Saturday, 28 March 2020

Music By 300 Strangers = 380 plus me

Every so often, I contribute to a project, safe and secure in the knowledge that no-one will ever hear of it, or hear it. Well, it may be that this time it might be different...

Over the last few weeks, a lot of musicians, who normally contribute virtual instruments, demos, and information to the pianobook.co.uk web-site and forum, have been working on a collaborative 'systems music' project set off by Spitfire Audio's amazing Christian Henson (his Twitter picture should be on the left...) for Pianoday 2020 - the 88th day of 2020 (88 keys!). And, yes, I was a contributor...

Here's the original 'call to arms' from the end of February 2020...







Here's the splash screen from just before the YouTube video of the World Premiere, which was a 17:00 on Saturday the 28th March 2020 (the 88th day, of course):


Christian explains a lot about how the music was made here.

My contribution...


For my contributions I used my MaxForLive chord device, ProbablyChord, to automate the chord sequence provided by Christian, and used the constrained random controls to produce random inversions of the chords. The sounds that I used were produced by the 'Synthesizerwriter's 29 Bagpipes' virtual instrument that is available free on pianobook.co.uk.


Here's the bit in the main 'Music by 300 Strangers' where you can see my screenshot:


...and in the credits...




 ...there I am. My name in lights! Wow!

Links:


Pianoday 2020.   The official web-page for Pianoday 2020

Yamaha's Piano Day page.  Yamaha's page on Pianoday 2020

pianobook.co.uk. The Pianobook page

The collaboration project   Christian's 'call to arms'

systems music. What is 'systems music'?

ProbablyChord.   My MaxForLive device that I used to make my contribution

Synthesizerwriter's 29 Bagpipes.  The source of the sounds that I used in my contribution

YouTube video of the World Premiere.    The World Premiere YouTube video...


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Monday, 23 March 2020

Swapping MIDI Note Number and Velocity Value in a Max For Live plug-in for Ableton Live

When I produced the MIDI Note Filter recently, I realised that the internal processing would allow some other interesting MIDI processing functions to be carried out. One thing that I have always wanted to experiment with spans across two different topic areas: music and steganography (hiding data in other data), and it builds on my recent explorations of Note On and Off messages, as well as a recent twitter message that talked about security.

(I have also been busy producing material for Christian Henson's 'Pianobook Pianoday 2020' collaborative 'systems music' project due to be released on the 28th March 2020 as 'Music by 300 Strangers'. Search for '#pianobookpianoday2020' on YouTube to see some of the contributions... This has put me in a more experimental and explorative mode than my usual analytical one, so what follows is not my usual type of Max For Live plug-in... but this is a good thing!)



MIDIswapNVmr01 is a Max For Live plug-in that swaps the note number and the velocity value in MIDI Note On messages that pass through it, and it works with the implied Note Off messages that occur when the velocity value is zero. A button is provided that toggles between 'Swap' mode and 'Thru' mode, and the usual '!' panic button is also there to stop hanging notes (I have called it 'ANO' here because it flushes out hanging notes, but note that it does not send a MIDI 'All Notes Off' message - Ableton Live does that when you press 'Stop', which is why the dark blue ANO is shown by the monitor...). Yep, a minimal user interface!

One thing which I hadn't thought about until I created the MIDIfilterNOTEmr plug-in was what happens when you turn off a Max For Live plug-in using the 'Power' button in the top left hand corner. It turns out that if you turn a M4L plug-in off, then it is bypassed, so you can use the power button as a kind of secondary 'Thru' button. So I have included this in the screenshots!

Screenshots


The screenshot above shows the plug-in swapping note numbers and velocities. I have put two MIDI Monitor utilites before (on the left side) and after (on the right side) so that you can see what is happening. Looking at the very last note (just before the dark blue 'All Notes Off' ANO MIDI message), then you can see a Note On (shown as 'NON' in the Monitor utility) for E3 with a velocity of 65 goes through the plug-in and comes out as a Note On for F3 with a velocity of 64. You won't be surprised if I reveal that F3 is the note that corresponds to note number 65, so the incoming velocity of 65 has been converted to a note number (F3) as intended. The E3 incoming note is note number 64, and so this turns into the velocity of the outgoing note as 64.

