How To Write Brainwave Entrainment Music

About four years ago, I was in a rather curious phase in my journey as a composer. I was involved in writing and producing music that had what’s called “brainwave entrainment”. The works that I wrote for such a purpose pretty much sounded like this:

Take note that it’s best to listen to this music with your eyes closed and with headphones on:

This particular piece that I entitled “Night Sky” was released under a record label that was called a7records and is now known as Roundwaves. Now, what the heck is the purpose of all this? Music written with brainwave entrainment techniques (a.k.a. binaural beats) is part of what we can call “functional” or “applied” music i.e. music that is not solely written for simple listening pleasure or entertainment. Such music includes those used in film, video games, animation, etc. If music for movies enhances the viewing experience to a whole new level (try watching films without music, they suck!), brainwave entrainment music is designed to put you in a particular state of brain activity. Why? The theory is that setting your brain’s electrical activity into a particular phase will help facilitate various functions such as eliciting sleep, improving concentration, helping you to relax, excite you, etc. As it is universally known, music is a very powerful agent for altering your state of mind. You feel pumped up when listening to speed metal as you go across the freeway. You kind of feel very cheesy when you hear David Pack sing “You’re the Biggest Part of Me”. You kind of what to bob your head up and down when you hear some kind of four-on-the-floor drum and bass hit. Music with brainwave entrainment built into it is kind of like that too.

Now, the question is how do we actually go about writing music that is theorized to have the effect of relaxation, sleep, and other effects? Here goes:

  1. Know what kind of effect you want to elicit first before you go write your track. Do you want your listener to just relax and chill? You need your music to elicit an Alpha wave response. You want them to go to sleep? Go Delta wave. Go ahead and read up on what these brain waves are and what they’re associated with. Start by reading this Mental Health Daily piece.
  2. We need to generate the basic backing track for it, and that basic backing track is something that has a binaural beat that is equivalent to the brain wave activity you are trying to produce. To do this, you need two sine waves, tuned to a barely audible bass or contrabass frequency, one panned hard left and the other panned hard right. Now, it is VERY IMPORTANT that the two sine waves are tuned in such a manner that the difference between them will create an oscillating beat equal to that of the frequency of the brainwave you’re trying to elicit. For example, the sine wave to the left is tuned at 50 Hz and the sine wave to the right is tuned to 38 Hz. The difference between the two is 12 Hz, the upper limit of Alpha waves. The easiest way to do this is to use Audacity to generate these sine waves that are tuned to the exact frequencies you need. The length of this binaural beat track (or tracks) depend on how long you want your music to be. Usually 8 to 10 minutes is enough.
  3. Make sure that the sine waves you use for your binaural beat is in key to the music you are going to write. This is plain musical common sense. Why? First of, you want to make the music as pleasant sounding as you want. Tune your sine wave to a root or a fifth. Second, anything atonal or dissonant will only irritate your listener. For instance, if my music is in the key of G and I want Alpha waves, my left sine wave is in 24.5 Hz (G0 if A4 is 440 Hz) and my right sine wave is 36.5 Hz (about a microtone below D1 if A4 = 440 Hz). 37 minus 24.5 is 12 so I expect my binaural beat to match Alpha waves. In some instances, you may have to adjust the pitch of your sine waves accordingly if your music changes to distant keys. The point is that your sine waves (more or less) have to be in tune to the music.
  4. As for the amplitude of your binaural beats, it should be kept to a minimum as possible. You bury it in the music and it should be more felt than heard. This is the reason why we usually tune our sine waves to bass frequencies.
  5. When your binaural beats are set, write your music over the binaural beats. Notating it first on paper (or your scorewriter) or improvising over it doesn’t matter as long as you get to have appropriate music over it.
  6. Make sure that the music is LONG. We are not writing a radio hit here folks! Not everybody can fall asleep, concentrate, relax in just under a minute or two.
  7. You can write in any genre as long as it is appropriate for the effect that you want. You surely won’t want screaming metal guitars on your sleep music, right? It’s just common sense.

I suppose these steps should be enough to get you started in writing your first brainwave entrainment piece. If you all think I missed out on something, please leave your comments below.

