Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tabletop Q+A and Song: Starpause

Starpause (Jordan Gray) founded the Mp3Death netaudio label in 2004 and has been making chip tune music since long before that. Recently, he's been featured in Giant Robot, on De:Bug Magazine and Create Digital Music, along with many other chip tune focused websites. He's a bicycle enthusiast and strong advocate for Creative Commons. We met Jordan through our Mobile Music Meetup and he has entertained the attendees with great performances and discussion. When we started working on new devices for Tabletop, we wanted to get some insight from him. Luckily, he was able to create the all new song "algebask9d" and make fun use of Magic Mic. Read below for his thoughts on his history, experiences, and Tabletop.

You are heavily involved in the chiptune. Can you give me a little insight into what drew you into the world of computer based music?
I was introduced to electronic music first through listening. My parents used to put Down to the Moon by Andreas Vollenweider on whenever we had spaghetti dinner. Besides that I had an Amiga2000 growing up and would make cassette tapes of music from my favorite games: Shadow of the Beast (David Whittaker), Leander (4-mat), and The Cycles (Kris Hatelid).

When it came to making music, I started out with what I could borrow from friends: keyboards run through guitar effects recorded on a four track. My girlfriend and I were avid garage salers so I got into circuit bending cheap toys I bought as well. I would incorporate the Amiga talking to that stuff but I didn't figure out about trackers until i had a PC. Impulse was my main tracker but I've used a slew over the years. Even though I was trying new software like Logic, FruityLoops, Reaktor and going through hardware like the TG-100 and a Paia Fatman I built, tracking really stuck.

Let's talk gear and feel free to be as nerdy as you like. What are you using? What are your favorites instruments and devices?
The history indulgence carries over nicely into what I'm using now, which is a combination of battery powered toys. LGPT (Piggy Tracker) running on PSP, the OP-1 synth by Teenage Engineering, and a bunch of different apps on iOS. The OP-1 has been so good to me, instant inspiration every time I turn it on. Besides having great synth and drum voices, it's got a 4 track built-in so it's my creative scratch pad. The one thing it's not great at is arrangement and mixing so I do that in Ableton on PC. I've tried a few iPad apps for arrangement/mixing but none could hold a flame to Ableton, hope that changes.

Another thing about the OP-1 is that it's very loose, there's no quantize or going back and fixing. If I want a stiff beat or synth line I'll run piggy or an iOS app into the OP-1. Apps like FunkBox, GlitchBreaks, WAG ERG, Nanoloop are great for beats. Another thing I reach to iOS for is an app that keeps me in key like ThumbJam, I Am T-Pain, Animoog, iKaossilator. I don't have any formal music training and pretty much suck at playing so I love these instruments that take advantage of the touchscreen's ability to break away from the traditional keyboard.

There are standalone apps I run on iOS too, like Nanostudio, Beatmaker, Tabletop, Pixitracker. They all draw to me in some regard but I always find myself back at Piggy, just for the speed of composing on it and the perfectly gritty non-interpolated 16bit sample playback.

What's your normal music writing process like?
No matter what I'm using, I'll jam for a night or few on a theme, waking up each morning and deleting whatever doesn't sit well in my ears, whittling things down to tolerable chunks that I'll render out as songs for SoundCloud or WeeklyBeats or whatever netaudio label has got me horny.

It's great that you were able to create a song within Tabletop. How did you find the process? Can you describe how you created the track?
Making "algebrask9d" with Tabletop was good fun. I started out with a sidechain preset, whenever I pick up Tabletop the compressor calls to me because it's something I don't have access too in piggy tracker or any other iOS software. I went crazy building from there, Tabletop is like audio Legos, it encourages experimentation and playfulness, so I just followed my inspiration and curiosity until I was happy with what I had and there was no more room on the table to lay another machine down.

Did you encounter any special limitations or secret tricks?
The limitations I wrestle with in tabletop are in some ways similar to the OP-1: it's easy to be inspired but it's difficult to finalize something. The building and rough sketch go so quick, but then I would spend several takes re-recording fader wiggling and trying to get it to loop nicely. A view where I could draw parameter envelopes would be a god send, but it's also so far from how the software works I can see why it's been left out so far. That said, Audiotool has done a nice job of tackling the added complexity in a similar environment, albeit on the desktop.

