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

Techno Baroque – A technical rhythm digression

In order to explain the techno world a little better, let’s review some of the sample sounds available from manufacturers such as Roland and other sources (such as freesound.org) and get a sense of the sound. While there are so many different type of digital percussion instruments, the most popular one is called the Roland SPD 20 Multipad. This multipad is commonly referred as ‘synthpad’ or ‘rhythm pad’. This can create sounds of about 700 instruments and a max of 14 voices. Available at $600 (in 2009), this instrument has been driving many rock bands, Indian musicians alike for the past decade or so. Like a standard drum kit, one can use just the multi-pad or add a number of accessories such as damper pedals, foot switches, trigger pads, Cymbal pads, etc. to set up a full fledged electronic equivalent of a traditional drum kit. If you observed the ‘Andrum Indrum Endrum’ show of Raja in 2005, Sivamani, the drummer, uses not only two multipads, but a ton of accessories for the concert.

There is another popular Roland drum machine used by most film musicians called TR-808. This machine has been a mainstay rhythm generator for most film musicians given the dependability of this machine. If you look up some of the Amrita TV programs available on youtube – Hrudaya Ragangalude Raja – you will observe clearly the use of TR-808 by Raja. This is very useful for doing a number of things such as bass, snare, low to high tom, claves, low to high conga, handclaps (now you know how so many film songs have perfectly timed claps), moroccos, open, closed hi hats, cymbals make it like a mini professional drummer. With additional effects like flangers, reverbs, you can create several patterns and choose the right time signature for the song very easily. Again, the Amrita TV program illustrates these techniques though not in great detail. Puru, who works for Raja has been a drumming and drum machine expert who has been of great help for Raja.
Reviewing some the standard sounds of this instrument would give us a good introduction to the world of Techno Baroque. I will try and show some Raja examples with each of the sample sound. These are my guesswork and by no means authoritative.

In order to relate some of the sample sounds to music created by Raja and other Indian composers, you can use software to adjust its pitch or tempo of a sample sound that is close to what you hear in Raja's music. Wherever, I have changed a sample, I will also ensure that the original sample is also available for review. The point is, Raja does not use any of these samples as such, but does substantial work (on one or more samples) before using it in his music. This applies to all music composers today, though some composers blatantly use samples in their work. The sounds from the drum machines and rhythm pads are sometimes very unique, with no equivalent from the manual instrument world. For example, when you hear songs such as ‘Siru Siru Siragugalil’ from Konji Pesalam (2003), you hear the sound of a mirudhangam and a western drum in perfect sync. There is no one playing these two instruments. This is a sample sound (it’s called a patch) that is called the Indian patch on the Roland multipad SPD-20.

The best way to get a hang of these electronic rhythm instruments is to see them visually. They have all the power of drumming from all parts of the world. They allow you to do things that were very hard in the manual percussion world. See the sample of two such instruments by Roland – the SPD 20 Multipad and Handsonic 15
Here is the first video featuring the SPD20 and Handsonic 15..

And video 2..

And video 3...

And the last one...

Notice, how the same instrument is used to generate different genres of sound. You saw even the tabla being reproduced in this instrument. Some of the patches that come with the equipment is too enticing not to use! When you start wondering about strange ghatam like sounds along with synth drums, you realize that even the ghatam sound is coming out of these electronic percussion instruments.

 Time to get a little under the covers...We will use the sound samples from freesound.org to illustrate how these samples are used by composers and what they could do with the sample sounds. These are simple illustrations and I am no expert in this area. This is only to demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate sample sounds with some open source software such as Audacity.

Let’s hear the first sample set to a very fast bpm – about 120 – this is called the Electro sample. The original sample is hard to use as is. When you reduce the pitch of this sample, you get close to one of Raja’s tracks – Akki Thokki from Vinodha Yatra (2007 Malayalam). When you hear the sample, focus on the rhythm pattern and not on the synth that plays along.

Let's listen to the original electro sample....

Now, let's hear the same sample at a slower tempo... 

Let’s hear a synthesized flute sample – Raja uses it very often in his recent compositions. The flute not only is synthesized but also comes out with a hiss. Let’s hear the Flute_tweaked sample first. I have a slower version of this sample Flute_tweaked_slow. This is close to what we hear with the track Oda thandil from Pazhassi Raja (2009).

Let's next hear the same flute sample made slower....

Let's take a slightly different tack to another sample. Instead of slowing it, we will speed it up. We will take an ethnic drum sample from freesound and demonstrate how it will sound when its tempo is speeded up. My impression with such samples is that it needs to be pitch and tempo adjusted to make it compatible with Indian film music use.

Let's next look athe sample speeded up...

These are basic illustrations to give you an idea of how you can manipulate sample sounds. Most composers use several of these samples in their compositions and also use several techniques on their AWS to integrate them with their other inputs.