Integrating the Piano into an Electronic Soundscape

By Carey-Lyn Holt

Adding an acoustic element, in this case a piano, to an ensemble that is primarily made up of electronic instruments is rewarding but it also presents challenges. It is rewarding because it adds a sense of depth to the colour palette of the ensemble. One of the challenges is matching the acoustic instrument’s volume with the electronic instruments. Another challenge is in the seemingly limited palette of sound the piano can produce and how to make it unique enough to blend but also to stand out from the electronic sound sources. Luckily, because the ensemble is electronic, the challenges become opportunities.
A familiar instrument, such as the piano, can establish a foundation for the listeners. Audience members and musicians alike who are beginning to approach electronic music may find the piano’s presence comforting. Regardless of the audience, acoustic instruments elevate electronic instruments because it makes them more tangible and approachable.
To successfully integrate the piano into the ensemble, amplification is needed. By amplifying the acoustic signal, it allows the pianist the full dynamic range. I toyed with the idea of processing the piano signal in a digital audio workstation. It would lend the piano a wider range of sounds and (dynamic levels allowing) would keep the original acoustic sound as a doubling. However, I did not try this, if I had wanted a processed sound a much simpler solution would have been to set up a laptop with a midi keyboard station.
Diversifying the piano’s sound is another challenge when it comes to integrating it into the electronic ensemble. The piano’s sound without alteration can give respite to the more aggressive electronic sounds. As mentioned before, audience members who are new to the world of electronic music may unconsciously (or consciously) be listening for the piano’s pure sound. In this way, the sound produced by the piano can stand out and contrast the electronic sounds. But how does one extend the piano so that it adds to the ensemble’s colour? By following John Cage’s prepared piano techniques.
By preparing the piano the player opens a whole plethora of new timbres. When new sounds emit from a familiar instrument, the initial reaction can be quite shocking. By only using your hands you can play harmonics, scratch and/or strum the strings, and much more. Starting with harmonics, it works the best when you use the lower strings that have only one thick string. By gently pressing your finger on one of the string’s nodes it will create a harmonic.
Often chalk is used to mark the nodes. Luckily, even if you can’t quite reach a node, pressing gently anywhere on the string creates a bell like sound when you play the string’s corresponding key on the keyboard with the dampening pedal depressed. The strings also have ridges in them and by drawing your fingernails down the string it can create a very characteristic scratching sound. Another interesting effect is when the player strums or plucks the strings.
Another way to prepare a piano is to insert objects into the piano and play the keyboard or do any of the previously mentioned techniques. Placing paper lengthwise over strings can create an interesting buzzing sound as the vibrations coming from the strings move across the paper. Inserting erasers and hardware between the strings is also a common direction to take. A very effective sound can be produced by placing a pencil across the strings. With every hammer hit, the pencil bounces and excites the string again creating a double hit with a hint of a deadstroke.
The sounds you can create with a piano are almost limitless and if amplification is provided, the piano should have no trouble keeping up with the evolving electronic world.

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Electric Guitar: Delving Beyond Just 6 Strings

By Richard Charlton

Even within the bounds of conventional playing, the timbre of each individual guitar player’s tone varies vastly more than the players of any other instrument. While any instrument’s timbre can widely vary depending on things like material, mouthpiece or reed, or the room it’s being played in, the variables increase tenfold once the electrified piece of wood is strapped on. Everything from the string gauge, length of the patch cord, pedals the signal is being run through, amplifier, age of the amplifier tubes to speakers the amp is pushing all combine to make a very unique fingerprint for each player. Despite all these things, the electric guitar often serves a very similar role in most mainstream productions, whether it be powerful flexing power chords, soaring leads or funky staccato rhythm playing. I’d like to walk you through some techniques I have found to improve the variety of my playing and increase the amount of sonic textures that can be created with just a single instrument.

1. Expanding Your Picking Hand Arsenal

Guitar is most commonly strummed with some form of plectrum or plucked with the fingers. The two techniques offer a wide spectrum of dynamics and expressivity, but can quickly be identified by the ear as guitar related sounds. Incorporating simple tools into your rig can expand your sound palate immensely and unlock a new realm of sonic possibilities. E-Bows are battery powered magnetic devices that can help a player achieve the sustained, bowing like tones of a violin or cello. Infinite sustain and amplified harmonics take the guitar out of its preconceived place in a mix and add a haunting, wailing ambience to your production. Guitar Trillers are relatively inexpensive tools that help imitate the percussive strike of a piano key, adding attack and brittleness to your tone.

2. Expanding Your Fretting Hand Arsenal

Guitar slides can be a good way to break away from the rigid glissando transitions between notes of a standard fretted board for smooth, floating melodies. Slides can also transcend the limitations of the fret board and help a player achieve ear-splittingly high registers. Fret board tapping can also break past its associations to 80’s hair metal and shredders to create a bright sounding keyboard like playing style. Watch performances of the Chapman Stick to truly appreciate this technique. It is also important to remember that not all notes played have to be generated on the fret board. Exploit the sympathetic harmonics of the strings to craft ghostly melodies and experiment agitating the strings on different parts of the body (plucking behind the bridge, above the nut, etc.).

