Player Against the Machine - EMusician

Player Against the Machine

Now that musicians can find a loop to fit any style, and have access to programs that can break down loops to their component parts for endless manipulation,
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Now that musicians can find a loop to fit any style, and have access to programs that can break down loops to their component parts for endless manipulation, it's more tempting than ever to let the computer do the work of the composer — as well as the arranger, conductor, and performer. The amount of work the computer does usually depends, however, on what kind of music is being made. Hardcore dance styles demand that the computer be a recognizable “player.” Injecting too much realism into a techno track with the use of the “humanizing” features on a sequencer can detract from the hypnotic waves and seamless pulse that most groove artists are trying to create.

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FIG. 1: Shown here is Digital Performer''s main Quantize window, which provides options for making MIDI data follow or deviate from a set time grid.

At the other end of the style spectrum, songwriters or commercial composers working in traditional genres such as R&B, jazz, and classic rock still need to create the feeling of a live performance. Those are the types of projects that make the best use of features such as groove quantizing of MIDI data. Yet players working in those styles know that old-school music needs the human touch — literally. Just because you can order your sequencer data around like a sloppily dressed drummer at a society-wedding gig doesn't mean it's always productive to do so. Quantizing is a wonderful thing, but drum tracks, horn ensembles, and other musical performances associated with real people can benefit from the “flaws” in your own performance skills.

Groove This

For more than 20 years, MIDI has been making life easier for recordists who wanted to work without the hassles of miking a drum kit, hiring a string ensemble, or developing the chops of Oscar Peterson. MIDI also took a lot of the guesswork out of groove creation: set a tempo, punch Play on the drum machine, and say good-bye to arguments with drummers.

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FIG. 2: DP''s Groove Quantize feature lets you apply the ­characteristics of one rhythmic ­pattern to another and ­create a ­database of grooves.

As MIDI sequencing developed, however, a backlash developed against the robotic evenness of the drum machine. The power to quantize data had led to rhythmic abuses not heard since the Monkees tried to perform without studio musicians. Along with the extra power of sequencing applications for computers came refinements that could provide a compromise between the unrelenting symmetry of the drum pattern quantized to 16th notes and the ham-fisted performances of guitar-players-cum-MIDI-keyboardists.

For example, in addition to its original Quantize tool (see Fig. 1), Digital Performer offers Smart Quantizing and Groove Quantizing (see Fig. 2). With basic MIDI quantizing, you can shift the note-on and note-off positions of MIDI notes while leaving durations unchanged, use various strength and sensitivity settings to limit the effect of quantization, and even make a track “swing” by forcing 8th-notes to occupy a space around the third note of a triplet. (Smart Quantizing in DP is designed to facilitate translating the track to music notation.)

The newer tool is Groove Quantizing, which can apply the characteristics of a predetermined rhythm pattern or groove to the track you're creating. You can designate a pattern you've created as a groove and then apply its characteristics to a new target track. You can use graphic sliders to modify Timing, Velocity, and Duration elements in Groove A and then transfer those characteristics to Groove B. In DP's Groove Editor, you can permanently alter grooves, so naturally it's best to build a groove database and duplicate grooves when you want to have access to the original.

The fundamental principle underlying this groove methodology is the continued relevance of MIDI as a production tool. When you apply DP's Groove Quantization to an audio loop (sound bite in DP), it can't affect the timing within the sound bite; it can affect only its placement within the broader track.

Full Circle

What do MIDI quantization tools matter in a music world dominated by prerecorded audio loops? Loops not only dominate hybrid rock-rap and jazzy hip-hop productions, but they also can be dissected by programs such as ReCycle and broken down to their component parts to provide sounds that can be controlled by a sequencer like any other instrument sample. Why should a composer care about MIDI tools that help music sound like it was performed?

One answer is that there is plenty of old-school music to be made, and every day expert composers using MIDI and basic sounds create music that's indistinguishable from tracks with live players. If a player is interested in the music business beyond the world of the recording artist, he or she will benefit from knowing how to cop a live feel and also from developing the keyboard chops to control sequencer input in a more natural way.

Several years ago I took a break from studio engineering to return to my roots as a gigging guitar player. After several years of programming dance and R&B tracks at major studios, I was again learning other people's music — primarily rock and country. I was also doing some radio production work that required recording song parodies of licensed songs.

I developed a new appreciation of drummers and the “live band feel” during this period and learned some tips that I still find helpful when using MIDI to create music in different genres. For example, country songs (and most live-band tracks) don't maintain a single tempo, even when it sounds like the drummer is playing to a click track. Choruses generally speed up, and the tempo will drop back on a following verse or bridge. Since the song usually goes out on a chorus, the fade will be at the highest tempo, though the increased rate will barely be perceptible.

Similarly, in creating jazz tracks with MIDI, programmers often arrange drum parts as though they were designed for a rock track. Experienced players know that a kick drum is used mostly for accents on, for example, a traditional swing tune or ballad and doesn't maintain a steady pulse.

On R&B, funk, and blues tracks, bass players and drummers often have a symbiotic relationship that comes either from genetics or from years of learning how to play behind the beat in just the right amount to put the groove in the pocket. Mastering that kind of feel with MIDI requires more than Groove Quantizing, although it's a very helpful tool. A fundamental human irregularity is what makes the music sound right.

Keep It Real

One way to harness that irregularity is to become a better keyboard player. That doesn't mean taking lessons for years; it just means developing the facility to play rhythmically, even if you play with only two fingers. If you sequence and hard-quantize an entire bass track, for example, go back and play along with the finished part live until you can maintain a groove that stays close to the sequence. The same drill can help you create more natural sounding kick and snare or hi-hat and snare parts. You'll have to do some editing, but you'll be surprised how the flaws become less noticeable if the overall feel is right. If you doubt this, take a techno CD and play it next to any track by Motown's Funk Brothers.

With all the tools available for manipulating MIDI and audio tracks, it seems new sounds and new styles emerge on a daily basis. But MIDI still gives the music maker the best compromise between working with someone else's rhythmic feel and forcing yourself to work with an ornery drummer. By developing your own keyboard skills, you can create rhythms that sound more live, and by understanding how players play, you can create music that speaks to the soul of the listener as well as to the ghosts in the machine.

Rusty Cutchin is an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted atrcutchin@comcast.net.