Interactive Composition Ships Feburary 9th; Digital Copies Available Now

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If you want to learn how to use Ableton Live to make the sorts of music that Ableton Live users make, Interactive Composition is your starting point.  It’s both a book of tutorials as well as a snapshot of electronic dance music and production styles and culture.  Look for mini-versions of lessons from the book in the months leading up to its release on this page.  The book contains 11 amazing projects and many more techniques and sub-projects to explore in your classes or personal work.  Each project is dense with techniques like synth-building, patch programming, sampling methods, and more.

The book will be shipping early February, and you can pre-order the handsomely typeset physical copy on IndieboundAmazonBarnes & NobleBooks-A-Million and direct from Oxford University Press.  Buy a set for your class today!

You can also read it on iBooks, Kindle and Google Play Books, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I Shot A Music Video With Slow Motion and this is How it Worked

Part of what I do is produce awesome videos for our school and the community.  This time, I’m doing a music video for my daughter’s Girl Scout troop – a parody of Shake it Off but about cookies.  Without going into tons of detail about the entire process, I want to call attention to a technique I’ve read and watched a lot about but hadn’t gotten a chance to try until now – using slow motion footage for a music video.

Spoiler: Here is the finished product:

Slow Motion

So here’s the idea: a normal video is shot at 24 or 30 frames per second, and played back at the same speed.

Slow motion video is shot at 60 or more frames per second, and played back at 24 or 30 frames per second.  If something’s happening at regular speed and shot in a high frame rate, it will look slow when you play it back.

Thus, If something happens at a faster than normal speed and shot in a high frame rate, it will look normal-ish when you play it back.  Audio is usually played back at regular speed for a video shoot, and the singer will just sing along with the track to keep it in sync.  We then throw away the audio from the shoot, and use the perfectly synced motions of the singer in our video.  In this case, we’re making the singer lip sync quickly to the song and slow down the footage later to allow this rapid motion to play back at regular speed with the song.

Why do this?  Because it looks awesome!  It takes away the awkwardness of the singer just staring at you singing and really sells the action.  It makes the whole thing feel a big bigger than life.

Slow motion, Fast music

To do this, I took the song that was to be used for lip-syncing, and made a 160% speed version using Ableton Live.  My camera, the Canon XA25, converts 60fps footage to 24fps.  Knowing these facts, it will take me speeding up the resultant video to 150% in Final Cut Pro to get something that lip-syncs with the “correct” original song.

Here’s a video showing the difference between the three versions of the speed:

I’ll update this post with the full video when it’s finished.  Expect cookie-themed costumes.

Video of My Speech at the Cincinnati Symphony Community Educator Workshop

I had an amazing time speaking at the Cincinnati Symphony Educator workshop the other day.  The event was well-planned and hosted in the exquisite Corbett Tower, and the coordinator Logan Kelly was very helpful and great in leading the discussion afterwards.  Check out their other events – it’s a very cool program.

It’s a long watch, but it’s the best video I have right now of this session.  Enjoy, and of course feel free to skip around.

How I start beginners on Ableton Live with Apple Loops

Around Christmas 2013 I was starting to worry about GarageBand.  Since 2006 I had started my beginners on the software, which arguably ignited the entire movement of “older beginner” music composition courses.  2013’s GarageBand 10, however, made me question the direction the software was taking.  I would have to rework many of my lessons to work in the new version.  Since I was already using Ableton Live in my advanced course, I decided it might make more sense to have my beginners use that software instead.