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Remembering “Archery: Shoot the Apple”

Archery - Shoot the Apple

About a year ago I believe, I worked on this physics-based game called “Archery: Shoot the Apple”

I was successful in designing sounds and composing music for the game from scratch. The good thing is that anybody can still purchase the game from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $0.99.

The thing that amuses me most this time is how they describe my sound effects as “funny”. I would take that as a compliment.

Cycfi Research Neo Pickups Now Available!

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Yes, folks. Cycfi Research has decided to release the latest incarnation of the Neo Pickups. The Neo Pickups are full-range, low impedance (active) pickups that can be powered via lithium ion batteries (the kind of stuff that powers your smartphone). If you’re a luthier or a DIY musical instrument builder, this might be the thing that you are looking for. If you have luthiery knowledge plus the capability to understand wiring diagrams, then these pickups might just be the thing you will need to amplify any steel-stringed instrument such as guitars, mandolins, pianos, etc.

The Neo Pickups are for serious hackers and DIYers only. If you’re an end-user (such as myself), these are not for you. You will need the assistance of somebody who knows electronics well in order to get them working for you. As far as I know, end-user versions of the Neos are currently under development. However, I do think that this initial release will pave the way for the end-user version to make its appearance.

I have used the prototype pickups before, and one thing I could say is that the sound of these pickups is comparable to a canvass i.e. the transparent sound of the pickups plus EQ for filtering will allow you to get all sorts of guitar tones that you can think of. At the bare minimum, you can emulate single coils from Strats,  humbuckers from Les Pauls, a shamisen, a classical guitar, a dreadnought acoustic, and other kind of stringed instruments by merely getting a spectral analysis of the instrument you wish to mimic and then apply the information to create EQ settings that will let you get the sound that you want. Goodbye piezos as far as I’m concerned.

To purchase your set of Neos, please go to http://www.cycfi-research.com to purchase. It costs $25 per coil so a set of six coils for your guitar costs $150.

For more information, read Cycfi Research’s own announcement at http://www.cycfi.com/2014/04/its-official-neo-series-now-available/.

Cycfi Inc., Neo Pickups Coming Out…Soon!

I happen to be one of the few people who have tried out the prototype of Cycfi’s Neo Pickups, and so I have first hand experience of how awesome they really are. With its flat response, Joel (Mr. Cycfi Research himself) and I were talking about sculpting and shaping its sound to whatever we want, only to be limited by the capabilities of a parametric EQ and one’s imagination. I remember saying that one of the most basic things you can do with it is mimic an acoustic guitar. A few days later, we now have this video demonstration:

Notice that this guitar player is assuming a classical guitarist’s seated posture, playing Francisco Tarrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” on a Fender Strat, but it does not in any way sound like your typical quacking Strat! (I would know how a Strat should sound like because I grew up with one). Matter of fact is that it sounds eerily close to a concert classical guitar. I’ll be first to admit that (having had some classical guitar training) certain nuances like the sustain and attack of the notes would give away that it’s not a classical guitar, the timbre is very close that only classical guitar nuts (like some of the people I know) would be able to tell that it’s not. Perhaps there is some form of bias on my part that I know it’s not a classical guitar (having physically manipulated that guitar), but it would be safe to assume that a casual listener might not be able to figure it out.

This is a point that was proven in a blog post by Roy C (http://royconguitars.blogspot.com/) regarding the Neo Pickups. In this test, there are four clips and the challenge was to try and identify what sort of guitar and/or pickups were used in each clip:

Is it a MIDI guitar, a Martin, a Taylor, a Gibson, EMG 81s? None of the above, folks! It’s just a Fender Strat with Neo Pickups. Heck, the guitar could have been a cheap knockoff and it would have sounded like some of the most expensive guitars in the world with those pickups. I suppose it would be safe to say that what the E-Bow people call “string synthesis” could be easily done with Neo Pickups. Who needs MIDI guitars when you have these, right? And it is very obvious that I am GASsing for one of those that I already envision taking out the EMGs on my ESP LTD and replacing them with these. Without a doubt, I will soon write a composition utilizing these pickups (with the side effect of fulfilling one of my composition requirements at the university, hahaha!).

