R.I.P. Peak

Jun 08 2012

It’s odd to find oneself writing an obituary for a piece of software. Like an old friend, electronic musicians and sound designers, spend countless hours in the company of their core toolset, learning the history, working through the bugs, and celebrating the quirks. So when BIAS, makers of the Mac audio editing software Peak, announced it had ceased operations on June 6, legions of users bowed their heads. Software doesn’t really die, but when a company goes under, it’s more like your old friend has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. You’ll continue to use it while it fades into the sunset, finally succumbing to some OS incompatibility down the road.

I first discovered Peak when it was released as a public beta in 1995. At the time, Digidesign’s Sound Designer software was the leading Mac audio file editor. It too, was soon to be another old friend to fade away. At that time, one of the most useful things you did with an audio file editor was to transfer files from a sampler, edit and process them in some way, and send them back to the sampler. Peak did this really well, and in addition to basic looping and normalization, it included some interesting DSP options such as a Phase Vocoder, and Reverse Boomerang, which mixes in a reversed copy of a selected region of audio with the original. Peak was originally conceived as a creative utility by Steve Berkley for his work as a grad student in electronic composition at Dartmouth. When it was released as a commercial product in 1996, it distinguished itself as a tool for sound design and not just for audio editing. Features like batch processing are indispensable to anyone working with sound libraries, and Peak soon became an industry standard.

Another ground-breaking feature Peak offered early on was unlimited undo, which meant that a sound designer could mangle a file to their heart’s content without ever rewriting the original, encouraging exploration and experimentation. In my work, I’ve taken short, seemingly insignificant pieces of sound, noise perhaps, and created a rainbow of colors and textures from them. In many ways, I’ve used Peak to reinvent sound I’ve recorded, and through this, I’ve started to hear the world around me in a different way.

Peak soon evolved from it’s sound design roots into a capable tool for mastering. While the term mastering implies processing an individual file using EQ, multiband compression and limiting to us in an age of digital distribution, Peak included tools that facilitated the creation of a credible CD master. For many of us who earned a living distributing the content we created on CD, this ability was quite useful. As noise reduction features became available, Peak became useful for post production and audio restoration. Many of these features found their way into products BIAS created for the mass market, and their entire product line spanned utilities for the consumer to high-end tools for the demanding professional. A smart business plan, yes? Unfortunately, in a very competitive and rapidly changing marketplace, perhaps not smart enough. Who knows…

One of the realities of working with a digital toolset is that, unlike a wrench or a hammer, nothing lasts for ever. There’s no hammer version 2.0 that requires an update, you don’t have to discard the old one when a new one comes out, and it will always be there. In a box somewhere I have many of the carpentry tools I watched my grandfather use as a child. What do I hand down to my son? A box of floppy disks…..

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The Nocturne series at MUTEK are club nights that focus more on dance music and concert sets, and are held at Metropolis, a large Montreal concert club. Headlining acts were scheduled Wednesday through Saturday nights, and a smaller lounge, the Savoy Room, hosted mostly Canadian up-and-coming artists. Metropolis was used for shows at last year’s MUTEK, but one clear difference was a serious upgrade in the hardware used for this year’s visual presentations. While last year’s sets all used concert lighting, this year’s addition of multi-projector HD video enhanced the overall experience. Not all the acts took full advantage of this, but the ones that did ended up being the most memorable performances.

The biggest event of the MUTEK came the first night with Amon Tobin’s North American debut of ISAM. While the CD itself is a sound design tour-de-force, the visuals for the show were nothing short of spectacular. The stage set was a structure made of 3D shapes that served as display surfaces for multiple streams of video and lighting effects. The entire show was tightly scripted and the visual portion of the show was integrated with the music. The imagery ranged from abstract video, to live footage, and pure color. Throughout the show these elements were intertwined with the music. Amon Tobin himself was in a control room in the middle of the structure. Translucent material revealed only his shadow. While what he was doing was never really clear, the effect was of some sort of alien DJ directing the entire show from mission control. From an audience perspective, the show was about the music and visuals, and Tobin’s presence was merely a validation of “liveness.” It didn’t really matter what he was doing, he was there.

Amon Tobin ISAM

One of the most visible electronic artists performing these days is Ritchie Hawtin, also know as Plastikman. Originally from Canada, and a seminal part of the early Detroit electronic music scene, MUTEK was excited to host Hawtin’s Plastikman Live show for the first time in Canada. Hawtin is known as a prolific producer and DJ. With Plastikman Live he’s focused on providing the audience with an immersive sonic, visual and cyber experience. Onstage, Hawtin is surrounded by a metallic mesh scrim that serves as a surface for projected images. Unlike Tobin’s ISAM that incorporates video clips, Hawtin’s show uses mainly computer generated images and lighting effects. The audience sees Hawtin inside the scrim, surrounded by gear, and clearly in control of the musical material. There’s an element of showmanship here with clear references to Rock/Pop stage theatrics.

Plastikman at MUTEK 2011

Hawtin has taken the idea of performance further by using social media as a way to engage his audience. There are two Plastikman iPhone apps available, Remixx and SYNK. SYNK was developed specifically to be used with a WiFi system set up at Plastikman performances, and allows the audience to interact with each other, as well as Hawtin, during a performance. Although SYNK is touted on his website, there was no evidence of its use at MUTEK this year.

Audiences need to respond to artists in a live setting, and one of the main differences between electronic artists and DJs is that an audience expects a certain level of performance from an electronic artist that they don’t from a DJ. Both Tobin and Hawtin are clearly sensitive to this, and although they have both performed as DJs, their current touring shows are designed to provide the element of “liveness” that an audience demands in a concert setting.

