called OSCulator which apparently handles this (I've never used it myself), for other operating systems there is Pd (Pure Data), a (free) graphical dataflow programming language very similar to Max/MSP (both were designed by Miller Puckette, and are somewhat interoperable). There are a set of Pd patches on the TouchOSC website to translate the default TouchOSC layouts into MIDI, and I found it pretty easy to hack together my own Pd patches for custom layouts. Granted, Pd looks a little daunting if you've never seen it before (and I was REALLY glad I had spent a few hours working through Max/MSP tutorials a few months ago), but these OSC-to-MIDI patches are pretty straightforward, and if you've spent any time tinkering with MIDI internals or doing any coding, it should be no problem to get the hang of Pd's syntax and interface, and building a new patch is mostly just a matter of a few minutes worth of copying, pasting, clicking and dragging.

The other piece of software that's required (on Windows) is MIDI Yoke, a free tool that creates a set of virtual MIDI ports for passing data in between programs. You point Pd's MIDI I/O at one of these virtual ports, and then do the same with your MIDI app of choice, and you're up and running.

My TouchOSC experiments so far have mostly involved Ableton Live, and everything works as expected. I set up a few test patches in Live and was able to sweep synth parameters, effects sends, EQs etc. all very satisfyingly. I put together a Pd patch to make TouchOSC's "Simple" layout a bit more Ableton Live friendly (specifically, I changed the "drum pad" screen to send MIDI note events rather than CC data, to make it easy to use with Live's Drum Racks sampler). I had some minor problems mapping the TouchOSC xy pad in Live, due to how Live's automated MIDI mapping works, but this was easily overcome with a few seconds of fiddling in Pd (the details of which are explained in the linked Pd patch). I WOULD love to find out if there's some way to set up MIDI automation in Live by way of a text file, which would make it MUCH easier to quickly map some of the TouchOSC controls like the multiband EQ.

I also spent a little while trying to get TouchOSC to work with Plogue Bidule (which supports OSC natively), with mixed results. This is partly because I'm not very familiar with Bidule, but even aside from that, the OSC signal passing didn't seem to just automagically work as well as it does in Pd. I am also curious to try using TouchOSC with Reaktor (which also speaks OSC natively) although I don't have any specific applications in mind yet.

The main thing on my TouchOSC to-do list is getting accelerometer (tilt sensor) support working in Pd, which I don't think will be too different from the way the xy pad works. I also have some really cool non-entirely-musical ideas for using TouchOSC that I'm going to keep under wraps for the time being.

Overall, I'm not entirely sure yet how to best fit TouchOSC into my setup. It's maybe a little gimmicky as a performance device (and would require an extra layer of complexity, having a wireless network in a live performance), but it could be cool being able to control stuff while moving around out in the audience. I think the program will make a useful remote control for things like recording vocals and mic'd amplifiers (where I'm often not in the same room as the recording workstation). And overall, it comes back to the idea that the creative process is definitely colored by the choice of interface -- within a few minutes of having TouchOSC controlling Ableton Live, I found myself mixing and morphing things very naturally and fluidly in a way that wouldn't have quite occurred to me with a traditional knobs & faders input device.

iPhone Music Apps Roundup (part 1)

After a good bit of deliberation I decided to spring for a new 8GB iPod Touch last week (the Touch is basically an iPhone minus the phone, GPS, and camera). This was partly an attempt to bribe myself to get more exercise (I'm more likely to go on walkabout and to the gym/pool if I've got some tunes or a good audiobook on tap), but I've also been really intrerested by the things I've been reading about music apps starting to appear on the platform -- the touchscreen is an intriguing interface, and I like the concept of an easily portable device I can use to do a little composition or beat making on the go.

Overall I'm pretty happy with the Touch so far -- it's a pretty impressive little computational swiss army knife. A have a few minor gripes that mostly have to do with the cruddyness of the iTunes software but no surprises there. I spent a while reading reviews, hit the App Store to do a little shopping, and have discovered a nice little handful of music tools that should keep me busy for a while.

iDrum: I understand that iDrum was originally a Mac app, published by iZotope (who make some well respected pro-level production and mastering tools), designed as an easy-to-use beat box for the Garageband crowd, which then got ported to PC (as a VST plugin) and now there's an iPhone version. A straightforward beat sequencer was high on my want list for a portable app, and unfortunately iDrum leaves me with pretty mixed feelings -- some parts of it are wonderfully polished and designed, while other bits are inexcusably incomplete.

