Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Electronic Music Technology - Deep Dive 5

There are many ways to create techno, but the vast majority will depend upon the use of loop-based step sequencing as a compositional method.  Techno musicians, or producers, rather than employing traditional compositional techniques, may work in an improvisatory fashion, often treating the electronic music studio as one large instrument. The collection of devices found in a typical studio will include units that are capable of producing unique timbres and effects but technical proficiency is required for the technology to be exploited creatively. Studio production equipment is generally synchronized using a hardware- or computer-based MIDI sequencer, enabling the producer to combine, in one arrangement, the sequenced output of many devices. A typical approach to utilizing this type of technology compositionally is to overdub successive layers of material while continuously looping a single measure, or sequence of measures. This process will usually continue until a suitable multi-track arrangement has been produced. There can be as many layers as the composer requires with today’s software such as Fruit Loop Studio.

Once a single loop based arrangement has been generated, a producer may then focus on developing a temporal framework. This is a process of dictating how the summing of the overdubbed parts will unfold in time, and what the final structure of the piece will be. Some producers achieve this by adding or removing layers of material at appropriate points in the mix. Quite often, this is achieved by physically manipulating a mixer, sequencer, effects, dynamic processing, equalization, and filtering while recording to a multi-track device. Other producers achieve similar results by using the automation features of computer-based digital audio workstations. Techno can consist of little more than cleverly programmed rhythmic sequences and looped motifs combined with signal processing of one variety or another, frequency filtering being a commonly used process.

In recent years, as computer technology has become more accessible and music software has advanced, interacting with music production technology is now possible using means that bear no relationship to traditional musical performance practices: for instance, laptop performance (laptronica) and live coding. In the last decade a number of software-based virtual studio environments have emerged, with products such as Propellerhead's Reason andAbleton Live finding popular appeal. These software-based music production tools provide viable and cost-effective alternatives to typical hardware-based production studios, and thanks to advances in microprocessor technology, it is now possible to create high quality music using little more than a single laptop computer. Such advances have democratized music creation, leading to a massive increase in the amount of home-produced music available to the general public via the internet. Artists can now also individuate their sound by creating personalized software synthesizers, effects modules, and various composition environments. Devices that once existed exclusively in the hardware domain can easily have virtual counterparts. Some of the more popular software tools for achieving such ends are commercial releases such as Max/Msp and Reaktor and freeware packages such as Pure Data, SuperCollider, and ChucK.

Let’s elaborate a bit more about some of the techno effects that are quite commonly used in this genre of music:

The term “echo” was used more often in the early days, and is sometimes used today to refer to the distinct and distant repeats of a signal, while “delay” refers to anything from the same, to the short repeats heard as reverb, to the complex, long, manipulated repeats of an intricate digital delay line. Either way, they are both really the same thing, just used differently. All these effects had their origin with guitar add-in hardware that is still in use. The techno world uses software that allows you apply this to any electronic sound that is computer generated.

An example of delay effect:

Digital reverbs, like their sibling delays, offer more power and a greater variety of settings. And in addition to doing some approximations of spring reverb sounds, digital units usually offer more “lifelike” reverberation as heard in anything from an empty room to a large concert hall. Some of Raja’s recent work use digital reverb effects extensively. For example, the track ‘Rangu Rangu’ from Prem Kahani (2009 Kannada) uses reverb extensively with the Irish violins playing the preludes and the interludes.

A very nice example of violin reverb processing:

Here is an example of reverb with guitar: 

Phasers split the signal and shift one path out of phase by from 0 to 360 degrees through the entire range of the frequency spectrum, and blend it back with the dry path so the moving in-phase/out-of-phase relationship can be heard. When the two signals are totally out of phase—at 180 degrees (or, technically, 540 degrees or 900 degrees, etc, because the shift keeps moving)—they cancel each other out, creating what is called a “notch”. But a number of factors interact to give a phaser its characteristic “swooshing” sound. If you recall our example of ‘Shwashathin Thalam’ from Achuvinte Amma (2005 Malayalam), (this song is discussed in the Techno baroque melody post) some of the synth bass is processed using the Phaser effect to achieve the rapid change to the synth bass signal at the end of the charanam (this is my theory).

