What am I Doing?
OK…my equipment is working…my setup works and makes sense…now how do I make music again? The inherent advantage of playing with looping stations is that once something is recorded and begins playing back, it can be built upon or altered which allows one performers to create textures and sounds that would not be possible otherwise. The inherent disadvantage of playing with looping stations is that once something is recorded and begins playing back, it will continue to play back until you command it to do otherwise, which can become overly repetitive very quickly unless you are fully aware of what is happening in each layer. Throughout my independent study (in which I learned how to use this setup) we had a phrase that kept coming up when composing these types of works: “breaking the inherent monotony of looping.” In my eyes, the biggest pitfall of looping is that it can easily become a pan-tonal glob of notes that sounds like many other pan-tonal, looping globs. This is because it is the easiest technique to do with the setup. Start with a musical line or two, keep adding to it, and stay within a tonal center and everything will sound good. It requires little preparation, which allows for improvisation, and it has the big payoff of sounding pretty. And who doesn’t like pretty? The performers that use looping in the most sophisticated ways are good at hiding how hard it is to execute smoothly, and how much time and practice it took to get to that point. The further I went along with idea, the more I realized that I was not only writing music, but I was choreographing movement for myself. Well, my right foot anyway. Patch 2; Bank 2, button 1; Patch 3; Bank 3, button 1; Bank 1, button 4….(but more on that later).
To better learn the program and the system that I had put in place for myself, I improvised some pieces that do exactly what I described above; pan-tonal, looping globs. Without having to worry about the notes I was writing or playing I was able to focus on how Mainstage worked, especially in regards to quantization. It also allowed me to experiment with the effect plug-ins to find the most efficient way of setting them up, and which parameters within each of them should be mapped to the pedals that I had available to me.
Quantization is a wonderful tool in some applications, but it can also be detrimental if you do not know how to use it properly, or if you want layers to be independent of one another. Mainstage is great in that you can turn quantization on or off for each loop station that you set up (I have 4 loop stations as my default), and even beyond that, loop stations can be quantized to the measure or the beat. When loop stations are quantized they are fixed to the internal metronome that Mainstage has. There is always a metronome going, even if it is not sounding. So when more than one loop station is quantized to the same metronome it makes them proportional to on another. One loop can be 4 measures according to the metronome that is set up, and another loop can be 5 measures, if that is what is decided, and both loops can be started together and sync back up every 20 measures on the dot. That is if the loop stations are quantized to the measure, but since they can also be quantized to the beat, it can get even more intricate. The first loop can be 4 measures and the second can be 4 measures and 3 beats, which will extend the phasing of the two considerably. The way that the quantization works in real-time is that if record is pressed and it is not exactly on the beat, Mainstage will wait to the next designation to start recording, whether that is the next downbeat or simply the next beat.
If quantization is turned off, then Mainstage just starts recording when record is pressed and begins playing back when record is pressed again, or if play is pressed. This is great for those pan-tonal globs because it is nearly impossible to make two loops the exact same length, so as the piece progresses it is constantly morphing and phasing. This is very bad if you are trying to play with precise rhythms because Mainstage is quite exact in its starting and playing, so on loop might be 5 seconds long and the second might be 4.895 seconds long which may sound alright at the beginning but it will become very apparent as the piece progresses. (Think Come Out by Steve Reich). I took advantage of both aspects of quantization by making three loop stations quantized and then routing those three to a fourth that was not quantized at all. This allowed me to create rhythmic structures and then obscure them with an unstable loop on top of them all.
Setting up the effects plug-ins was an important step in the process as well. As I mentioned in the previous post, effects are added in the aux channels after the loopback plug-in. This allows me to affect the sound that is currently looping, rather than loop the effected sound. With that set up in place I had to figure out which parameters of the effect were to be mapped to buttons, pedals, or both. Since many of the effects have many different parameters and I only had two pedals to work with, I decided that I was only going to use two effects per track. This made me simplify things within my compositions, which in turn made me think hard about what exact sounds I wanted. With my two effects in place I then thought about the best way to control them. I needed to create a noticeable change in real-time, but also be economical with my buttons and pedals available to me. Most of the buttons that I had on my foot controller were taken up by the loopback plug-in (record, play/stop, reverse, fade out, clear), navigation (previous patch, next patch), and bypass of the loop station to the fourth, free loop station. This only left two buttons and both pedal available to me. I figured that the best way to take advantage of the effects was to assign bypasses to the buttons, and wet/dry (or whatever parameter did that most effectively) to the pedals. This allowed me to turn to effects on an off with the buttons to create a hard shift in sound; and to smoothly introduce or reduce the effect for a more subtle shift.
Things were falling into place and ideas were flowing. It was time to hone all that energy into a worthwhile work that I could perform for the December concert of the Hartford New Music Festival (the deadline that I had set for myself).