Different Strokes: Sequencing with Cong Burn
We catch up with John Howes from the Cong Burn label to learn more about his incredible Strokes device – a versatile sequencer for generating incredible rhythms in Ableton Live.
There’s a community and shared aesthetic which has been bubbling around Manchester-based label Cong Burn since it first emerged in 2015. From a run of 12”s to tapes, events and radio, a canny blend of immersive dubbiness, non-standard structures and future-minded sound design have coalesced to make for some genuinely fresh music in the slipstream of contemporary techno. It’s coming from artists such as Lack, Haddon, BFTT and Chekov, with Howes helping drive the project forward.
Beyond the audible output, Howes is also extending the musical philosophy of the label via his own Max For Live devices, the latest of which is Strokes. Max For Live is a format of plug-ins for use with Ableton Live which bridges the gap between the vast programming environment Max MSP and the immediate playability of Live’s interface. Strokes is a deep device which functions like an elevated groovebox to generate non-standard sequences for production and performance. That awkward description may sound a little foggy and hard to grasp at the outset, but we caught up with Howes to find out more about his creations.
First off, how are you doing at the moment John, and what projects do you have on the go?
I’m hanging in there thanks… I’ve just finished work on a Max For Live device called Dispatch which is a global modulation matrix for Ableton Live. The idea is that the LFOs that power your synths should also be able to interact with your drums, FX, hardware and just about anything else. Dispatch has 7 selectable modulators like the traditional sines & squares, but it also has weirder ones like a euclidean beat generator, a quadrature sine generator and hardware CV input – then these signals go to a matrix mixer with 20 destinations that you hook up to just about anything.
Obviously we want to talk to you about the software you’ve been developing, but first can you tell us a bit about your background in music making? Did you study at uni, or are you self-taught? Were there particular aspects of music production that instantly appealed to you?
I got in through PS1 games and cracked software. Later I was big into Eurorack, FX and drum machines and now I’m (lost) somewhere in the middle of it all. I moved from County Durham to Manchester to study, which is around the time I started buying equipment and releasing music. What’s kept it interesting over the years is that I’m always operating on the limits of what my studio is capable of – I’ve never had a set workflow or (successfully) tried to make genre music, rather I’m always experimenting with new sounds and techniques.
Tell us about the formation of the Cong Burn label. Even though it can deal in different tempos and rhythms, it feels like it has quite a consolidated sound – was that something you very consciously arrived at and decided you wanted to explore? Were there particular techniques or production practices involved in reaching that point, for you personally as an artist?
The label exists because I have very close friends that make music – me, Haddon and Slink/LP go back 17 years so we operate telepathically. Along the way new friends come and go and the focus changes – we started out doing CDs and jammy cassettes, later it became about 12”s and parties, right now it feels like the main focus is the NTS show where we’re playing lots of unreleased music from artists that listen to the show. When you add together the radio show, parties and releases it becomes clear what we like, but I’m not sure it’s something you can capture in a technique or production practise.
Given the collective nature of Cong Burn, are there similar working practices shared between the different artists? Do you all tend to swap notes on production?
Yeah we’re always talking and occasionally trading equipment/techniques. Though I think it’s important to try to maintain some separation between the production process and the listening experience – one is about technical details and the other is about how successful a certain feeling or energy is being communicated. I’m only really interested in the listening side. If someone told me to ‘boost the hats three db’ I’d argue they are listening to the project file instead of the music.
Let’s talk more specifically about Max/MSP now – when did you start getting into programming in Max? It’s something that can seem quite daunting from the outside – do you have advice for anyone wanting to delve into it?
After years of false starts and messing around, the first real thing I made in Max was a collection of devices which generate CV signals that control modular synths from within Live. I had an Expert Sleepers converter and some Eurorack, but I always wanted another LFO or sequence. I had no money so I built my own
For me the key to learning any programming language is to get an idea for a project, and then learn only what’s necessary to get that project done. Learning Max by studying what all the objects do it’s like learning English from a dictionary. For specific resources I’d recommend Delicious Max Tutorials, Step by Step: Adventures in Sequencing with Max/MSP and kk_junker’s artist development school where you’ll find me teaching Max MSP.
Given the vast possibilities within the software, does it help to have specific aims or intentions?
One hundred percent yes. There’s a lot of Max out there to learn and I only know a small percentage of it – but realistically I only need a few objects to make an LFO or basic sequencer. From there it’s just a process of iteration ’til I have something much more complex.
Everyone approaches coding and development differently – what’s your preferred way of working?
Nowadays I make a working prototype as quickly and as early in the process as possible. The first prototype is key in deciding whether the idea is worth pursuing, if the prototype is exciting I get a burst of energy to do the boring, complicated and difficult parts – if the prototype is bad I know not to waste too much time pursuing it.
