Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Cyberdipity - a CD's worth of mostly Max musings

[Note: I've been sitting on this post for months now, but as it's become apparent that I'm not going to make this year's RPM challenge, perhaps now is the time to let this go. Remember, I could have cheated...]

I've been making music at home for quite a while now.

I'm not generally an early adopter, but I got in on the 'home studio' thing fairly early with the purchase of a mighty Teac 144 'Portastudio' (second-hand, of course); four tracks on compact cassette running at double speed, in a box the size of a small suitcase - proper 80's Hi Fi!
And it grew slowly from there;  4-track 1/4", 8-track 1/4", Atari ST synced to 8-track, and inevitably to Pro Tools.

I did an Audio Engineering Diploma at the SAE in London in 1991, then a degree in Media Technology at the University of Glamorgan (now University of South Wales) in 1999, then a Masters in Music Engineering and Production at USW  in 2011. But I've never actually worked in the music industry, instead ending up working as a general media techie and video producer at USW.

But like the song says, "Music was my first love..."

For my degree project in '98, I bought and taught myself Cycling74's MaxMSP, to create an interactive musical installation called Robo DJ. To be honest, it was a noisy mess, but it impressed the examiners, and more's the point, I was hooked.
 Max let me do things my way and it was fun. Surely this wasn't programming? I couldn't do that stuff - I was one of the first people in the UK to fail a Computer Studies 'O' level!

But I could do Max, and I got into it to the point that Max programming became an end in itself; the guitar and keys were set aside like forgotten toys, only to be taken out on days when my boredom threshold was really low, and I spent hours of every day reading and absorbing the Max mailing list (remember mailing lists? Can someone remind me why we abandoned them for forums, RSS feeds, Facebook groups etc...?)

Of course I slightly regret that now - if I'd spent more time with the guitar and piano I would surely have clocked up my 10,000 hours by now and actually be good it - but then what would I do in my retirement?

But here's the thing; during all that time I've just been piling up music of one sort or another, on tapes, floppies and hard drives, and have never done anything  with it.

But then, why should I? I have a day job that pays the mortgage and just about keeps me in tech-gear, so just making the music is it's own reward.

Because in your 50's it's OK to say "actually, it's just a hobby",  and you can put it up online safe in the knowledge that no-one is going to expect you to launch a career from it.

So here's a CD's worth of what I've been playing with over the last couple of years - though first a brief word about the title (it probably wont be that brief, but bear with me):

I first heard the phrase 'Cybernetic Serendipity' on a flexi-disc made in the late sixties to promote a book called 'Young London' (flip side: 'Permissive Paradise' by The Pleasure Garden - a psych masterpiece, I'm sure).

Over the years I've milked this disc for samples, because it is a rather wonderful piece of 60's kitsch, but the best line has to be (said in a very BBC accent) "…want to dance down Drury Lane, experiment in Cybernetic Serendipity, or just sit on the pavement? Then London's the place to be."


 So I always thought that one day I would have to use that phrase as an album title.
The trouble is, it's already been used, of course, because Cybernetic Serendiptiy was the title of an exhibition of computer art, way back at the dawning of the milieu, and it included a fair bit of music, some of which was made into an album (which coincidentally can also be downloaded for free), and which features material from such luminaries at John Cage and Iannis Xenakis. I am not worthy...

But it's too good a title for me not to use, because it so neatly describes the way I work.

This 'album' is almost entirely made with MaxMSP, with just little bits of bass, guitar and keys added where appropriate.
And it happens like this:

 I make something in Max - a synth, a sequencer, an effect, a thing - and I play around with it, sometimes for months, iterating away at it until I hit a point where I'm doing something that sounds  interesting, at which point I reach for the QuickRecord patch and get it down onto disc.

 And there is stays, unheard and unloved for  months, even years, until one day I listen to it again and think "That's quite good - I should do something with it."

At which point I fire up Pro Tools and add something to it, usually another one of those forgotten QuickRecordings, and mix it about a bit.

And often as not, by some process of, yes, cybernetic serendipity, the results turn out to be better than the sum of their parts (well, I think so anyway).

But like I said, 'Cybernetic Serendipity' has already been used, so 'Cyberdipity' it is (one is tempted to add 'Doodah', but that would be silly).

