Improvising Electronically: The Tools of the Trade

As a musician and engineer/producer with improvisational tendencies, I’m always trying to find new and divergent ways to create and arrange music spontaneously. Now, we don’t always have the time to hook up with our band mates and friends to jam and groove because well, we have to pay the rent. We do really like our friends, and eating (or drinking) is good… however, I’m learning that this no excuse to feel sorry for yourself as a starving and pitiful improvisational artist with limited time to explore a new groove, arrangement, progression, or melody. Although, some of us may wince at the idea, there is a wonderful world of musical exploration in the electronic arena, where your band, orchestra or solo act is at your ear’s fingertips…

One may ask, “why not just pick up your guitar, or whatever it is you’re playing at the time?” I’d say, “yeah, valid point, but I’m really needing to hear that lush keyboard harmony to solidify this idea I just came across, or how would the drums sound cutting a jungle groove over this section?” So, you get the point, check this out…

If you know what I’m talking about and haven’t tried it yet, I’ve got the solutions: Ableton Live 2 and Reason 2 are two unbelievably intuitive (even for people with very limited production experience) tools for spontaneous (or pre-arranged) musical exploration and composition. Basically, a midi controller, a computer (preferably Mac in my opinion), these two programs, and stereo mixing capabilities is all that is needed for spontaneous music production and arranging on the spot whenever you feel the need.

Reason, for all intents and purposes, is a complete music synthesis environment with built-in software sampling, drum machine, synthesizing, sequencing, and mixing capabilities. I was busting out loops for a tune in a matter of minutes. HONESTLY! I haven’t been so excited about music production in a long time. Reason basically allows you to arrange and complete a track self-contained with all the amenities. Don’t like the bundled tones? Go out and sample them for yourself, as Reason allows you to import as REX, Wav or Aiff, so you can build your own sonic landscapes however the ear shapes your vision.

In terms of sonic synthesis, Reason includes a subtractive analog-synth module, and Grain-table synthesis capabilities. I think it even works well as a stand-alone soft-synth, if you’re not into the sequencing and sampling features. The tones are distinct, lush, complex and inspiring. As far as I’m concerned, only Absynth surpasses its soft-synth capabilities. Thus, the performing musician with a lap-top would benefit from just one of its plethora of robust features.

In addition, if just creating fresh new grooves is your objective, the drum machine allows quick and easy access to a vast array of percussive samples for creating that elusive groove for your electronic composition, or for your band’s new arrangement. I really dig the ability to be able to create odd, even, or 3 and 4 based groove templates at whatever tempo is desired. Another great feature is the ability to create and export quantizied loops of any nature. From textures and percussive grooves to the sample-based and melodic, you are able to export CD quality .wav and .aiff files in no time at all. This is great if you are more familiar and comfortable arranging and effecting in another environment, such as your hardware sampler, or your software based DAW.

Relatedly, Ableton Live 2.0, my software du jour, is the perfect live sequencing and arrangement program for importing exactly what you may be exporting from Reason. Admittedly, I’m just getting acquainted with these two programs, however, I believe that they work beautifully together and as an integrated solution to your music synthesis, and arrangement needs. What Live enables you to do is take those very loop-based ideas created in Reason and tweak, manipulate and effect in real-time in as many twisted scenarios as you can imagine. I hope to delve deeper into the inner workings of these two programs over the coming months, but for the record, in one day I was arranging and effecting sick drum n’ bass grooves from trip hop grooves created in Reason, by using just Ableton’s built in effects. The auto-filter and filter delay effects are enough of a reason to use the program as any. The ability to hear such clear and seamless results with your midi controller knob or mouse is a beautiful thing. Twist a knob and hear your groove expand from the depths of the sub-bass abyss into the cascading waves of your mellifluous melodies onto the shores of your captivating soundscapes.

Ableton reads your loops directly from your internal or external hard drive. Its load time is super quick and loop integration from hard drive to output is all in a manner of seconds. Beyond its own built-in effects capacity, it supports all VST based plug-ins giving you virtually limitless effecting power. I the coming months I hope to share much more in-depth reviews on the technical capacity of these two very far-reaching music synthesis environments.

Reason v2.0 includes:

Synthesizers, samplers, drum machine, ReCycle-based loop player, mixer, effects, pattern sequencer and more. As many of each as your computer can handle.

System Requirements:


[bullets][liIntel Pentium II/233 MHz or better[/li][li]64 mb RAM[/li][li]CD-rom drive[/li][li]Windows 98/ME/XP/2000 or later[/li][li]256 color monitor / 800×600 pixels resolution or better[/li][li]16-bit windows compatible audio card, preferably with DirectX or ASIO drivers[/li][li]MIDI Interface and MIDI keyboard[/li][/bullets]


[bullets][li]For Mac OS X: Any computer that runs Mac OS X 10.1 or laterMac[/li][li]For Mac OS 9: 604, 604e, G3 or G4 processor[/li][li]166 Mhz or fasterMac[/li][li]128 mb RAM[/li][li]Mac OS 9.0 or later[/li][li]CD-rom drive[/li][li]256 color monitor / 800×600 resolution or better[/li][li]MIDI Interface and MIDI keyboard[/li][/bullets]

Ableton Live 2.0 includes:
Looping, synchronizing, improvising, and recording functions.

System Requirements

Any G3 or faster
256 MB RAM
Mac OS 9.1 or later
Mac OS X.1.5 or later

400 Mhz CPU or faster
128 MB RAM
Windows 98/2000/XP
Windows compatible soundcard (preferably with a DirectX or ASIO driver)

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