One Last Workshop Before the Grocery Closes

SF Grocery

The Sonic Frontiers Workshop Series at The Grocery concludes this week. I will present an introduction to interactive electronic music including a live performance or two. Then workshop attendees will create a one-night-only audio installation in The Grocery gallery using the Cycling ’74 Max modular programming environment. The Grocery will be closing its doors at the end of the month, so this is one of the last chances to come experience an important hub for cultural life in the Tuscaloosa area.

Sonic Frontiers Workshop #6
Wednesday June 10 7pm
900 Main Avenue
Northport AL
Bring an instrument/noisemaker, or just come to listen. No previous experience is necessary. The Grocery gets hot in the summer, so dress appropriately.

Zicarelli Shout-Out for Post & Beam

David Zicarelli (the main man behind Max) just wrote about Post & Beam on his Cycling ’74 blog.

Holland Hopson’s Post and Beam was released last year, but I stupidly didn’t fall in love with it until recently. I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like it — beautifully performed original and traditional folk songs set against an electronic dreamworld. I can’t think of a recording that provides a more powerful study in contrasts — heartfelt and alienating most of all. Check it out and see if you don’t think the Maxified banjo is not the up-and-coming instrument of the decade!

Wind Whistling in Overhead Wires: Soundtrack Companion to The Observers

Wind Whistling in Overhead Wires is a collection of field recordings and outtakes from my work on Jacqueline Goss’s film The Observers.

This is a pay-what-you-wish (starting at free!), digital download release on Bandcamp. I made the field recordings during our two amazing shoots at the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire (see these previous posts). I processed some of the sounds using custom effects developed with Cycling 74’s Max software and added a few instruments in the studio. I chose my favorite sounds and sketches that didn’t make it into the final film and sequenced them to create a continuous 20-minute piece (though some of the tracks work well on their own, particularly Downslope Flow). Enjoy!

Science Fair Video

Cycling ’74 has posted a new video from the Science Fair they hosted as part of the recent Expo ’74 event in Brooklyn. I show off my extended banjo instrument (along with my unashamedly geeky enthusiasm). My segment runs from 2:16-3:13, but watch the whole thing and marvel at the wonderful, strange things people do with Max (and their own geeky enthusiasms). Other videos in the series can be found here.

And a big shout out to Eric Prust who built the fine fretless banjo (minus the electronics) in the video.

Studio Gets the Treatment – Part 2

This is the second of a two part post about my recent studio remodel and acoustic treatment. Read the first part here.

Once all the acoustic treatment was installed and the furniture was moved back in, I took another series of audio measurements. All my measurements are quasi-scientific, using materials I had on hand: a Max patch to generate test tones, a home-built omni mic, a spreadsheet. I only tested the frequency response for lower frequencies (20 Hz to approximately 350 Hz). I made no attempt to measure the reverberant response of the room (RT60). Given these limitations, the data nonetheless show a clear improvement in frequency response in the room.

Test Results

My goal was to flatten the frequency response of the room, knowing that a perfectly flat response isn’t practical given the dimensions of the room (or of my wallet). The chart above shows a range of approximately 50 dB in the untreated room, with the lowest reading of 51 dB at 122 Hz and the highest reading of 100 dB at 151 Hz. After the treatment was installed the range is approximately halved to 26 dB, from 67 dB at 62 Hz to to 93 dB at 148 Hz.

One unanticipated difference between the tests is the difference in low frequency readings. In the untreated room, my sound level meter registered nothing below 35 Hz. Once the room was treated, the meter picked up readings beginning at 31 Hz. This bass extension may be due to my ad hoc test equipment, but I seem to hear it.

Listening tests in the treated room were revelatory. Overall bass response is noticeably more even. Much more striking for me is how much the stereo imaging has improved in the treated room. The soundstage seems more defined and both wider and deeper. I’m shocked by how much improved even older stereo mixes sound in the treated room.

Listening to the Beatles “A Day in the Life” in the untreated room I felt like I heard the hard-panned mix just fine, despite some muddiness and boominess in the toms. In the treated room, the toms are clearer and more even, as expected, but even the hard-panned stereo image is more defined. Many tracks in the untreated room suffered from the “hole in the middle” syndrome, whereas in the treated room the sounds are more evenly distributed. I noted that Miles Davis’ “So What” seemed to have good imaging between the bass and trumpet in the untreated room. Listening to it with the acoustic treatment installed I can hear more than just the separation between the instruments–I can hear the sound of the room the instruments were recorded in.

Not Going Back

Remodeling my studio disrupted my work and schedule, but the results are well worth it. Even though it seems pedestrian to spend time and money on acoustic panels rather than boutique microphone preamps or the fashionable plugin du jour, I’ll continue to choose the former over the latter. I’ll never work in an untreated room again.

Max Multitrack Mojo

I’m in the middle of recording a number of my pieces for banjo and electronics for a forthcoming CD. (Stay tuned for more info!) All of the works involve live, interactive processing of the banjo sound and sometimes the voice as well. This processing is done in Max and is driven by analysis of both audio inputs and sensor inputs. All of this is geek speak to say that every time I perform the piece it sounds a little different, and sometimes markedly so. This can make recording the pieces tricky. Especially since most of the music we hear is assembled like a layer cake: each part recorded separately and then mixed together after the fact (with yummy frosting…). Not a workable option for my process.

