Making the Most of 'M'
Martin Russ describes some ways to use Intelligent Music's 'M' program as an effective aid to structured composition.
Martin Russ describes some ways to use Intelligent Music's 'M' program as an effective aid to composition.
M is described by its programmers as an interactive composing and performing system. You could be forgiven for assuming that this is the usual advertising hyperbole, but for once much of what they are saying is not only true, it probably understates the capabilities of the program! Unfortunately, as with many complex systems, actually using it effectively is not an easy proposition - in fact, many owners of 'M' seem to regard it as an overgrown toy rather than a serious musical tool. In contrast, there are composers like Wendy Carlos (and dabblers like myself) who regard 'M' as an immensely useful aid to composition. Personally, I don't know how I would manage without it!
So, are there any techniques to using 'M'? The owner's manual is very keen on encouraging you to experiment, but this rather leaves you in a vacuum. Many people seem to prefer directed experimentation, so in this article I will try to describe some of the ways in which you can use the power of 'M', as well as give some hints and tips on its operation.
One aspect of 'M' which caused me (and doubtless many others) a lot of confusion at first was the Movie. 'M' uses the term Movie to describe a MIDI Song File based method of transferring 'M' compositions to other sequencer programs. You can create MSF files ('M' calls then MIDI Files) but there appears to be no obvious way of playing them back from within the program. Actually, playing them back is easy - you just choose the MIDI File as your Pattern Type and then start 'M'.
Much more important to serious and creative ways of using 'M', however, are the transfer possibilities provided by using MIDI Files. The main criticism that users make about 'M' is that it is not suited to writing structured music like songs. This is true, but only as far as it goes. 'M' is truly excellent for trying out short ideas for themes, rhythms and instrumentations - and the MIDI Files provide the route to using 'M' as a creative bridge between ideas and songs. The basic approach goes as follows: You work on the rough idea in 'M', storing the results as a Movie in a MIDI File. This file is then transferred to your sequencer (it does accept MIDI Files, doesn't it?) where you can then work on it just as if it was a normal track. The difference is that it is much easier to manipulate ideas in 'M' than in most sequencers - they are each designed for excellence in different areas, and so this way you use both to maximum advantage. Not convinced? Okay, let's look at a simple example.
I will choose a very hackneyed 9-note theme for this bassline (Figure 1). Normally, using a conventional MIDI sequencer, I would record the notes from a keyboard, copy them for as many repetitions as I needed, and then edit a few of the bars to add in a bit of human feel. Alternatively, I could play the whole thing in real time, but I am rather too lazy for that!
Using 'M', the technique is similar at first, but has a different end. The notes are recorded first as a Pitch Distribution Pattern, and the Cyclic Editor used to set the Durations (Figure 2).
So far we have exactly the same pattern. But now we can humanise it. For the first pass I would use the Accents Cyclic Editor to set the Accent to the obvious place, but perhaps use a minor accent later in the bar to add some drive to the bassline. So far, nothing special has happened, so to spice things up we can use the Articulate Cyclic Editor section (Figure 3). If we use an articulation pattern on the grid which is the same length as the Duration cycle, then we will generate the same note lengths for each bar; but if we make the grid pattern 10 notes long, then the resulting bassline will not repeat until (10 x 9 =) 90 notes have been played.
I would probably try out a few combinations of Accents and Articulations on the bassline, remembering that there are six available stores for each. If happy with the general rhythmic feel of the line, then the loosening process could be continued by copying the pattern to another of the Pattern Groups - assuming that the original pattern is in group A, copying it to the other groups creates another five identical patterns to play with.
The Feel Numerical enables random variation of the note starts and lengths, within the range shown, simulating a rather 'loose' bass player! I could combine increasing looseness in timing with a more random selection of accents or articulations - by selecting the Pattern Group arrow button and the Articulation/Accent arrow buttons on screen, you can control them simultaneously with the Composing Grid (Figure 4).
Once satisfied that I had enough raw material to play with, I would then set things going and try out some ideas on the Composing Grid. Once I had the bassline as I wanted it, recording it as a Movie would preserve it - although I would probably also turn a couple of other attempts into Movies as well. Quitting 'M' and loading the sequencer program, these Movies (or edited parts of them) could then be used directly for the bassline track, since they have all the performance attributes that we have programmed into them.
You could add further performance features to the pattern already recorded by recording a pitch bend or modulation pattern in real time on another track, either in 'M' or in the sequencer, then merging the note and pitch/modulation data to create a composite track. Either way, the resulting bassline should have been more fun and more creative to produce than the copied repeats of the 9-note riff which the conventional approach would have produced. If you normally spend a long time putting feel into your basslines by editing them with your sequencer, then the 'M' approach could be many times faster!
If you prefer to work to a guide track rather than plan a bassline to bar counts, then all you need do is prepare and save the guide as a MIDI File in your sequencer, and then import it into 'M' as a MIDI File (Figure 5). Then you can replay it at the same time as you perform with 'M'.
