Monophonic Composition and Single Sound Source Techniques

[title is a slight misnomer but sounds slick, so I’m sticking wivvit – totally cool if there’s some other corner this fits better in, too!]

When getting into synthesis I was thinking to myself “ah yes, I can be a whole band all by my lonesome.” The actual process of working with synthesizers (and learning more about music writ large as a result) has guided me toward an approach driven by single sound sources or, at most, duos. The initial concept was sort of… “a jazz trio but everyone’s always soloing” with me sitting at the dynamic and harmonic helm, modulating timbres, bringing voices in and out, and guiding the flow of tension / release. Turns out that sounds completely unhinged (or, like this if you’re a genius and IANAG) and is, broadly, unmanageable in real-time (I’m not actually very interested in performing live – I just don’t really like timeline driven workflows // tracking parts in isolation and bringing them together in the DAW, for the usual reasons).

There are quite a few great examples of single-sound-source composition (Ciani, Barbieri, Okazaki, KAS, @infinitedigits on this, many sections of this EAS performance, Deantoni Parks, Sophie with the monomachine, although that soloism is undetectable by design). What’s more scarce, though (seemingly), is a vocabulary for arranging in this paradigm. I’ve listened to these records endlessly to get a sense of how to really push what a single sound source can do and have learned a few things, but am still a significant distance from getting the results I’m looking for. The current set up is earthsea → JF → delay. Previously I was all about DPO → granular (here) and may return to that at some point because the possibilities of something like the patch at the end of this video are enticing (although I do love pretending to be a pianist with JF). Most of my attempts at “extending” these techniques are like… “crank up the feedback and play more slowly” which is maybe good advice for a certain kind of music, but not the most flexible wisdom.

Y’all spend much time thinking / working this way? Anything you’ve learned by it?

what exactly are you trying to do and why on earth even???

I’m mostly interested in that uncanny valley between uh… (language here is difficult) properly “experimental” and “popular” music styles – stuff that’s still largely 12 tet, utilizes functional harmony, has rhythm and sections and such, but is shaped by intuition over execution of established forms – even the jazz examples above are pretty distant in their execution from the original tunes. Partially to remain intelligible in the broader musical conversation, but also so that the skills I’m building are broadly useful in collaborating with a wide variety of musicians in highly-integrated ways (knowing my way around keys, rhythms, arrangements) rather than like… being FM SQUELCH KING (which is still a cool guy to be).

I think looping is probably a key thing here, but there’s also such potential to get hemmed in by your own preconditions in that paradigm (and a sort of forced linearity to the arrangements unless I’m missing some game-changing technique I ought not miss!).

My parts are busy, my heart is busy, “making space” for more parts always feels like it’s robbing the initial parts of their individuation (oh yeah I shouldna thrown the b5 in that bass register // this melody really shouldn’t have spanned three octaves if you wanted to add a high line, etc). And I really love beats – music that’s just simple loops in support of a single sample, itself looping. Stuff that’s got 13 instruments and only 2 ideas can be really hard for me to listen to and I’d rather spend my time practicing a small handful of instruments than getting a dozen vsts to play nice with each other. Plus there’s just such immense solidity and freedom emanating from all of the tunes above. Singular works with singular sounds presented nakedly. That’s cool to me!


Hehe, your “band-in-a-box” comment resonates with me in a big way. I spend so much time playing by myself, whether due to being self-conscious, picky, isolated, lazy, joyful or some combination thereof. I’m predominantly a guitar player and the first “effect” I ever incorporated into my playing was a Boss RC1 looper pedal. I don’t know if it necessarily qualifies but you mentioned using delays and granular so I feel like looping has a place in the discussion. It is hands down my favorite way to play music: play something simple, add and subtract things till you get somewhere nice, then wipe the buffer and start all over. Better yet, chain two loopers and keep building new things out of old things, grabbing a tone here or a phrase there. I’m honestly a pretty poor guitar player… I find anything beyond some simple chord progressions to be pretty challenging to pull off, and I can’t really play faster than I think (if that makes sense) so having the ability to capture something, step back and ponder it for a moment before jump back in with a fresh idea is really liberating for me as a player, allowing me to go a little beyond my own technical limitations. Also trying to make one thing - say, a guitar (or an oscillator) - wear many hats (percussive, rhythmic, melodic etc) can be great fun.

I also really like taking it a step further and treating a pre-existing loop as its own discrete sound-source to be chopped up and played around with - meta-loooing, if you will :stuck_out_tongue: I guess this really is just more of the same, but there’s a distinct flavor to slicing and warping a sonic snippet.

