Beats, Windows 98-Style

It’s been a while since I blogged here. In the meantime I’ve been working a lot on my rock band Mescalito… but some blog ideas have been simmering in the back of my mind.

Today’s post is a quick chat about a creativity-boosting project I thought of. I’ll be making a drumloop a day, every day of December 2016 and uploading them to my Soundcloud.

I was recently producing beats for my trio with Dyl Lynch and Max Zaska. I enjoyed trying to imitate the likes of Madlib, using compressor and EQ plugins etc. to make our live performances as fat as possible. For this month’s project, though, I’ll just focus on drum programming. I’m inspired by another bandmate, Ben Prevo’s, song-a-day project where he used whatever was at hand to make a more-or-less finished product each day.

To avoid the rabbit hole of tweaking FX plugins, and for a healthy dose of nostalgia, I’ll only use software available in the year 2000!

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Hammerhead Rhythm Station (Bram Bos, 2000)
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Drumsynth 2.0 (Paul Kellett, 2000)

To me, these programs evoke a different world. I imagine bedroom tinkerers sharing coding techniques, knowledge of analog and digital hardware, and a love of dance music. Bram Bos’ program even displays his student email address, from a Dutch university. The last days of a smaller, less consolidated internet.

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The intro screen for Hammerhead

If you had a PC back then, your music-making options were limited to MIDI sequencing, basic layering of samples, trackers – or free programs like these.

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This screenshot took a bit of effort to find – it’s easy for the history of a scene like PC music software to disappear into the ether … Massiva, another program I was messing around with around the year 2000

The nicest thing about (my fantasy of) the 90s is the DIY mentality. The tools are by amateurs and rely on no-one else’s file formats or software. These guys saw a problem, coded up a solution and gave it to the world. That still happens today but you are far less likely to hear of it in the hyped and moneyed tech/startup landscape of today.

Admittedly, some of those pioneers monetised their work. Drumsynth 2 is now bundled with FL Studio.

I say “pioneers”, but the reason there was a space for pioneering, is that the professional music world had little time for PCs. PC music was a nerdy little field, obsessed with emulating “realer”, cooler sounds – a vibe you can pick up by browsing old magazines.

The presets in Drumsynth 2 do try to emulate iconic drum machines – but the little synth can’t really hack it and the noises are crude. I kind of like that though. To recap, I’m using 20-year-old free software to get a sound roughly (but not convincingly) like 40-year-old drum machines.

Having a small number of samples (20 preset, 6 custom, only 6 channels) in Hammerhead, my drum machine, forces me to listen closely to how sounds work together. No delay or reverb makes me strive for other ways of creating depth: volume differences, layered and interlocking syncopations, and expressive, varied timbres.

I’ll be pushing the software past what it was designed to do. Hammerhead does 4/4 beats in 16th notes only. By using odd numbers of bars, though, this can be got around (e.g. 5 bars of 4/4 can be 4 bars of 5/4). Similarly, the shuffle control can be abused for some beat-bending tricks, if the given 4/4 grid is disregarded.

So in a humble way this project might represent some DIY values from the hacker and demo-scenes of my idealised 90s – which were all about overcoming computational limitations.

By the way, those 4/4 grids are how I first learned rhythm, at the age of 12 or so (first in a MIDI sequencer, then in Hammerhead). Here is my first ever beat, from 2001:

And here is the first drumline of my month of beats, Windows 98-style. (Try this direct link if the soundcloud embedding doesn’t display below.)

Knuckles

This week’s post returns to the theme of music as “the sound of body movement”. I had a few different thoughts about this during the week, and then when I jammed with my band Mescalito, I noticed them influencing my playing.

Years ago I used to be guilty about not practising technique enough. But I’ve managed to change my perspective from hyper-competitiveness, into something more to do with creativity and awareness: i.e. creating improved body motions and becoming aware of details I used to miss.

So I was working on a Mescalito riff at home. I like this kind of practical work, inspired by a workshop from free jazz luminary Frank Gratkowski who said he only practised when he needed to prepare something specific for performance.

I was videoing myself and I noticed a problem in my left hand’s fretting position: the first knuckle of the index straining in towards the neck.

Knuckle
Left side bad, right side good

As you can see, this breaks the smooth curve from elbow to fingertips. After some work I was able to fix this at low tempos.

This is still well below the actual tempo but I’m happy that I’ve got this far – keeping that ideal shape is hard.

