A Music Challenge: “Electric Future Collective” (Round 2)

There was a music challenge. Managed by @13LFO, it was about submitting a musical piece within certain ancillary conditions.
With the original brief to be found here, the summary was something like this:

  1. A set of six samples was supplied, and those were the only sound sources allowed,
  2. No limitations, however, on the amount of processing applied,
  3. All samples must be used (but can be used only in part),
  4. There was a submission deadline.

I decided to participate – both in round one (my result below) and in round two. This article is about round two (but maybe I’ll blow it up later to also address round one).

So why did I participate? First of all, I had for a long time not worked with samples – sounds in my music for quite a long time had either be coming from acoustic sources, or from electronic instruments not using samples (read: synthesizers), with acoustic drum sounds being the exception sometimes. Also, I had used a lot of very radical processing in turning anything into anything, especially during my livelooping years.

I personally liked the samples in round two much more than I liked those of the first round (which I didn’t like at all, to be honest).

The Samples

Unfortunately, @13LFO had decided to remove the samples after each round had finished, so I need to talk you through them so to speak.

The first sample was an arhythmic sequence of two alternating notes played on what sounds like a piano where you immediately depress the dampers manually after hitting the keys. I called it the piano.

Then, there was a 4th interval sequence of legato notes with a pulse wave – sounding like an alarm signal from an electronic gadget from the 70s. This was the pulse.

Next was a amplitude-modulated sine wave. The sine.

Following that, the noise of turning the squeaky crank of a small mechanical thing. I called it the crank.

A short melody with an ahh-voice synth sound, heavily reverberated. The voice.

And finally something sounding like a field/ambient recording from a small shop. I called this the shop.

What I really enjoyed about those samples is that they worked in a lot of different contexts. Each of them had a rhythmic property, four of them (piano, pulse, sine and voice) had a clear pitch property, all of them seemed to work equally well as sample loops as well as as source material for a sampler instrument – or even for completely different uses, as we will find out.

A Bit of Theory…

It’s interesting to have a look how the limitations from the brief limit you as an artist. Of course, to make it really simple, you could use the loops in a phrase sampler as loops or oneshots, and then load the other samples into a simple sampler instrument architecture and play with them.
And you could apply lots of processing to it. And slice and dice the samples. And blow up the architecture of the sampler instrument. But where is the theoretical limit?

Now Fourier tells us that I can create any signal of finite duration by superimposing sine waves of different frequency. So, by extracting one cycle of a sine wave from the source samples (one from each, to fulfil rule #3), by cutting out a small section and applying a very steep bandpass, I could then copy and paste them into any track I wanted. That (leaving aside that this was most probably not the intention of this challenge) is however not a lot of fun.
In a less radical from, I could again get my basic sine wave, limit that into a square wave, and then have any basic waveforms available (saw/triangle via integration), and build them into a powerful sampler instrument, and do e.g. as much FM synthesis or additive synthesis as you’d want (and your synth would support). Interestingly, if you use a sine oscillator or square wave oscillator in an architecture e.g. in the Kurzweil K2xxx synths, this will work just like that – by using a sample of this very waveform. This can be a lot of fun but, again, would be a “violating the spirit” as they say.

If we look at the processing possibilities, one idea that immediately springs to mind is the use of resonating filters. In theory, I could just use a lot of filters, have them resonate, and then put envelope generators behind them and play them as an additive synth (more or less how a B3 organ works). We need to keep in mind, though, that a filter doesn’t start to sing on its own, rather builds up resonance from residual noise – but we could give them just that by playing all of the source samples into them (maybe pitchshifted down and distorted) right at the beginning. Again, not something that seems to be within the spirit of the challenge.
Talking about effects, there’s one effect algorithm that typically is considered as just an effect, but actually uses samples, and thus, sound sources: the convolution reverb. So if we decided to use one, we could only load one of the six allowed samples into it. Or if we just want reverb, just use an algorithmic one.

The Approach

Initially, I had two different approaches in mind. The first one was to work the Nerdville Setup into something to play the challenge in realtime.