Finally, I think playing with your effects rack is great fun. Using an onboard sequencer and then just playing your delay or whatever else you might have can be so much fun. Or feeding your effects chain a more long-form recording. One of the earliest recordings I ever made was just a recording of a great big room that I fed through a CT5 I was “playing” along with some feedback. I think an interesting compositional exercise could be starting and ending at a dry signal with whatever goodies you have on hand stacked in between.


Looping can be cool but the more of it you do the more the composition starts sounding like loops. Which can be great if the loop is good enough like a Madlib beat, but I think there is a certain crutch I’ve fallen on with live looping instruments before where because stacking loops “works” you do it all the time and every song ends up being building overdubs and predictable. It can start to sound like a backing track once the listeners ear finds the loop points. A lot of James Brown songs are long vamps but it doesn’t get stale because of the subtle timing differences that make it funky.

That Deantoni Parks performance is a great example of how doing it live, even with samples, can keep it sounding fresh. You can’t react like that with a looper. He’s giving up one of his drumming hands to get that fluidity and ability to improvise though so there is a trade off. Also if he messes up there isn’t a loop going to act as a safety net. The song crashes.

Beatboxers make entire compositions with a (almost solely) monophonic instrument so that could be an inspiration point. No one notices there aren’t hi-hats behind the snare if everything sounds good.


@yams everything you said resonates with me. I strive for simplicity (few music machines) and improvisation (minimal post-processing) too.

along these lines, an inspiration of mine is Dan Tepfer’s piano explorations. of course the piano is an excellent “monophonic composition and single sound source” but I think the takeaway from Dan Tepfer’s work for me is the idea about designing your interaction with your instrument to make it immersive (i.e. like a “whole band”). in that link above, Dan makes an augmented piano with a simple rule: every note is played back but mirrored across middle C. this essentially provides a “new world” to explore on this very old instrument. suddenly a single sound source becomes rich with complexity as soon as you start adding interesting new ways to interact with it.

the album of mine you linked to attempts this very thing. I wanted my interactions with the music to revolve around the twisting knobs on the korg monotron so I built up a system that would allow that (using oooooo as a looper, adding midi-to-cv in the monotron). synthesizers are really great in that way. their are all sorts of ways to interact with them, and they are really amenable to developing a way to interact with them. I can’t speak to earthsea → JF in your setup but it seems to me that with modular you have even more freedom. there is freedom to design your sound, but also great freedom in manifesting a particular approach to interacting with that sound. a good interaction is a great start to composition.


This is a super interesting question.

The first thing that comes to mind is either contrast or development.

A contrast approach could involve establishing a sense of home (harmonically, through repetition, or some other method of introducing us to some material) and then presenting material that contrasts it, but still sounds related. I was taught to consider this on a micro-level, specifically by John Bischoff at Mills College, who would play two different gestural FM-synth sounds individually, then A-B, then B-A, and asked me to consider how my perception of these events changed when in the context of each other. On a macro level, @G4B3 mentioned James Brown, who is notorious for doing this with the “bridge” in many of his recordings – we get really deep in a groove and then the bridge feels like a monumental shift, even if it’s just a slightly different groove up a 4th. Another way of thinking about it could be influenced by haiku, which has a turn or pivot that leads the reader in another direction.

A development approach would be like Barbieri, who might use one sequence that is constantly changing, but only one note at a time. Familiarity through repetition allows us to notice the smaller changes, and the process becomes the thing we listen to. This is obviously present in a lot of “minimalist” music.

I’m riffing here, but it also makes me think of many classical solo works – Bach cello suites, Paganini caprices, Chopin preludes. Listening to and looking at the various forms of pieces like these could bring some ideas forward, particularly relating to how the present material relates to what came before (high points in melodies, different rhythmic textures, modulations, etc.)

Other things to consider:
total control of silence – I notice this when I see/perform solo free improvisation. With only one person playing, there is only one vote needed for silence. This allows for all kinds of flexibility and manipulation of time and material – fast pivots, pregnant pauses, and dialogues with memory of previous material.

room for the imagined melody – according to Byungseo Yoo, speaking of minimal techno: “While listening to a repetitive beat, he said, one constructs a unique melody hinging on one’s perspective and personal associations.” So we’re often imagining music on top of what we’re already hearing. As a composer I find myself wanting to fill all the space, afraid that there won’t be enough going on for it to be interesting. But remembering to leave room for listeners to contribute to the music helps me to remember that density isn’t always the best strategy.

Just some initial thoughts; I’m excited to see what others have to say!

