Electronic music production tools?
March 20, 2005 12:08 AM   Subscribe

ClickCutCrunchFilter. I'm an amateur musician who wants to start producing electronic music on my PC.

I'm into glitchy, crunchy, clicky, organic-sounding electronic music -- think Mouse on Mars, Autechre, Sasha, Apparat, Dntel, Ellen Allien, etc., the type of grungy yet warm industrial-influenced electronica that's coming out of Europe these days. I'm not at all interested in the classic clean Casio synth sound. If anything I want to mess with and warp the sound like so much crepe paper.

I suspect that the choice of VSTi-based synthesizers is less important than the various effects processors and filters and doodads and gizmos and machines that go ping that I can use to sculpt the sound. Do these artists use tools specifically designed to mash up and clickify their stuff? In stage performances these tools seem to be available in small mysterious boxes with knobs and dials -- are there equivalent software boxes available?

I'm also interested in learning about which general-purpose production apps I should invest in. Reason, Cubase and Cakewalk seems to be the leading ones, but I'm not sure which would give me the most flexibility given the above.

Reason looks cool, but I feel I might not be in the target demographic: to me, emulating the look and feel (including rack cables!) of real-world instruments is a step backwards, since a software program could produce a much better user interface; for example, the drum machine that comes with Reason has a fixed number of beat slots, just like the real thing.
posted by gentle to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Speaking very generally, the magic knob boxes that glitch artists use live don't actually mash up and clickify sound, they just control software that does.

If you're interested in software that doesn't emulate hardware limitations, I suggest Ableton Live and Tracktion. Cubase and Cakewalk are fantastic, but if you've never used them before they can be very counter-intuitive. Also, they're both based on hardware metaphors to some degree. (Tracktion's the most full-featured app that doesn't rely on hardware metaphor at all.)

I know a couple artists working in click/glitch/etc, and they all have different ways of getting their sound. Some of them painstakingly compose every click and pop in a giant Fruity file, and others use the 'random' button in Reason. What I suggest is to download/borrow/etc as many VSTs and VSTis as your hard drive will allow, and spend a week or four playing around with them in different host applications to learn what kind of composition seems right for you. Then you can focus on the applications/effects that'll give you the sound you're looking for.

Also, learn how to use Native Instruments Reaktor.
posted by Jairus at 12:52 AM on March 20, 2005

Cool Edit Pro. Get ready to crepe it up, gentle.
posted by melissa may at 12:52 AM on March 20, 2005

Best answer: Ableton Live. Cubase. Reaktor.

There's a lot of stuff that's "hand" edited stuff in IDM and clickcore, where waveforms and whatnot are being directly transformed, transposed, or displaced and sliced in a wave editor like Steinberg Wavelab, or ProTools. Some of it is multitracked. Some of it is edited after all the tracks have been laid down and composited into a single stereo pair track. I've done pro-quality remixes and mashups and cutups of single stereo pair stuff in nothing more than Microsoft's built in wave recorder/editor.

I've mentioned this in another techno/eletronic/IDM creation AskMe thread somewhere, but a lot of uber-IDM folks like Max/MSP, but it's above and beyond most audio-specific programs. It's a whole multimedia toolkit to make more and more tools with.

However it is probably more like an esoteric, high level, graphical programming language than an immediately obvious music tool or sequencer. There's apparently a pretty steep learning curve for it as well. (I haven't personally used it, but I've seen it in action and have sat in on some tutorials)

Video DJs and other computer-based visual artists like it a lot as well.

But if Reason seems like "a step backward" in it's hardware-centric emulation, it might be just the ticket. (I agree, frankly. I find most of the "hardware look/feel" wares like Reason, Fruityloops and numerous others to be rather cumbersome most of the time, especially when it comes to finite beatgrids and patterns)

Also check out some of Cycling '74s products.

What you're seeing on stage as far as small boxes with twiddly knobs are concerned, they could just be shell MIDI devices slaved to the computer and software, or they could be stand-alone MIDI devices that are producing their own sounds and effects in time with a master clock signal from the computer or other master device. Or they could be MIDI or non-MIDI devices purely for realtime filtering the output from the computer. (You can do a lot with a guitar fuzzbox/distortion and a delay/loop/feedback/echoplex pedal.) They could even be ghost boxes just there to look cool while a less than honest composer just lets a pre-tracked laptop set run, but I see that kind of assgrabbery less and less these days.
posted by loquacious at 2:24 AM on March 20, 2005

(dntel is american)
posted by advil at 2:29 AM on March 20, 2005

A good tool to have a look at is AudioMulch which isn't a plug-in for any of the sequencers previously mentioned, but will enable you to really mess up audio.

I second the recommendation earlier of Reaktor, which, if you put the effort in, will reward you will hitherto unheard of noises, blips, glitches and whatnot. It is a plug-in, and will run neatly in something like Ableton Live, which is ideal for this kind of stuff, where you can effectively mix and remix you music in real time, choosing what sections to play when and interactively dropping sections in and out of the mix.
posted by benzo8 at 2:57 AM on March 20, 2005

Best answer: Don't underestimate Reason's interface. The cables aren't a gimmick: real-time patching is an absolute godsend.

As for redrum having a fixed number of notes, you can change the number of notes available within redrum itself if you want to sequence a drum pattern that way, or you can sequence individual drum instruments with much better granularity via the reason sequencer. You can also write drum patterns within redrum then transfer them to the sequencer and tweak them out, which is damn handy.

Honestly, reason mixed with cubase / logic / nuendo / whatever midi sequencer you prefer via rewire is just about the best setup you could possibly want.

