When we interviewed Mike Gao, we realized that he understands his gear better than any beat maker around because he makes half the applications himself, and whatever he didn’t personally create, he knows inside and out. With a PhD in music technology, Gao has developed virtual instruments that incorporate a vast array of music-theoretical nuances that most producers never even considered controlling. Whereas many of us drop in sounds, arrange them, and tweak them until we like what we hear, Gao crafts each layer of his tracks with meticulous attention. The result is mathematically funky—crisp, wonky beats, and absolutely perfect melodic patches intertwined with each other.
Much of his innovation falls upon deaf ears, as most folks listening can’t tell how much is truly going on in a Mike Gao track, myself included. When I’m listening to a Gao beat, I diminish my ignorance by picturing Gao with a bunch of formulas and algorithms floating around his head like he’s about to go all Beautiful Mind. But it’s not all just nerdy jargon. Gao’s inventions are sometimes simple, practical items that allow for more intuitive production. For Gao, rather than slaving over getting a sound perfect with the tools present, it’s far quicker to create something new that addresses his specific need at the moment.
This is likely our most technical LAYERS to date because Mike goes into immense detail about each part of the song, and though some of it might be over our heads, each explanation is a fantastic insight on how we can all be better music-makers and listeners. That being said, let’s dive in.
This is a track for Hit n Run’s Road Kill Vol. 1 compilation with tight homies on it like Zackey Force Funk, Mestizo and Mono/Poly. It’s a five minute track and I was at first disappointed that they told me that they wanted it for the iTunes bonus track only, but then I realized five minutes can often mean putting my one track on versus perhaps five one minute tracks by five other producers.
A lot of my technology work ends up as something that allows me to achieve the same kind of music as what is existing, but more conveniently and easily. Convenience often allows for faster trial and error through different permutations, and can create results that an inconvenient method would not have stumbled upon, even if the two methods can theoretically arrive at the same place.
Lets start with the chords. I wrote the chords using an iPad app that I created called Polyplayground. It is essentially a pitch space app that I use as a MIDI controller to control my analog Roland Juno 106. [Here’s where it gets technical] The default space is three-by-four, meaning the horizontal axis ascends by minor thirds (three semitones), and the vertical axis ascends by major thirds (four semitones). This shape allows me to very easily write and extend major/minor ninth, dominant chords, major/minor chords, etc. by building upon simple Tetris shapes. The colors allow one to find the same note in other octaves and allow for better voicing. Often the voicing is biased to have a lot of thirds in this space, so I try to invert them to create more fourths. The colors also allow you to stay in one diatonic area by color region, or simply, stay in key by playing similar colors.
The same shapes are the same in each key, so I can modulate my chords around at will and change keys at will for a jazzier sound. At the beginning of this beat, I generally hover around a few chords and do not change much, but toward the middle, I move around with the chords a lot more. All the writing is totally freestyle, one or two takes, on my iPad app. Very convenient.
Moog Slim Phatty
The second layer I want to show are my Moog lines/basslines. I did these on my Moog Slim Phatty when I first got it. I do a pitch envelope that is descending, which also uses my Pitchbend max4live patch to conveniently/quickly execute. One bass sound in this layer is not created by my analog synth, and is digital. (I wonder if anyone can tell?)
For the melodies, I use my iPad app to view what I played previously, and it allows me to simply play stuff on top. It is so easy to compose when you see the chord changes happening under what your playing, and my iPad app allows this. One tip is to move the chords that you are viewing a bar or beat ahead. A jazz guy once told me that it can sound good if you anticipate the harmony change in your melody, so seeing the harmony change a bar ahead helps while freestyling a melody. So viewing my chords on the iPad, I freestyle the melodies on the iPad and it is easy as hell because the same colors are octaves of the same note, similar colors are in the same key.
Next layer is the drums. For the drums, I programmed/tapped and quantized them. I use some other sneaky tricks to ensure that the drums sound pretty much quantized, but are deceptively not, and have slight amounts of consistent timing throughout. The timing isn’t off enough that straight, constant 16th notes sound off, but it is definitely not 100% straight ever. I came from the whole post-Dilla LA beat scene so I’m always scheming on playing with the timing.
One other thing I do with timing is change the time signature into 5/4 and back throughout the beat. I also change certain parts/percussion into 7 or 11 or something like that (I forgot), but for shorter amounts of time (only at the end of the bar). The 5/4 I do for two bars of a drop where it’s only the descending synth, bass, and 5/4 drums.
Again, some people may be able to achieve this manually or through other means, but I went the backwards route and programmed a VST plugin. I pretty much press one button and I can put my MIDI percussion locked to any time signature. The plugin is so powerful and huge for producers, but most of my homies I try to send it to either sleep on it, or use it and keep it a secret, or don’t know how to install plugins. I even released it for free and you can find it somewhere on the net but people sleep on it. So basically my drums are all written in 4/4 but I use my plugin, press a button, and momentarily go to another time signature in this beat.
Finally the last layer is all the other samples and stuff. I sample some horns and some vocals which, turn into a texture in the middle of the song. The textures are created by a process involving the vocal samples being automatically chopped up into tiny fragments, each fragment going through pitch detection to find out the pitch of the fragment, and then crafting a texture of voices that is put back together based on pitch. It’s like analyzing a movie, finding out the color of each frame, and putting the frames back together by order of a color gradient. Theres also some pitched vocal samples at the beginning and some laser sounds I made with either my Moog or a soft synth.
“Udon Quixote” sans drums
Here are all the melodic components together without the drums.
Put it all together and here’s what you get. “Udon Quixote” by Mike Gao."