The Experimental Group

Spring semester 2014 I decided to hedge my bets on this topic.  My course registrations for the second-year class are very healthy, and I did not want to jeopardize that by introducing an unpopular change in the beginner level.  I took one section of the beginner course, and pretended GarageBand did not exist, and we started on Ableton Live instead, doing the same exact projects as the five other sections using GarageBand.  Here’s what I learned:

  • Kids do not think either program is “harder” if they don’t know anything different
  • Exporting files is a tiny bit easier in GarageBand
  • GarageBand has a “global key” while Live does not – more on this later
  • Projects from both courses sounded about the same in quality

Really there were no big negatives with the switch, other than a slight intangible fun factor that was not present in the first few weeks.  Once we were off into my projects like the Radio Ad and sampling drum sounds from around the school they class felt exactly right, but there was a bit of magic missing from the first weeks.  After another semester, I determined it was due to the weak loop selection in Live compared to GarageBand.  Ableton loops are not for the faint of heart – many of the “Clips” are exclusive to a specific device or sample pack and do not gracefully drag anywhere as audio files do.  In addition, filenames are inconsistently named, so the search feature is not that helpful for the built-in loops, and there is no fancy metadata based filter system like there is in Logic or GarageBand.  There had to be a way to use those gigs and gigs of Apple Loops sitting on my hard drive already to solve this problem.

Using Apple Loops in Live

So how do we make the loop library friendly in Live?  First off, I just use the GarageBand loop library.  I mean – it’s already there on the computer, right?  Those new loops are especially great.  There are a few hurdles though:

  • New GarageBand loops are in the .caf format – basically a different wrapper for aiff audio that isn’t compatible with basically everything
  • Using Quicktime to convert .caf’s to .wav or .aiff results in a slight silent gap after the audio, making Live interpret the loops incorrectly (losing their ability to loop – it’s hard to say this wasn’t intentional)
  • Metadata in the Apple Loops for Key (and the other stuff – dark/happy/processed, etc.) is basically inaccessible to programs other than Logic and GarageBand

Here’s my step-by-step process to get Apple Loops usable in Live.

  1. Using Audacity’s chains, open a folder .caf files and trim 56 milliseconds from the end, and save as .wav.  I’m not sure if this is the exact amount of silence, but it resulted in a pretty usable loop.
  2. Take any loops containing words like “beat”, “drums”, or “topper” out of the folder – make sure they’re all tagged with an easy to remember word like “Beat” (I used Yosemite’s batch renaming feature to do this)
  3. Using Keyfinder or similar software, load remaining loops from the “cleaned” folder.  Have the software analyze and then write the key into the filenames.
  4. If you’re super picky, use the Apple Loops utility to verify that the keys from Keyfinder are correct.  I had to correct a bunch of them, and I also manually tagged ones with black key names to include both names (i.e. Sweet-Guitar-Loop.A#m.Gbm.wav).  Keyfinder had a lot of trouble with the newer “Layers” loops especially – lots of unclear pitches and 7th chords in there).
  5. Importantly, group any subfolders of loops into one big “Loops” folder.  Add this folder to Ableton Live’s Places in the Browser – I observed that Live’s performance drops significantly if the subfolders are added separately to the browser.
Notice the key tags at the end of the filenames.  I had to do that semi-manually.

Notice the key tags at the end of the filenames. I had to do that semi-manually.

Put all your loops in one big folder for optimal performance.  If you add all the subfolders to places, Live will spend a lot of time searching the disk instead of making sick beats.

Put all your loops in one big folder for optimal performance. If you add all the subfolders to places, Live will spend a lot of time searching the disk instead of making sick beats.

Now students have the entire GarageBand loop library (including the amazing Chillwave category), usably tagged and categorized, accessible in a much more loop friendly program.

Final Step: The Akai APC Key 25

Since the beginning my music lab has had 25-key MIDI keyboards at each station.  We started with the Korg K25’s and shortly after upgraded to the M-Audio Axiom 25’s we’ve had since 2008.  I’ve toyed around with the idea of adding an unconventional controller to my lab for years, but not a single device fit my needs entirely.  In fact, I’ve purchased several of these as single units intending to use them for the lab, but never felt confident enough to deploy them.

