The Art Of Generative Music
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
What is Generative Music? If you are unfamiliar with the name and the concept behind or even if you are well aware of it, my hope is that you'll find this reading useful and inspiring.
In this second installment of my Pro Producer's Tips series, I'm going to explore some creative uses of arpeggiators and instrument racks inside of Ableton Live (anyway you can follow along with the principles provided in any DAW of your choice) to explain some techniques that can be applied to generate musical ideas in an unconventional way. Are you with me? Let's get started!
The term 'generative music' was coined by Brian Eno, a wonderful creative mind and great pioneer of electronic music developments and research of the contemporary age. It was used to describe an ever changing flux of music generated by a system, for example by a software (he used one called Koan back in the '90s) led by some rules and with some parameters available to the user for real-time improvising.
To understand that fully we must compare this approach to how usually music is made or played: with a defined and predetermined set of notes or rhythms.
During the last century the hystory of music (not just electronic) changed dramatically, so many intuitions and experiments were made that led to a wide variety of not only new musical styles, but also music conceived and crafted in a revolutional way.
Generative music is one of them, not so far away from other intuitions such as stochastic composition or computer-based algorithmic composition.
Without getting too complex and touching topics that deserve too much space to be put in a single blog post, generative music nowadays is commonly created within a modular synthesizer's framework (such as the free VCV Rack) because of the (almost) infinite possibilities of sound processing that offer more freedom (generally) than a typical synthesizer or DAW workbench.
What are the requirements to make generative music afterall? How can you create ever changing music that evolves every time you play it?
Well, there are billions of way to do it but the most common factor is unpredictability. Random or probability devices or events used inside of a patch (called like so to remind the 'patching cables' way of working on modular synths) generate different output according to some parameters. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that your synth of choice will have a random function as a modulation source (for example the sample & hold). For instance, put a sample & hold source to modulate the pitch of a sine wave and you instantly get that classic, nostalgic sci-fi blipping sound that you've certainly heard a million times in old films and games alike.
You would argue that this is not 'music' but more sound design oriented: right, this was just a simple example because comprehensive 'generative' intended music softwares have a huge list of rules to follow in order to sound musically appealing (and this is where AI can be seen as a natural development of all of this).
In this blog post what I'm going to do is to provide you with some tips and tricks that you can apply within your DAW to hopefully get you out of your comfort zone and try new creative ways of composition.
Side note to the skepticals: creating full structured musical pieces is not the goal here, we just want some output to sparkle our ideas without necessarily having to always rely on our rational and sometimes too habitual mind. Don't fear to lose control from time to time!
2. Chained Arps
I believe you already must be aware of what an arpeggiator is and does: a MIDI device that receives the incoming simultaneous notes of a chord and splits them in a sequence in the order you like and spanning various octaves if desired.
But what about using multiple arpeggiators at once? This is where the fun begins and where we start entering a more unpredictable sonic world.
I must credit Frequent, an artist I truly admire, for opening my eyes on this technique.
You basically want a chain of arp devices with different settings on each, all feeding the same synth patch (or an other one if you desire): in this way by playing a chord you can get an interesting contrapuntual interaction between the arpeggios generated, much like switching from monophonic to polyphonic in a synthesizer (polyphony is the sauce of music!); inside of Ableton this is as simple as creating an Instrument Rack with each chain loading its own arpeggiator. Then you can of course map the parameters of the different arps to the macros in order to interact live with the variation of your single chord or chord progression playing (hence 'generative' music).
In the rack above you can see that the 4 macros in the first row are pink and they control 'Arp 1' in the chain, while the other 4 blue macros control 'Arp 2' respectively. Here basic parameters are assigned, like the style of the arpeggiator (how the notes of the chord will be played), the rate (here synced to note values), the gate (which in percentage to the rate defines note length) and the groove (here it's a switch from various options, the global groove percentage in Ableton is controlled via the global intensity slider).
By inserting an instrument of your choice then your MIDI data will follow these two chains in parallel and feed the synth together: not only this saves your CPU because you do need just one instance of the synth, but it also opens up a new world of sonic possibilities.