The Cycfi Neo Pickups target release date will be somewhere around March 2014. For more details, visit http://www.cycfi.com/projects/neo-series/.

Early Evening at Cycfi Research, Inc.

Last Saturday, I got invited by the man behind the Cycfi Alpha, Mr. Joel de Guzman, to visit his facility somewhere in Quezon City to discuss ideas and possibilities regarding music as well as the innovative projects he undertakes. Realizing that this was one of those opportunities that I should not miss, I gave Joel my schedule and when I would be able to go visit. Fast forward to around 5:45 p.m. yesterday, I was with my son at the gates of what appeared to be a 21st-century-state-of-the-art residence, complete with tight security, a laboratory, and a properly built and well equipped studio. The first impression I got was he pushed the concept of SoHo to the extreme. The gate was opened and Joel welcomed us into his home office and conference room.

Joel de Guzman Cycfi Research Inc

(Mr. Joel de Guzman)

Joel de Guzman is one of those rare, forward-thinking individuals. He is an IT consultant, software developer, musician, instrument maker, and open-source advocate. It’s not off target to say that he’s the local Bob Moog. He strongly believes in give-and-you-shall-receive philosophy so much that he posts his designs and concepts freely on the web which include his hexaphonic pickup design and the carbon-fiber/glass truss rod. He is a living testimony of a person who has been blessed so much because of his belief in giving. One could easily see that the gates and storehouses of heaven have opened up for him because of his unselfish attitude in life.

We talked about a lot of things, mostly exciting and forward-looking ideas for making music. Right there and then, I realized that I was in a presence of a genius. The things we were talking about were mindblowing to say the least. Joel was particular about how he could use waveshaping to explore new timbres and techniques when using the full-range hexaphonic pickup that he has been developing. The math of it all was mind-boggling to me (being a person who has struggled with math) but I guess I had enough knowhow to understand how I could use it. The idea of synthesis using the guitar’s strings and pickups as an oscillator has been expored by a number of other institutions. Companies like EHX have played with the idea by developing the POG and HOG pedals and Moog Music even has its own guitar for that purpose, but Joel made me realize that you could do more than that with his full-range pickup, a parametric EQ, and a waveshaper. He also had the idea of hiring me as his child’s music theory tutor. Sadly, I could not accommodate his request, given the distance I would have to travel to go there and give lessons.

After discussing ideas about how we could work together, Joel gave us a tour of his facility. The Alpha prototype was in the process of a paint job so he was not able to demonstrate how it sounded like. We went into his recording studio and he showed me a Fender Stratocaster with the prototype hex pickup installed. The pickup sounded rich on a Marshall combo that the guitar was plugged into. More than that, the hexaphonic output of his pickup was also connected to his Logic Pro based DAW. How it sounded like was something I have never heard on any other guitar. It was phenomenal! Imagine having individual control over each string having its own excusive output routed to a dedicated channel. Andres Segovia once said that the guitar is an orchestra unto itself. Joel’s hexaphonic pickup pushes that to a whole new level. I was very fortunate enough to have tried it for myself.

Mark@Cycfi Research Inc 01-28-2014

(The author smiling like an idiot with Joel’s Fender Strat and the Cycfi Hexaphonic Pickup)