While ISAM and Plastikman Live were standout performances at MUTEK this year, and made full use of the A/V technology available, other artists performing on the Metropolis main stage were world-class. Modeselektor curated a club night at MUTEK, as they did for the 2011 CTM festival in Berlin, as part of their Modeselektion tour. The artists chosen for the evening either reflected Modeselektor’s musical tastes, or were upcoming artists they are producing. The duo hails from Berlin and their music reflects the kind of electro dance music that arose in post-reunification Germany. Their studio productions are solidly crafted, and their performance was mainly a DJ set. On-stage they are more party provocateurs than performing musicians. They hosted a strong bill of similar artists, with the exception of Anstam, who performed a solo laptop set that was much darker, with a heavy IDM/glitch influence. His set began with an ambient feel and progressed to a pulsing groove that served as an underpinning for some fresh sound design. His performance style was in stark contrast to the groove-happy Modeselektor, as he came across as more of a serious artist, more engrossed in manipulating sound than an entertainer.

Photo: Miguel Legault

The styles presented as part of the Nocturne series ranged from old-school House to Dub-Step to Minimalist Techno. Standout artists for me were Badawi, Four-Tet, and Gold Panda. Badawi mixes elements of world music with rhythms that strayed from the typical four-on-the-floor dance cannon. Four-Tet, a.k.a Keiran Hebden often performs with a live drummer, but for MUTEK this year, he went with solo laptop. He’s perhaps best known as a remix artist working with artists like Radiohead and Aphex Twin. His set reflected a kind of free-association of audio clips, undoubtedly in Ableton Live. He works with a wide range of source samples, from Folk to Jazz to Techno, however his set was surprisingly cohesive and offered unexpected twists and turns. Gold Panda is another artist who uses unexpected sound design elements in his set, more from a Hip Hop/LoFi perspective. All of these artists have established profiles but have yet to reach the level where they are able to incorporate high-end visuals. Nonetheless, the festival stage lighting was able to create distinct moods for each, making their performances more interesting visually.

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The MUTEK Festival, in Montreal, is the largest electronic music festival in North America. This year’s festival took place over five days, June 1-5, and featured eighty performances, as well as workshops, panel discussions, and artist interviews. The performances in this year’s festival had a strong visual component, featuring some outstanding examples of cutting edge visual design. While the focus of the festival is music, VJs and visual designers have become an important part of the most compelling electronic music performances.

In promoting the festival, the organizers said their focus would be on presenting live performances and not DJ sets. While I didn’t see a single turntable, it seemed like many performers used the laptop computer as little more than a playback device, with some artists using a hardware mixer as a performance tool for live mixing. An artist I spoke with told me he rendered his entire set as a single stereo file, and applied various effects as the performance. One of the biggest over-arching questions in the field of electronic music is what constitutes “liveness” in a performance. I’ll consider that as I discuss some of the shows I saw.

Microsoft was a big MUTEK sponsor this year, with product demos and workshops where artists discussed how they used Windows-based software in their work. This seemed like an obvious attempt to stem the tide of artists choosing to work on the Mac. While Apple had no official presence at the show, the Apple logo was center stage at most performances, glowing from the back of laptop screens.

The MUTEK schedule is daunting, but concerts and event are organized into various series. The free MUTEK iPhone app is a useful guide to the festival, providing schedules as well as links to individual artist pages. While there were a few big names headlining the festival, for the bulk of the performers a little research was needed to plan your time. MUTEK is an international festival, nonetheless many of the lesser know artists were Canadian, and as a recipient of government funding, part of MUTEK’s mission is to promote the work of these home-grown artists.

A/Visions

While all performances at MUTEK had a visual component, the pieces in the A/Visions series can be thought of as combined audio/visual compositions. These performances were in a concert hall. The performers here were either established multimedia artists or music producers embarking on collaborations outside of their normal work. What follows are a few highlights.

Purform is a collaboration between Canadian sound artist Alain Thibault and visual partner Yan Breuleux. Their three-screen multimedia performance called Whitebox, is a composed piece based on an installation of the same name. The images are computer generated abstract shapes, while sound design is based on granular processing of samples. Each component influences the other, with the sound dependent on the motion and complexity of the images. The frequency, amplitude and timbre of the sound influences the images. According to the artists, the interaction of sound and visuals was based on self-regulating systems theory. For the performance, both artists were on stage, although their exact role in shaping the piece was unclear. That said, the piece was impressive both for it’s scale and the connectedness of the sonic and visual gestures.

 

Puform/Whitebox

 Art music often finds its origins in dance music and this year saw a couple of producers who are well known in the Dubstep genre expanding into concert presentations. Emptyset is a collaboration between producer James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas where they explore art music from the bass-centric genre of Dubstep. Their sound sources are mainly sine wave tones and noise, processed and mixed through a variety of hardware devices. The music itself didn’t reflect or draw attention to the tools used to produce it. Their improvisational set was mainly textural with a strong bass theme appearing as the piece evolved. In an interview later that week, they discussed how the music in this project is based on process, bringing to mind similar work by Brian Eno. Emptyset was accompanied be a video piece done in collaboration with designers Clayton Welham and Sam Williams. There was no clear connection between the music and visuals which served more as an ambient backdrop to the performance than an integrated part of the piece.

Perhaps the most clever performance in the A/Visions series was Studies for Automated Piano by Seth Horvitz. Here, a Yamaha Disklavier was the sole instrument onstage, and the composer began the piece by starting a MIDI sequence and then walked offstage. While a piece for digital player piano might be thought of as a rather mundane concert experience, the accompanying visuals transformed this into an engaging multimedia experience. The visual accompaniment here was a projection of the front view of the piano keyboard. The piece is as much a construction of visual patterns as musical ideas. The musical composition was obviously influenced by the visual patterns which are created from using certain musical devices. The cadences were as much visual as they were musical. The resulting visualization here reflects the underlying patterns of the musical work. Visualization of music is often based on the properties of sound pitch, dynamics and timbral changes, and in the case of electronic music, this can make abstract work based on pure sound more engaging. What Horvitz has done here is created a visualization based on more traditional musical elements. The effectiveness of the piece really lies in it’s simplicity.

Study No. 4 for Automatic Piano

 Comaduster is a sound designer for game company Bioware by day, and an electronic music producer, active on the Canadian scene, by night. Scrape, the 40-minute piece he performed at MUTEX was his first multimedia work. The music for this was a combination of processed textural sound along with active IDM glitch elements. The visuals were projected on a single large screen and were striking in their originality. The source images for Scrape were all from a DSLR using a macro lens and various tubes and dollies to capture images at very close perspectives and from unusual angles. The result was a visual presentation that had an otherworldly, yet organic feel. While the music didn’t appear to be tightly synchronized, there was a strong connection between the sound and images.

