Synthesizing in Ableton Live: Envelope Generators

My first pass at working with Ableton as a modular synth was to explore “dummy” clips. These are tracks that contain an audio clip with the actual content muted. The clip is then transformed into a container for audio effects automation that can be applied to any audio routed through whatever audio track the clip is in. The clip becomes an Envelope template that can be pulled into other projects.

Ableton Live allows the sound designer to see and manipulate many parameters within each individual clip. This is most amazing, and something I have not paid enough attention to. Here is a picture of the clip console from the Ableton Manual:

For Audio Animation Clips, the focus is on the Sample box and the Envelopes box. The slider in the sample box is used to mute the audio by simply turning it completely down. Now the clip is ready to be shaped into an envelope. (That is how Audio Animation Clips will function in my Abeju Synth Station – as Envelope Generators (AAC/EG). The two drop down windows in the Envelope box give the sound designer access to all the effects and mix processing available on the track for this clip only. So whatever I draw onto the audio clip itself only happens when that particular clip is playing. In the case of AAC/EG, the clip will play the animation of the envelope and the envelope will be applied to any audio routed through the track.

In order to create an AAC/EG, we need an audio track and an audio clip. The length of the clip doesn’t seem to matter cause it loops. (Currently, I am sticking with 8-12-24 bars and I hear potential for longer clips with more complex movement in the automation in the future). Use the volume slider to mute the audio within the clip. (Addendum: Experience has taught me that the original audio in the clip should be low volume. I am going to start experimenting with creating audio specifically for these clips.) Then assemble a rack of audio effects you want to use to shape sound and insert them on the track. In the orginal audio clip, use the drop down box in the clip to access each effect, and turn them all to Device Off by moving the red line in the clip box to the off position. Now you have an open audio sleeve with no effects enabled. When source audio is routed through this clip, the audio will sound as is, with no effects present. Next, duplicate the clip. This will be the first AAC/EG. Go to the drop down box and turn on the devices you want to use. The top box takes you to the main effect, and the second will bring up every adjustable parameter within the effect. When you identify a parameter that you want to change, go to the red line in the audio clip window (on the right above) and draw in the animation you want.

Once I finally understood all this, I began to design AAC/EG Modules. Each module is a track with 2 to 4 different envelope template clips. Each instance of the clip can be shaped by adjusting the automation (I am calling animation) of the effects that are on the track. One technique I like is layering three effects over three clips. The track contains three effects (a delay, an EQ and a reverb), so the first clip has one effect on, the second has two, the third has three. Initially, I tried linking several modules (tracks containing the clips) together but found this too cumbersome. The option to layer modules is in the routing in each particular set.

To use the modules, insert another audio track that will hold the samples you are using. I label this track Source. Now there are several routing options, but the main idea is that the AAC/EG modules need sound coursing through them in order to perform. On the In/Out tab on the track, audio can be routed from someplace and routed to some place. The best mixing option so far is to have the AAC/EG modules receive audio from source and then everybody sends audio to the Master Volume. This allows the faders to act as dry/wet attenuators. The Source can be heard as is or through the AAC/EG Modules and Clip Templates.

So far, I have created four modules. Combed, Mangled, Stutter Delay and Harmonics Flinger. [Post Publication Addendum: More modules are added to above and all are being fined tuned. Our April 14th SITES event was rained out (rescheduled for May 19th) so the debut of Abeju Synth Station will be tonight as part of Electronic Appetizers program at Arcana. I am playing a piece called Perimeter Centre, which will feature the Ripplemaker semi-modular ios synth as my sound source for the Abeju Synth Station. Come listen!

The Sourdough Project

A major soundscape creation for 2019 is to sonify data for the Sourdough Project. The Rob Dunn Lab at NCSU, the Ben Wolfe Lab at Tufts, and the Noah Fierer Lab at the University of Colorado are collaborating to further the study of microbiomes in sourdough starters. The Sourdough Project has gathered starters from many parts of the world in order to study the bacteria and yeast interactions that create the fermenting acids and leavening gases necessary for the creation of sourdough bread.

In October 2018, the Sourdough Project Team and two artists met at the As If Center in Bakersville NC. The As If Center (Art and science In the field) is the burgeoning vision of Nancy Lowe, who is keenly interested in exploring this fertile collaborative area.The other artist was Ferne Johannssen, freshly graduated from college, and off to see what life outside of Vermont has to offer. Ferne is a visual artist/printmaker. [Interestingly, Ferne made a print on a scoby (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) which grows and ferments in kombucha tea.] The purpose of our meeting was to seed an artistic and scientific direction for sharing the data from the Sourdough Project. All three labs were represented and we spent most of our time sharing information and structuring the research paper that will come from this study. Here is a description of the study from the Rob Dunn Lab website:

There are millions of kinds of bacteria and fungi on Earth. We have found several thousand species in human belly buttons alone. Yet if you mix flour and water, the community of organisms that colonize the resulting concoction is almost always composed of a small handful of organisms that are able to leaven bread, yielding a sourdough starter. How this happens is one of civilizations great mysteries, a mystery at the heart of the bread making (and, for that matter, traditional beer brewing). Yet, while bakers understand how to make starters, the underlying biology of the species in these starters remains mysterious. Starters can produce similar effects on bread (and similar flavors), despite being composed of different species, a key different ingredient. Conversely, starters composed of the same species sometimes yield different flavors. Then there is the issue of what happens to starters over time. The organisms in starters are hypothesized, by some, to stay the same over time—an old growth forest of miniatures—even if their living conditions change. Few ecosystems are so (apparently) stable. Then again, starters can change through time, sometimes suddenly. Starters are, if anything, predictably mysterious. But not for long. We aim to understand the biology underlying the differences among starters and the changes (or lack of change) in starters through time.

The last sentence of this description is what I honed in on. My current sense of how to render data as sound is that it would be most effective with data changes (or lack of) across a timeline. The other word that caught my eye is biology. What is biology? The science of living matter in all forms and phenomena, with special reference to origins, growth, structure, behavior and reproduction. The bases of biology are macromolecules (proteins, lipids, nucleic acids and carbohydrates), cells, and evolutionary changes creating phylogenic families across species. With sourdough starters, we are at the microbial layer of life. On the microbial level, diversity rules and it may have something to teach us. That is what I hope!

The Sourdough Project team had a conference call a few weeks ago, where we saw some of the data analysis of the samples, and received updates from each of the labs. Patterns are starting to emerge as the data is narrowed and focused into categorical relationships. This is the crossroads where it all comes together in the question: What do I want from this data? This most interesting question was posed our first night at As If Center, as we sat around an outdoor fire: what is your currency? what do you want from this project? I can’t remember ever having been asked that before.

The bakers who sent in samples want to know the microbiotic fingerprint of their particular starter. The scientists want to discover some new information about the ecologies of sourdough starters in general. The artists are interested in translation, transposition, representation of the discoveries found in the fingerprints. For myself, I am looking to identify a timeline and voice the bacteria-yeast exchange that is fermentation and leavening. Here is a diagram of a potential time frame:

Water + flour =

aab(acetic acid bacteria) ~ LAB (Lactic Acid Bacteria) ~ Yeasts

which give rise (the timeline but also a phase within the process)

to VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) aroma

To my ear this begins with the very lively interaction of the organisms that changes over time into a lighter, gaseous state. There is an alchemy that takes place and we are trying to hear and understand that.

Still looking at TRIC (Terry Riley’s In C) as a template for orchestrating interesting timbral relationships in this context. Pattern 35 is a possible frame for rise which seems to be the name of this piece. Pattern 35 jumps to a start with an eighth note run. This is the organism interaction phase. Then the mid section is where the rise happens with more space and elevation in tone. Then the aromatic texture is very open and light and unfinished.

