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Staggered Labs Talks Melody Generator Plugin And Debut Album



Staggered Labs

Innovation is doing new things and Kwame Johnson aka Staggered Labs literally puts into practice this vision. His own MIDI generator plugin, the Aleator has been the foundation behind his debut album, ‘Don’t Say I Never Did Anything For You. Read the full interview here.

1 — What motivated you to develop a melody generator plugin like Aleator?

It was just pure curiosity, I wanted answers to several questions. Why was I was making the decisions I was making as a musician at the time? Obviously, I (like everyone) was predisposed toward using certain chords, progressions, and rhythmic patterns… what did that look like mathematically? Could I encapsulate those tendencies into a codebase and…predict my own songs? How do I introduce variation and chance into that equation? How important is the underlying harmonic structure of a song as compared to other elements like the lead melody, sonic palette, and the musicianship displayed in the individual performances? Can I generate MIDI for drums in a way that sounds good but is still unpredictable? I doubt any of those questions will ever be answered by me but I hope I can make some fun art in the meantime.

2 — How can producers have access to it?

Technically, a producer could load my plugin into any VST-compatible DAW (Ableton, Cubase, Reaper). Of course, for that to be the case, I’d have to get it ready to ship…which I don’t really see happening. It would be a ton of work to get it to the point where I’d be comfortable giving it to users, just from a quality standpoint. Those are hours that I’d much rather spend making music. There are lots of imperfections, bugs, etc. that I’m fine working around locally, but I’d never want another user to encounter them. Also, the algorithms contained in my application are my handwritten secret sauce, I guess I’m kind of loath to share them.

3 — Do you think previous musical education is necessary to start using it? How easy or difficult is it to use?

Yeah, definitely. I think the argument could be made that it’s insanely difficult to use haha, I pretty much had to go back to theory school when I was writing it (not literally). That was another reason for developing it – I kind of wanted a crash course in music theory, I hadn’t had any since high school. I basically programmed the Circle of Fifths from scratch, just based on the underlying mathematical system. You’d need to understand the math behind how chords are built, and how modulation works… you also need to feed harmonic datasets into the plugin in a very specific format, which requires a little programming familiarity as well.

4 — How many ways can this plugin benefit experimental music projects?

Well, so far I have observed three in practice. There’s the obvious studio application we see on the album; just doing hundreds of runs and then editing or manipulating the MIDI output until it sounds almost like the instruments are being played. But that was actually the last application of the technology I thought of. Initially, I used it to create endless generative streams…a concept that is still very hard . for me to explain. Basically, I can set up my environment (including the DAW and plugin) on a virtual machine, let my software run endlessly, and bounce the stereo output directly to a streaming server. The obvious problem with ghost riding the software like that is I am rarely observing the VM myself, let alone do it 24/7. I am dealing with a lot of random elements and probability distribution – it isn’t guaranteed to sound great all of the time. Those streams (Facets and Static Void) are still active and accessible from my site but the whole concept of endlessly streaming is dicey; it’s kind of like a science project with artistic side effects.

One thing that was really fun for me and maybe halfway between the streams and the album was the 80’s mixtape I did a few years ago, Jollies. For that, I deconstructed a few 80s pop songs and created datasets based on chord progressions. Then for each, I did runs targeting the tempo and key signature of the original song and dropped the capella on top. Since I was cloudy on the legality of that endeavor, I didn’t go crazy with a ton of runs as I did for Don’t Say, I just did a couple until I found something I liked. The results are decidedly quick and dirty, but I liked doing it a lot and it gives me a very strange sense of nostalgia and novelty at the same time which is cool.

