Examples of what we have done
The environment we had for our digital music composing workshop took place in a small sound-art specific studio/gallery with good quality speakers set up. We were working with a small number of people, 5-6 for each workshop and wanted each participant to create a song from start to finish. We were using different approaches and methods to see which worked best for them.
To do this we created 3 different stations in the same space, each with a laptop running Ableton Live at it’s core. These are the different methods we explored -
- Writing in notes - using the mouse to draw in midi notes
- Inputting sound - using hardware, the voice & instruments to create sound
- Midi controllers - using midi keyboards, the alphasphere, midi controllers, etc
Underpinning all of these methods were the ideas that had come from participants from other sessions we had run. From creating that ‘big beat’ that people wanted without having to rely on pre-made loops, or recording their own vocals on top of a tune or even creating the music for a song in a musical they had written! We had the three stations to increase capacity but also understood that some methods may work better for some people than others.
First of all we created a rough timeline of activity. We knew we had 5 weeks to work with everyone so we broke each week up into different areas of focus.
Thinking about the music
We wanted to introduce the technology, making sure everyone had a chance to try each different set up and become familiar with what we could achieve. We wanted to talk about the possible outcomes, such as each person writing and recording a song over the 5 weeks. We also wanted the participants to introduce us to the music they’d like to create. People played us a song from their phone, mp3 player, radio or we got it up on youtube and we talked about why they liked it, focussing on the sounds, instruments and techniques used. This was great to give us as facilitators an idea of where we could start in guiding the use of the technology. From this we began working on the bare-bones of tracks, using different ways to build beats, bass-lines and melodies.
A few things we talked about when listening to the music -
- Energy - high, low, etc
- Sounds - sharp, soft, hard, smooth, dirty, clean
- Voice - Singing? Rapping? How do they sound?
- Emotion - Happy, sad, angry, positive, negative, etc
- Beats - Big bold, heavy, soft, light, minimal, background or upfront… identify the beats?
Developing a new music idea
Choosing one idea each from everything we had worked on the previous week. In trying out each way of working the week previous lots of little ideas had been created and as we knew we had limited time, managing to finish one song each was a realistic goal. We also had exported the ideas created on Korg Gadget to Ableton Live and were able to use these elements within people’s compositions. We then began expanding on these ideas, some people adding new instruments, recording vocals and one person wanted to completely re-work her song. She brought in an example of how the beat should sound different and we were able to work out the best way to change it, her new idea worked so much better!
Developing the song arrangement
We now started focussing on composing the songs. Taking all the elements so far and creating a beginning, a middle and an end. We approached this in different ways, for example using the loops and clips created in Ableton Live to ‘Jam’ with Midi controllers and then recording that arrangement. Another approach used was to loosely draw out an arrangement and then construct this in the computer, this was effective for lyric-heavy songs that were written, like the musical that someone had brought in to work on.
Refining and adding to the song
We continued to work on everyone’s songs, refining elements, sections and arrangements. We also encouraged people to invite others to work on their songs, so if someone was a confident singer and someone else wanted singing on their track they could work with them to achieve this.
Finishing the song
The final week we were finishing everything off, mixing the songs with people and sharing what we had done over the past few weeks. We knew that having a sense of an ending is paramount, that the work has been finished.
Here are five pieces of music created in the workshops
We thought it would useful to describe in more detail how we used technology to make the music composing workshop happen.
Here is a list of the technology used and a couple of techniques involved:
Laptop 1 - Inputting Sounds
- Macbook Air
- Roland VT-3
- Audio Interface (was also the mixer)
- Rockstar headphone splitter
- SM58 Microphone + XLR
- iPad with Keezey Drummer
On this set-up we focussed on using the voice to create tracks. Ableton Live has a neat little function where you can create beats, melodies or harmonies out of any audio source. It means you can use almost anything going in to create songs! We got people to drum with their voice and then sing in the basslines and melodies of their songs, which worked really well. We also used a lot of the vocoder function on the Roland VT-3 to add different vocal effects and Keezey drummer on the iPad was great at adding extra beats to the ones created with the voice.
Laptop 2 - Writing in notes
- Macbook Pro
- Mac keyboard (standard ‘qwerty’ keyboard)
- Wireless trackpad
- Midi keyboard controller
This set up was designed to see how well people responded to ‘drawing in’ the music they wanted to make. So using the mouse & keyboard to draw in the drums on a grid and the notes on a piano roll. Drawing in the drums proved to be quite successful as people could see where to move the different parts to build up their beats. Drawing in the basslines and melodies proved to be quite counter-intuitive for most people and the midi-keyboard was often used so people had more of a chance to ‘play’.
Laptop 3 - Using controllers
- Macbook Pro
- Akai midi keyboard controller
- Launchpad midi controller
- Alphasphere midi controller
- Faderfox midi controller
Here we were testing out all the midi controllers to see how effective they were at supporting people to make their own music. We used the Akai keyboard, the Launchpad and the Alphasphere to create drum tracks with different people, the Alphasphere proved very accessible for someone that had quite limited movement. Both the Akai keyboard and the Alphasphere were really good at getting down ideas for basslines and melodies. Once we had a few sections we would then use the Launchpad and the Faderfox controller to Jam out compositions, assigning different effects within Ableton Live to the Faderfox controller.
Sharing was a very important part of the process, at the beginning we shared what music we liked and after every session we shared what each other had been working on, which provided two things - One was to hear the music they had worked on out of a good sound system and the other was often seeing other people’s reactions to their tunes was a real confidence booster. At the end we also shared the work people had completed and finally it’s being shared online so other people can hear what was achieved!
Tips & Tricks
- ‘Cloud storage’ - we used Dropbox a lot throughout this process, because we were using several computers and didn’t want to get all the files mixed up. When we saved someone’s work we saved it to the cloud so anyone’s work could be brought up on another computer.
- Be clear about what can be achieved! If you have 20 minutes then you might not be 100% finished but you can get something down. Focus on the overall feel rather than the minute detail. If you think you only have time to create a beat and next time you will build on this, then make sure that’s clear… if you manage to do more then you’ll both get a real sense of achievement. Work quickly but not carelessly.
- You’re trying to make someone else’s idea come to life and if that’s as simple as creating just the right beat with a bassline and a simple vocal then that’s great.
- If you’re writing it, it’s not wrong!
- Hand over the reins as much as possible, show and then get people to use the program themselves… it might take longer but hands on experience is so valuable is gaining understanding of what you are creating.
- A microphone adds instant character and a recognisable ownership over the music