Let's pause for a moment here whilst you get your head around this. The incoming note is E3 (65) with a velocity of 65. The outgoing note from the plug-in is F3 (64) with a velocity of 64. So the note number and the velocity value have been swapped.

A quick note about note offs. As I've mentioned several times recently, a MIDI Note On message with zero velocity is treated as if it is a Note Off message. So in MIDIswapNVmr01, a Note Number of 0 (C-2) turns into a velocity of zero, which means that whatever the value of the velocity of an incoming note, if the note number is zero (C-2), then the output will appear to be a Note Off message. As it happens, the 'hanging note' suppression mechanism that I use ignores Note Off messages that haven't ever had a preceding Note On, and so nothing comes out of the plug-in!


I wasn't sure how to capture 'nothing' happening, so for the screenshot above I played several C-2s and then an A-2, and then C-2 again. As you can see, the only output from the plug-in is an E6 with a velocity of 9, which is because the incoming note's A-2 is note number 9, and the incoming note's velocity of 100 maps to  E6 when it gets turned into a note number. The C-2 notes thus turn into pairs of 'Note Ons messages with zero velocity acting as Note Off messages', which are then stripped away by the hanging note protection, and so never even make it out of the plug-in.

So there's a caveat / warning / note for this plug-in:

If you input a C-2 into this plug-in, it will never get out!


The screenshot above shows the inputs and outputs in the 'Thru' mode - so the MIDI messages pass through with no changes.


And the 'Power Off' mode, where the power button in the top left hand corner is clicked to turn off the plug-in. This gives the same result as the 'Thru': the MIDI messages are not affected.

As an interesting extra, here's what happened when I tried the MIDI Monitor from the Max for Cats 'Gratis Hits' bundle pack of free Max For Live devices:


As you can see, the MIDIswapNVmr01 plug-in is disabled (powered off) and so the MIDI messages are unchanged, but the Monitor utility on the right has added an octave to each note number: C3 becomes C4, C4 becomes C5, and C5 becomes C6. I'm very used to seeing different octave numbers in MIDI software because there are various interpretations of the standard, and I tend to use whatever the software uses, which in the case of Ableton Live and Max is C3=60, so this has probably been fixed in an update, and I just don't have that update! One area that I steer well away from are any discussions about Middle C and MIDI.

Because this post has talked a lot about MIDI Note Numbers, then this seems like a good place to share two charts that I use a lot when I'm playing/programming. The first is a classic that you have probably seen in various forms before:


So the table above has notes along the top, and caves up and down, and lets you find the note number of any of the 128 MIDI notes. You can also use it in reverse - look up a number in the grid, and then read the note and octave from the two axes.

The second is more unusual...


This is a kind of 'inverted' version of the first table. It has decades (10s (tens)) on the vertical axis, and units (1s (ones)) on the horizontal axis. So to look up 65 (note F3 from earlier) you go down to the row that starts with 60, and then go across that row until you are in the column with 5 at the top. For 65 you get F 3 in the two boxes (note/octave). What is interesting about this are the patterns that you get when you take the usual '2 and 3' pattern of accidentals that you see on a normal music keyboard and wrap it around decimal numbers. The columns have either 3 and 3, or 2 and 4 patterns of notes, and the diagonals have more patterns: 3 and 4 and 2 and 3. if you are into patterns, then the last row of blocks of 2 always repeat the octave in the cell underneath, whilst blocks of 4 repeat the octave value of the cell above the first row. Block of 3 do different things depending on if they contain accidentals or not! If you are familiar with chess, then 'Knight's moves' on this table give you the cycle of fifths...

If you have ever seen one of my Tweets about cryptography, then my fascination with patterns now probably makes more sense. Music and cryptography both contain a lot of maths underneath, and so patterns are not unexpected!

Controllers and control

Swapping the note number for the velocity value renders makes it very difficult to play keyboards and MIDI controllers because the velocity value is often difficult to control with the same amount of precision as you would find on a keyboard where each key produces a specific note number. Velocity is determined by the rate at which the key is pressed down, and so is based on a time measurement. By swapping these two values, keyboards and MIDI controllers gain precise control over velocity (what used to be pitch control is now velocity control!), but lose the precision of pitch control.

