M4SONIC on the pad controller as musical instrument

May 16, 2014
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You know those click-bait headlines on Facebook that end with “You won’t believe what happens next”? In the case of classically trained Nick Boundy, a.k.a. M4sonic (that’s “em-four-sonic”), the hype is more than deserved. “Controllerism” isn’t entirely new—artists like Moldover and Jeremy Ellis have been trailblazers for some time. But M4sonic takes it to a new level, with every percussive and pitched note of his sonic creations mapped to a different pad on his Novation Launchpads. He plays songs through in real time, with no loops running, triggering something different at seemingly every sixteenth-note. These skills have gotten his YouTube videos over 30,000,000 views and netted major deals with Sony and Ultra Music. Click below to watch two prime examples, then read on to see how he does it.

  • "Virus" (original song performed on Novation Launchpad)
  • "Weapon" (improvised mash-up on Novation Launchpad)

 

How does your classical piano training affect your approach to creating electronic dance music? 

When I compose music, I begin by playing a melody on the keys. The melody is crucial to my music and is sometimes lacking in other genres of EDM. 


When did you start piano lessons, and who was your most influential teacher?

I first began playing at age five with my mum on the family piano, which had been left to us by a family friend who was a travelling concert pianist. I would memorize a sequence of notes that I could play while my mum played a piece of music. I then had to make up the rest, and that’s my earliest memory of my first composition, which I performed at school in grade 1. 


What was your point of entry from playing piano into wanting to make electronic music? 

It was a combination of driving my parents mad with the constant practicing in the living room and their support for me wanting a keyboard that had more features than just a piano sound. That conveniently came with headphones so that I could play all night without disturbing anybody! 


Given your keyboard training, why not just map your slices, hits, and other sonic elements to keys? What advantages does a grid controller like the Launchpad provide? 

The Launchpad has no function until you map it. Therefore, unlike a piano where middle C will only ever be that note, I can map my own musical language. Originally that language didn’t have much logic to it, only an organically built layout of sounds that my brain found easy to remember. It became such a personal space where my music was designed for me only. Over time I’ve adapted my loops and hits into a more methodic layout. Of the 64 LED buttons on the Launchpad, I have four quadrants of samples with very linear groupings. 


Do any aspects of traditional keyboard training translate well to the Launchpad for you? 

My learning style is via repetition and visual cues. I was never brilliant at sight-reading sheet music, so I quickly became accustomed to relying on muscle memory. The Launchpad is like a three-dimensional keyboard in that I can move vertically, not just horizontally. My hand positions, strangely, are very similar to playing chords on a piano. The dexterity from all those years of scales on the piano has also really helped. 


What more can you tell us about your general mapping scheme on the Launchpad? 

The bottom right quadrant will have the majority of the chord and synth stabs. The top right might have pretty much anything; usually it acts as a linear extension of certain stab or chord sounds from the 16-button quadrant below. The bottom left is for percussion and FX, and above it in the top left quadrant I keep uplifters, vocals, and chord stabs that might be in an intro but not in the main body of the performance. 


In that bottom left quadrant, it seems like you prefer to finger-drum grooves MPC-style rather than letting a loop just run?

Spot on. The samples are generally laid out so that my thumb plays the kick, my index finger plays the snare, my pinky plays the ride, and my fourth finger plays the crash. My left hand is always responsible for the drum kit and other sounds like vocals, risers, and so on. Working out sequences though, that’s a process of trial and error. There’s no genius formula, just a lot of practicing. 


For your drum sounds, are you mainly using a kit-type virtual instrument in Ableton, or REX-style slices of longer audio loops?

All my drum sounds are one-shot samples. Often my bass kick is something that I’ve resampled from an existing project where I’ve layered a top kick over my main kick, tuned to the key register that my miscellaneous [pitched material] is in. The same goes for the other percussive sounds from sample packs I’ve collected. 


What are your favorite soft synths for stabs? Bass sounds? Leads? 

I’m a huge fan of plucky synths. I often use Sylenth for those sounds. My bass sounds are usually pretty basic sine waves layered with a square wave straight out of Massive, but I like to process the audio with some distortion and other effects before I have my bass samples ready for use on the pads. Leads are much the same. Depending on what VSTi I’m using, I find that resampling the single stab with another, over and over, creates some really unique sounds that I can use in other projects by again resampling, time-stretching, pitching, and layering. 


Your hands are fully occupied on your Launchpads in live performance. Even so, are there any plans to incorporate, say, an analog synth? 

I actually just purchased an aluminum Minimoog Voyager that I saw at NAMM, which sounds and looks amazing. Expect not just a new sound in my production, but a new element of performance with this synth in the future! 


DJing has one important cultural aspect in common with jazz: The idea of covering, quoting, and interpreting someone else’s “standard.” Do you think that your method of dissecting the rhythmic and pitched content into all these pad-mapped elements might encourage “live remixing” between artists?

One hundred percent. Just recently I teamed with Novation to give away my samples via a YouTube competition where people perform on the Launchpad iPad app. It’s been really exciting to see how users who’ve downloaded the sample pack are moving samples around and laying things out in their own ways to make new remixes of my performance of “Virus.”

It’s also becoming increasingly common for artists to share the stems from their tracks for remix competitions, and a growing number of controllerists out there are starting to experiment with this. Instead of putting a track together on a computer using a DAW, then transferring it and playing it live on CDJ decks, I hope more producers start to use the controllers and instruments that they made the music with to perform it live. What makes the Launchpad such a great tool is its versatility for studio and live performance.


Are there any non-EDM musical influences in your background, other than the aforementioned classical training, that might surprise your fans?

Yeah, I would listen to Korn. I was a huge fan of their drummer Joey Jordison. I always wanted to play drums. I mucked around on friends kits but never had lessons. On the complete opposite scale I was listening to Vangelis and orchestral compositions. I appreciate music for what it is, not the stereotype that accompanies it. I don’t ever want to feel restricted to making music that’s only “EDM.” 


Where do you think EDM is headed overall, and what can be done to promote more real musicianship—and appreciation of that by fans? 

The biggest part of this is educating audiences about how EDM is produced and performed. There is a growing dissatisfaction with the “press play” mentality and acts like Disclosure and Robert DeLong are growing large fan bases as a result of not only their music but their live performance. Similarly, big-name superstars like Skrillex, Zedd, and Above & Beyond are doing live instrumentals as a way of showing their fans that they’re also musicians. Commonly, EDM fans think of a producer and a DJ as the same thing. These two roles have been meshed together and often a great electronic producer is not an amazing DJ. Similarly there are some technically amazing DJs who can’t really make music. I think that helping the community understand that these are two unique skill sets will make them really appreciate the artists who both produce their music and perform it in a unique way.

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