What other sound elements might lend to this soundscape? There are likely real live sound samples to be had from this process. Another thought is what if each starter could have its own microbiome sounded out? To do this, I need to see more deeply into the data then I have to this date.

More to come…

*Photo from The Sourdough Project website

TRIC Question #2 – Is a “Minute ‘In C'” possible?!

So much of the harmonic content of TRIC is generated by the offset repetition of each pattern. In order to create a Minute ‘In C’ most of the patterns will only be voiced once so that particular content will be lost. As with all the TRIC Questions, I am intrigued to discover what new or similar content will emerge within this truncated structure. With 53 patterns, containing 16th to dotted whole notes, running 2 pulses to 64 pulses in length, a Minute ‘In C’ will take some careful sculpting of the pattern relationships.

An analysis of the text reveals that the piece is made up of a total of 529 eighth note pulses. TRIC contains four patterns that are identical to each other – 11/36, 10/41, 18/28 and 37/50. These identical patterns are 9 pulses, so taking away the superfluous 9 pulses, there are 520 pulses to fit into a minute for an rough average of 17 pulses every 2 seconds. This will be achieved by using multiple voices and starting off right away with more than one pattern sounding. (A future TRIC Question will explore how all 53 patterns in a row resound!)

I chose a half a dozen voices with mostly percussive attacks and interesting resonances. These voices allow the patterns to be more clearly articulated and have resounding presence – a necessity since many of them are only heard once! One of the voices is a drum kit which ended up being paired with brass stabs so as not to lose the pitch content of the patterns assigned to the drums. I enjoyed sculpting a pan dance (playing between the ears left to right) in a couple of places with the drum and brass voices.

Starting at the beginning, Patterns 1 and 2 come out of the gate as the next twenty patterns cascade over each other. The triplet waltz feel of “the twenties” moves through, then all the sixteenth note tumult of the patterns before and after Pattern 35. The minute wraps up with the end of Pattern 35 (the long one) and the C pulse bouncing around. Some of the shorter patterns did get repeated. I was able to hear every pattern after two or three times through. The lack of repetition seemed to bury the F#/Bb shifts in tone. They became passing tones, which diminished their impact.

This is a 3D soundscape so listen through headphones at a moderate amplitude. Pay close attention to the space in your head. Listen the same way you held your vision for the Magic Pictures of the early 1990s. Here is an example of a Magic Picture for you to see into. I was able to see the horse in this image on my Ipad screen and on my iPhone screen. The seer must relax, soften and expand their vision in order to see the 3D image embedded in the pattern.

Now do the same thing with your ears as you listen to a “Minute ‘In C'”

TRIC Question #1 for 2017

One of the dejacusse/iBoD projects for 2017 is TRIC Questions, a sonic hacking of Terry Riley’s In C or TRIC. TRIC is comprised of 53 rhythmic/melodic riffs based in Nature’s Scale and set against an 1/8th beat pulse. My first pass through this piece was in 2014, when In C turned 50 years old. My approach was more historic then, so I listened to different versions of the piece, read about the composition process and wrote about the initial performances in 1964. Musician friends presented a slice of In C in performance that year, but mostly I explored In C through the Ableton Live DAW using different voices and tempo variations. For more on this, read the blog: My Year In C –here: judessoundlings.wordpress.com

During that year, questions continually jumped out of the piece. As I became more familiar with the patterns, they each took on a unique and identifiable voice. Then one day, while looking at the score of TRIC, I saw that this is simply one way these patterns can be put together.

What if each of the 53 packets of tones stands on its own, AND in relation to any and all of the other packages?

Using the patterns of In C as little Lego blocks of sound and putting them together in different combinations has become my approach to “playing” In C.  I want to hear all the sonic possibilities within this musical universe-for what else can you call it? It is not a song, but it makes songs. It is not a symphony, although it has movement and motifs. In C questions all the assumptions we have about in tune and in time when making musical sounds in the world. When we loosen our grip on what we think things should sound like and give our attention to what we are hearing, and what is emerging from our articulations within that hearing – whole other worlds open up. Those are the worlds I want to continue exploring.

My first experiment with the long tones of TRIC was in November 2014. The question was how to use the long tone phrases to express tension and release. To hear the result of this experiment, go here http://wp.me/p4dp9b-bv. On listening again, I hear the C pulse frenetically undermining any possibility of release. One of the TRIC Questions I have answered is to drop the 1/8th note C pulse. Scoring the patterns precisely in Ableton Live creates a rhythmic underpinning for improvising musicians to play with/against, so the C pulse is unneccessary and unhelpful. Another reason to drop the pulse is that it is an integral part of playing TRIC, and I am no longer playing that particular iteration of these sound modules.

The eight long tone patterns  range in length from 6 pulses to 32 pulses. If all eight modules begin at the same time, there will be a sustained 6 pulse EF#GC [C(add#4)]chord. This could be achieved by triggering all the modules at once. Then, it would be interesting to peal away the patterns till only two remain. Which two patterns will be the final pair that plays this iteration out? One possibility is P30 and P21, which carries the tritone tension through to end. The other pair is P29 and P42, which creates the more consonant C major sound. Let’s try those two ideas. First, we end with P30 and P21. This sketch feels tense throughout. The denseness dissipates, but the tension stays high.

Next, we end with P29 and P42. Here the tritone tension is folded into a more harmonious blend by the end.

I have been so focused on the tritone carrying the tension, that I ignored the tension that half-tone, whole tone and minor third intervals inject into the scape. The final voices in the harmonious sketch create as soothing a combo as exists within this overlayering of fourths and minor seconds and thirds. So while it is soothing, there remains a sense of alertness within the release.

And, for my next trick, I set off that initial C (add#4) chord over and over, each time pealing away different layers to create a longer soundscape. Here is a 6 minute sound piece with five versions of pealing back to two patterns by the end. Each iteration ends with a different pair.

I love the feeling of fireworks exploding into that C (add#4) then the subtle changes that pealing back one part at a time makes to that chord. Then finally, there is a falling off of the expansiveness of the sound field and we are left with just two patterns rocking back and forth. Then – BAM – the C (add#4) explodes again. I love this!

The Acoustic Scale

So my adventures in harmonics continues with a foray into Dr. Michael Hewitt’s book, Musical Scales of the World. (This book is a wonderful resource. Carnatic Water Music is based on an Indian Carnatic scale from the book.) Hewitt includes scales from India, Thailand, Africa, Greece, and Eastern Europe in the eight chapters of the book. My favorite chapter is entitled Synthetic Scales and Modes, which is made up of invented and found scales.  In this chapter Hewitt discusses the Acoustic Scale, so named because it is based on the harmonic overtones that are present in the atmosphere of any room. (See post on Nature’s Chord at http://wp.me/p5yJTY-iH)        WoW! Just WoW.

So the Acoustic Scale is made up of the overtones from the first four octaves of the harmonic series. This scale mixes the raised fourth of the Lydian mode and the flatted seventh of the Mixolydian mode. According to Hewitt:

The acoustic scale is also sometimes called the Lydian dominant scale, due to the prominent dominant seventh chord on the first degree (C E G Bb). The presence of this chord can give Lydian dominant music a powerful sense of unresolved dominant tension. When persistently denied resolution, this tension can be harnessed to create a powerfully expressive force.

The scale is also referred to as Bartok’s scale as it was the basis for many of his compositions. The scale came into favor with contemporary classical music composers of the late 19th, early 20th Century as they moved away from the major/minor pallette of the Common Practice era. I am excited to see this scale identified. It is the scale of TRIC (Terry Riley’s In C). From here on, I will refer to this as Nature’s Scale, so as not to forget that this is a pattern of intervalic relationships that exists in the atmosphere and is imbedded in every sound we hear.