3. Expanding Your Foot Arsenal (Pedals!!)

While pedals are certainly nothing new as part of a guitarist’s rig, dozens of new builders have popped up over the last five years or so, making handmade and boutique circuits a lot more affordable than they used to be. Everyone knows what a distortion pedal or wah wah is supposed to sound like, it’s when you start delving into stranger circuits like ring modulators or pitch shifters that starts to make your guitar not sound like a guitar suddenly possible. Resonant filters and flangers can help achieve the sounds of deep-sea creatures while phasers and delays will help your tone reach the distant cosmos. It’s important to experiment with the signal flow of your guitar and trying your pedals and different stages of the chain. Strive to coax unconventional sounds out of your circuits and finding great sounds using a combination of several pedals.

There is no right or wrong answer to how to set up an electric guitar rig. Everyone is a different player who has different preferences. What is important is that you continually improve on your niche of playing that gives your playing style it’s uniqueness. Happy experimenting and happy soundscaping!

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Electroacoustic Music and Pure Expression

By Owen Campeau

Composition is an art form that is constantly in flux, constantly changing and reshaping itself. Composition can be influenced by the past, present and future equally. It is one of the greatest art forms because it is nearly infinite; with each composition being differentiated by Notes, rhythm, timbre, and technique (the last of which is ever-changing with new techniques being invented constantly). The difficulty with composition comes from a very narrow concept that we are hardwired with of what makes music sound “Good.” It is difficult to make compositions that sound “good” that are still original (many of the best know songs all follow the same chord progression eg. VIDEO ). But allowing ones self to be limited by this notion of good sounding music completely eliminates the possibility of growth and advancements in music.

This is where the urgency and importance behind electro-acoustic music can be most felt. Players and composers with an interest in Electro-acoustic music are most likely already consumers of “experimental” music. We as electro-acoustic musicians are not limited to four chords for our expression, we are not even limited to conventional tonality or the inherent need for notes. Electro-acoustic music is a blank canvas where anything can be an instrument and any instrument can make any noise. A synthesizer a conventional instrument based off of the keys of the piano, through a variety of digital codes programmed into the synth it’s self, and through different plugins and setting of the computer you are running said synth out of can be anything, a guitar, a glossy pinging, an unearthly rumble. Even for instruments that are not electronic in the same way as the synth you can still treat affect them. The possibilities are endless because there are constantly more parameters that you can add, subtract or change.

This makes composition of Electro-acoustic music admittedly more complex and time consuming but over all more rewarding. When you begin your composition your first step does not have to be “what is my first note?” you can view it from a holistic viewpoint. Your first consideration can be what sound do I want my instruments to make; once you have dialed that in then it is easy to look at your composition and asses what other elements do you want to add. Do you want your instruments to juxtapose, or sound well together? Do you want your sounds to be constant/brief, warm/cold, in the foreground/background, distorted/clean? All of these parameters are controllable by you and the technology at your fingertips.

Electro-acoustic music is also an art form that is very conducive to composing as a group. The benefit of the group is that rather than only having one mind perceiving and creating the sounds that are wanted/needed you have multiple and therefore you have a broader palate to draw inspiration from. It can also act as a needed injection of creativity as it is easy to become bogged down and in some ways it is possible to become paralyzed by possibilities.

Composition of Electro-acoustic music is a freeing experience. There are no boundaries, and no set template to base your work off of. It is pure expression and it is endless.

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Yamaha DTX900K

By Joel Bhaskaran

The DTX series by Yamaha is its electronic drum kit machine to imitate acoustic drums. The 900K is one other flagship kit of this series right behind the 950K. The kit boasts the evolutionary Yamaha DTX pads which the company created to allow drummers to really feel as though on an acoustic kit with all the fun and flexibility of the same. The head of the DTX pads are filled with air bubbles of a size and density that have been carefully arrayed to provide a feel that actually replicates stick rebound on a real kit. These bubbles also act as a cushion when the drum is hit, so that drummers can play for extended periods of time without worrying about arm or wrist pain. Simply put the pad encourages drummers to practice and play more, reaping the benefits of a drum that really feels great.

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Along with the pads the 900K also maintains the impressive PCY 135 cymbals with similar DTX pad technology and both the cymbals and the pads offer a 3-zone range for drummers. The cymbals stand out with their bow, bell and edge range hits and for the pads they replicate the 3-zone range which is the head, rim shot and rim hits. For realistic affect the cymbals have the choke effect as though muting real cymbals and to add realistic customization to the kit, the snare and tom pads have a tuning knob that replicates adding tension and pressure to a skin.

The DTX 900k all functions with the use of the DTX900k brain known for its versatility and customization to the user’s preferences.