  • The original APC40 – too large, no note input
  • The Novation Launchpad – limited utility, hacky-feeling
  • Launchpad Mini – great size, no control labels – still hacky feeling
  • Ableton Push – gigantic, difficult to use (sorry)

With Akai’s latest crop of hybrid APC devices, I found the perfect tool for my lab.  The APC Key 25 is small (we have limited desk space), includes 100% pre-programmed controls for clip launching and volume adjustment with zero setup, and includes 25 “good enough” keys.  Since we don’t do piano technique as much as we just need a basic note input device, this board is the perfect complement to our Ableton-only curriculum.  It even comes with Live Like Akai edition, which is not far off from Live Intro feature-wise.

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Our first week this semester felt magical again.  It was like the old days when GarageBand was novel and people still thought the Secret Agent Guitar loop still sounded cool.  Kids were able to create key-matched tracks and scenes with relative ease in a non-linear way using cutting edge tools and great sounds.  Everyone used the keyboards, and it made life easier instead of harder!  It was easy, fun and ultimately successful.  Just because the tools don’t come perfect out of the box doesn’t mean you can’t bend them to your will.  Setting up a great music tech class is about engineering the environment on the student workstations for optimal success, and that means sweating the details when it comes to things like searching the library or choosing which controller to buy.  Good luck trying this on your own!

Thoughts on the new Core Arts Standards

Today, the National Core Arts Standards were updated, to much furor on the Music Teachers Facebook board.  I feel like it is a good opportunity to discuss my feelings on the topic here.

I had a conversation with a high ranking official of the Ohio Dept. of Education once, during a meeting on Arts standards once.  My questions had to do with the application of the standards in our program.  It went something like this:

Me: “So, in a band class am I supposed to fully address all of the standards for my grade level, including singing?”

Official: “Well, not exactly”

Me: “What about choir?  There are standards about instrumental performance – should I be attempting to have our choir people address those?”

Official: “Certainly not”

Me: “OK, so my theory has always been that the standards are meant to be addressed by the entire department as a function of our offerings”

Official: “Well, yes”

Me: “Yes?  Or you’re not sure exactly”

Official: “Well, it hasn’t really been defined to that degree”

Me: “…”

So after this my whole stance on arts standards changed.  They’re not a bad thing at all, and certainly not something to be scared about.  Let’s get a few things straight:

  • In most states, Music is not required for graduation
  • If budget cuts need to happen, Music can certainly be cut without legal repercussions
  • Since Music isn’t required, the average student can not be exposed to all the standards, even if they are all addressed in every class (which they typically are not)
  • Standards are typically required performance and content targets for every student
  • Thus, these are not standards in the traditional sense

The Math teacher’s curriculum is required by law.  The Music Teacher’s is not.  Then, these “standards” must be a hedge against further inquiry into the appropriateness of including an optional Music curriculum in your school.  Let’s pretend Music wasn’t a typical offering and you had to start a program from scratch.  The standards could be considered a guideline for offerings.  Since the Arts standards offer no guidance on pacing or content, it can be surmised that they are meant to be covered as a department rather than by each individual class.  I believe this is not clearly defined to avoid confusion and difference in format from traditional core subject standards.

To those worried about having to “teach to these standards”: I would be very interested in hearing of a story of a teacher having to significantly change their curriculum to match the standards.  To those considering changing their curriculum – only do it if it benefits your students.  For instance, reading about Mozart and writing a report is definitely not an age-appropriate activity for a first grade music course.  These standards are not asking you to do that – but if you happen to do some reflective listening, there is a national justification for it.  For those of you who do nothing but sing and dance at that age, there is also a national justification for that as well.  Should every teacher attempt to address every standard?  I don’t believe it’s possible, nor do I think that’s the intent of documents like these.

