April 3, 2014

The Obstacle - Creating Original Music/Sound

So, a couple of weeks ago, IT arrived in the mail. My first MIDI controller. A little background: In my younger days, my older brother excelled at both the violin and the piano...so, this basically means that I took piano lessons too. Hated it. But, it did trigger my initial interest in tinkering. I would later move on to other instruments for greater and lesser durations that included the cello, tenor and baritone saxophones, the bassoon, and baritone horn. This all ended before I was 15. 

Fast forward a quarter century to me holding a 25-key magic machine that will certainly transform me into the singer from A Flock of Seagulls, minus the hairdo. You see, I'm on a mission (not unlike the Blues Brothers) to empower kids with music. And by this, I mean to give them the confidence that they can produce original music or sound to use in their own video creations. I find it fascinating that students will very readily produce video media at the drop of a hat, but seldom follow-through with original sound beyond narration or that which was already captured in the footage. The ad hoc effort here is usually a quick journey to their MP3 or iTunes collection to find "the right" song or downloaded sound byte to fit the piece. It's all well and good that they're making emotional connections with their work, but there are two inherent problems I find here:

  1. The obvious ethical/legal issues of media reuse, and
  2. a possible loss of creative momentum in the overall production.
Now, there are certainly going to be those situations where existing audio is more appropriate for affect and/or meaning. Much of recent debate on the use of published media circles around reuse, and the Creative Commons has dedicated itself to giving producers the option to designate their work as such. For example, the SoundCloud loop above was made using (in addition to my new toy) the Music Boxes VST from SonicCouture, the Combo Model V organ emulation VST from Martinic, and a delay audio effect applied in Ambleton Live 9 Lite. All of these resources allow for the production of music to be published under the user's copyright. This was chosen to be Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SAThat Flock of Seagulls video? Both YouTube and I could easily be issued a cease and desist order as it's a clear illustration of exactly the point I'm getting at. I'm Batman? While the video is an original stop-motion from yours truly, the audio has been pulled from a Hollywood feature and the legal conclusions about reuse of this nature are fuzzy, if not on the side of the copyright owner. So, the rule of thumb: If in doubt, leave it out!

Now, if you're like me, and musical composition is not even remotely near the top of your skill set, well you're probably like most people. You will find those wonderfully talented students than can perform in such a manner and do, but most others wouldn't even know where to begin. I went the MIDI route for one reason, and one reason only: to me, at least, MIDI is an acronym for Press Button, Make Sound. I can plug into GarageBand on my computer, iPad, or a similar app on my Nexus, pick an instrument or sound, and tap away. Really, with GarageBand, I don't even need the MIDI controller, the UI has built-in tools in addition to the computer's keyboard. Not everyone has a Mac, or a lab full of them at their disposal, so what can they do? Well, I've curated the following collection of resources for this purpose (if you're looking for mobile/tablet solutions for audio production see iOS or Droid):

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