It sounded crazy good with each string having a different position in the sound field starting with the low E string panned hard right and the high E string panned hard left. Since the pickup had a flat frequency response of 20 to 20,000 Hz, you could do all kinds of things with it and a parametric EQ. One of Joel’s intentions in developing this pickup is to disprove the idea that a full-range pickup is brittle sounding. Upon strumming my first chord on his guitar, I realized that he was right. Noodling with Joel’s Strat for a bit made me see all sorts of things that you can do with it. Some of the more basic things I thought I can do with it is faking an acoustic guitar with a solid-body electric (without the need for piezo saddles) and simulate any kind of pickup. That’s just the tip of the iceberg! Applying distortion to it while it is rigged in a hexaphonic manner was very interesting: full triads sounded very nice and very different. Rather than the aggressive high gain sound you usually expect from your typical humbuckers running into Marshall stack, it sounded more like a guitar orchestra. You could actually play your thirds with the gain all the way up to 10 without sounding harsh or dissonant. I could already imagine setting up six amps in a room or hall, surrounding both guitarist and audience, with each string’s signal going through each amp, exuding music like you’ve never heard before. An added bonus is that the pickup is so quiet even with distortion that the only thing a noise gate would do in this instance is to turn down the ambiance from the amp itself. Another thing currently in development is for this pickup to function as a sustainer. Once Cycfi Research finalizes the design of this pickup, I’m very sure that the serious musician will have to rethink about how to make a sound with a guitar. The question of single-coil versus humbucker would not matter with this kind of pickup. Rather than getting a pickup installed to give your guitar a certain kind of character, you can get the exact kind of voicing you want with this hexaphonic pickup by just using EQ.

Cycfi Hexaphonic Pickup Prototype

(Cycfi Research Hexaphonic Pickup Prototype)

To cut the story short, I was very happy and honored to have met Joel. I hope that this will be the start of a mutually beneficial working relationship. More important than that is the fact that I have met a new friend who has the same sort of passion that I have for something new in music, finding ways to make music that’s really progressive.

To find out more about Joel and his projects, visit http://www.cycfi.com.

“I Miss You” by Shean Cleofas and Lenny Nabor

I remember some time around 2012 when I arranged this song for songwriter Lenny Nabor:

This version of Lenny Nabor’s “I Miss You” was interpreted by Shean Cleofas with arrangement by yours truly. I thought something that sounded like “Everything But the Girl” would suit the song well.

If there would be one thing I’d change in this present recording would be the dynamics. The piano overpowers everything else. I’d also make some changes in the overall mix, should I be given the opportunity to do so. So, Lenny, if you’re reading this, I hope you give me a chance to mix it. I just need a copy of the vocal track.

Apparently, Lenny has plans of working with me again on another song. I’m about to make a sample arrangement of a few bars for that new song. Let’s wait and see (and hear) what would happen next.

Using the Five Most Important Synthesizer Modules

Good day. This is Mark Galang with another post about music production in compliance with the requirements for the Berklee College of Music course called “Introduction to Music Production”, hosted for free by Coursera. In this post, I will discuss how to use the five most important synthesizer modules. These are your oscillator, filter, amplifier, envelope, and low frequency oscillator or LFO. For this tutorial, I will be using three kinds of software synthesizers namely RGC Audio’s Z3ta +1, MinimogueVA, and Mothman 1966. We can also consider this tutorial as a sort of crash course into subtractive synthesis.

1. Oscillator

In any synthesizer (even those that play back samples), the oscillator is the sound source. It produces the waveform/s that you need to shape to produce the desired sound. The most basic parameter we get to control in an oscillator is the waveform selection. We usually have a number of waveforms to choose from including sine (fundamental frequency only), pulse waves such as square and triangle (fundamental frequency + odd harmonics), and sawtooth waves (fundamental + odd and even harmonics).

In the Mothman 1966, three waveforms are available called diamond (triangle), 8-bit saw (sawtooth), and wind (sine):

01a - Mothman 1966 Osc

The MinimogueVA (obviously modeled after the Minimoog) has a couple more parameters other than standard waveform selection. You can adjust the tuning and the register of the oscillator as well as apply an overdrive (distortion) effect.

01b - MinimogueVA Osc

The Z3ta is the most complex of these softsynths. Its oscillator section has more choices for waveforms along with more parameters to shape them. There is even an option available for users to draw their own custom waveforms.

01c - Z3ta Osc

2. Voltage Controlled Filter (VCF)

More complex waveforms such as sawtooth can often sound harsh, and this is why a filter (more properly called voltage controlled filter or VCF) is present in all synthesizers. The filter functions much like an EQ except that in synthesizers, we can expect its parameters to change over a short period of time. The most common kind of filter in a synthesizer is a low-pass filter, the rationale being it is the best filter for cutting out brightness or harshness in the fastest way possible. In a synthesizer, the cutoff parameter is probably the most important. In a typical low-pass filter, raising the knob or slider for cutoff will raise the cutoff frequency meaning that you cut off less of the high frequencies and make the sound brighter. Lowering the cutoff knob will cut more high frequencies, making the sound of your oscillator darker.

