Tag Archives: Improvisation


An attempt at classifying controllerism

In case you don’t know exactly what controllerism is, the video below details all the basic concepts, techniques and tools used for it.   If you’ve already seen it and know what this is about, feel free to skip ahead.

I have no precise idea why I decided to classify controllerists, but a system of doing so happened to spring into my mind and I couldn’t just ignore the thing. I’m interested in mythology and magic lore and the like, so I decided to draw some inspiration from there when naming some of the different types. So here goes.

Without doubt, the main thing that sets the controllerist apart from other electronic musicians (or any other musicians, for that matter) is the approach to live performance. Anyone with some basic knowledge of music production software can create a track in the studio, but it takes a controllerist to genuinely perform it live, instead of just pressing a play button and letting it unroll, as a lot of DJ’s do. So, based on the content created during a performance and approach to it, I’d say there are 4 major types of controllerists.

- ‘T’ Controllerists (as in Transfiguration – turning something into something else)

During a performance, a ‘T’ controllerist usually uses loops, patterns and/or songs that have been recorded or sampled beforehand (or even live external sound sources – be it acoustic textural recordings or anything else – resulting in a very experimental and rare approach), which he mixes together or mangles to create something entirely his own. No matter the specific techniques used (time stretching, beat juggling, filter build-ups and the like) it’s called live remashing and it’s the aspect of controllerism closest to the general concept of DJ-ing, although it would be a huge mistake for the two to be confused. Controllerism is something else altogether. This approach is the one featured in the video above. Besides Moldover (who was a ‘T’ at the time he made the “Approach to Controllerism” video), and Ean Golden, a good example of a ‘T’ controllerist is Nosaj Thing, who mixes his own music and beats. I consider him to be a ‘T’ since he uses loops and samples recorded before the actual performance to create versions of his own tracks that are different from their album counterparts.

- ‘C’ Controllerists (as in Conjuration – making something from nothing)

A ‘C’ controllerist usually uses a set of virtual instruments and pre-designed (not pre-arranged or pre-recorded) sounds (including one shots) to create a song from scratch, either by recording patterns on the fly using live looping to layer different parts of a song and build it gradually, or by just playing the whole thing live, from beginning to end. The latter approach generally results in tracks that are simpler, more raw and shorter, although this is the approach that allows (or even requires) virtuosity the most, and a true master will be capable of improvising very complex songs and beats. ‘C’ controllerism is the closest thing to the general conception of what it means to play a live instrument, although the truth is that any controllerist setup is actually an instrument in its own right. Using live looping, a good example of a ‘C’ is Rheyne, which I have previously  featured here. Two other great examples of ‘C’ controllerists are Edison and Jeremy Ellis (only when he uses the Maschine exclusively).

- ‘H’ Controllerists (as in Hybrid)

A combination of the two types I’ve already talked about, an ‘H’ controllerist uses pre-recorded loops and samples in some parts of a performance and plays or records other parts live. Although a ‘T’ controllerist might use the occasional sweep, texture or one shot by assigning it to a MIDI note (hence ‘playing’ it live) and ‘C’ controllerists sometimes use sample slices to ‘play’ a loop from another song, I don’t consider this to be enough to classify someone as an ‘H’. To be classified as such, one must heavily rely on both approaches to create music during a performance, such as using pre-recorded loops for the harmony and melody of a song and manually laying down the bass and the beat. An example of an ‘H’ controllerist is Audiosurfer.


There’s a debate going on in my mind about including this next category in the general system, so I’m going to mention it and have my potential readers decide whether it fits.

- ‘I’ Controllerists (as in Instrument)

I don’t think this requires much of an explanation. An ‘I’ controllerist also uses an external instrument during his performance. By ‘external instrument’ I mean something capable of creating sound on its own. This definition includes MPCs, electric guitars and the human mouth (singing, beatboxing and the like). As far as I know, Moldover now uses an electric guitar during his performances, which would include him in this category, along with Jeremy Ellis (when not exclusively using the Maschine – which is most of the time). I’m unsure whether the ‘I’ approach is fit to be called controllerism at all, but I think it would be fair to say that it’s practically on the border between controllerism and another type of musical approach. I think the best way to think about this is to say that when a performer uses the external instrument to complement the live set on the controller (as Moldover does), then the performer is a controllerist. If it’s the other way around (such as a performer who only uses software and a controller to loop or effect the instrument), then the performer is of another category of musicians. A great example of ‘I’ controllerism is Tim Exile:


I’d care to mention that I consider myself to be a ‘C’ controllerist and that the final version of this system of classification is here, but other than that, I think I’m pretty much done at the moment.



*Before the actual post, a disclaimer: Below is GEEK TALK. I aimed this post at people with in-depth knowledge on MIDI controllers, Ableton Live sets and controllerism in general. If you’re not an electronic music geek, chances are you won’t understand much. If you do, however, kudos to you.

I have finally finished a set-up that allows me to do similar things to what I’ve been seeing around in videos featuring my favorite Electronica artists: improvise full songs. How can Nosaj Thing do ALL that stuff with just one controller. Or Moldover, for that matter?

In my newbie days, I often wondered how you can improvise in the Electronica genre. There’s no instruments, no actual notes, just samples and tracks and buttons and knobs and sliders. I’ve since discovered looping, sampling and sequencing on the fly, among other things, so the next step for me has been discovering a set-up that allows me to improvise a track without having to wait at least half-an-hour between songs to create (or load) a different Live set.

I’ve finally done that, a few days ago, thanks to discovering that limiting yourself is the actual secret. I don’t want to use ALL the effects, samples, channels and functions on my controllers. As an example, instead of using my Korg nanoKONTROL to control its full capacity of 36 mixer channel volumes and just as many effect parameters ( not counting the buttons) I’m using it to control 8 mixer channels with two sends each. Limiting myself to 8 channels with a MIDI effect and two sends each made me think about how I could fill that small space with something truly versatile and expressive. So I’ve figured it out. Some reverb, some filtered delay and some beat repeaters with modifiable parameters and I couldn’t believe the magic.

It always seems complicated when you look at it, but it’s actually simple. The fact that you don’t know what’s mapped to what from the start is what makes it look complicated and confusing.

I’ll elaborate on my set on a later date, but, until then, here’s my first fully improvised song on youtube: