Making "ambient" music on my MacBook? (Or, what's new in computer music toys since 1993?)
August 2, 2010 4:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious about making "ambient" music (in the Brian Eno sense of the word, not the slow, druggy IDM sense) on a recent-ish Macintosh, without dropping a lot of money on software or hardware. The catch: I haven't payed the slightest bit of attention to computer music technology since the early 90s. Musicians of MeFi, bring me up to date! What do I need to know / use / hear / read / try?

"Ambient" is probably horribly vague. What I mean is: I'm less interested in beats, loops or vocals, and more interested in playing around with timbre and texture. I like unpredictability and found sounds and distortion. I do like melody and harmony and "beautiful" music too, but I definitely don't want to be tied to a set of chord changes or a steady eighth-note pulse or even necessarily a discrete-notes-on-a-staff way of thinking about sound.

Back in the day, I got horribly frustrated trying to get noises that I liked out of the MIDI sequencer-and-keyboard-synth setup I had, but surely there's a better way to do it — right?

(Sadly, the keyboard has long since kicked the bucket. And since this is just a hobby, something I'm tinkering with, I can't afford new hardware — so I'm down to working on my MacBook. But I gather that that's something that ordinary music nerds DO nowadays....)

Anyway: what would you recommend?
posted by nebulawindphone to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I would recommend purchasing a midi controller. A midi controller is just a keyboard that can interface with midi operated programs. A lot of controllers come with programs like ableton live lite, and if you can master the learning curve (a curve I admit I have gotten frustrated with many times) you will find that these programs come with a lot of cool preloaded ambient synthesizer sounds that can be manipulated in real time. A cheap, starter midi controller can cost as low as $99. I would expect to spend somewhere in the area of $150-200.

I have been using an m-audio midi keyboard for years and I myself have made some spacey babbling sounds. If you know any musicians, it helps to have them walk you through some midi interface concepts when starting out, because it can feel a little weird to people who haven't used it in the past.

Have fun!
posted by orville sash at 4:44 PM on August 2, 2010

I should mention that if you have a midi capable keyboard sitting around the house, you might not need the hardware and you can go straight to the software.
posted by orville sash at 4:46 PM on August 2, 2010

Hmm. I'm not sure if that's what I'm looking for. I don't care at all about being able to perform live — in fact, I'd rather avoid it — and anyway my keyboard skills are very rusty anymore.

I guess I'm approaching this more like a composer and less like a musician, if that makes any sense.

So I'm curious: would you still recommend the keyboard controller, given all that?

FWIW: I do have experience using MIDI — it was what I tried to use for this stuff the last time I played around with it — but I no longer have a working MIDI capable keyboard.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:57 PM on August 2, 2010

Thinking about it more, too, I'm having trouble imagining how to do what I have in mind using a keyboard. Like, I know how I'd use one to make a super-echo-ey Tangerine-Dream-sounding psychedelic lead synth solo, even if I don't have the piano technique to do it well. But I just don't know how I'd use one to sound like Eno or Terry Riley or Alvin Lucier or whoever.

So maybe this is a failure of imagination on my part, and I just need a pointer towards the right sort of techniques or the right ways of thinking about a keyboard or whatever. I'm totally open to that possibility.

Okay, I'll quit quibbling now and listen to what y'all have to say.

posted by nebulawindphone at 5:14 PM on August 2, 2010

Everyone that I know that makes this sort of music (and I know quite a few) uses Ableton Live. The vst plugins allow you to create a lot of great stuff. It's a little above your price range, but there is a free trial to see if it's worth it for you.
posted by milarepa at 5:16 PM on August 2, 2010

Ableton is the best DAW out there today. As techniques go, the fundamentals have not changed since the 90's, but there are some new techniques made possible by advances in processing power, e.g.o granular synthesis.

If you want more freedom to experiment with synthesis techniques and aren't afraid of the learning curve, Supercollider might be of interest. You'll have incredibly freedom, but it will take much longer to do anything, and it isn't intended to do what a DAW does.
posted by phrontist at 5:52 PM on August 2, 2010

Other audio-centric programming languages are ChuCK and CSound.
posted by phrontist at 5:54 PM on August 2, 2010

I understand your hesitance at using the keyboard, but part of Ableton is the ability to sequence in midi, effectively "composing" rather than playing. Once the sounds are sequenced you can then use the program to automate effects and changes that will give you your desired ambience. I say all of this as a fairly elementary keyboard player.
posted by orville sash at 6:04 PM on August 2, 2010

Here's what you're looking for: Metasynth. There's nothing like it, and it will help you create what your mind is imagining. It's all about making sound from visual information, and while it incorporates concepts familiar to anyone who has used more traditional composition and synthesis tools, it takes an entire different approach to sound design and sequencing. Check it out, you'll be amazed.
posted by dbiedny at 6:27 PM on August 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

But I just don't know how I'd use one to sound like Eno or Terry Riley or Alvin Lucier or whoever.

Well then, let's go back to basics. I'll tell you about a nice way I make ambient music, like you're looking for, the software I use, and the structure of that software. My answer isn't going to be Mac-specific, but I'm sure there are Mac equivalents to these things.

Modular Synthesis.

Some programs (Audiomulch, for example - I've just checked and it is available for Mac) allow you to connect virtual "machines" together, like you might have connected keyboards to synthesizers to effect pedals to mixers with cables back in the day. So I might start my composition off with a two sounds; a "loop player" that plays some drone I've recorded, and a MIDI keyboard input running into a synthesizer, a VST plugin that's set to make a rich pad sound. I then run these two sound together through a ring modulator, so that the drone modulates the sound of the synth, then split the output of the ring mod into two; one runs through a delay effect (another VST plugin), and one runs through a granular filter (another VST plugin). The granular filter breaks the sound going into it into fragments, each half a second long, applies different random filters to these fragments, then puts them all back together. I then run the delayed output, the granulated output, and the original keyboard synth output into a "mixer" machine.

Got that? Here's a diagram, and the software would, in reality, look very similar.

And then I hit a chord on my keyboard, and a fantastic, jittery, weird, ambient sound comes out.

Instead of using the live keyboard as input, though, I could use a "sequencer" plugin in the software, so I could just set up all the notes being sent to the "synthesizer" in advance, and then hit play. Or, I could record the notes I play on the keyboard into the sequencer, if I want to compose that way.

And each of those modules has controls associated with it - you can open up the "Delay" and change the delay length, decay, filtering etc. You can open up the "VST Synth" and customize the synth sound. The "Mixer" would consist of a range of virtual knobs or sliders to mix the input.

And each of those controls can, in turn, be automated! You could select, say, the low-pass-filter for the VST Synth module, and tell it to slowly move from 5000hz to 500hz over the course of a minute, then move back up again. You could select the delay length in the delay module and tell it to oscillate up and down at a frequency of 0.2hz. Composition in this environment is more than just putting down notes, it's about shaping sounds.

And these programs tend to support live audio input, as well. Instead of modulating the synth using a pre-prepared loop, I could instead use the Line input from my sound card, and plug my guitar in. There is a blurred line between live performance and composition.

People in these threads always jump in and shout out the names of extremely expensive, full-featured software (like Ableton). You don't necessarily need to start there, especially if you're not sure what you're doing.
posted by Jimbob at 6:51 PM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's worth noting about Ableton Live that the demo has all the features and never expires. The only catch is that you can't save any of your work, but in my opinion it's still pretty useful as far as fiddling around and learning the interface goes. I usually only end up using it for DJ sets so I've never actually bought the thing, though I should probably give in now that I have a keyboard with MIDI out on it.
posted by jackflaps at 7:33 PM on August 2, 2010

Do you live in an area with a community of musicians? Can you become acquainted with someone more experienced than you in computer music production? Do you have an avenue for sharing your creations and soliciting feedback? What are your ambitions for the works that you finish?

You say that you're hesitant to get a midi controller keyboard. I would describe myself similarly: a composer/producer, not a performing musician/instrumentalist. But if you want to input musical information into your computer, a midi keyboard is still an excellent way to do this. The fact that it looks like a piano is really irrelevant. It's an input device for a different kind of information than your QWERTY (or insert your favorite keyboard layout here) keyboard.

You don't need to get it right on the first take, and even if you just record one take, you can tweak the resulting midi data endlessly. You can quantize (move events to conform to the time grid), change an individual pitch within a chord, change the key, change the velocity, change the duration, and so on.
posted by germdisco at 10:05 PM on August 2, 2010

You might also want to check out Numerology, an ultimate software expression of step sequencing like no one has ever attempted before (well, not quite), supporting any and all Audio Units plugins, and all sorts of extensive cross-modulation possibilities perfectly suited to cooking up seriously bizarre - and dynamic - sonic textures. I really enjoy using it with some juicy AU plugs, like Augustus Loop (essentially Frippertronics on steroids), More Feedback Machine, Automaton, Replicant, Soundmagic Spectral, and the LFX-1310.

And, if you're feeling adventurous, there's always M.
posted by dbiedny at 11:00 PM on August 2, 2010

seconding the suggestion of an also lpk25, it's cheap and decent and probably all you need to just trigger and experiment with melodies.

i'm an ableton evangelist and although ableton could be used to do what you're asking about it's certainly true that it's beyond a lot of budgets. I think you should take the advice of the person who suggested audiomulch - it's a totally different take on the whole thing and by the sounds of what you're wanting to make musically, altogether more appropriate.
posted by 6am at 12:40 AM on August 3, 2010

Unfortunately, you will likely have to spend a little to make some sound, but thankfully demo versions are available for practically all the music apps out there.

And, if you're feeling adventurous, there's always M.

I used M for this piece. It's an expressive composition tool, but you still need a synthesizer to turn its sequences into sound. I think I used Tassman for that track, which isn't free.

Numerology is loads of fun, a very programmable and fluid MIDI sequencer if you like messing with patterns in real time.

If you have interesting MIDI signal going into a synthesizer, you can use just about any synth to make fun sounds. Nonetheless, I love pads and pad-centered synths because they work well for ambient music. Native Instruments distributes Absynth, which is excellent for this purpose. The various synthesis components hook up to MIDI signal, so you can build a lot of surprising variation quickly.

IMO, if you're going to spend money, the key is to build around a solid tool like Ableton Live, which supports Audio Units- and VST-format instruments and effects and has easy MIDI input and output routing. You can then plug in other software and hardware.

The full Ableton Live is a bit pricy, but there is a light version that still has a decent set of features. I have used Live for its signal routing and feedback capabilities, as well as its ability to chop up a sample into discrete parts for playback. You can quickly edit and reverse chunks of sound as you play a piece. I highly recommend trying out the demo.

If you get into the programming aspect of making music, look into Cycling74's Max/MSP, which has a graphical programming interface. You string together widgets of various functionality to handle input, sound synthesis and output. It can act as a sequencer although most use it for synthesis, taking sequence data from other sources. Very expensive, even more so with the video component Jitter, so start with the demo.

Above all else, there's no substitute for getting your hands dirty and just playing around. It's probably among the best and most fun ways of learning the tools.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:34 AM on August 3, 2010

You might want to look into Pure Data. its essentially the open source version of Max/MSP. It was written by Miller Puckette who originally wrote MAX (and the MSP part is apparently derived, in part form his work on Pure Data) and is functionally very similar as well as inter operable to a certain extent, though not as plug and play on the interface side, and it is becoming increasingly popular for audio work. Don't be put off by having to program, it is based around visual metaphors and its easy to get good sounds out of it without too much work.
posted by tallus at 11:40 AM on August 3, 2010

I'd suggest you start by downloading the free version of Native Instrument's Kore, and exploring it with GarageBand, using it's Musical Typing interfacing that let's you use your Macbook keyboard to input notes. Kore's a fairly hefty and varied collection of instruments and effects that'll give you a good overview of the kinds of sounds modern software instruments and FX are set up to make out of the box, and GarageBand is a perfectly useable device for creating, recording and mixing up any audio tracks you come up with playing with Kore's many options. Just ignore/strip-away all the tools for traditional and pop song-making.

There's a lot of other free Audio Unit instrument and processing plug-ins that you can google up and run inside GarageBand, and a ton more with free demos you can use in the same way.

It might be worth it to invest in a way to record your system audio, which would let you capture the output of any demo software that runs on its own, along with anything else you can find playing on the net. I use WireTap, which has a fairly functional editor built in, but there are plenty of other options and no doubt even free ways to do this.

Audacity is said to be a good free audio editor, for trimming and tweaking your captures; I don't think GarageBand has an editor built in…?

Once you're ready to invest (and give in to the overwhelm), along with or maybe even in place of, a big-box, do-it-all DAW option like Ableton or Logic, I'll enthusiastically second dbeidny's suggestion of MetaSynth. It pretty much plays all by itself (i.e., it doesn't run plugins or act as one) but it's much less oriented around traditional music structures than, say, Ableton, and wonderfully optimized for "playing around with timbre and texture" in all sorts of strange and flexible (and unique) ways. It's a bit like a private language, requiring deep study of concepts and interfaces that don't easily export to other tools to really enjoy, but there's a very friendly user community and easy access to the developers.

I'll also throw in a plug for my all-time-favorite/best-bang-for-buck big-box, big-price package: Native instruments Reaktor. It's like an Erector set for building almost anything you can imagine in the way of computer audio devices, so it's deep and potentially off-putting (or hugely rewarding) when viewed as a tool kit, but of course it comes with a huge and powerful collection of already-built tools, all of which will run standalone or inside a host like GarageBand or Live/Logic/etc. What distinguishes it in my book is the large, long-running and active user community that both shares knowledge/support freely and builds/shares cool free stuff for it at a frenetic clip, allowing you to download new and often marvelous new Reaktor-only tools virtually every day. To say that it's an endless and self-renewing treasure box is really putting it mildly. You scarcely even have to learn it for it to keep surprising you.
posted by dpcoffin at 11:54 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jimbob's modular environment is a nice example of how computer music these days is often about all the flexible ways you can virtually hook up your bazillion output, input and processing toys, and AudioMulch looks like a cool workbench for that; Reaktor and MAX/MSP are similarly modular, and even DAWs these days are pretty capable in the routing department.

Plogue Bidule is another modular environment that works with plugins, and it's cheaper than any of those mentioned; worth a look once you start accumulating a few plugins to patch together.
posted by dpcoffin at 8:17 PM on August 3, 2010

I certainly agree that Komplete 7 at $500 or so would be a very wise purchase compared to just Reaktor at $400, assuming you can afford it. But as to which component will get the most use in any individual's studio, who can possibly say?

FWIW, my experience with Reaktor is precisely the opposite of b1tr0t's. Much as I love Absynth and FM8, and as little time as I've ever spent building new stuff in Reaktor, its instant modularity, i.e., the ease with which I can patch together any cool new sequencers, randomizers and/or modulators with any of my many beloved Reaktor synths (all of which are simplicity itself compared to any of the dozens of single-item synths I've ever purchased), not to mention the dozens of wonderfully unique effects I've spent months enjoying with guitar input, has provided me with far more useable material than I ever got from all the other Komplete instruments put together. And with the User library at my fingertips, virtually every session I have with Reaktor also involves the pleasure of exploring new tools. So what's that prove? To me, only that different tools suit different folks, and that it pays to check out as many different tools as you can.
posted by dpcoffin at 12:58 AM on August 4, 2010

Just spotted the "what should I read?" part of this question. Here's some main-stream starting points on the web:

Create Digital Music blog
The Native Instruments Specific version of that blog
Virtual Instruments Mag
Sound on Sound Mag (best overall reviews, tutorials, has an online version)
KVR: Virtual Instruments (for product releases)
GearWire (better product releases) (releases and downloads) (Makers of M and Max, usually something worth reading there…)

Tip of iceberg…
posted by dpcoffin at 2:04 PM on August 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

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