The good: wow, I really like iDrum's interface. There's a song mode, pattern mode, and instrument mode, and it's really fast and intutive to move back and forth between the three. There's 16 cells which can be loaded with different samples (which are color coded: kick drums are green, snares are red, etc.), 16 beats per pattern, and 16 patterns per song -- the way you zoom in and out from one display to another is extremely clever and well designed. There's also a "drum pad" mode where you can play all of the sample hits in realtime.

The bad: No sample pitch adjustment. No way to adjust the samples, period, other than changing volume and pan. No way to export patterns to wav format (apparently you can transfer patterns to the PC/Mac version of iDrum (which costs $60). No way to import your own sample hits. iDrum is currently sold in no fewer than nine different editions, ranging from the general Rock Edition, Club Edition and Hip-Hop Edition, to the band themed Depeche Mode Edition, Underworld Edition, etc. These are all functionally identical aside from the different sample banks. I picked up the Major Lazer edition (hey, beats by Diplo + a dancehall cartoon character who fights the undead? Awesome.)

iDrum is a fun little diversion, but it's frustrating that iZotope has decided to market it as a "remix toy", when with just a few really simple and obvious additions it could be a seriously useful sketch pad for musicians. The fact that songs can only be 16 bars long is pretty inexcusable (I would love to be able to have multiple "pages" in song mode, which you could scroll between just like the different pages of icons in the iPhone's home menu), and the inability to change the pitch of samples is also really limiting. Lack of sample import/export is another big strike against the program, especially after seeing so many other iPhone apps implement this really elegantly. I have already passed my comments on to iZoptope, telling them I would eagerly buy an "iDrum Pro" with just these simple few additions (a swing parameter and some basic effects would be nice too, but that's just icing). As it is, I'm wowed by the interface, but after about 10 minutes of use I found iDrum really wanting as a music-making tool.  GRADE: C

JR Hexatone: an oddball drum machine / rhythm sequencer based around a field of hexagons. There are six sample cells in the middle, and at the beginning of each sequence cycle (e.g. each measure), each one of these central cells sends out a "pulse" into the surrounding field of 90 cells, moving semi-randomly to an adjancent hex with each beat. These 90 cells are initially empty, but can be loaded with a variety of operators. There is a "play sound" operator (a red outline around the hex) which causes the sample to trigger on that beat. There are operators to jump to a cell in a specific direction, to retrigger or slice the sample, to modify the volume/pan, etc. Cells can also be assigned one of three priorities -- high priority cells act as attractors, while low priority cells can be used to draw "walls" that the pulses will not enter. The best way to get a sense of how it all works is to watch one of the demo videos on the linked amidio site.

In practice, it took me a little while to get the hang of what was going on; there was definitely an initial period of "I don't know how I did that but it sounds cool", but once I started with a blank project and started adding things a bit at a time, I was able to mostly get the hang of it after an hour or so. There is a decent sized built in sample library (organized by kicks, snares, hats, toms, etc.) and you can import your own samples via wifi. You can also record your loops to .wav and export them, or overdub a recorded loop on top of a live sequence. I do find it a little tricky to start & stop loops with proper timing; maybe with a little more practice I'll get better at nailing the timing, but I think an option to quantize/sync loops to an exact length would be a welcome addition. Other than that, my only issue with Hexatone is that it fits a lot of information on the screen, and sometimes it can be tricky selecting the proper cell with ease and accuracy. This isn't a huge problem (and I can't think of any easy way around it), but it's minorly frustrating at times -- it is the only iPhone app I've used that has made me halfway wish for a stylus.

Overall, part of what makes Hexatone such a neat program is simply that there's nothing else quite like it. There is a good selection of sample projects included, which really show what the tool can do in experienced hands; there's some impressive sounding stuff here and the sample projects should be a good resource for studying what Hexatone is capable of once you understand the basics. This is a quirky little tool, but it's a powerful one (even if it's not the sort of go-to tool I would use on every song). It's a perfect example of how user interface can influence the creative process, and I look forward to spending more time exploring its potential. GRADE: B

SunVox:an iPhone port of an app that already exists on a variety of other (desktop and mobile) platforms, SunVox is a program which (for better or worse) has serious hacker appeal. Fans of old school pattern-based tracker software will feel right at home, and the combination of the tracker interface and the flowchart style device window reminds me sort of a "lite" version of Jeskola Buzz. And I only say "lite" because the selection of generators and effects is fairly modest (more on that in a moment); otherwise SunVox is very much a feature-complete sequencing app.