Steganography


Steganography is all about hiding information in places where it is not visible. One example is in JPEG picture files, where it is possible to hide data inside them by spreading it across the whole picture in ways that are not obvious. So there might be slight and gradual changes to brightness, colours, levels of noise or other parameters, that are not visible o the human eye, but that can be detected.

In this case, MIDIswapNVmr01 increases the precision with which changes can be made to the velocity value, but the pitch becomes less precise - in fact, trying to control pitch by how quickly you press a key spreads out pitch control into a very imprecise form! In graphical form, this might be represented by the amount of blurring (as a metaphor for the spreading out of data):

So a conventional music keyboard has precise control over pitch, so the word 'Pitch' is in focus, whilst the velocity control is less precise, and so the word 'Velocity' is blurred.


What MIDIswapNVmr01 does is swap the blurring - so now the word 'Pitch' is blurred, whilst 'the word 'Velocity' is in focus.


At Synthfest UK 2019, I spoke to Paul Ward about some of the FM sounds that I had programmed anonymously for the UK DX Owners' Club (many of which are widely available in various Public Domain collections - one set of my sounds have distinctive titles like : '-=[V]=- 1', for example), where there was a high amount of velocity sensitivity built into many of them. Controlling them can be tricky for fast runs of notes, and so Paul said that he preferred to use controllers like Mod Wheels to give more precise control.


What MIDIswapNVmr01 provides is precise velocity control from a keyboard, but sacrifices pitch control. With a fixed velocity from a keyboard, then MIDIswapNVmr01 only outputs one pitch, but you have precise control over velocity - and in fact, even a 88-note keyboard is going to give you access to only part of the full 1-127 velocity range (in exactly the same ways as it only normally lets you play 88 of the 0-127 range of MIDI note numbers!).

Which is why I said right at the start that this was for experimental purposes. I'm not expecting a sudden change in workflow so that people enter pitches very precisely (as usual!) and then use MIDIswapNVmr01 to enable them to add precise velocity as well. But my thinking is that given recent developments with MPE, and with sophisticated controllers like the Roli Seaboard, Haken Continuum and Expressive E Osmose or Expressive E Touche (others are available!)  then it might make people think more about additional control other than the pitch, timing and a very imprecise velocity value that you get from a traditional music keyboard.

Real-world instruments often have a lot of ways that the timbre can be influenced in real-time, and their players know how to exploit this - so I reckon that electronic musical instruments should be controllable in multiple dimensions as well. One very interesting illustration of this is in sample libraries of sounds produced using FM synthesis - what you get are very nicely sampled 'snapshots' of specific timbres, but you lose a lot of the subtle velocity control that programmers like myself put into sounds, and so the timbral variation is missing. I always remember when the first mass-market sampled pianos came out in the 1980s (Technics et al) that they were described by many players as sounding like:

'A very good recording of a piano, but not a piano.' 

Inside

As I mentioned, this plug-in is based on the MIDI processing core of the MIDIfilterNOTEmr utility, so let's see how it works:


As usual, I have tidied my normally untidy code in the screenshot above. The right hand side is very similar to the MIDIfilterNOTEmr code, with the 'select' object switching between two values depending on the incoming value. But here the 'swap' object at the top is used to change the note number and velocity over (as well as changing their 'right=-to-left' processing order), and so the velocity value does the same switching depending on 'Note On' or 'Note Off', but now switches the note number value because that is what will end up in the middle 'velocity' input of the 'note out' object.

On the left hand side, the 'select' object is again doing switching, but this time it is actually making sure that the velocity value is stored. The velocity value that comes out of the 'swap' object contains two values, the velocity value from the incoming notes, or zeroes from the Note Off messages. So the left hand side is all about capturing the non-zero velocity value, and making sure that it is stored when the zero velocity is output by the 'swap' object. So the two grey message boxes are just two stores in series, and the trigger for the storing is produced by the 'select' object when it detects a Note On or Note Off message. Finally, that captured and stored velocity value is fed into the left hand 'Note number' input of the 'note out' object. 