Comaduster – Scrape Preview from Comaduster

Perhaps the most compelling work in the A/Visions series was from Murcof + AntiVJ, a collaboration between Mexican ambient-techno producer Murcof and video artist Simon Gelifus (AntiVJ). For this work, the visuals appeared as 3D images projected on a translucent scrim arranged in a three-screen system that filled the stage. The abstract, computer generated images took on different sizes and shapes throughout the piece, and the sound worked to reinforce this. The visual images roughly followed a mapping of size to loudness, shape to timbre, with the density of sound often corresponding to the density of the images. While these might be obvious connections in the visualization of sound, the scale of the piece as well as the 3D imagery were quite impressive.

Murcof + AntiVJ

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Spiderman

May 31 2011

For most of us, the Broadway musical represents a very traditional, distinctly American, form of entertainment, something we don’t associate with high technology, let alone the kind of music technology used in contemporary music production. That rather quaint notion of musical theater is apparently giving way to the type of high tech spectacle we’re now used to experiencing in a typical concert performance. I had the opportunity to see Spiderman – Turn Off the Dark while visiting New York City this week. In spite of the mixed reviews and a very public reorganization of the show’s creative direction, the revised show I saw last night was spectacular.

Hiro Iida

To anyone familiar with superhero scenarios, the story line is familiar: geek kid, bullied in school, accidentally gets fortified with supernatural powers that he uses to battle the forces of evil, and gets the girl of his dreams. The music here is by Bono and Edge, and while it has a strong U2 flavor, ii’s really their take on musical theater, familiar to both avid theatergoers raised on radio, and to a younger generation used to music videos and iTunes. While the set and lighting design was decidedly high tech, employing massive LCD video panels, the technology never distracted from the storyline. In fact, for a generation that is coming of age in an era of sensory overload entertainment, the level of visual immersion here is probably essential to keep a large portion of the audience engaged. This is no Annie Get Your Gun….

The real treat for me was a backstage tour and conversation with Hiro Iida, a friend and former colleague at Berklee who was deeply involved with implementing the music technology used in the show. Hiro is truly passionate about electronic music and is an absolute wizard at anything to do with synthesizers. For Spiderman, he worked closely with the show’s lead keyboardist Billy Jay Stein on the electronic music design for the show. Stein is a journeyman New York keyboardist and producer whose resume runs the gamut of popular music. For Spiderman, Bill and Hiro spent months creating each synthesizer patch used in the show. That currently runs about 200 for the main keyboard parts Stein covers live as well and perhaps another 150 used by a second keyboard player and an electronic percussionist. As the show matures, these are revised and updated to match changes in the music.

The system Hiro and Stein designed to support this is made up of eight Power Macs, four running the show and four as backups, ready to step in at the first sign of trouble. Like any major concert production, the technology supporting the show is "mission critical," as nobody wants to tell an audience to hold on while a computer reboots…. All performance patches are made in Apple’s Mainstage using Native Instruments’ Kontakt sampler and Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere as the uber-synth of choice. In addition, the keyboard rig includes a Moog Voyager for special touches of analog beef at select times during the show. All patch switching is done using foot controllers to simply scroll through the Mainstage presets sequentially.

The Spiderman keyboard rig.

While the music for the show is performed live by a band that includes two keyboardists, three guitarists, two bass players, drums, two percussionists and a small pit orchestra, Ableton Live is used throughout for some loops, sampled effects and to provide a click when needed. Tempos can be set by the conductor using Live’s tap tempo function. While Live has many powerful tools for performing, the conductor and music director in the pit only use a handful of these during the show or in rehearsals. Changes often need to be made immediately to a few key parameters, such as transposition and loop length. To make this as easy and intuitive as possible, the show commissioned New York Max for Live wizard David Linnenbank, a Berklee alum, to create a custom interface for controlling Live in the "heat of battle." Linnenbank made great use of the Max4Live API to gain deeper access to the program than available using the standard MIDI mapping functions. The result is a full screen interface tailored to the exact needs of the Spiderman music crew.

Max 4 Live user interface.

My backstage tour included a visit to the band room. While a typical show has an orchestra pit directly in front of the stage, where the conductor has a clear view of both the actors and musicians, the amount of isolation needed to create an effective, studio quality live mix of the music demands that the musicians are in a completely separate studio space, isolated from the stage. The conductor watches the show from a video monitor and the actors, in turn, follow the conductor from LCD video monitors in front of the stage. The amount of technology used to effectively produce the live music and sound for the show is quite impressive, and really demands a completely separate set of skills of to mange the show on top of traditional musical skills from the key musical players.

The Spiderman conductor podium.

I also had the opportunity to chat with one of the guitarists, Ben Butler. Being a guitarist myself, I was fascinated by his work in the band. The show uses the entire gamut of guitar sounds and techniques found in current pop music, so his guitar rack was filled with everything from a Gibson Les Paul, a Martin acoustic, a Jerry Jones baritone guitar, and a Rickenbacker twelve-string electric made for the Edge especially for the show. Both Bono and the Edge were deeply involved in producing music for the show, and Ben said the Edge helped develop some of the specific guitar parts.

Spiderman guitarist Ben Butler

The technology surrounding the music for Spiderman was truly a tour-de-force of techniques and strategies used by modern musicians both on stage and in the studio.

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The following are some thoughts on the 2011 Berlin trip from Electronic Production major, and recent Berklee graduate, Matthew Hines.


I recently returned from Berlin, as a member of a trip organized through Berklee’s Electronica Club, led by Electronic Production and Design Professor Michael Bierylo, otherwise known as eMBee.

During the 10 days that my peers and I were there, we experienced a city rich with historical significance and perhaps more importantly to our trip, a culture that embodied the very heart of all things electronica.

In addition to the Club Transmediale (CTM) and the Transmediale (TM) festivals, that were a huge motivating factor in attending the trip, we also visited Ableton and Native Instruments headquarters, reconnected with Berklee alumni and performed several times, went boutique vinyl shopping and also spent many hours in Schneider’s Buero – which is to synthesizers what Bodega Boston is to sneakers.