There's definitely a learning curve with this program; I spent the first hour or two feeling as if I'd been thrown in the deep end of the pool. There's a decent documentation writeup on the program's homepage, but it's platform-independent and doesn't mention the touchscreen interface features which are unique to the mobile versions. And this, really, was the part that felt most overwhelming at first, that SunVox fits a device routing window AND a pattern tracker AND a virtual multi-octave keyboard input AND a page of synth parameters AND a song timeline, all more or less onscreen at once, all tweakable in realtime, on a 3" x 5" touchscreen. Whew. But after figuring how and when to resize the subwindows and when to pinch-zoom and soforth, it all works remarkably well. As I say, there is a learning curve, but once you know your way around, it's a surprisingly elegant interface. There are a couple of youtube demo videos linked on the project homepage, and these were hugely useful in getting me used to the iPhone version of the interface.

The included devices and effects are pretty modest in scope, but they are serviceable and (most importantly) they sound pretty good. There are five tone generators: "Generator", a simple single-oscillator synth with five waveforms (triangle, sawtooth, rectangular, noise, "dirty") plus adjustable attack and release; "FM", an FM synth with a single carrier and modulator (each with their own ADSR envelope); "Kicker", a bare-bones kick drum synth; "SpectraVoice", which is well-suited to pads and ambient sounds; and "Sampler", which allows you to import and play samples as you'd expect (the import/export via wifi works beautifully -- SunVox acts as a mini web server which you can access from another computer on the network to upload/download/rename/delete files). There are also about 8-10 different effects, including a couple of reverb/delay effects, distortion, tremolo, a bandpass filter and so on. It would be nice to see some more sophisticated generators and effects (and more of them) in future versions of the program, but what's here is pretty versatile, especially when you consider that all device parameters can easily be modulated in realtime via the pattern tracker.

SunVox is a little rough around the edges in places, and at times that's part of its charm, though at times it feels like there's a little bit of bug hunting still to be done. I've had one glitch that caused the device window to go haywire and required me to reload an earlier version of the project, and sometimes the touch interface in the song timeline isn't as well-behaved as it ought to be (it occassionally seems unresponsive to creating/moving patterns, and takes a bit of zooming in/out to work properly). I hope these glitches get sorted out, but they're not show-stoppers. I've already spent quite a few hours with SunVox and it just keeps growing on me -- there's a LOT of kit here, and it's capable of some really impressive results.   GRADE A-

NEXT TIME, I hope to be posting about Noise.io and TouchOSC, which both look like amazing apps, but I want to spend some more time with them before writing a review.

Blind Collaborating Carter

I recently participated in a blind collaboration experiment over on the Something Awful musicians' forum, had a lot of fun, and thought I'd post the results.

The rules were as follows: pick an instrument, record a single track, 1m45s in length, 120bpm, key of C minor. Submit your track to a "team captain" who mixes together the parts of all of the team participants, none of whom have heard one another's parts.

I laid down a little something with my Telecaster, and here's the final results.

Blind Collaboration

Big ups to "Quincy Smallvoice" for the mixing, and to fellow Team Teal goons edgevetto, urbster, and FFT. I'm pretty pleased with how this turned out.

I think it also might inspire me to spend some time exploring the tension-filled locrian scale as a source of some cool spaghetti western / surf music sounds.

Look At It For The Articles

I have just added an 'articles' section to my main website. Currently the only new content there is a tutorial on using audio racks in the Ableton Live software. As such, if you're an Ableton Live user you should go have a look, otherwise it probably doesn't apply. I DO want to add a bunch more there, a combination of tutorials and technical articles and whatever else (generally music related) comes to mind.

I have also been thinking about something a friend suggested a few weeks ago, that rather than keeping up with this LJ blog, I should install something like Wordpress on my own web hosting, and blog over there. The main reason being it would be nice to have a unified look & feel between this blog and the rest of my site. There's something to be said for that, but I do like the social networking aspect of LJ (and think I get some extra traffic on account of that). Another possibility is that apparently a "pro" LJ account would let me create my own custom style sheet, but I'm not sure I want to pay money for that, especially since I don't think I'd have much use for any of the other "pro" LJ features.

