The Record
3:55 pm
Wed August 1, 2012

Translation Software For Music Makers

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 6:25 pm

When you hear a song on the radio today, there's a good chance that song was made using a computer. There's also a good chance that it was made using Western music software like, say, Ableton Live.

That makes sense, of course, for Western musicians, who are used to things like a 4/4 time signature and a 12-tone scale. But Eastern musicians unfamiliar with these defaults might have some issues. Now, a piece of software called Sufi Plug Ins is offering a solution.

A plug-in is a little program that adds abilities to a larger software application, like a video player or a synthesizer. Sufi Plug Ins is a package of such programs that work with Ableton Live, a commonly used music production software. The Sufi Plug Ins include four synthesizers, a drone instrument and a drum machine.

Sufi Plug Ins were created by Jace Clayton, also known as DJ Rupture. Clayton is based in New York, where he works as a freelance music writer and composer. He has DJed in a band with Norah Jones, lectured at Harvard University and hosted his own radio show on WFMU. He runs a record label called Dutty Arts, and some of his work takes him to other countries. He says he came up with the idea for Sufi Plug Ins while making music in Barcelona.

"Spain has a really active community of Moroccan musicians, and I was making music with a violinist named Abdelhak Rahal," Clayton says. "When I sat down and opened up my program, it defaults to a 4/4 beat and structures which to me are really obvious ... but for him was not the default, and so that really got me thinking about alternate paths through sound."

In addition to rhythm, his software was not compatible with Eastern melodies. When a musician sits down to use Ableton, oftentimes they'll compose by playing a physical instrument connected to the computer. That instrument is often a keyboard, which is literally a physical layout of a Western twelve tone scale. Clayton's program allows the user to modify the notes played by that keyboard. Four of the plug ins let musicians play a maqam, which Clayton says, is sort of like an Eastern scale.

"It is a scale insofar as it's a group of notes with a specific tuning, but in a way its more than a scale. It's like not only the notes you play, but a way in which the notes relate to each other and even a history of songs that have moved though these notes," he explains. "So in a way it's a huge philosophical concept."

One maqam, for example, is used for love songs.

"But for the software I had to interpret [a maqam] in its most basic level which is: OK, this is a series of notes you can play," Clayton says.

Clayton has his friend Amy Zhang demonstrate by playing C Major scale on a keyboard running into his computer. Then he switches on a plug in labeled "Khomasi."

"The difference is about two notes," he says. "On a piano they'd be tuned to notes in between the notes of a piano, so they're called quarter tones."

What you see on the screen is an array of knobs and buttons that allow a user to change the timbre of the notes. All of the labels on the plug ins are in a North African script called neo-Tifinaght. Sufi poetry pops up when you scroll your mouse over one of the knobs. Bill Bowen, the programmer for Sufi Plug Ins, says creating a unique user experience was as important to the project as building functional instruments.

"The attraction of most software is that it appeals to a user's conventional understanding of what it should do," Bowen says. "Whereas this software
challenges the user to turn all the knobs and hear all the sounds because it's not a conventional type of interface."

Classically-trained pianist Amy Zhang has toyed around with of these plug ins for a couple of months; she's studied Western classical music since she was a kid.

"I'm starting to use some of the drawings and some of the poetry, some of the scripts, and trying to kind of remember sort of the effects that they're creating and I'm finding once I'm doing this that I also begin describing it in the way that the poetry evokes it," she says.

For Clayton, that's the hope: that musicians will think differently about music, where it comes from and how it's "supposed" to sound.

"As much as it is a tool which many people are now using, I want it to kind of operate more like an art piece, which is to create questions," he says.

Here's one: Say the son of a muezzin is working all day on a new song. How will he hear the call to prayer over the music in his headphones? Included in the Sufi Plug Ins pack is a program called Devotion, which uses geolocation to automatically lower the volume of your computer five times a day.

Clayton has a few questions of his own. Soon, he plans on spending a few weeks in Cairo with young musicians, to see how the next round of plug ins might best suit their needs.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

These days, when you hear a song on the radio there's a good chance it was made using a computer. There's also the chance it was made using Western music software. That might make sense for Western musicians. But music production has become an international effort and Western software poses real problems for some Eastern musicians.

