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August 16, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»art

Composing with Electroplankton, part one

I started a one-man rock band for four reasons.

  1. I find the idea of one person onstage creating a lot of great noise on the fly to be very personally appealing. It has a kind of bizarre audacity.
  2. My old band became a bad experience, for legal, monetary, and personal reasons. Besides, being in a band with other people requires a lot of bookkeeping, coordination of schedules, and possible drama. A solo project means I practice whenever I want, play wherever and whatever I want (or don't), and there's a lot less load-in required.
  3. Conceptually, the process of building and playing fairly traditional music (rock, blues, and funk) using the limitations of the Line 6 DL-4 for looping (30-second maximum, overdubs but no undo, only one unsaveable loop, no midi control) is a great challenge as a musician. I think I'm learning a lot, not only as a bassist (albeit a fairly weird one) but also as a composer, figuring out how to create and fit together different pieces of the sonic space.
  4. I am a self-centered narcissist, and I wanted the audience's attention all to myself.
The key word to making this project work has been simplicity. The looper I use may be fairly straightforward and stupid (especially compared to the recently released Digitech JamMan), but it doubles as a delay/chorus and the interface is pretty foolproof. Likewise, my effects setup is restricted to two pedals, prioritizing a few golden tones (and manual control) over variety. This doesn't mean I haven't been looking at other options, like a drum machine or mp3-based sampling, but it has to be simple. I don't want to be worried about battery life, software crashes, or a clumsy interface. The less I can screw up during a performance, the better.

Now, some of the DS's best software, oddly enough, is audio-focused--and I'm not talking about shrapnel like Meteos, even though the sound design for that is brilliant. In Japan, two games have been developed expressly for music/audio: Band Brothers (soon to be released here as Jam with the Band) and Electroplankton. I'm still waiting anxiously for Jam with the Band to show up stateside, because it comes with a fully-functional MIDI sequencer built-in, and that sounds just about perfect for my purposes. Electroplankton, on the other hand, is not anticipated to show up in the US, so I imported it a couple months back (my impressions are here). The purchase was largely inspired after I saw Toshio Iwai and his daughter perform an Electroplankton-violin duet at a developer's conference (that video and links to other creative uses can be found at the Electroplankton Wikipedia entry). Go watch it, because it really is amazing.

I'm considering something along the same lines. I tried a little bit last night, and I'll continue to write up my experience as I learn my way around it. Here are my first few thoughts:

  • Marine-Snow, Volvoice, Rec-rec, Sun-Animalcule, and Lumiloop are probably not functionally worth using on stage. Nanocarp may be worthwhile for chime sounds, although I'm not sure when I would need those. Tracy may be useful for ambient noise ("Once in a Lifetime" by the Talking Heads comes to mind) but is otherwise too discordant and difficult to play live. This leaves Hanenbow, Luminaria, and Beatnes as viable instruments.
  • The note-grid where the Luminaria live is tuned to the key of Bb. If I remember correctly, that's the cross harp key of Eb. Harmonica players and blues enthusiasts, take note. Also note that the time signature for Luminaria sometimes shifts depending on which you use as the dominant note (the yellow and green plankton stand out more for me) and how you use the pattern shift function.
  • Beatnes is the most straightforward of the three, bearing the most similarity to a sequencer with a canned drumline. Beatnes has a psuedo-feedback function: the synth loops don't fade away, but they do eventually decay and disappear. The plankton also have a very short "memory" and will knock old notes out of the loop when new ones are introduced. Between these two "features," I might be able to expand my range of covers.
  • Hanenbow is probably best suited as a jam tool. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've used it for creative inspiration before, and it does build great freeform grooves, but it is less controllable in terms of tone, pitch, and rhythm. On the other hand, it is the one plankton that will spit out explicit parameters in the form of leaf angles, so that music can be precisely reproduced. This could be useful.
None of this will be useful right away, but adding Electroplankton to my shows will not only give the audience a change from my usual schtick, it will also up the spectacle factor. Someone playing a solo bass is fairly interesting. Someone playing a solo bass against a video game is much more so.

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