It's formatted into a CD's worth, not far shy of 80 minutes, and a lot of of the tracks are too long, I know. But it's the bits that happen by accident - the cyberdipity, if you will - that I find most entertaining, and its really hard - impossible maybe - to edit out the bits in between, because it's that organic process of the good bits evolving, that makes it interesting. So please bear with it.

Some of the patches that were central to making it have already been shared via the Max forum, but I do intend to share some more of them via these pages, along with some accompanying explanations and videos (eventually, maybe).

Again, I have no secrets to keep, but like most Max programmers (I suspect), I don't really design with other users in mind, and find the prospect of trying to explain or annotate things post facto rather daunting.
Often when I look back at my work, even I can't remember how things were supposed to work - and I actually sort of like it that way.

Because one of the things I dislike about most music software, is the way that everything is so repeatable in the most minute detail, which takes the spontaneity out of things.

Creativity should involve fucking up and paying for your mistakes.

 "The Undo button is the enemy of art" - discuss.

Hendrix never played a song the same way twice, and I think we can agree it worked for him.
And even a control freak like Frank Zappa, actually loved to jam, given half the chance (ever notice how in his live recordings the rest of the band stick absolutely to the score, sounding exactly like the album versions, but when Frank's solo comes, he just let's rip?).

But I digress.

Some of the raw material here is old - maybe as much as 15 years - but it would be over-egging it to say this has been 15 years in the making; it's probably more like 3  since I started actually collating the bits, but still, not exactly a rush job.

Ironically (to me anyway), my day job mainly involves working with video, rather than music, and since starting this project I've actually taken a bit of a sabbatical from music making and been doing a lot more video at home.
So I am tempted to try and make a video for each and every track and post it as a video album. But then I'd probably feel obliged to learn Jitter properly and make my own video patches, and that would delay things by probably another  ten years, so maybe not.

Quick note: this album contains some binaural content, especially the first track, so it's best consumed via a decent pair of headphones, worn the right way round (i.e. left 'phone on left ear, right on right).

Track one actually contains some binaural beats, which are supposed to do things to your head, so consider this a disclaimer, though I can't say it's ever made me want to go out and kill people or give up smoking, and I've listened to it a lot of times…

Hear it here:

Sunday, January 27, 2013

VSTShell 3.77

Following some user comments, I made a rash promise that I would have an update to VSTShell within a week - OK, so it's more like two weeks, but I have been busy...

First of all, the interface has been cleaned up, with easier to read text and toggles that more clearly show their state.
Multi-timbrality has been implemented, so you can access all channels of a plug-in; to make this more usable with the arpeggiator, you can now send any arpeggiator slot to any instrument slot and target specific Midi channels.
Plugs are now loaded via menus which, as long as you're using the default locations, should automatically display all your VST and AU plugs (you can also store your plugs elsewhere and direct VSTShell to find them, but this may not be remembered).
A Patches window is available to load VST/AU presets by name (if the plug supports this).
State saving has now been implemented: most settings can be saved/restored, including the plugs loaded and arpeggiator sequences - with some caveats. A 'Safe Load' mode has been implemented, to  avoid crashes when trying to load all your plugs at once.
A Record window is available so that you can record the audio output to disc, either as a stereo mix, or as multitrack files for the various instruments plus an Fx mix.
Some minor tweaks like a pause button for the arpeggiator and solo buttons.
Bug fixes; slots now output in stereo, all 4 LFO's should work etc.
ReadMe updated & corrected.

Find it here

I will post a new video when I've got rid of this stinking cold; my voiceovers are croaky at the best of times - you wouldn't want to hear me now.
 Feedback always welcome, though bearing in mind that the Six Nations starts next weekend, it may be a while before I respond.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

VSTShell was one of the first Max apps I ever shared, a little over ten years ago.
 It's nothing fancy, but obviously people still find it useful, because I occasionally get emails about it. Quite early on in it's development I had an email from a games developer called Fernando Covett, who kindly loaned his graphics skills to improving the look of it - the background, and the knobs and sliders are all his work.
 It also got a mention in Sound-on-Sound magazine, in the 'Pro Tools Notes' section, back when you could use DirectConnect (remember that?) to play stuff into Pro Tools, and I even had an email from Behringer asking for permission to include it on a disc of freebies they were including with some of their gear.
Cut to late 2012, and someone submitted a bug report, which reminded me that I hadn't posted an update for quite some time, and as I had been tinkering with it quite a bit over the past few months, I thought it was about time to post a new version.
 So here it is, along with a couple of Youtube videos explaining what it is, and how to use it.
Funny how Youtube has taken the place of written manuals, and although it patently isn't, it almost seems easier to make a Youtube video than to actually sit down and write a 'manual'.
And of course, nobody reads manuals any more, do they? Did they ever...?