Artomatic gig: trip report

I had my DJ gig at Artomatic last night, overall it went pretty well. I was the first performer of the evening on the main stage, which meant that the crowd was pretty light near the beginning of the set but also meant that I got to set up early and play an extra 15 or 20 minutes which was a nice surprise. It took the sound guy a few minutes to get everything dialed in just so, but it was a pretty bumpin sound system -- nice and tight, but some serious horsepower when the bass kicked in. I thought I laid down an okay set and got a couple of nice compliments from strangers after the show. Thanks to everybody who made it out!

After my set I hung out to listen to "Riots on U" for a bit, a band who had a pretty good sound (they describe themselves as a cross between My Bloody Valentine and Van Morrison), until such time as I headed upstairs to catch up with various of my friends who were exploring other parts of the show. Ultimately, I ended up wandering around the show with Jon W. until around 11:30, scoping out different art and performers. There was some pretty good stand up comedy, and I got to sit in on a few songs of Miss Jess' performance on the cabaret stage -- she was singing and playing acoustic Texas blues on ukulele, accompanied by an upright bass. She has a great stage presence and a real purty voice and I was glad I got to see some of her set.

(side note, if you are DC local and have not been to Artomatic, it runs through next weekend -- there is a whole lot to see and it's free!)


Small Blues Thing

I got to tooling around with a harmonica earlier, remembered I'd been meaning to experiment with recording it some more, and so I laid down a little 12 bar blues to play over. I'm not much of a harp player, but liked the results well enough that I plugged up my Telecaster and had a solo with that too. Here's the result: lil blues thing

The guitars and bass were plugged directly into the audio interface, processed with the Guitar Rig 3 amp simulator software. Drums are sequenced with the Battery 3 drum sampler plugin. I added a bit of compression to the harp and a touch of EQ to the bass, otherwise I didn't really need to do anything in terms of mixing. I might try to add an intro/outro and tart up the drums a bit at some point, but who knows.

I also spent a while last night just setting up a nice default template in Ableton Live (it and Sonar are the two recording packages I use). And that's something I'm surprised I don't see emphasized much much more in articles/books/tutorials on computer recording -- that spending an hour or so figuring out your ideal screen layout, buss routing, effects, etc. and saving that as a template, you will save yourself many hours in the long run. I have one template for simple guitar/bass/drum tracking, a couple for different electronic styles, etc. Of course this is hardly a new discovery, but if you're anything like me, you learn new things and your workflow changes enough over time that every few months it's worth taking a step back and asking "how much of this can I automate and template-ize"?


Earlier this evening I got inspired to take apart an old bass (which I inherited from maugorn many moons ago), a Hagstrom frankenbass which my research leads me to believe is from 1969, and which I suspect has a Gibson EB-3 pickup in the neck. This is a really cool bass but the wiring/electronics have definitely shown their age and it has been some time since it has really been playable.

I took off the strings and removed the pickguard, though my poking around the innards with a multimeter did not really give me any answers -- the wiring is pretty weird (five toggle switches and a volume knob) and I think I am going to have to spend a while studying schematics (thanks, internet!) and taking notes before I go back for round two.

I DID find one unexpected treasure, which made my day and made the whole enterprise worthwhile. I couldn't get a really good photo of it, but on the metal shielding underneath the pickguard, was inscribed:


If you're out there, Ian, I hope things worked out with Cathy, and rest assured the bass has found a good home.

I love old tech.

First Annual Report

Haven't posted here lately but have been pretty darned busy with music related things of late. To briefly summarize:

1) I have an upcoming DJ gig at Artomatic on Friday, June 26, from 6-7PM, where I will be spinning on the main stage on the first floor. While I have lately been digging on a lot of deep/soulful house music, it turns out this is a LOUD sound system and so I expect to play a heavier set than I would otherwise. I'm psyched.

2) I have been at work on putting together a new personal website (for music promo) which I expect to be posting more about in a couple of days. I have some new audio to post, and have been working with a couple of artists who are designing me some AWESOME artwork for the site, I can't wait to show it all off.

3) I have been hanging out at a couple of shows organized by the local experimental music community, including a recent Electric Possible showcase at DC/AC, and the Sonic Circuits showcase at Artomatic a couple of weekends ago. Have been chatting with some nice and knowledgeable folks about analog synths, circuit bending, and custom-built sound hardware and generally getting ideas.