The brain houses all of the kit’s functions and controls including MIDI and individual dtx900k3customization for each pad. Not only does the DTX900 contain the sounds of Yamaha’s major acoustic drums, the Oak Custom, Birch Custom, and Maple Custom Absolute, it also contains new drum and percussion sounds recorded by Yamaha’s engineers. The XA (Expanded Articulation) system creates natural snare rolls and is accurately recreated to the finest detail of feel in a Hi-Hat or ride cymbal.
The DTX900’s effects enable you to create the original sounds that you want. These effects include reverb, chorus, 9 types of master effects, and 51 types of variation effects.
In addition, you can add original sounds to a drum kit and perform with them by transferring audio data (WAV and AIFF files) from USB flash memory or by directly sampling signals received through the AUX IN/SAMPLING IN connector.

Using the brain, users can switch output of the kit to a full 8 channel output or just a stereo output. For better performance, drummers can use the click track function to track and maintain their timing and play along to a library of instrumental tracks ranging from genres such as rock, funk and jazz.  One new function the DTX houses in the click mode function is the groove check setting. This is acts as an educational experience for the drummer. Groove check essentially acts as a time control mechanism that reads how behind or in front of the click the drummer is playing and reads it onto the screen display. MIDI drums can also be recorded into a DAW for further editing capabilities.

The brain also has the function to track, record and playback whatever the user plays by using the record function.

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Composing with a DAW vs Traditional Notation Software

By Jordan Berg

As a composition major, I find that in order to best realize my ideas, I must use several different methods of composition as I develop my project. I compose with an instrument, I compose using traditional notation methods, and I also compose directly into a digital audio workstation (DAW). For most of my projects I will use all three methods.

I began my composition studies very traditionally and trained my ears so that I could write my ideas directly to a piece of manuscript paper and also notate my improvisations with instruments. I eventually began using Finale (and later moved to Sibelius) because of the ease of editing parts and the rudimentary MIDI playback. I found after a while that the horrible MIDI playback of Sibelius and Finale was not getting my ideas across to anyone and my portfolio was stagnating because I had no ready access to performing musicians and recording equipment. This was the case even when I invested in better sample libraries. I began studying production because I felt that I was hearing many pieces of music coming from the world of popular media that were not very deep compositionally speaking, but sounded fantastic due to the production value. University is an excellent place to collaborate with other musicians and have your pieces played and performed, but I think that once I graduate, I will need to rely at least a little more on computer-assisted composition to produce music quickly and have good sounding results.

Both notation software and most of the major DAWs are aiming to be a ‘one stop shop’ where you can compose using whatever method you prefer and also get a great sounding audio file at the end. This has not been convincingly achieved yet. We are (in 2016) quite far from having the ability to compose traditionally using the score edit function in Logic and Protools (frustrating!) as we would in Finale and Sibelius. Likewise it is difficult to trigger your samples properly and mix/edit the audio in notation software the way you can in a DAW. I am rarely happy with the sound of my audio file using notation software, even when using a professional sample library. It is useful to be able to export a MIDI file from your work and then import it into a DAW.

I find that my approach to composition is very different when using notation software than when using a DAW. I find composing music into Logic is sometimes limited to the level of my keyboard playing abilities. It is possible to enter one note at a time using a mouse and it is also possible to edit, quantize, rearrange and perfect your performances (which I need to do every time) but I find my creativity is heightened when using traditional notation because I can work out harmonies, manipulate rhythms in ways I might not be able to intuitively or at a MIDI keyboard, and create counterpoint that is more developed and thought out. I also have a better perspective on the trajectory of my piece and the progression of the harmony when using traditional notation.

I find composing into a DAW more like jamming and improvising. This is extremely powerful when, for example you want to improvise or work out a part using, say an oboe over a string section. I also feel that effects and spacialization can be expressive tools and instruments in and of themselves. Likewise the ability to produce music that is a blend between a traditional orchestra and electronics is much easier in a DAW than it is on paper or in notation software.

In conclusion, it is true that samples and computer-assisted production have themselves become instruments in the modern composer’s arsenal. Most of us don’t have consistent access to a live symphony orchestra but unfortunately samples are still not able to capture what a live performance does. When composing at a computer, one is in danger of writing the piece ‘for the samples’ rather than for instrumentalists. I feel that both traditional notation and the ability to produce music with a DAW are of equal importance to the modern composer.

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ICE EVENT

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WAVES by Rolf Boon

Last April, 2015, Integra Contemporary & Electroacoustics presented their final event of the academic year, entitled Traffic & Waves. Our concert showcased the hard work (compositions and developed improvisations) of the members of the ensemble: Digital Audio Arts students from the University of Lethbridge. In addition, we included Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, Tines Quartet by Jeff Morton and importantly, we interpreted Rolf Boon’s WAVES, which we present in this video.

Other Electroacoustic Ensemble videos at https://vimeo.com/album/2201064

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