Phew! 

Still, one thing at a time…

Berklee EP/D major Matt Hines making beats on the plane.

The CTM/TM festival was a varied affair, consisting (in the day) of audio/visual installations, exhibitions of technological advances and many unique performances and lectures. The Braun Tube Jazz band was a particular favorite for some, but for others it was also the opportunity to hear such luminaries as Morten Subotnick speak and perform. The highlight of the day however, was the sensational Recombinant Media Lab – a 360 degree, 8.10 surround sound video display system, for which audio/visual works had to be specifically composed. Robert Henke, an Ableton Live founder who visited Berklee in the Fall ’10, stole the show as his alter ego ‘Monolake’ in conjunction with the video artist Tarik Barri.

The evening was when the music began in earnest, and once it had begun, it never stopped. We soon learned that in Berlin, a venue might start the music at 9pm on a Friday and remain open until 9pm on a Sunday. There seemed to be an insatiable appetite for top quality electronic music, (which by the way, is like almost nothing that we have here in the USA), so much so that the clubs would remain full for almost 48 hours straight. The performers were truly diverse, traveling from as far as the USA and Japan to be in Berlin.

To be immersed in an environment in which our work was no longer a musical niche, but considered to be mainstream by the ordinary person was a liberating experience. Hearing Aphex Twin for instance, in a McDonalds, a store, or a club seemed to be normal for Berlin. This also seemed to be reflected in the incredible amount of street art that adorned almost any extended wall space in the city. Berlin lives, breathes art and music. It wasn’t something I truly appreciated until returning to Boston, incredibly relaxed, inspired and motivated to compose.

That is perhaps why companies such as Ableton Live and Native Instruments originated and are based out of Berlin. To visit their facilities and see first hand how the respective companies work was a valuable educational experience. In each case the Electronica Club got to sit down for 1-2 hours and talk with the programmers, product and sound designers behind the products that we use every day in our work. We also got a sneak peek at what each company has planned for the future.

There certainly wasn’t much sleep to be had all trip, because if we were ever at the hostel we were either making beats or making plans as to what to go and see next. eMBee, aside from being an excellent travel agent, was an excellent tour guide. If at any point we had some time, then we were off around the city to visit various landmarks, such as the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall and also some of the more harrowing historical sites, such as the Holocaust Memorial and Museum and the site where the Gestapo HQ used to stand. 

All in all, we came back to Boston with fresh minds and fresh ideas, great contacts in the industry and a greater appreciation and understanding for our art. What is Electronic Music? Go to Berlin, you’ll understand!

 

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Since my time in Berlin during a spring 2010 sabbatical, an area of interest for me has been the electronic music and art scene in Europe. This year’s Transmediale/Club Transmediale Festival that took place February 1-6 provided an opportunity to reconnect with some of the sounds, ideas, and people I encountered last year in the city of Berlin. When I originally started planning for travel during the 2010-11 academic year, my idea was to attend the festival on my own. However, when I returned to the classroom in Fall 2010, I found there was significant interest among students in visiting Berlin and attending this festival. By the end of the semester, this turned into a field trip for twelve Berklee students.

The Berlin Radio Tower

In planning the trip I wanted to include activities beyond festival events. Two of the major manufacturers that produce software included in the Electronic Production and Design Department’s major bundle, Native Instruments and Ableton, are headquartered in Berlin. I had contacts at both companies and was able to arrange visits. In addition, I wanted to give the students an opportunity to perform while there, and I, along with Nick Meehan, a Berklee alum working in Berlin, was able to include performances at two clubs for the majority of students on the trip.

We arrived in Berlin a few days before the start of the festival, giving us some time to explore the city over the weekend. The students wasted no time getting to some of the best known dance venues in Berlin, Watergate and Berghain, the evening we arrived, only to find that showing up doesn’t automatically mean getting in. Popular clubs can afford to be picky and control to mix of patrons by choosing who gets in and who doesn’t. Although their enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by this, all were able to return to Berghain later in the week as part of the festival.

Relaxing on the U-Bahn

Saturday was a day to explore Berlin as a group. While the city is rich in cultural tradition, it’s hard to escape the twentieth-century legacy of World War II and the country’s divide, symbolized by the Berlin wall. We visited the Topography of Terror museum, built on the site of the World War II SS and Gestapo headquarters where there was a detailed accounting of the rise and fall of the SS. Visiting the Holocaust Memorial at sunset, while beautiful, was a stark reminder of the atrocities suffered by the European Jews in the Nazi era. The Germans hold back on in dealing with the darker periods of their recent history, and the experience was a moving one for all.

A week of club music started out with stops at a couple of smaller venues in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin, near where we were staying. While the large Berlin dance clubs focus on DJ sets, some of the more interesting electronic music happens in these smaller venues. The evening started out at Madame Claude. The headliner this evening was a solo Jamaican artist from the UK living in Berlin named Infinite Livez. While most live electronic is performed using a laptop computer these days, Livez’s live rig consisted solely of various hardware devices, a drum machine, looper, and effects pedals, all run through a hardware mixer. The set was a tour de force of live looping and structured improvisation over basic song forms. Livez was a very capable singer and performer who was able to seamlessly integrate all of his technology resources into an engaging live set. While the table he set up on looked more like the window of a pawn shop, the tools became transparent once he started playing.

Infinite Livez

Later that evening, most of the group met for a performance by Robert Henke, in a small, intimate setting that was essentially a neighborhood bar. Most of the students had met Robert on his Fall 2010 visit to Berklee. At that time they saw one side of his work as a sound and visual artist, but this was the first time they were able to experience the dance-oriented side that most of his German audience think of as Monolake. This show was one part of a very busy week for Robert that included new audiovisual work for the CTM Cine Chamber series and Tau, a sound field piece at the Berlin Arts University. The set was a combination of classic Monolake, as well as some new material prepared for upcoming 2011 performances, This featured his characteristic polyrhythmic beats and bass-line motifs, as well as more textural sound design elements found in his sound art work. I spoke with Robert afterward and he mentioned that the set was more improvisational than what he would usually attempt, and the that he was going further with live effects processing than in his previous live work. He had abandoned his custom Monodeck controller in favor of a more generic one that fostered flexible mapping to individual effect parameters. This approach affords him a greater ability to shape the sound using realtime control of effects, which was abundantly clear from his performance that evening.