4) As an offshoot of #3, I picked up a copy of Nicolas Collins' excellent book "Handmade Electronic Music" (which I recommend enthusiastically if you are interested in electronics and interested in music of any persuasion) and a big box of parts (photoresistors, capacitors, piezo discs, breadboard, jumper cables, etc.) I have already built my first mini-prototype of a light-driven theremin-esque device. I am really excited about getting down & dirty with this stuff, learning to understand how sound producing circuitry works on the most basic level. I expect to be posting about these experiments in more detail.

5) As another offshoot of #3, last night I visited Keith S., aka Fast Forty, and spent a few hours in his basement studio talking shop and jamming. It was pretty much the first time I'd used my laptop Ableton Live setup for improvised jamming with another person, and I was pretty happy with the results. I also played bass about half the time, all the while Keith was busy on keyboards and effects loop, and I think we had a nice electronic dub sound going.

6) Mostly just a side note, but I attended a TERRIFIC show last Sunday, a performance by Cuban jazz pianist Chuchito Valdes and his pickup band, who played at HR 57 over the weekend. This was my first opportunity to hear live Latin jazz and Chuchito has made me a fan -- it's really complex, interesting music, but is accessible and really invigorating. Seeing Chuchito and his band play so energetically, and seeing it in an up-close small club setting, was just wonderful.

Music, Culture, and Freedom

The other night I was browsing through the book "Synthesizer Basics", which is a great collection of articles from Keyboard Magazine, ranging from the late 1970s-mid 80s, including some articles by heavy hitters like Bob Moog. (I have stumbled across several Keyboard Magazine books over the years and they are all very good; a great balance between technical, practical, and accessible). One of the first pieces in the book is a 1979 article called "The First Synthesizer", which opens with a quote from Hermann Helmholtz.
"Music was forced to shape for itself the material on which it works. Painting and sculpture find the fundamental character of their materials, form and colour, in nature itself, which they strive to imitate. Poetry finds its material ready formed in the words of language. Music alone finds an infinitely rich but totally shapeless plastic material in the tones of musical instruments. There is a greater and more absolute freedom in the use of material for music than for any other of the arts; certainly it is more difficult to make a proper use of absolute freedom."

Helmholtz was a physicist of many talents, renowned for his work in the field of acoustic science, and the quote above comes from 1880. Clearly it's an idea that takes on new dimensions now that synthesis allows one to sculpt almost any sound imaginable from thin air (although Helmholtz's work, such as his book "On The Sensations of Tone", has been a boon to instrument builders for over a century, and in many ways synthesis is as much evolutionary as revolutionary).
Helmholtz's idea about "absolute freedom" got me thinking about making music purely in the electronic domain, and how that near-infinite flexibility can also present challenges in making music that sounds suitably interesting and organic and "alive". There are a variety of reasons for that. One is that the brain enjoys complexity -- it's part of what makes art interesting and engaging -- and the vastly complex harmonic interaction of wood resonances and string vibrations and air pressure and fluctuating magnetic fields that goes into playing and recording just a single note from an acoustic instrument, well there's a lot of complexity there, and that complexity is a part of why a piano or guitar or other instrument sounds good.

Similarly, an acoustic instrument  in the physical world presents a more complex and nuanced interface for the player to enjoy. If I'm playing a note on a synth keyboard, only a couple of pieces of information are generated: what time did I hit the key, how hard or softly did I hit it, maybe some additional information about how much pressure I used when releasing the key (aftertouch). Sure, I can use my other hand or a foot pedal to add a couple more levels of accent -- a pitch bend or filter sweep or what not -- but it's still a small and easily quantifiable set of variables. Contrast that to playing a note on a guitar, which I can alter by how hard I pick it, whether I am picking closer to the bridge or the neck, how thick a pick I'm holding (and what material it's made of and what angle I'm holding it at), how hard I'm fretting the note with the other hand, whether I'm using any vibrato or palm mutes or pinch harmonics. And so on. Each of these variables alters the sound in really complex ways, and yet it's all so easy and intuitive for the player -- you don't have to remember which knob does what, you just have to think "play more passionately" and those tonal colors follow more or less automatically.

And this is part physics and part psychology -- there's a feedback loop whereby the performer affects the instrument and the instrument affects the performer. And while electronic sound modeling is getting more sophisticated every day, and electronic interfaces are sure to improve, it's this ferociously complex and nuanced relationship between performer and instrument which is the tricky part. Even with a keyboard instrument like an electric piano, there are now software models of Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos which are practically indistinguishable from the real thing; you could play a recorded song and most people (myself included) couldn't reliably pick out whether it was a real Rhodes or a simulation. But yet by all reports I've heard from people who have played a real Rhodes, it's no contest, the difference is night and day. Feeling the vibrations of the hammers and reeds transmitted through the keys and the rest of the piano, there's something there that inspires the player, those resonant frequencies leaking into the player's body forge an intimate connection that makes for a deeper and more expressive performance.

