It’s … Blue

Creating music with Csound is a slow and fiddly process, granted.  But I’m still playing with it. The essential thing, it seem to me, is this: Conventional music software makes certain assumptions about your music — that it will have a time signature, for instance, and that notes will be arranged in a scale with 12 notes per octave.

These assumptions are valid for many, many people. That’s why manufacturers make the assumptions: If people don’t buy the software, the assumptions are wrong, and need to be changed. But nobody is buying Csound — it’s free.

If you sit down to play the piano, or to write piano music, the nature of the piano will steer your creative effort in certain directions. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the nature of the instrument you’ve chosen. You won’t be writing tones that glide smoothly from one pitch to another, for instance.

Conventional music software is rather like a huge, complex version of a piano. The options you can use go much further, but ultimately, you’re still dealing with piano-like notes. And because you can buy synthesizers that have hundreds or thousands of sounds that are ready to play, you’ll often be able to craft finished pieces of music without needing to think in much detail about the sounds you’re employing. You can just grab a preset and play it from a MIDI keyboard.

Your synthesizer’s browser probably has categories for bass, lead, and pad sounds, for instance. This makes perfect sense, but it embodies an assumption, namely, that your music will probably include a part that is functionally a bass.

Csound tends not to make that sort of assumption. It doesn’t even require that your music be constructed using a series of notes. Well, you need to put at least one note in your score, but it can be used to turn on an automated or interactive process that will run for hours.

Csound events are arranged in linear order on a timeline, because it’s the nature of music that it is heard over some span of time. But there’s no built-in concept of meter.

Nor will you find a large palette of pre-assembled sounds that you can use. Sure, there are lots of Csound instruments available online, and they’re worth study, but mostly they were created by a composer for one specific piece. They’re not likely to be something you’ll want to use without modifications. Or at least, that has been my experience so far.

In any event, Csound instruments are by definition almost completely modifiable by the user. With Csound, you really do have to think about every detail of the sound you want to create. That’s why it’s a slow, fiddly process. If you want a string pad, you start by listening to the sound in your head and noticing details. Then you use Csound’s tool palette to craft that sound. There are usually several ways to do whatever you’re wanting to do, but none of them is nearly as easy as grabbing a preset in a browser.

Csound is a blank canvas. Conventional, commercial software is like a paint-by-numbers set. It’s an amazingly complex and versatile paint-by-numbers set, but it’s not a blank canvas.

I’ve been learning the basics of blue, a feature-rich “front end” for Csound. Blue doesn’t eliminate the need to write your own code line by line, but among other amenities, it has a timeline with multiple tracks, much like what you’d see in a conventional sequencer. This speeds up the composition process, but without introducing too many assumptions about your music. At a basic level, blue is simply a multi-windowed interface with easy block copying.

There’s a lot more to it than that, which I haven’t explored yet. Blue allows you to make a few conventional assumptions about music if you want to. It has a piano-roll editor and even a tracker for building patterns and phrases the easy way. But I doubt I’ll find those very useful — and they’re not central to the interface, the way they would be in a conventional sequencer.

On the back end, blue hosts Python code, which can be used to generate Csound scores. Python is supported in native Csound as well. I have no idea how I would use it — yet. But using Python just seems a lot more interesting to me than inserting notes in a piano-roll editor.

Don’t ask me why. Something to do with brain chemistry, I suppose. Some people think it’s fun jumping out of airplanes, or watching football on TV. You gotta go with the juice.

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