Robert Henke at Cine Chamber Live

On Sunday and Monday we had some free time that gave everyone the opportunity to explore Berlin on their own. I, for one, spent much of this time preparing for my upcoming live gig on Tuesday night, February 1. The venue was Cafe Wendel, where I had previously played during my visit in August 2010. For this performance, I invited a couple of students, Austin Stone and Tyler Randall, collectively known as Phonoride, to play their own set, and for a piece with the three of us. Another student, James Frame, provided live video for all of our sets. While most of the students on the trip knew me as a teacher, none of them had seen me perform as an electronic artist. In preparing for the show, the three of us worked together to prepare the material we would play together. I was very impressed by their ability to work collaboratively with electronic instruments and live video processing. The discussions we had centered more on elements of form and the texture and density of sound than specific keys or motifs.

The Transmediale/Club Transmediale festival got it’s official start the same night as the Cafe Wendel gig, so we missed some of the opening events. However, the keynote presentation and opening concert from American electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick came the following day. While most of the artists performing at CTM were from Europe, Subotnick’s work is held in high regard and he was honored at this year’s festival. For the concert, Subotnick performed a revised version of his pioneering work from the 1960′s "Silver Apples of the Moon," in collaboration with video artist Lillevan and pianist Soojin Anjou. His main instrument was the Buchla 200e, the same type of modular synthesizer recently acquired by the EP/D department. This was quite a tour de force, demonstrating the instrument’s vast capabilities, including it’s native multichannel architecture, that provided quadraphonic sound diffused throughout the concert hall. The concert was sold out, and not all of the students were able to get tickets, but those who could attend were duly inspired by the work. In a keynote presentation the following day, Tape Recorders, Transistors, and the Credit Card: A Personal History, Subotnick provided a revealing and entertaining view into the early days of electronic music in the US and his development as an artist.

Morton Subotnick speaks.

 

The Transmediale/Club Transmediale festival had events scheduled for both day and evening times, and seeing and hearing everything was impossible. Individual students choose the events that interested them and later shared their experiences with each other. Transmediale was more of an electronic art festival that was housed in a central location in Berlin’s House of World Culture. The highlight is a juried show of installation pieces from around the world, along with a number of workshops and symposia. Many of the pieces offered a reflection on current technologies.
One of these, Mirror Piece, used face recognition technology to scan the faces of willing attendees and match the image with a database of nefarious figures from the twentieth-century. Participants were surprised when their features matched profiles of murders and alcoholic writers, and this pointed out how flawed such a technology could be in identifying potential criminals. Another of these, the Braun Tube Jazz band, used discarded video monitors as playing surfaces for electronic instruments. Despite the name, the music had nothing to do with Jazz as we know it. Most of the students on the trip had never really seen much in the way of media art, and for them, it offered a completely different way to contextualize the ubiquitous technologies that surround them.

Mirror Piece

Most music events at CTM were club nights in various venues in and around Kreuzberg. Again, since multiple venues programed artists each evening, it was impossible to see to see everything. This was a drawback, as there were some though choices to be made throughout the week. I’ll focus on just a couple of events I attended here. Many of the more cutting edge music events took place at Festsaal Kreuzberg, which was more of a concert club about the size and vibe of a House of Blues in the US, than a dance club. The Wednesday night concert featured one of the artists I met during my visit for the 2010 festival. Masayoshi Fujita, known as El Fog, is a vibraphone player who performs with electronics and incorporates a kind of "prepared" vibraphone approach on some pieces. He explores the textual aspects of the instrument more than traditional melody-harmony relationships, and the preparations, which include draping tin foil over the bars, expand the timbral possibilities of the instrument, while his use of Ableton Live allows for looping and further electronic processing. For this performance Masa was joined by electronic composer/producer Jan Jelinek. The two have been collaborating for several years and their first CD, Bird, Lake, Objects, was released in 2010, just prior to their festival appearance. Jelinek performs with hardware devices, without a computer, and is able to supplement and complement both the acoustic and electronic aspects of Masa’s playing. Their set ranged from ambient textures, to rhythmic explorations.

Earlier that evening, I had to opportunity to dine with another one of the artists performing that evening. Tujiko Noriko is a Japanese avant singer/songwriter, living in Paris, who is among a growing number of artists in this category who perform with a laptop computer. While her solo act stays close to the recorded versions of her material, and the laptop is used mainly to provide backing tracks, she often seeks to perform with other artists who expand on her music in more of a live, improvised setting. For this performance, she used two musicians, Lawrence English and John Chantler, who accompanied her using analog, modular synthesizer rigs. Over dinner, Tujiko mentioned that she had never worked with these particular musicians before, and that she depends on a high level in improvisational skill from her collaborators.
While her music is rooted in pop music, her minimal approach gives the sound of a kind of electronic art song. The performers on the bill this evening were well known to the Asian electronic music community in Berlin, so I had the opportunity to reconnect with Raster Noton artist Aoki Takamasa and Berklee alum Juno Kang who I spent time with during my winter 2010 visit.

Tujiko Noriko stage set-up

For most of us, the high point of the festival was the Cine Chamber series of events. Cine Chamber is an outgrowth of the former Recombinant Media Lab in San Francisco. Here, multimedia artists were offered residencies in the labs facilities to develop work for their unique immersive media environment that combines 10.2 multichannel sound with a 360 degree viewing surface that uses twelve HD video projectors to provide an unbroken surround viewing experience. When RCM lost it’s lease in 2008, director Naut Humon decided to configure two systems, one for Europe and one for North America, that could be in residence at festival events on both continents. This year’s CTM Festival was the inaugural run for the European system, and in the month prior, four teams of artists had time to work with the system on site, developing new work to be premiered during special live performances. The two most notable of these were from the three founders of Raster Noton label performing together as Signal, and from Robert Henke and Tarik Barri performing as Monolake Live. Along with these special performances, there were screenings of prior work developed for the cine chamber system from the Recombinant Media Labs archives.

