Laptop Music For Beginners

Laptop Music For Beginners

A crash course on turning your PowerBook into your favorite instrument.

Written By

Roddy Schrock


I’ve always been envious of musicians who are able to rough up their instruments. Especially guitarists. They can scrape, scratch, attach alligator clips, hammer, strum, and treat their instruments with all manner of abandon in the hopes of finding the perfect tone. Working with dancers, I’ve felt something of a similar envy: the distance between self-expression and physical action is a short one, at least after one has spent many years intensely practicing. But if your PowerBook is your instrument, artistic gratification through dynamic force is usually not the most practical way to get the sound you want, unless your approach to performance is something akin to a laptop version of Al Hansen’s Yoko Ono Piano Drop. And I must confess, there have certainly been times I’ve felt the urge to throw my computer from the top of a building, usually while struggling to learn some confusing new computer music software.

Of course there are many artists who actively challenge and minimize the distance between the real-world and the digital realm. Groups like Sensorband and organizations like STEIM have been developing electronic performance interfaces for many years, making live computer performance a visceral activity. I once saw a performance by Bob Bellerue from Los Angeles wherein he was cleverly playing only his Pismo PowerBook, running a program called SuperCollider through the house speakers, opening and closing the machine like an accordion, thereby controlling the amount of feedback created by limiting the sound coming into the internal microphone. It was both an intensely visual and sonic experience.

These days it is quite normal to just play a laptop as an instrument in its own right. Laptop musicians are ubiquitous throughout much of the world, as are the popular software titles that empower them. When in a Tokyo Tower Records a couple of years ago, I happened upon a sub-section in their experimental music corner austerely entitled Max/MSP. Apparently it’s not just software anymore, it’s also a genre!

Where Does It All Come From?
Electronic music has a relatively short history, and live computer music has an even shorter one. To grossly oversimplify the matter, thanks to Moore’s law, a small laptop computer onstage today allows one to do more than countless hours spent working with large mainframe computers and bulky analog synthesizers would have thirty years ago. One could make a comparison between the effect of personal computers on desktop design and publishing in the mid-’80s to its impact on electronic music now. (Eric Kuehnl has written a concise overview of the history of computer music here.) It is now possible for nearly anyone to work with digital sound in a detailed and non-superficial way, even on a limited budget. In the pop realm, there are commercial software versions of everything from the Mini Moog synthesizer to the vintage sound of a Roland TR-808 drum machine. Or, on the other side of the coin, using Max/MSP software one can replicate, in real-time, Stockhausen’s Elektronische Studie II (1954). Most of these can run on moderately priced computer of the last 10 years.

Where To Start?
If you are new to computer music, purchasing the basic equipment is not so complicated.There aren’t so many choices to make. In fact, compared to shopping for a guitar, it’s a relatively simple matter. Shopping for a guitar means tracking down exactly the kind of instrument you are looking for, when every guitar manufacturer has its own distinctive sound qualities. In the world of computers, you have a choice between two (maybe three) flavors of computer operating systems: Apple, Microsoft, and if you are feeling adventurous, Linux. For the purposes of this beginner tutorial, we will steer clear of the Linux experience. Historically, Apple has been a stronger force in computer music, integrating its hardware and software very closely, and producing a user-experience that has excelled in creative use. Many will argue that the differences between Microsoft and Apple operating systems are negligible today, but I still believe that Apple is stronger in the realm of professional audio application, as most popular music software was originally developed for Apple systems and have only relatively recently migrated to the Windows’ world causing them to be less than fully developed on that platform. Apple also seems to have a design dedication to simplicity that I find makes the user-experience more enjoyable than Windows. In a word, Apple computers are still fun. I’m not sure that’s the case with Microsoft. And really, Apple is just cooler than Microsoft, isn’t it?

After you’ve made your choice in hardware, the next step is choosing software. Assuming that most of the people reading this are of the more composerly persuasion interested in making live performance environments or sound pieces for installation, Max/MSP, made by Cycling ’74, and SuperCollider, now an open source project, originally created by James McCartney, are probably two of the strongest contenders in designing unique compositional systems. They both allow the composer to work at very basic levels and are essentially programming environments.

Two other programs that are very powerful but a little less demanding of the composer’s grasp of programming skills are LiSa, from STEIM in Amsterdam, and Live, from Ableton in Berlin. Again, the decision about which to use is a personal one, and for some it seems to be almost an issue of theological fervor. I’m going to stay away from the tendency towards indoctrination by simply providing a brief overview of these four programs.