An example of a guitar based Phaser effect: 

Usually considered the big brother to the phaser, the flanger is indeed related in a sense, but achieves its heavier, some would say more oppressive sonic results by imposing more control over its placement of the notches created by the phase relationship, rather than spacing them evenly as the phaser’s sweep does. 

An example of guitar based flanger effect: 

True vibrato, as distinct from the volume-chopping tremolo effect often mislabeled as such, is an actual wavering of the note above and below pitch to create a sort of harmonious “wobbling” effect.  Digital vibrato tries to create harmonics and filter them out selectively to create a vibrato effect using software.

Fade In, Fade Out are facilities available with most software packages today. These effects make the signal volume rapidly swing from one end to the other creating a volume fading. For example, the track ‘Ishtakkari’ from Sooryan (2007 Malayalam) uses this effect extensively. Though we are discussing electronic music, here is an acoustic fade out, nicely demonstrated:

A piano, cello based acoustic example of brilliant acoustic fade out...

Distortion came from the world of electric guitars where using pedals, guitarists fuzzed up the raw signal. With software filters, it is easy to introduce distortion of one or more channels. This produces a ‘buzz’ like sound which is distinct from the synth bass sound. Distortion effects are quite common with Raja’s recent compositions. All the tracks of Cheeni Kum (2007 Hindi) use digital distortion effects as you will hear a hiss accompanying the keys work.

Here is a good demo of electronic distortion, though the melody is terrible:

There are several more custom effects depending on the software package you consider. Most Indian music for films will have several manual and MIDI inputs that are custom created for the track. 

  1. The techno effects are primarily used to enhance the manual work
  2. Several tracks have percussion, synth bass, synth strings, rhythm added to the track. Interludes get played either on independent keyboard or gets added to the track by way of additional tracks on the AWS itself. 
  3. In my view, Raja continues to have them played separately on synthesizers and the MIDI input is mixed at the AWS. The key result of the techno effects on synthesized or manual instruments is the obfuscation of instrument timbres. 
  4. The overdubbing of synth work over manual instruments was done even in the hardware synthesizer days by Raja. However, the software overdubbing with some additional techno effects leads to further difficulty in identifying instruments as they all become inseparable even with good quality recording. 
  5. When you throw a 100 track (software tracks) to a 24-track studio tape for the final cut, there is already some loss. When things go from a CD to MP3, things get worse.

Courtesy Wikipedia for some technical definitions


Anonymous said...

Dear Ravi,
New Sounds ai kaeka , therindhu kolla
kathu kodukaradhuku Thanks Ravi.

With Love,
Usha Sankar.

Suresh S said...


Excellent post. First should compliment you on the effort you have put. Next on your understanding of these technologies. It can get very overwhelming I guess and we now know why being a good sound engineer will also help in these cases. So much depends on the synthesizers and software nowadays. Looks like with a bit of tweaking you can end up creating a new song!!! No wonder studios are springing up everywhere.

This also shows why things are not so rosy for the real instrumentalists. If you know how to play a keyboard that seems enough. Not something I am happy about but I guess we cannot really stop the march of technology. I mean how many people really say they want to hear only real instruments? Most of them are OK with all the fanciful sound and may infact demand them. The only concern is how much of musical creativity is being destroyed due to to these equipments. Maybe you can address that later in one of your posts.

ravinat said...


Thanks for your comments. There are several questions you have raised and I think they all deserve answers.

1. EMT is a double edged sword. You are exposed to a number of sounds that are otherwise inaccessible to you, by way of samples. However, not every composer thinks about blending these sounds with their unique style. Unless, you do that, the new toy has a very short shelf life.

2. I showed some examples of how sitting on a computer you can manipulate and create new sounds to illustrate how many decisions can be made by the clueless. No formal training required - that's the sad part. It's like photoshopping stuff having not got the grounding of the film world. Try selling that to Nokia!