The Nerdville Setup as of April 2014
The Nerdville Setup as of April 2014

The Nerdville Setup is usually a configuration similar to a no input mixer setup, but expanded with sources (mostly one microphone). What makes this a nice option is that there’s the KP3 KAOSS (which has four sample slots), and by starting the performance by feeding the samples into one of the delay loops of the setup (which, I think, there’s a total maximum of 19), you could have a lot of fun. Playing with this setup usually ends up with the sources turning into something otherwordly after a short period of time, so this would be a rather abstract, noise-oriented approach.

The second one (and the only one I decided to follow) was to make use of the sine waves and build something with additive or FM synthesis sounds, ending up with a very tonal result, quite different from my round one submission (and from the Nerdville variant).  The problem here was that due to my limited use of (and experience with) sampler instruments, I had only two of those in my setup, with only basic programming experience with one (the good old NI Kontakt 2) and none with the other (the Kurzweil K2600XS).

Obviously, the Kurzweil was the far better choice for what I had in mind, because its very complex synthesis architecture is built on samples as oscillators. So in the Kurzweil, you can easily build FM, or additive stuff, or whatever with your sources, as long as you don’t run out of voices. But I didn’t have any programming experience – so it was Kontakt.

When I say “basic programming experience”, I mean I created some instruments from samples (like the freely available mellotron thingies), but that was about it. What’s more, it seemed to me when toying with the thing in the rather short time amount that I couldn’t do wicked stuff like complex FM operators with it. But I could do additive thingies.

Apropos short time: the time I was able to spare for this recording (and that’s also why I didn’t do something with the Nerdville setup) was from 1300 to roughly 1700 last Sunday – which, in comparison to round one, was an increase by 100 percent! Still, not enough to properly touch this up with EQ, clean mix and what have you, but enough to get a basic idea.

Instruments…

I decided to build a few sampler instruments from the samples. From the sine, I cut out one cycle and used that for two bell-like additive things (the bell-like coming from the fact that they weren’t harmonic) which went on to become the most prominent sounds in the arrangement. The sine bass returned, but this time not with a harmonically rich wave sent through a steep lowpass, but as a real sine bass. I also added this as a sub-oscillator for another instrument otherwise based on the pulse sample, which used different loop segments and also a lofi effect for a total of five oscillators. There was another instrument built on the piano sample which was just that, some kind of prepared piano. A very simple instrument used the voice sample for a synth ahh sound. And finally, I turned both the shop and the crank into instruments. For the crank, there were three ones (one with beat slices, one with the standard sampler algorithm and one with the tone machine algorithm). For the shop, there were two one-shots, one forward and one reverse.

…Effects…

As for reverb, I had already mentioned that the ground rules didn’t allow for use of the usual convolution reverb spaces – no problem, as this was going to be something “artifical” anyway, so Cubase’s RoomWorks was applied – as usual with such projects, I used one more normal and one surreal space. Added was furthermore a phaser, a six-tap delay and a lush setting on the StudioChorus.

Now for the convolution reverb: there was a way to use them, and that was to simply load one of the supplied samples as an impulse response. I did this with the crank and the pulse (both of which didn’t end up sounding reverb-like).

…and Music

The piece is built up around three distinctive melodic sections, held together by ambient noises and reverb tails.

It starts off with some ambient noises – the shop‘s reverse version with multiple voices. Next up is the first bell-like patch playing and arpeggiated chord progression, not without being run through the large reverb and the convoluted crank.

The crank trails off into a voice pad progression, with the piano underneath playing fast-paced arpeggios. Enter the sine bass underneath the second bell sound for another progression (the repeated pedal note at the end doubled by the pulse sound, which ended up being another bass sound – with added delay and phaser, not the lead I had envisioned first).

The final part is again introduced by the crank, before the first bell starts a closing harmonic statement – doubled parts via the voice and pulse instrument coming in, before we end into the coda – only the bell synth plus some trailing shop noises.

In Summary

Boy, that was fun!

Main findings from my point of view:

  • while in round one I had been stretching the boundaries towards weirdness (as the comment “most unusual piece by far!” by @13LFO indicated), this time, it seemed I had been clearly on the other extreme of being actually very tonal.
  • Additive synthesis is huge fun! Boy, I need to spend more time with the K5000! And also with the VZ-10m and FS1R, by the way. With the Kurzweil as well…
  • Maybe I need to upgrade to a newer version of the NI stuff – making sounds with sampler instruments can truly be fun.
  • Next time, I should invest just a little more time – maybe twice as much again.
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