Nature’s Chord

The Law of the Octave is the first step in understanding how the frequencies of the Universe are vibrationally organized. The fact that any frequency, doubled or halved, is a re-expression of the original frequency suggests the beginning of some kind of fractal movement. We have a place to return to and begin again; a place that comes around again later. The next step in understanding how frequencies are organized involves adding the fundamental frequency to itself over and over again. This creates a beautiful and repetitive frequency pattern that expands The Law of the Octave into what is often referred to as Nature’s Chord.

Nature’s Chord is the same as the Harmonic Overtone series, which I have written about before. To get a really good idea how alchemical these tones are, you have to know their history. A long ago deep listener named Pythagoras was walking through town and heard the clanging hammers of metalsmiths. Then he really listened to the clanging and realized he was hearing high pitches when the small hammers were used and lower pitches when the large hammers were used. Then he tightened a string and noticed that dividing the string in particular ratio relationships created these beautiful harmonics.

image

With the string tightened to a particular tone when plucked – lets say an A (at 220 Hz), Pythagoras discovered that vibrating half the string gave an octave higher version of the same tone A (now at 440 Hz). When 2/3 of the string was vibrated the tone will be E, which is the fifth interval from A and vibrates at 660 Hz – 220+220+220. When the next 220 gets added, we are back at the octave. Simply amazing!

And on it goes, each iteration of the initial frequency, reveals another harmonic. After the A octave at 800 Hz comes the C# at 1100 Hz – this is a third above the fundamental tone. The Harmonic Overtone series has risen three octaves so far, and in that span has revealed the root chord structure for any music – the fundamental  frequency, the third and the fifth. So, in our example, the A Major chord has been revealed through the harmonics inherent in the note we call A: A C# E.

Another overtone that comes out in the third octave is the flatted seventh. So, along with the root chord, we also get a nod to the seventh and its place in the most beautiful chord structures. The fourth octave reveals most of the remaining diatonic tones from the second, to the raised fourth, to the natural seventh. All of the tones we know in our most familiar musics are laid out in the first four octaves of the Harmonic Overtone series. The number of overtones per octave doubles with each successive octave, so the next octave after the fourth octave would have 16 overtones and the next 32. At these levels the harmonics are so varied, close together, and difficult to hear that discrete pitches disappear into a percussive wash of sound.

The amazing relevance of this chord to everything you hear is difficult to comprehend on first pass. The Law of the Octave and Nature’s Chord are undeniably present and absolutely inscrutable – wherever there is atmosphere, Nature’s Chord exists in potential. It is a preset pattern that awaits a disturbance to set it in motion. The disturbance moves the atmosphere and Nature’s Chord presents this disturbance to our ears in a beautiful harmonic package. The harmonic framework springs forth from the primary tones of all the sounds you hear. Each sound is characterized by the amount of and the “mix” of harmonics. Nature’s Chord is easily heard in strings, pipes, the voice – anything that can support a standing wave vibration and thus maintain a pitch. The mix gets less melodic when the waves are less harmonic and more dense. It is Nature’s Chord that renders what is known as timbre. Timbre is the “color” of sound and as easily recognized as red, blue, green, a knock on the door, your lover’s voice.

Recently,  I was studying voices on a sonogram and saw the overtone series in each person’s speaking voice. Most everyone has a fundamental tone around which their vocal inflection patterns dance. Here is a photo of a voice in the key of F:


The bottom line is F, the next line up is the re-expressed octave F, the next line is C the fifth overtone for F, the next the octave again and so on. Look in the upper right corner and you can see the “pitch bin” for where the cursor is pointing: F  F  C  – Nature’s Chord made flesh!

