Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Cool Kaossilator 2 Tip

Today’s post is about music and it’s going to be kind of trivial, but I’m going to do it for at least four reasons. First, this is part of something that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time, in fact from way-back-when when I first started to learn to play guitar. Second, this relates to something I did a post about a few years ago. Third, this is about a new gadget I bought a few days ago and this gadget will be appearing on the blog a lot, I think, in the future. (I actually bought the gadget for Little Plastic Doll, so she can have a real instrument to play in films, but that is going to take a while to happen.) Fourth, most simply, I’m just kind of proud of myself for figuring out this little tip so quickly after buying the gadget—It’s the kind of thing that should have been mentioned in the instruction manual but isn’t because these days instruction manuals are almost always awful.

I haven’t prepared any audio or video to go along with today’s post, but at some point in the future I will have audio and video of this gadget.

I’m talking about this thing. From the Japanese company Korg, this is their second generation Kaossilator, the Kaossilator 2:

One — Why I’m Interested In This Thing

For as long as I’ve been interested in music, I’ve been interested in instruments that can approximate the freedom of whistling: Discrete or absolutely smooth transitions from note to note, total control over dynamics, and easy integration with emotional expression without requiring great manual dexterity.

Fretless string instruments like violins, cellos and various basses come closest to matching these characteristics. I posted a little about this a couple of years ago: In a perfect world I suppose everybody would play the cello. But fretless instruments require exceptional dexterity to play and a good ear. The very best musician I’ve ever known was a studio guitar player who one time played a fretless bass in a Vegas stage show. He said it was wonderfully expressive, possibly the most expressive instrument he ever played, but he simply found it difficult because it required such concentration to play in tune, especially if you needed to play two strings at once and he never attempted to play chords during a live show.

I don’t have a well-trained ear and I’m not physically talented in any way so fretless instruments are not something I’ve ever even considered for myself.

But these days technology is extraordinary and new generations of instruments are possible that couldn’t even have been imagined in the past.

Korg has a whole series of products called the “Kaoss” line that is built around performing on what is called an x-y touchpad. In the photo above, the x-y touchpad is the little square at the bottom of the device.

I’ve been paying attention to this kind of thing for a while, but I never took it too seriously because technology in the music business sort of comes and goes. The traditional stuff sticks around and usually high-tech stuff is just a fad. But since the iPad has become so popular, music companies have been developing amazing tools built around touch-screens so I’ve come to believe that some variation of x-y touchpads will be around for a very long time.

The Kaossilator 2 is a reasonably inexpensive x-y touchpad device that can do a heck of a lot and it runs on batteries so I bought one.

It’s an amazing gadget. First of all, you can experiment with x-y touchpad performing. Second, you can generate all manner of instrumental and synthesizer sounds. Third, you can record what you perform. Fourth, it can play along with you [!] because it contains looping hardware and software and many of the synthesized sounds are patterns. Fifth, it is a sampler, so any new sound you enjoy can be incorporated into all of its existing technology. Sixth, it has reasonably good output that can be routed into the line input of my current keyboards and other technology.

So I bought one.

Also I like the fact that it is small, so Little Plastic Doll can perform on it. And—this is a kind of extra bonus—some of the built in synthesizer sounds are classic so-called ring modulator effects so the little Kaossilator 2, almost all by itself, can pretty much duplicate the entire soundtrack of the movie “Forbidden Planet” [!] if you buckle down and accumulate the effects with a sound-on-sound recorder.

So it’s a very cool little gadget that I think will have a long future in front of it, both here with me and among music fans in general. And Korg even has a “Pro” version of the device so any routines a musician develops on the little gadget can become as elaborate as he or she may want to take them. And, as I said, iPad resources are becoming available that use similar x-y touchpad input so performance skills will have a future, too.

Two — My Kaossilator 2 Tip

The little x-y touchpad is so powerful because it can be defined and re-defined from one performance to the next, from one sound to the next, or in any style for any reason in any way a person may choose to re-define it.