This approach could be extended to longer serial chains, and might open up additional possibilities for doing more complex MIDI processing. Because some previous posts have talked about Max's sample-level lower-level programming, then the message box approach used here could be thought of as being kind of half-way between ordinary Max and Gen: MIDI-event-level, perhaps? 

Fun!

One unintentional side effect of MIDIswapNVmr01 is that it makes playing a music keyboard in the conventional way almost impossible... So if you are every visited by a highly skilled concert pianist, and they want to play one of your keyboards, then using MIDIswapNVmr (to swap the MIDI note number and the velocity value of their playing) will considerably impede them...

Alternatively, sometimes, changing a familiar constraint (like pitch control from a keyboard and changing it to being controlled by velocity) can break you out of creative road-blocks... Inverted keyboards are another way to do this, and I have produced a Max For Live plug-in that does 'proper' inverted MIDI keyboard mappings and lots more!), but just using a Scale utility over an octave can achieve a similar 'writer's block' mitigation.

Actually, combining the ideas in the previous paragraph - adding a Scale utility after MIDIswapNVmr01 so that the MIDI notes are constrained to a specific scale - is a very practical and useful way of using many of my weirder plug-ins (like my MIDI note range expander/compressor and offset utility). What the Scale utility is doing is constraining the variability from the velocity measurement, which takes us to the several variations of 'constrained randomness' in another of my plug-ins.

I'm wondering if I can find time to do a 'how to use my plug-ins in combination' tutorial...

Getting MIDIswapNVmr01

You can get MIDIswapNVmr01 here:

     https://maxforlive.com/library/device/6081/midiswapnvmr

Here are the instructions for what to do with the .amxd file that you download from MaxforLive.com:

     https://synthesizerwriter.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/where-do-i-put-downloaded-amxd.html

(In Live 10, you can also just double-click on the .amxd file, but this puts the device in the same folder as all of the factory devices...)

Oh, yes, and sometimes last-minute fixes do get added, which is why sometimes a blog post is behind the version number of MaxForLive.com...

Modular Equivalents

In terms of basic modular equivalents, then implementing MIDIswapNVmr01 depends on your MIDI/keyboard interface. If that produces CV outputs for Note Number (Pitch) and Velocity, then a couple of patch cables crossed over and connected to the output (with a gate cable as well) will do this directly, giving an ME of 1! This is the lowest modular equivalent so far, if my memory serves me correctly...

Links from this post:


Roll Seaboard (Company web-site)

Haken Continuum (Company web-site)

Expressive E Osmose (Company web-site)

Expressive E Touche (Company web-site)

MIDIfilterNOTE (MaxForLive.com)

MIDIfilterNOTE (Blog post)

Christian Henson (YouTube channel)

#pianobookpianoday2020 (YouTube search)

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Thursday, 19 March 2020

The Allegorist - musical stories available now on Soundcloud, iTunes and other digital streaming services...

I may have mentioned this before...but in case I haven't...

I was at Ableton Loop 2017 in Berlin, at the Funkhaus. In one of the studio sessions, Mandy Parnell gave her opinion on the submitted tracks from a mastering perspective... But one track submission got a totally different reaction: stunned silence! After the session, I provided links for various routes forward (because I was very impressed)...

So here we are three years and two albums later, and it seems like a good time to remind people that there are musicians out there who produce amazing innovative music that is light-years away from all of the usual 'sounds-the-same' stuff that you keep hearing everywhere.

The artist that I'm talking about here that tells stories with music is called The Allegorist.

Link to website:

https://www.theallegoristmusic.com/


Links to releases:

https://soundcloud.com/the-allegorist/levitating-forms

https://music.apple.com/gb/album/hybrid-dimension-i/1410330170

https://music.apple.com/gb/album/botanical-utopia/1121509558


Links to live performances:

https://soundcloud.com/the-allegorist/live-at-suicide-circus

https://soundcloud.com/the-allegorist/live-at-ctm-festival-2020

https://soundcloud.com/the-allegorist/noods-radio-liar-bird-live-exploration-007-w-the-allegorist-04022020

https://soundcloud.com/the-allegorist/live-at-elektron-studios-berlin