DyNAmic sequencer from Lo-Fi Massahkah on Vimeo.

Ready for some musical genetic engineering?

Much of the sound of electronic music today grows out of the use – and abuse – of specific designs. The electronica beats bred in discos and techno, Detroit and Berlin have a direct lineage to analog step sequencers and the rigid precision of Roland’s early electronic devices. These designs create limitations to embrace and to oppose – just as music notation or theoretical convention did for composers for centuries.

Okay, that’s a lofty way to put it — the question here is, how do you re-engineer music, even an ounce at a time? If you’re a composer a few centuries ago, you make subtle changes to your craft, working inside a convention, and write that down. (Just as with electronic music, there is a layer of separation – only then, it was a piece of paper.) If you’re an electronic artist today, you can likewise change what you’re able to control, and how, playing live. The differences at first may be imperceptible, but just like learning an instrument, the long-term payoff can be huge.

I asked for examples of what people are doing with the Lemur multi-touch touchscreen controller and its recently updated V2 software. This isn’t just about the Lemur – it illustrates what’s possible when the musical device and the controller can flow freely out of a musician’s imagination. That could apply to hardware or software designs well beyond the Lemur.

Mikael Björk of Sweden responded with a terrific example, a “dynamic” sequencer available to all Lemur users via JazzMutant. The open-ended screen layout of the Lemur has allowed the creator to provide all kinds of unusual control over morphing beats, with your fingertips manipulating simulated physics as beats twist around you. It’s not just electronica and sampling and DJing, either – he also has an incredible clip working with a very talented vocalist. It sounds markedly different from the more conventional, Loopstation-style loop performance.

Photo (CC) bjarkebech.

DyNAmic is a sophisticated step sequencer managed by a Max patch, and tightly connected to a Live rack. The Live rack consisting of two Simpler devices containing basic sine waves for low and high percussions, a Simpler containing noise for your hi-hats, and one containing a square wave for your bass sounds. In addition, each Simpler feeds an Autofilter and Redux for effects modulation, all of this being controlled from your Lemur of course.

Template created by Mikaël Björk aka Lo-Fi Massahkah.

What he says in a separate post on his blog sums up a lot of what I have to say about sequencers and samplers, too:

Sequencing. Sequencing. Sequencing.

You’d think that that’s all I’m about. Perhaps. Sequencers are fun when you can’t really play an instrument. They might also be fun if you CAN play an instrument. I like my new sequencer – and I hope you’ll like it too.

See: Hip to be Square

The upcoming release of Max for Live should mean that Live can work more seamlessly with the Lemur and the control configuration — more on that soon. But this doesn’t have to even be about Live; I imagine we’ll see other setups moving this direction, too.

And having an open music controller means that, pricey as the Lemur is, you get added value from this kind of artist contribution. (See also: monome, on CDM or the monome project site.) You can use this sequencer layout as is — use it in a different way musically — or modify it, or create your own. The whole patch and extensive how-tos are right on JazzMutant’s site:

JazzMutant Workshop: DyNAmic

So, cool as that is, I’m sure many of you were expecting the glitchy beat modulations that result. Here’s a related project that moves in a very different direction.

Schack & Wetterberg Live looping from Lo-Fi Massahkah on Vimeo.

Esben Schack and Andreas Wetterberg doing a set on Café Zusammen in Copenhagen. Esben on vocals and guitar, Andreas on Live (looping) and Lemur.

And for more of this stuff, you can follow the Vimeo feed:

Not much to add – when the tech is working right, your traditional musicianship (if you’re lucky enough to have it) can come out. And while the occasional touchscreen tap may not seem as dynamic by comparison, I think the way to think of the Lemur is as a compositional device – the vocalist is the real “player,” in a conventional sense, whereas the Lemur is acting as a composer — remixer, however you want to think of it — in real-time.

My respect for the Lemur has really grown as it has matured; the folks at JazzMutant have addressed some of my design complaints. Its cost is, like most boutique instruments that aren’t made in huge quantities, a premium – no argument there. Likewise, you can sacrifice some of that unique design and get a cheap commodity device. In the end, I think there’s a value in both. To me, the more important thing is what people are doing musically. So I’ll be sure to follow both – and hopefully share some how-to people for our Lemur owners and DIY touchscreen users (or other controllers) alike. Even if you just have a box with a few knobs on it, it is possible to move in some new directions.

Got more examples? We’d love to see them.