A quick edit – OP mentioned delay in the signal path. Pauline Oliveros’ augmented instrument system, and particularly her early explorations of tape delay, were designed to be a dialogue with her past self. Definitely check out Bye Bye Butterfly and the “of 4” pieces (here’s 1 of 4) and you can hear how she responds to her previous sounds. A super long delay might be interesting to play with? She also did a lot of delay time modulation/pitch shifting, which might be compelling.


got me thinking about a few of my favourite noiz artists…AUBE and Ryoji Ikeda.

also…years ago…working with a close friend and audio engineer…my studio produced an entire sound library from nothing but a 29" ride cymbal.


i hear you…
And despite 9 years having passed this is still my favourite ‘modular synth’ composition (maybe not monophonic, but almost)

someone tweeted a great miles davis quote the other day

“I always listen to what I can leave out.”

amen to that, and another, Frank Lloyd Wright this time:

“space is the breath of art”


Nice thread. I look forward to reading more replies as well as listening to the examples already given.

I’ll tentatively suggest one that always comes to mind when I encounter this topic: Éric Cordier – Breizhiselad (Erewhon 2006).

As (almost) the entire album consists of pitch- and delay-mangled choral recordings from a crackly old 78, it’s technically music from a single sound source. But it’s hard to see it as quite like e.g. a solo instrument performance, and feel it shouldn’t anyway – and there’s nothing about this thread topic that suggests we should, at the expense of responding sensitively to context. Sampler tools get their voice from arbitrary recordings, but a sample can be so complex (and can contain multiple ‘sound sources’). So, typically of sample-based music, recontextualisation here complicates meanings a bit. For what it’s worth, I found I would get lost in the reshaped harmonies and on some level hear it simply as choral music of a weird sort.

End ramble.


Thanks @infinitedigits for the Dan Tepfer link. Do you know, which program he use, supercollider? Anyway I will try to go with my Yamaha C1X TA this route. It is not a disclavier, but the TA can generate MIDI and play sound through the transducer on the grandpianos soundboard.


There’s a short moment where you can see his apps running. As far as I can see he uses Supercollider and Processing.

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yes, have seen Supercollider shortly, Procesing for video?

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I would say so but don’t know for sure

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yeah he talks about using Processing. and I do think the other program is supercollider. sorta unrelated, but Dan Tepfer also wrote an amazing blog post about using supercollider to turn rhythm into pitches.


I think a lot of the principles / concepts for monophonic composition is present in the Ciani Buchla works. She wrote a NEA thing for those works describing the techniques and process. Simple sequencing, filtering, additive synthesis, tempo. I actually read it and to be honest it didn’t really click for me until I got a Pro 3 and started analyzing the presets - they seemed impossible on a monosynth. Almost all of it boiled down creative sequencing to drive variation. It’s completely changed how I work on modular patches. Basically now I’m always considering what else can be sequenced to transform the music that’s already there. That is how can I use 3-4 variables to get a lot of variation out of the music. FWIW I prefer this to looping - I also like to play against longer delay times but not loops - more organic for me.


read the Blog from Dan Tepfer, opens a new perspective and get familiar with his music, thanks

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It seems like the two types of composition mentioned in the thread topic are distinctly different but can overlap.

Single sound source: which could mean one instrument or one player depending on interpretation. And could include polyphony. Drums is technically a set of instruments played by one person. One person playing a piano is polyphonic. In this case I find inspiration from soloist compositions, one-man bands, buskers, etc.

Monophonic composition: not necessary one player or instrument but each part is not polyphonic. In this case I find inspiration from brass and string arrangements, synth compositions using mono synths, beatboxers, etc.


I’m enjoying this thread. Many of the concepts that I think about are similar, as I like abstracting/editing things down.

Even when it comes to instruments, my preference has become for something with a single “voice” vs a production system. I’m happy to creatively change and effect that voice in all kinds of ways, but I like the starting point to remain each time. I also try not to constrain myself into thinking a piece must have some certain elements, I am happy to hear or play a solo piece.


I hadn’t reread that Ciani piece in over a year and it was more informative this time than last – I’ve even been able to recreate portions of the control flow using tt + ans.

Specifically that bit about three totally different flavors of sequencing (percussive // keyboard // sequentially switched pre-composed step sequencer tracks) is absolutely vital – as in guitar pieces that move from plucked to strummed lines, you can get wildly different affects from the exact same ideas played back in a different way (and sort of “shift levels” as the performer to improvising with different elements at different times).


Do you understand what she did with the frequency shifter and her two voices, one slewed to react to pitch changes more slowly than the other, which she noted created a realistic bowing sound? I couldn’t reproduce it with a frequency shifter. And to complicate things, a Buchla frequency shifter also contains a ring modulator, so she might be referring to that too.

Oh I tapped out on that section – I was referring mostly to replicating the “two sequencers, two sound sources, two filters, all fully switchable” – eight variations from one idea.

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