And as further proof of what Reason is capable of, Liam Howlett just wrote the latest Prodigy album using it :)

In the form of other software, I fully recommend you get your hands on a copy of absynth. The sounds you can push out of it will blow your fucking mind, just like the price tag will.

Oh, and it's probably best to avoid fruityloops, or at least paying for it; it's pretty good fun and all but it's really just a bubblegum sequencer with a few gimmicks, and the sound quality can sometimes be quite iffy.
posted by Savvas at 6:18 AM on March 20, 2005

I third the suggestion for Reaktor-- just make sure you have a week or two with absolutely nothign else to do. That program is addictive.

Hint for Reason: yes, the drum machine only has 16 inputs, corresponding to 16th notes. The easy way around that is to use a Matrix pattern sequencer for each channel in the ReDrum machine, which allows for a much greater flexibility. Or just use MIDI data, a MIDI input device to trigger the samples, or draw it in the sequencer pane.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:19 AM on March 20, 2005

Doh, should have read the preview.

Savvas, the sound quality with Floops is an issue, generally, only when using the prepackaged samples and VSTi's. You call Floops bubblegum, I like the transparency of the interface, and the automatability (is that a word?) of every single parameter you can think of, in a simple and easy way.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:22 AM on March 20, 2005

buzz is a free tracker-like program that has a lot of abilities, once you get past the clunky interface ... it also can load some vst instruments ... it's a little dated and it's not the best, but it costs nothing to use
posted by pyramid termite at 6:42 AM on March 20, 2005

Best answer: Be sure to mine the depths of this Autechre interview to get info straight from the source.
posted by jeremias at 8:09 AM on March 20, 2005

Oh, and it's probably best to avoid fruityloops, or at least paying for it; it's pretty good fun and all but it's really just a bubblegum sequencer with a few gimmicks, and the sound quality can sometimes be quite iffy.

Absolutely wrong, wrong, wrong.
posted by dydecker at 1:04 PM on March 20, 2005

And as further proof of what Reason is capable of, Liam Howlett just wrote the latest Prodigy album using it :)

and as further proof of what fruityloops is capable of, Mike Oldfield uses it :-p
posted by EvilKenji at 2:03 PM on March 20, 2005

Great thread. Everyone's talking about the software, but how do I learn to actually use it? I feel like a dummy, but I'd sure love to read a guide like "here's how to make the track Foil from Amber by Autechre".
posted by Nelson at 6:50 PM on March 20, 2005

I know this isn’t answering your question, but as far as FL being "bubblegum," check out 9th Wonder (of Little Brother fame) for some quality organic hip hop ish.
I am also very intrigued by the glitchy, crunchy, or specifically the dusty-but-digital sound. From my experience and research, I don’t think there is a holy grail as to its creation. I believe it depends on how much time you spend exploring different ways of working, i.e. methodology, software, sound sources, etc. and clear idea of what you are trying to produce. I lack most of these things, thus I can say I’ve never come close to being happy with anything I’ve created.
posted by aceyim at 7:59 PM on March 20, 2005

Response by poster: Wonderful answers so far!

That Autechre article was a great read. Now I finally know how their name is supposed to be pronounced. I thought Max/MSP was all about building graphs, but apparently it's more than that.

Max in particularly looks interesting to me, because, as a programmer, it looks similar to the process of writing code. I have in fact wondered whether there was a text-based sequencing/processing tool out there, to do algorithmic/generative audio production -- a purely text-based one would probably be too icky to deal with, but some combination, perhaps, with plenty of Eclipse-style refactoring support and graphical views.

Reaktor looks cool. As free tools, Buzz and AudioMulch look interesting, can't wait to try them out. I will check out the other recommendations right away.

I agree with Nelson, though; these tools often have a steep learning curve that tries one's patience. There are lots of books and tutorials and what not out there. For example, there's this tutorial section. And here is a CD-based Reason tutorial.

(I know Dntel is American. But I didn't say he wasn't.)

(Oh, and Telefon Tel Aviv are great, too.)
posted by gentle at 9:27 PM on March 20, 2005

I forgot to add that I've known people who swear by Audiomulch. The results (and flexibility) are impressive especially given it's free.
posted by aceyim at 6:36 AM on March 21, 2005

four tet's keiran hebden swears by audiomulch

he also goes into some of his production process in that interview. i think i've linked this interview in ASKME before. also, thanks for the autechre interview, theres some good stuff on sound on sound
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 7:30 AM on March 21, 2005

The truth of the matter is that (in my opinion) there aren't really any "general-purpose" programs - Use what you're comfortable with - Pick a program that looks like it probably does what you want it to do and go with it - learn it as well as you can (by using it a lot). There are only two bits of software that I use with any regularity: Sonic Foundry's Soundforge (for straight up audio editing) and Emagic's Logic Audio (v5.1) - I don't do terribly complicated things with my multitracking (though I make pretty strange music) so the much out-of-date Logic works perfectly for me and I know it well because it's a multitracker/sequencer that I latched onto early on. To make nifty/cool/strange sounds I'll use anything I can get my hands on - Often I'll use audiomulch or PD (PD has grown into a very good alternative to MAX/MSP - and it's FREE). The most valuable things I've got in my studio though, are microphones and a good mixer and soundcard.
posted by soplerfo at 3:07 PM on March 21, 2005

As more alternatives, I also happened to run across this list on Del.icio.us this morning. Making Music: A big list of FREE music making software!
posted by jefeweiss at 7:57 AM on January 25, 2006

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