3. I am not going to go any deeper with issues related to EMT as my fear is that I will have readers left behind. Like all technology, there are issues related to misuse, ethics and so on with EMT too. That is a topic, I leave it with the practitioners.

4. Trust me, there are fantastic ways of using traditional instruments into the new electronic world. It is entirely up to the composers to take advantage of the technology. I will illustrate in my next post how a manual string section can be integrated with otherwise pure electronically generated sounds. What is happening today in IFM is the overuse of technology and cutting corners. If you hear the background score of the 2010 Hollywood movie 'Inception', there is so much of manual strings integration brilliantly done.

5. My primary goal for writing this series of posts is three fold: a) Raja is very modern and is a careful composer who integrates his style with new technology b) Lots of Raja's own fans use the term 'synth' without understanding what they mean. This will hopefully help some of them change their 'synth' perception, as there is more to it than what meets the eye (or ear!) c) Lots of his work in the 21st century have got no coverage elsewhere.

Hopefully I have addressed some of the objectives. Lastly, I plan to make the totally naive attempt to guess how Raja does his work today. I am hoping someone reading the blog would correct me where I go wrong in my guesses.

Thanks for your support.

Ravi Natarajan

CSR said...

Dear Ravi

Excellent article and efforts put in.

I could recall, how I mesmerised the fellow college students with "Putham Pudhu Kaalai" in Harmonium and how I messed-up the same song with Casio VL-Tone (during 1982's)in the same auditorium.

Raja is so sensitive with the singers and instrumentalists to do what is told to do, mainly because of the HARMONY efforts he has put in the creation.

Any "TMS effects" will be disastarous to that and needs to be handled carefully.

And in that way all these can be called modern days "TMS effects" which need extra care if you are bent-upon giving Harmony.



Suresh S said...

Thanks for the answers Ravi. I am with you when you say that Raja's 21 century work needs to reach a wider audience. I love most of his recent works a lot and listen to it often. And we both share the love for what he did and does in Malayalam.

@CSR: LOL at your "TMS effects" comment :) Very true indeed. Infact in stage shows when Balu tries to give his own improvisation to Raja's songs, a lot of them end up being comical!! That is how tight Raja integrates his orchestra with the song.

ravinat said...

Hi CSR/Suresh

Those who feel very constrained by harmony and its strict rules typically try to be improvisational. When things work out, they justify the method as the holy grail. Unfortunately, that can only take you so far. The rules of harmony are there for a reason as are the rules of CCM. They have stood the test of time and are terrific weapons in the arsenal of those who have mastered it.

As I mentioned in very first post in the series, "In my view, he has not only taken a wild beast called Techno and domesticated it, but also trained it to coexist with his other farm animals!". This is the part that the most casual listeners dismiss as 'synth'

If you hear the song 'Edaya Bagilu' from Prem Kahani (2009), you can observe how the new trained animal coexists with his other farm animals! You cannot work such strings without the bedrock foundation in harmony.

My hope is that Raja does not compromise in the future and stays his course of solid grounding.

CSR, thanks for the nice anology as you have coveyed a deep technical idea in simple terms - "TMS Effects"!

What beats me to this day is this: of all genres in music, why is Raja interested in Techno? My only guess is this: opposites attract each other. How does one take a free format music form and bring it under a strict rule based, time tested compositional method? Perhaps that is the challenge that keeps driving this 67 year old genius!


Ravi Natarajan

Phi Shu said...

massive uncredited cut and paste from the wikipedia techno article, use of such content requires attribution.

ravinat said...

Please do not take offense to me not crediting Wikipedia for some technical definitions. As part of my research in this area, I did use Wiki to understand the definitions of specialized Techno terms.

I have acknowledged them in the posts now. Thanks for pointing the error of not acknowledging Wikipedia.

I have used iMDB and Wiki as sources for several of my articles.



Phi Shu said...

you need to state at the top that you copied text, verbatim, from wikipeida, failure to do so is an infringement of wikipeida's copyright terms. Right now it still appears that you are the author of this text.