One of the fun things about using these synthesizers is when you are modulating the filter’s cutoff, either manually or through an LFO. Sometimes you may want the realtime use of the filter cutoff to be more obvious. This is where the resonance parameter can be very useful. Increasing the resonance will make your use of the filter more pronounced. When the resonance parameter is up to a particular level, some of the high frequencies seep through as you turn the cutoff knob or slider to either direction.

The Mothman’s VCF features the basic control parameters:

02a - Mothman 1966 VCF

In the MinimogueVA, the filter’s resonance is aptly called emphasis. Contour Amount adjusts the Q of the filter and velocity adjusts how fast the cutoff knob responds:

02b - MinimogueVA VCF

The Z3ta’s filter can be changed from the standard low-pass to others such as notch, band pass, and high pass:

02c - Z3ta VCF

3. Amplifier

The synthesizer’s amplifier works by raising the amplitude of the signal coming from the oscillator after it passes through the filter. The most basic control over the amplifier is the master volume section of the synthesizer as shown in all three featured synthesizers:

03b - Mothman 1966 VCA

03a - MinimogueVA VCA

03c - Z3ta VCA

However, we can also have more specific control over the amplifier, allowing us to shape how each note is articulated. This is where we make use of the…

4. Envelope

The envelope is one component of the amplifier that adjusts the amplitude of the sound at certain points over a very short amount of time. The amplifier’s envelope has four parameters:

Attack Time – The amount of time it takes for the signal to reach peak amplitude after a note on command (i.e. pressing a key).

Decay Time – The amount of time it takes for the signal to reach the designated sustain level.

Sustain Level – A designated amplitude level during the main sequence of the sound’s duration. The level of the sound after decay time has passed.

Release Time – The amount of time it takes for the sound to go from sustain level to zero after a note off command.

These parameters spell out conveniently as the acronym ADSR.

By adjusting these parameters, we can emulate the responses of various instruments such as the organ, violin, brass, piano, etc. For example, the organ has a “switch” type of envelope, and so we would set attack to 0, decay to 0, sustain level to any amount desired, and release to 0. If we want the synthesizer to have a piano-like response where the note dies off slowly after pressing a key, we set attack to 0, have a long decay time of about a few seconds, and then set sustain level and release time to 0. If we want the sound to “swell”, we set the attack time above 0.

The amplitude envelope generator is pretty much standard in all three featured synths, although the MinimogueVA has got envelope controls for filter as well and the Z3ta has additional parameters beyond the traditional ADSR:

04a - Mothman 1966 Envelope

04b - MinimogueVA Envelope

04c - Z3ta Envelope

5. Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO)

Other than willfully adjusting all the parameters of our synthesizers with our hands, you can assign an LFO to do this for you in a cyclical manner. An LFO typically operates at a frequency below the threshold of hearing, typically at a repetitive pattern determined by the kind of waveform used and the rate at which the LFO operates.

We can use the LFO to have control over the oscillator for vibrato effects, the amplifier for tremolo effects, and the filter for automatic filter sweeps.

The Mothman’s LFO can be assigned to the oscillator or filter. You can select the waveform as well as adjust its speed.

05a - Mothman 1966 LFO

For the MinimogueVA, the third oscillator (OSC3) can be used as an LFO and can be assigned to various parameters:

05b - MinimogueVA LFO

As for the Z3ta, we can make use of the modulation matrix to route the LFO to control the other components of the synth ranging from the oscillator to the main volume control:

05c - Z3ta LFO

And so this ends a rather lengthy discussion about the five most important modules of any synthesizer.

It took me quite a while to write this tutorial but I think I could improve on this tutorial through video and audio examples. As of this time, I’m not capable of capturing video for a demonstration. If time permits, I will record some audio examples that demonstrate the functions of each synthesizer module.