The properly curved hand has a much stronger grip. I got an insight from that fact that I hope I can explain to you now.

I wrote already about blues soloing being gestural and kinetic – its expressivity coming from the touch and movement style of the player. My new insight was that this aesthetic of body motion actually explains most characteristics of blues playing; and that these characteristics come from prioritising hand/grip movement over finger/digital movement. That’s why my curved grip is preferable for me – it restricts finger motion somewhat but gives strength to hand movements.

Now, guitarists in the audience are surely protesting that blues, like any other style, always uses both finger and hand movements. But let me give some examples.

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  • Most blues lead uses the pentatonic scale, usually in these kind of “box pattern” fingerings (above) that have two notes per string. These melodies therefore only need two fingers, probably index and ring. That’s why Hendrix plays lead with his little finger tucked away under the fingerboard (see him switch to this technique in this video). The two fingers used are then just either ends of an overall hand shape and the overall movements tend to be a rocking of the hand as pressure is alternately applied to each end.
  • Blues vibrato and bends are performed by rocking the hand, either in the air (kind of bouncing the neck up and down) or around the point where the index finger touches the bottom of the neck.
  • Open string figures are a huge part of traditional styles like John Lee Hooker’s. Typically he trills between a fretted note (say E) and an open note (say D), as in this lovely track. The simple gesture of repeatedly tapping the E and releasing it creates the whole melody. This shaking gesture goes through multiple fingers because it’s using grip strength, even though only one finger touches the string. A similar lumping together of the fingers into a gripping unit also happens in bending and vibrato. (This doesn’t mean that there is pointless excess movement, by the way. See how economical JLH is in this live performance.)
  • And one of the deepest parts of the blues guitar tradition is of course slide guitar, in which almost all melodic movement is a perfect analogue of the hand‘s motion along the strings.

These are all common-place observations, but together they form a clear picture for me that explains a lot of what’s special about blues.

This insight inspired me to chase down interesting hand-movements when jamming with Mescalito.

I’m not claiming either of these ideas is great – but I definitely enjoyed the freedom to explore them, knowing that they’re not a cheap trick but have a valid aesthetic of their own.

A funny thing happened in the jam which I believe came partly out of my independence practice.

After twenty minutes of free improv, we started to talk over the music. (Not that we say anything very clever!) The voices sound to me like we’re in an emotionally open state, with more warmth than in a normal conversation. The way I let the bass play on without monitoring it, is from independence practice.

I’m not playing any strict rhythm, it’s true, but the point is I’m letting my hands deal with the bass while my verbal mind is elsewhere. To be precise, I remember keeping a background awareness of the “gentle ascending minor” vibe and letting my hands place it on the beat, as I thought about what I was saying.

As I finish talking (0:19)you can hear my voice get tense, probably because I’m realising that I can’t actually talk and play very well, and Murphy’s answer is tense too. Maybe we’re hearing that the music wants to go somewhere. Out of this tense moment a lovely 7/4 groove suddenly manifests, answering our worries. (Actually I play it over 9 beats first while still talking, then find the 7.)

Similarly, after we laugh about funny guitar noise at 0:28 you can first of all hear a slight deepening of emotional connection in the timbre of the instruments at 0:43, and then a 6/4 kick drum pattern manifests to interact with the 7/4 bassline. Similar to the bass, it actually starts in 8 and then goes to 6. That kind of adjustment by feel is interesting because normally the state of mind that corrects errors is too paranoid to coexist with creativity. Here we’re so relaxed we don’t get hung up on it. By the way, we would never sit down and consciously write a 6 against 7 pattern!

Well that’s a trivial example, but those transitions into creativity remind me of rapper Big L’s switch from talking to rapping, discussed in this article – and also of free jazz where group subconscious decisions transform the music without any planning, miraculously.

I hope I can get deeper into this stuff…. Allowing creativity to emerge from the subconscious while holding onto the groove.

Two related thoughts for another post:

  • those transitions often involve a threatened break in the flow – smoothly navigating breaks is a very deep tradition in jazz and hip hop
  • this kind of “spontaneous composition” is very similar to saying the right/witty/elevating thing in a group conversation where a joke won’t land unless it’s delivered in tune with the group vibe and with perfect timing

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Sorry for the late post. Hope it wasn’t too indulgent! See you soon.

And to finish, here’s Charlie Hunter demonstrating stunning levels of independence in a hard groove context.