For instance, the melody for that John Lennon demo song, “Free As A Bird,” can be performed simply within a single octave. So an x-y touchpad can be defined to play simply eight notes arranged from left-to-right, and motions up and down can be used to control, say, volume.

On a device such as an iPad where the touchpad is also a display screen it is easy to touch the notes you want.

On the Kaossilator, if you define the pad as two or more octaves everything is very close together. But if you set the pad as a single octave each note is roughly about the width of an adult fingertip.

(I’ve seen people put a marked rubber band around the Kaossilator 2 or a marked hair-band or bracelet or similar band to provide a reminder, visual feedback for where to press.)

But there is a more interesting issue here.

On the little gadget, the Kaossilator 2, you can re-define the x-y touchpad, but only in certain ways.

For instance, you can control the range of the touchpad, one octave, two octaves or more.

You can control the arrangement within the octave. You can have a complete scale. Or certain intervals. Or a chromatic scale. Or other arrangements.

And you can control the root note which appears at the far left of the x-y touchpad.

But real-life practicalities immediately bring up some interesting issues.

For instance I will use the wonderful John Lennon demo song “Free As A Bird” as an example.

In the key of G, the basic melody, the “free as a bird/it’s the next best thing to be” part, is roughly a descending III-II-I sequence, then a V-VI, and back to a III-II-I. So with a G-root, you need to be able to play the notes B-A-G, D-E, B-A-G. The other part, the “whatever happned to” part, is roughly VI-VII-I, and also VII-I-II, so you need a lower E, F#, G and F#, G, A.

So it’s all within an octave, but you need the octave to start at E and go up, in the key of G, to the next higher E.

The Kaossilator 2 doesn’t explicitly do that. If you set the root to E, it defaults to an E-major scale, and you can’t go in and set or reset individual notes.

However the Kaossilator 2 does allow you to set the root and then also re-set what it calls the scale type.

This is a little annoying because many people these days, even many musicians, don’t particularly know much music theory and many musicians don’t want to be, as they might put it, “bothered” with learning music theory.

So those people will have a hard time getting the most fun out of their Kaossilator 2.

However, if a person has some music theory background, they know that if you can set the root to an E and then re-set the scale type to Aeolian, you get the same notes as a G-major scale, but starting at E.

Similarly, if you want the notes of the G-major scale but starting at A, on the Kaossilator 2 you can set the root as A and the scale type as Dorian.

If you set B as the root and the scale type as Phrygian you get the notes of the G-major scale but starting at B.

A C-root as a Lydian scale gives you G-major notes starting at C.

A D-root as a Mixolydian scale gives you G-major notes starting at D.

I’ve mentioned that E-root plus Aeolian gives you the G-major notes starting at E.

Finally an F#-root as a Locrian scale gives you G-major notes starting at F#.

And of course this works for any key. You just pick the I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII note from any key, and match it to the what is normally called the mode for that step, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian or Locrian.

That gives you the freedom of setting the Kaossilator x-y touchpad to the smallest possible range (for the largest possible finger area to touch) while still giving you the ability to choose which eight notes you want available in the octave.

Obviously this is why Korg gives you the option to change what they call “scale” but most people in the West use the word “mode” to refer to the particular arrangement of half-steps and whole-steps derived from a major scale. And in the West, sadly, many musicians don’t pay much attention to modes anyway.

So it would have been better if Korg had included a section in their instruction sheet describing how you can control the x-y touchpad in this way. But they didn’t. But this is a good tip and maybe it will come in handy for someone.

The “scale” function on the Kaossilator 2 has even more options than the traditional modes, so the more a person knows about music theory the easier it is to make use of the various settings.

I certainly recommend the Korg Kaossilator 2 to anyone looking to experiment with modern high-tech performance techniques. It seems to be able to do a little bit of everything. But like almost everything else, the more you know, I mean really know, the easier technology is to control and have fun with.

The more you know, the more fun you can have.

But that’s also a selling point of a really good gadget like this. Because it can help you learn, too. It teaches you. Because the more you experiment and have fun—if you experiment carefully!—the more you learn.

I love cool gadgets.

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