NPR's Sami Yenigun reports now on a solution.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: It's called Sufi Plug Ins.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE INSTRUMENT)

YENIGUN: It's basically an application you can download to your computer that's designed to make Western music software friendlier for Eastern musicians. Actually, it's a package of little programs that work inside a bigger program that a lot of musicians use, called Ableton Live. Four of the plug-ins are synthesizers, there's also a drone instrument - which you can hear in the background - a drum machine and a program called Devotion.

JACE CLAYTON: Five times a day when the call to prayer sounds, it will lower the volume of your computer.

YENIGUN: That's Sufi Plug Ins creator Jace Clayton, also known as DJ Rupture. Devotion is the most conceptual plug-ins, he says. The others have more to do with music theory, things like bridging Eastern and Western scales. Clayton says he came up with the idea for Sufi Plug Ins while making music in Barcelona.

CLAYTON: Spain has a really active community of Moroccan musicians. And so I started working with one, an amazing violinist named Abdelhak Rahal. And when I would sit down and open up my program, you know it defaults to a 4/4 beat and these structures, which to me are really obvious - you know, like OK, 4/4 hip-hop - almost every pop song you're going to hear on the radio there, but for him was not the default. And so, that really got me started thinking about alternate paths through sound in the digital.

YENIGUN: In addition to rhythm, his software wasn't compatible with Eastern melodies. So, Clayton developed a synthesizer that plays a maqam, which Clayton says is sort of like an Eastern scale.

CLAYTON: It is a scale insofar as it's a group of notes with a specific tuning, but in a way it's more than a scale. It's almost like not only the notes you can play, but then a way in which the notes relate to each other, and even a history of songs that have moved though these notes and used these notes. So in a way it's a huge philosophical concept, which opens up. But for the software, it's had to interpret it at its most basic level. Which was, OK, this is the series of notes you can play.

YENIGUN: A maqam is different from a Western 12-tone scale. Clayton has his friend Amy Zhang play a C-major scale on a keyboard running into his computer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YENIGUN: Then he turns on the Khomasi plug-in and Zhang plays the same set of keys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CLAYTON: So, the difference is about two notes and those two notes are tuned to - basically a piano, they would be notes in between the notes of a piano. So they're called quarter tones and you don't really hear it in Western tuning systems. But a lot of music all over the world is based on just different, you know, different notes, different frequencies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YENIGUN: The synthesizer plug-ins display an array of knobs and buttons on a screen that allow user to change the timbre of the notes. All of the labels on the plug-ins are in the North African script called neo-Tifinaght. Sufi poetry pops up when you scroll your mouse over one of the knobs.

Bill Bowen, the programmer for Sufi Plug Ins, says creating a unique user experience was as important to the project as building functional instruments.

BILL BOWEN: The attraction of most software is that it appeals to a user's conventional understanding of what it should do, whereas this software challenges the user to turn all the knobs and make all the weird sounds, and really find out what you like and what you don't like because it's not a conventional type of interface.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YENIGUN: Classically trained pianist Amy Zhang toys around with one of these synthesizers. She's been studying Western music since she was a kid. Using the software over the past few months has challenged the convention she learned.

AMY ZHANG: I'm starting to use some of the drawings and some of the poetry, some of the scripts, and trying to kind of remember the sort of effects that they are creating. And I'm finding once I'm doing this that I also begin describing it in the way that the poetry kind of evokes it.

YENIGUN: And that's the hope for Sufi Plug Ins' creator, Jace Clayton; that musicians will think differently about music, where it comes from and how it's supposed to sound.

CLAYTON: The whole thing is meant to be, I mean as much as it is a tool which many people are now using, I want it to kind of operate more like an art piece. And which is to, you know, creates questions.

YENIGUN: Clayton has a few questions of his own. Soon he plans on spending a few weeks in Cairo with young musicians, to see how the next round of plug-ins might best suit their needs.

Sami Yenigun, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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