Another thing I struggled with was arrangement. The triggerator feels quite monolithic, which keeps things simple, but lacks the versatility of Piggy tracker or Ableton where you can arrange patterns on a grid. Other softwares that do that well are Nanoloop, Nanostudio and Beatmaker.

A feature that could help with both of those limitations would be stem/loop export. That way I could quickly get the inspiration out in tabletop, then bring things into Ableton or another software for final tweaks.

What do you think of working on touch devices like the iPad? Do you see these types of devices becoming more prevalent in music production and creation?
I'm glad that despite all the adverts telling us that tablets make great media consumption devices, there's so much software being released that's bent towards media creation. Not just music but visuals too, Procreate for sketching and TouchOSC for visual projection/performance where you ALWAYS need another slider. All this inovation in just a few short years, 5 years ago you could only program html apps for iPhone. It's exciting to be on this cusp where every month we see innovation and refinement in the app releases.

But all the variety can be distracting. When I was using nothing but Piggy tracker life was simple: I'd grab two PSP and if there was a dj mixer I could do my live set. Producing tracks with so many different apps and the OP-1 and still some Piggy tracker, I've taken more to performing DJAY sets where I can incorporate everything, but still have some knobs and improvisation going on in my track selection and with effects like Pioneer's efx1000. The problem with that set up is that when I play out I dance a lot, then I sweat a lot, then the touch screen quits working...

You got a chance to use the new Magic Mic. What did you think?Magic Mic is fun! Vocals can add a lot of personality to a track, even just in snippets, so I expect a huge step up in the quality of stuff coming out of the SoundCloud group with Magic Mic's release. I don't like vocals straight or lyrics very much so on "algebrask9d" I ran the Magic Mic through Glitchboard. I was planning to have my partner puppyspazz make some noises into it but she wasn't in the mood so I ran with a bside take of myself coaxing her into the song. Magic Mic's strength is that it works with what it has: using a few audio effects to make that built in microphone fun and easy to use. It's not Voxengo but it's workable, and it's always sitting right there so I'll actually use it a bunch. Kind of like the Lomography/photographer's creed: the best camera is the one you have with you.

Do you think you will use the iPad and/or Tabletop in your music in the future?As long as I've been performing live, someone is always trainspotting the gear and wants to talk to me about it in the middle of my set. It's happened to me playing with hardware samplers, Gameboys running LSDJ, and the iPad. On the other side, I've been told my rig is a gimmick or that I'm not true chip music because of this or that. Either way, there's always something to discuss with the foamers, so I just use whatever I feel like getting expressive on and have fun with it.

The iPad and tabletop both fit nicely in that zone, especially doing tracks with whatever and then using DJAY for performance. I thought I'd feel more limited by using dj software for performance but it actually allows my sets to be more versatile and in tune with the audience. I do miss the rawness of live tracking with Piggy but have gained appreciation for the craft of djing. It's been a part of electronic music from the start and I see why, you can produce your tunes with whatever heavy studio you want and then carry something light and resilient to parties and gigs. Even a crate of records is lighter than a modular synth.

There's also the trend of everyone being a dj, with turntable.fm, iPad applications and mixed in key making it easier than ever. I hear some complaints about the unwashed masses diluting the electronic music scene but I consider this to be a good thing. The more people understand about what I'm doing, the more they can appreciate my performances. When I was performing with Gameboys I always had to explain that I wasn't sampling video games, but manipulating the same hardware synthesizers that those games used. People who had made their own chiptunes already got it and appreciated what went into it.

So I hope the "everyone is a dj" trend continues to grow and soon we have "everyone is a producer" problems. The more people that are out there creating, the more niches can be explored and the more weird sounds we'll wind up with. And I love wet, weird sounds.

What does Starpause have on the horizon? New releases?Starpause hype doesn't slow down! I've got wax on the way via Radiograffiti label of Milwaukee and an album of OP-1 jams queued for release on Monobomb who are my neighbors here in San Francisco. Also in San Francisco, I've been resident DJAY at the Mobile Music Meetups that Retronyms have been throwing, it's not an out of control party but a great event for nerding out and seeing people stretching the limits of what I thought was possible in terms of touchscreen performance. The horribly time consuming art of projecting visuals has also caught me. I've got a good number of clip-based vj sets under my belt and am looking forward to sharing more original clips on videopong.net and cobbling together a Starpause audio-video set. As well as running my two netlabels: mp3death.us and hexawe.net... whew!

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