Finally, you have a live performance. That is going to be amazing once I get it off of the ground. I’m at the end of a development cycle with the Aleator. The issue with it has always been that I had no way to preview what I was doing in front of people – everything was heard by the audience immediately. Like I said, I am dealing with a lot of random elements so sometimes a loop starts, and it sounds like absolute garbage – in which case, I have to retrigger the individual phrases for the various instruments until I have something I can work with. With my recent changes to the Aleator though, I can preview MIDI – I can have one loop playing for the audience and then listen to the next section separately and make any changes ahead of time before I move forward. I guess you could say it’s basically “DJing” live MIDI. So that obviously unlocks a lot of possibilities. I’ve been practicing a lot recently with the new changes and it is awesome to perform “songs” from Don’t Say and have the live version be almost unrecognizable compared to what was recorded, but special in an entirely new and unforeseen way.

5 — If I’m not mistaken your debut album ‘Don’t Say I Never Did Anything For You’ is entirely made with Aleator. When did you realize this material was finished and completed?

That is not entirely true. I would say the foundation of the album was performed by the Aleator but then I went in and zhuzhed it. That includes everything from taking selections to altering the pitch of a series of MIDI notes, copy/paste/deleting whole sections, or adding notes to the piano roll by hand. That last bit is especially true with respect to any fills or solos. My software technically has that capability, but it can sound very awkward and often need to be massaged after the fact.

So, I guess really, the answer is the same for me as it is for any other recording artist. Even though I’m not functioning as a musician in the traditional sense right now, the songs were done when I was satisfied with how they sounded, and I felt like I was seeing diminishing returns on doing anything further with them.

6 — Any word on why there are no vocals on this album? Do you regret it?

Haha no, no regrets at all. I am not a vocalist or a lyricist, so that’s problem #1. I suppose I could go out and find a collaborator, and if I was approached by someone to do music for a project, that is certainly something that I’d consider. I just am not explicitly looking to do that right now. I love instrumental music and at this point, it’s probably the majority of what I listen to. I do recognize that I am alienating a lot of people with this approach, but I’d much rather do that than slap substandard vocals on top of it and cheapen the product. There are enough bad vocals and lyrics out there, the world doesn’t need it from me.

7 — What’s the meaning behind the album title?

It’s just a funny phrase. Friends say that sarcastically when they do something trivial, like buy you a coffee… it evokes the warmth of familiarity but is a little… acidic at the same time. Being that I am working with computer-generated music, I wanted the title to be something accessible to humans, maybe even a little humorous.

8 — Which track took you the longest to produce? Why?

Ugh… “The Burden” by far. I was just lost on that one… there was no focus. That’s actually why it’s called the “Burden” hahaha, it was a fucking burden to produce it. Funny enough… I don’t know if that one ever really felt finished. I just kind of stopped touching it – people seem to really enjoy it though which is great. This reminds me, for this record I was able to work with Ben H. Allen (Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Washed Out, etc.) – he was really great and fun to work with. I didn’t even give him that much direction… he kind of just knew what to do. I can’t stress enough how helpful that was.

9 — What emotions or feelings do you want to evoke through your sounds?

I see the record as representing a lot of moods and emotions across the 6 tracks. In there, I see wariness, hope, resolve, triumph, fear, joy, exhaustion, and determination. Most of the albums I consider to be great display a broad emotional spectrum and I’d hope mine does the same.

10 — What else can we expect from Staggered Labs in the near future?

Shows (whether live or virtual) are my focus right now. I am not quite sure what it means to do this live yet. That will take time as I am kind of in uncharted territory in terms of pulling it off – there is a lot of practice needed and some hardware decisions to be made so it might not be until mid-December. I would expect that between now and then I’ll do some singles that will be alternate versions of Don’t Say songs; by that, I mean songs built using the same dataset as something on the record but with a totally different execution. I think that once people know what that sounds like and how different two takes of the same dataset can be, it will add some intrigue. I’m appreciative of every individual listener and my immediate goal is to stay engaged with everyone. Thanks for listening!



By Erick Ycaza

Hi, my name is Erick Ycaza. I have a BA in Advertising & Graphic Design. This blog is to provide you with daily music news and share my personal style.