EP/D alum Barry Threw has worked with the Recombinant Media Lab project since 2006, and was the technical director for Cine Chamber Berlin. All twelve streams of video and twelve streams of audio run from a single computer, a technical marvel when it works. Unfortunately, the system was plagued by various difficulties, and Barry spent much of the week scrambling to keep the system running. Talking with Barry provided a fascinating view of how precarious the intersection of art, commerce and high technology can be.

A number of students on the trip had been working with live video processing using software they developed, and for them, The Cine Chamber events provided an opportunity to experience highly developed work they would normally not see in Boston. Stylistically, the work shown here ran the gamut of approaches, from abstract, computer generated animation as in see in Tarik Barri’s work, to patterns of geometric shapes that characterizes the work from Raster Noton artists Signal, to processed still images and video from others. Sound for these ranged from the dance influenced rhythmic work from musical artists like Robert Henke and Signal, to the more abstract soundscapes many of the other artists chose to explore using the multiple-channel format.

Monolake Live, Fundamental Forces.

With a vital electronic music community in Berlin, it’s no wonder that two major manufacturers of music software, Native Instruments and Ableton, are based there. Ableton has an educational outreach program and my contact there, Yukio Van Marin King, was instrumental in helping to set up a tour for our group from Berklee. While there isn’t much to see in the offices of a software company, our hosts gave us a tour of the facilities while explaining the functions of the various departments, essentially how the company works. Interesting as this may have been, the high point of the visit came with a hour-long workshop and question and answer session with one of the resident product specialists, Dennis Fischer. Many of the students were already accomplished users of Ableton Live, and the discussion quickly moved to advanced topics, which I think impressed the folks at Ableton. While many academic music programs use Ableton Live in their curriculum, the company doesn’t often have the chance to directly connect with these users, and this visit was a useful experience for all.

Visiting Ableton

Likewise, Native Instruments had never hosted a student group, and our presence was somewhat of a curiosity for the office staff. Our host for this visit was, Florian Schneidmadel, the head of product design at NI, and he was joined by two of the software engineers I met on my visit the year before. I was frankly surprised and impressed that we would meet with someone that high up in the company. While some topics, like upcoming new products, were understandably off limits, they were quite forthcoming about the process of developing new products and structuring their product line. They admitted that, like Ableton, they experienced rapid growth, and as a result, had too many products. The line became difficult to maintain, and didn’t allow for the resources to develop and market new products. The students never realized the amount of work it takes for a software company to ensure that their existing products are compatible with a range of operating systems, plugin formats, and host programs. At the time of our visit, they were busy converting their entire product line to be 64-bit compatible, as well as working on a major update to their flagship DJ software, Traktor.

While they approached these visits with a certain reverence, taking pictures in the lobbies to document their visit, students saw that there is a wide range of employment possibilities in this field. They could sense a difference in the corporate culture between Ableton and Native Instruments that perhaps influenced their product focus. They were equally surprised to learn that both view themselves as international companies, and as such, they were bilingual, with much of their business conducted in English.

A recent EP/D grad from the class of 2010, Nick Meehan started work at Ableton in September 2010. Nick was very helpful to our group, spending time with us and acting as tour guide to after-hours electronic music events, along with setting up a showcase gig for the students. Nick was very interested in maintaining some sort of ongoing relationship with Berklee, perhaps setting up an alumni group in Berlin. In February, he was in the process of securing a loft space to present workshops, clinics, and performances, in a series of events called B-Vision. I was very impressed with Nick’s energy and enthusiasm, and look forward to working with him on future collaborations.

Early morning in the Berlin U-Bahn

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Euroracked

Nov 06 2010

One of my projects this past spring and summer was to assemble an analog modular synthesizer system. Those who recall my Groupshow post from last spring may remember my experience visiting Schneider’s Buro in Berlin. While that visit got me to think seriously about a system of my own, visits to the Analog Haven booth at the Winter NAMM show over the years planted the seed.

Okay, so why in 2010 would anyone consider getting an analog modular synthesizer? Many systems are essentially monophonic, there’s no memory for loading and saving patches –unless you go for the uber-expensive Buchla system– and they’re usually housed in large, bulky boxes that make them hard to travel with. For me, there were two issues: the sound and sound design possibilities, and the tactile way of working. Over the last ten years, the audio quality of software instruments has improved enormously, and better DA converters have made a big difference in what we hear when working with them. At least my ear was convinced they sounded good. In April of this year I had the opportunity to see synthesist Richard Lainhart perform in New York using his analog Buchla rig and a Haken controller. The sound was as exotic, fresh, and challenging as anything I’ve become accustomed to using software, but there was an added richness and texture that made the sound seductive. The laptop performers who followed were excellent, and their sound design was interesting and inventive, yet the quality of sound lacked the appeal of what I heard earlier. Lainhart was a tough act to follow.

One of my goals this year was to work more with controllers, to gain some sense of performing with sound. There was a certain sense of physicality that I was beginning to miss working with a computer. In doing so, I spent a lot of time programming a Lemur touchscreen controller and working out with a Monome, in addition to an assortment of physical sliders and buttons. From this, I began to get more of a sense that there was some tactile connection between myself and software like Ableton Live and Reaktor. Still, I felt somewhat removed from the actual process of creating the sound, I wanted it to feel "handmade."

Starting in the spring I did quite a bit of research on current systems, and it didn’t take long to settle on the Eurorack format. While some manufacturers like Buchla and Wiard build closed systems, where only modules they manufacture can be used, Eurorack is an open format with many smaller developers getting into the game. The system itself originated as Dieter Doepher’s A-100 system, which has become very popular with a wide range of artists because of its the cost, quality, and wide range of available modules. With a large user base, smaller independent manufacturers can justify designing and building modules for the Eurorack format. The result is that there are some very innovative implementations of traditional analog designs available.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Matthew Davidson, aka Stretta, for his wisdom and help in getting started. The system I ended up with is what I consider a starter system, with a combination of classic modules such as envelope generators, LFOs, and sample and hold making up the control signal path, and modules from Livewire, TipTop Audio, Maleko, Harvestman, and Cwejman making up the oscillators and filters in the audio signal path. Following advice from Stretta, I invested in a high-quality Cwejman VCA as the final output from the system, a kind of main mix bus. Rounding things out are two modules from a company called Make Noise, that take their inspiration from classic Buchla modules. The QMMG and Maths will provide some unusual twists to both the audio and control signal paths.

