SSEYO Koan Pro, Generative Music 1; Ark Website

PC Notes

Published in SOS October 1996
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Technique : PC Notes

This month, BRIAN HEYWOOD explores the delights of 'generative' music with Koan Pro, and checks out a new, easy-to-use soundcard...

 

You may remember me mentioning Brian Eno's latest project -- Generative Music 1 -- back in June's PC Notes. This work, which builds on Eno's philosophy of self-generating compositions, was created using a Windows application from UK-based company SSEYO called Koan Pro. I've been experimenting with this package recently, and found it most interesting. It looks a little like a traditional sequencer when you start it up, boasting a vertical arrangement of tracks all outputting MIDI data to your soundcard or other synths -- but there the resemblance ends. You can think of each 'track' as instructions to virtual musicians explaining how each monophonic 'melody' line should be played. The instructions can either be very loose (one example could be 'play something ambient in a C scale using the Dorian mode for five minutes') or very specific, and thus more traditionally like a sequencer (for example 'play this defined note pattern at 120bpm until I tell you to stop'). The virtual musicians can even be told to harmonise in real time with each other, or follow one another. This makes the resulting musical output contrapuntal rather than chord-based, and it also tends to be based around a single chord -- or rather a scale -- instead of a chord sequence.

Rhythms can be set up by defining a pattern for each percussive instrument, and you can assign probabilities to whether a certain pattern will play at a given time, so that patterns don't necessarily repeat predictably. You can also allow the patterns to mutate, so that the overall output changes as time goes on, though due to the semi-random nature of the process involved, the rhythms tend to get more chaotic with time. There is a lot of depth in this package, since you can define virtually every relationship -- for example the scales, how the next note in a pattern is selected, the harmonisation rules used, and so on. This approach seems to be particularly effective for producing ambient and modern classical-sounding music, and -- perhaps strangely -- techno as well.

There are actually two ways you can make use of Koan Pro; either as a compositional tool, or as a stand-alone random music generator. In the first case, you use the program to generate one or more MIDI files that you can then incorporate into your own MIDI compositions, while in the second case you target your piece at people who want to listen to the music on their PC directly using the Koan Plus player.

As a compositional aid, the software is fun to use, due to the number of parameters on offer, but what is difficult is creating pieces with a coherent feel. Some basic templates are provided, which you can either use directly or study to find out how they tick. You can then use the 'meta' design properties of Koan Pro to outline the basic parameters governing a musical segment, hit the go button and see what is churned out.

It is simple to produce a pleasing noise using this package, but its forte is slowly-evolving 'ambient' sequences. If you are writing for the Koan player rather than to output the results as a MIDI file, you can take advantage of the random elements to produce a 'unique' performance each time the piece is played. This latter point could be particularly important if the music is going to be used for 'Muzak'-type applications: for example to generate a looping music track to add to a web page. The non-repeating nature of a Koan 'performance' is what Brian Eno finds especially attractive in what he has called 'generative' music.

Koan Pro is a very interesting application, and could be a very useful tool, either to fill in the gaps in your musical armoury or to help you break out of a musical rut. The package costs £163.33 (inc VAT) -- to find out more, contact SSEYO on 01344 712017. Alternatively, you can download demo versions of the company's software from their World Wide Web site, located at: http://www.sseyo.com/

NEW SOUNDCARD FROM TERRATEC

There are many wavetable-based soundcards available at the moment, but most tend to be marketed by computer types, and are aimed at the multimedia or games markets. This means if you are more at home with a musical instrument than a computer, you can quite often be confused by the techno-speak associated with soundcards and have problems working out what you really need, as opposed to what card vendors want to sell you. This is particularly true of musicians who have decided to change from Atari STs to PCs, as the latter has rather more configuration options than the former. German-based company Terratec have designed their new Maestro 32/96 soundcard to make life easy for exactly this kind of person. The card is a 16-bit ISA buss (or AT buss) wavetable-based soundcard with a Plug & Play BIOS to simplify installation under Windows 95. The Maestro is based on the SoundBlaster specification, with connectors for a CD-ROM (Mitsumi/Panasonic IDE/Sony) and a daughter board, and a combined MIDI and joystick port with an additional internal connector for a second MIDI port. The audio side of the card is based on the Dream chip-set, and has simultaneous record and playback at sample rates up to 48kHz -- and Terratec say that they've taken special care with the design of the converters to ensure a high signal-to-noise ratio. The wavetable side comes with 4Mb of ROM for the sound samples, which is comparable to the better-quality soundcards on the market, and the sounds are compatible with the Roland GS standard as well as General MIDI (GM). The card also has an internal 4W amplifier which can be disabled via software, a useful facility, as you don't need to open up the computer if you decide to switch between using speakers and an amplifier or a mixing desk.

The Maestro 32/96 has three external audio inputs rather than the usual two, in addition to an internal connector for the audio output of the CD-ROM drive. The card package includes Cubasis Audio or Cubasis Audio Lite, in versions modified by the chaps at Steinberg to take advantage of some of the features found on the Maestro. This means that a Cubase user swapping from the Atari will feel at home immediately, and get the additional audio features if they want them. The usual bunch of utilities are also included -- for example, mixer applications, and .WAV file editors. The Maestro with Cubasis Audio Lite costs £249, but if you want the full version of Cubasis Audio, you'll need to raid your piggy bank for £349 (these prices include VAT). Both packages come with a stereo condenser microphone and a MIDI interface cable. To find out more, contact Digital Media on 0171 607 2727.

 

CYBERSPACE CORNER

Kevin De Souza from Arksoft emailed me recently about his company's new music web site, called The Ark. There are a number of different sections to The Ark (which is accessible at: http://www.arkangel.com/), each of which is a mine of useful information for musicians: for example, the Bureau Law Scrolls (http://www.arkangel.com/law/) offer legal advice from one of London's top law firms for artists entering into record, publishing and management contracts, to help prevent them being ripped off (as is often the case).

The heart of the site is the Music Session Bureau (MSB) which is an interactive site for musicians, producers, programmers, songwriters, engineers, DJs and vocalists. According to Arksoft, various famous people have visited the site (at http://www.arkangel.com/MSB/), including DJ Paul Oakenfold. Also part of the site are the rapidly-expanding WebSTAGE, a place for happening bands and artists, and a section for record labels and production companies (http://www.arkangel.com/labels/). Arksoft are planning to expand the site, and other sections will open soon, including:

• The Curve, a tutorial area (http://www.arkangel.com/curve/).

• The Music Mall, a section for vendors and retailer adverts (http://www.arkangel.com/musicmall/).

• A studio brochure area (http://www.arkangel.com/studio/).

Ark's help pages also have various useful resources (for example, GM/GS MIDI tables). This site's definitely worth checking out!

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