The first prototype of Dispatch was a 4×4 matrix mixer where I could hook up Live’s LFOs and sequencers. At this stage, I wasn’t thinking about having seven built in modulation sources, they were added because it was a pain to have to make four LFOs every time you opened Dispatch – arguably they are the focus of the device now but I didn’t know they’d be there in the early stages.
Tell us about Strokes – what spurred you on to develop this specifically? Did you think there was something missing that other plug-ins weren’t offering? How would you describe it to the layman?
I was reading Jaki Liebezeit: The Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer and listening to Drums Off Chaos and imagining ways I could make complex rhythms in Live. Traditionally writing rhythms in Live involves microscopically editing MIDI clips or moving events along a timeline. To make something close to Drums Off Chaos it’d take hours of painstaking editing which I’m too lazy to do. I made Strokes to give me a shortcut towards these rhythms so that I can focus my energy on other aspects of the process like sound design, arrangement etc.
In terms of why I think it works – I think with some generative processes it feels like the sequencer is the one steering the ship. However with Strokes displaying the rhythms visually in a step editor, I think it helps demystify how parameters interact together, and understanding the impact of a parameter change gives a greater sense of agency over the music.
I’d describe it as an all in one sequencing workstation for Live that makes hypnotic rhythms. It does loads more, but think about that later.
When did you feel you had developed something you were ready to share with the world?
Considering Strokes 1.0 was a buggy mess that didn’t sync with Live, I’d say too early.
With Strokes 2.0 and Dispatch I released the most basic working version of the device and incrementally added features. The benefit of this approach is that I can slowly introduce complexity over time and anyone late to the party bypasses all the bugs along the way.
Were there specific challenges you had to overcome? Are there parts of the sequencer you’re especially happy with? Are there areas where you’d like to develop it more?
Strokes is packed with technical challenges but my favourite bits are the logic section (channels 5-8), Shares (which was my first foray into markov chains). Also the rhythm store, which had contributions from Beatrice Dillon, Peder Mannerfelt, Loraine James, Machine Woman and Lanark Artefax, and finally the patterns system was a technical nightmare but feels really robust.
Speaking as someone that has spent years trading equipment never settling on a solid workflow – I’m immensely proud I was able to design something that kept my interest throughout two years of daily use.
Given the groovebox nature of Strokes, is it fair to say it’s geared towards on-the-fly jamming and performance? As such, as there particular controllers you think would be best suited to ‘playing’ Strokes.
Yes exactly! Strokes ships with Push 2 and Monome Grid 128 integration
There are some people on Facebook that made a script for the MIDI Fighter Twister where you can bank thru all the parameters and control everything with 16 dials.
Peder Mannerfelt told me he did a gig with Strokes where he had four parameters mapped to a controller, and I am on board with this way of thinking where less is more.
How similar is making a piece of creative software to making a piece of creative music? Is it ever really finished? Is it hard to let go of endless tweaking and refinement?
This is a really interesting question! I’m actually not that much of a tweaker when it comes to making music – I work quickly making lots of (bad) music, skimming off the best bits for others to enjoy. The times where I have to work to make it work are an indication that I’m on the wrong path and I’m quite happy to abandon tracks (and software ideas!) that aren’t working.
Dispatch and Strokes function explicitly where they’re just moving data around, so they’re either working or broken and there isn’t much of a grey area. If I’m adding a new feature I need to know exactly how it fits into the bigger picture before I get started. Both Strokes and Dispatch have a lot of moving parts so every addition has to be thoroughly considered before I start tweaking the code.
What did you take away from the experience of developing Strokes? Do you have more ideas now? Are there projects in development?
Strokes has been one massive learning experience but the best bit has been hearing tunes and connecting with people that use it.
Right now I’m working on a prototype semi-modular Max For Live synth inspired by Serge Modular feedback patching, but it’s early days so I’m not sure if I’ll ever release it publicly.
I’m also helping out with kk junker’s artist development school which is an online community of producers, DJs and artists. We run workshops two evenings a week on sampling, synthesis, sonic identity, music business, health and wellness and loads more, with guest lectures from Machine Woman, Breakwave and ARKH so far. Connecting and sharing ideas with lots of like minded folks from all around the world in a nurturing online environment has been one of the best things to come out of the last two years. All are welcome, so head to kk junker’s Instagram account for an invite.
Being a Newcastle lad, who has the sickest beats? Ant or Dec? (Can’t remember if you’re actually from Newcastle, but pretty sure you support NUFC?)
Buzzcocks and Trekka have the sickest beats in the North East.