The biggest misconception of Arts “standards”

In my view, the misconception is that these are designed for every music class to hit every standard.  Yes, a band class can touch on reflective listening, but the bulk of activity in the course is designed for preparing live concerts.  Likewise, my Music Technology classes can discuss and  talk about performing our work, but the course is not designed around performances.  Nor should it be, and nor is it being asked to be!  As music teachers, we are terrified that a legislator that doesn’t “get it” will come in and make us give bubble tests in Choir and make our 6th grade non-performance general class give concerts.  With proper justification for our activities this doesn’t have to be the case – and these standards are designed to be broad targets that pretty much every existing music program is already hitting.

Why do they make new standards all the time?

Simple.  NAfME (and others) are lobbyists at the core.  Their job is to ensure that Music & Arts are a part of mandatory education going forward.  To that end, they release documents like the new Arts standards to show that they’re serious about playing ball in today’s educational landscape.  Think STEM to STEAM.  Without a standards document that matches the language and trends in education, there is no justification to add the “A” to STEM.  The document is more about language and attitude than about practice for the average Music teacher.  Your program will most likely fit into areas this document targets and the work you’re already doing with SLO’s will justify the performance of your students.  If NAfME weren’t involved in this process and sat on the sidelines lamenting the decline of Music Education it wouldn’t do much good – by releasing standards and providing states with an easy-to-copy template they’re helping to keep Music & Art in the conversation.

So what are the standards for then?

They certainly don’t serve as a guide for anyone’s teaching.  Music teachers have always taught to their personal strengths and will continue to do so regardless of what NAfME or anyone else says, barring standardized Music tests, which thankfully haven’t come into play.

In my view, the standards are there for a teacher to have outside justification for what they do.  Let’s say I want to teach Guitar instead of Band.  With the standards, this is now possible.  Let’s say I want to teach Music Technology instead of Music History.  With the standards, this is now possible.  Both cases require an amount of radical change to tradition, but fit well within current standards.  There is no need to justify the worth of these activities, as they are within an agreed-upon set of standards.  If the standards become too specific and constraining, there would be a big problem but in their current form (and knowing musicians, for the foreseeable future) they will retain enough room for big new, creative ideas.

Do NAfME standards matter?

Not technically.  They are, however, a template for states to use for their own standards process and will probably be copied down the road as states revise their standards.  Again, Music standards are relative – there is no provision demanding that every 5th grader learn Violin, in the way that there are many mandates in state standards for students to achieve a certain degree of reading proficiency by a given age.  So we call these “standards” to fit in with the current zeitgeist of education, but they are really guidelines – varying targets that a teacher can call out when justifying their lessons.

Should teachers worry about the standards?

Probably not.  I suppose if you’re a bad teacher maybe.  If we start requiring standardized tests for these subjects, then we can demand mandatory staffing for these subjects – again, we’re not there yet.  But for now, these new arts standards will simply serve to be an external justification of what you already do.

Initial Thoughts on GarageBand 10.0.3 for Yosemite

Short version: It’s no WatchBand, but it’ll do.

Background

First of all, I had some good conversations with folks about GarageBand.  I’ve been very vocal about my dislike for last year’s version, and some took it as a generic “OMG I hate GarbageBand” as if I won’t stoop to using it or something.

Let’s be very clear here.  When I started teaching in 2004, GarageBand was released that year and basically no one taught Music Technology.  The software was esoteric and hard for outsiders such as typical educators like myself to understand.  I didn’t know why you’d need things like track effects or bus groups because I had no idea what any of it meant.  GarageBand represented an actual accessible starting point for those of us who wanted to make music on the computer but had no good entry point.

So fast forward 10 years and an entire career built in part due to GarageBand.  Last year, after GarageBand 10 was released I installed it and started upgrading my projects for my beginner class.  Immediately I started noticing things were missing.  My projects were going to have to change big time to keep using GarageBand.