My work with the system is in it’s early stages, but I’ve already been using it in rehearsals to develop new ideas and sounds for pieces I’m working on with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. I’m using Ableton Live as the centerpiece of the system, with a MIDI to control voltage converter to tempo sync the modular with Live. With the modular’s audio routed through Live, I’m able to record any ideas I come up with, making the best of both analog and digital worlds.

Here’s a list of what’s in my current system:

Doepfer A-114 Ring Modulator
Doepfer A-118 Noise/Random Generator
Doepfer A-132-3 Dual linear/exponential VCA
Doepfer A-143-2 Quad ADSR 
Doepfer A-147 LFO
Doepfer A-148 Dual S&H
Doepfer A-154 Sequencer Controller
Doepfer A-155 Sequencer
Doepfer A-156 Dual Quantizer
Doepfer A-170 Dual Slew Limiter
Doepfer A-180 Multiples 1

Make Noise QMMG
Make Noise Maths
Cwejman VCA-4mx
Bubblesound uLFO
4MS Rotating Clock Divider

Cwejman MMF1
Wiard Borg 2 FILTER
Tip Top Audio Z-2040 LP-VCF
Flight of Harmony Plague Bearer

Live Wire AFG
Tip Top Audio Z3000 mk2
Cwejman VCO-6
Harvestman Piston Honda

Kenton Pro Solo MkII MIDI to CV converter
MonoRocket Gemini 4-shelf case

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MUTEK 2010

Aug 27 2010

Earlier this summer, I was in Montreal for the 11th annual MUTEK Festival of Electronic Music and Art, June 2 through June 6. The festival organizers have worked hard over the years to make this a premier electronic music event, and attending for the first time this year, I saw why. The range of electronic music presented by over 150 artists covers the entire gamut of electronic music, from experimental noise and sound art to classic house music and just about everything in between. The schedule itself was daunting, but much to the organizers credit, they released a very useful iPhone app that organized the schedule and gave a brief overview to each artist, including links to their MySpace pages and other Web resources. The app is free and you should still be able to download it and use it as a way to perhaps find out about the artist who appeared at MUTEK.

Minilogue at MUTEK 2010

To make sense of the range of artists, the festival was organized in several different series, each in it’s own venue. Experience and Ectoplasmes events were held in a black block theater that worked well for presenting audio-visual work as well as more experimental and emerging artists. The A/Visions series events were held in the Monument National concert hall. As the name suggests, many of the concerts here were multimedia presentations, with a massive display as the backdrop for the performers onstage. Nocturnes were club events held in three different venues not more than a block away from each other. SAT had more of an underground vibe, and while still in the dance genre, hosted edgier performers and DJs. Club Soda reminded me more of a classic dance club. Friday was the big club night and MUTEK attendees were in a constant flow between the two venues, checking out House and Techno at Soda and Dubstep at SAT. Metropolis was more of a concert club that also hosted small acts simultaneously in separate lounge. So, on just about any given night of the festival there were two different scenes going on. And, if that wasn’t enough, there were outdoor events as well, culminating with a free concert on Montreal’s main outdoor stage.

Montreal is a wonderful city for the arts and they really know how to present festivals. While I was there I saw no less than eight outdoor stages in various states of construction for what appeared to a very busy season that includes the well-established Montreal Jazz Festival. While MUTEK was an international festival there was an emphasis on Canadian artists. The Canadian government and a range of private sponsors support the festival with the caveat that it provides a venue for home-grown talent. Canada has a vibrant music scene with talented artists in all genres who are largely unknown outside of their county, and this was a good opportunity to check some of them out.

 

Señor Coconut at MUTEK 2010

For me, one of the big issues in electronic music is live performance, and the connection between studio production and how a work is performed. MUTEK provided a great opportunity to see a wide variety of performance styles, from DJs to computer-aided acoustic performances. What follows is an overview of some of the artists that impressed me at MUTEK and how they approached performing.

Matmos was one of the acts high on my list to check out at MUTEK. Partners since 1997, Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt are perhaps best known for their playful way of working with sampled sound, and have collaborated with a number of artists from Bjork PLOrk. Onstage, each has a distinct role, with Daniel on laptops and controllers and Schmidt on realtime keyboard and assorted noisemakers. In the Matmos brain, one half is digital, the other analog, and they have no problem navigating the aesthetic corpus callosum, and this distinction is one of the things that makes their music compelling. In an interview session the next day, they were very articulate in discussing their work and adopted home of Baltimore. Their work is highly conceptual with each of their albums centered around a core concept. While electronic music seems to offer infinite creative possibilities, they feel that limiting choices and creating from a core concept is essential. Although the idea of an "album" is rapidly disappearing, they feel it’s still an important part of their process. A good example of this is their 2008 release, Supreme Balloon, where the idea was to break their mold and create an album of purely synthesized sound, where no recordings of acoustic sources of any type are used. Fittingly, most of their set at MUTEK came from this work, culminating with the 24-minute piece Supreme Balloon, an electronic tour de force.

Matmos at MUTEK 2010

In contrast to the discipline of Matmos, Mouse on Mars thrive on a kind of controlled anarchy. The German duo of Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner began working together in 1993, with ten releases and numerous side projects to their credit. Their live set was a dense, rhythmic stew that seemed more stream of consciousness than composition. Each had a laptop, presumably running Ableton Live along with an assortment of controllers. There were no defined roles here and there was no clear connection between the sound and who it came from. Their production process has more to do with assembling ideas from sounds collected on their hard drives than a clear concept, where lots of sounds and idea get refined until an album is done. When is a project "done?" St Werner mentioned in an interview the day after their performance that record company deadlines and hard drive crashes are what signal the end their process. While they currently working on new material, their last studio effort came out in 2007, so perhaps the demise of record labels and more reliable hard drives are extending their creative process. They’ve actually spent a good part of the last few years performing live, often with a drummer, and they feel this experience energizes them for their work in the studio. In performance, it sounds like they’ve emptied the choices bits from their hard drives into Ableton Live and freely improvise their dance set.

