June 18, 2012

Music Programming Methods – Part 1

Yes, Programming... but maybe not what you're thinking

It is probably a funny word choice that keeps the recording field intimidating to the casual observer, or the hopeful novice; but the act of building songs in the world of sequencers and synthesizers has long been stored under the catch all term of “programming.” The word probably becomes more accurate or inaccurate depending on how one chooses to equip one’s studio. The controllerists can easily imagine themselves as device wrangling borgs from outer space as they tie feature after feature to conveniently placed knobs and indulge in wild bursts of inspired creativity after a hard day of device building. On the other hand, the guy sitting with an acoustic guitar and a microphone probably looks at what they do as simply recording.

Programming has always been what I called it, but I also started at a time when a hardware sequencer was tied to hardware synths, drum machines and effects processors and there were midi patch bays and cautionary tales of the incremental data loss associated with device daisy chaining. Not only was there a lot of organizing of ones and zeroes on the sequencer, but drum machine patterns would be built and synth patches had to be tweaked while effects processors were filled with custom go to user presets. Program changes and SysEx dumps were a part of daily life in the first studios I ever assembled on my own or with friends. Especially given that once upon a time there was less onboard memory with hardware synths than you would find on a Nintendo cartridge in the nostalgic 8 bit days gone by. Speaking of those 8 bit days gone by: anyone who has ever fooled with the complex simplicity of programming music in “trackers” has surely thought of that as programming. With all these methods about, and the modern commonality of beautiful GUIs and “dead simple software built for musicians,” it is easy to see a day when “programming” will slip from the lexicon to be replaced with “recording” or “sequencing.” For the present, to avoid splitting hairs, think of the above as a qualifier for calling the act “programming” in this article.

It looks more like this...

With all of these new methods and capabilities, programming has evolved. The old adage that there is “more than one way to skin a cat” has never seemed truer in the audio world. From GUI to workflow, our creative choices are not only defined by the styles we seek to create, but also the environment in which we create them. Even our hardware can be the deciding factor in how we sequence. Odds are the hobbyist with no controller and a cracked copy of FL Studio is going to be dedicated to mousing their way through song after song, clicking and tweaking along a grid until their eyes bleed, ears rupture, or both injuries occur in an event forever recognized in the house as “event horizon.” Cliches like “to each his own” abound in any situation like this, but the impulse of humans to find evidence that they are not in error will always provoke this question:

Is there really a “right way” to program?

This is something I think we all struggle with as we come to grips with ourselves as a solo, desk dwelling programmer type. It is easy enough to declare an end all, be all approach to sequencing and cutting up audio. Often enough, our chosen method of working is tied to the sequencer we choose. After that, our methods are defined by our genre. What are you making? Are you making instrumental hip hop? Are you doing a cut up pastiche of everything you ever loved a la Girl Talk or Madeon? Maybe your music is a series of stabs culled from your favorite 80s R&B records. Maybe every idea you ever have sees its genesis in your favorite bag of Apple loops. Maybe you come from the old school and love to work with MIDI and are never more satisfied than when you are watching all of your prized machines kicking along to the click and belting out their notes and sounds as dictated by the master sequence.

Girl Talk

I am far less worried about the seasoned pro and how they do what they do. Our methods become our process as we get settled into our musical niche(s). We only question ourselves when we hear something on a track and scratch our heads: “How the hell did they do that?!” Or when we find ourselves staring down the demon that settles into our studios occasionally under the name “writer’s block.” (I can already hear the young and cocky claims of “I never get writer’s block.” Don’t worry, kids, if you stick with writing music long enough, writer’s block will at least drop by once in a while. One of the great milestones in any creative discipline is staring it down and figuring out how to banish it from your studio/workspace/life.)

The ones I worry about most are the novices and young hopeful producers. Walking in on a field that is driven by technology, being told you are a n00b by anyone who feels you haven’t just asked a newbie question, but the “wrong” one altogether, can be quite defeating. Left to look at multiple tutorials in magazines and on the web you will see multiple ways to program, and with each one a different program, or a tutor who swears his method/DAW is the one true way to do (insert genre here.) There are house producers who work in Ableton, Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools, Reaper, Reason and any other software I am forgetting. Each of them essentially do similar music, with four kicks on the floor and claps or snares on the twos and fours. So where does the difference come in?


If you read the Ableton vs. Maschine blog I wrote a couple of weeks ago, you have already seen me talking about people’s tendency to defend their investment. Imagine you bought Pro Tools to augment your existing MIDI based studio and finally bring in audio recording. Shortly after this, that ancient hardware sequencer that had been shaping your compositions either just fried out or kept drifting off clock to your Pro Tools sessions. Faced with either going back to how you used to do things, or moving your operation into Pro Tools, you will likely choose option B. Once choosing option B, your whole process gradually adapts to the world of Pro Tools. Because you were used to MIDI programming, you eventually adapt to the Pro Tools MIDI dialogues and before you know it, your answer to the question “which DAW should I get?” becomes “Pro Tools. It’s amazing. It totally changed how I do things in my studio.” Gradually, as your meteoric rise to fame sees your name on the hearts and lips of every teenage would be DJ, a whole culture is raised up around you of DJs duplicating the same setup as yours. Some of them, free thinkers that they are, add in their own twists with hardware, interfaces and plugins of their choice. Soon enough a whole scene of Pro Tools based programmers surrounded by vintage gear in their studio and MIDI interfaces is born. Let’s make up our own scene for these guys. We shall call it “Gutterstep.”