Anyway, the new version features a much improved arpeggiator, and I've already had feedback asking for some kind of state-saving to be implemented, so I will be looking at that in the near future.

Download it here

Here's the basic intro video:

And here's one telling you how to use it with Pro Tools via Rewire

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New build here; the last updated version was in the wrong folder, and I've made a few more tweaks etc.
In the absence of any other user testing (see below) I've found that making the videos has been really useful for finding problems.
For example, I've noticed myself occasionally getting confused between the Midi and Modulator sends/receive menus, so I hit upon the genius idea of using a different font & colour for the Midi ones, which actually seems to work...

I'm still desperate for some user testing to report, so please do get in touch. I have to hand in the write-up in a little over two weeks, and as yet have nothing to write about anyone else's experiences. It all works fine for me, but then it would - I need to know if it makes sense to anyone else.
Even if you just 'mail me to say "This thing is crap - I can't make head nor tail of it", I swear I'd still be grateful!

Talking of videos, I posted some new ones: Tonelab as Modular Synth and How to Build Your Own Modules.
(FYI, the distortion in the Build Your Own video turned out to be due to be an issue with my DSP settings, but I didn't want to do the whole thing again.)
Also, in the early stages, I posted a few videos of simple jams, whereas more recently I've tended to tack on a bit of a jam at the end of each tutorial, to reinforce whatever it is I've just been talking about.
For the Modular Synth video, I've posted a separate jam, "" because I was having too much fun to edit it, and it would have made the whole thing a bit long if I'd edited them together.
All three are below.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Another year, another Youtube video (and module)

Bez & Jake get festive.

After a brief break for New Year (spent in the New Forest, with family & dogs - very nice it was too) I managed to finish a couple of those videos.
They're both a bit long, so feel free to skip to the bits that interest you.
It's been interesting for me doing these videos, because making videos is what I mostly do at work, so it's interesting to be the other side of the camera - and not at all easy!
I'm not unaware of the effect that being 'on camera' has on some people - I'm used to seeing people who happily get up in front of a class of 200 students every day and talk for an hour, dry up when a camera is pointed at them. But at least now I can empathise with greater sincerity as they stumble through the fifteenth take.

Anyway, I also made another Generator module just before Christmas, which you can get here (or the full package below). It's a delay-based pitch-shifter, and the basic design comes from Miller Puckette's excellent "The Theory and Practice of Electronic Music", which has been the source of quite a few modules, and as it can be downloaded for free, I can't understand why anyone interested in electronic music would be without a copy.
Whilst we're on the subject of free electronic music PDF's, here's a couple that I hope one day to be able to understand, if not in their entirety, then at least partially.

The two videos are on the subjects of rhythm creation (I had originally used the term 'munging', but then found some rather distasteful definitions online, so dropped it) and an overview of some of the sequencer modules.

Get the latest package with the new module and other tweaks here.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Revision

Betty poses by one of my Quad 57's, and worries that I've forgotten to adjust the white balance.

Ho Ho Ho!
In the process of making some more Youtube tutorials, I came across a few bugs and things to be tweaked. This mainly applies to the Midule sequencers and the drum sequencer, but a few bits n' pieces in the main patch too.
Anyway, ons shouldn't really be coding on Christmas Eve, or even blogging for that matter (however attractive an alternative it may seem), so I've just zipped it up and posted it here.
Have a good one.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Evil Tonelab - First panic release!

OK, so it's nearly Christmas, and I need to get this thing 'finished', or at least out there, so I can get some feedback (pun not intended).
Software, of course is never finished, and I am finding bugs & inefficiencies daily, but as I said, I need to get this out there.
So here it is.
It's probably full of holes, and the documentation is far from complete - a brief description of each of the modules will follow in a few days, and I'm also working on a 'Rhythm munging with Notelab' Youtube vid - but in the meantime any comments will be greatly appreciated.
So make some noise and send them to: eviltonelab_btinternet_dot_com