 

Jon Hopkins at MUTEK 2010

One of the high points of the festival for me was Jon Hopkins‘ set. Most have probably heard of his work through his association with Coldplay, providing the opening and closing instrumental sections of their Viva La Vida CD, and opening for them on many dates during their last tour. Hopkins is a trained musician, and as a pianist and composer his work reflects a more traditional melodic and harmonic vocabulary. Given that, I didn’t know what to expect in a dance club performance. His hour-long set was absolutely brilliant, and showcased a well-rehearsed, seasoned electronic performer. Each piece was a composition, and I recognized a couple from his most recent release, Insides. My sense was that each piece provided an overall form and that he was free to extend sections and improvise variations. On stage, he mainly used two Korg Kaoss pads along with a keyboard controller, and with these, he was able to control every aspect of the performance, he’s clearly in the "controllerism" camp of live electronic performance. From the audience’s perspective, Hopkins was really "playing" his set and much of their reaction was not just to the music, but to the clear sense of virtuosity that he conveyed.

While this is just a small taste of what I experienced, there are numerous reviews and videos of MUTEK 2010 on the Web.

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One of the things I learned about Germans while in Berlin is that they love their hardware. While two of the most important music software companies on the planet, Ableton and Native Instruments, make their home in Berlin, just about everyone I met on my trip there earlier this year had at least one piece of gear that was a source of great pride. Laptop jams came into vogue around 2000 when seeing someone on stage with one was a novelty, so at this point, performing with software is taken for granted. So what gets an audience’s attention these days? Cool hardware, and not just a couple of hot-rodded speak and spells, but lots of it, piles of it.

Groupshow is a Berlin-based electronic performance collective trio that is known for extended improvisations using tables full of vintage electronic gadgets and gizmos. For CTM 2010, Groupshow put on an extended performance accompanying Andy Warhol’s film Empire. Or perhaps the film accompanied Groupshow since Empire is eight hours long and consists of a single shot of New York’s Empire State building made from 6 hours and 36 minutes of 24 fps footage slowed down to play at 16 fps. Both the film and Groupshow’s extended performance consider the issue of art as process, and as such, it was an ideal event to drop in on, not necessarily to sit through. That said, the members of Groupshow were able to coax a lot of interesting sound from their collection, and the result was something that just couldn’t possibly come from software.

 

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Ryoji Ikeda

Mar 26 2010

The CTM and Transmediale festivals I attended earlier this year each had a different focus, however the clear connection was in how each explored relationships between sound and vision. Pattern Recognition was a concert performance sponsored by both festivals that featured two works. Materia Obscura by Jürgen Reble & Thomas Köner clearly focused on visual imagery while Test Pattern by Ryoji Ikeda was a stunning, immersive experience exploring sound mapped to visuals. Ikeda is primarily known as electronic sound artist, although his performances are always constructed around some sort of visualization of the sound elements he’s working with. His work examines the relationships found in data structures, and he uses patterns found in various types of computer data to generate both sound and image. From this, he has created a body of work that includes both performance and installation pieces. Transmediale 2010 included both with data.tron (3 SXGA+version) as an installation along with his Test Pattern performance.

Ryoji Ikeda

Ikeda’s work extends from the idea that data itself, the actual patterns of ones and zeros, can be perceived as sound and visual elements in an artistic presentation. When asked about his influences in a 2008 Japan Times interview, Ikeda lists not musicians or visual artists, but mathematicians, and in examining raw data, he uses mathematical relationships to create form and structure. His conversations with Harvard mathematician Benedict Gross have led to the data.tron series of installations that include (3 SXGA+version) exhibited at Transmediale. In this large scale video projection that covers an entire wall of a gallery space, Ikeda creates a kind of 21st century pointillistic mural using raw data taken from complex predictive models scientist use to predict future events, to create a blizzard of numbers and geometrical shapes.

data.tron (3 SXGA+version) at Transmediale 2010

In Test Pattern, raw data is converted to bar codes, the kind found on just about everything you buy in a store, and mapped to a variety of noise sources, presumably generated from the same data. The bar code patterns are projected at a high rate on two sectors of a large screen. The synchronization here is very tight, and the visual patterns represent a kind of rhythmic visualization where placement and width of the bars represent attack and duration patterns in the sound. In performance, Ikeda plays with relationships between left and right stereo channels and the patterns appearing on the screen sectors. Part of what the audience experiences is a kind of manipulation of perceptual coordination. This can be jarring for some, and indeed there is a warning before the performance that those with epileptic tendencies might want to excuse themselves.

Test Pattern (live) at Transmediale 2010

So what does all this actually sound like? One of the points in Ikeda’s work is that data has a structure that can be assembled into recognizable patterns. These in turn, can be interpreted as rhythmic structures, so what we hear from this are clearly recognizable patterns that might sound like they’re coming from a drum machine on steroids. Nothing sounds random, and bursts of pure noise, clicks, and beeps punctuate these patterns, giving them a kind of musical form and structure. It’s hard to say whether this is the result of algorithmic processes or of painstaking orchestration through digital editing. While Ikeda is on stage for the performance, it’s not clear what he might be doing to effect the piece in realtime. While we’re used to seeing a clear correspondence between gesture and sound in a musical performance, perhaps one can think of the performer more as the captain of some sort of multimedia mothership in this type of work.

While "glitch" has become a recent buzz word for all sorts of music that incorporates noise, the work Ryoji Ikeda is doing here has a deep connection to a larger artistic vision, and in that sense, it transcends the whole idea of a popular style or genre.

Recommended:

  • Cyclo (with Carsten Nicolai; Raster-Noton, 2001)
  • Dataplex (Raster-Noton, 2005)
  • Test Pattern (Raster-Noton, 2008)
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