Nothing wrong, ostensibly, has happened here. However, this is because their methods worked for them. In their wake, several young would be producers happen along and choose to follow in their footsteps. They read an interview within the scene these guys/girls are producing in and decide they too need Pro Tools. Unfortunately, they lack the prerequisite mountain of eBay finds and older brother inherited synthesizers. Suddenly they have Pro Tools and even with the plugins just can’t seem to duplicate the sound that made them choose their software. A few with initiative will chase after the elusive sound and eventually figure out they can’t go on without an old Juno or SH series Roland synth. The others will crawl the internet desperately looking for the answer to cure their woes.  Some will find another program, maybe something with a better plugin suite that works with that program to make the sounds they hear in their head. The drawback? These guys now say “meh, Pro Tools is garbage. If you want to make real Gutterstep, you need (insert whatever DAW they came to a rest on here.) They may well move on from this decision, but their quote remains at large in whatever forum, youtube video, or blog that they aired it in. Along comes another young hopeful, and the pattern repeats itself into infinity.

So, what do we do with this?

Ok, so maybe my story has some holes: a made up genre and an artist who started in Pro Tools and ended up in a nameless, faceless DAW. You have read all of this and still don’t know if there is a “right way” to do anything. That’s because there isn’t. In fact, the sooner there is a right way to do anything, the sooner a genre becomes stale and fails to evolve. There are always those who maintain that things have gone downhill since this or that changed. The tape guys, the hardware guys, the turntable guys, the CD-J guys, and everyone else holding onto this or that dead/dying/forgotten technology found their creative space in a certain genre/era or are parroting a hero. None of the parroting and longing for the past changes the fact that the modern music paradigm was born from shifting technology. Yes, this goes not just back to The Beatles, but to Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Charlie Christian etc. In fact, it isn’t like the woodwind, brass or strings held aloft by some classical musicians as the “true” instruments of the world were born of nature. Music is the result of innovations in technology; from the tuned wooden bar to the reed to the oscillator.

Automation Curves in Ableton Live

If we stopped and said “this is good enough,” we would be a boring and not terribly human set of beings. If I had them all in my phone tree, I would make a point of texting any living person who had ever looked at a process and said “hang on a minute, I think I can change this.” Sure, the fitful bursts of new technology might be hard to warm up to in some cases. Sometimes the first users of a new technology might even just suck at making music and make that technology look juvenile or like it is somehow cheating. Eventually, though, the technology either dies out and is replaced by some kind of improvement or update. As far as programming goes, we have seen control voltage give way to MIDI and then seen MIDI give way to USB (though still MIDI at the heart.) As the computers have evolved, we have been granted the ability to chop up, effect, and micro-edit our audio. We can draw lines across our tracks of MIDI or Audio and automate them in much the same way. As all of this has happened, we have also seen programs like Ableton Live come into being. Ableton’s session mode grid makes it very easy to envision all music being attacked on a grid, with the computer sat in the middle as a matrix; pumping data between machines and programs.

Those who do not deign to step in and try these new technologies often remain aloof to the fact that trained ears and foundations in technology can make the task of making these things seem simple. Those who do jump in often find that their terrible microphone still sounds terrible, possibly worse. They find that the learning curve of calibrating a tape machine or organizing their hardware workflow has been replaced by adapting to some other process. No matter where you end up, you will acquire some kind of skill. It may be sound design, it may be mixing for balance or it may be becoming the wordiest composer in history. Either way, the only real drawback to technology in the grand scheme of the musical universe is that it can leave you running to keep up if you try to embrace every little thing. So, while technology is upgrading us all the time and we should be careful to sniff at anything, it is perfectly acceptable to stop where you find your happy place and get your work done. Just think twice about deriding the choices of others.

So is all this talk about programming just another nonsensical Lonely Paul rant about not being close minded?

No, all this talk about programming is not, in fact, another rant about not being close minded. The reason I address the DAW situation is because in many cases, the operation of the DAW can influence the style of creation that takes place within it. In other cases, some software handles all things fairly well. Overall, the best way to choose the package that suits what you want to do is to think about how you want to work.

In the next part of this series, we’ll actually look at a few methods for programming your music. We’ll take a look at old school sequencing with hardware, a slightly different approach more reliant upon virtual instruments, and some of the more modern cut and paste techniques employed by many people today. What we’re working towards is helping you find the best method, whether it is a hybrid of the three or something altogether different, for your own style of music making. I can’t stress enough that there is no right way.  I know the most beneficial way for me to figure out what I could do in modern packages was to peek in on how others were working. If you have any questions about what we’ve talked about so far, please let us know in the comment thread and I will try to either answer you directly, or address your concerns in the coming entries.


  1. Murphy says:

    Very informative article. Keep em coming!

  2. [...] Programming Methods – Part 2 In the first part of this series, I talked about the confusion new users might experience when encountering the wealth of options [...]

  3. Christopher Merritt says:

    “Odds are the hobbyist with no controller and a cracked copy of FL Studio is…..”

    That was me back in 2005……it was ugly.

    I think my best musical skill IS open mindedness, honestly.

    1. LonelyPaul says:

      Nothing wrong with that!