In the example above you can hear the rack explained in action, feeding a simple operator patch with no macro automation but with the concept developed a little bit: each chain has a slightly different timbre and effects loaded in, also the second chain is further divided in two so you get a total of three arps interacting (2+1). This is where things can start to get way deeper and more complex, so you get the idea of how building over this technique can lead to very intricate patches, hypothetically even creating a whole sonic piece and virtual orchestra just with one MIDI track in your project: crazy right?
I feel this approach to music composing can be taken to full degree if you are into ambient music, where I think it's most suited because of its 'unstructured' and continuously growing result (Brian Eno did a lot of ambient works with it indeed), or you can take it more subtly to generate just some material that can be edited afterwards.
In the latter case you would record yourself improvising with the patch and the parameters assigned to the macros and in a second time editing the good bits to suit your needs. This inevitably has to be reminded: RECORD everything!
Ableton luckily introduced MIDI capture so even if you are not recording you can recall something you did, but don't let the software save you: always record and resample (if you are recording audio).
3. Geek Territory
For those of you who already have read my first blog post about creative uses of the NY Compression technique, well you should already have an idea about my geek soul. I like to learn and go deeper into things, trying to experiment and overcome my usual habits. If you are like me and hungry for 'geeky' stuff then keep reading! (you will get a reward in the end 😉).
In this paragraph I wanted to take some steps further by analyzing a rack I made (spoiler alert: this is what you will get!):
I've created as you can see five different configurations or presets to recall (here called 'macro variations') as some basic starting points for various experiments.
The first block of pink and blue macros is similar to what I explained earlier, so you would modify the characteristics of different arpeggiators; the yellow block defines the volumes of the three main layers I used in my patch: a texture, a piano (an FM piano patch turned into a lead actually) and a pad. Each of them has a different routing of arp chains, intrument and effects loaded in but they are then processed as a whole for sonic glue: this is where the green macros come in handy for a more broad modification of the patch with filtering, EQ bell curves for focus, reverb and a juicy echo. The last white macro generates an additional layer pitch-shifted from your incoming MIDI by an amount freely set. By default you already have three additional 'MIDI layers': in fact, in the 'Chord' device I added the octave above (+12 semi), two octaves above (+24 semi) and one octave below (-12 semi) with different velocity ranges.
This rack is quite CPU hungry as I inserted a lot of stuff but you are free to customize it and remove or add things at your liking; the basic principles are what I just explained.
If you are confused about it remember that when you see a low-pass autofilter in the chain, from it onwards all effects are global to all the layers:
In the following audio example believe it or not I used the exact same MIDI from the previous example, an improvised C Major jam. The only (!) difference is that the patch itself is more intricate and lends itself to further customization, hence a more varied and compelling sonic journey:
Last crazy thing I tried: feeding some MIDI transcripted classical music. You should try it for yourself, classical music is a great source of inspiration and first mostly it's copyright-free! I think that the power of music is that it never dies and can always be transformed into something else. That's the main point I want you to take away from this reading: music is about sound changing over time.
Eraclito wisely said 'everything in nature changes and nothing stands still'. Our appreciation of music and the sound itself (super important principle of sound design) indeed is bounded by the change of characteristics over time. That's why the default triiin-triiin alarm clock is so annoying!
I would go on and on with phylosophical digressions but let's keep this away for now and enjoy a short piece taken from 'Moonlight Sonata' by Beethoven fed by my rack:
The interesting thing to note here is that the MIDI transcripted part I used was for piano only (like the original score) but it sounds like it has many different parts: that's exactly the 'boosted' power of the rack and the principles behind it! Try layering different patches with the chained arp technique and you will eventually create a multi-layer patch that can easily generate a full musical piece with a few chords (well, if you can write music as good as Beethoven you can't go wrong with it at least).
Thanks so much for reading this blog post, I truly hope you learned something new and are ready to experiment something for yourself! As promised I'll link you to the download of the Ableton rack, just click the artwork below ;)
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Happy Music Making! 😉
Art credits: Andreas Kopriva Lernis