James Britt

Maximum R&D

An Ableton Live Remixing Experiment

November 2012

The Phoenix Ableton Live User Group had, for it’s final meeting of the year, a half-day group project.

The goal was to create, from scratch, a complete song (or track or tune or whatever you like to call a standalone piece).

I went, I had a blast, I learned a lot. We didn’t reach our goal, though. We got maybe halfway there; it’s hard to tell with things like this.

When we broke up we had a number of tracks in a session project. Drums (from a sample, with some modifications), some pad synths played via a small MIDI keyboard, some guitar lines, and a bass riff. The guitar and bass we recorded live; I played bass.

We didn’t get a finished piece that day, but we decided each of use in attendance should try to finish up on our own.

I grabbed a copy of the Live project files and set to work. It’s been interesting.

For the impatient, you can listen to what I came up with so far over on Soundcloud.

I have my own quirky taste in music; I’ve found it often differs from most anything mainstream, and knew in advance of the meet-up that the music we would work on would almost certainly not be something I’d pick on my own. I also decided that this didn’t matter, because the goal was not Make Music That James Likes but t engage in a process and see what could be learned.

To that end I tried to set a few rules for myself before doing my revamping of the session tracks.

I’m a fan of the show Chopped, a cooking contest show on Food Network. They get four contestants and they each have to make a series of meals from a box of mystery ingredients.

The rules are that they have to use all of the mystery ingredients in some form, though they can also use stuff from the show’s pantry (milk, eggs, spices, whatever).

The judges always complain when they can’t identify all the mystery ingredients, or when the mystery ingredients are not given at least some focus in the dish. In other words, you can’t get away with making whatever the hell you want while hiding the (usually discordant) mystery ingredients.

So, with that as a general guideline, I decided to work towards something that, to any one who heard the original session tracks, would at least sound familiar. I did slice-n-dice a few ingredients, though.

I avoided re-recording anything or tossing in extra instruments. I kept the BPM, and while I messed with the drums a bit I think they’re mostly the same (at least in general style, though with more tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk and a bit less thump).

I kinda-but-not-really cheated. I know that Live will let you edit and mash-up recorded samples but I’m much more comfortable using Reaper for that. I used Reaper to slice up the recorded samples, in one case reconstructing a more coherent bass phrase than what was recorded live. Editing flubbed notes is a Good Thing.

I also used Reaper to create a new drum pattern based off slices from the one used on the session files. All quite doable in Live, so I wasn’t doing anything un-Livable, I just decided to save some of the hassle.

Once I had some reconstituted samples I loaded them into Live and worked from there.

For what it’s worth, I’m really more of a Renoise fan. Depending on where this all ends up I may decide to do another mix-up using my hacked-up samples with Renoise and just mangling things as I please. My usual way of working is to generate some basic percussion tracks in Renoise, spawn some wav files, and transfer them to a Tascam digital recorder. Then I improvise over those tracks. If I think I have anything interesting then I export from the digital recorder, extract suitable loops, maybe clean them up, and load them into Renoise.

There’s a lot of overhead doing this, but using the Tascam means no latency worries, and far less chance of something crashing and destroying my work. We had some latency issues when recording the Live tracks, and when I was manipulating clips and samples I got the feeling that the timing was still just ever-so-much off.

Some observations on my Live re-mix experiment:

Working in a group as we did means you end up with this or that musical part that you would never have picked yourself, and may not even like. That’s certainly the case for me, but I was very interested in seeing what I could do with the tracks that would make me reasonably happy while trying to stay true to the source.

Please note that I’m not suggesting that what anyone did was bad, just that, in varying degrees, it was not my personal taste. In fact everyone there showed themselves quite skilled and pretty astute about music, albeit within different realms and genres. The range of knowledge and experience was great.

I was able to get a main section arranged that I liked, and was listening to it in a loop, over and over. And I was pretty much happy, could possibly have called it a day right there.

A lot of the music I like doesn’t change in the usual ABABCCAB song format. Often it’s a lot of AAAAAAAA or maybe AAAABBBBBCCCCC.

But even most those pieces have some sense of movement. Much as I liked my loop I had a feeling that I was hearing it through a cognitive filter: My mind, to some degree, was superimposing all sorts of what-ifs and additional context and possibilities, things no one else would bring to it.

Often a guitar riff or a bass pattern will pop into my head while I’m doing stuff around the house, and I try to record it in some way. I typically grab the bass or Strat, usually without any amp, and use a recorder app on my phone to capture the tinny buzzy sound of the guitar, then save it off to Dropbox.

Most of the time, at the time of recording, I’m convinced my riff is the most awesome epic catchy phrase ever. Then, some time later, when I listen to it again, I wonder what in the world I was thinking.

I suspect what happens is that when I hear music in my head there’s aways some actual or implied backing or rhythm music, and this of course never gets recorded when I’m saving off a quick recording.

It’s not the sound quality of the recording that fails me, or that I can’t figure out how to play it again on an instrument, it’s that the riff plus the context is what worked so well in my head; the riff alone is often too weak.

So I left that main section loop alone for a bit, and it sort danced around in my head, and that’s when some ideas for a change came in, as well as some thoughts on changing the mix of the main part. The nice thing in this case is that these ideas were playing off backing tracks that already existed.

I’m actually happier with the second part of my piece than the first. I like the slightly off-kilter aspect of it. Of course, there’s no way I would have come up with it had I not been working with a fixed set of source material not entirely within my usual preferences; I wouldn’t have that second part without having done the first.

I now want to add something of a lead melody line, where “melody line” means something glitchy and angular.

On “Chopped” the judges complain when they feel a dish is not cohesive, when they think they’ve been served a plate of three or four pleasant, but otherwise unrelated, items. I don’t actually *cook * (though I bake kick-ass bread), but the discussions about composing a dish and making disparate flavors all come together is surprisingly useful.

What I think I need to add is some sort of high-level motif that pulls the piece together, or do something in the main part that in some way foreshadows the break so they feel more connected.

It’s tricky.

Another option is to break ranks and create a new main part, based off the break section, and likely end up with something that pulls away from the original group project, but feels more cohesive and right to me.