Straight to “Tape”

My previous approach to recording followed a “live to 2 track” design. I would play the piece and capture the input sounds along with whatever sounds were generated by my Max patch. The results were certainly true to life, represented my live performances well, and usually sounded fine. Occasionally, though, I’d wish for more flexibility to tweak the sounds, particularly the vocal or banjo sounds since I don’t have the luxury of recording in the world’s greatest sounding room. So I looked into ways to expand the number of available tracks.

Multitrack Multitudes

I played around with Soundflower, Rewire and Jack in various combinations and sometimes got things working pretty well. But the setups never completely gelled for me–partly because I felt constrained by the number of available outputs on my aging MOTU interface, partly because I needed as much available CPU for running my patches and couldn’t spare enough to run my DAW at the same time. So I eventually went back to recording everything in Max using a very slightly modified version of the quickrecord utility. This turned out to be a great way to break out individual tracks for further EQing during the mixing stage. One drawback was having to split the multichannel file into individual stereo or mono files. (Audacity and ProTools both do this very well. If only AudioFinder would support multichannel files…) But mostly I still felt constrained by the limited number of outputs on my audio interface; I often resorted to creating submixes of individual elements in Max in order to cram all the sounds into the available channels. With 10 outputs available I’d use the first 2 for monitoring while recording, 3 or 4 for live mics, leaving only 4 or 5 for sounds generated by Max.

Aggregrate Device – Duh!

Just the other day I had a breakthrough realization: I could use a Soundflower aggregate device to address many more output channels than are physically available on my interface. Now I’ve got channels to spare. I’m kicking myself for not thinking of this sooner. The biggest drawback? Now I’ll be spending much more time in mixing mode. I wonder when I’ll ever get this CD finished…?

Live Gets an Edit Button from Max

Cycling ’74 and Ableton have provided a peek at Max for Live, the fruit of their partnership announced a few years ago. No specific release date or pricing information is available.

Cycling 74’s David Ziccarelli writes about the origin of the project and reasons for both Live and Max users to be interested. Read it here. My favorite quote:

Ultimately, it came down to this: my Cycling ’74 co-workers and I have come to believe the unique thing we have to offer the world is fundamentally about programming. In other words, we want to make edit buttons, and if we can put them in places where they have never existed before, all the better. It was clear to me that Ableton understood what it meant to have the Max environment work with their software. They weren’t just talking about more plug-ins.

Turns out that many of the new features in Max 5 were a result of Cycling’s collaboration with Ableton, such as the new timing system and presentation mode.

Check out the teaser video here.

I’m not a Live user but I have long admired the Live interface. So Max for Live may be just what I need to finally give it a try.

Max 5 First Impressions

Over the last few days I’ve begun to dig into Cycling 74’s Max 5. Here are my first impressions of the update. I haven’t yet performed with this version of the program or used it to run an installation, so I don’t have any information about stability or performance.

First the obvious change: the interface is bright and shiny–definitely not the clunky old Max look. I can’t say I’m immediately in love with it, but I do believe by the time I tweak the default settings a little I’ll be quite comfortable with the new look. I very much appreciate the options for changing the appearance of objects (even though some inspector windows are daunting when you first open them).

I love the usability features of Max 5:
• the search function
• the ability to double-click on a message in the Max window and be taken immediately to the part of the patch the message pertains to
• the keyboard shortcuts (damn, it’s so easy to get used to typing ‘n’ or ‘c’ or ‘m’ or ‘t’ or ‘b’ and having an object just show up). I suspect I’ll rarely use the gussied-up new object palette since the keystrokes are so convenient.
• support for long filenames (it’s the little things, really. OK, it’s the little, long things.)

I also love the new timing options, though I haven’t had a chance to use them extensively. I’m looking forward to creating polyrhythmic mayhem using a few transport objects all running at different tempi.

I like the idea of presentation mode, I just haven’t actually implemented it. I’ve always done something similar anyway: create a separate subpatch for just the controls I need, and since presentation mode only seems workable in a single subpatch I suspect it won’t radically change my workflow. Presentation mode would be more useful for me if any object in any subpatcher could be added to the presentation mode of a particular window. But that already sounds too complicated to manage (which object? in which subpatch? to which window?), plus the this is already possible using standard Max objects like send and receive.

I have mixed-feelings about the integrated documentation. I like the convenience of having help always at your fingertips but miss the portability of a pdf file. If you’re not running max, it’s tricky to get to the documentation. (Of course, you can always go to the Cycling 74 site.)

I’ve had a harder time with file-path issues and object conflicts in Max 5 than with other upgrades. This is likely just me and my convoluted setup. I have a bad habit of downloading almost every third-party Max object and freeware VST–not that I use them all. In fact, upgrades are often the times I evaluate the third-party objects that are essential to my work. The short list: LObjects, LitterPro, fiddle~, and a handful of others.

I’m looking forward to getting deeper into Max 5.