Tag: music

Book review: Audio Production Basics with Ableton Live by Eric Kuehnl

abletonI started playing guitar a few years ago, and acquired an electronic drum kit a year or so later, as well as a keyboard and a ukulele. My wife has a bass guitar, and my son recently brought home a clarinet from school (in what can only be described as an act of war on the part of his teacher!).

I’ve been playing with computers for 40 years so it seemed natural to put the two things together, also I follow Paul David’s Guitar channel and when he came to talk about looping he skipped the whole looper pedal method and went straight to demonstrating looping in Ableton Live, a "digital audio workstation" (DAW). It turns out Ableton, and comparable products, are fearsomely complicated so being a bookish sort of person I bought Audio Production Basics with Ableton Live by Eric Kuehnl to work out how to use it.

The book starts with some introductory material on computers and storing files, which is a bit basic. Before talking a little bit about different DAWs, including selecting gear for your music studio. It turns out there are audio interfaces, MIDI instruments, MIDI control surfaces as well as microphones.

Next up are some words on the overall scheme for audio recording, here and elsewhere I was grateful for a background in physics since the physics of sound is a bit of a feature for audio production. It clearly isn’t a problem if you don’t have a background in physics.

The introduction to the MIDI standard for communicating between music devices brought back memories for me, MIDI was invented in the early eighties when I was avidly reading computer magazines where I witnessed its inception.

For a long time audio production software, like Ableton, was very expensive but now it is much cheaper. I’m currently in the evaluation period for Ableton Live (a generous 90 days) but the introductory version is only £69. I’ve spent similar sums on a little MIDI controller and audio interface. I should probably get a decent microphone and stand, and now I’m coveting blingy MIDI control surfaces.

Finally we get on to the specific features of Ableton Live, about half way into the book! This is slightly unfair, we do get some glimpses before this. I found the book was good for structuring wider enquiry, one of the issues with a complex system like Ableton Live is not having the words to investigate (Google) further, and to be honest the problem once you have googled you are often faced with a screen-full of videos to watch. Audio production Basics gives you some of the vocabulary to ask useful questions, and I found reading it led me to grasping some important concepts. Also I discovered the videos Ableton make are very good.

For a long time I was confused because I thought that the Session View and Arrangement Views in Ableton Live were just that, views onto the same piece of audio data, but that is not the case. The Session View allows you to organise clips, often loops, sequence sets of clips together which you can perform live, with the option to record into an Arrangement view. It seems the Session View was originally the unique feature of Ableton Live, and is used on stage by performers.

The second useful concept is the Return Track, accessed for each channel using the Sends area of the control panel – you can see why it is tricky to come across the concept – it is called one thing in one place and another elsewhere. I suspect for people with a background in audio production the idea of Sends and Returns is commonplace. For a guitarist a Return Track is a bit like a pedal, you can route sound from each of your Audio/MIDI tracks through Return Tracks like Delay and Reverb.

Finally, if you search around the internet you’ll find a lot of beginners worried about how loud individual tracks sound. This has a couple of causes, sometimes it is because audio sources have not been processed by the audio interface correctly but often it is a misapprehension as to what the DAW does – it is not really a playback device. Individual tracks may sound quiet because ultimately they are going to be combined with a number of other sources, and if they were all "loud" then it would be overwhelming.

I have mixed feelings about this book, it takes a while to get onto Ableton specifics, and it feels like it doesn’t provide complete coverage. On the other hand working through the examples (something I rarely do) has introduced me to a lot of functionality, and is easier to my mind, than following Youtube videos.

Book review: How to Write Songs on Guitar by Rikky Rooksby

how_to_write_songsIn a somewhat uncharacteristic turn my next book is about writing popular songs: How to Write Songs on Guitar by Rikky Rooksby. For me it follows on from Guitar Method – Music Theory by Tom Kolb. I’ve read several books about music theory as I’ve learnt to play guitar and they have left me a bit cold. The presentation of the algorithms to generate scales and chords is my sort of thing but there were always references to how chords made you feel that were never really explained. I was never clear on what I was supposed to be doing with this theoretical knowledge.

After Guitar Method I thought the next thing to do was look at chord sequences, and this book came close to the top of my searches. I also got Chord Progression Encyclopaedia by Tammy Waldrop which does exactly what it says on the cover – list out loads of chord progressions for guitar.

How to Write Songs is quite a different book, in fact it was just what I was looking for! It puts the musical theory I’ve learnt into context. It covers off some of the traditional musical theory of scales and chords but hones it down to what you are likely to actually need to write songs. The four ingredients are rhythm, melody (the tune of the voice), lyrics and harmony (chords). Rooksby seems to prefer "melody first" songwriting but outlines other methods on an equal footing.

How to write songs is divided into 16 sections, these cover the four ingredients listed above and some other things too. The sections on chords are nicely laid out, with which strings are providing which notes included (this is helpful because to the beginner this can be a bit mysterious). Rooksby also talks about how different chord variants "feel". The chord dictionary is spread across a couple of sections with more complex "fancy" chords covered in the second section.

Central to writing songs are "turnarounds", repeated sequences of chords that are used to build the harmony (chords) of a song. The melody (tune of the voice) fits in with this, or doesn’t, for effect.

There are sections on making demo recordings and a couple on more guitar specific techniques, I particularly liked the section on "altered tunings". I have seen these tunings annotated in guitar tabs but not been clear as to why they are used. Rooksby provides a good explanation as to the various types of altered tunings and where they are used. In a number of places Rooksby refers to how chords, particularly those including notes from a second octave are easier to play on piano.

The book finishes with three sections which recommend individual tracks, and albums that Rooksby sees as good examples of the songwriting art and some quotes from famous songwriters as to how they go about composing. The theme of whether songs are invented or discovered comes up a few times here.

Rooksby is opinionated in various places: he doesn’t like drum machines, fancy chords, or spontaneous decorations of melody (called melisma). This gives the book a human touch, and I suspect his opinions are pretty sound.

One of my frustrations with learning guitar is that numerous teachers go on about ear training, they often talk about not doing enough of it when they were learning. I realise now that there is a very good reason for this: ear training is actually really hard if you don’t know about the structures and chord sequences you are likely to hear. This is because for the naïve listener there is a large number of possible notes they could be hearing, and it is difficult to identify what it is. However, learning how songs are structured, and some of the theory and the options narrow down dramatically.

Everything in the book is supported by references to popular songs, and typically multiple songs are referenced for each point, so you’re likely to have heard at least one of them – and these days its very easy to find music online. I’ve listened to a lot of Radiohead and Arctic Monkeys which turn up a few times, I suspect the same will apply to many people (just with different artists).

The next steps for me are to look at the "song chords" table which lists the chords in each key, and also look at the chord sequences with their examples. Rooksby has written a number of other books, I think I might add his book on riffs to my reading list. Finally, I’m making Spotify lists of the recommended tracks and albums.

The production values for How to Write Songs are high, it is clearly and neatly laid out and well-printed. The prose is enjoyable and manages to avoid sounding dry which is a risk when writing about music theory. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in how popular music "works" on guitar.

I must admit I’d assumed that Rooksby was an American, possibly someone who had written a few songs I knew, but it turns out he is English, lives in Oxford and has a PhD in English literature (website)!