One of the biggest reasons I buy new gear is that it offers a fresh workflow. As much as I believe that having a system, routine, and even templates can help improve your productivity, sometimes this all leads to music that all sounds the same. We begin to rely on old tricks and habits, and as a result, our music can feel stale and redundant. A new instrument, plug-in, or even workspace can inject inspiration and cause us to work in new ways, leading to new ideas.
Watch AfroDJMac's overview video of Liquid Music:
This is why I think Liquid Music by WaveDNA is so cool. Liquid Music is an AU, VST, and Max for Live plug-in that allows you to set a few musical guidelines and paint your music by clicking and dragging. You can set the key, chord progressions, and rhythms, or choose from a huge offering of presets, and begin drawing in music. Liquid Music creates melodies, chords, and rhythms that are perfectly in key and very musical, all based on the shapes you draw. After a little bit of time learning the interface, I found myself drawing in musical ideas that I would never have performed or programmed otherwise. For this review, I'll be discussing the Max for Live device for Ableton Live. Liquid Music works similarly in any DAW, as a VST or AU (the most recent update features a useful MIDI export option). Let's have a look at it!
Setting up is easy. We navigate to our Max for Live folder and find Liquid Music in the MIDI devices folder. Drop Liquid Music on a MIDI track and it is ready to work for every track in your arrangement. The first thing you must do is load an instrument on a MIDI track and create an empty MIDI clip. Select the clip and then move to the Liquid Music window. Most of the screen is dominated with a familiar piano roll, where you draw in your notes. To the left of the screen is the Harmony Builder, where you set the parameters that affect how notes are drawn in the piano roll.
The Learning Curve
It won't be long before you can make use of Liquid Music. The piano roll is immediately familiar and the method of drawing in notes is pretty intuitive. However, it will take you a little bit longer to learn the subtleties. To help with this, WaveDNA has done a few things that make learning and understanding Liquid Music easy. In the bottom left-hand corner, there is an information box, similar to the one in Live, which gives descriptions of anything the mouse is hovering over. This is extremely helpful when learning how to use Liquid Music. Not sure what something does? Hover over it for a brief explanation.
Even better, there are question marks spread about the interface. Click on these and a video window opens with a brief and to the point video tutorial explaining how that parameter or section of Liquid Music works. The information panel and question mark icons are the best way to learn Liquid Music, because the Quick Start guide isn't very informative, and the manual is over 100 pages long (but it is a quick and informative read, loaded with images).
The Workflow and Immediate Results
If you start drawing in the piano roll, Liquid Music immediate starts drawing in triads that get snapped to the shape of the line you draw. Want an ascending chord progression? Draw a diagonal line up. The opposite is true for descending progressions. But it's unlikely we will want to compose a track with just C Major triads and inversions, so we will have to investigate the Harmony Builder.
In the Harmony Builder there are six tabs: Presets, Sketch, Chords, Voice, Rhythm, and Key. Presets contains global presets that affect the other five tabs, great for quick starts. Sketch has preset drawing patterns (so you don't have to constantly redraw ascending lines for instance). The Chords tab allows you to pick out different chords for your clip and sequence them together. You can use a handy mood suggester, which that will offer chords in different moods (happy, sad, melancholy, etc). Alternatively, you can select from chords that are in (or out) of your song's key. In the voice tab you can determine how many notes will be created when you draw and what their relationship to each other will be. Set the duration, timing, and velocity of notes with the Rhythm tab. And choose your song's key with the Key tab.
Each tab has useful presets and you can also create your own. So essentially, you set the guidelines for your clip and then draw the shape you want your melody to take. Simple!
The Rhythm Builder
When you create a MIDI clip on a track that has a Drum Rack, Liquid Music opens its beat building interface. This is actually one of my favorite features in Liquid Music. Here you can easily drag and drop separate patterns for each cell on a drum rack. Of course, you can also draw in notes for each cell. I find this method to be very inspiring for beat creation. Once you zoom in on the interface a little, you can easily change rhythms and velocities for each drum rack cell. Once again, I found myself building rhythms in new ways. That resulted in beats I probably never would have sequenced on my own.
Scramble It Up!
Once again in the spirit of coming up with ideas in new ways, I must discuss the Scramble feature. Many of the pages in Liquid Music have a "Scramble" feature (or sometimes "Surprise Me") that randomly, yet intelligently, changes the parameters of your clip. You could very easily open an empty clip, draw a pattern, and start hitting "Scramble" on the Presets tab. Each time you get an entirely new set of notes. Once you find something you like, you can build a track around it. This is great for those days when inspiration is low and you need some kind of musical jump-start.
A Great Learning Tool/ Musical Crutch
More and more, I work with collaborators and students that are making music but aren't musicians. Today the playing field has been leveled. Suddenly we don't need many of the traditional skills to make good music. Liquid Music will certainly level that playing field further. One could easily select of few constraints, or just hit "Scramble," and suddenly find themself with an interesting piece of music without any understanding of the theory behind it. It's pretty amazing, and I could see how people could learn a lot about music theory based on what Liquid Music creates and by studying some of the chord suggestions the software makes. I see a lot of promise in Liquid Music softening the frustration a beginner faces while learning music and helping them produce intricate music very early in the process. Mitigating this frustration could be the difference between a 12-year-old kid going deeper into music or giving up in frustration.
But Is It Cheating?
In my head, there's a voice kicking up some dirt about Liquid Music. It's the part of me that spent years studying music, learning instruments, and figuring out how to write songs. "This is cheating! No Fair!" it screams. So I can understand that there will likely be people that philosophically object to Liquid Music, claiming it is taking the human out of songwriting and letting computer-based algorithms do the work. I felt this sentiment a little when learning Liquid Music, but I think it's entirely the result of an over-active ego. I had to ask myself questions like: Is Auto-Tune cheating? Is quantizing cheating? Is editing on a computer cheating? Where do we draw the line? Ultimately, I believe new technology will continue to come that will further complicate this issue, but the bottom line is that most people don't care. The thing that matters is whether or not the music is good and connects with people. A computer can't really decide that. And, if the next song that inspires a generation is written by a non-musician with no understanding of music theory, does it really matter?
Liquid Music is a lot of fun. I've found myself making music I know I would never have come up with otherwise. It offers a new way of working that is simple, quick, and effective. I think of it as an inspiration machine. Set some constraints and see what happens. When something sounds good, go with it and start building off of it. There is a bit of a learning curve, but WaveDNA has done a fantastic job at providing you with the information you need all directly in the Liquid Music interface. Some may balk at it as cheating, but I think that’s silly. If it helps me through writer's block or keeps an aspiring musician from quitting out of frustration, then who cares!?
Pros: A wonderful creative tool. Ideas and inspiration come almost immediately. Great for people with little musical knowledge and experience. Excellent in-app tutorials and informational text.
Cons: Is it cheating? Steep learning curve, but very well documented. Premium pricing.