Of course, I could have just stayed on the old version – lots of smart people I know did exactly that.  But why build a curriculum around a product I’m not excited about?  One that I’m wary of updating?  This was not an option either – I can’t passionately get kids excited about making music on a product I’m not terribly sure has a future.  Even though I have the old version, students who like the course and buy a new Mac will get stuck on the new one.  It’s Final Cut Pro X all over again (disclaimer: I liked Final Cut Pro X, but I totally understand how professional video people felt when it was released and had a huge feature set missing).

The key here is communication – Apple is great at running developer and public Beta versions for it’s important apps like OS X and iOS.  So why not just call something totally unfinished like FCPX 10.0 and GarageBand 10.0 what it is?  Unfinished!  Taking the features out without communicating that they’re coming back sends the message that “you don’t need those anymore.”  Sometimes this is necessary, but with professional tools this needs to be clear as a bell.

GarageBand +0.3

So on to yesterday’s version.  One thing is clear to me: Apple is pretty confident that their main user base for this app is Guitarists.  Podcasting support is pretty much out (including that excellent Ducking function – giving meaning to autocorrect users everywhere).  Same as last year, the look is decidedly Logic-Lite.  The wood panels are still there, but they’re much more slim.  Column panels snap out from the left side just like Logic has done since they went single-window.  As for me, I miss the animations but for people who had trouble considering GarageBand a serious-enough tool for music making, maybe these changes are welcome.  It’s not like my software of choice looks any friendlier, and kids seems to like that just fine too.

One thing that still bothers me about this new version is the perceived lag during recording.  When you hit record and speak into the microphone, the waveforms should more or less appear in real-time on the screen.  In this version (still) the waveforms redraw every couple seconds and it implies that the computer is having trouble keeping up with this simple task.  It doesn’t give me confidence that it’s not going to crash under a heavy load, and it certainly doesn’t compare well to other DAW apps in this regard.  Whether there is actual audio lag or not, this is a big concern I think – the whole argument of choosing a Mac over a PC for audio production hinges on the thesis that audio handling has less latency and more stability on Mac OS X than on Windows.   It certainly still does, but the vendor-made bundled app lagging like this out of the box might make people think other wise.

Here’s a comparison.  Notice how much smoother recording appears in the old version (top):

So here’s hoping they continue improving GarageBand.  For whatever internal reason they decided to do a ground up rewrite, I’m hoping they recognize the thousands of educators now relying on this software to be easy, foolproof and friendly.  It’s not like there is a competing product really – the competitor to having a GarageBand-based Music Tech course is simply to not have one at all.  We’re relying on you, Apple to keep this movement alive.

Okay, onto the good stuff.

3 Cool New Things about GarageBand 10.0.3:

1. Track FX are back.  Now they’re called Plugins, and they look like this:

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They’re located in the Smart Controls, and have to be revealed with the “i” button.  Not a terrible system, and I’m digging the inclusion of the core set of Logic effects (the old GB Track Reverb was it’s own thing, for instance).  This is a big deal – last year’s version implied that this type of detail was out of the question, and it’s nice to see them back.  On the other hand, seeing this also implies that GarageBand is on a different track than iWork – feature parity with the iOS version is apparently not a priority here.

2. Automation Drawing

With the pencil tool, the way the good Lord intended.  This pairs well with last year’s inclusion of the ability to copy and paste automation with regions.

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3. Serious Amp Designers

Just look at the new Bass Amp designer: Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 8.17.58 PM

Paired with the other Amp Designer, you’ve got serious tools for guitarists.  I’m pretty sure there was a version of Logic that charged an upgrade fee just to use these plugins.  Way cool, way pro.

In conclusion, I’m fully expecting the newly-unified Apple Inc. to continue incremental improvements to GarageBand and allowing this new version to flourish into a great reason to have a Mac lab in your music department.  Maybe someday I’ll move my beginners back to GarageBand too – the projects still work, mostly.  For most folks, GarageBand 10.0.3 will be just fine software on which build a curriculum.  For me though – I’m waiting until it’s airtight again to switch back.