Alternatively, turn this around and use 'M' to produce the guide track using the same technique as I have described for the bassline. That way you can use the Performing Grid to control the number of repeats of a section, without any of the hassle of some sequencer-based methods. Once back in the sequencer environment, you can then use this guide as something to hang other tracks on, or even use 'M' to work on parts of the tracks, using the guide as a guide in 'M' as well as in the sequencer.
As any comedian will tell you, the secret of good comedy is timing. Many of the same principles apply to making good riffs or chord progressions. There is rather more to it than just coming up with the right chords - judicious timing can turn an average musical phrase into something really special. The opening to Beethoven's 5th is a classic (sic!) example of the power of timing to add interest to some otherwise very boring notes.
Using the same principles as the bassline, it is quick and easy to record a few chords in 'M', and then try changing the Cycles to investigate the effects of changing the Duration, Articulation and Accents. For four chords, the grid allows you up to four synchronous variations by using all 16 positions, and for longer possibilities a cycle of 15 can give a 60-chord rhythmic pattern lasting 15 bars (Figure 6).
This brings us to one of the most important aspects of 'M' - it can act as a spur to your own invention, because you can use it to help you explore thematic variations without you needing to put a great deal of effort into the investigation.
If variations on a theme sounds classical, then it is indeed applicable to producing classical themes and their subsequent variations, even the changes in instrumentation can be controlled using the MIDI Variables window.
Having created a bassline and a few chords, the next item on our shopping list is likely to be a melody line. Can we add 'M' to the list of techniques for generating 'whistleable' melodies? Of course!
The initial technique is exactly like the one used for the bassline. Record a Pitch Distribution based on the chords in the progression (or some chords not in the progression - it's up to you), or just doodle around until you find some notes that sound right and record them. There are many other ways of selecting notes as possible contenders, but for our purposes all we need at this point are a few notes to work on. The Cyclic Editors can be used to impose a rhythm on the notes now, and you should have some sort of feel for the way the melody will fit into the song structure - for instance, for jingles, the melody often bears a strong relationship to the spoken/sung rhythm of the product name.
With the rhythm partially sorted, the focus moves on to the Note Manipulation window (Figure 7). I can still remember my old music teacher drumming into me the concept that music was a combination of notes and silence, and so the first control for Note Percentage can be more useful than it might at first appear. The lower the value displayed, the more rests will be played. This is, of course, a random decision, but remember that you can also create rests in the Cyclic Editor by setting the Accent down to a level which actually mutes the note - and this is controllable. A combination of cyclic rests and random manipulated rests should be applicable to most musical tasks.
Another trick often used to produce melodies is the reversing of a theme. 'M's Direction control enables the direction to be controlled on a note-by-note basis. For melodies it is often more useful to use one of the six memories and set the value to either 100% (forward) or 0% (backward), and then manipulate in real time. I find the Transposition control rather too limiting melodically, since it just scales the notes up or down relative to C3, and it also seems to be too global and coarse in many applications. This could be due to my limited grasp of the complexities of harmonisation - you may be able to use it more effectively.
The real workhorse section for producing melodies with 'M' are the Note Order sliders, shown in Figure 7. These enable you to choose between playback of notes in exactly the same order as they were entered (all the boxes at the far right of the sliders) or fixed (but alterable) pseudo-random sequenced ordering (slide first box all the way to the left), or even completely random choosing of the available notes (both of the movable boxes at the far left of the slider). Use of the six memories comes into its own again here, because you can have the first playing the original notes for reference, followed by varying amounts of improvisation.
Since you can arrange for all the memories to be controlled by the Composing Grid (Figure 4), you can perform a melody in much the same way as the bassline. When you have decided on an appealing set of moves, the results can be stored in a Movie and then the best melodies extracted into your sequencer. Once you have found a suitable melody, you can always transfer it back into 'M' as a MIDI File and then prepare variations from it!
'M' is a personal favourite of mine. As is evident from this article, it has rather more uses than just producing 'New Age' meanderings. Used intelligently it can be an extraordinarily useful tool for exploring and creating musical artistry. Although 'M' itself is not well suited to composing structured pieces, the MIDI Files it produces can be the key to exploiting its full potential, especially in conjunction with a versatile sequencer in a 'switched' environment - ie. MultiFinder on the Mac, or a Switcher program for the Atari ST (disk 16 in the SOS Software library may be suitable).
'M' is available as a demonstration program from the SOS Software pages. Unlike most demos, it is a fully functioning version of the real program, although the Save functions have been removed. This is an excellent way to try out the possibilities, but you will need the full version to use MIDI Files. Even so, the full version costs much less than most of today's full-blown sequencers, and the combination of the two is a very powerful tool for producing music. 'M' is not so much a self-contained program, more an indispensable utility which will become more useful to you as you familiarise yourself with it. For the control and creativity it can bring out of you, I reckon that 'M' is a bargain!
The 'M' Demo is Disk 20 in the SOS Software Library and costs £7. The examples shown in this article are available as part of the author's 'M' applications disk. See the yellow pages in this magazine.
The full version of 'M' is available from MCMXCIX or any of their dealers.
See 'M' review: SOS August 88.
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