So the "shapeless plastic material" of musical potential has certain automatic advantages when expressed in the physical world, that require much greater effort to approximate in a purely mathematical/electronic domain.

But music exists not just in a physical space, but also in a cultural space. You can hear just the first few notes of "O Fortuna" or "Johnny B. Goode" or Vivaldi's "Spring" and it instantly conjures up a whole complex set of associations for the listener -- a particular flavor of passionate drama, or wild times, or highbrow culture -- all evoked in detail before you even get past the second measure.

The "shapeless plastic material" of sound is absolutely free in potential, but in practice, the canvas and pigment of music are built upon centuries of past musical tradition. Even radically experimental music does not exist in a vacuum. The vast majority of mainstream music is built upon a whole network of allusions and cultural shorthand, audience expectations and assumptions. If you hear this kind of instrument, and the performer is dressed like that, and is playing in this kind of venue, you the audience will have some idea what to expect from the performance. And again, it's this nearly impossible to quantify harmonization between history and culture and fashion and aesthetics that helps make music interesting and engaging.

So much of the challenge, and the potential, of electronic/experimental music is that it must sometimes invent its whole scope and geography practically from whole cloth. And these new cultural associations can take root quickly -- anyone who has listened to much pop music over the past 10 or 15 years knows what an autotune vocal effect or 303 bassline "means" -- but using the tools of synthesis and digital production as merely another level of cultural shorthand is to miss much of their true potential.

This is a demanding task -- to create a new language and teach that language to listeners even as you speak to them with it -- but there are readily available tools to sculpt that shapeless plastic that would have been inconceivable even a couple of decades ago, and for the courageous and ambitious musician there are countless new weird and wonderful places waiting to be created and explored.

Music Theory Madness pt 1.: SCALES

It was a while ago when I realized that practically EVERYTHING in western 12-tone music boils down to the pattern of whole tones and half tones in a diatonic scale, aka the distribution of white keys and black keys on a piano keyboard. A major scale follows the pattern W-W-H-W-W-W-H:

Starting from C, it's a whole tone (two half tones) between C and D, because of the black key in between them, but only a half tone between E and F (where there's no black key). Voila, a C major scale: C D E F G A B (and then back up to C an octave higher).

If you take that same "WWHWWWH" pattern and start counting from another note, you get a different major scale. Starting from D, that's a D major scale: D E F# G A B C#. You can easily figure out the sharps and flats in a particular key by counting this way.

If you go back to the notes in our C Major scale (C D E F G A B), and start counting from a different part of the pattern, you get a different kind of scale. If you start from the 6th note (A), the pattern gets shifted

that's an A minor scale (A B C D E F G). Again, you can take this minor scale pattern (WHWWHWW) and start counting from a different note to get a different minor scale. If you start counting from G, that's G A Bb C D Eb F -- a G minor scale. (Note: these are natural minor scales. There are other kinds of minor scales, like harmonic minor, but don't worry about them for now).

But why the 6th note? There are mathematical reasons, but the important thing is just that it sounds good. Major scales (starting with the original WWHWWWH pattern) tend to sound bold and bright and triumphant, while minor scales can sound more subdued and melancholy. If you've noticed by now that a C major scale and an A minor scale contain the EXACT SAME NOTES, you're catching on -- this is an important guide to figuring out which chords fit in most easily in a particular key (which makes a lot more sense once you understand how SCALES are the building blocks for CHORDS, something I will talk about next time).

And what if you start counting from someplace other than the first or sixth note of a scale? Well then you have entered the exotic world of modes, which show up a lot in medeival music, jazz, and heavy metal, but not so much in pop music. There are seven modes, corresponding to the seven notes of a scale: Ionian (major scale), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian (minor scale), and Locrian. The important thing is just to remember that each of these modes has a different tonal "color" similar to the difference between the characteristic major and minor sound (e.g. the Phrygian mode has a vaguely Arabic sound, and can be heard in songs like "White Rabbit" or the Dr. Who theme). And that each of these modes is built upon different transpositions of the exact same "WWHWWWH" pattern.