SuperCollider is a text-based, full-fledged programming environment in which complex musical environments can be created and developed with a very high degree of control. It runs on Mac OS X (as well as Windows and Linux, in a limited form). For some people, the fact that it is text-based can be a bit daunting, but it need not be. It is simply a different way of thinking: with a more graphic-oriented program, one works with pictures to get desired results. In a text-based environment, one simply works with words, not pictures. It just requires a readjustment of perspective, but it is certainly not inherently any more difficult than a program with a graphical user interface. In fact, text-based programming allows for concision and precision that would require much more time and screen-space in a GUI (graphical user interface) programming environment. In SuperCollider, there are similar sound-construction building blocks, such as buffer players, oscillators, and filters, as those found in Max/MSP, but the way they connect to each other and interact is different. Instead of a screen full of virtual cables connecting all of the components, it is a matter of writing text in an intuitive object-oriented programming language to determine what, when, and how events should happen. The program is completely free and open-source, to boot.

Here is a picture of some code in which a homemade reverb unit has been made in SuperCollider. One used to have to buy hardware to do this. You can listen to the results of running some frequency modulated sine waves through it here. Don’t be intimidated by the code, with just a little explanation all the obscure hieroglyphics can be made clear.

Max/MSP is a commercial graphical programming environment, which means you create your own software using a visual toolkit of objects, and connect them together with patch cords. The basic environment—which includes MIDI controls, user interface, and timing objects—is called Max. Built on top of Max are hundreds of objects, one collection of which is called MSP, which handles the actual digital sound processing work. Max/MSP is much older than SuperCollider and has a relatively large network of fellow users. Also, its graphical interface may allow for a shorter learning curve. The software works with basic sound building blocks, such as oscillators, filters, buffer players, and so on, which could be thought of as sonic Lego blocks, allowing the user to build intricate sound environments from modular components. The results can be as complex as the work of Carl Stone and Tetsu Inoue in their piece #.transparency, or as minimal as the work of Sachiko M’s pure sine waves. Here is a picture of the kind of environment in which one can work with Max/MSP.

LiSa is a real-time sampling performance environment that has been recently rebuilt for the Macintosh OS X operating system, and it lends itself to intuitive and immediate use in live environments. A graphical environment, it looks like this, is already available wherein it is a very intuitive process to set up a real-time sampling environment, allowing one to manipulate their music live in ways that would have been unthinkable before the age of digital audio. The program allows for a virtual instrument of samples or for processing of an audio input. These sounds can be controlled and processed in very complex ways with real-time MIDI control. Complex systems of triggering and processing can be set up using drawable tables and interactive interfaces. This program takes a lot of the stress out of building real-time performance systems, and still allows for a great deal of customization. This program has been around for a while, and has a very large base of performers using it on a regular basis. This has helped it become a solid tool for live performance, and it is programmed essentially by one person who reads his email and listens to suggestions. You couldn’t ask for more personalized user support. Here is an example of a piece of music using LiSa taken from the user mailing list, by an artist named Kanito using LiSa to interact with a billiard table, entitled Kanito_duo# 1_billar (part 7).

Ableton Live is a hot program. Here’s a screenshot (please ignore the tacky sample names). Used by world-renowned musicians and DJ’s, it has filled a gaping hole in the needs of electronic artists: the ability to loop samples and do it smartly and with style. Live does essentially one thing and does it astoundingly well, it allows you to build and layer samples while auto-magically keeping them synchronized and in beat, if need be. In my experience, I’ve found that almost out of the box I am able to sync up rhythms with very little tweaking. It allows you to trigger these layers by MIDI control or just on screen. It also has an arranger window that lets you create large-scale time-based progressions, allowing one to essentially compose the piece beforehand. I’ve found the strength of the program to be less in the compositional realm and more in the live realm of sample-based performance and triggered loops, thus its name, I reckon. This program will allow young independent musicians to make the next musical equivalent of the film Tarnation.

Ceci, n’est pas musique…
People start making music with computers for different reasons. Maybe part of the attraction is the sense of individual control over the sound, or the possibility of making a timbre that hasn’t been heard before. Or maybe it’s the inherent experimentalism of the whole process and the fact that cultural ideas of a clearly defined norm in electronic music aren’t nearly as solidified as they are for traditionally scored pieces. This provides a welcome release for many composers. Whatever one’s motivations for making electronic music, the tools for high quality digital electronic music-making are readily available and less expensive than they’ve ever been before. So what are you waiting for?



Roddy Schrock is a sound artist living in San Francisco. SuperCollider, Japanese independent music, frequent travel: these are a few of Roddy’s favorite things.</P