All of this information has me wanting to explore the power of Nature’s Chord. Several contemporary classical music composers have used this chord as a theme for compositions. Terry Riley’s In C is composed of the prominent notes from the harmonic overtone series of the tone C. John Adam’s Sila the Breath of the World is built on the overtone series of Bb. Moondog, a NYC street composer, was fascinated with the overtone series and used it in his piece called Creation. Here is what he had to say about the overtone series in an interview:

How could you send a message that would never be destructible? Only in sound waves. Waves are indestructible. Wherever there’s a planet that has atmosphere, these overtones could be heard. Scientists are looking in telescopes and microscopes and they don’t realize that this is here, right here. The secret is all around us and nobody recognizes it.

 I am exploring tones and harmonics and octaves and fractals, oh my! Last year, I developed a piece for the Human Origami workshops based on the disruptive power of the 11th harmonic. I am expanding that piece and putting it into the iBoD repertoire. Invoking the Law of the Octave, the disruptive 11th Harmonic stirs the energy wherever a tone and its fifth are played. And the further apart they are, the closer you can get to that four octave span that produces the 11th harmonic, the more powerful the vibe!

So here is an early version of 11th Harmonic – the first in a series of works inspired by Nature’s Chord!

“TRIC Questions” 2017

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So I am launching a new project that is pulling together interesting ideas and questions from other projects (Folding/Unfolding, Separation and In-Between, iBoD).  This has been percolating for some time and just came clear in the last few weeks. In a recent Audio Origami post (http://wp.me/p5yJTY-eI) I wrote alot about Terry Riley’s In C, renamed it TRIC and began studying the patterns of TRIC as if they were notated samples to be used in producing soundscapes. Then I discovered I had written about this idea at the end of My Year In C. (See http://wp.me/p4dp9b-dl) That was two years ago, and now I have greater clairaudience as to how it will unfold.

Studying the patterns as individual packets of sound frees them from the linear progression of the TRIC musical score. Now the patterns can talk among themselves, shift their shapes and reveal other songs contained within. Varieties of harmonic configurations emerge that may never have been heard before. By this I mean – when musical groups play through the TRIC score, only certain patterns are heard in overlap when the musicians follow Terry Riley’s suggestion to stay within 2 or 3 patterns of each other during performance. What happens if patterns from disparate parts of In C overlap each other? What harmonics come forth from these mergers? What kinds of musical sequences emerge?  These are examples of TRIC Questions that will be explored in the coming months.

I am deconstructing/reconstructing/tweaking TRIC by allowing the patterns free-rein to not only interact, but shift their structure to accommodate the interactions. For me, TRIC is sonic DNA, some kind of cellular message, literally a vibratory tonic, offering a smorgasbord of rhythms and intonations to mix it up with. Using the TRIC patterns as samples creates alternate Universe versions of TRIC . Each of these pieces will be its own creation, while retaining the mark of the original.

For example:

I have long been fascinated with the long tone patterns in TRIC. With long tone patterns defined as containing mostly whole and half notes, Patterns 6,8,14,21,29,30,42,48 qualify for this category. These patterns slow the pace with notes of longer duration, and boost the harmonic content through the sustained and decaying harmonics of each note. The pattern tones fall from the C above Middle C, with the notes BAGFE sweeping down. Pattern 14 introduces the F#, which really shifts the tone. Two of the eight long tone patterns contain F#, and I argue with myself about just excluding them. But they are there for a reason! Here is one piece that came from this combination of patterns:


This work is so much about harmonics, and how they lead us to greater consonance and clearer dissonance in our moment to moment existence. This work is about inclusion, working out differences, creating balance with no words spoken. I believe that TRIC showers space with a loving vibration. Over 50 years ago,  Terry Riley received these audio legos and assembled them into a form. Now I want to spill all the legos on the table, play around with them, and listen for what other soundscapes emerge.*

*This is not an original idea. One of my favorite TRIC recordings is In C Remixed by Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble. I reviewed the CD here: http://wp.me/p4dp9b-2Q